October 28, 2015

Atta-GIRL! Blog

I recently started another blog to exclusively focus on women in music It is called Atta-GIRL! I personally find comfort and courage to forge ahead in music the more I learn about and meet other women in the industry. It can be lonely and scary to make your way in a place that is mostly made up of men. Atta-GIRL! will celebrate a different woman or group of women each day who either makes music or works behind the scenes in the music industry. Now there is a constant reminder of just how many of us there are or have come before us kicking ass and doing inspiring things. You could sort through a kagillion social media posts and websites to compile this list yourself for OR you could just sit back and let me do it for you.

October 14, 2015

How to Tune a Fork

Before Lightning’s Girl, I was pitchperfect. It was my nom de plume at Tuningforkmedia, a music blog I founded ten years ago.  We were an anonymous, small group of people who blogged about all sorts of things but mostly we reviewed Pitchfork’s reviews. It began as a private joke among friends within the music industry but then our blog accidently snowballed into the very thing we cursed.

My Tuningforkmedia profile from almost exactly a decade ago lives here. To the left is a joke hand numbered membership card I created.

The idea started innocently enough. When my band Dahlia Seed broke up in 1996 I began working for one of the best indie music distributors in the world. I had been employed as a sales rep there for nearly nine years by 2005. I worked alongside some of the best, most well respected record labels known to man (all genres) and for this reason I had access to just about any new record independent music fans cared about as well as their artist bios and one sheets/ sell sheets that went along with them. It also meant that if I didn’t have some record I was interested in, I was friendly with someone (a fellow sales rep, record label owner, band, or record store buyer) who could send me a copy. I basically had access to any record I wanted to hear and before file sharing music was common, CDs could be mailed and in my hands within a few days. As a music fanatic, this was the best possible position to be in. I wasn’t paid particularly well for most of the 2000s but I was rich with music of all kinds.  

The online music publication Pitchfork Media was and still is an undeniably important selling tool within the music industry. Their reviews can make or break the success of a release and in turn offices like ours were drowned in PFM references. Every label, band, PR company, or creative entity begs for Pitchfork's attention in hopes of that white whale of a perfect review or news coverage. To this day it is common that a new release sell sheet includes a quote of some kind from Pitchfork. The music industry has become obsessed with catching this publication’s attention and even if the review is brutally negative, Pitchfork still has more eyes on them that any other music site so even bad press is better than no press. 

Within just a few years time Pitchfork Media grew to be a God and their highly rated records by artists like Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands, Liars, Animal Collective, Kanye West became the gospel. I saw first hand how record sales were directly linked to the reviews found on their website. For those of us who worked on the industry side of music, it was impossible not to regard PFM as a seemingly unstoppable force. They were all everyone talked about and bowed down to. It was truly maddening. Our world’s focus became this singular Chicago based music publication and in turn Pitchfork's power became frightening and downright annoying.

This also made Pitchfork an easy target for those of us who were working with all the same music and also had the same promotional tools their writers were being sent. We could see behind Oz’s curtain and on most days, we cursed what we saw.

Among a very small group of friend’s it became a private game to pick apart Pitchfork's album reviews. We emailed each other these fake reviews or sizzling commentary. We knew which of their writers were borrowing bits from press kits, which writers were occasionally plagiarizing from the very same one sheets we had on our desks, and which writers had gotten their facts wrong. We lived and breathed these same records every day. It became all too tempting to place Pitchfork under scrutiny. You couldn’t ignore them. Our heads were bashed in with just how mighty their pens were. As the internet grew, as blogger templates appeared, it was really only a matter time that our private chiding went public. The transition was simple.  

Tuningforkmedia was comprised of a very small group of unpaid writers and I use the term writers loosely. These were my good friends and none of us were professional music journalists (clearly if you read our posts). Tungingforkmedia was our home base to vent. Our identities remained top secret. We never promoted our site or accepted advertisements. It never really occurred to us that anyone else would want to read our ramblings however the word spread about our humble joke like wild fire. In hindsight of course it did. The Pitchfork backlash was growing at a rapid pace and music fans were quick to hate the thing so many others worshipped. The thing about indie music snobs is that we hate it when a thing we love becomes co-oped and popular. This once charming and beloved music site had grown to epic proportions and we were there nearly daily to slay that beast. Within just a few months we went from being an industry secret to having hundreds and then on good weeks, sometimes thousands of readers visiting our site. Gossip about our blog also spread very quickly among bands and record labels; the same ones who were dependent on PFM’s attention. They generously fed us music and press kits as if we were a serious music blog and sometimes even tipped us off on Pitchfork’s errors in hopes we would jump to their defense. There was also so few female writers in this world that I admittedly took great pleasure in bringing a woman’s voice to this massive boy’s club.

