Chris Cantalini is generally a pretty unassuming presence. But he's a little jumpier today, a little restless, and for good reason. He's got a lot on his mind.
Thirty-three years old, Cantalini just upgraded from renting a place near White Rock Lake to paying the mortgage on one in Plano, where he grew up. There's work to do at the new house — and not just because it's new. "My wife's just about to have a kid," he says, before laughing and correcting himself. "I mean, we're about to have a kid." Painters and workers have been coming and going, preparing it for his growing family — a ruckus Cantalini can't avoid since he now works from home full-time.
In the simplest terms, Cantalini's a music blogger. That's been his title since late 2006, when he left his job at the mental health department of an insurance company, the most recent in a series of nine-to-five gigs that included stints as a behavior therapist, teacher and volleyball coach. But it's in his current job that Cantalini carved out an identity. The blog he launched in 2005, Gorilla Vs. Bear, is arguably the most influential and successful mostly independent site of its kind.
In a good month, he says, the site attracts a million visitors. In a bad one, it tallies a mere 800,000. If that and impending parenthood don't keep him busy enough, last spring, Cantalini, the site's main contributor, co-launched a small, mostly vinyl-focused record label called Forest Family Records. A few months later he became a founding contributor to the online music-media giant Pitchfork Media's newest band-breaking entity, Altered Zones. And, as he's done since 2006, he hosts a weekly radio show on SiriusXM's Left of Center.
Now he's squeezing something new onto his plate: a music festival. On Saturday night at the Granada Theater, he'll throw the first-ever Gorilla Vs. Bear Fest. Since its inception, Gorilla Vs. Bear has logged on as a co-sponsor for various concerts, both in the North Texas region and at festivals like South by Southwest. But this one, he admits, is a different undertaking. A more imposing one.
"There are no traditional headliners on the bill," he says with palpable concern, between bites at Whiskey Cake, a new-ish restaurant near his new home. The closest thing to a headliner is Preteen Zenith, the new band from Tripping Daisy and Polyphonic Spree mastermind Tim DeLaughter. It's a nice get, and it helps that DeLaughter went on KTCK-AM 1310 The Ticket last week to promote the performance, the band's first. But, Cantalini concedes, it's nowhere near the draw that a Spree performance would attract.
Joining Preteen Zenith at the top of the bill are Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces and Austin indie outfit White Denim, each of which boasts one of the underground music scene's most talked-about records of the first half of 2011. But neither resembles a household name, and the other performers are small too: Pure X, Grimes and Denton's own Dreamed (which, like Preteen Zenith, will be making its live debut at this show), among others.
It's sort of Gorilla Vs. Bear's shtick. The site has always been known for breaking bands. Cantalini and his partner in GVB, David Bartholow, are adamant in describing the event as a non-traditional one. Bartholow depicts it carefully as a "boutique, summer's night kind of deal."
But it still represents a major step for the site. As GVB continues its "quasi-expansion," the festival will serve as an interesting barometer of the brand's strength and pull. Not nationally; the site has already earned its recognition in music meccas like New York and Austin. The interesting thing is whether Dallas will ever notice.
The genius behind pretty much everything Cantalini does is its minimalism. He's no celebrity, not even in the small circles where he has influence. He's reclusive. He hates being photographed. He rarely agrees to interviews, and when he does, he prefers to do so via email or instant message or, in a few rare instances, over Twitter's direct messaging feature.
He rarely injects his voice or untethered opinion into the blog. He simply posts items related to musicians that his site endorses — mp3s mostly, abetted by music videos, album announcements, monthly playlists and, in what ended up being an especially inspired move, Polaroid-style picture slideshows. Intent on keeping his site from feeling like a catch-all, the content is somewhat sparse; a busy day means four posts, maybe, and the site often goes a couple of days without any new content at all. The key to his success, Cantalini says, is how carefully he curates his site, and the emphasis he places on the music rather than on his opinion of it.
It's a simple, clean objective, and it works. He's also a direct beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. He started his site using the popular early 2000s hosting service Blogger, and only recently did he switch the site off of the user-friendly Google-owned network. At the time of GVB's launch, hosting large files like mp3s had suddenly become a nominal expense. Conversely, free music file-sharing sites such as Napster, Limewire and Kazaa were dropping off the map. Almost instantly, Gorilla Vs. Bear and a handful of other blogs (Aquarium Drunkard, My Old Kentucky Blog, etc.) were thrust into the spotlight.
