Culture watch

Last year, the Xpress editors decided it would be a dandy idea to create a none-too-serious column about local arts, music and culture. To their eternal regret, they placed it in my hands, virtually guaranteeing a steady stream of e-mails complaining about my dismissive tone, sarcastic comments and general reluctance to toe the party line about how great everything in Asheville is because geography creates talent.

Which, in a way, was the whole point.

You see, it’s easy to buy into the myth that everything local is automatically great. It’s a wonderful vision—this unusual mountain town where you can throw a rock and hit a genius every time—but the reality doesn’t live up to the hype. Someone had to be the devil’s advocate, and as someone who has watched this town change and grow over the past 15 years, I’m glad it was me.

But all things change.

While it’s one thing to play the unflinching cynic when you’re a lowly reporter, it’s a little harder to justify when you step up the ladder. Last month, I was named the new arts and entertainment editor, and one of the first problems that came up was how to tactfully handle the local-arts scene (and is easily bruised egos) while still writing a column that ocassionally dissess the same.

After all, as an editor, I’m supposed to be something of an ambassador, right? The last thing I’d want is for some band, artist or theater group to be reluctant to e-mail or call me in my editorial capacity because they’re afraid that the Culture Watch troll will answer. Not exactly an encouraging image, is it?

It begs the question: Is Culture Watch worth it anymore? Should it be killed swiftly, or continued by another’s pen? If killed, what should replace it?

I’m turning the question over to you, the readers, and in true Culture Watch spirit, I’m warning you in advance that this isn’t a democracy. I’m looking for the best ideas, not the loudest and most annoying voice. E-mail with your thoughts, complaints and suggestions.


Before you comment

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54 thoughts on “Culture watch

  1. Great topic…..thanks for seeking input.

    Like many I too have oft been frustrated by the “dismissive tone, sarcastic comments” which prevailed in Culture Watch. I agree that sugar-coated flowing praises lose their weight when applied to each and every artists in town, But…. I feel there is a wide gulf between constant sarcasm and constant gushing of unmerited praises of everything Asheville.

    The challenges is finding people who are objective, skilled in written communication, balanced in their assessment, able to offer objective criticisms supported by something other than personal preference, and willing to accept the second-guessing and criticism which is bound to follow any critical review.

    Is Culture Watch worth it anymore? I think the column has run its course and the time is right to replace the column with a more balanced approach.

    It’s entirely possible to be objectively critical without resorting to biting sarcasm at every turn……..but I wouldn’t dare apply for the job myself

    Thanks again for asking…..
    I trust and hope you’ll get some very creative and rational responses rather than the typical irrational blather which saturates so much of the public comment on other Mtn Xpress articles.

  2. Susanne Hackett

    Hi Don, and good point. I agree:

    Steve, Thank you for asking your audience for feedback about Culture Watch. I would ask that the MountainX consider including a column that focuses on true art critique, based in something other than personal opinion. Critique is essential to maintaining the integrity of the arts and, if done legitimately, can be an essential element to improvement for artists, Culture Watch, on the other hand, offers unsubstantiated criticism.

    It takes a lot to open up to comments and I appreciate your willingness to do so on the public pages of the MountainX. I have forwarded your column to other artists to ask for them to send their feedback to you as well.

  3. Justin

    Maybe you can have a POINT / COUNTERPOINT. Somebody defending a certain aspect of local culture and somebody dissing on it. Let the people speak!

  4. Unsubstantiated criticism? If a band or an artist sends a press release, flyer, or CD to a newspaper, they have thrown open the gauntlet. If you only want your work to be praised, and you don’t can’t tolerate being criticized (sarcastically or not), then maybe, you shouldn’t show your work to anyone but your parents.

    As an artist and a musician, my desire is to expose my art to as many people as possible. I do this because I belive in it’s value. So I tend to be thankful for any press my work gets at all. And yeah, it hurts when someone says something mean about my art. But I don’t think we, as artists, should get to decide how our work is spoken of, becuse I don’t think we’ll hear anything honest if we filter all of the incoming information.

    It’s kind of a George W. Bush sort of mindset. His handlers keep all protesters at bay, and he doesn’t read the paper. So how will he ever know how angry people are with him? He still doesn’t seem to have a clue about it.

    Is our art so fragile, that it can’t stand up to a little sarcasm? If it can’t, then maybe it wasn’t any good to begin with. Toughen up, Asheville. The outside world can be mean.

    (end of rant)

  5. In response to Brent, I would say the issue is not whether art can stand up to sarcasm nor whether artists can tolerate being criticized.
    Many (probably most) Asheville artists appreciate and solicit critical review and feedback.

    Other media are now offering coverage of the local arts and entertainment community (for example Rapid River, Laurel, WNC Magazine, Take 5 etc) New media (such as The Asheville Music Scene) are starting to enter the the local Arts and Entertainment media scene and thus Mtn Express is appropriately asking itself and it’s readers what role Mtn Express should play in covering local arts and artists.

    I think the issue which Steve raised with his recent “Death to Culture Watch” article is:
    Has the Mountain Xpress now grown in scope and stature to the degree that more well-founded and reasoned critical reviews of local artists are possible instead of short barbed-arrows of sarcasm?

    Many other cities and towns have critical art reviewers in local media who offer rational reviews which neither lavish unmerited praises OR condescending personal likes and dislikes.

    I would contend that Asheville is more than ready for serious and well-reasoned critiques of the local arts and entertainment scene. The question then is, Is Mountain Xpress the appropriate media to offer such balanced reviews?
    As a loyal Mountain Xpress reader, I would off a hopeful ‘yes’ to that question. With the recent change in editorship, now is the perfect time to raise the bar and leave mere sarcasm for the countless “I Hate This, I love That” bloggers and barstool crtics !!!!!

  6. I think a journalistic criticism is nothing short of the art of conveying one’s personal likes and dislikes.

  7. Oh, and as far as what would be a nice feature to replace “Culture Watch,” I suggest interviews. A rotating cast of writers (so it doesn’t get stale) interviews local artists, actors, musicians, whatever. The feature can be brief, to make room for future Clay Aiken articles, and it should always be mindful to dig deep into the local scene, to make sure that everyone gets their fair share of potential exposure.