It was honestly an insanely time consuming effort to review one of Pitchfork’s reviews within 24 hours of them posting it but I was also an insomniac that worked from home. Since our group had access to all the same records Pitchfork covered it took very little effort to spit out a quick re-review. When you also consider that I professionally talked about these records daily with a large account base and often the Pitchfork reviews that went with them, my opinions and retorts to PFM’s posts were pouring out of my mouth in nearly real time, blog or no blog.

Thanks to newish technology at the time, we could share these ideas and discuss them in a conference like setting even though we were spread all over the U.S. With all the resources a music fan could ever want, we collectively could offer a tit for tat. We were not striving to be world class music journalists; we were openly having a piss. Pitchfork did what they do best, one of us would inevitably have something to say about it, and up went a post as quick as lightning. It went on this way for several years.

Tuningfork was a fun, ridiculous, venting mechanism for a few years but we were also all employed full time in a shrinking industry. Half of us traveled a great deal for work and on the whole we were busy people who had never intended on dedicating a few hours a day to some music site we had this indirect working relationship with. The more seriously people regarded our site, the less enjoyable and real work our silly blog felt. Our sarcasm and bite had hurt a few people’s feelings along the way and it was truly never our goal to torture their music writing team. Our joke stopped being fun/funny to us so we decided to pull the plug in 2007. Enough was enough.

In 2007 the masses had not rediscovered vinyl yet. CD sales were dwindling. Cassettes were dead. Digital music was the music industry's new best friend and enemy. We were in the early stages of understanding what digital content sharing would mean to people like us and how technology / music fans would embrace it. We were collectively scrambling to figure out just how many days were left in our numbered future. My particular job was quickly becoming obsolete and it was time to work on a plan B. I managed to bounce around physical music distribution for another 6 years but it never matched the golden age that I was fortunate enough to spend over 10+ years dedicated to. We were considered one of the best indie music distributors that ever existed and I was a part of it for a third of my adult life. Pitchfork may have helped sell records indirectly but I was a part of a lesser known team actually getting these same records into the hands of the people through record stores. It isn’t to say one side of the business was or is more important than another but in hindsight we really played a similar role to Pitchfork. We were both tastemakers constantly introducing the next big thing to others. Sometimes we got it right and sometimes we got it wrong. We helped shape trends and if there is one thing I can be certain of, we were all very passionate about music.  

My name is Tracy and I am still a music addict.

Disclaimer: The company I worked for had no idea I was behind this and would have absolutely not have condoned it. Also 99% of the label and bands who messaged the blog with tips to post about had no idea TFM was someone /potentially a few people they had a working relationship with.

June 16, 2015

Chapter 9 : These Boots Are Made For Listening : Tales of a Female Music Enthusiast

Written by a fellow student in my yearbook. 

Part One

It took nearly three years but my friendship with Nick Forte was forged with Bad Brains' Quickness on cassette. The record store had been sent an advanced copy of it for promotional purposes and I passed it along to him in the lunch room. It was my olive branch. Nick and I started off on the wrong foot three years before when I walked into to study hall wearing a brand new Agnostic Front shirt. He proceeded to grill me on the band and hardcore music. I failed his test instantly and in turn I was deemed pathetic and fake. Admittedly, when I purchased the black bleached splattered tee at age 16 from Bleeker Bob’s, I wasn’t entirely sure what the band sounded like but I thought the bold messaging was worthy of owning.

That day I learned you never should wear a band shirt unless you mean it. 
Early on at Ramsey High, Nick was a skinhead (and for a brief time also starving himself to be the lightweight on the school's wrestling team) but by senior year, he was focused on his new band Rorschach. They were hardcore but something different was layered in. It was metallic, dissonant, and would go on to spawn an entire sub-genre of music in the years to come; metal-core. I considered Rorschach a better than average high school band at the time but I could have never predicted their relevance in the timeline of heavy music or the incredible influence they would have on so many bands yet to be formed (Converge I am looking at you).

It was Nick who introduced me to Melissa. She was dating a member of his band at the time. He was very adamant that we meet because there were so few girls interested in music to the degree we both were. She too collected records. She was willing drive to record stores or shows anywhere but most notably however, she was a drummer. She was the first female musician I knew in person and it was Melissa that insisted as a music fan that I should consider playing music too. I couldn’t play an instrument yet but I loved singing. It would take me a few more years to build up the courage to play music live with others but it was Melissa York who planted the seed and was the first person I played guitar with in a practice space. Over the past two decades she has gone on to play with so many incredible bands and people: Born Against, Vitapup, Team Dresch, The Butchies, and more recently with Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls.

