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On June 1, Sterling e-mailed a letter to the editor of New Times L.A. Titled Holdship Sinking Ship, the still unpublished letter accused music editor Bill Holdship, who arrived last July, of having shifted the focus of record reviews and live previews to "virtually exclude artists without a prior high profile or major-label involvement."
Holdship confirmed his suspicion, Sterling claims in his e-mail, when the editor told him last fall that the order had come down "from corporate" to emphasize "national acts." Sterling charged that Holdship's "dumbing down" of New Times music coverage has rendered it "virtually irrelevant" to the local scene.
Twenty minutes after sending his letter, Sterling received an e-mail from Holdship. After noting that he had helped Sterling publicize an event last fall, Holdship wrote, "I guess you're not expecting any further coverage for ANY events that might have your name on it." Holdship called Sterling an "idiot" and an "asshole," before signing off, "Fuck you, man."
The flaming didn't end there. Over the next two days, Holdship and Sterling traded insults, denouncing each other as "unprofessional," "infantile," "elitist," "frustrated," and worse. At one point, Holdship wrote, "In the Detroit I come from, we didn't send letters to the editor or make idiotic phone calls. We invited the person outside [and] it was settled right there and then."
So is this a case of blacklisting and intimidation, or just a game of testosterone and ego? In an earlier incarnation, Sterling was an editor at Sweater, a West Coast-based music magazine that went under in 1998. He describes the bands he promotes for the Fold as "fiercely original country/punk/avant-garde/indie." (Holdship calls them "irrelevant noise bands.")
Holdship is a widely published music writer who cut his teeth at the legendary CREEM magazine in the 1970s. His gigs include seven years contributing to Spin and a distinguished stint as the editor of BAM, a West Coast music magazine that went under last year. "If anything," says Voice music editor Chuck Eddy of Holdship, "he has too much integrity."
Sterling isn't so sure. Last week, he forwarded the raging e-mails to the Voice, telling me he was disturbed by Holdship's "vitriolic" tone and by his "assumption that my complaints were sour grapes. . . . You'd think me and this guy had a blood feud for ten years running."
Mitchell Frank, a promoter for the club Spaceland, says that while New Times local coverage has expanded, it doesn't cover experimental music as much as LA Weekly (which is owned by Village Voice Media and which frequently covers Sterling's acts). But then again, he jokes, in the pre-Holdship era, New Times reviews of experimental acts were so brutal that "a couple bands broke up because of what they said. . . . I would prefer it if New Times didn't write about local bands, if they don't have anything good to say about them."
Frank says Sterling has a conflict when he complains about previews. "He says he has no vested interest, but that's bullshit," says the rival promoter, because "there's a direct monetary relationship" between previews of a live act and the profits a club can reap from those acts.
Holdship tells a different story. Three weeks after he started, Holdship says, Sterling called and "greeted me by saying the music section sucks" and that it was "way better before you got there." After insulting the editor, the promoter pitched an act, to which Holdship responded positively. Says Holdship, "I thought maybe I'll try to appease him and throw him a bone."
Having already done Sterling a "favor," Holdship was enraged to read his letter of June 1. Now he calls Sterling a "liar" and disputes nearly every word he wrote. Holdship insists that he never said that the word came down from corporate to focus on national acts, and that the paper has never done so. New Times L.A. editor Rick Barrs also denies the mainstream charge, saying just the opposite is true. "The push has been from upstairs as well as from me to go out and discover new talent," says Barrs.
Holdship denies full responsibility for the section, because he assigns features and columns, while associate music editor Dan Reines assigns previews and reviews. Finally, Barrs and Holdship deny boycotting Sterling or anyone else. "I have never blacklisted anyone in my entire life," says Holdship, and "I have no intention of blacklisting [Sterling]. If I can be accused of anything, it's giving his club too much coverage."
Last but not least, Holdship denies he is sensitive to criticism, pointing out that "at BAM, I ran letters that said I should be shot. It's the old Lester Bangs philosophy: The more people hate you, the more you can publicize yourself." But the editor does admit that he's a "loose cannon," on account of having lost "everything I owned" when his house burned down two years ago. After living through that, he says, you don't "suffer idiots anymore." He denies picking real fights, saying that he learned the technique of the verbal threat from fellow critic Dave Marsh. In hindsight, he says, "I probably should have ignored" Sterling's letter, but when he read it, it "hit a chord."