There's all that shallow land: an interview with Chris Ott

Post Author:

Depending on where you're standing, Chris Ott is either public enemy number one, an omnipresent prophet, or a mildly amusing gadfly. As one of the early contributors to Pitchfork before it turned into the highly profitable brand that it is today, Ott championed a form of criticism that launched the website's unforgiving reputation—to say what you want about music, without concern for who you'd upset. At a time when money was draining from the record industry and its barnacled tastemakers, Ott and Pitchfork found a unique (and marketable) niche by simply refusing to play nice.

Nearly ten years later Ott has gone rogue. After leaving Pitchfork in 2004, he spent time writing for a host of other publications (The Village Voice and Perfect Sound Forever among them) until it practically consumed him. He found his contrarianism no longer welcome in an industry that, due almost entirely to Pitchfork's rise, now rejected controversy. He released a volume in the 33 1/3 series on Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures, and spent years in and out of the bubble-bursting, power-shifting music media environs, only to inevitably turn to the creation of something independent—a video series called Shallow Rewards that expounded on obscure narratives left untold within music's long history. He maintained a steady stream of monolithic posts on his personal blog and eventually published an eBook, all while his videos garnered him enough attention and support to amass a loyal following on his often caustic, difficult to navigate Twitter account (a presence which he aggressively dismisses as “only a fucking avatar,” but really rings like a narrowly-curated vigilante watchman). If you catch him there on an off day, your ego will not go unbruised, music critics and laymen alike.

After some public (but mostly one-sided) battles with Pitchfork's founder, Ryan Schreiber, Ott has now invested in a new form of acrid martyrdom by calling out young journalists within the music industry, skewering their work as complacent subserviency to a corporate-run, money-guzzling machine that uses these writers' command of “cool” on the front lines. Perpetually calling them out by name and never backing down from reproach—whether that reproach is aimed at him directly or through subtweet—Ott has cemented his critical spot in the music media mechanism, burning twig-and-twine bridges swiftly along the way. And only then did he drop a bomb.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Ott uploaded a video to his Shallow Rewards page called “THIS IS BOSTON NOT BK” that got an enormous amount of attention and backlash through Twitter. Though he would surely claim that Twitter is not a real place and he is nothing but “a message,” the names Ott used within the video were of real people, all who exist within an increasingly small world of musicians, critics, and writers in New York and its similar metropolitan (mostly East Coast) habitats. (Unsurprisingly, the New York media world is like a housewarming party at a tiny studio apartment with paper thin walls, where everyone drinks from the same jug of swill.)

Ott and I had a chance to talk on the phone Tuesday night regarding the blowback from his video, which both namecalls and accuses while presenting facts (though some claim they are of dubious origin), and he was easily bristled and defensive—the transcription of our conversation proved difficult when, at several times, he talked right over what I was asking him, often only to change the subject to his initial complaints about ad revenue and big business. Some of Ott's biggest detractors take issue with his supposed sexism, a complaint I raised with him several times, and his feelings on the matter seem convoluted and overtly precious. The conversation, however, felt like a cathartic scene in Steinbeck's East of Eden; Samuel incites Adam by asking “Do you take pride in your hurt? Does it make you seem large and tragic?”, to which Adam reacts with melancholy. “I've just come to see if I can raise a little anger in you,” Samuel tells him. And the land that Ott tills seems to be just the same.

You write for Impose Magazine?

I do.

Impose was started by a guy who . . .

. . . who . . . ?

You tell me, you write there.

He started it ten years ago, it used to be a print magazine. He’s from Buffalo, he went to art school, he was friends with a bunch of bands and wanted to feature them. It was a print magazine at first, and he kept it in print for about six of ten years, and he eventually took it to online only. And pertaining to your specific interests, we are on an ad network, but we are independent otherwise.

Can I just offer a response to that? You think you’re independent because you can control your editorial content, but you’re only on their network so long as you offer upfeed to them in terms of reader engagement. The second they decide to take a look at their numbers and you aren’t conforming to them, you’re not on their network anymore. It’s a bad trend.

The controversy in having that outlook is that, yes, we are beholden to what numbers we provide, but if we’re directing the editorial content, isn’t it just up to us? The ball is still in our court. [Ed. note: Impose does (and always have) sell ads directly to small labels and businesses at a reduced rate].

