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It’s remarkable that when you review something, for instance music, that you are questioned when you write something negative, and hardly when you write something positive. In that case you just get the applause. But as soon as it’s negative, it becomes personal, which, perhaps, is a logical thing. The music you have just criticized is something very dear and very personal to its creator. By letting it out, release it, the creator is subject to criticism. But quite soon the arguments are personal too: what gives you the right to call yourself a reviewer? You didn’t listen properly, or once, or worse, you didn’t listen at all. What kind of speakers did you use; or did you just listen on your computer speakers. It gets worse if the critic is known to dabble himself in music creation. Then it easily boils down to: your music sucks too. I heard all of this, in lots of variations, like a fine piece of minimal music, for as long as I can remember.
I started Vital in 1986. It was the successor to a small fanzine on Industrial music in Dutch and mainly about Dutch and Belgium’s musicians. It was called Nul-Nul (zero-zero) and four issues were made. I paid for the printing out of my own student allowance and I was increasingely frustrated about the fact that shops would take 5 or 10 copies, but never paid for them. I changed that when I started Vital. Two folded pieces of paper, black and white and with the express call: if you like this, copy it yourself and spread to friends. I calculated at one point – pre-internet not a very easy thing to do – that some 8,000 copies were probably made. In 1995 I was working for Staalplaat, a record label out of Amsterdam – and Vital was a little bigger but still ran by the same, no copyright! reprint now! idea. The day Staalplaat got internet, was the day that I started to think about Vital Weekly. Like a weekly newsletter filled with reviews, hot on the heels to the latest new releases. Being at the core an alternative independent label and distributor surely helped. Now, May 2013, I am still doing Vital Weekly, getting to issue 900 this year. While I write the main bulk of reviews, various people have done the same over the years, some for a shorter period, and some already for a long time, such as my improv writer Dolf Mulder, noise critic Jliat and Niels Mark for all things dark and rhythmic. None of these people, myself included, would easily call themselves a critic. Or a journalist for that matter. I’d like to think of these people as enthusiasts about new and strange music, music that you don't read easily about in other magazines, although probably with blogs and such like that has changed. Vital Weekly doesn't have any advertising and everything is still paid for out of my own pocket. Costs might be time to write the reviews, to pay for server space, work to do a podcast since issue 480, postage to mail our promo's and such like. The no advertising policy is a very strict one: by not having any, we feel we are not obliged to any favors to record labels, musicians, festivals or anyone else. We can write what we like, and, equally important, by treating this in this way, labels (etc) can decide wether or not they want to send any material for review. If in any way people feel offended then simply stop sending promotional material. Some income is generated by offering the review copies for sale (which doesn't equal selling, mind you; the risk is entirely with us. We did the review, didn't care if it was positive hoping to sell a copy, and then waiting if someone wants it. Nor is there any direct link from Vital Weekly to where-ever it is available), which allows me to do this as a full time job, although working in the 24-7 supermarket stuffing boxes would bring much, much more money.
As music enthusiasts we don't have the scientific skills to review music, not even musical skills per se. I for one can't discuss music in terms of chords, modes and such like, but the experience of listening for close to thirty years of experimental, strange, exotic music should buy me a little credit. If I start listening to something new, with the intent to write about it, I may consider a few things. That always includes such questions as 'do I know the musician in some way', either personally, or from previous work, and if so, which previous work was it. I may consider a few other things, like 'how often does this musician have a new release', and 'in what way are these releases different, or not'. When listening I start to think about the review, almost immediately. Is what I hear something entirely new for this musician? There is more to consider: the mood I’m for that day, the amount of things I have to hear (or want to hear). It boils down, in the end, to: is it good in the sense that I like to hear it, or is is good in the sense that I hear something new? One doesn’t exclude the other. Sometimes something sounds like something I heard before, and that’s great, because it’s excellently made and I’d like to hear it, and sometimes for the very same reason it might be dismissed as a copycat. Sometimes you hear something that is utterly strange and new (keep in mind: for the reviewer; it might be nothing new in a whole different parallel universe of music production I may not have heard of), but still is hard to pin down in terms of ‘liking’ and ‘not liking’. Usually its the same with movies: if you feel like ‘I didn’t get this, but I’d like to go back to it and see what I missed’, then you are usually onto something good.
Frans de Waard