Published on May 14th, 2014 | by Kevin Lawson0
33⅓ creator David Barker talks about the series past, present and future
The future of music criticism looks bleak. Whereas once we used to rely on the advice of professional writers to help choose the albums we bought, now we make up our own minds by listening to music for free on services like Spotify. It’s a shift which has rendered the opinions of critics obsolete and means that we are only interested in the backstory’s of the albums we already know we love. For the average listener the information on the albums Wikipedia page will be enough, but for real fans and fanatics, there are the 33⅓ books.
The series began in 2002 at Continuum publishing (which was bought by Bloomsbury in 2012) when editorial director, David Barker, moved from England to New York City. “I ended up spending a lot of time in bookshops, in Barnes and Nobles and found myself gravitating to the music bookshelves and being massively disappointed by what I found,” explains Barker, who also cites the BFI Film Classics book series – in which single movies are dissected in detail – as an inspiration for 33⅓. “You’d get the occasional brilliant piece of writing, but the vast majority of it was just biographies or memoirs of famous bands that spent 10 pages talking about one album. I thought that some of these records are very important and brilliant works of art and deserve a much closer analysis.”
Named after the RPM speed at which LP records are played on a turntable, the first tranche of albums covered by the series were chosen by Barker at the desk of his pokey Manhattan Office. “I put together a list of about 60 or 75 records that I thought people would want to write and, more importantly, read about and emailed it to experts I thought would make for interesting writers; John Peel, Mark Radcliffe and a raft of others.” Explained Barker, who has to date published over 90 short books in the series, with a further 14 planned for release over the next two years. “An awful lot of people got back to me and said how about another album which I hadn’t thought of. It quickly became clear that the list could easily be 600 strong.”
With interest high, Barker began the process of commissioning authors – who have included established critics, fiction writers and musicians – and in 2003 the first book in the series was released. Focussed on Dusty Springfield’s 1969 album, Dusty in Memphis, the book was swiftly followed by further entries that covered The Kinks, The Smiths and Pink Floyd, leading to an assumption that Barker was trying to create a canon for rock music. “I genuinely don’t know enough about music to be able to say: ‘I’m creating this canon.’ I have no interest in that. It was quite a deliberate decision to cover Nirvana’s In Utero because the pressure that they were under to come up with another album as successful as Nevermind made for a better story and on some levels we’re trying to avoid making stereotypical choices.”
In 2005 Barker began taking open calls for proposals, developing a process in which any potential author must justify the reasons why an album deserves to be included in the series. This less than obvious approach to commissioning has produced some interesting results. Whilst it’s unsurprised to hear that series second bestselling book (ironically) focuses on 175 million album selling Canadian singer Celine Dion, the most popular book is about the comparatively unknown, Neutral Milk Hotel. Their 1998 album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, met with mixed reviews and poor sales upon release but has since become a cult classic. “It’s a record that youngsters who like a certain type of music gravitate to when they reach their late teens,” explains Barker, as he recalled the author’s original proposal. “They wrote, ‘I don’t just want to tell the story of this album, I see this as an opportunity to tell the story of this scene.’ There was this very distinct scene in Athens, Georgia in the mid-90s where there was a collective of people, the Elephant 6 label who were living life almost as a commune and making art for quite specific reasons. The book was a really nice chance to tell that story.”
Providing such stories is something that Barker believes resonates with the modern audiences looking for contextual information about their favourite records and could be a way to reinvigorate music criticism. “I’ve always had this fantasy of publishing a book about an album on the day an album came out.” Says Barker thinking out loud, “to have an author actually working with the band as the album is created and talking to them, I think that could be a really interesting thing outside of the obvious sales and marketing hook. It’s just an idea at the moment, but I really think that the 33⅓ model has the potential to broaden out in that way.”