"The point of this blog isn't just to be an asshole, although that is a big part of it. I'm going to go to some local shows, listen to local CDs and write about them...Sometimes I will be mean to the bands that annoy me. Sometimes I will be nice to the bands that I like. But I will keep my identity secret. And since I'm not involved in the local 'scene' that doesn't really exist, and surely am not friends with anyone in a local band, you can be assured that personal politics will never get in the way of my main goal, which is to feel superior to everyone in town." --We Shot J.R., January 5, 2006
The room "J.R." writes his blog posts in is the new sanctuary of modern music criticism. There's an unmade mattress--no box springs, no frame--against the wall. Beer cans and cigarettes litter his desk. The walls are barren, but CDs and records fill the room, lit only by the glow of a computer screen.
It's here that I hand J.R. a CD so he can burn himself a copy--a thank-you gift for letting me come to his place near downtown Dallas. I wheedled to get an invite; this is the first formal interview ever conducted about his Web site (weshotJR.com), a modest--and wholly anonymous--daily screed about the ups and downs of bands, musicians and albums from Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton.
local music blogs
I had thought he was anxious because he wanted to keep his identity secret. ("J.R.," if you haven't guessed by now, is a pseudonym.) That's only part of it. "It's partially a fear, for sure, because I don't want to have to deal with people asking questions about it all the time."
People asking questions all the time? Isn't this just some dinky little Web site about local bands? Sure, and that's the real reason he's not keen on my showing up at his apartment. J.R. prides himself on his utter detachment from the world of local music, as he should: The site now racks up hundreds of weekly hits because music fans in town trust his voice. If he wants to trash a Dallas staple like the Deathray Davies, then whammo, the Deathray Davies suck, so sayeth J.R. If he loves a band, then it's a wholly genuine sentiment from an Everyman, not a journalist, a practiced critic or, worst of all, somebody with an agenda.
Since J.R.'s first post in January, his site has become a local stomping ground for musicians, writers and angry, anonymous posters who rant even more than the creator himself. Even better, he's but one guy in a rapidly growing collective of local music Web sites that scrutinize Dallas' music scene the way it deserves. National media ignores our bands--heck, local media does too. But people like J.R. --including Dallas hipsters, 40-something moms and a few in between--are making themselves heard in the most fierce, amateur and independent ways possible...much like the best bands in town.
You might expect Chris Cantalini to be relaxed, even happy, to talk about his shining reputation in the blogging world, but the 28-year-old who operates Gorilla vs. Bear (gorillavsbear.net) is nervous. He's sitting in the computer room of his East Dallas home, fidgeting with his pants leg and hurrying his answers. Between questions, he blurts things like, "I'm not gonna give you what you need, am I?"
Cantalini is a polite, unassuming and modest guy; born in Detroit and raised in Plano, the UTD psychology alum holds an office job at an insurance company's mental health division, and in recent years, he's also been a behavioral therapist and a middle school volleyball coach. He's not interested in making a big deal about himself, and he's a little overwhelmed that there's even this much to talk about: "No one that I work with knows what I do all day, that I blog and read blogs." But his alter ego, Gorilla vs. Bear, has quietly and quickly become one of the nation's top MP3 blogs--a Web site filled with hand-picked songs available for free download, the modern version of the tastemaker DJ with occasional news and quips mixed into the music.
"I get 5,000 to 6,000 unique visitors a day, which is pretty crazy," Cantalini says. "When I really think about that, it's insane. The fact that that many people read what I'm saying...which is basically a bunch of bullshit about whatever I'm doing, like the Mavericks or whatever."
Idle basketball banter isn't why they're coming in droves; his musical taste is. The man sifts through countless albums and MP3 downloads to post around 10 songs per week on his site, which he began in March 2005 simply because of boredom. Cantalini wanted to hip his friends to the music he downloaded during free time--"I just thought most of my friends listened to stupid music, watched bad TV, listened to crappy radio"--and a free BlogSpot account let him do just that.
