Not long ago, I was discussing my previous life as a music/book reviewer, and someone said "Aw, man, you must have loved that! Free CDs, free books, free shows..." While I'll cop to loving the free stuff, I responded -- unexpectedly and weakly -- "well, I wasn't very good at it."
I've never actually acknowledged that, but I'm afraid, yeah, it's true. I have a smorgasbord of embarassing memories related to reviewing music -- asking Unsane how their drummer's death affected the band's chemistry, reviews that showcased a wholesale lack of musical knowledge, pointless and meandering interviews. The reasons, as far as I can tell, are these:
1) Lack of context. I can't stress enough just what a dogmatic weirdo I was throughout high school and college -- between my sophomore year of high school and graduation from college, I pretty much refused to purchase anything on a major label. And to give you an idea of where I was, the last high school major label effort was Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians' debut. Finally, in my last few months of school, I accepted "Exile on Main Street" into my heart, and that pretty much broke the spell.
But to give you an idea -- I didn't really give the Velvet Underground a good listen until my mid-20s. Joy Division? I was probably close to 30. The Pixies and Sonic Youth weren't til about 22 or so. I didn't even listen to Slayer until my senior year of college.
Making it worse was a few years in an extraordinarily limited straight edge phase -- I think the only non-straight edge bands that I'd allow through the wall were Operation Ivy, Bad Religion and Metallica. When I did branch out, it was into Laughing Hyenas, Unsane, etc. -- better than it was before, but still very limited.
So I was often writing about music without any sort of background, any sort of idea of the influences. This led to some horrid college music reviews -- one article about a Ritual Device/Killdozer single, where it became painfully obvious that I had never heard the Led Zeppelin song RD covered, but I was pretending I did, is one of the first thing that comes up when you Google my full name. Then there was the fawning praise of the Hyenas' "Hard Times" as some sort of modern blues masterpiece.
Even now, going through the archives at Agony Shorthand or Lexicon Devil (two pastimes when I'm bored at work) I'm horrified by how many recognizable name bands I have still not heard.
2) Lack of interest/The Boulder factor. I write better about things when I'm deeply into them (a Space Team Electra article written in a drunken blur after being blown away by a live set, a Jawbreaker appreciation some years back) or deeply not (an evisceration of one of Greg Ginn's crappy '90s projects).
But the vast majority of music falls somewhere in between those extremes, and when I wasn't interested in a band, I lacked the ability to make the article interesting.
This became a pretty big problem when I started working in Boulder. In college, I could pick and choose what I reviewed (thus, the Arizona Daily Wildcat featured more reviews of the Victory Records stable than you might otherwise expect) -- in real life, I couldn't. And I largely was not into the local music scene in Boulder. "Dead-influenced," "Phish-influenced," and "an album-length flute meditation on the plight of the majestic eagle" are not phrases that excite my musical interest.
And it showed. I swear to God, I tried to write interesting stuff about fourth-generation Zappa knockoffs, but it was beyond my meager capabilities. There were a few local bands I liked a lot (the aforementioned Space Team, Munly, 16 Horsepower), and occasionally good alt-country bands came through, but beyond that... when DC's Warmers came through, I responded about like it was '82-era Black Flag. It was a poor marriage of music scene and music writer, and it didn't work out.
Now, years on, I've got a better (though still insufficient) musical knowledge and CD collection -- but absolutely no desire to write about the stuff any more. The world's better for it, I think.