It’s in your court as long as they decide they can keep it in your court. If they decide to pull away from you at any time, and their only concern is that you’re making a certain metric, in terms of reader engagement or page views, it’s an option. You’re opting in, and it’s an ad network. Is that ad network paying the salaries of everyone there?

We’re still a small magazine, an independent magazine. As far as the level we’re on—it’s either you’re a blog or you’re an independent magazine—we pay who we can. We pay our writers for features.

Then what’s the difference between you and a blog? Why not just be a Tumblr? There are tons of collectives out there that don’t deal with ads and attempt to make money and can just accept the fact that maybe writing about music isn’t something you can expect to make a living out of.

Isn’t that what everyone is trying to figure out how to do?

There’s nothing to figure out! It never made any money to begin with. The only thing that made money was selling ads, and the second you decided that it was important to be profitable, your content had to shift toward what was profitable.

I don’t see us doing that.

Well that's because you’re not profitable!

But I don’t see us shifting that way at all. In trying to become a profitable site, we’re not tailoring our coverage. We’re doing what we think is the best thing to do, and that’s covering bands that we like.

I understand that, and that’s great, and you said you pay feature writers, and that’s important because feature writing involves some measure of journalism and a lot of time investment on the part of the writer. But the issue is your brand—and that brand, Impose Magazine—you can only continue to do what you do with a staff as long as you can continue to pay a staff, and at some point, you may not be able to do that anymore. I’m not interested in that. I don’t think it’s necessary to have a magazine or some sort of umbrella brand to get your views out there. And my justification for that viewpoint is if you look at what’s happened over the last four days, from a ten-minute YouTube video I posted, the entire music criticism architecture is shitting their pants.

But why? That’s what I’m curious about. You made a lot of people really angry. It just blows my mind that so many people reacted to you.

They’re angry because I’m calling them out on the questions that they refuse to ask. They’re complicit in trying to make money out of talking about fucking pop music—that is a laughable thing. I’ve been saying this for six years, it’s not like I woke up on Friday and was like, “Hey I need to call bullshit on this.” It’s just not something you should expect to make a living out of. Like, “I have a lot of big opinions about this band.” Are you kidding me? This is a joke! Why you people think this is valuable—it’s just a joke. You think it’s valuable, it’s not. If the advertisers don’t decide that there are people paying attention to discussion about music, and inject money into that discussion, and thereby extract ownership over who gets to participate in that discussion, then there is no money. That’s great because then that’s a real discussion. It’s not infected.

Weren’t you doing this before? What made you stop if you thought it was such a worthless pursuit?

I do do it, it’s a perpetual pursuit. It’s something I continue to do.

Why do it if you think it’s worthless?

I don’t think it’s worthless, I don’t think it’s economically valuable. I take a lot more out of the fact that there’s no one confusing or sidecar-ing what I have to say. The only thing that has tainted what I’ve done is that YouTube shows ads before my videos, and I’ve only put one new video up to them. Vimeo is just not cutting it, technologically and in terms of audience engagement. If I didn’t want people to hear what I was saying, why would I bother making a video of it? YouTube provides a technological storage place for my views, my unedited views, and I edit them myself, to be broadcast to an audience as large as the Super Bowl. All that they ask and all that they demand is that they show ads before my videos begin. I can’t reach that many people any other way. They own that conduit and if I want access to it, they’re offering me a pretty fair trade.

The other thing is, you’ve gotta realize this, ten times as many people probably watch The Needle Drop’s review of Yeezus or whatever, ten times as many people watch everything Pitchfork.TV posts. The issue is that every single person who watched my video is involved in this industry in some way, so they are the ones that are getting their back up, and that’s the reason why you’re feeling so inundated with all the chatter about this. The people that are upset about it are the people that people listen to. Those are the ones that I wanted to fuck up, because they need to get fucked up.

You are only one person, you recognize that, right?

In this respect, I’m not a person, I’m a message.

Do you really think that what you say is going to change a company as big and profitable as Pitchfork?

I don’t care if they change anything. I’m not trying at all to make people who are invested in selling their audience for ad dollars change anything. They’re free to do that. I’m trying to explain to the people who are not questioning and are not analyzing.

