Music critic, podcast host, and the self-described “busiest music nerd” Anthony Fantano came to Florida State University to give a talk on the music industry and his experience with it. Fantano is most well known for his music reviews on YouTube and his conversational, meme-laden style of engaging with music criticism. Before his lecture, Fantano sat down with Spire Magazine at FSU’s college radio station, WVFS, to talk about his time as a music critic and how it has impacted his life.
As an introduction, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do?
Hey, It’s Anthony Fantano here: internet’s busiest music nerd and the founder of TheNeedleDrop.com. You can find me on YouTube at theneedledrop and fantano. I’m also on Twitter as theneedledrop and Instagram at afantano.
I am first and foremost a music reviewer and a music critic. At The Needle Drop, I’m pretty much just pumping out album reviews, song reviews everyday, all day. That’s kind of how I’ve made my way through life. Just covering and critiquing new records from the popular music spectrum: rock, pop, electronic, hip-hop, metal, a little jazz and folk here and there. I venture outside of those genres occasionally for some international artists and acts, but that’s pretty much what I do.
As the self-described “internet’s busiest music nerd” how long have you been reviewing music?
I’ve been doing this in some way shape or form since 2007. Reviewing albums is something I didn’t even start doing along with the creation of The Needle Drop. The concept was originally to just be a podcast where I discussed music that I thought was really great or important. I just wanted to keep people in touch with what was going on in new music by playing cuts off of records that I thought were really special. I didn’t start formally reviewing albums until I started on Youtube and the early reviews were different anyway. Those were really only positive because I didn’t see the point in doing a negative review if I was going to put the time in to it. At the time, I called myself the busiest because I didn’t have a lot of time. I was interning for a radio station and doing weekend announcing, I was working a restaurant job, I was still finishing up my college classes, and I just thought I was way too busy to start an internet podcast or brand. The tagline that I was the busiest was just a dumb thing I came up with.
What did you get your bachelors degree in? Has that shaped your career?
With my degree I focused on broadcast communication and journalism, with some political science as well. When I got out of college I thought I might just end up being a political reporter, but that obviously didn’t pan out. Or, it would have if this didn’t go anywhere.
You mentioned only doing positive reviews when you started out. Are there any genres of music that you just can’t stand?
No, not necessarily. I think that’s really only the case for super gimmicky, specific genres. I don’t know, is cyber-crunk a thing? Is post-cyber-crunk-core a thing? I probably don’t care much for post-cyber-crunk-core. As far as the major stuff? Not really. I’m pretty much into everything. I would say there are some genres that I’m not well-versed in, like classical music. I don’t really review it because I don’t personally feel like I have the working knowledge and experience to comment on it effectively. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it! I just don’t feel like I can make any recommendations.
Actually, when I first started off I was only really reviewing indie rock records because I kind of decided that was my beat. Even though there were other genres I listened to and enjoyed, indie rock was popular and it seemed like it made the most sense to talk about. I told myself that I was going to review more hip-hop records because I couldn’t just review the mainstream album of the day. I needed to review more underground stuff and show that I was embedded in that scene too. When I first started the channel, I didn’t wanna review any major label music, in fact I would actually avoid it. MGMT was one of the first major label groups that I reviewed because people were asking me to review their album Congratulations and I thought maybe I could start reviewing more mainstream music. I had also seen MGMT perform when I was in college so I was familiar with them from before they blew up. I saw MGMT perform at a house show that was so wild it got shut down before the headlining group, Of Montreal, even went on.
So even though I’ve limited myself in terms of what I cover for reviews, it still has a tendency to end up being overwhelming because I try to do a little of everything. That’s kind of how I’ve made my name, I like to think. I can effectively cover a little bit of everything. It’s definitely gotten harder over the years to try to keep track of as many genres as I do with the over-saturation of music in general. There are certain genres and styles I don’t cover as often as others, like electronic music. Still, that’s even harder to delineate than it used to be. The means and tools by which most music is made these days is pretty much that of electronic music in general. Back in the day when rock music had a clearer defined sound and electronic music sounded like house and Aphex Twin and techno, it was easier to separate those boundaries and say this is this scene, this is that scene. But I try to appreciate everything and come across as a reviewer who isn’t necessarily the most knowledgeable when it comes to a certain sub genre of music. I think there are websites and writers that can give you that if you want it. If you’re a hardcore electronic fan, I see no reason why you wouldn’t read a Resident Advisor review before you follow up with what I’m doing because they can get into what a particular artist is doing on a technical level in more depth than I can. Or even would want to!
That’s why I would like to think in my reviews I come across as someone who can appreciate what’s going on in any of the popular music genres aesthetically. I sort of see the messaging and see how I format my reviews for people who are just casual music fans and who want to be put on something a little more interesting or left field than you may see in a review on Billboard or Rolling Stone. It’s pretty much the same reason I don’t get deep into music theory in my reviews. The average listener and fan doesn’t know anything about music theory and doesn’t care whether a certain key change occurs or whether it’s in a certain scale. Unless it’s something weird, it doesn’t really come up in my reviews that often. I think more listeners understand music on a much more aesthetic and emotional level, so that’s most of what I deal in.
