Friday, November 5, 2010

I'm Back

It's been almost six months since it happened and I knew at the time what it was, but I'm still absorbing it.
What happened was that in May I had nifty stretch where I did three pieces for the Wall Street Journal in less than a month. As a writer who was flat out proud to write for the publication six times a year, this was a big deal. And it didn't happen out of the blue; my editor called me a few weeks before the launch of the Journal's Greater New York section and told me to expect a lot more WSJ in my inbox.
It also meant that I was a music journalist again, and this is the thing that I'm having trouble wrapping my mind around. I didn't see that coming, really, I didn't.
Ten years ago, I not only made my entire living writing about music, I made so much I was beginning to consider early retirement. A year later I was scrambling; all the music journalism work I'd accumulated disappeared. It was shocking; I'd deluded myself into thinking that the workload was a reflection of my veteran savvy in the biz. That was only going to increase, so naturally, the workload would grow too, right.
Instead, I fell prey to market forces, and the dotcom crash eliminated close to 60K in annual work.
Bye bye early retirement, hello disconnect notices, harassing calls from credit card reps, and of course summonses to housing court.
Sometime in early 2003 I awoke to the notion that I couldn't stomach the pose as an underemployed music journalist anymore. I simply needed to devote myself 24/7--and 52 if necessary--to fixing my financial situation. That might mean calling on any talent I had and seeing how I could develop it. I knew a lot about gourmet food, cheese in particular, so off I went to find a job at a store and dumb luck enabled me to land a 3/4 gig at a shop near me. The shop gave me an entree back into the world of high end cheese. I began shopping some casual sports essays around to daily papers and in a coupla weeks that turned into a weekly column on the NBA for the NY Sun. I still wrote about music occasionally, i.e. six times a year for the Journal, weekly for Newsday (but I could see the writing on the wall that would soon end, and it did in October 2005). The same week that it did, I got a second sports column. By early '06 I began to think of music journalism as a small and declining part of my income. On the one hand, there was WSJ and there were a few pieces in New York magazine, but the Journal work amounted to about 10% of my income and NY mag didn't seem sustainable (and it wasn't).
It didn't really matter that much to me. The sportswriting was growing. I was good at translating the new math of sports to the general audience and it seemed like that would be a good niche going forward. Music J would be a nice little sidelight to the sportswriting and ultimately to this idea that a friend gave me to start a business built around holding cheese tastings.
With a something like a 50-35-15 structure between sports, cheese and music, my income stabilized and I retired all the debt that had made my life miserable in 2002 and '03. I was just starting to think of ways to diversify my sportswriting endeavors when the unthinkable happened. The site I wrote for decided in not so many words to stop covering sports regularly.
I definitely didn't see that coming.
Some people think I should write about book about cheese, and they're right. Some people think I should write about music, and they're right too. One very cool guy gave me a book idea about sports, and it would be a blast as well. But I think the book I should write first is about scrambling in the crappy post-millennial economy. I'm really good at it. I've spent 2010 in constant fear of 111 Centre St. and I haven't paid a utility bill that wasn't accompanied by a threat all year. Does it worry me, no, not really, I need the energy I'd spend worrying to research story ideas or some such.
So it was probably that I was in such a red alert scramble that I didn't appreciate what those three WSJ assignments in May meant. However, as I ponder the beauty of my recent piece on Bill Frisell, and that it's the first piece of four in five weeks for WSJ, it's starting to hit me--I'm a music journalist again.
Didn't see that coming.
I'm not a one basket kinda guy anymore though. I'm furiously at work rebuilding the sports work and growing the cheese thing. Still for the first time in eight years, the bulk of my income will come from music journalism.
It's nice to be back.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

At The Root on Regina Carter

A new article! This one is at The Root on the great violinist Regina Carter and her new disc, Reverse Thread.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More on the Playoffs