    I think it could be very entertaining and informative, if done well.

  8. I think criticism, when done correctly is a great avenue for bitter jerks like myself to force their opinions into people’s hearts and minds.

    That’s why I deserve a column.

  9. Don: “Has the Mountain Xpress now grown in scope and stature to the degree that more well-founded and reasoned critical reviews of local artists are possible instead of short barbed-arrows of sarcasm?” isn’t actually what I was asking.

    The simple version of my question is: Does Asheville need snappy culture writing or not? If not, what does it need?

    Leaving aside those readers who don’t actually like what Culture Watch is (or rather, was), I’m hearing that there needs to be some kind of regular space for arts reporting of a more serious nature. I’m all for that.

    But I’m not at all convinced that something like Culture Watch isn’t called for, just too keep us all from buying into our own boosterish hype.

  10. sasquatch

    I have to chime in here, because this conversation is driving me crazy. I’m going to try to reign myself in, and I’m sure I’m going to get some nasty comments back–consider it my salute to Steve, whose writing I absolutely adore.

    I love snarky writing. I love it, and I get it from other sources because the MountainX only has two pieces of snark per week: Steve’s column and the Disclaimer, which, while snarky, doesn’t achieve the same deep cynic’s point of view that I’ve appreciated from Culturewatch. Now, that said, I’ve been a victim of the column’s biting commentary. Steve has certainly said some more than snarky things about my band in the column, but more often than not, he’s right, and I appreciate his honesty, because as a publicist I sometimes get tired of all the glowing words that people have about entertainment in general and this town’s entertainment community specifically, because for the most part, it’s a bunch of thinly veiled exaggerations; the truth is that artists struggle here, massively.

    A column, from my experience working in print media, is not about objectivity, nor is it about journalistic reporting, nor is it about truth and justice. A column is about giving a person, someone who is likeable enough to keep people reading, a venue from which to sound off about stuff that is relevant to a specific segment of readers. Does Culture Watch appeal to the mass population? Of course not. But I’m 30 years old, I manage a band, I’m a publicist and I see a ton of live music–usually with nobody in the room, because the “vibrant arts scene” here couldn’t be more undersupported by residents and tourists — and frankly, Steve’s column spoke to me, loudly and accurately. I’m sad to see it go.

    Look, the world isn’t a nice place, it’s not well-reasoned and it’s not balanced. I challenge someone to tell me about their last break up, and how nice, well-reasoned and balanced it was. Why can’t we have one little tiny corner in the paper that reflects that? Some bands suck. Some events suck. Some movies suck. Nobody’s getting mad at Cranky Hanke for saying that he didn’t like “Daddy Day Care.” Just because something was birthed by the hallowed womb of Asheville doesn’t make it good. And if people who were “victim” to a Culture Watch criticism were to listen and consider that there might be an element of truth to it, perhaps that artist would grow a little and become better, and receive a nicer, less snarky comment next time.

    I suggested to Steve via email that Culture Watch be replaced by a Daily News “Page 6” style gossip column. The Daily News is one of the largest daily papers in the world, and Page 6 is likely the last place that a celebrity wants to find him or herself critiqued, because it’s generally harsh. But people are literally addicted to that column. It’s sticky. It resonates with people on a level where they feel like they know something private about a celebrity and it makes them feel important when they tell everyone around the water cooler on Monday morning. It is neither balanced, nor well-reasoned, and as far as unsubstantiated–of course! But it’s a column, and it’s fun, dammit.

    I really don’t fit in in this town at all, I have to say. All this positive talk is making me tired. Give me a sarcastic, unreasonable critic, subject to his tastes and whims any day and save me from all the flowery fakeness. If you want to talk to me about this, try coming out to see a band or go to an art show or see the improv on Friday night and find me there with the handful of other people who actually participate in the things that Culture Watch critiqued. Then I might have an easier time swallowing “balanced.”

    *steps down off of soap box*

  11. “Give me a sarcastic, unreasonable critic, subject to his tastes and whims any day and save me from all the flowery fakeness.”

    May I suggest me?

  12. “I think criticism, when done correctly is a great avenue for bitter jerks like myself …”

    Jason Bugg is the Guiness Extra Stout of bitter commentary. I’m more like the four-hour-old Waffle House coffee brew of cynicism.

  13. sasquatch

    I can picture it now: Jason Bugg as “man about town,” jetting from club to club over the weekend in a seersucker blazer and arriving fresh at his desk monday morning with a righteous hangover, a Starbucks latte and a blind item about who was “canoodling” with who at Bobo Gallery on Friday night, and who was drinking what at a private table at, uh… Table.

    I vote for more use of the word “canoodling” in the column. Can I get an Amen? Let’s make “canoodling” the “hott” with two t’s of Asheville…

  14. This town is freaking built on a foundation of “flowery fakeness.” In fact, it might also be it’s largest regional product, as well.

  15. You have no idea how relieved I am that at least a handful of readers “got” what I was doing with Culture Watch. I was afraid all the well-intentioned jerkery was nothing.

  16. It’s not like you’ve never written a positive review for anyone, Steve. I think I’ve seen one or two…

  17. sasquatch

    If we lose that column again (I think it was the Junk Journal, which was also a welcome respite from the straightforward A&E;writing, before it became Culturewatch), I’m going to raise my own private brand of hell, which probably means I’ll get drunk with a friend and complain about it for a few hours. I feel strongly that “snappy cultural writing” needs a place in the paper.

    Besides, if folks don’t like it, it’s pretty easy to avoid–it’s not like it takes up pages and pages of real estate.

  18. When was the last time I even reviewed something? Summer of 2004, back when I was writing Random Acts? Looking at it now, Culture Watch has mostly been composed of groaning at press releases and surfing MySpace for band news. Very in-depth reporting on the whole.

    I agree with sasquatch, though. If you think Culture Watch was too harsh, you really need to get out more. The Table Of Contents in Entertainment Weekly has more bite.

  19. Hmmmm….read a few Daily News pg 6 columns online today…..interesting stuff…..that style of writing might be a nice addition to the paper…..

