A Rational Conversation: Matthew Perpetua of Buzzfeed and Fluxblog on the Evolution of MP3 Blogdom...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the Fluxblog, the influential MP3 blog created by Matthew Perpetua. Over the past ten years Fluxblog has distinguished itself not just for being the first site of its kind, but for exposing new talent and for the quality of the writing that accompanies the featured songs. Perpetua recently celebrated a decade of Fluxblog with an event at Housing Works in New York City. He was also just hired to be the first music editor of Buzzfeed. Perpetua and Ducker discussed the history of Fluxblog and how MP3 blogs have evolved over the past 10 years.
Eric Ducker: Going back to the beginning of Fluxblog and the motivation to start it, was it because there was a change in technology that allowed you do something you had always wanted to do, or did you just realize that this was now something you could do?
Matthew Perpetua: The format basically came about because, at the precise moment when it became fairly easy to host MP3s somewhere without hassle, I had a parallel desire to talk about songs, rather than albums or the larger culture of music. I was, at that point in time, some obscure person from message boards and stuff. At most, I was entertaining a small group of friends and acquaintances.
ED: How quickly did you notice that your audience was expanding beyond friends and acquaintances?
MP: Nothing was quick early on. But I would check out my traffic, and it would very gradually pick up – from hundreds to thousands, and up from there. I stopped looking at traffic around 2005 or 2006, though.
ED: When did you start noticing other MP3 blogs?
MP: This is where my memory gets a little hazy, but maybe a year or so after I started doing Fluxblog it became more of a thing. John Seroff is a better person to ask about this; he was doing a site called Tofu Hut and was much more on top of tracking all the new sites that popped up. I do remember Sean Michaels emailing me before he launched Said the Gramophone and asking for advice. He’s still at it: those Gramophone guys are the ones I look at as being the closest to doing the same thing I do, and sticking to it for the long haul.
ED: Did you have a circuit of MP3 blogs you would check out – both for the music, and to make sure you weren’t posting the same stuff as other people?
MP: I never really read other MP3 blogs, honestly. I still don’t. I read a lot of music-oriented Tumblrs and what people do at Pitchfork, stuff like that. I went through a phase when I was worried about posting what other people were posting, but eventually I just stopped caring about that, or caring about being ahead of any kind of curve. The early phases of the site were more about being on top of new things, but I’m “old” now and just focus more on writing, or whatever strikes my fancy. It’s always been sort of a diary of my musical taste, and so it just reflects that, no matter what my focus is on.
ED: I wanted to talk to you about that shift, where the site became less about discovery and more about reflection. Was that something that happened consciously, or just something that evolved?
MP: It was mostly a natural progression, but it was a response to a few things. I stopped caring about breaking anyone or anything, especially because that was so much of the focus of other sites. And within that, PR really was gaming the system and aiding this FIRST mentality, and that just was no fun. I started in a time where this thing just didn’t exist, and it really was just stumbling upon stuff around the world. A lot of the best stuff I dug up early on was just from talking to other people online and having stuff passed to me, or finding stuff in the folders of cool people around the world on Soulseek. It was also a thing of respecting labels and artists, and deciding I was going to stick to writing about things around the time people could actually buy them. Most importantly, I just wanted to get out of some weird arms race and focus on what I realized was the real reason anyone was following my site, which was the writing. If I was constantly just chasing some new thing, I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. A lot of the early writing is very vague and “hey, this is cool”; in retrospect, that makes me cringe.
I feel like people abandon a lot of career artists or ignore older records just because they are caught up in this endless cycle of keeping their ear to the ground, and I reject that. That mentality is about the ego of the writer, the institution, the listener, and is very consumerist. It’s anti-art.
ED: Do you remember getting your first email from a publicist trying to get a song on Fluxblog?
MP: Not really, but I remember when major labels started doing it. It was some Secret Machines MP3, and they hit up a bunch of sites at once. I think Music For Robots was the first to go with it.
ED: When you started being approached by publicists, did that feel like a validation of what you were doing, or a potentially corrupting force?
MP: I was always skeptical of it, and kept a distance from it. I did appreciate having people send records and MP3s. It was hard to keep up with all that, but I found so many great things that way, so that was only a good thing.
ED: How did you react when you started seeing magazines, websites of magazines, or digital music publications (jeez, that’s clunky, but you know what I mean) start to cover the artists you had featured – presumably because they had discovered them through Fluxblog?
MP: That was gratifying – not so much because it validated me, but because it meant that stuff I cared about was getting more popular. Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve only ever wanted other people to like the stuff I was into. I’ve never had the mentality of “No, it’s mine, you can’t have it.” The guiding principle of doing the site has been about sharing something and hoping other people like it. When I was in junior high, I was dubbing cassettes of Pavement and things like that and desperately hoping other people would like it too. I’ve always been this way.
ED: You didn’t even want a hat tip, or an acknowledgement it came from you?
MP: Nah. Because who is to say that it came from me? I can’t take credit for what any artist is doing. And ultimately it’s very bad for any artist to be closely associated with some blog or website or magazine.
ED: Coming from my perspective, as someone who was working at a magazine during that time, it always felt a little tricky when we ran something bigger on an artist that had been discovered from blogs, and who wasn’t really wrapped up in a label situation yet. I mean, we were discovering music from all kinds of other places – friends, DJs, managers – but it’s not like we would shout them out in a piece. And we definitely wouldn’t acknowledge the publicist who had sent a CD. But at the same time, at least for me personally, I always felt a little guilty. I didn’t want it to seem like we were ripping off the work of people who weren’t being paid for what they were doing. I think that’s partially why you saw so many articles during that era referencing “blog buzz.”
