Q&A: Best Music Writing Series Editor Daphne Carr On Becoming A 21st-Century Publisher, What “Best” Means, And Bringing Pop And Classical Closer Together


This month marks the publication of Best Music Writing 2011, the annual anthology of top-notch scribing about music—2010 pieces by the likes of Nitsuh Abebe, Ann Powers, and Jessica Hopper are collected in the book, which this year was edited by New Yorker classical-music critic Alex Ross. Earlier this week, the news came out that this would also be the last edition of the series published by Da Capo Press. But that doesn’t mean the anthology won’t be published anymore: Series editor Daphne Carr—who’s been working on the book’s yearly issue since 2006—is heading out on her own, using Best Music Writing as the flagship title for a new publishing house that’ll be focused on writing about music. She’s launched a fundraising campaign to publish the book and get the house going; the goal is to raise $30,000, and donations over $15 will reserve you a copy of next year’s Best Music Writing. I emailed with Carr, who also worked on the recent Ellen Willis anthology Out Of The Vinyl Deeps, about her future plans, how Occupy Wall Street influenced her decision to take this step, and how music writing has turned into a conversation over the last decade.

What has the reaction to your announcement been like so far?

People have been overwhelmingly supportive of the project and there has been an outpouring of advice, offers of help, and well, the funds! I really need all of these things to keep coming, because Best Music Writing is an expensive project and should be distributed well and widely, just as all the other Best books. We’re no different, just louder!

Do you have any small-press experience? Are you working with people who do?

I’ve run an academic journal (Current Musicology) for the last two years, and that experience has prepared me for the publishing side of the project.
I’ve been involved in DIY publishing since my high school zine, and met Toby Carroll, ’90s hardcore zine superstar, the first day of freshman year at NYU in 1997. We ran a zine club together at college, and have been talking about small press publishing ever since. After that I worked as the music editor for Stop Smiling, and my great editor JC Gabel planted the idea that we should all run small presses, which he and James Hughes have now done with Stop Smiling Books.

A few years ago Toby introduced me to the Book Squared people, who are a great resource for those thinking like a 21st-century publisher, which is what I want to be. All these things plus the crisis of the book’s demise at Da Capo and my recent work in and observation of the creative momentum of Occupy Wall Street convinced me that now is the time to put all the skills together to do something new, positive, and independently produced for the music writing community. Toby has been advising me at every step, and I hope we’ll work closely together on the project. I encourage lovers of great music writing with publishing, marketing, and new media savvy to contact me.

What sort of mix are you looking for as far as the editorial board—geographical, outlet-wise (print/online/blog/magazine), and so on?

One of the things I’ve been really proud of in my term as series editor of Best Music Writing is the wider range of types of writing included under the nebulous term “best.” It used to mostly mean 3,000 word features in mainstream glossies, but now it’s expanded to include a broader survey of the way in which music is written about and discussed in the written form. Ann Powers talked about that a lot in her essay in last year’s book. Another thing I have tried to unravel with the anthology, at least a little, is the quarantine of pop from classical writing, and vice versa. That’s where Alex and I got along so well. For me, good writing can make you want to listen to anything, even total serialism. A million The Rest Is Noise fans can’t be wrong.

One of the weak points of the series has been its lack of internationalism, and that is something I tried to overcome. It’s hard to make that network all alone, which is one of the reasons I am excited about the editorial board structure. I’m actively searching for non-US/UK critics who would be willing and able to serve on the board, and I am looking to find board members who read deeply into the blogosphere and follow smart writers on Twitter. The main criteria is that the board members be widely read, passionate about music writing, and have constructive opinions about what makes for good writing today. Oh, and that they have some time to kill in February and March 2012.

How has music writing changed, in your eyes, since you first started as series editor?

Douglas Wolk said it best a few years ago at the EMP Pop Conference: music writing is now a conversation. That means no more pronouncements from the tower, and it means a lot better arguments. It also means that a lot of pieces feel like they are in media res or deeply tied into discussion, which can make it hard to figure out how to represent them in a standalone project like a book. I’d like to add a section in the back of the book that gives backstory to the pieces. These stories of the stories are a great part of the book’s readings. Publishing some version of those would give readers a lot more insight into the writer’s strategies, and would make for a more complete historical record of the year in music and writing.

Are you planning on having any online component—a running list of notable pieces on Twitter, say?

This is a tricky situation. I’ve always talked about doing something more with the Other Notables, but I never thought it was exactly fair to do in an official capacity, especially for authors of pieces that exist in print-only format. I’ve been grateful to BMW supporter Michaelangelo Matos for compiling the links. There will definitely be a much more community-oriented element to the website, as I want to have Best Music Writing as the flagship of a new, music-focused press and hope to become a space where music writers share their projects, events, and ideas in general.

How are you going to choose the guest editor?

This year I am going to approach the editorial board first, get their confirms, and brainstorm with them about possible editors. Then I will approach the folks who make sense for the title and are also supported by the board.

What’s the best piece of music writing you’ve seen this week?

You’re just baiting me! It’s obviously “Crip Life.” Last week, it was Nitsuh Abebe on Lulu.

A reading of select pieces from Best Music Writing 2011, with appearances by Jessica Hopper, Amy Klein, Nate Chinen, Caryn Ganz and others, takes place tonight at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.