Like wrestling a pig

Yesterday morning, I waded into the slap fight between Pitchfork and Urb magazine with this post on the TOC blog. In dissing Pitchfork, Urb placed them within the Chicago indie rock scene, which it finds to be “the most pretentious smarter-than-thou scene in the entire country.”

Nevermind that ALL indie rock scenes are at least a little pretentious, but I don’t think you can really call much of anything in Chicago pretentious (although in a response, LA Weekly drops a reference to Tortoise and if all most of the rest of the world knows about Chicago is either its post-rock and free jazz scenes, then I guess I can understand where they’re getting that from). Moreover, I don’t think Pitchfork is a vibrant part of the city’s scene. It’s not a knock against them, they’re just more nationally-focused.

In any case, the post got picked up by LAist and The Daily Swarm as well as a couple other places. I’m getting called out for not knowing my ass from page 8 in the dictionary because Film School are originally (?) from San Francisco and not L.A. OK, my bad even though they’re billing themselves as an L.A. band. And yeah, they’ve been around a couple years, but that’s exactly my point: I don’t see them as anything more than a band of noodling wankers who keep trying to convince people to buy what they’re selling.

Skeet On Mischa also points out that No Age is obviously L.A.’s most talked-about indie musical export right now. And he’s got a point. It slipped my mind that the noise-rock duo hails from there.

So to sum up, in the 1st Annual Talking Out Of Your Ass Tourney, TOC, Pitchfork and Urb finish in a three-way tie.

What's going on

Ugh, the guilt of a neglected blog.

I’m in another one of those phases where I’ve got a handful of half-finished posts sitting in draft, and can’t work up the nerve to attack those pesky, unworkable words and fashion them into fully-grown expressions. Also, 25 in 12 has hit a snag because of a book that I flat-out hate, but am determined to finish.

So, as usual, when all else fails, I talk about work.

TOC is running a month-long feature called Date Our Friends. It’s easily our most ambitious online project ever, and is my brainchild so I’m hoping it comes off. Two weeks ago, we asked readers to write in if they wanted to date one of our four friends. This week, we reveal who the daters will be, one each day. Next week, we’ll be posting video excerpts from their dates, and asking readers to vote on whether they think they’ll make it to a second.

The funny thing about all this is that yours truly will be accompanying these folks on their dates (dates don’t videotape themselves, you know!), which I am sure won’t be awkward at all. Ahem. This whole project is either going to be a smashing success or massive disaster. Either way, it ought to be fun to watch. So check out the feature each day at for the next couple weeks to see our updates.

Also, TOC now has a Twitter stream. It’s still in a soft launch right now, but feel free to follow us as we post updates on interesting articles, as well as goings-on within the TOC offices. We’ll be giving it a big push just prior to SXSW, as I’ll be posting daily updates to the TOCblog, and tweets to the Twitter stream.

I believe the interns are our future

This post is a little “inside baseball” and I’m kind of burying the lede. So if you want to immediately see what I’m building up to, read this.

A couple weeks ago – as we were going to press on the blogging issue of Time Out Chicago – I found out that the cover story of Chicago magazine’s February issue was “171 Great Chicago Websites.”

Initially, I hit the roof.

Our feature involved critics from almost every major media entity in the city – I interviewed a handful of them for my story and Theater writer Kris Vire hosted a critics’ chat room with many more – so we were a bit worried that another publication would get wind of it and scoop us on our story.

To the casual observer, it probably looks someone’s a copycat. But Chicago magazine is a monthly, so they were probably closing their feature before we started writing ours, and I can honestly say that no one at TOC knew about what they were doing until we closed. It’s a coincidence that occurs often when you’ve got so much media out there.

After perusing a copy of Chicago, it turned out that both features covered different ground. Ours was focused on online criticism, specifically, and they cast their net wider to include every informational resource in town, and then some. They did a very thorough job, and I was hoping both stories would spur more of a discussion about what’s happening online in Chicago, but so far that hasn’t happened.

While Chicago beat us to the punch on the newsstands, we beat ’em online. In fact, I’ve been waiting for weeks for the story to show up on its website, as its other stories from February are already up. It’s been a running joke in the TOC offices that Chicago‘s story about websites wasn’t actually on its website even while people were commenting on the placeholder page.

As someone whose job depends on all media recognizing the importance of the Internet, I was irritated that Chicago wasn’t gettin’ to business. I was complaining about this to one of the NYC directors that was in town, and she said “Well why don’t you just put the links on our blog?”

And that’s how this happened. And then Metroblogging Chicago did us both one better by creating a newsreader file of both their story and ours.

So far, no reaction from the folks at Chicago magazine, but I’m hoping they’ll take it in the good-natured spirit that it’s offered. There’s already a troll in the comments section at Chicagoist who’s making the predictable arguments. (The notion that because our intern was working on this story, all other work in our offices stopped is amusing, but not worth addressing).

Blogging and remixing content of other media outlets isn’t “stealing” so long as credit is given where credit is due (for example, Gridskipper routinely Google-maps TOC content for stories like this). I’ve had dust-ups in the office about how our content’s being used online. Over the past year, one of my goals has been to get folks there to understand that this is the way that media works now, it’s ultimately good for us, and TOC needs to be doing it as much as Chicagoist, Gapers Block and all the rest do (so long as we stick to standards of journalism ethics, even if other folks don’t).

If we – or any other media entity – fails to recognize the importance of what’s happening online, someone else will.