Nick and Melissa are both respected musicians. Their various bands are still adored by thousands but they hold a legendary status in my life. They taught me that all these bands I worshiped were comprised of people just like us. These band members were not an elite group of people, they were mirror images of ourselves who were also interested in expressing themselves and their ideas overtly. The DIY music scene they were a part of was so hidden from the mainstream population that you really needed someone already involved in it to bring you in and show you the way. They acted like accidental sponsors to me and for this introduction I am humbly indebted.

This very active underground community was practically invisible to the outside world. It was not on TV or talked about on the radio. The publications that wrote about them were hard to come by. There was no internet to troll for this information or befriend like minded people. These do it yourselfers were not old enough to get into clubs so they didn’t depend on traditional music venues to book their bands. They were remarkably self sufficient and put on their own all ages shows at houses or non traditional spaces like small town lodges, ABC No Rio (a squat at the time), and their local church basements. Before event pages and texts, homemade handbills and posters were made for these shows and passed along to their friends in person or left on record store counters. Even more amazingly, this network was not exclusive to our county or even our state. They were a busy ant farm with interconnected tunnels all over the Unites States. This multitude of self created channels made it possible for bands to tour and play for others much like themselves in nearly any other state.   
Just as important to this world was the non musician participants. The fans were just as active, just as outspoken, and because of this the boundaries between band and fan were blurred. Without one side, the other would not exist. The energy exchanged between the two sides at these shows acted like a self charging battery.

Some created their own fanzines on Xeroxed paper and either handed them out for free or sold them for a nominal amount of money at shows. They wrote about bands, their political beliefs, and personal experiences. These folded pieces of paper were blog pages before there was such a thing. Their wordy tributes were dotted with nearly impossible to distinguish images, usually blurry live band photos or images cut from papers or bigger magazines (proceeding retweets and regrams). They are comical to look at now but at the time, their immediacy connected them to strangers and in turn, made us feel less strange to each other. 

Photo from my personal '90s zine collection.
Other show goers sold or traded records from folding tables and crowded car trunks. They built up a small distribution network and created traveling stores that represented their regional scene. Some meticulously photographed each event as if it was their job. Often there was someone serving vegan food to help spread the word that meat was murder and offer us a taste. There were political group pamphlets exchanged like trading cards for a sea of issues, concerns, and collectives. We behaved like a small pioneer town of Little Rascalers that had circled their wagons. We were relatively self contained and our backs were turned from outside society.
These young people didn’t need the corporate music industry’s help to be seen or heard and that is incredibly intoxicating information for an impressionable teen to discover. The message was received loud and clear. Not only could I do this too but I could bring the records of the bands I was discovering back to the record store and sell them to others. I was like a religious zealot ready to spread the DIY word.  

Part Two

My parent’s dire financial situation had proven that a college education would be impossible for me. Rather than jumping into a plan where I would request aid or seek scholarships, in 1989 my parents talked me out of college all together. It was too expensive to go and unless I wanted to start life with an immense debt, I should seek a plan B. My parents were among the last generation that believed their daughter’s certain future was a temporary office job that would quickly be replaced by marriage and becoming a stay at home mom. It wasn’t that they didn’t think I was capable of a career, but especially to my very traditional father, he felt the more comfortable life for his daughter was one that was focused on home and family. Why worry your pretty little head with big world problems when you can have a man provide for you and manage the smaller world of the home instead? I did not agree.

Mom and Turk
My mother while fiercely independent and bright, dropped out of college to marry and start a family. My mom’s first husband (not my father) was named Turk AKA Robert Frank Pozar and now goes by the name of Cleve. He is a Jazz drummer and revered enough in the music community to have a documentary in the works about him. This relatively recent discovery came as a total shock to me. This “news story” ended up in my Facebook feed. The mystery man who vanished from my mom’s life in her early 20s and left her a young single mother could potentially have a whole film dedicated to him. He took off to dedicate his life to drumming and she was forced to move back in with her parents with a new born while waitressing evenings to get by. She never went back to college and her career path was derailed for decades. Her depression bloomed from here.

My mother spent her next 25 years as a remarried stay at home mom. She further distracted herself by remaining very active in the community but while some women are content with this role, my mother was not one of them. She finally began a desk top publishing career in her early forties but it was growing struggle as her MS symptoms worsened. My parents monstrous debt continued to grow and eventually it caused the collapse of both their individual home businesses. Within a few years the house my father designed and built himself would be sold off to help recover some of their losses.