How do you know that they’re not questioning or they’re not analyzing? Maybe they’re just complacent to it.

I don’t accept complacency.

What business is it of yours to direct people to not feel complacent?

It’s not a question of whether it’s my business. It’s a question of whether it’s my impulse, it’s what I want to do. I don’t care if you think this is a corrupt environment, you’re free to not care. People seem to be caring a lot, though.

Why is that then?

Because people are tired of these attention oligarchs controlling what does or doesn’t get talked about. I get people from these regional scenes all over the country saying they can’t get Pitchfork to answer the fucking phone, but they’re sure to cover everything in Brooklyn because it’s right outside their fucking door. They’re lazy. I’m urging them to stop being lazy and stop whitewashing what’s going on. They want to make money. The two people who own Pitchfork as a company, who are on the slip, the incorporation of Pitchfork, between the two of them, their houses cost $1.6 million dollars. To tell me about Deafheaven? I don’t think so. The only reason these bands get written about is because they’re being pitched to them by people that Pitchfork trusts.

What are they supposed to do, hire everyone?

No, I’m talking about PR firms, I’m not talking about their staff. You’re missing the bigger picture. There’s a mainlining of influence. There’s an influence peddling by people who are funded by venture capitalists. I’ve explained this all day on Twitter, and I hope you’ve taken the time to read it. Marc Geiger, all these people, Redpoint Ventures, Accel Partners, Austin Ventures, you have got to do just a little fucking Googling, and find out who is really financing all of this. All they’re interested in doing is getting these brands on their portfolio. That’s all that this is about.

Why would they have that specific of an interest?

Would you let me finish? If it wasn’t for all these millions of dollars that these venture capital firms were pumping in in direct and indirect ways, into these websites, these websites wouldn’t be here. You’re complicit in sustaining their authenticity to navigate millennials who are so mistrusting of corporate brands.

Your complaint about the PR companies who are talking about the same big bands over and over is in contrast to your complaint about the likes of the Pelly twins who talk about smaller bands in the underground scene—you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be angry about both things.

No, they can’t have it both ways. They can’t talk about the DIY scene and the Fvck The Media shit and all this punk culture stuff they do, and then go sell that to fucking Time Warner in NME. Gimme a fucking break. That is the height of hypocrisy. The alternative is to own dialogue and the internet gives us the ability to do that. But they don’t want dialogue, they want attention, they want fame, and they want to be cool, and they want to have a scene, and they want to their name in print, and they want people to know their name. If you think for a second that the Pelly twins aren’t vain, give me a fucking break.

Everyone who is 26 is vain, Chris.

Oh, it’s okay because you’re 26? I wasn’t vain when I was 26.

Bullshit—why did you start writing for the internet if you weren't vain?

Because I wanted to express something that wasn’t being expressed anywhere else.

How do you know that’s not how they feel as well?

I don’t give a crap if that’s how they feel. They’re being used to those ends. The site that I wrote for didn’t have ads so I didn’t have to ask these questions. When your viewpoint goes up with a Converse banner behind it, you better start digging. I didn’t have to, but I would have. I was in control of what I said and when it got published, there was nobody editing my viewpoints. That’s value to me. I used the internet to communicate what I feel, right or wrong.

I disagree with that. I think that’s exactly what they’re doing and how they feel, they just aren’t looking at it as a Converse ad behind their name. I think they are legitimately writing about things that they care about.

But they’re being used! Look. There was nobody between what I published back then and who read it. There are a shitload of people between what they’re publishing and what Ian Cohen—so I don’t get accused of being sexist—and all the other fucking guys that are writing for Pitchfork, and Ryan and Chris, who run the site, there is a lot in between what they say and how it gets to you, and how that’s financed. That was never the case and it’s never been the case with me, but for the YouTube scenario that I already explained to you and that I feel justified in taking the smack on. These people are being paid by corporations to go out and find cool, so corporations can get their logo in cool places. End of fucking story. And fuck them for doing that. Fuck them for besmirching the name of DIY and punk and hardcore in the pursuit of being cool.

What’s the alternative then?

