Get To Know A Critic: Al Shipley

The writer's workspace -- baby toys, baby clothes, keyboards and jams. i i

The writer's workspace -- baby toys, baby clothes, keyboards and jams. Courtesy of Al Shipley hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Al Shipley
The writer's workspace -- baby toys, baby clothes, keyboards and jams.

The writer's workspace -- baby toys, baby clothes, keyboards and jams.

Courtesy of Al Shipley
The writer at home. i i

The writer at home. Courtesy of Al Shipley hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Al Shipley
The writer at home.

The writer at home.

Courtesy of Al Shipley

Al Shipley calls himself a big fish in a small pond. His chosen pond is Charm City — Baltimore, Maryland — and his beat is mostly the hip-hop, club music and R&B coming out of the city.

Shipley writes for the Baltimore City Paper, brought on by editor Bret McCabe when McCabe was trying to localize the weekly's music coverage. Shipley's blog, Government Names, has for almost 10 years been a source for news about Baltimore's music scene. He freelances for other Baltimore magazines and sites, and now he's working on a book about Baltimore club, a quirkily distinctive style of dance music with punchy samples from both classic R&B and TV theme songs.

By staying focused on a few styles of music and a location, Shipley's made his knowledge deeper than most. He says, "I think it's better to maybe have some tunnel vision but be passionate about what you're writing about and have areas of expertise than to be chasing the zeitgeist and ending up with boring opinions about the same thing everyone else is covering."

He also says it's made him happier. Shipley's got a year-old son now, so he's listening for two. Since his preferred method of hearing music is out loud, without headphones, young Shipley is growing up on a hearty diet of Bossman, Mullyman and the Get 'Em Mamis. Lucky him.

1. What's your ideal way to listen to a record? (Headphones, stereo, alone, with other people?) How do you actually listen most of the time?
I think the ideal place to hear music is in the car, to the point that I almost miss the days when I had to drive more. And at home I always prefer speakers to headphones — headphones are a godsend when I'm traveling, and sometimes you do hear things you wouldn't otherwise. But for me music sounds better when it's pushing air around the room and interacting with the acoustics of your environment. I've always been used to doing most of my listening alone, and sometimes carefully curating the music I listen to with my wife or company, but now I have a year-old son and he hears almost everything I listen to. I can't wait until he's old enough to have likes and dislikes about music, and I can pick out music for him.

2. How many publications do you write for? How many pieces do you write each week? How long is each piece?
I primarily write for the Baltimore City Paper, but I contribute to a number of other publications and websites on an occasional basis, and also run a couple of blogs, Narrowcast and Government Names. In any given week, I might write one or two 500-word live reviews for the City Paper Web site, a few 100-word blurbs for TheSinglesJukebox.com, and some short posts on my blogs. And if it's a busy week, I may be writing a longer feature for the City Paper or the Baltimore Sun or Urbanite magazine or SpliceToday.com, or editing or transcribing something for Streetsmart magazine. Somewhere in there I'm also working on a book called Tough Breaks: The Story of Baltimore Club Music. At the end of one of my busiest years as a writer, 2007, I tabulated how many words I'd published all year, and it averaged out to about 3500 words a week.

3. Do you have a listening routine for music that you write about? How many times do you need to listen to an album?
I believe in quality over quantity, in terms of listening to a piece of music. I rarely listen to any album more than a couple times in the space of a week, unless I have a tight deadline or it's new and I really like it. Hearing the same thing over and over in the same day turns anything into background noise mush for me, so I try to savor each listen and get something different out of it each time — that way I can almost actually track what I notice or start to like on the first listen, or second listen, or third listen.

4. Do you feel a responsibility to listen to music you don't like? How quickly do you dismiss things you don't like?
I know I'm not going to like everything I hear, but unless I'm assigned or get an opportunity to cover something I wouldn't otherwise want to listen to, I generally try to stick to the stuff I think I'd enjoy the most. Sometimes I worry that that makes me less adventurous, but I firmly believe that if you consume music voraciously and seek out a lot of different stuff fulfilling all your different tastes, it's OK if you're not constantly "keeping up" with what everyone else is paying attention to. I think it's better to maybe have some tunnel vision but be passionate about what you're writing about and have areas of expertise than to be chasing the zeitgeist and ending up with boring opinions about the same thing everyone else is covering. Movie critics pretty much all have to cover the same handful of movies that are hitting theaters any given week, and there's something interesting about that, but I think music critics should take advantage of the greater freedom they have to comb through a larger variety of new releases. I used to listen to a lot of albums that I wouldn't otherwise just to review them, and I'm a lot happier and hear more music I enjoy now that I pretty much prioritize things by how much I think I'll like them.

