Interview With 33 1/3’s David Barker On Publishing One Book Per Classic Album
By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
Hey, look, some band released an album. Why should you care? Maybe you shouldn’t, but sometimes you do. If this happens to you, this whole “caring about an album a lot” thing, the 33 1/3 series of books from Bloomsbury (see also: the blog) can be an invaluable resource. These small books detail the stories behind many of history’s most legendary albums. The series is still going strong, 86 books in.
In this lucky age, when music fans can hear just about anything ever recorded in seconds, these books provide deep context that is too often missing. They should probably be apps.
Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: How did the idea for the 33 and 1/3 series come about?
David Barker, Bloomsbury Publishing: I published a series called “Continuum Contemporaries” back in the late ’90s / early ’00s — they were short critical guides to contemporary works of fiction. The works covered had a good range, including White Teeth, The Secret History, Underworld, Paradise, Infinite Jest, and even the early Harry Potter books, and the books all followed the same, rigid five-chapter structure that I came up with. And all were written by scholars in the field of Contemporary Fiction. It occurred to me one day that it might be equally (OK, perhaps more) fun to try a similar series with albums — the difference being that I’d find authors from many other fields (not just academia) and that I’d give the authors as much freedom as possible to approach their chosen subject.
Evolver.fm: I can’t think of any other resource that goes this deep about each album. Do you feel like these books are filling a hole that exists in our culture — that people don’t “dive deep” into albums they care about as much, because they are so distracted by everything, and there is simply so much coming at us these days that we don’t feel like we have time to integrate a specific piece of art deep within ourselves the way we used to? Or is it just me?
Barker: No, I think that’s a very good point. I see comments online all the time along the lines of “Oh, nobody’s made a fully coherent album since (fill in the blank, usually something like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, or Neutral Milk Hotel)…” but plenty of artists are still making coherent works of art using the album format, in the same way that plenty of writers are still making coherent works of fiction using the novel format. The format of delivery may change, but for making a certain kind of creative statement, an album is still a lovely form. We are distracted, on the whole — and to some people the very idea of reading a whole book about one album is faintly ridiculous. But on the other hand, for hardcore music lovers, what could be more fun than spending a few hours with an author who genuinely understands — and can articulate — your love of a great album?
Evolver.fm: Who are the writers, how do you find them, and how are albums selected for inclusion?
Barker: It started out by me contacting people who I thought might want to write interesting books about interesting records, back in 2002. I reached out to writers, musicians, broadcasters, all sorts. A lot said they were too busy, but enough people were excited enough to want to try it, and word spread from there. Within 18 months of the series starting, I was starting to receive more than one email every day from somebody wanting to write one of these books — and it was around then that I started formulating the idea for the open call for proposals, which is how we’ve signed up projects since 2006 (or around then). During the last call we received almost 500 proposals over the six-week window, and somehow whittled that down to 18, and those are the ones we’ll be publishing in the next couple of years. It’s a tough process, but ultimately we’re looking for projects that have a real spark to them, and that promise to tell a story, or spin an argument, in a compelling way. (And also, of course, we’re trying to pick books that might sell…)
Evolver.fm: I noticed that the top sellers are about Neutral Milk Hotel, Celine Dion, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, and The Kinks. That’s a fairly broad range. Why do you think the top two are about a somewhat cult favorite and one of the most mainstream artists of all time?
Barker: The top two are slightly freakish examples of the series, really. The success of the Neutral Milk Hotel book is due to the author, Kim Cooper, writing a very well-researched, affectionate portrait of a group of musicians — and a scene — that simply hadn’t been documented at that point. It’s helped, of course, by Jeff Mangum having been somewhat reclusive for most of the book’s life — so really, if you’re a new fan of the band and want to know more about them, this is the one place to read the story. As for the Celine Dion book, that’s just an astoundingly good piece of cultural criticism, examining the concepts of good taste and bad taste — and doing so with such warmth and humour and wisdom that it’s almost impossible to read the book and end up not loving it and telling your friends to read it. (It does not, as far as we know, sell to many actual fans of Celine’s music.)
Evolver.fm: When I saw 33 and 1/3 pop up in my Facebook feed after a friend liked it, I was immediately transported back to how much I loved the My Bloody Valentine Loveless edition. I also realized that I would love to have an app version of these, with the audio included, so I could read them on the subway, plane, or wherever, as I listened. You could even add interviews, etc… What do you think, is there an app on the way? Would you consider approaching the bands/labels about that?
Barker: There isn’t anything like that on the way, unfortunately, although it’s a great idea and I’d love to see the series expanded in that way. We have limited resources, though. Curating and running the series is something I do almost entirely in my spare time, as I have many more “grown up” jobs to get done for Continuum (which is now Bloomsbury). And while we’re looking to get much more creative in the digital realm with our publishing content, the series profile doesn’t fit too neatly with the wider goals of the company, so I’m never going to be able to persuade anyone to invest enough money to make a good app feasible.
75 Spiderland – Slint 1991 Scott Tennent
76 Kid A – Radiohead 2000 Marvin Lin
77 Tusk – Fleetwood Mac 1979 Rob Trucks
78 Pretty Hate Machine Nine Inch Nails 1989 Daphne Carr
79 Chocolate and Cheese Ween 1994 Hank Shteamer
80 American Recordings Johnny Cash 1994 Tony Tost
81 Some Girls The Rolling Stones 1978 Cyrus Patell
82 You’re Living All Over Me Dinosaur Jr. 1987 Nick Attfield
83 Marquee Moon Television 1977 Bryan Waterman
84 Amazing Grace Aretha Franklin 1972 Aaron Cohen