The sites represented a new frontier for fans of underground music, destinations where new songs could be found and easily streamed. That's an important factor, Cantalini stresses, because it helped listeners develop their own opinions about the music they were consuming. But mostly it was about the free downloads he offered in tandem. Don't kid yourself: The reason even major labels now sometimes offer new singles as free downloads is because of sites like Cantalini's, which helped popularize the concept, and which were supported by the independent artists and labels that saw the potential benefits for their business.
And that's just the marketplace. GVB and sites like it have also thrown a drumstick into the machine of traditional music criticism — something Cantalini is kind of proud of.
"When you were a kid, how many times would you read a review in Rolling Stone or Spin, and you were like, 'Holy shit! This sounds amazing!' and you would go out and spend all your money on it?" Cantlini asks. "And you're 15. You don't have much money. You get home and you listen to it, and it's just terrible. It's like, 'What the fuck was this guy talking about?' It's obvious, with the way the Internet works, what my role is. People don't have to rely on opinions any more."
Yet his readers have plenty of faith in Cantalini's opinion — or at least, as he puts it, in the potential of any band that he supports. Like record labels, boutique music magazines and zines before them, music blogs such as Gorilla Vs. Bear — there are only a handful that even compare — largely succeed because their readers enjoy their general, nebulous aesthetics. Readers make it a regular habit to check for whatever's hottest or, maybe more important, whatever's the brand-spanking-newest. Plenty of influential types do so, too; you'd be hard-pressed to find a traditional music journalist who doesn't regularly name-check Gorilla Vs. Bear, crediting Cantalini for exposing new acts. That provides more hype for GVB, and helps grow its influence.
The site's reputation is so great that another influential blog, Hipster Runoff, once half-jokingly began referring to an entire crop of new music as "gorillavsbearcore." Cantalini's was considered an important, credible byline to be recruited by Pitchfork when he joined the Altered Zones team. And when Pitchfork asked the Denton-based Weekly Tape Deck to join Altered Zones, it was perhaps the best example of GVB's pull: Gorilla Vs. Bear is so relevant that, by linking to a then-new Weekly Tape Deck and later co-launching Forest Family Records with that site's founders, Gorilla Vs. Bear made Weekly Tape Deck relevant too.
Last year, GVB went even more mainstream when The New York Times approvingly highlighted its visual aspects, charmed by its use of the decidedly dated Polaroid medium for its slideshows. That's where Bartholow, an area brand manager and Polaroid-obsessed photographer, factors in. Six months or so after GVB's 2005 launch, he approached Cantalini about contributing to the site — mostly, Bartholow says, because he was a fan. Now he's a partner in the site.
"Chris is the best colleague I've ever had," Bartholow says. "And he's as much my beacon for music as he is anybody else's. He's just fantastically unrelenting about what he likes."
And what Cantalini likes continues to yield more opportunities. He has the SiriusXM show. ("Once the radio show came about, [my parents] began to understand what I do," he says.) There was a stint working as an A&R consultant for record-label giant Sony BMG. And then there's Buzz Media, the Internet media conglomerate that publishes Stereogum, The Hype Machine, Idolator, Pop Matters and Absolute Punk. Last year it bought a stake in GorillaVsBear.net, agreeing to sell ads on his site for a share of the profits and, down the road, a potential — but, Cantalini stresses, unlikely — buyout.
Still, his daily schedule, he says, remains the same as it was when he started the blog. He checks his email, checks his RSS feed and posts an item or two, if he's presented with news he finds interesting or a song that rings just right in his discerning ear. Beyond that, "I've got three dogs and a wife," he says, shaking his head in disbelief at the idea that his family is about to add another member. "That takes up a lot of my daily schedule."
Still, Gorilla Vs. Bear is casting a wider net than ever these days. Because it can, and because others are willing to invest in pretty much everything it does.
The truth about Gorilla Vs. Bear Fest is that it was neither Cantalini nor Bartholow's idea. That credit belongs to Ryan Henry, a Granada Theater talent buyer who says he came up with the concept while checking out the blog's showcase at SXSW — a show that featured a number of the same performers that will make up Saturday's bill.
"Chris and David are both guys that everyone sees as tastemakers and having a great ear," Henry says. "The thought was just, 'Why not?' They're already showing us the diamonds in the rough. Why not have them do it in a live setting?"
It helps that the theater has regularly worked with Cantalini and Bartholow in the past. In addition to the theater advertising on GVB, the site has in turn "presented" a number of Granada shows — promoting an upcoming show booked at the theater by slapping its name on a poster and presenting its readership with free tickets. In turn, the site receives access to cover the show from an exclusive backstage vantage.