5. Was there someone who pushed you to become a music critic, a mentor or an influence?
Although there are a lot of writers and editors I look up to and read and in some cases know, the main ones that I consider mentors or influences are my editors at the Baltimore City Paper, particularly Bret McCabe, who asked me to write for the paper kind of out of the blue at a time when I was just blogging and not writing professionally anywhere, and Lee Gardner, whose music writing I'd enjoyed for about a decade before I ever met or worked with him. The nice thing about the internet age, too, is that pretty much every writer and critic around is online constantly, so sometimes you get to bump heads with some really great and well known music critics on message boards and blogs, which can be edifying at times and frustrating or illusion-shattering at other times. And my brother Zac, who's two years older than me, has always kind of been someone I explored a lot of things with, including music and writing, and I think he wrote about music for our high school paper before I did, although now he writes mostly about other stuff and music is more my focus now.

6. What are the perks of your job? Can you accept free concert tickets/gifts/box sets/swag/lunch? What do you do with CDs you get sent in the mail that you don't want?
One of my favorite perks is that since I write concert reviews, I've built up some good contacts at local venues and get on the guest list for a lot of shows, and a lot of times those are shows I would've bought tickets for if I wasn't a writer. And since I do a lot of local coverage, most of the CDs I'm sent are small local things that I kind of feel a duty to listen to, and since they usually don't have much resale value at record stores, I kind of keep an extensive archive of local music on my CD shelf (although it's on the lower rows that my son tends to grab and pull down to the floor, so some of them have been a bit damaged).

7. Do you remember the first piece of music you wrote about?
I'm kind of embarrassed about this because I don't even really like them much at all now, but my first published review was of Pavement's Brighten The Corners, in my aforementioned high school paper.

8. Have you ever changed your mind about a piece of music you wrote about?
It's rare that I do a 180 on an album after I review it, which may be because I'm too stubborn to change my mind, or because I listened to it enough to make sure how I felt before writing about it. But sometimes I make a snap judgement on Singles Jukebox after hearing a song just once or twice, and then feel pretty differently about it once I start hearing it on the radio all the time. I'm not sure if even then it's been from love to hate or vice versa, but the most extreme recent example I can think of is "Meet Me Halfway" by the Black Eyed Peas, which was unimpressive at first but really grew on me later.

9. How hard is your job? What are the parts of your job that you don't like?
My job isn't hard at all in the sense that listening to music and writing about it come so naturally at this point that it's generally more fun than it is work. But freelancing and being your own boss is always a lot of pressure, especially in the current climate when there's less work to go around and less pay for it. And there are some elements of the job that can be pretty taxing, like transcribing interviews, which is always monotonous, time-consuming work.

10. Are there days when you just don't want to listen to music? What happens on those days?
I spend a lot more time at home with no music on than I used to now that I have a baby, and there are times when he's sleeping or I'm trying to get him to sleep or he's just keeping me too busy to put any music on. So that's made me a little more comfortable with silence, and has made me think a little harder about what to put on when I can listen to music. Sometimes I'll just enjoy the quiet while I'm staring at the iTunes menu and trying to figure out what to listen to.

11. All different types of music can be good, but is there a quality that good music shares? I guess this is a way of asking if you have an operating philosophy for determining what you like?
I kind of roll my eyes when anyone acts like they're the wizened sage with the magical answer to a question like this and says something like "all good music has soul" or "all good music is honest" or some crap like that. I love the fact that there are, in a sense, rules and standards in different genres, but if you look at all music and appreciate even a slightly diverse amount of it, you've gotta realize that there's no easy answer. Different things are good to different people for different reasons, and that's the beauty of art.

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