Smile Politely

Talking Telepath: A critique of a critique of C-U’s music community

In case you missed our post last night, local musician Brian Olek did an interview with buzz Magazine last week that sparked a bit of controversy and birthed a follow-up roundtable with local musicians and personalities. The initial interview was one of the most infuriating things to come out of the mouth of a local musician that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

My initial inclination was to Fisk the entire interview and go point by point and show why I think Olek is ridiculous and wrong. But I think there’s more to it than trying to dunk on an Urbana hipster that believes he’s smarter than everyone. The goal isn’t to turn Olek into an Elsinore super fan or to make him a champion of the local music scene. It’s not. It’s actually to discuss the ideas that he spewed out of his mouth without actually using the thing that sits in the cranial cavity.

This young man clearly uses his brain and thinks hard about the music that he puts out as Telepath. So it’s mind-numbing to read someone say things like this:

Playing bad shows is one thing, but when bands that aren’t very good try to get me to buy their bad music through a bunk label, I wince.

What I sell, I sell to people who actually want it, and the people who don’t want it don’t buy it. I don’t sell any records because I kiss anybody’s ass locally and that’s pretty all right with me.

I don’t want anybody out there selling cutlery. I don’t want anybody going door-to-door like, “please buy my record.”

Now, I’m no expert on music. It’s a big part of my life, obviously, but I’m not John Peel. Having said that, I’ve been to hundreds of shows and I’ve never had anyone TRY to sell me anything. Sure, bands will say “We’ve got CDs and records at the merch table,” or something similar. But nobody is coming up to me and pressuring me to pay any money for their music. It’s never happened to me. Not once. I’ve never felt an obligation to buy a record for a band that was touring, nor have I felt an obligation to buy a record from a friend. I buy music that I enjoy, and I’d venture to take an educated guess and say that most people have had the same experience.

Brian, if you meet a traveling salesman selling you records from a bunk label created by a “local rando,” I’ll buy you the biggest pizza from Papa Del’s there is.

The thing about those points and what Olek fails to mention is that his music is still kind of advertised. If you look at his tags on Bandcamp, he tags his music with legendary acts — Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, M83, and (holy shit, man, are you kidding me?) Brian Eno. I’d say it’s disingenuous to tag your music with well-respected musicians’ names and then put out laptop sounds that you deem interesting. In fact, in a rudimentary study that I just performed, I didn’t notice any other local bands tagging their own works with legendary musicians’ names. Maybe that’s how you get to sell CDs to people in Japan, though.

To me, the question is this: What exactly is OK then? I think what we forget sometimes, seeing ticket prices and vinyl and CDs and t-shirts and buttons, is that at the end of the day, these are artists that want to make art. They want to play music and they’d like to share that music, their art, with other people. It’s not about forcing someone to pay money to hear your product. Almost all of the bands in C-U, if not all of them, are creating something for themselves and sharing it. If there’s a demand, they sell their art. Nobody is going into the studio without playing shows and working on their sounds and then they all of a sudden start making cold calls for people to buy a record.

One of the most frustrating things about this debacle was that initially, Brian Olek used a pseudonym to throw shade. It was gutless. It was gutless because he claimed to want to be the villain. An objectively critical voice that “we” could use as a heel. The difference between an actual heel, a Roddy Piper of sorts, and what Olek is envisioning is that actual heels, actual villains put themselves out there. They are accessible. They are real. A good local heel-type musician could be celebrated in town, I’m sure of it. A heel that would be respected in this town is one that was willing to put himself out there in front of the people he’s criticizing and sharing his art with those same people. We’re not getting that with someone who’s cool with hiding behind pseudonyms or dodging tough questions or not playing live shows. It’s a farce. It’s an internet troll. It’s sad. Brian, you asked for criticism, so here’s some criticism: Do a better job at being critical and put yourself out on display if you want to be a villain in town.

There was a salient point that came out of Olek, though. Truthfully, he is absolutely correct in saying that this music community in C-U is too self-congratulatory. This publication and the buzz are guilty as charged. We don’t criticize local music enough. We criticize restaurants and local theater, but not people with instruments often enough. I don’t have a good reason for that. I believe that art is art, and it’s open to criticism. Chefs putting out food, to me, is art. If we can criticize their art, we should absolutely be critiquing a local band’s record with a fine-tooth comb. Not every record that’s made and put out in Champaign-Urbana is good. Not even close. I’ve seen terrible performances in the last year. I’ve been bored out of my mind at certain shows. I’ve left certain shows early. It’s time that we start letting local musicians know when their art is displeasing.

When we think about musical success, we have to realize that with art it’s subjective. That may be the underlying issue with Olek’s arguments and the ideas coming from his brain. When he starts talking about not wanting people to think certain local bands are successful, his perceived objectivity gets in the way of being right. Typically, claiming to be objective gets you off the hook for having an unpopular opinion amongst a rabid fan base. It’s like using sabermetrics to explain why Ryan Theriot was a bad baseball player to Cubs fans. They loved his scrappy passion for the game, but the underlying numbers showed he was terrible. They’d begrudgingly accept what you’re telling them because you have proof. In this instance, if success is defined by each individual band, it’s impossible to say who is and isn’t successful. That word becomes meaningless when an outsider uses it.

The bottom line, C-U music critics, is that we DO need to be more critical of one another. We strive for greatness and have fun, but that doesn’t mean that everything is great. It’s okay to be critical! That should be the major takeaway from Olek’s interviews here.

I truly hope Telepath and Brian Olek grow within C-U. It’s not my bag, but it might be someone else’s. That’s what’s important in town. The success, if you will, of the C-U music community rests on having a variety of personalities and sounds. Welcome to it, Olek. Stick around.

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