If we asked you to think of a struggling music writer, Anthony Fantano probably wouldn’t come to mind. Spin magazine once dubbed him “today’s most successful music critic.” When Fantano drops a review on his YouTube channel, the Needle Drop — the internet listens. Reddit forums light up, discussions are had (hopefully nice ones, but this is music, after all); sometimes, even the musicians themselves have something to add to the conversation.
However, when we asked Fantano how the Needle Drop got started, he told us he wasn't always making such a splash.
“Any time you start doing something, or trying something and start putting yourself out there — at first, it’s always going to suck. It’s not going to be good,” said Fantano, when asked if creators should be afraid to put out content early in their careers. “Not only because you’re starting to hone whatever your talents are, but simultaneously, until what you are doing takes off, you don’t fully know or understand, who your audience is yet, or what audience you should be trying to shoot for. I certainly didn’t.”
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqOiWhlOny4
Fantano, who recently launched on Patreon, doesn’t have to search for his audience anymore. His YouTube channel, the Needle Drop has nearly two million subscribers, and his videos routinely get views in the six digits (his reviews of bigger releases, like Travis Scott’s Astroworld, often receive well over a million hits).
But when he started the Needle Drop back in 2008, he wasn’t being name-dropped in the bars of famous rappers, or receiving bit-parts in music videos for Billboard-topping songs: He was an intern at a radio station, trying to find a home for his unique brand of music criticism.
Fantano started the Needle Drop in 2007 not as a video show, but as a podcast/radio show on WNPR, a public radio station based out of Hartford, Connecticut. While the show was doing reasonably well (and eventually, would air on a dozen radio stations), the financial crisis of 2008 hit radio hard, bringing big layoffs and a hiring slump to the industry.
To pay the bills during that time, Fantano had to split his hours between radio and making pizzas at a local restaurant.
“As impressed by my programming as some people at the station were, convincing people on the sixth floor that my content was worth putting money into was kind of another story,” said Fantano.
Fantano expanded the Needle Drop into a blog in hopes of reaching more people. But even then, he wasn't finding the audience he needed to do the Needle Drop full-time. If he wanted to make a living as a critic, he would have to find another path — or, pave one of his own.
These days, you could frisbee an LP into the sky and it’d probably come down on a reviewer critiquing music on YouTube. However, in 2009, that wasn’t the case, which is what made the following realization so brilliant: what if Fantano’s audience wasn’t reading blogs or listening to podcasters. What if they were on YouTube?
“After the ball started getting rolling, the reason that the YouTube channel was taking off and the podcast and blog weren’t dawned on me,” said Fantano, who launched the Needle Drop on YouTube in 2009. “The audience of people I was trying to reach, the demographic of people who are most likely to listen to the music that I was talking about most often, was not on the radio. It was not on NPR airwaves. You know, those people weren’t on the blogosphere as much as I’d have liked them to be, too. It just so happened that those people were on YouTube.”
By talking about albums on YouTube, Fanatano didn't just create a space for his own music criticism. He is, arguably, the originator of YouTube music criticism, a medium that is now essential to the conversation, much like how the culture shifted with Rolling Stone and Cream in the late 60s, and Pitchfork in the 2000s.
“This whole process has literally been like the act of building a community around something before which there was no community around,” said Fantano, who, in 2012, was able to turn the Needle Drop into a full-time gig.
And why are viewers tuning into the Needle Drop in 2019? They're pressing play for the same reason they were back when he started — to watch Fantano, in his rotating cast of flannels, talk about music. And lots of it. Google search any recent major release, and most likely, Fantano already reviewed it. In fact, just last month, he posted over 20 reviews of albums by artists as varied as Slipknot to Young Thug.
“That’s, to me, who I’m trying to make music reviews for, you know,” said Fantano. “More well-rounded listeners who want to hear a little bit of everything. Maybe they’re not experts in one single genre or anything like that, but they just are more interested in, ‘well, what’s the best of this right now,’ or ‘what’s the best of that right now.’ What’s the most interesting thing that’s going on?”
You can't tell an audience what albums are worth listening to without saying what albums are not. And while bad reviews can sting, Fantano feels they are an important part of being a reliable and authentic music critic in 2019.
“For me and for anybody else who, professionally, is looking and seeking to do music criticism more broadly, where you’re trying to encompass what are the most influential, significant, and also artistically substantive works of musical art that are dropping year in and year out — yes, you are going to have to be harsh and critical,” said Fantano.
“You are not reviewing the new Slipknot album to say, ‘well, this is good for a Slipknot album.’ No, that should not be the mission. The mission should be, ‘is this Slipknot album good in the grander scheme of all of the music that people are being inundated with day in and day out? Is (an album) worth people’s time in that context?”
Towards the beginning of our interview, we asked Fantano if he had any advice for creators just starting out.
“You have to let yourself be able to fail,” said Fantano. “I was just listening to Daft Punk today thinking about how funny it is that their name essentially comes from a bad live-review if I remember correctly. I mean, I would go and verify that.”
We did verify that, and he was right, by the way. But considering his tag line as the “internet’s busiest music nerd,” would you expect anything else?