Do it yourself. Do it your fucking self. You have every platform you need. Yes, those platforms are owned by corporations, but they can’t edit you, but to delete your site if you publish hate speech. All you have to do is be patient. Stop looking for fucking validation. When your article goes up on Monday morning and so many people retweeted it, I have so many friends, I have all these followers, oh my god I’m so popular! Just wait. If you have something important to say, people are going to find it.

Your suggestion is that no writing about music should exist on the internet, unless it’s on a personal blog or on Twitter.


That’s exactly what you just said.

No. That’s a totally fallacious suggestion you just invented to satisfy yourself. Do you read Collapse Board?


Do you read The Quietus?


I just gave you two very successful examples. Stylus, there’s another. Do you need me to keep going? We Listen For You, I did an interview with him. It’s really not that hard to do it yourself. You know what it’s really hard to do? It’s really hard to compete with corporate-funded PR firms and booking agencies and fucking William Morris Endeavor, which is owned by Rahm Emanuel's brother. He was only the Chief of Staff to the president of the United States. Sort of tough to roll with him when you’re a kid in an apartment in Missouri. This is about capturing information channels and fucking kids. The guy who started SPIN was the son of the guy who started fucking Penthouse. Shit is going around and around. That’s why they started Raygun, that’s why riot grrrl got started because nobody was listening to them. Everyone wants to always invoke riot grrrl as if it was some fucking scion of feminism—you weren’t fucking there, I was there. It’s so absurd how freely people want to throw this shit around and think that they’re indicting what someone like me is talking about, when a) they haven’t lived it (not their fault) and b) they won’t listen to the people who have (definitely their fault), and c) they won’t look at the world around them and examine it and see “Maybe I’m in the wrong. Maybe I’m contributing to something that actually has ulterior motives and is not actually doing what I want to have done on my terms.”

Do you find that a lot of people are agreeing with you?


People within the industry?

Don’t really fucking care. You think I give a fuck what they think? You think I’d put this video out if I gave a fuck what Marc Geiger thinks of it?

Then why do it?

Because I’m in a position to speak truth to power. I am literally one of the only people who can speak truth to power. Chris Weingarten would get fired. All these other people that you guys think are so fucking important? They’d all get fired. Maura [Johnston]? As much as I fucking love her? She wouldn’t be able to book a gig. They’re all trying to preserve what they have by playing nice. I have never played nice. That’s why I quit The Village Voice after two months, that’s why I quit Pitchfork, I don’t work with these fucking people. They all sell out, every fucking time.

What else are you supposed to do? Especially for young people right now. I know tons of writers who are freelancers making so little money, or they're just flat-out unemployed.

Get a job. That’s what I did. I got a job.

What about the people who believed they’d some day end up as a full-time writer, then a big shot editor, and they’d fulfill everything they’d ever dreamed of?

They’re fucking deluded. I didn’t think that when I was 22, so that’s why I didn’t try to do it. I got a job as an administrative assistant at a book publisher, making twenty-two grand. Everything else has been the sweat of my labor in my career. And as I’ve done that, I’ve continued to voice my opinions and concerns about music. On my own terms. Because what is most important to me? That I express them on my own terms. Are you telling me that you’ve never had to run a piece on somebody that you thought was a piece of shit? Or on a band that sucked? How can you feel happy about that? You think you can just ignore it and wait until you get the piece that you’re excited about? Not good enough.

You’re asking to blow up the entire system.

Yes. The system is bullshit. The system isn’t about music. The system is about marketing. The system is about metrics and turning attention to music into demonstration of how your company has reached into a certain demographic and then tell your investors that you’re on it. You’re involved. Look at how many readers you have, and oh by the way, our readers spend £152 a year on shoes. I don’t know if you saw but I tweeted out the one-sheet for NME readers for their ad-sales department. Pretty gross, huh?

Writing about or playing music comes from a place of privilege at its very base, though. In order to own an instrument, you have to have some form of income.