When a major health issue enters the picture, there are money troubles, and you have older siblings in need of some sort of bailing out regularly, I quickly became the non issue. With all these family tree distractions I flew under the radar and out of the house as often as possible. When people wonder how I could see a band at CBGBs at 2am on a school night, it was because I was the least of anyone's worries. Home was where the hurt was so I avoided it best I could. I looked at my parents life and didn't want any part of it no less repeat an inch of it.
I picked up a second part time job through the record store. My allowance had dried up and I didn’t want to add to my parent's financial burden. Now that I could legally drive I was given the opportunity to become an assistant to a gentlemen who specialized in selling, let’s call them rare records. They were unlicensed live recordings or rare unreleased studio material. He also sold Rock related jewelry, stickers and posters but the "rare records" were the bulk of his business. We would meet up at a designated place and then I would sit guard in the passenger seat as he drove around NYC to pick up and drop off product. We checked in with about 20 different small indie stores all over Manhattan and New Jersey every few weeks.

Early on I kept an eye on the station wagon as he ran in and out of stores. If a cop pulled up to the car because we were double parked, I would hop in the driver’s seat and circle the block until the police were gone. Then I would double park it again somewhere close to the store’s entrance. I don’t recall ever being in fear of being busted for what was in the car, I was just terrified of driving in NYC. You get over that fear pretty quickly though when the pressure is on and a police car is megaphoning at you and everyone in a block radius to move your vehicle immediately. Sink or drive!

Over time as I built up trust within this community of dealers. I got to know the all store’s employees, the back rooms to the back rooms, and talked to members of this underground supply chain about trends in tape trading circles (often what was used to create these rare record). Eventually I was running in alone for pick ups or drop offs. If you don’t think there are a lot of women in music now, there were definitely zero teenage girls in this circle in the late ‘80s. I was it. These were all older guys who didn't know anything about this new alternative music trend so I became invaluable. I was their link to the new generation of customers and whatever this not quite metal but weirder than classic Rock / Pop was.

Live and studio rarities on tape from my personal collection.
It is almost impossible now to imagine a time when tape trading was nearly as popular as record collecting as everything today is done with a click of a button through computers. Up until the early ‘90s, you were either buying or trading tapes for this unreleased music or you purchased bootleg records if by some minor miracle, someone decided to press one of these rarities to vinyl. These boots were rarely copies of real studio records, they were typically unreleased material with varying degrees of quality that ranged from soundboard to a dude in the last row of an arena with a handheld tape recorder. Music fans were so rabid to own this hard to come by material that there was a genuine demand for these expensive, wink wink, imports. Before bands could easily share a demo or live recordings through social media, this black market was the only way to hear most of this material.  

I made these quick runs to the city for about a year and was always paid in cash. I was shown parts of NYC that I had never had the opportunity to explore before and was given the equivalent of a backstage pass to nearly every indie record store in the city. I learned so much about music, store operations, and the underbelly of the industry. I had the occasional beer at lunch and being that this was New York in the ‘80s, nobody raised an eyebrow. I recall so many random bits of conversations with this record store community. I learned about Nick Drake’s unique picking technique, which pirate radio stations played the best stuff, and which city neighborhoods were on the rise or way out. They predicted of the death of Manhattan, the rebirth of Brooklyn, the return of coffee shops, and they made sure I was hip to which bars in town didn’t water down drinks in case I was ready to move on to the hard stuff. In this network I was 17 going on 50.

The tattoo on my left ankle is the bottom of this skateboard design.

By Bergen County standards I was a freaky 12th grader with L7 style matted dreads and possibly the only Ramsey High School student with a tattoo (a Tommy Guerrero skateboard design). I was the first to wear a Nirvana shirt ("Fudge packing, Crack Smoking, Satan Worshipping, Motherfuckers") and mocked for it mercilessly. I had a pictures of bands like Mudhoney and The Lunachicks in my locker. My college dream was dead but I was at the ground floor of the music industry and about to take my first step up from store clerk to indie music buyer. I would be graduating in 1990 but my future had already started. I mentally traded in classmates for co-workers. My new friends worked at Sub Pop, CMJ, Revolver, C/Z, Dutch East India, SST, and Caroline.

Some people went to prom, I went to Prong at CBGBs. Suck it seniors.
The handwritten notes posted here are all taken from my senior yearbook and written by classmates. I recently applied for a job at Sub Pop and part of me feels like I should have attached these to my resume. In 1990 I had an entire high school turned on to bands that the rest of the world had yet to discover no less aware of the key record label behind them. If that doesn't reflect some serious marketing skills, vision, and a life long dedication to Sub Pop Records, I don't know what does.