    To quote(misquote) former presidential candidate Lloyd Bensen “I’ve read Entertainment Columns in Daily News……Culture Watch is no Daily News style entertainment column”

    Hmmmmm……maybe what Mtn Express needs is a new “snarky column” which makes “snappy comments” about selected articles from the previous weeks edition of MX……critquing local MX writers who take themselves too serious and need to be brought down a notch.

    Maybe a “Culture Watch” Watch column…..or a Shanafelt Watch column……

    Oops….I guess that’s one of the purposes of the comments feature ….which we are using for this discussion…..Here we can all be snarky and snappy about Culture Watch

    Maybe us Culture Watch critics are being too harsh on ol Steve….

    What do you think……are we being too cynical and biting about cynical columnists …… thankfully I know Steve can take such mildly snarky comments…..

  20. sasquatch

    Don, I think you’re on the right track, but if you check the definitive snark handbook, you’ll find that one of the oldest snark tools in the book, the ellipsis, only has three dots.

    However, now that I’ve offhandedly insulted you, I have to say that I think a critique of the previous week’s news is actually pretty brilliant. It’s very Daily Show meets insular mountain city. I would love to see some of the mayor’s comments, or perhaps those of any of the Xpress writers’ comments, satirized in the small space alloted to this particularly drama-fraught column. So Don, I salute you for crossing the streams; may total protonic reversal treat you kindly.

  21. shane

    This is a direct response to your call for suggestions from this weeks Culture Watch section. First, congratulations on your promotion. Frank Zappa said once that music writers were people “who can’t write, know nothing about music, writing for an audience that can’t read.” While I try not to share that degree of cynicism about humanity, I think it is a funny quote, and often seems true. Except for the part about the audience. I think there is an audience that wants engaged and interested writing about music. But, all too often, music writers try to be ironic and cheeky, and are too self-referential to do informative and aesthetically interesting journalism. Now, that does not mean you should kiss everyone’s ass in your reviews, previews, features, and blurbs. (Thank you “devil’s advocate”.) But, it would be nice if the writing engaged the music on its own terms. Now, I know that this may require a little work from time to time, and its easier to resort to sarcasm and dismissiveness about something that you’re not into, don’t know about, think is pretentious, etc… But, let’s face it, we all can’t know everything, and there are an infinite array of tastes out there. The “if it sounds bad, it is bad” ethos about aesthetics may hold for each person individually, should one be so pretentious as to think his is the final word, but probably it is not the most useful attitude for an “ambassador”. Fashion writing, humor and gonzo journalism have their place, but maybe people who write these styles should not be the music writers. Unless they know about and, more importantly, LOVE music. In a nutshell, that is my suggestion to you. How about you continue the culture watch section with a writer who loves music–many different kinds of music–and who wants to learn more about it? I think you are a good writer Steve. So, that part of the FZ quote doesn’t directly apply in this situation. But, it seems like you don’t really care that much about music from what I’ve read over the years. Maybe I’m wrong. The Xpress succeeds in so many sections, but the derisive tone often found in the music writing, the music-as-novelty attitude, the marketing of some idealized Asheville (perhaps unwittingly) has made the music writing lag far behind the rest of the paper in terms of quality content.

  22. “or a Shanafelt Watch column …”

    Nothing would make me happier. But feed my ego at your own risk.

    Actually, didn’t Dr. Filth already do that in the Asheville Disclaimer in 2003? He gave me quite a friction burn, if memory serves.

  23. Sasquatch writes:
    “if you check the definitive snark handbook, you’ll find that one of the oldest snark tools in the book, the ellipsis, only has three dots. ”

    Here I beg to differ.
    I personally feel that using more than 3 dots in an ellipsis is my way of expressing myself in a creative fashion rather than following the well-worn path of all the 3 dot ellipsis dinosaurs of the world…..I call it the “Ashevillipsis” and I’m deeply stung by your criticism…..

  24. Susanne Hackett

    In a community (Buncombe County) where the arts have a 65 million dollar impact on the economy (Americans for the Arts, 2007), why not do something more purposeful on the arts on the pages of the MX?

    A column in MX that might be very valuable to the arts and the larger community might include one based in legitimate critique or criticism (written by someone who has knowledge of the art that is being critiqued or criticized).

    No ass kissing necessary, just legit, substantiated critique/criticism.

    By the way, press releases, of course, will have good things to say about those being promoted by them. Being in the arts or in business, etc., many know that promoting ones self (at least initially) is how the word gets out–marketing and press coverage often make the business or the artist succeed (unfortunately not usually the quality of the product).

    Writing about press releases is a pretty pointless concept, but it could make for a cool next movie for Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy.

  25. Susanne Hackett

    Steve wrote:
    You have no idea how relieved I am that at least a handful of readers “got” what I was doing with Culture Watch. I was afraid all the well-intentioned jerkery was nothing.

    It’s not that I don’t get what you were trying to do Steve. It’s not that difficult of a concept to grasp: publicly slamming people (with personal and unsubstantiated comments) who work really hard to build an audience and support for their art forms. It just wasn’t funny or necessary.

  26. Susanne:

    Either get thicker skin, or get out of the business. Part of putting yourself out there is being willing to take both the negative and the positive, which Steve doled out all of time.

  27. About that “65 million dollar impact on the economy”: You should really look at that number and its source with a more critical eye. Study the methods used to gather that information, and the reasoning used to come to that particular conclusion. I think you’ll find, as I have, that it’s not exactly what it appears to be at first glance.

    For what it’s worth, based on your comments, I really don’t think you “got” Culture Watch at all. Do you really think I slammed people? I’d say I was mildly sarcastic and unconvinced at worst.

    Please share some examples of the worst offenses. I’d be quite interested to know which specific blurbs veered into “personal and unsubstantiated” commentary. (To my knowledge, I’ve never made a personal attack on anyone, although I have made professional criticisms many times.)

  28. Being an artist has always been about presenting work to people who will judge it. I frankly would not want to live and perform in a world in which my work was not open to being panned. It would be like permanent kindergarten or purgatory. Yes, it hurts deeply when someone pans your work, but when being panned is a possibility, getting a positive review is that much more meaningful.

    I don’t think it is wise as an artist to hang your hopes or career on any one critic, one publication or one city. It is also a mistake to allow one columnist’s opinion to be the single gauge of your value as an artist, or the surrogate judge of what you should listen to or buy, whether it is positive or negative.