During his high school basketball days, Cantalini fell deeply for "golden age" hip-hop (Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul), which became his gateway to all genres of underground and independent music through college and beyond. These days, GvB's variety, which stretches from country to dance and in between, is guided by only one unofficial rule: Smart wins out, whether because of inventive remixes, poetic songwriting, lush orchestration or simply a perfect level of poppy bombast.
"Basically, it's a visceral feeling," Cantalini says. "If I feel like something will resonate with people...if I like something this much and it resonates this much with me, then I might as well recommend it to everyone else."
And his GvB stamp of approval isn't just dependable--in many cases, it's a Midas touch. Many of his picks for the SXSW '06 Music Festival, such as Austin's Pink Nasty and Sweden's Jose Gonzalez, played to packed houses and rave reviews.
Cantalini's biggest tastemaking success came courtesy of Minnesota's Tapes 'N Tapes, whose discovery by online magazine Pitchfork Media and eventual signing to XL Recordings was preceded months earlier by Cantalini's kudos. In fact, he praised the band's self-released debut The Loon so often on his site that he convinced them to stop in Dallas on their way to SXSW for a special Gorilla vs. Bear showcase.
One week before the show, Pitchfork gave the group a rare "Best New Music" tag, sending their cred through the roof. Cantalini is reluctant to take any credit for the band's success. After all, he found the band through another national blog, Music (For Robots) (musicforrobots.com), and if Pitchfork hadn't posted the high rating, he's unsure that his numerous praise-filled posts about the band would've tipped the scales. But because the band's first post-Pitchfork concert was the Cantalini-curated gig, a blogging star was born: "That's what made people link them with me, which is fine with me. I'll take it."
Fans' growing reliance on MP3 blogs makes sense when you consider the alternatives. Only four major record labels remain (Sony/BMG, Universal, Warner and EMI) after corporate mergers in the past 10 years. Federal radio deregulation has allowed companies like Clear Channel and Infinity to buy, run and homogenize an unprecedented number of stations in every major American market. MTV has aired plenty of non-music entertainment for years, but recently even its sister "music" stations MTV2 and VH1 have slashed music content to make room for MTV's reality spillover.
The romance alone makes for a good story--small upstarts stand up to the bloated, outdated mainstream and help struggling bands with unprecedented word-of-mouth publicity. But Gorilla vs. Bear is an anomaly; most of the "big" blogs touted in City Pages, Rolling Stone and other major publications have roots in New York or Los Angeles, cities with no shortage of local music coverage and hype. In fact, people often assumed that the "Dallas" tag on the site's sidebar was a joke--and one of those people was his new employer.
"Gorilla vs. Bear is one of those great blogs that, despite the fact that it's just based in Dallas, most music fans and readers of music blogs know about the site," says Sirius Satellite Radio's Rich McLaughlin. Among other duties, he programs the network's indie-rock station, "Left of Center," and as a huge fan of MP3 blogs himself, McLaughlin debuted a new daily program three weeks ago, "Blog Radio," in which Web site operators sit in as DJs for two hours every weeknight. The current rotating hosts are NYC heavyweights Brooklyn Vegan and Product Shop NYC...and Cantalini, who records his material in Dallas and e-mails it to McLaughlin to be aired every Tuesday at 9 p.m.
"I don't think Rich knew I was in Dallas," Cantalini says. "When I finally called him back, he was like, 'Where do you live? We have no idea where. It says you live in Dallas,' but he didn't believe that." It's a big reason for his interview apprehension; GvB rarely ever talks about the Dallas music scene.
That makes his few local kudos all the more important. If he picks a band and promotes it repeatedly on both the site and his radio show, he's not just being a local cheerleader. He means it. The hometown tastemaker has recently given his attention to talented local acts such as St. Vincent, Tree Wave, The Theater Fire and--most noticeably--Midlake, who were ranked the most blogged-about band in the world by thetripwire.com as of June 5 (and yes, Cantalini was among the first to leak the Denton band's stellar new single, "Roscoe," to the entire world).
