After moderating Face The Music‘s ‘Everyone’s a Critic: The Relevance of Music Criticism‘ panel, freelance journalist Jake Cleland, whose work has been featured in the likes the Sydney Morning Herald, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, and JB Hi-Fi‘s STACK Magazine, took the time to speak with us about why he became a music critic as well as his personal journey of discovering and promoting inclusivity within the field.
Originally being asked to be a speaker on the panel, Cleland had some doubts about whether his experiences as a “white dude” deserved to continue to be explored over the experiences of lesser represented voices. Ultimately, Cleland was offered the role of moderator – but he still had his doubts before he accepted the offer.
“I was kind of questioning whether I should even do that because I don’t ever need to be on a panel ever again in my entire life, and I don’t think Mikey Cahill necessarily needs to be either… we’ve been at Bigsound and Face The Music multiple times, and other small panels around the place, and I just don’t think that people need to hear from us for a little while – put us back in the box.”
Cleland‘s recognition and understanding of his privilege as a “white dude” ultimately served the panel well. Cleland moderated the panel in a way that prompted insightful discussion, offering the odd constructive anecdote, without hi-jacking priority from speakers Mikey Cahill, Shaad D’Souza, Uppy Chatterjee, and Brodie Lancaster. He did such a good job that two attendees were seemingly overcome by the heat of passion.
SHOUT OUTS TO THE KIDS MAKIN OUT AT OUR PANEL I’M GLAD WE COULD GET YOU HOTTTTTT #FTMAUS LOVE IS REAL
— COOL BOBBY (@sawngswjakec) November 18, 2016
As well as managing to excite a few attendees, Cleland is constantly surprised that music criticism panels “tend to provoke a lot of laughs.” He recalled saying to Face The music organiser Ash Sambrooks that he doesn’t know whether the panellists are genuinely funny, “or if we’re all just so desperately lonely and down about the world that laughter is kind of only the natural reaction.” Sambrooks‘ laughter ultimately served to prove Cleland‘s point. In the end, we managed to determine the source of laughter probably comes from the need to have a naturally funny and interesting persona to become a successful critic.
The ‘Everyone’s a Critic’ panel posed some interesting questions regarding the effect of streaming playlists on criticism: “When streaming services like Spotify, Bandcamp and Pandora curate playlists, they become tastemakers as well as providers. Do their selections hold as much sway as a Pitchfork or Rolling Stone review? Playlist curator vs modern music critic – who holds the real influence and relevance?” Asking Cleland about the topic, he admitted that he would never have thought to navigate a music criticism panel in that way, but he was pleasantly surprised by what came out of the discussion.
“The discussion that came out of that proved how strong an idea it was. Even just the obvious stuff that tech taste-making isn’t necessarily a threat to music criticism but showed that music criticism needs to be so much more than just telling people what bands to listen to. Because a computer can do that now so we are now free to do so much more in terms of writing context and just writing things that are interesting in and of themselves. If you can read a piece of music writing, a review, whatever, and never listen to the band they’re talking about or whatever, but just enjoy the piece of writing for what it is then that is a successful piece of music writing, I think.”
Cleland started the panel by asking each speaker why they became music critics, so we decided to turn the question around to him. Cleland revealed that he was inspired to pursue his career due to a desire to emulate Clem Bastow, who he says wrote “wickedly funny singles reviews” for Impress, and American based Maura Johnston, who was an editor for music blog Idolator. Beyond the desire to emulate, Cleland noted that “for whatever reason” he believed that his “opinions about the music that [he] liked was valuable and worth other people reading.”
Being fairly active on blogging platform Tumblr a few years ago, Cleland mused that he “learned a lot about feminism and intersectionality,” which proved “incredibly informative and formative.” This knowledge instilled in the young Cleland the desire to be on board with fixing these problems. Cleland recalled during the panel that it wasn’t until, whilst interning at The Vine, that a female writer of colour tweeted him, claiming that the publication was the ultimate “white boys music crit club,” that his eyes were really opened to the inequality within the industry.
“I realised then that when I looked around at the most prominent music critics – and this is kind of self-important – but the people who were being picked for panels and who were recognised as kind of Australia’s most marketable critics were all white dudes. I guess that was kind of a turning point because I just realised that at The Vine, where I was interning at the time, when I got that tweet I thought – if I can exude any influence over this publication to include a more diverse line-up of writers, then that is something material that I can actually do.”