    As an artist, I am sensitive to what people think of my work. How could I not be? My music is my soul work. However, I have found that when I try to perform or write based on seeking approval or acclaim, what I create becomes contrived. Yes, I’ve gotten my nose bent and my feelings hurt, but I always come back around to this: The key is to look as objectively as possible at criticism and have the courage to believe in yourself and your artistic vision. Look for constructive criticism that you can use to grow in a way that is consistent with your artistic vision. Lastly, many of us are musician-entrepreneurs. The key is to find your market and work it at the grass roots. That’s what will get people to your shows and sell your CDs.

    As a consumer of music, I have to listen to it to decide whether or not I like it. No column is going to convey anything but one person’s opinion of what that person heard.

    So Steve, my response to you is, don’t publish a sanitized, barb-free column. I say that realizing that I may get snagged on those barbs but I much prefer that possibility to the vanilla alternative.

    To my fellow artists, I encourage you to believe in your own vision and communicate on a grass roots level with people whose tastes are consistent with that vision. We have the technology, from MySpace to to affordable production and countless other tools.

    And to Mountain X readers and consumers of music, I urge you to listen and judge for yourself. You don’t have to buy a CD to hear it. Go to an artist’s MySpace page or web site. Check iTunes or Rhapsody. And most importantly, get out and explore the live music scene. No, to use the analogy I read above, you can’t throw a rock in Asheville and hit a genius, but there are many talented original artists here. I know this first-hand because I spent more than one year working with Jenny Greer to put on the Brown Bag songwriter contest at Root Bar. It was a rare Monday night that we didn’t have truly remarkable talent come across that stage. There is an unusually high concentration of considerable talent here. Do yourself a favor and get out and listen regardless of what is or is not written!

    That’s my take.



  29. Charlie Flynn-McIver

    “About that “65 million dollar impact on the economy”: You should really look at that number and its source with a more critical eye. Study the methods used to gather that information, and the reasoning used to come to that particular conclusion. I think you’ll find, as I have, that it’s not exactly what it appears to be at first glance.”

    Please elaborate.

  30. Charlie: The survey double-dips with other, non-arts related economic factors in Asheville.

    $48.4 million of that $65 million estimate comes from “event-related spending” by the estimated 1.2 million arts-loving visitors and residents of Buncombe County. The result is an indirect estimate of what various visitors to downtown may have spent on “hotels, restaurants, parking, souvenirs, refreshments, or other similar costs” while possibly attending an arts-related event. That’s an awfully large number backed by an equally large set of assumptions, and it isn’t easily verifiable. It’s an educated guess, and one that is entirely open to criticism.

    Meanwhile, less than $17 million is actually coming from actual arts spending, the majority of that coming from the budgets of Buncombe County’s nonprofit arts groups. This number is verifiable, and I have no reason to believe it inaccurate. I’m not saying that that AAAC wasn’t on the right track when they compiled this information for the Americans for the Arts. Actually, I’d say that they did a pretty good job, given the parameters of the survey.

    My point is that the $65 million isn’t some chiseled-in-stone fact. It’s not.

    I will readily concede, however, that the Americans for the Arts study is a far more accountable survey than the 2004 one by HandMade In America.

    Suzanne: “Writing about press releases is a pretty pointless concept …” Actually, the vast majority of all arts coverage everywhere is pretty much writing from the contents of a press release. This is also true even when there’s an interview with the subject of the piece, as it’s still a single-source story. To be a truly balanced piece in the journalistic sense, you’d have to also interview someone with a differing point of view. Very few publications run this kind of content in their blurbs, typically reserving “real” reporting for feature stories.

    Here’s the problem with that for arts blurbs: “According to a press release, John Smith claims to be releasing a new album, ‘Dance Like John,’ later this month. Local record store owners declined to comment about this, as the shipments of new records from Smith’s home-based distribution service have not yet arrived.” It practically leaps off the page, doesn’t it? Even when you add punchier phrasing (“Wowsers, guitar maniac Johnny Smith is about to drop a new one on us later this month!”), it’s still kind of lame.

    This is why so many mainstream magazines, alt-weeklies and similar publications keep their arts blurbs short and snappy. It’s a repackaging of material that, in and of itself, isn’t always deeply or immediately interesting to the general reader. Culture Watch is only different in that I’m admitting how I got the information.

    Don: “Culture Watch is no Daily News style entertainment column …” That’s right, and be glad it wasn’t. I’m more than capable of writing highly acerbic, violently sarcastic and bitterly judgmental content. We live in a small town, however, and I seriously doubt people around here would be able to handle it. Look at the highly mixed reaction to Culture Watch, which I think is actually rather tame column by any rational standard. Heck, it’s not even half as harsh as the AshVegas blog.

    Believe it or not, I really do love the creative community here. I have since the first moment I saw a poetry slam at the Green Door in 1992. But as much as I care about it, the last thing I’m going to do is pretend that it’s something it’s not. Hence the cynical sarcasm, the doubt in the surveys, the general lack of boosterish language in Culture Watch and the reluctance to embrace the Asheville-as-talent-vortex mindset.

    Getting back to the point at hand, love it or hate it, Culture Watch is DEAD. It’s over. Done.

    But I’m still looking for something to replace it with. Shane makes a good point that we need something a bit more seriously critical, and I buy that.

    So give me some suggestions. Are there any local arts/music/theater writers or bloggers you’d suggest? (Jason Bugg has already thrown his hat in the ring.) Do you think it’s fair to, as Culture Watch did, lump all the cultural news into one big pot, or should it be divided somehow? If there could only be one new column topic, what should it be? Visual arts? Theater? Music? I’d love to hear a few more good ideas.

  31. Orbit DVD

    I say call it like you see it Steve. Be critical, but don’t be Stomp and Stammer.


  32. sasquatch

    Steve, as for ideas, the one thing that Culturewatch always hit upon–voice and tone aside–was items that were significant without being “mainstream,” and perhaps that’s one of the things that might be considered salvageable from the dying embers of the column’s legacy. There’s also a certain bravery associated with putting an opinion on paper that may or may not be shared with the community at large, and I think that’s also something to be valued and saved.