If someone killed off all but one modern rock radio station and all but one prominent independent music publication in New York, there'd be an outrage. Los Angeles? Wouldn't happen. But the major market of Dallas has done little more than shrug its shoulders at the collapse of weekly newspaper The Met and rock stations 97.1 The Eagle and Q102. Since those changes, Dallasites have bemoaned the local scene, pointing at high-profile closures in Deep Ellum and declaring the city a musical goner.
Dallas is a peculiar music market--the contrast between its incredible, hype-worthy music and its small-town publicity is staggering. Truly, it's the ultimate place for music Web sites to make a difference, and if Cantalini is too modest to appreciate his own relevance and importance here, other local bloggers will happily do so. Or at least their kids.
"Ashley's favorite site in the world is Gorilla vs. Bear," says Cindy Chaffin, referring to her 16-year-old daughter. "She voted for GvB at the Observer Music Awards and had no problem telling me that." Chaffin laughs, sipping on a glass of Chardonnay at the Barley House's patio. She's possibly the hippest mom in town--the founder of Texas Gigs (texasgigs.com) and winner of this year's Best Music Web Site award from the Dallas Observer--and her two teenage kids still don't give her a break. "Chris [Cantalini] made a statement one time that my blog gave him sort of--I don't know if he was being honest--but gave him an incentive to [start the site], and I was like, 'See, Ashley?!'" She laughs again. "They don't think I'm cool at all."
No person is a more unlikely local music superfan than Chaffin, a fact she proudly admits. For most of the Richardson native's life, music was only a passing fancy, and she attests to seeing only two concerts in the '80s and '90s while she worked as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. "I was one of the Dallas people I'm trying to change right now," she says. "I was hanging at Beau Nash, Highland Park Yacht Club, Nostromo, all those places to see and be seen...That's what I fight against now."
In 2000, Chaffin's life changed with the least rock 'n' roll event possible--the purchase of land in Glen Rose near the Brazos River. Husband Scott bought up land that just happened to house a little music festival, Raz on the Braz, thrown by Fort Worth's Terry Rasor. Since the Chaffins allowed the fest to go on, Cindy was forced to attend and listen to acts such as Billy Joe Shaver, Rusty Weir...what she called "Texas country red dirt stuff."
At that 2000 fest, Chaffin was tired and ready to leave the festival when Denton's Doug Burr and the Lonelies took the stage. Their country-tinged pop-rock was nothing like the rest of the schedule, and Chaffin was so moved and inspired by the notion of an indie-rock band that she introduced herself.
"They were young and hip-looking and they caught my attention," Chaffin says. "I'd had just enough to drink to go up and say, 'Man, if y'all ever need any help with booking...' I had no idea what I was talking about. And they took me up on it! What were they thinking? And what was I thinking?"
But Chaffin stuck to her offer, even though she didn't even know about a single live music club in town, and learned about local music entirely by booking the band for more than a year and attending every Lonelies concert. During her trial by fire, she saw a void. Information was out there for struggling DFW/Denton bands that wanted to enter songwriting contests, contact record labels, promote shows and book their own gigs, but why not collect that information on a single Web site and give music fans some CD and concert information along the way?
Chaffin's husband, who runs his own lifestyle blog (thefatguy.com), encouraged his wife to do the same; blogs, after all, are easy enough to manage for even the most computer-illiterate (and after failing a CompUSA training course, she needed all the help she could get). Thanks to his help, in October 2002, Texas Gigs went live.
The site began with a specific niche, as Chaffin's coverage tended to favor singer-songwriters and alt-country musicians, certainly the ones she fell for while booking the Lonelies. But as the years passed, Chaffin's labor of love became a safe haven for just about any band around town. And with the Observer being notorious for its crushing criticisms (former music editor Zac Crain's "Sack of Kittens" column about the worst in local music peaked during Texas Gigs' lifespan), Chaffin's open, most-anything-goes attitude was warmly received by bands and fans alike.