Half the fucking country is on the DSS right now. I didn’t want to get into it because it’s not my place—I am a well-off American—the idea that the NME is going to write about these rich college brats in fucking Allston? As some kind of true scene? And ignore what might be going on in some fucked rural part of England? Who the fuck is playing in Newcastle tomorrow night? That’s such bullshit. To write about this DIY local scene that’s a quarter of the world away, you ignore what’s going on around you. I don’t know if I’m more mad that people are trying to extend out what I’m saying ad absurdum as a position of righteousness for them to say that I’m being unreasonable, or that they just want things to stay the same. It’s fucked to me that people are defending anything that’s going on, as if there is any fucking platform to stand on.

People have said some really cruel things about you, you must be aware of that.

What, that I have a double chin? I do have a double chin.

I am part of an age group that was raised to believe that if you went to school and learned a particular skill, you would come out of school with a chance at turning that skill into a career.

That’s called entitlement. I’m sorry you weren’t better protected. I don’t understand how anyone can justifiably look at the world and say, “I should earn a living wage to express my deep, intense feelings about a local band.” The only way you can do that is if you let people sell ads on the back of your exuberance.

You keep going back to people being used. Don’t you think that people are aware that this is going on?

If they’re aware, then they’re twice as guilty. The readership of these magazines is 70% plus male, so the fact that they’re women is a big selling point, from a political correctness standpoint. Let’s not beat around the bush. When guys find out that there are cool girls that listen to cool music, they’re going to listen to those girls more than the guys that they’re jealous of.

I don’t understand that connection, what are they jealous of?

The overwhelming readership of these magazines is young men. In my experience, when a strong woman is expressing views that are in line with the kinds of stuff they’re talking about—it goes all the way back, there are always very celebrated, sanctified female contributors to this scene—they are listened to. Sometimes it’s a question of appeasing the notion of being a boy’s club. Other times it’s a question of guys being excited about girls being excited about the same things they’re excited about, but there is a massive issue there. I’m addressing it from the perspective of that there is an outside fascination or gravitation to young female writers and their audience. I’m not condemning them for being female. I’m saying that particularly in the case of the Pelly twins, who are very sharp girls, I’m sort of mystified that they are continuing to plow this road of nonstop excitement and positivity and championing without questioning why they’re getting put up out front on Pitchfork and the NME, when a lot of male writers at those sites aren’t getting the same pop level promotion.

I disagree that that comes with their gender. The Pelly twins are ingrained in DIY culture, which is having its moment, and that’s why they get that pop level promotion. Other writers, male or not, who aren’t in touch with that scene, don’t get that same attention. It’s not a gender thing at all. It’s just what is currently on trend.

It’s beyond Pitchfork. It’s the whole scene. The guys chase the girls.

You didn’t answer my question.

What is your question even informed by? You’re going along with a story that is not a hundred percent true. The Pelly twins are not in the wrong place, okay? They’re not at heavy metal shows, going backstage and being groupies, that’d be one thing. They’re not taking advantage of anything. I mean this one hundred percent with the Pellys. They believe in this stuff, they contributed to this stuff, they put on these shows. I do respect that, I do. My concern and the reason I call them out by name in this piece is because they then moved on to use that reputation and granted it to companies that are using it for the wrong ends. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not indicting anything they’ve done in the past. I’m just saying they’ve made a choice to use their experience and their connections to put themselves in a position that, in my view, is not a place to be if you really love music.

Unilaterally, you’re not saying anything about male writers and what they’re doing. Think about how difficult it is already for women. It’s hard enough when guys don’t take your music taste seriously, when guys don’t think you know anything about music, and you come into this world, and you’re a young, hopeful, female writer being attacked brutally by some old white dude on the internet. Don’t you see how unsettling that could be?

That is a completely fair point. The people who have brought up the fact that this is already a boy’s club and ask why I’m singling out a young woman to attack on these charges when there are so many guys doing the same thing, I just went through this. I do feel like they were let in to a number of circumstances for celebratory reasons, and they have not fought hard enough, given how they’ve wrapped themselves in that DIY/punk mentality, on how that experience is now being co-opted by companies that don’t give a fuck about it. That’s the first part. The second part is that if I disagree with something a guy says about a band, I just tell him he’s a fucking idiot. I have no qualms doing that. I don’t treat women that way.

I disagree with that.

You’re free to.

That is inherent sexism. You can’t choose to treat people of different genders in different ways. Why would you not treat the Pelly twins with the same disregard you would treat a male writer if they bothered you? Why attack them with such persistence?