    It sounds like “the people” want someone who’s a bit less acerbic, and while I think that people are missing the subtle and highly intelligent humor that was inherent to your commentary, and may have not ever really received a true panning from a media outlet, it’s hard for me to let go of the idea that all art criticism needs to be fair and balanced. Art is so subjective, that concept just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Especially when you consider the state of most media outlets in the US right now, especially those dealing with entertainment. Let’s look at the situation you’re dealing with when you’re trying to get your press release ‘regurgitated’ (Steve speaks the truth about this, by the way, I’ve seen writing from my press releases printed verbatim with another writer’s name attached–it’s tne nature of the beast) in the pages of, say, Rolling Stone or Relix, or even Stomp and Stammer, since someone earlier brought that rag up. Your first stopping block is that if you’re not advertising with them you’re automatically at the bottom of the pile. If your publicist isn’t buddy buddy with one of the editors and doesn’t send a $75 bottle of champagne around the holidays, you’re at the bottom of the pile. If you’re not already pre-qualified in the minds of the editors as being “writeworthy,” you’re at the bottom of the pile. If at that point someone there actually listens to your stuff instead of directly chucking it, and decides that they like your independent record or press release enough to write 50 words about it (or, simply reformat your press release), you are still subject to space issues, and if a last minute ad comes in, you get the boot and you’ve missed your chance. And all of this is predicated on the idea that you’ve actually had the resources to get your info out 6 to 12 weeks in advance of the actual event you’re pitching, because it will sit there and marinate on an editor’s desk for weeks.

    So, you know, it’s a pretty tough world out there when you are trying to get people to notice you in the papers or whatever, and the thing about Culturewatch is that it payed attention to stuff that would never have made the A&E;sections of the papers, either because the artist didn’t publicize it, or it just wasn’t mainstream enough for that section. That is just so, so refreshing from my perspective. As artists we have to be conscious of branding in this jaded, brand oriented world, and one thing to remember is that every time someone sees your name in writing, you are branding yourself with them, and even bad press achieves this goal nicely. In fact, bad press will often even mobilize your fan base, which is a nice side effect for artists who are controversial and receive mixed reviews.

    So if you’re upset with Steve for being a perpetrator of the snark, then thank him for even paying attention to you in the first place. Very few media outlets still print indie stuff, and beyond that, very few writers or editors actually take the time to surf myspace and band websites to compile that info on their own.

    So if anything, can we keep those things? Let’s keep the eye toward underground happenings, the proactive approach toward creating content and the general love of the game. Who’s that going to be? I have no idea. Someone will bubble up to the surface, right?

    My vote still goes to Jason Bugg, even though I have no idea who he is. He just really seems to want the job.

    And by the way Dave Turner, if nobody has told you yet today, what you do for the music community is amazing. Thank you.

  33. chall gray

    I read Culture Watch with interest this week, as I do every week. Actually, to be honest, I flip to Culture Watch first each week. The reason I do that, and the reason that I think it is a valuable service to the community is this: Culture Watch is perhaps the only place for someone to “break in” to coverage, so to speak. A new company can pretty much give up hope of getting any coverage beyond the calendar in many cases, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing–there are a lot of flashes in the pan out there, in every branch of the arts. But, at the same time, it’s a huge help to someone who isn’t established to have such a venue as Culture Watch where they may gain exposure.

    On one show that I produced we were unable to get any significant coverage from any the large local print media, but Steve (unbeknownst to me until I saw it in ink) gave us a brief blurb in the Culture Watch, and I would say that this definitely helped our attendance a little bit for the show.

    I don’t wish to sound self-aggrandizing here as though “I want him to keep Culture Watch because it helps my theatre company”, but rather that it helps people gain exposure who wouldn’t otherwise get it, who aren’t mainstream as someone else stated above, and that’s a valuable thing.

    Yes, Culture Watch is snarky and cynical, but I would argue that the arts warrant it that way. There are so many who try and fail, in most cases only trying in a half-ass manner, that it constitutes a need for snarkiness at times. And, as someone who has read Culture Watch each week for over a year, I should point out that there are many occasions in which it has been generally supportive. Several examples spring to mind, e.g: I remember that Steve wrote a very nice blurb about the farewell reading that some of us arranged for Jaye Bartell when he moved to Buffalo last winter.

    So, in short, I think the paper *needs* something doing what Culture Watch does if it is serious about continuing to foster the arts in Asheville, and I think it would be a disservice to the local arts community, and to the development of new bands/theater companies/artists/dance companies, et al, if there wasn’t.

  34. Asheville Music Scene

    Steve responds:
    “Don: “Culture Watch is no Daily News style entertainment column …” That’s right, and be glad it wasn’t. I’m more than capable of writing highly acerbic, violently sarcastic and bitterly judgmental content. We live in a small town, however, and I seriously doubt people around here would be able to handle it. ”

    Sorry Steve, I guess I was being too harsh and cynical. I’m certain you’re capable of being much more “acerbic, violently sarcastic and bitterly judgemental” and maybe some of us “small-town” supporters of the arts should consider ourselves fortunate that you’ve restrained yourself.

    I, for one, dont buy into the “boosterish hype” that Culuture Watch was well-crafted snappy commentary and found it somewhat lacking in either information or entertainment value. I am appreciative that you’ve opened the door for public input on better alternatives for covering the local arts scene.

    I would contend that it really doesn’t matter whether Asheville artists generate 67 million, 17 million, or 7 million. Arts ARE a vital part of the Asheville community and deserve to receive more in-depth and serious coverage, (and my position still allows for negative critiques written from a balanced perspective)

    Thanks for allowing us all to critique your work. It really speaks well of you and of the future possibilities of the A&E;coverage in Mtn Xpress. I look forward to see what rises from the ashes of Culture Watch.

  35. Don: “I, for one, dont buy into the “boosterish hype” that Culuture Watch was well-crafted snappy commentary …”

    Me either. It was drek. Mindless, hateful drek.

    Now that we’ve established that, who should be picked to write something worthy of our unquestionably perfect visual arts/music/theater/dance/literature scene, piloted as it is by fair-haired and Apollo-like people of talent beyond compare? (Sarcasm, sure, and badly written at best. Drek, I tell you! Drek!)