Like most NBA observers, I expected the first round playoff series between the L.A. Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder to be interesting but still I underestimated it. I figured this series would follow a well worn narrative of a young playoff novice putting a small scare into the sage and savvy defending champions. Yet if after these first four games any Thunder fan that doesn't think their team can win is a hardy cynic. The Thunder's performance in games 3 and 4 feel more sustainable than the Lakers in games 1 and 2.
Okay, I know, I know, that's easy to say after the Thunder's 110-89 win on Saturday night, but it was exactly the vehemence of that win that led me to question the narrative at work here. These two teams were thought to be close and upon further examination some trends should give Lakers fans reason to worry. First of all the two teams second half of the season performance actually favors the Thunder who went 22-13 after the All Star break to the Lakers 18-14. More importantly, the Thunder are a very poor matchup for the Lakers. Just as happened with Aaron Brooks of the Houston Rockets in Lakers second round series last year, the L.A. defense is struggling to contain a speedy point guard. In this case, it's the Thunder's Russell Westbrook who is blowing holes through the Lakers defense.
What's worse, the Thunder's defensive strength capitalizes on the Lakers biggest weakness. The Lakers are not a good 3 point shooting team. during the regular season they ranked 24th at .341; they simply cannot stretch the floor. That's damning flaw against the Thunder whose perimeter defenders are Westbrook (6'3"), Thabo Sefolosha (6'7") and Kevin Durant (6'9"), tall guys for their positions with active arms. The Thunder run off steals and they get more deflections than any team in the league. The Lakers offense has ground to a crawl. During the regular season the Lakers averaged 105.9 points per 100 possessions; through four games with the Thunder they are scoring only 98 points per 100 possessions.
The Lakers still have two solid points in their favor, home court advantage (and the Thunder have yet to win a road playoff game), and Kobe Bryant. Bryant was a nonfactor in Games 3 and 4. He will have to be Kobe Bryant, Superstar, in Game 5 for the Lakers to have any sort of chance. The Thunder are packing the middle and keeping the ball from the Lakers big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. In other words the games on Tuesday and Friday should come down to the Lakers offense versus the Oklahoma City defense. OKC is winning the battle so far and they have served notice that they will likely be an elite team really really soon, but winning in Staples is still a big step.
If I were a betting man, I'd take a pass. The numbers point to OKC but betting against the defending champs at home in a key game doesn't seem like a sound play either.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The First Round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs

The first round of the NBA playoffs is usually a formality, an opportunity for 55 win teams to show off how much better they are than 46 win ones. That probably won't be the case this year. I can readily see five of the eight series going deep into their second week.
The reason for this is fairly simple; the standings are unusually close. In the Western Conference, only seven games separate the #1 seed Los Angeles Lakers and the #8 seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In the 2-7 matchup between the Dallas Mavericks (2nd) and the San Antonio Spurs (7th), the lower seed has nearly twice the point differential of their higher seeded in state rival. The Western #4 vs. #5 matchup between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz features two teams with identical records.
ESPN's John Hollinger, a writer I admire, noted this week that in the first round the higher seeded team with the better regular season record almost always wins these matchups, (41 of the last 41 times), but this season looks like its built for exceptions.
I think Cleveland, Orlando, and Phoenix will breeze into the second round, but the other five series will have the drama of a much later round.
The Utah Denver series will depend entirely on the health of Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin and Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko (Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer is also ailing but the team has a more than adequate backup in Paul Millsap); without knowledge on their availability, the series is too close to call.
The Lakers should find themselves in a tough series against the young, inexperienced Thunder. The Thunder's strength is their perimeter defense; they use their length to deflect passes and create turnovers. The Lakers weakness on offense is spreading the floor (they have no consistent three point shooters presently). I can't see an upset but I'd be surprised if this doesn't go six games.
In the latest edition of the battle of Texas, I can see the Mavericks overcoming the Spurs entirely due to the depth they picked up at the trade deadline when they added Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood from Washington. The Mavericks were one of the better teams after the break, though their opposition is somewhat underseeded due to a bad run of injuries.
The Atlanta Hawks won't breeze into the next round but they are significantly better than the Milwaukee Bucks, who are missing their starting center Andrew Bogut. With him, the Bucks could have taken this series seven games, instead it will probably be six.
The Boston Celtics of current vintage usually play a surprisingly dramatic first round series and this season should be no exception. Their matchup with the Miami Heat won't go several overtimes, but it should go seven games. The Celtics staggered to the finish, and the Heat who finished only three games behind Boston were one of the hottest teams in the league down the stretch. Seeing how Boston defends Dwayne Wade will be the highlight of the first round. This series will only surprise if it doesn't go seven games.