The Faces Of
Pop Stops audio version
Pop Stops goes its own way
after two decades at The Star
For the past nineteen and a half years, I have spent almost every Saturday morning sitting in front of my computer, stocked with coffee, flanked by a stack of CDs, writing about my #1 love: music. Sometimes I skipped a week or tried to knock out a column on a weeknight because of holiday deadlines, and once in a while my friend and fellow musican and Star reporter Phil Rockrohr stepped in to contribute a guest column while I was on vacation. But basically for the vast majority of my adult life, Saturday to me has meant "Pop Stops."
R.I.P., The Star Newspapers
Last month, the newspaper home of "Pop Stops" -- The Star Newspapers -- underwent a merger with a sister newspaper -- the Southtown Economist.
Both papers have been competitors, covering the southern suburbs of Chicago independently for more than 100 years. But obviously, a merger doesn't happen because both papers are healthy and hale... circulation and ad sales for both papers have shrunk in the Internet age, and the new newspaper, The Southtown Star, no longer has a budget to support a music critic. All of their CD reviews are now capsule reviews pulled off the wire service from other newspapers.
Consequently, the last newspaper appearance of "Pop Stops" ran in the last issue of the old Star Newspapers on November 15. The column I'd written for November 22, Thanksgiving, didn't end up seeing print, as I received definitive word that the column would no longer be needed the day before the holiday. While I would have liked to have said goodbye in print to the readers I had shared my musical finds with for the past 20 years, in the end, "Pop Stops" left The Star and the world of newsprint without so much as a nod or a wave.
The timing of the news -- the day before Thanksgiving -- was ironic. Certainly I had mixed emotions on the day of thanks. On one hand, the sudden availability of several hours a week in an increasingly busy life seemed like a godsend.
But that night, as I stared at the shelves and shelves of thousands of CDs and LPs collected over my life as a critic and thought of the loss of access to the constant stream of new music that has enriched my life for the past two decades...it was devastating.
R.I.P. Pop Stops?
I've spent a lot of the last month thinking about what I should do with the Pop Stops website. It has grown an independent audience over its 11 years of existence independent of The Star. Plus, I've written about music for newspapers and magazines since I was in high school... I can't really imagine not doing it at all, ever again.
Yet, over the past few years my other "second career" -- as a horror fiction writer" -- has taken off. My third collection of short horror stories, Needles & Sins, was just released, and my first novel Covenant will be in stores everywhere next fall, with a second novel following in '09. I know that I probably should be using those precious weekend hours to capitalize on my fiction career, rather than spending hours on CD reviews every week.
But still... not do it at all?
A couple days ago I received a package from an artist I really respect. The envelope was stuffed with new material to review. My heart twinged - could I really just STOP writing about cool tunes, cold turkey?
And with that, my mind was finally decided.
While I am not going to look for a new newspaper to carry Pop Stops -- it really is time for me to take a bit of a rest from the weekly grind -- I will keep the Pop Stops website live and actively post new reviews. Certainly this won't be a weekly activity, but then, I never have maintained this site weekly... generally I did updates every month or so. Which means followers of the online site won't see much of a difference, though the volume of posts will likely decrease (while I may be posting every month, I won't be posting 4-5 columns-worth of material each time, as in the past).
Pop Stops - The Digital Now
I will continue to listen -- I can't NOT listen. And when things strike me, I'll post here about them. Not on a schedule, and without any of the restrictions of writing for a suburban newspaper. I'll finally be able to say exactly what I want about artists like Peaches and Genitorturers.
This site has had a strong history of visitors - 10,000-20,000 user sessions a month over the past year - so I know there is a healthy audience for this column online. I suppose, in a sense, this is a natural transition for the column. The newspaper that spawned it was ultimately killed by the explosion of Internet news sources. People read their news and reviews online now. Pop Stops has been here since the dawn of the Internet. I created the Pop Stops website (originally hosted on AOL) back in 1996 as an online library "archive" for the newspaper column. Now, it takes the place of that newspaper column.
At one point in the late '90s I was recording my voice reading select reviews from Pop Stops columns and a website called Audiohighway.com posted them. That site was an early indicator of the "podcast" craze to come, but sadly, they were a bit ahead of the curve, and Pop Stops, the audio edition, didn't last long. (Just for fun, I dug out a couple of the old reviews, complete with backing music by yours truly... you can listen to what I sounded like in 1999 on Audiohighway by following the links in the box at the right.)
At another point in the '90s, the column also ran in other print pubs, including the Cincinnati Entertainer magazine and the Wheaton Daily Journal (IL) newspaper. Revised Pop Stops reviews have also been retooled for use in a couple of "dark music" offshoot "Bug Music" and "NightSongs" columns that I wrote for horror magazines like Talebones, Wetbones and Bloodsongs. The column helped land me a job back in 1989 as an associate editor at Illinois Entertainer magazine, where I worked both full-time and as a freelancer for many years.
Pop Stops has certainly had a longer and farther reach than I could ever have imagined when I started it just out of college in the summer of 1988. And I've gotten to work with some great people at The Star over the years, from Madeleine Merwin, my editor who let me start the column, to Don Snider, who served as my editor for the past 11 years. And I've certainly had some dream experiences come out of it, from attending SXSW music festivals in Austin, TX to seeing the inside of Jim Peterik (Survivor)'s home studio to having Dennis DeYoung invite my wife and I to his house for the first listen to his musical "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." My office is filled with trinkets and cool promo items collected from the music industry over the past two decades.
For everyone who's read my columns over the years, I hope that I turned you on to something cool that you might otherwise have missed. In the end, that's the only reason I ever wanted to be a music critic -- to shout-out about music that moved me, music that I wanted to let other people know about.
I don't suppose, on some level anyway, that I'll ever really stop doing that. Right now, my two-year-old son asks me every day to play songs by "Gore Gore Girls" and "Bob Dylan" and "The Elvis Brothers" and "Electrocute." He dances to the techno track "Meet Sue Be She" from Miss Kitten, "Twisting By The Pool" from Dire Straits and "Monster Blues" from Dexter Romweber. He identifies Prince by name. He's got an eclectic palate to say the least - and you know what? I didn't force those songs on him. He chose those as his favorites from a playlist that also included Britney Spears, Ashley Simpson, OK Go, Liz Phair, Tori Amos, Shania Twain, Counting Crows and many more. The point is, I offered him as many different reference points of catchy songs as possible and let him choose what he liked. In music, as in anything else, the important thing is to have the broadest pool of choice to start from.
I wish my parents had maintained such a disparate music library. Of course, then maybe I wouldn't have developed the driving need to actively, always, seek out new, exciting music throughout the rest of my life. I hope to be able to continue to shine a light for you on the farthest, broadest points of the amazing pool that is "pop" music.
"Love My Way" or "You Can Go Your Own Way..."
I'll keep on. Pop Stops may take the cue from Psychedelic Furs and spread musical love on its own terms, or from Fleetwood Mac and go its own way... but it will keep going.
I hope you'll check back now and then, and read about what I've found.