    I’m all for creating something new that serves an obvious need for serious criticism, but apart from Bugg, I’m not seeing a lot of volunteers.

    Susanne? Don? Would either of you be willing to give it a shot? I’m looking for freelancers, and you both seem to have a fairly strong grasp on what isn’t being done right in our arts coverage. Maybe you could help me fix it by bringing your experience and insight to the paper. I’m not being sarcastic here, it’s a genuine inquiry.

  36. Asheville Music Scene

    I think that the “debate” over Culture Watch has been very healthy for the most part. I realize that you are serious in seeking to offer new alternatives for covering the arts scene and I VERY much appreciate that.

    I have enjoyed Buggs articles in ME and would be interested to see how that might translate into commentary.

    Writing commentary on any subject is a lot more difficult than many folks realize and in spite of my earlier remarks I appreciate anyone who is bold enough to voice his opinions and then open him or herself up to criticsm as you have done.

    I dont fancy myself a writer and and have HIGH respect those with the skills and commitment to craft well-written narrative of any type (fiction, journalism, commentary, reviews, etc). In addition to having a full-time job, I’m hard at work trying to launch the new Asheville Music Scene website ( I hope this website will be a nice complement to the existing coverage of the local music scene. But with my full-time job, work on the website, and my desire to support the local music scene by attending at least 4-6 local music shows a week….I’ll be limited to just offering comments via this forum from time to time.

    One earlier responder mentioned the possibilty of a rotating “GUEST” column which provides mulitiple perspectives and I think that’s a great idea. I think Dave, Susan, Charlie, Sasquatch, Brent, Jason and others have demonstrated insights in to the local arts community and would be suitable guest commenters.

    I also wonder whether there might be interest in some type of point/counterpoint public forum on the topic “The Importance of Arts to Asheville: Overstated or Understated????”

    Possibly held at UNCA or some other public place. It could be both educational and entertaining………. (oops, there I go again with too many elipsis dots)

  37. sasquatch

    AMS said:

    “One earlier responder mentioned the possibilty of a rotating “GUEST” column which provides mulitiple perspectives and I think that’s a great idea. I think Dave, Susan, Charlie, Sasquatch, Brent, Jason and others have demonstrated insights in to the local arts community and would be suitable guest commenters.”

    I love that idea and would be pleased as punch to guest write, but I can see how that would be sort of a nightmare management-wise. Corralling folks can get tough in a situation where one is already chasing the almighty deadline. I’d love to do the column, but I can see how my existing affiliations might preclude me from being an appropriate choice… or, perhaps it might make for an interesting perspective.

    So Steve, have you come any closer to an answer or have we simply pried the top off a whole new can of worms with this discussion? Infusing the local arts scene with some new energy and enthusiasm has been a hot topic for me lately, so I’ve enjoyed reading all the posts here to fuel my fire.

  38. sasquatch: I think the can of worms is pretty interesting, actually. It seems to me that the job is really finding the right person who is:

    1) Able to write intelligently and entertainingly about the local cultural scene(s);

    2) Willing to work for freelance wages;

    3) Able to take the heat from people who bitterly disagree with whatever view they take on anything.

    That’s a tall order. I know plenty of good writers, and several of them would be willing to cover the arts scene. But most would shrink away from reader criticism, which (unlike the Xpress’) isn’t filtered for things like outright rage, hatred and libel.

    They’d have to live with people openly loathing them for having put their thoughts in print, strangers being argumentative (often while drunk) about the arts/music scene while out in public (Oh, how I miss being a music reviewer!), and losing a goodly piece of their anonymity.

    And that’s if they were a nicey-nice columnist.

  39. Susanne Hackett

    The difficulty with finding someone with a strong background to write about the arts scene, as you know, is that they are often within it.

    I work at an arts organization with a mission to support the arts and arts organizations, which puts me in a difficult political position to write about the arts. I do, however, think that the Mt.X could find someone or more than one person. It will just take some looking, or someone finding you once you put the word out. It is difficult to be a critic, but easier (on everyone) if what is written has some educated backing for support.

    As far as the survey of the economic impact of the arts, these numbers of what audience members spent while they were in Asheville were collected directly from random audience members, not estimated. If anything, $65 million (not that it matters, as the arts has an undeniably huge economic impact in this area) is on the low end of the economic impact of the arts in the area. It would be impossible to survey all audience members for all performances, so what was gathered was a random sample. Yes, there is always room for error, but I would guess it’s conservative in the estimate of what is spent by arts patrons in this economy. But, that would be a cool story–contacting Americans for the Arts and getting their take on how they ran their numbers…

    In fact, I’m guessing most of us writing in this blog would not have jobs without the arts in this region.

  40. Steve: Victoria Karol might have the balls to write it. I think she’s interested.

    She very well versed in the music/art scene here and also has a background in PR. This gives her the perspective of both “sides.” She has been critiqued negatively and positively for her own work in the media. This would give her the in site to write where it benefits everyone. I.E. Stratigic ribbing.

    Can she write? I leave that to your judgement, but she’s worth a look.

    Other twists on the column concept to beef it up? 1. Get someone to record a live track of a show in town, post the song on the ME website and put a link to the song in the article. In the article talk about the music and how it was good or bad. Don’t like it? check it out your self and leave comments online.

    2. A writer could go out and write about what they did and saw in Asheville (Culture watch). May be interview random people to get their take on the scene here. For example: I was at a show in Prichard park and a man dressed in a space suit started to dance, then he mooned the audience and ran a way. (true story) This stuff happens all the time in Asheville.

    I hope these ideas help. Let me know what you think.

  41. I think Jenny’s first idea is really great, and it might give the Xpress the chance to be a greater participant in the local scene. Plus, it would drive more people to the website, which is good for you, obviously.

    On the topic of art and economics, I have this anecdote. Take from it what you will.

    My band played last night at one of the larger bars in town, which actually began turning people away at one point in the evening, for fear of violating the fire code. Our band, and the other two bands that played, got $11 each from a tip bucket that one of our friends passed around.

