Last Collector Standing: Freezerburn's Ben Stegman on Album Reviews, New Bands and How Consuming Music Has Changed

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(The number of chain-record stores nationwide has dwindled. However, St. Louis has become an unlikely safe haven for indie record shops -- and for DJs who prefer to spin the black circle instead of scrolling their iPods. In this new weekly column, we'll focus on personal portraits of St. Louis' record aficionados -- and the rooms where they store their treasures. Meet the last collectors standing. Know a collector who deserves the spotlight? Email us.)

JON SCORFINA
  • Jon Scorfina

(This is part two of last week's LCS; read part one here.) In a recent issue of Freezerburn you were quite critical of the music news/reviews website Pitchfork. Do you feel they give biased coverage of current music? I became aware of Pitchfork about ten years ago, when I heard it be referred to as something that covered alternative music, something that existed completely outside of the mainstream. To an extent, I'm sure it still does. To an extent, Rolling Stone also covers bands that may exist outside of the mainstream, and they do very good things by giving good exposure to good bands.

I think it might be the line of thought that I'm against when a website suddenly embraces the same ideals that the rest of us are running away from. I mean, [Pitchfork] just reviewed all of the Beatles reissues. I don't know about you, but I can read about that anywhere. Pitchfork, and any music website that should offer an alternative, or at least claims to offer an alternative, should probably not offer its antithesis, the status quo.

So you don't think [Pitchfork] even offers an alternative perspective of the Beatles? Not from what I read. I got very curious, actually, and I slogged through some of those reviews. It starts off with the same line of thought, which is a very uncritical one. It accepts a gold standard, which is, "Well, the Beatles were the best." I have no problem with someone thinking that the Beatles were the best, but I do have a problem with something telling me that a certain band is the greatest of all time. After a certain point, it doesn't matter whether I agree or disagree. I might think that Frank Zappa was one of the greatest musicians of the '60s, who bettered the Beatles at whatever you consider popular music. I might tell somebody that, but it is simply my opinion. If I ran a website of that capacity, or if Freezerburn were read by millions of people, I would probably back off from being quite so definitive.

Then their grading scale of the perfect 10-point album, which they've given out to quite a few albums, doesn't work for you personally? It dumbs it down a little bit, don't you think?

It makes it very easy for the reader to just glance at it and say, "Okay, I know what they think," and then just move on, instead of actually reading the critical element. Sure. If you talk about record collections, we're living in an age where people have adopted that as a mindset. They'll look at a review, the starred review. [pantomimes reading a magazine] 'If it's a 3-star album I might not be so interested.'

I think there is a tendency, more so than ever, to digest music in the same way. They'll hear one song from a band, rather than the entire side of an album. If you can keep something on an iPod or a hard-drive that's the size of your thumb, then I think there is a very crucial switch in perceptive. You're no longer having to devote your time to music, because you're suddenly expecting music to devote its time to you. It's done at your whim rather than the other way around. You don't have a personal, emotional investment in music anymore.

I don't want to say that, well you know, therefore people who collect records have more patience or superior taste. I don't want to imply that. I do think that when you get into different formats like music websites as opposed to concerts themselves, then you have people who are just uninterested in going anywhere below the surface.

That's an interesting take on it, because you actually go out and enjoy the music in person instead of just reading an arbitrary review. I'm sure there are a lot of people who base their entire opinion on a review and maybe never even listen to the music, just because they trust a certain site as being "good." It gives us enough information out there to do that. You no longer have to mail-order an album and wait two weeks for it to arrive so you can critically judge it, when you can read somebody's opinion [online] who you've never met before in you life.

Do you think zine music coverage crosses over into a collector's mindset? Are there collectors in the world who specifically use zines to help them find what they want to listen to? Absolutely, and zines can be just as guilty as websites of having people dismiss bands simply from reading an interview with the band.

The format is a little bit more archaic. It certainly is a lot more fun to collect something that you can hold in your hand. I think that does add a certain sort of legitimacy when you see a band interviewed in a zine, or an album reviewed. I remembered having my own zine reviewed by music publications. I remember Punk Planet use to review my zine, and Razorcake is another good example. I think that's a really great way of getting the word out, because if you read a critical review on a website you can dismiss things a lot more easy because it's on a website. Even a dismissive zine review or a dismissive review of a band's album in a print format is still very good publicity for a band, or for a zine, or for an artist, because you are holding it in your hands and reading it. One way or the other, you've taken the time out to get the magazine in the first place. You're probably going to be interested in the bands in the zine whether they're in a good or bad light. Where do you shop for records now? I work at this really quite amazing place on Cherokee called Phono-Mode, which just opened up recently. I should give a plug to them because I work there and therefore I do shop there. [Laughs ]. I probably get most of my records from Apop on Cherokee as well. They do carry a lot of zines and a lot of music that might only exist in 50-copy quantities.

What's a recent find that you are really happy about? There have been some very good EPs recently from Talk Normal out of Brooklyn, and Cacaw out of Chicago. Coincidentally, they share some very energetic female vocals. I think they're getting pretty scarce to find now. I would certainly recommend that.

Otherwise, discoveries happen everyday. There is a new batch of records over at Apop pretty much on a daily basis, or cassettes or CDs. Whatever your preferred format is.

Of the type of music you prefer, do you feel you could go into a thrift store or garage sale and have the "luck of the hunt," or is this music too obscure? [Laughs ] Anything is possible. The odds are always stacked against you if you're looking for very strange music, because strange people who are looking for strange music are outnumbered by normal people with normal taste. Anytime you go into somebody else's basement for a garage sale or for a concert you have the chance to find some of the most amazing things in the world.

There is always a secret history to things. There are always secret bands that nobody has ever heard of. There are simply things that you wouldn't normally [find] at a Best Buy, that people have kept covered in dust for several years waiting for the right person to come along and say 'Wow, I like that! I can't believe you like that too!'

Final question: Do you think zines and record collecting will survive the digital age? [Pause] Yes. Just like the printing press is going to continue to survive and because people will always have ideas, and they have to find some way to get those ideas out. The Internet is a very wonderful tool for getting out ideas in a very instantaneous fashion. I think the Internet is great. I think zines are great. I think any format you use that fits the idea you want to communicate is an ideal format.

For me, zine making is great. Having something in print that people can hold in their hands and read on the toilet is a great thing. Personally, I think everything survives because ideas survive.

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