Treble is 20: A Reflection from the Editor

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FYF Fest 2014

I could barely say the words out loud to myself when I realized how long I’d been publishing, operating, editing and writing articles for Treble: 20 years. That’s a long time—long enough for a person to grow into an adult. Long enough to endure five presidential election cycles. Long enough for the Pixies to form, release five albums, break up and then reunite. So long, in fact, that most publications probably would have folded by now. But against the odds, we’re still here.

Chalk it up to stubbornness. When I started Treble back at the end of 2003 (you can read our origin story here), as a clueless college student with big aspirations and no idea what I was getting myself into, it never even occurred to me that I would retire it at some point. It was only in the years that followed—when an older version of the site continued to crash for reasons I don’t even remember, when I was kicked out of my house through no fault of my own and had to put the website on hiatus for a couple weeks, when so many of our peers closed up shop and pay-to-play algorithms seemed to hint at the death of music journalism looming over the horizon—that stopping ever even occurred to me. Briefly, fleetingly, but it happened all the same, only to muster up a stern refusal to even entertain such a thing. So yes, stubbornness or, perhaps, intransigence.

There’s a simpler, less cynical explanation for how Treble has survived as long as it has. While I’m not necessarily kidding about the stubbornness, the truth is that running a website like this has always been about one thing above all: A love of music. I’m well past the age that most people stop seeking out new music, and I still listen to hundreds of new records a year. Aside from my wife, family and cats, it’s the reason I still get up in the morning, the reason I almost always make a second pot of coffee. Of course, I always do—there’s always more. And as long as there will be, I’ll still celebrate the opportunity to sift through all those unread emails. (Inbox zero was a pre-pandemic pipe dream.)

In that sense, nothing’s really changed. Treble was born out of nothing more complicated than a passion for music and a desire to put that in writing—even if I’ll be the first to admit that most of my first pieces of writing here weren’t great. But that didn’t really matter. As a 21-year-old whose life was changed with the opportunity to interview his favorite bands in college and learn the ropes of being a music writer, I reveled in the prospect of having my own curated outlet for those thoughts about music that I couldn’t keep to myself. And in the process, well, my writing got better. I also found myself continuing to see my own position evolve about music, our coverage of it, and what speaks to me.

As this happened, however, the way we consumed music changed dramatically. The advent of streaming made physical media more or less obsolete, and the growth of Spotify’s own in-house playlists—as well as the way in which TikTok’s algorithm can put an obscure indie group like Duster’s play counts in the millions—likewise changed how we think about discovering or discussing music. Which is to say, it’s made the utility of music criticism likewise obsolete in the eyes of some users. After all, if the algorithm already knows what you want, why bother reading about music? The problem with that, as other writers will tell you, is that it removes the all-important element of context. And perhaps not everyone needs context to know what they like or they don’t, far be it from me to wag my finger. But I read as much about music as I write about it, and probably more so—sometimes because I’m more interested in a perspective than a recommendation. The best writing about music can be just as stunning to witness as the music itself, no matter how much the algorithm would rather you just kept scrolling.

The way I, personally, consumed music changed as well. While I never stopped trying to keep up with as much new music as I could—and for that matter, always digging a little bit deeper—around 2010 when I was couch surfing for a couple weeks and didn’t listen to anything, I started thinking more about the importance of music as something you live with, something that shapes you and becomes a part of you rather than simply something you engage with for a short time or, rather, consume. Some critics will tell you that part of being a music writer is sacrificing time to listen for your own enjoyment, but I make time for it every day, now more than ever. The pursuit of keeping up with new music is worthwhile, but so is growing as a listener. I don’t still listen to everything that I once raved about; I now love some music that I once didn’t get. And some music I hear differently every time I hear it (which I touched upon a little bit in my recent essay about Burial’s Untrue).

Music is such a complex and sometimes ephemeral thing that it doesn’t always lend itself to a snap judgment. There are things I know I love at first, and things I know I absolutely do not, but it’s often more complicated than that. Which is in part why, from the beginning, Treble’s never had star ratings, number scores or letter grades. (We rank our year-end lists, but there’s not a whole lot of meaning behind it—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.) That’s not a knock on anyone that does, but we’ll be the first to tell you that we change our minds, that we don’t operate as a monolith, that we’re mostly just a group of people who are sometimes working it out while we’re writing about it. And that the way a piece of music resonates with you, sometimes on a deeply emotional level, can’t always be quantified.

In a lot of ways, not a lot has changed since Treble began. We never moved into a fancy office. We’ve never been part of a larger company. We never pivoted to video. (Well, not exactly, anyway, though it was fun interviewing KEN Mode at SXSW.) And I’m still incredibly flattered when an artist I admire tells me that they enjoy what we do. Never gets old! I also never get tired of hearing other perspectives, of meeting people, of making our tiny community grow a little bit each time.

Sure, I have my frustrations. Running a music website isn’t a terribly wise career choice as far as stability goes, and it becomes discouraging when so many of your peers have gone offline. But another part of the reason why Treble’s still here has nothing to do with me: It’s our amazing community of writers. Over the past 20 years we’ve probably had over 100 different contributors call Treble home, at least for a time. Some of them have left the music journalism game, some of them have published books, and some of them now write for television, but their contributions have all helped to shape the site you read today. The team of writers we have now spans about three generations, and perhaps it’s just the pride that comes with being something you started from scratch ultimately flourish, but I always feel privileged to be the first to read what they’ve written. I’m thankful that I get to continue working with such an amazing and incredibly talented group of people. (Which is just as rewarding when we’re just joking around behind the scenes or debating the best Replacements albums. I’m pretty sure we agree on Let It Be.) I also want to give special thanks and credit to my wife Candice, who’s not only been the most supportive partner I could ask for, but who has done so much to improve the site over the years: Website design, photography, lining up sponsorships, and standing around in festival fields in 90-degree heat.

If I can be a little more introspective, part of why Treble endures comes down to something that you can’t really justify to a team of shareholders: I’ve put a hell of a lot of my life into Treble. Even when everything else has gone to shit, which life sometimes does, it’s always been a source of joy and catharsis, an escape as well as a place to enjoy the community of like-minded people. That’s not something to be taken for granted, and so I raise my glass in appreciation of everyone who has helped get it this far.

Earlier this year we kicked off our 20th anniversary celebration with Treble 100, which is ongoing and has 34 entries left (we’ll probably hit number one in early 2024 at this rate). Then, because we never did it the first time, we published a list of our Top 50 Albums of 2003. And later this week, we’ll rank all of our Albums of the Year (even if 2003 was decided 20 years late), plus whatever other fun stuff we can think of to keep the celebration going.

We’ll also keep doing everything else we’ve been doing all this time, and then some. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of what we’ve written at some point over the past 20 years—and if you’ll allow me a brief indulgence, I’d like to humbly suggest that if you have, consider subscribing to our Patreon or donating to our Ko-Fi. It’s not easy running a website like ours and keeping it from turning into an unnavigable hellscape of ads or paywalling all of our content. But your support can keep us going for another year, and another after that, and so on.

We’re humbled and grateful for everyone who reads and enjoys Treble, who participates in the conversation, who makes us part of their routine, even for a couple minutes a day. Few things make me happier than when someone tells me they found a new favorite album because of something we wrote, and we’ll keep the recommendations going as long as we can.

Thanks for reading! Here’s to the next 20.

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