Do you see the personality you’ve cultivated as an extension of yourself or almost as a character you play on YouTube?
Not at all. Pretty much everything I say in a review I would say face-to-face if we were talking about an album. The degree to which I alter my speech or mannerisms when I’m on camera during a review is pretty much the same that I would do if I were giving a small presentation. It’s pretty much like me doing a book report on the album, you know what I mean? There’s not really a character or anything. If I’m going to play a character, I’ll put on a sweater and a mustache or I’ll put on an orange beanie and an undershirt. If I want to play a character or be inauthentic or speak in a voice that you shouldn’t take seriously I do that, but I’m pretty much just being myself.
How has your life been impacted by having a career that makes you a public figure online?
At first, not really. As the years have drawn on and the brand has grown bigger, yes, but not necessarily in a negative way. I’ve had experiences where people who watch my show will show up to a place because they know I’m there or I’ll run into people while I’m grocery shopping. It used to be that I’d only run into a fan at a show, at a record store, or maybe when I was at an Apple Store. Now, it’s pretty much everywhere. If I see somebody who’s in their 20s that looks like they might be into some alternative stuff and has some glasses on, they might watch. Same with hip-hop fans: if they’re in a lot of street-wear, the chances that you’ve caught a review are pretty high. That’s really the extent to which that’s changed things personally.
It’s changed my career trajectory and the way I work. Now I run into people that talk to me like I’m their best friend because they’ve been interacting with me in this one-sided way for years. It’s like you have a bunch of friends everywhere in a way, whether you’re aware or not. Recently, I went to the gym and the girl behind the counter said “Hey! You run that YouTube channel, right?” I asked if she watched the channel and she said that she didn’t but a lot of people working there including the guy that ran the place did. I was thinking, I’ve been going here for years and you’re the first one that said something? I guess everyone up to that point was like “let him be, let him do his one thing.” That’s cool too! I’m glad I don’t have anything to complain about. I’ve had a couple weird interactions here and there with some people that watch the show, but outside of that the people that watch are super laid back and chill. It’s nice I can just live my life the way I wanna live it and I’m glad that other people get a lot of joy out of it.
Your interactions in the real world have been mostly positive, but what about your experience with the internet?
On the internet, it’s a bit of a different story. There are different social boundaries so there are less repercussions for what people say anonymously. In person, yeah I’ve had a couple creepy experiences, but for the most part it’s been super positive. On the internet though, there’s a whole array of opinions about who I am and what I do. Maybe some of the people I see day to day think and have written some of the worst things about me but in person they aren’t saying anything. Online, people say horrible things about me, but it is what it is. If you put yourself out there, especially if you’re giving opinions that some people may find controversial or disagreeable, you’re going to be met with backlash.
In terms of that backlash, what review have you done that caused the most consternation or negative reception in your community?
I think the Eminem fans are going a little ham after the Kamikaze review. It was better than Revival, but I think almost any record can be better than Revival so it’s a little easy to overrate. I’ve caught a lot of backlash from the XXXTentacion fans, The Weeknd fans, and of course the Kanye West fans, but that’s not as bad as it used to be. Maybe the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy review—that’s probably not the most backlash I’ve ever caught, but that’s the worst it ever felt because it was the most I had gotten for the time. It wasn’t even the most negative review I’d ever written but it was the first review I’d ever done where I got the most backlash I could imagine for it. It just really put everything into perspective where I could say “wow everyone really hates me right now.” I saw the album was getting 10s, but I wasn’t reading every review because I wanted to come to my own conclusion. There are always fan perceptions that I’ll come across before I do a review and I’ll usually have an awareness of whether I’ll like it or not because people message me “hey you’ve gotta review this it’s the BEST they’ve ever done!” So when I go into a review I have a surface level idea of what the most hardcore fans feel about that record. I wasn’t 100% aware of how monstrous the praise for MBDTF was and the tidal wave I was willingly putting myself in front of at the time. The backlash was huge and at the time it almost felt like I should just quit or just not give so many negative opinions. Not only were my regular fans turning on me but there was this whole new flood of people that hated me. It caused me to question everything. But I didn’t put a lot of that internal stuff I was feeling out onto the internet at that time. I just continued to put out reviews like it wasn’t even a thing. People didn’t really know how much it shook me at the time and to the outsider’s perspective it didn’t affect me so the fanbase just moved on. But I’m glad that I just sat with it and came back to it to say this is how I feel.
I’m sure the answer is subject to change, but right now, what would you say is your favorite album of 2018?
Probably either Kids See Ghosts, the new JPEGMAFIA album, Nicholas Jaar’s Against All Logic, or the new Parquet Courts record. Those are probably some of my favorites so far, and any of those four records could pop into a number one or two spot at the end of the year.
Special thanks to Club Downunder/Union Productions for booking Fantano to come and speak. CDU is on Instagram and Twitter @clubdownunder. And special thanks to Anthony Fantano for sitting down with Spire Magazine.