    I’m not even upset about it. We all just kind of laughed. Partly because we assumed this going in, but mostly, I think, because we’re used to it. Unless you’re playing one of the bigger venues in town (and let’s face it; most Asheville bands don’t get the chance, due to genre and noise-level constrictions), you don’t really get paid to play in Asheville clubs and bars.

    So, if there is as great of an economic impact as it would seem, then maybe some attention should be paid to the inner workings of our system, to make sure that the people who make our art and music aren’t left out in the metaphorical cold.

    And don’t bother asking which bar it was, because I don’t want my band to get blackballed, thank you very much. I like playing out, regardless of whether it pays.

  42. Susanne: “It is difficult to be a critic, but easier (on everyone) if what is written has some educated backing for support.”

    Like working from press releases?

    Or do you mean that it would be more palatable if it was written by someone who has been active in the arts culture since, say, the early 1990s? Or maybe if they’d had professional experience, like having written about local arts for most of the last decade?

    Or maybe if it was someone that the local arts community respected? Like maybe if they were part of the group that helped pick the shows for Asheville Area Arts Council’s 2008 season, say? Like I did a few months ago, perhaps?

    If only there was someone like that … oh, wait.

    Moving on: The $65 million thing is a fine number to throw around, but like all statistics, it’s only relevant in its context. It’s not an already-cleared check.

    Just keep in mind that more than two thirds of that number comes from hotel bills, drinks, meals and parking. It’s not coming from show tickets or sold paintings.

    Again: The arts by themselves are not contributing $65 million to the area. Hotels, bars, restaurants and parking garages are (less the $17 million in arts spending, of course). That’s what I got out of the study, at least.

    jennyjuice: “Get someone to record a live track of a show in town, post the song on the ME website and put a link to the song in the article. In the article talk about the music and how it was good or bad. Don’t like it? check it out your self and leave comments online.”

    That’s what I’m talking about! It’s an idea better suited for our blogs, since we can link right to it, but it’s still a good one. Maybe we can have a weekly online “listening party” or something? We can even link to mp3s on band homepages or MySpaces or the like.

    Victoria has been in touch, and she’s a definite for the short list. (But not on the music side due to the conflict of interest with her other job.) She seems brave enough to take on the cultural topics and the reader flak, which is really the biggest hurdle.

  43. Steve writes:
    “…The $65 million thing is a fine number to throw around, but like all statistics, it’s only relevant in its context…. more than two thirds of that number comes from hotel bills, drinks, meals and parking. It’s not coming from show tickets or sold paintings. ”

    I would agree with Susanne on the merits of including a balanced MX article on the financial contributions of our local arts community.

    My understanding of the study under current criticism is that it never claimed that 67 milliion was being generated in ticket sales or painting sales.

    If I drive from Black Mountain to Asheville to see a concert and spend 5.00 at the parking garage, 8.00 and Doc Chey’s; and another 10.00 on beer at the show, then I would contend that the Asheville arts/music scene has generated 23.00 in revenue in addition to the price of the concert. That money stays in Asheville.

    I rarely drive to downtown Asheville just to shop or just to eat. I frequently (3-4 nites per week) drive to Asheville for music. I typically eat, park and drink (and occaisionally shop) while in town to hear music.

    Visit Shindig on the Green, Bele Chere, LAAFF, the Avl Film Festival, Diana Wortham, a Terpsicorps dance theatre performance, a symphony concert, etc and I think you’ll find a significant number of folks from outside of Asheville in attendance and many of these folks eat, shop, drink and park while in town for an arts or entertainment event.

    My position is that the exact amount of the financial contribution is NOT the main point. The point is that the Arts ARE a signficant feature of Asheville both in economic terms and in quality-of-life terms and thus deserve further attention in the press.

    I think MX has already indicated a willingness to provide the improved coverage our ever-expanding arts community deserves and for that I am thankful.

    Jenny Greer makes some great suggestions and some of those ideas are already in the works at the new Asheville Music Scene website ( )
    I would be glad to see MtnXpress add them also.

  44. Orbit DVD

    I have a degree in Recording Industry Management (music business), so I should naturally get the job.


  45. Wow. There are a lot of words on this page. Sorry, i couldn’t possibly be buggered to read them all, but i scanned em and i’m about to drop my two cents. For those who don’t know me, keep in mind that i’m coming at Culture Watch as a dude whose been fortunate enough to be mentioned a few times in it and has several friends in the same boat.

    I liked the column a lot, it was the first and often only thing i read in the Xpress. There were one or two times when i thought it seemed unkind for no reason, but it was a fun read. And none of those times that it seemed unkind were pointed at me, mind you.

    One thing written about my moving picture “For Catherine” struck me as odd, but it was later explained to me that it was a vialed reference to the fact that Cranky Hanky apparently REALLY HATED my movie, which i found utterly hilarious. What i’m getting at is i’m not a jaded, pissed-off guy. Steve has been good to us and actually i’m a grateful-guy that he mentioned us at all, which rarely happened in other parts of the Xpress.

    If the column is going to change i don’t necessarily think it needs to be puppies and flowers all the time, but when there’s a real accomplishment to be discussed i don’t think there’s any reason to be snarky about that just because we can.

    My movie has been reviewed many, many times and i’ve gotten everything from glowing marks to “this is trash” type stuff and the thing about critics that strikes me most is that it’s both easier to write a bad review and it’s funnier for the reader. And while Culture Watch isn’t really a review of anything for the most part, it’s news, it still fell victim to that mentality from time to time, i thought.

    But just re-printing the press releases is a bit dry. (not counting the releases coming from 207, those are always HI-larious)

    So, after all that preamble, my thought is to first expand the column, give it a full page if possible, and therefore the room to talk more about the event or artist in question. Mention that so and so has a new movie/CD/whatever coming out, and then maybe mention that the CD was written entirely on scraps of driftwood, using blood for ink while the artist was stranded, floating aimlessly through the pacific ocean on a dead whale while sharks tried to devour his raft and he was saved by a passing oil tanker just in time.

    I’m saying, perhaps in addition to learning about the release, we could learn more about the people behind the “art.”

    And if the people behind it suck, THEN we make fun of them until they weep.

    Another idea might be to have a roving list of artist interview the other artists. Most of us are such press whores we’d do it for free just to get our name out there. You know?