U2's manager is barking up the wrong metaphorical tree

Mega-selling bands – and their managers – need to stop presenting themselves as the standard bearer for artists who are losing money due to illegal downloads. If you have ever toured with a giant lemon as part of your stage show, you lose the argument before you begin.

Having said that, here’s what U2’s manager Paul McGuiness has to say about the role of ISPs vis a vis illegal downloading:

“‘If you were a magazine advertising stolen cars, handling the money for stolen cars and seeing to the delivery of stolen cars, the police would soon be at your door,’ he said. ‘That’s no different to an ISP, but they say they can’t do anything about it.'”

Leaving aside for the moment the whole notion that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 means that ISPs are not, in fact, liable for such behavior, let’s look at what McGuinness is really saying here.

If a “magazine” was taking possession of stolen cars and receiving money for them, they would, in fact, be breaking the law. But let’s go with this and say that possession of copyrighted material that you do not own is like a stolen car (better return that copy of Freakonomics or The National album now!). ISPs neither receive money for the possession of copyrighted material (his first point) nor do they provide the programs that allow one to access copyrighted material (his second point about “seeing to the delivery” of stolen material). This would be like saying that the builder of a garage used to operate a chop shop is responsible for the thievery that goes on there. Or that Xerox is responsible for people who photocopy books.

I could go on, but what’s the point? This is like the time I told my sister that the government wasn’t responsible for providing for a particular service because it wasn’t in the Constitution and she replied “Well asparagus isn’t in the Constitution…” How do you argue with logic that isn’t logical?

This whole argument is stemming from Canada’s efforts to tax ISPs (they call it a fee, but come on now) and funnel that music to artists. Anyone who’s been following the business of music for the last 50 years ought to be suspicious of such a plan, even if such a fee goes directly to the music publishers and bypasses labels altogether. Sound Opinions also discussed this topic recently and I’m surprised they jumped on board with it. If for no other reason but that not everyone uses his or her Internet connection to download music they haven’t paid for.

But hey: let’s compromise. How about anyone who buys an album by crap Canadian bands has to pay a “bad taste” tax? So if you by the next album by Celine Dion, Nickelback, Sum 41 or Avril Lavigne, you have to pay an extra five bucks. Who’s with me?

25 in 12: Never A City So Real by Alex Kotlowitz

I’ve seen and heard about the “52 Books in 52 Weeks” meme, and marveled that anyone could read that many books in a year, even though I’m a huge fan of reading literature and non-fiction. Between reading blogs, devouring new issues of The Economist, and listening to podcasts, the amount of free time I have for reading books often falls by the wayside so 52 in a year would be impossible. If I added in comic books, though…

I’ve decided to make more of an effort this year to hear that delicious sound of a newly cracked book spine, and will be blogging about it to keep myself on track. But my goal is modest, hence “25 in 12.”

The first book I read was one I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while, and it was this month’s Gaper’s Block Book Club selection. I was unable to make the actual discussion, but I’m not sure that it interfered with my appreciation of the book. Because I think for any Chicagoan, Alex Kotlowitz’s Never A City So Real feels like a very personal look at his or her city, whether they see themselves in it or not.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and by extension a city of persons (not people, but persons). It’s (we’re?) a city that’s often derided – even shamed – for corruption that silences the voices of individuals in favor of the groups that wield power in both the city and county. Despite their efforts, a walk around the city still reveals the power of the individual in shaping the city as a whole, and Never A City So Real is part of a series of books that explores just that.

Kotlowitz references the great Chicago chroniclers like Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg – both directly, and in the stories he tells. The most direct line can be drawn from Terkel’s Division Street: America. Like Division Street, the story of the city is told here by those affected by the actions of the larger forces at work in the city. But unlike Division Street‘s arms-length storytelling, Never A City So Real shows us Chicago through Kotlowitz’s friends and acquaintances, whether it’s the owner of a diner that begrudgingly serves as a way station for migrant workers, a lawyer who describes her job at 26th and California in terms usually reserved for those that speak of their work as “a calling,” or the former union steelworker who takes his students on field trips through the forgotten parts of a once vibrant industry.

The one quibble I have with Never A City So Real is that it doesn’t stop to tell the story of the Chicago transplant, which is as much a legitimate part of the city’s history as the stories of its natives. Kotlowitz himself says at the beginning of the book that when he arrived here, he planned to stay for only two years, which turned into 20-plus. Chicago hosts plenty of temporary residents who see the city as a way station to somewhere else or as a place to carve out an identity before moving onto another life. But there are also many who move here and find it to be home. Why does that happen? What is it about this city that allows people to thrive? Why is it a city that’s often the right mix of comfort and challenge? I have my own theories, but it’s a story that ought to be told from more than one viewpoint, just like the story Kotlowitz tells here.

Kotlowitz plays to his strengths here, as he’s a storyteller who’s been on the front lines of the toughest parts of the city; his earlier, indispensable book There Are No Children Here offers a similar, sadder tour of the city’s forgotten areas. Throughout his works, we find a central theme, and that is this:

This is a city of fighters. Some of us fight silent battles, while others of us use whatever means at our disposal – our voices, our connections, our jobs, our keyboards – to rise above the din and carve out a niche that feels like home as we offer a counterargument to the conventional wisdom. It’s expected that you will meet people who challenge your point of view, while embracing your challenge all the same. The Chicago motto is “Urbs in horto” or “City In A Garden”, but I think we’d be better served with “In Varietas, Civitas”: “In Differences, Community.” *

* I never took Latin, so if that’s an inelegant translation, blame the Internet.