Cleland admitted that despite coming a long way in understanding what he can do to promote inclusivity, he’s still learning more every day – most recently at day one of Face The Music during the ‘Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces’ panel. Cleland spoke of his “dream panel” highly, going on to praise Jenny Valentish as “an incredible moderator and one of my favourite journalists.” Speaker Elly Scrine (of LISTEN, Cool Room, and electronic trio Huntly) opened Cleland‘s eyes to the importance of speaking and consulting with marginalised communities before speaking for them. Cleland confessed his revelation to us. –“I just thought that trying to do that work but also being vocal in other elements of my life was doing the work – but I realised then that I was speaking for those communities in a lot of ways.” Rather than drawing purely on the experiences of his close friends, Cleland admitted that he realised he could “go more directly to people within those communities.”
Going on from this point, we asked Cleland if that concept would inspire him to approach writers and journalists within more marginalised communities to write for Strine Whine. Cleland agreed enthusiastically, but is currently held back by something most of us are all too familiar with – “I don’t have any money, which is a pretty formidable barrier because one other part of this set of principles that I wanted to start Strine Whine with was that if I was ever going to get other people I have to pay them, and if I can’t pay them I’m not going to get them.” Despite this barrier, Cleland strives for Strine Whine to “have a diversity of voices and perspectives represented whether it’s in the writers or in the bands [they] cover or in anyone that [they] write about,” – because if there isn’t a point of difference, where’s the justification for the publication’s existence?
Noticing that of those attended by myself, Cleland‘s and the ‘Women In Electronic Music’ panels were the only two to open with a welcome to country, we asked if that was pre-organised or asked of him by Face The Music. Originally planning to, Cleland was reminded by artist Elly Scrine‘s mid ‘Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces‘–panel comment the day prior into doing so.
“I mean, the welcome to country is just, it’s not enough. The Melbourne music scene needs to do so much more work to increase representation of Indigenous people, but it is something and I think it does mean a lot to remind everyone in the room that sovereignty was never ceded, and that this is stolen land, and we need to pay respect to the people whose land it is.”
Following our revelation that his panel was one of the few to acknowledge country, Cleland likened the issue to a topic Melbourne DJ Brooke Powers‘ discussed during the ‘Creating Safe and Inclusive Spaces’ panel. Powers spoke of how she was hired to DJ at a queer event, only to discover that the bathrooms were gendered. Being a trans-woman, Powers was made to feel uncomfortable by the cis-women in the female bathroom. This incident raised an important question – should it always be the role of the oppressed to talk about and ask for safe spaces? Specifically, should it have been up to Powers to ask the event organisers to have non-gendered bathrooms? Obviously it shouldn’t be, but, unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Cleland woefully admitted that “it’s predominantly up to the people who belong to marginalised groups to do all of this labour to make a space good and inclusive. The fact that [welcome to country] happened at the ‘Women In Electronic Music‘ panel and not any of the other dude-dominated panels speaks volumes.”
“It’s not acceptable in 2016 to make excuses for sexism” – Huntly’s Elly Scrine on our incredible WOMEN IN ELECTRONIC MUSIC panel #FTMAUS
Finally, we asked that if everyone’s a critic, why should anyone read anything Jake Cleland has to say? After a brief moment of contemplation, Cleland brazenly replied “They shouldn’t. Definitely not.” He then quickly went on to share a thought he had during his panel in which he compared music criticism to looking at rocks.
Cleland mused that “anyone can kind of pick up a rock and be like “oh, that rock looks real different to that rock, that’s interesting and fun”,” before going on to contextualise the idea by explaining that “geology is a huge field because it’s really interesting paying people to dedicate their lives to examining these weird looking rocks and why they’re so different and what that says about humanity and the world. And that’s how I feel about music criticism, as well. ” Cleland believes that good music criticism is “kind of a guide to life, and an exploration of humanity and the human condition – which sounds SO wanky. But also, like, it’s absolutely true!”
“I think that’s why people should listen, not necessarily to Jake Cleland, but pay attention to music criticism and invest in it… It’s important because writing is an art and art is intrinsically worth supporting.”
Cleland wrapped it up by apologising for his “convoluted answer,” but after assuring him it’d make for a good article he appeared equal amounts amused and relieved.
Issue 14 of Strine Whine is out now, and you can grab all back issues HERE.