    If Rod Murphy has a new movie coming out soon-ish (which he does) i’d write up that piece and interview him for it because he’s my friend and he’s talented. If Nikki Talley has a new CD coming out, let that chick from Stephanie’s ID do it. in that Artist on Artist way, like Myspace (that cultural haven) does.

    I know i’m biased, but one of my favorite interviews ever was Kevin Smith interviewing Ben Affleck, it was DEFINITELY all flowers and puppies, but it was also funny because they scrapped with each other a bit, and more candid because they were friends.

    I don’t know, i’m just throwing these things out there, i’m pretty tired.

    Anyway, if i thought there were a lot of words on this page before i got here…whoooo.



  46. Don:

    “If I drive from Black Mountain to Asheville to see a concert and spend 5.00 at the parking garage, 8.00 and Doc Chey’s; and another 10.00 on beer at the show, then I would contend that the Asheville arts/music scene has generated 23.00 in revenue in addition to the price of the concert. That money stays in Asheville.”

    No, the Asheville arts scene has been one of a number of contributing factors behind the spending of that $23. Some of that money does stay in Asheville, sure, but it’s not going directly to the arts. It’s going to: the City/private parking lot owners; the owners and staff of Doc Chey’s, and to the people that distribute the food to them; and the bar/venue and beer distribution company and the brewer. Thus far, not a dime of it is coming from or going to the arts.

    At best, the arts is influencing that spending by providing additional reasons to draw potential customers to locations with restaurants, bars and parking lots.

    Why am I so adamant about this point? Because it’s not a big deal until people start looking at that $65 million number casually, and thinking that it reflects something that it doesn’t. The arts are just one of many factors in that $48.4 million figure.

    “My position is that the exact amount of the financial contribution is NOT the main point.”

    I agree. So, just for kicks, let’s all agree that less than $17 million is being contributed to our local economy directly from the spending of arts groups? That way, we’re all clear on what we’re talking about.

    All: If you want to get in your final words on this subject, please do so soon. This post will come off the main page tomorrow to make room for next week’s content.

  47. Victoria Karol

    My thoughts are that I love Jenny’s ideas about the interactive stuff on the web site. On a side note, I talked to her yesterday and we were trying to come up with ways for the businesses that benefit from Asheville’s arts scene to contribute some of that money back to the artists. Because even though XYZ bar may get tons of money from people going to eat there when they’re in town for a show or something, they only pay their local singer/songwriters $50 on a good night to play for three hours. I refuse to believe that there isn’t at least one way for an artist to make some dollars in this town. But that has nothing to do with the column.

    I submitted some writing to Steve as mentioned above, and look forward to hearing feedback. But no matter where things settle when this whole scandal has died down, this has been an interesting debate, and perhaps the new column should make it its priority to cover this week of discussion as its first story.

  48. Asheville Music Scene

    Steve’s latest post appears to be confirming the very point I and others have tried to make.

    My point was that the money generated by the arts community benefits all of Asheville. My point was that the arts draw people to Asheville who then spend money at motels, restaurants, parking garages, bars, etc.

    I dont think any of the previous commenters have claimed that 17M or 65M is “being contributed to our local economy directly from the spending of arts groups”
    Heck most arts groups in town are non-profits who struggle to keep the bills paid.

    And, I dont for a minute beleive that 65 million is going directly to the artists. THat’s a different debate and one which Victoria Karol has raised valid questions about, and which would be great material for future A&E;articles.

    So maybe we are in agreement on the simple fact that:
    … the Asheville Arts community plays a vital role in the local economy by bringing visitors to town who spend a considerable sum of money while here for arts related purposes.

    The actual amount spent is somewhere between my own 23.00 a night 3 times a week and the 65 million figure being tossed about……..
    …….. ……………

  49. Brilliant Drek!


    I want your job.
    You have done your work, braved the backlash, survived the angry mobs of sensitive singer-songwriters and now it is time to move on!

    To rescue the Mountain X in its time of need –
    I have an idea for a weekly article of truly objective reporting on the local “scene” guaranteed to shower the readers with true insight.
    (Insight that they will never find without me!)

    Will I inform them of ground-breaking artists and musical genius? Perhaps.
    Perhaps it will depend more on the under-the-table incentives that I am willing to accept on behalf of these noble, creative Ashevillians.

    Unlike you, Steve Shanafelt, who refused to give me a glowing review years ago even after I bribed you with Beanstreets best, I can provide what people want to hear about themselves – for a price of course!

    I do not recall ever reading a “blow me away” report of a truly inspiring and original performer in this town by you – but I did read lots of tales of artistic mediocrity.
    Could it be that artistic mediocrity IS the culture of Asheville?
    If they will pay me enough, I will try to convince them otherwise……

  50. Coffee is a cruel mistress. I’m glad to know that I didn’t cave to her siren’s call.

    I did get blown away from time to time. Descolada, Fisher Meehan (solo, of course), Ether Bunnies, Stephanie’s Id and Wayne Robbins & The Hellsayers all managed it at least once.

    Speaking of “Random Acts,” I think the fact that I was always dead sober while reviewing has more to do with me being perpetually underwhelmed than anything else. I’ve since found that it’s way easier to like a crappy band when you’re drunk. Who knew?

  51. MacClassyTheMaleMember

    Ahhh, aging hipsters. People mistake “bitterness” for intelligence and it’s quite sad. A little snark is okay but as with all things if not done in moderation it becomes its’ own beast.

    In the midst of a recession it’s easy to be a pessimist about the music scene or anything else. But frankly I get enough negativity as it is so I don’t want more of it.

    To exist to trash artists is lame and that’s exactly the atmosphere I get from here. I don’t readily enjoy gratingly bad music or films either but everyone has to start somewhere. I’ve seen balanced reviewers and none of them are present in this environment.

    Asheville is popular for its’ supposed “arts scene” and ignorant Yokels think the coolest thing ever is to rebel against what the masses hold in high regard.

    Admit it. This is “tween angst musical” with adults.

    If you want you can print this and defame me Good sirs! I’d be so flattered and any exposure is good exposure! Just be aware I’m a giant phallus so when you take my picture you’ll have to edit my mug with a blur effect!

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