Departure of peerless music critic latest sign of collapsing news industry
A 30-year-old article from the Chicago Tribune hangs on my wall. The headline reads “The Greatness of Green.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how it felt to be 21 and see my band validated in my hometown’s newspaper of record.
But it may take slightly more imagination to understand the impact that story’s author, pop music critic Greg Kot, has had on the cultural life of Chicago. Kot’s decision to leave the Chicago Tribune after 40 years – 30 as its chief music critic – has hit the Windy City hard.
“Greg Kot has been the most important Chicago music writer for two decades, and an essential national music critic,” said Nan Warshaw, Founder of Bloodshot Records. Warshaw told Rock and Roll Globe, “Not only is he a dedicated music fan, he’s enriched Chicago with the caliber of his writing. He didn’t just cover huge pop stars, he regularly wrote about emerging and great local artists; I saw him at a small venue covering The Waco Brothers after having reviewed a Lady Gaga arena show the same night.”
Even calling Kot a “music critic” seems reductionist. Because he’s not just a great writer, not just the most knowledgeable music guy in the city, not just a co-host of a public radio show. But also because Kot is incredibly humble and self-deprecating and just a very nice guy, so it might be tempting to underestimate the impact this guy has wielded.
The best way to understand just how big a deal it was to have Greg Kot get behind a band is to look at the trajectory of those acts he championed, such as Wilco.
Or take the Mekons. The Leeds bred art rock collective relocated to Chicago at some point in the 80s and Kot made explaining the quirky outfit a personal mission. In two classic sentences from a 2015 concert review, he artfully summarized the band’s entire career:
“For the Mekons, it has been a jungle of bad record deals, improbable detours and bleary commitment to a style of music that has no home. For power-brokers in the music-industry who like rules and categories, the Mekons have been an inconvenience.”
It’s a beautiful piece of writing – crisp, authoritative, enthusiastic without becoming fanboy. Unfortunately, the loss here isn’t just about one irreplaceable critic. The reason Greg is retiring at age 62 is not that he’s out of gas or that his ears have left him. That’s clearly not the case, as his riveting and spot-on “Top Chicago indie albums of 2019” list just revealed.
What’s happening here is so sinister, so dangerous, so goddamn depressing, that it’s not hyperbolic to call it a threat to democracy.
Kot leaves as one of the most high profile takers of the buyouts being offered by a newspaper whose tumult over the last few years has debilitated the once proud newspaper to the point that its reporters are actively trying to recruit new owners. What happened at the Chicago Tribune, and at newspapers all over the country, is that a controlling stake has been purchased by out-of-town venture capitalists, Alden Global Capital. In denuding the Denver Post, Alden has already demonstrated that it is more concerned with cash flow than graceful prose and deep knowledge of subject matter.
I get that these are businesses. I own media properties and they really cannot survive without a viable business model. But I simply can’t accept that there’s no one in Chicago who is wealthy enough to endure making only a small profit in exchange for keeping alive the city’s one remaining real newspaper.
Because journalism really is special. It really is different. I’m not looking to denigrate anyone’s chosen field, but there’s one profession that’s mentioned in the United States Constitution. Not in the footnotes, either — in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights. Without a free press we haven’t got a democracy.
It’s worth noting that another high-profile journalist who took the buyout is Carmél Carrillo, the Tribune’s senior arts and entertainment editor. She is married to Jim DeRogatis, who co-hosts Sound Opinions with Kot and is himself a great rock critic. DeRo, presumably because of its own budget woes, no longer works at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he broke the series of stories that led to R. Kelly’s arrest (and thus prevented who knows how many additional victims).
It’s nice that Chicago has two terrific working rock critics. But there should be a dozen earning a decent middle-class existence and enlightening fellow Chicagoans about the cultural world around them.
The loss is already being felt by local artists.
Janet Beveridge Bean, the drummer of Eleventh Dream Day and co-founder of Freakwater, told Rock and Roll Globe, “Greg has said he started writing about music after seeing an EDD show and knowing it would never get reviewed. So he decided to put pen to paper and do it himself. He wrote a review and submitted it to the Trib, and some 30 years on we are all so lucky he kept on going. Greg is without a doubt part of the heart and soul of Chicago’s musical community, a community truly like no other today and that is, in part, because of him.”
Jeff Lescher, founder of Green, is another musician who benefited from the careful considerations of the dean of Chicago music writers. Lescher told Rock and Roll Globe, “Greg Kot’s transcendent value can be summed up in two words: fearless and fair. While other music reviewers pay homage to the cool artist of the minute, Greg appraises only what has specific meaning for him, for music-at-large, and for the average music lover. The reader benefits from his fearless disregard for record company pressure and even more for his being able to pursue an honest assessment of the artist, refusing to buckle to the diabolical allure of being ‘in with the in crowd.’ Fair in that he pursues the music he finds fascinating, whether that artist is being heavily promoted, a local no-name band, currently out of fashion, or simply not what the critical pack is lapping up.”
VIDEO: Sound Opinions with Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis “The Future Of Music”