This weekend's event, while still booked by the Granada staff, comes with even more involvement from Cantalini and Bartholow. But only so much more. While the bill is fully GVB-approved, it isn't GVB's money that's bringing them in. That burden belongs to the Granada. The blog, Cantalini says, only stands to make money if the show does exceedingly well.
Granada Theater owner Mike Schoder says that for his venue to make its money back on its investment in the talent, he needs to sell out the 1,100-seat house. Schoder says he's OK with that, but cautiously admits that ticket sales haven't been what they'd hoped.
"Indie shows like this are typically a walk-up crowd," he says. But even if they don't walk up in droves, he says, "I want to support these guys." He sees his investment in the blog's event just as he would an investment in any up-and-coming act playing his theater: Lost money now means earned money later.
"They really are kind of like a band," Schoder says. "I mean, they certainly have a distinctive sound that they support. Really, the type of music that they're into is some of the most beautiful music being made right now."
Schoder swears that he's happy simply with the event's existence. Henry, Bartholow and Cantalini all say the same, and all parties involved are already saying they hope it will continue down the line — maybe as a two-stage event, maybe as a two-night one.
If, that is, this one goes "well enough." Problem is, "well enough" seems to only point in one direction: a sold-out show. And no one is willing to commit to that happening just yet.
There's also the question of whether Cantalini will show up. Among his worries about the festival — is the $30 door price too high? Will enough people show up? — is whether he'll be there to "cover it." He's worried that his wife will go into labor on or before that day, forcing him to prioritize one baby over another. In the three-way fight of gorilla, bear and first-born, first-born wins every time.
Cantalini's absence would go largely unnoticed; most Dallas music obsessives don't know what he looks like, because Gorilla Vs. Bear isn't popular in its hometown like it is elsewhere. Aside from a few acts with area ties that the blog regularly covers — DeLaughter, Erykah Badu, Dentonites-turned-Brooklynites St. Vincent and Neon Indian — it really doesn't touch the Dallas music scene.
"The Dallas music scene is not something we have a perspective on," Bartholow says. "We're basically on an island."
Cantalini admits he hardly pays attention to the area's live music. He rarely goes to shows, and when talking about a local show he once presented with St. Vincent, he confuses the name of the venue, mistaking the Double Wide for an Austin venue called the Double Down.
Few of Cantalini's readers realize that Gorilla Vs. Bear is Dallas-based; knowing that Cantalini lives in Texas, most assume that it's based in Austin. When Sirius approached Cantalini about hosting his weekly satellite radio show, the program director was incredulous when he found out Cantalini was based in Dallas. He'd assumed that was a joke. He'd assumed that Cantalini's blog, like so many others, was based in Brooklyn.
"No one expected a site like ours to be from Dallas," Cantalini says with a shrug. "It'll be interesting to see how Dallas responds to the festival. Because, in Austin, this show would already be sold out."
He's probably right. A boon for rock, electronic and pop acts on the road, Dallas, despite a much-improved reputation in recent years thanks to entities like the Granada and Tactics Productions, hasn't been a major player in the bubbling indie touring market for years. Even sadder, Cantalini says, is that he doesn't think that the seven out-of-town acts on this 10-act bill would've chosen to tour through Dallas if he hadn't asked them to.
So he knows he's faced with an uphill battle. He's already seen it first-hand: Dallas audiences aren't always receptive to what he's pushing; that St. Vincent show at the Double Wide in 2006 drew maybe 10 people, he estimates.
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"It would be arrogant to say that we're trying to expose Dallas to these bands or to expose these bands to Dallas," he says. "We just reached out to bands we liked. These bands aren't on tour. They're all coming here for a one-off show. And that's all I'd expect, till Dallas proves that it can support acts like that."
He won't be upset if a sell-out doesn't happen, he says, but the words feel like a front. If Cantalini can't draw 1,100 people to see a lineup he helped handpick in his site's hometown, he'll have some legitimate questions to ask. He could have, after all, thrown this festival in Austin or New York, where he's attached his site's name to showcases over the years and never had trouble drawing.
But even if the festival left the metroplex, it's hard to see Cantalini and his blog going with it. The roots, the mortgage, the kid on the way — the draw of Austin or Brooklyn just doesn't seem strong, or necessary, enough.
"I love it here," he says. "Why would I ever want to leave?"