MP: Yeah, but on my end, I was discovering things from friends, managers, DJs, radio people, writers, publicists, and so on. It’s all the same ecosystem. That’s just how things get around. The most influential people in music, people never really know who they are.
ED: When did you start getting paid writing gigs because of Fluxblog?
MP: That was in 2005. The first thing I was ever paid to write was a review of The Kills’ No Wow for Seattle Weekly. Michaelangelo Matos reached out to me and asked me if I was into doing it. (That’s a great record, by the way! I really love The Kills.) I have never had a good hustle as a freelancer, and to be honest, most of the things I’ve done in my career happened because people reached out to me because I had a good reputation. So thank goodness, right? Because if I didn’t, I simply would have to be in a different line of work, and I’m not really sure what that would be. I’ve had opportunities over the years to go into the music-industry side of things, and that has never, ever appealed to me. I have entertained it, but it just seems like a drag and not the best use of my actual skills. I’d be an awful A&R person, for example. But yeah, every single job I have had since 2004 has been a direct result of doing Fluxblog.
ED: What’s your take on MP3 blogs deciding to become brands, as it were?
MP: That’s cool for them. I never really had the interest or aptitude to do that. I have always seen Fluxblog as this thing where I do what I want on my own terms, and going in that direction is giving all of that up.
ED: How so?
MP: I am friends with Scott Lapatine, and have seen how Stereogum has evolved as he professionalized it. And you know, the first thing that goes is the freedom to write about any song you want, because it has to be cleared and above-board. I had to do that when I wrote a weekly column for the Associated Press: you are hemmed in by labels and PR. That’s fine, but if I did my site that way, the majority of the best stuff I’ve done would have never happened. And then you have to build up traffic, and to do that, you have to bend over backwards to draw readers and game search engines. That would just take me away from just following my whims. I am fine with doing that stuff for jobs with other companies; those are fine compromises in a collaborative or work-for-hire situation. But Fluxblog is like my weird solo album, forever.
ED: Why don’t labels tell you to take down MP3s, even when you’re posting album cuts or stuff that they’re putting up for free download but listeners have to give them their email addresses?
MP: They do sometimes, but it’s pretty rare. The only times I’ve really had take-down notices were when I posted stuff ahead of things being commercially released, which is part of why I just stopped doing that. It just was not worth the hassle, and when those things would happen, I would sour on the artist a little bit.
ED: You said that you don’t really check other MP3 blog sites now, but to what extent do you think they’ve been incorporated into the music publicity system?
MP: A lot, but I think MP3 blogs are kind of a declining thing in general at this point. I think it’s been a little while since it was a real force, and if there’s any power now, it’s entirely in aggregate via Hype Machine.
ED: I agree. It’s also been interesting to see, especially with dance-music blogs, how they’ve almost gone entirely to SoundCloud. I don’t know if that’s because they want to stay on the good side of the labels, or if that’s just how people listen to music now.
MP: I think the technology just changed. Everyone wants things to stream now. MP3s are really old fashioned! I feel very retro for still wanting MP3s on an iPod. Somehow that seems more old fashioned than buying vinyl at this moment.
ED: Going back to the aggregate point you mentioned, and I’ve seen you discuss this before, but in the music blogs realm, there does seem to be a further distancing between posting music and actually commenting on the music.
MP: I mostly read about music on Tumblr blogs now, and there, it’s very heavy on writing: it’s more personal or big picture, more in my wheelhouse. I really like things like One Week One Band. My friend Daniella just did an amazing week of Radiohead posts where it seemed like she was actually finding new ways to talk about the most talked-about band of the past 20 years. Chris Ott did a great week on The Cure, right at the moment when I happened to be like “Hey, what about The Cure?” Joey Pheiffer, a really young guy who works for Tumblr, did a week of posts about Weezer from the perspective of someone who never listened to music before a few years ago, and fell in love with Weezer and that was his entry point; that was so much more interesting to me than someone who has always been a music nerd and is jaded by it. That’s what I look for now – I want to read about connections and impressions that aren’t about critic culture. I will always have a leg in critic culture, and I work in that field, but it’s only one part of the bigger picture of how people relate to music, and to art in a broader sense.
ED: So, you just got this new job at Buzzfeed. Do you think getting it had more to do with what you’ve done on Fluxblog, or with what you did at your last job at Rollingstone.com?
MP: Working at Rolling Stone was a big part of this because, for most of my tenure there, I worked with Doree Shafrir, and she’s the Executive Editor at Buzzfeed now. We had a really good working relationship. After Rolling Stone laid me off, she was one of the first people I told, actually. And that led to Buzzfeed reaching out to me, asking if I had ideas for how to cover music there. I came up with a proposal, and we were all excited about it, so that’s how it came together. But I think Fluxblog factored into it, in the sense that a lot of what I pitched was kinda like taking the philosophy of that site and applying it to what Buzzfeed is already good at. Fluxblog is very purely of the Internet, and so is Buzzfeed, so it flows together really well. It’s very based in having broad tastes and reaching out to a general audience, and embracing the social aspects of how music exists online. A lot of the thrust of Fluxblog over the past few years has actually been in Tumblr, which is obviously a very social platform. The Fluxblog Tumblr is very popular; I’m sure that the vast majority of my current readership only really follows what I do on that platform, and doesn’t actually read the stuff on the proper site unless I “reprint” it on Tumblr.
ED: Does it bum you out that most of your current readership doesn’t follow the mother site?
MP: Not really. It would be more intelligent of me to just have all of it go out over Tumblr, but I don’t feel like dealing with the mess that sort of transition would entail.
ED: Are you ever going to switch from .org to .com?
MP: Probably not. Someone else has that domain, and I’m too lazy to bother to go get it. I have always avoided doing the website stuff myself! The technical stuff, anyway.