I don’t want to pile on an already disadvantaged gender. I feel they deserve a little more explanation for why they bother me. A guy doesn’t deserve that. If I’m going to cross the line to suggest the things that I suggested about a totally disadvantaged gender, particularly in music, obviously it’s going to be a little more explicit. I feel like I’m trying to be a little more explicit on my consternation in this situation.

Chris, the problem with that is obvious. They don’t need you to tell them that. They don’t need you to explain or talk down to them.

I know.

Then why do it? Why continue to get involved?

Because they don’t know. They’ve demonstrated that they don’t know. They don’t see how their scene feels and their excitement over Priests is being used as agents of authenticity for these huge companies. I cannot allow that. If you’re going to start talking about things like punk and DIY, then I can’t allow that. You gotta print that. You have to.

We’ll see.

I have answered more people on Twitter today than probably any writer has ever bothered with. Look at these writers. Look at Brandon Soderberg, look at all of them. When someone doesn’t like a review they write, they go, “Lol, fuck you, plfft.” One stupid tweet and they never talk to them again. I’ve gone back and forth with so many people about what I said and why I said it. I’m always available for this to the extent that I can be because I stand behind what I’m saying, and if you don’t feel like I’ve justified it enough, I answer you with further justification. They’re not putting the pieces together. It’s not even privileged information that I have, it’s just simple fucking Google searches. They’re not asking these questions. They just want to be cool and play in the scene. That to me is vain, reputation, scenester bullshit, and I’ve been fucking battling that since I was a teenager.

The merit of good writing is something I feel like you don’t really touch on. I saw a lot of chatter when this was all going down about how “technical writing isn’t important,” that simple, blind enthusiasm is what matters, that supporting and feeling and following that feeling will lead you to better technical writing, and I just completely, unabashedly disagree with that. As an editor, I would like to have good writing on our site, regardless of its subject matter or its trend factor—don’t you see that as a worthy cause to keep publications running? Can’t you see why good critical writing about music can and should exist?

You can express yourself in writing, you can express yourself in speech, you can do one better than the other, you can do both extremely well—any self-expression that brings to life the mindset and the convictions of the author in a way that is inalienably connected to the reader or the viewer, it is always worth getting behind. If everything that was published on these websites passed that test, there really wouldn’t be a lot to say. But it’s not possible because these websites are based on RPMs, rotations per minute. Good things do come out of it, sure. To the extent that extraordinary writing has occurred through these channels, I have never failed to celebrate the author and celebrate the work. But there is no way that anyone can tell me that the ratio of those significant works is anywhere near what it needs to be to justify what is going on right now. Because a) those writers are not taking home a proper scale of the profits and b) I am very confident I would have found that stuff anyway because I am an engaged reader and participant in this scene, this world of music writing and criticism, and I’m very confident I would have found something that good, we would have all found it and celebrated it, regardless of where it was published. I’ve seen that happen repeatedly. If someone writes something that is convincing or important or eye-opening for people, it gets around.

Part of the reason what I’ve said has gotten around is because it’s inflammatory, and that’s much cheaper than what I just talked about, I totally admit that. But I’ve also put forth videos that people respond to and say that this is fucking cool. You take the sour with the sweet. I’m not just going to go around always telling people about shoegaze and telling about the history of pop, if I don’t also get to get my two cents in about the rest of it. Especially when owners of these companies are buying fucking million dollar homes on the back of the 23-year-old kids who they’re paying jackshit and forcing them to write about stuff that doesn’t fucking matter because they’re being paid to get that stuff covered by advertisers and PR firms. I’m tired of it. I’m so infuriated about the stranglehold that these people have over what is supposed to be a liberating, self-controlled thing. When you’re young and you don’t have to make that much money to live, you know, you can go to the shows and talk and hang out and you have that release. You have a world that is outside the people that you have to work for that suck. But because they’re paying you to say what they want you to say, you’re somehow happy to just do that and still do the stuff outside.

Some of us want health insurance.

I’m pretty sure you can get that from Starbucks. This is not something to base your life on because when it is, your world is then getting overseen and controlled and funneled by people who you should be spending more time avoiding and fighting instead.