For years the site was run on little more than goodwill and PayPal donations from readers (a chance appearance on the Food Network's Food Nation a few years back didn't hurt). Chaffin never draped the site in ads and pop-ups or hawked Texas Gigs merch, yet somehow, her site persisted in possibly the roughest period of time after the dot-com crash: "People would donate every once in a while. Not a lot, but that was incentive enough--somebody cares about this."
Over time, Chaffin was doing more and more for the site--interviews, bootlegged concerts, on-site podcasts--to continue her mission of giving local music novices (and other 40-something women) access to concerts and bands that they may never otherwise have seen. The mission was noble, but the amount of work was finally outpacing the PayPal donations. In November 2005, a lucrative offer popped up. Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News (pegasusnews.com), was getting closer to launching his Dallas-centric Web portal, complete with news and entertainment resources that, unlike those offered by traditional papers and Web sites in town, would be open to public comment and user feedback. Orren's a poker buddy of Scott Chaffin, so he soon met Cindy.
"They asked me to join them, put all my content on the site and help them build the site," she says. "They're not in the business of supporting a local music scene; they're in the business of launching a hyper-local media site, but they needed a product to show off the bells and whistles so they could attract investors."
In exchange, Chaffin would benefit from a huge, free overhaul--new design, more bandwidth, more resources for audio and video recording and a team of interns to assist with the site's concert calendar. "Maybe it's the first chance to make some money too," she admits. Texas Gigs merged with Pegasus News, and Chaffin's labor expanded almost immediately.
Orren and the rest of the Pegasus staff lined up some fantastic promotions--in particular, their Mavericks Playoff Theme Song Competition has attached their name to the team's most successful run in franchise history--and the listings section became a local music Wikipedia of sorts, full of profiles for every venue, concert and band in town. Last month, the site received awards from the Dallas Observer and Editor & Publisher and celebrated getting more than 200,000 hits in a month--quite a load of traffic for a site whose scope is incredibly narrow.
Texas Gigs had never been bigger. Chaffin was recording and posting hours of multimedia content unmatched by any site in town. But on May 26, she went silent. Her daily updates were frozen, and the rest of the Pegasus crew didn't explain why. Almost two weeks later, she announced her departure from Texas Gigs. She had sold the domain name to Pegasus News and was starting a brand new site called the Fine Line (finelinelive.com) with local booking agent Amanda Newman.
"Just in the last 24 hours, I've gotten to be OK with it," Chaffin tells me only days before publicly announcing the deal. "I've taken Texas Gigs as far as I could. It's in a place where I don't have to sit around and do concert listings all day; there's a place for that now. We want to focus on quality and lots of audio/video content. Branch out a little bit into art and photography, cover a cultural scene."
Orren wasn't surprised by the move. "We'd always known that as we got closer to launching Pegasus and Texas Gigs became a sub-site, we'd re-evaluate the relationship," he writes in an e-mail. "At the six-month mark, Cindy decided that was the time to have that conversation. And she felt like she wanted to go back to playing in her own space, with her own identity."
In the weeks since, it's hard to figure out who's the winner in the split. Though Texas Gigs still has a huge, unmatched listings section (which Orren says counts for 70 percent of traffic), its news reports and blog posts are missing Chaffin's commentary and charm. Meanwhile, the Fine Line may have restored Chaffin's "identity," but the lack of Pegasus News' polish is showing in the new site's earliest days. Two weeks ago, Orren said he'd link frequently to the Fine Line, but in a recent Texas Gigs report about the closing of Deep Ellum venue the Texas Tea House, Chaffin wasn't given credit for breaking the story days earlier on her own site.
As tense as that split may seem, it's downright tepid compared with the flame wars that frequently erupt among music blogs, and it ain't got nothin' on We Shot J.R.'s almost daily blasts of flame from J.R. and his fans alike. Even a few of those have come from Scott Chaffin.
In February, J.R. condemned Dallas music fans who would rather blindly "support the scene" than face up to how bad many local bands are; in that post, Cindy Chaffin and Texas Gigs took a few licks for her open-arms stance: "It's a waste of time to go to a site that you know is going to promote any and everything that is happening on any given day." Scott hopped on to "support" his wife by calling the anonymous author a "puss" and telling him to "put on your dunce hat and sit in the corner." (Cindy is level-headed about the exchanges: "I don't care about that stuff. It's fun, and I have respect for what [J.R.] is doing. When Scott jumps in, I don't even know he's done it. I have no control over the man.")
It's hard to deny the car-wreck appeal of seeing anonymous fever sweep the site's comment boards, as fans have been inspired by J.R. to don virtual masks and spew ridiculous levels of ire in all directions (ours included). But flame wars are a dime a dozen on the Internet, and J.R. doesn't have a following simply because he's pissed or pissy. For one, his "it list," a daily--and highly consistent--series of concert and DJ recommendations, has made the site the best source for last-minute local underground concert announcements.
The kids come for the concert tips, but they stay for the stories and essays. J.R.'s treatises about DIY venues like Metrognome Collective and Eighth Continent, bands like Eat Avery's Bones and Teenage Symphony and the general state of local music are well-constructed and insightful, rather than a batch of knee-jerk insults. The wisdom on the site is all the more surprising when you learn that J.R. started the site because he "really didn't know anything about Dallas music at all." But then, that's just part of the appeal. J.R., in spite of jokes and slams that make him out to be an elitist, never slaps readers around with the idea that he's a "better fan" because he's a Dallas music veteran; he's the opposite, and his anonymous blog has allowed him to loudly proclaim the kind of every-fan sentiments that his readers share.
J.R. is adamant about how he's depicted in our interview. He asks me to turn the tape off when confirming what will and will not be revealed about his life, and he doesn't leave much on the record, though enough info comes out--he dates himself somewhat when explaining his near-daily posts about the Dallas Mavericks ("I was one of the people booing Dirk Nowitzki in 1998 at Reunion Arena") and tells long, drawn-out stories about tormenting fratty high school classmates from his old Dallas area suburb. And, of course, there's no shutting him up about music.
"I got into Pavement at a really early age and punk rock, like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, all that stuff," J.R. says. "I just happened to pick up on Pavement, which led me to Yo La Tengo, which, you know, led me to a lot of early '90s stuff that I liked. That always seemed like a really exciting time. Early '90s, when all those indie labels started becoming cool and butt rock got shot out by Nirvana--that was the big cultural change. Not just music, but everything."
A few years later, when the market was inundated by what he calls "Brit-pop and a bunch of fucking Prodigy videos," J.R. turned off the TV and radio and spent college listening to '60s country and folk such as Bob Dylan, Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. J.R. admits that the two bands that made him care about modern rock again were the White Stripes and the Strokes--a surprising admission from a guy with an anti-hipster streak.
"Hearing White Blood Cells for the first time, you know that first song..." He sings a line from "Dead Leaves on the Dirty Ground" in a terrible falsetto, eyes clenched. "I was hooked in 15 seconds. That never happens to me with music, ever...The Strokes weren't like that, but I'd heard enough buzz about them to say, 'OK, I'm gonna listen to this five times and give it a real shot.' Eventually, I started to really, really like them."
Years later, J.R. says, because he was "bored," he opened a free BlogSpot account as a personal experiment; to learn about Dallas music, he'd write about it and maybe get a dialogue going. It wasn't until a week or so into the site that he realized he was a loner--Texas Gigs existed as what he called a "blank slate" for local music, and MP3 blogs were all over the place, but he couldn't find a single place on the Web that attacked and dissected Dallas music...or, at least, none the way his has turned out.
The site has taken large strides toward legitimacy in a short span thanks to high-profile interviews with bands like Liars and the New Year; the crowd of known locals that patrol the site's fire-filled comment boards help as well. "A lot of the people on there are like, 'Man, fuck indie pop, fuck Sam, fuck the Observer, fuck whatever else,' but they all take it seriously," J.R. says. "They obviously take you and all those people seriously enough to get really pissed off at you."
You'll find Cindy Chaffin and Chris Cantalini there as well--Dallas' big three bloggers post plenty on each other's sites, and they thrive, more than anything, because of that community spirit. It's the perfect trifecta--Texas Gigs' massive size and optimistic attitude, WSJ.R.'s witty vitriol and GvB's authoritative single-picking power reach different kinds of local music fans, from novices to cynics to die-hards. They stir the local music conversation--and draw national attention--in ways that standard forms of media haven't done for Dallas since the scene's major-label spike of the early '90s.
It's tempting to label these local music sites as leaders of an anti-corporate movement, which each blogger acknowledges to at least some extent. "A lot of times, I question the longevity and relevance of corporate-controlled media," J.R. says, "when it comes to covering a subculture that has a very deeply imbedded anti-corporate streak to it." And surprisingly, the mom of the bunch has the best perspective: "My kids don't listen to the radio," Chaffin says. "They go out and find the music they want to find, and they do it on the Internet...they wouldn't be caught dead at [Edgefest]."
Garrison Reid, the blogger behind Indie Interviews (indieinterviews.com), a Dallas site that posts audio interviews with local and national bands, openly admits to anti-corporate motives: "I'm trying to give Dallas an awareness of national bands that are not on the Edge," Reid says. "The Morning News doesn't pay attention to it, and if it's the Observer, it's just text."
But even though the big three have complaints about traditional media, they don't admit to revolutionary motives. "I wasn't on some grand mission to save Dallas music," J.R. says. "I would just like for Dallas, because I live in Dallas, to be fun. I would like to go out to cool shows, dance parties, whatever, or even to house parties, and meet interesting people, hear good music, feel some kind of sense that something interesting is going on in my youth."
Surprisingly, this sort of motive is the one thing J.R. and Chaffin have in common. "I've made little to nothing over all these years...the tradeoff to me is the music," she says. "The music, it's a gift. And the people have been wonderful that I've met. I have a lot of really good friends now that have come out of this."
And Cantalini handles his recent spotlight awkwardly: "It's weird when someone comes up to you at a show and says, 'I'm a big fan of yours.' Dude, I'm probably exactly like you. We listen to the same shit; we go to the same shows. I just happened to start a blog at a time when people were really getting into that...I'm not a fucking journalist."
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In the traditional sense, none of them are. But Dallas bloggers are the new CD critics, concert recommenders and even news tipsters, earning their J-school degrees one post at a time. They're making some money in the process--Cantalini's traffic fuels banner advertising that "pays a few bills," and his Sirius gig has led to thoughts of working for the A&R division of a record label. And Chaffin's tenure with Pegasus News resulted in a minor stipend and the cash sale of her domain name. She hopes her learning experience with Pegasus will result in eventual cash at the Fine Line. But nobody's quitting their day job just yet. Each blogger I spoke with had to arrange interviews around their work schedules, and other than Texas Gigs, nobody's getting enough hits to survive solely on advertising.
"You can take the route of taking it to the next step and saying, 'How can I translate this kind of ethos into something that can actually be a successful business?'" J.R. says. "What steps would you have to take to do that? Or you could just say, whenever I grow bored with it, fuck it. I'm just gonna quit doing it. I don't really know which is the prudent choice."
J.R. talks repeatedly about the weird seesaw he stands in the middle of--in one direction, he could devote even more time to the site as a financial project, complete with WSJ.R.-themed concerts. In the other, he could click a few buttons and say goodbye to the blog altogether. I'm compelled to ask whether the thought of being found out makes him bend toward the latter.
"No, because I honestly, genuinely don't know that many people in the Dallas music community," J.R. says. "Actual musicians. Most of the people I've said shitty things about, if they found my name out tomorrow, they wouldn't have any fucking clue who I was anyway, so it's like, 'All right, dude. I'm the dude from Dallas. Good luck finding me, asshole.'...and even so, I would continue to deny it until the end of time. As ridiculous as it would become, I think that would make it a new sort of fun."