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Anil Prasad: Inner Views, Borderless Perspectives

Anil Prasad: Inner Views, Borderless Perspectives
Joe Lang By

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Put the burden of the interpretation on the interview subject's shoulders. Go into their back catalog and cross-reference nuggets from their past against their current project to do a compare and contrast.
He may not be a household name and you likely won't hear him mentioned in music journalism classes alongside Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs and Anthony DeCurtis. But for those familiar with his work, Anil Prasad is considered among the most knowledgeable, provocative and forward-thinking music journalists in the world today.

In 1994, Prasad was dissatisfied with the lack-of-depth and diversity found in the conventional music journalism landscape and struck out on his own to create Innerviews website, one of the first online music publications. While some legacy music journalists initially dismissed the non-profit one-man operation as a "fad," labels and artists began clamoring for exposure almost as fast as the number of site hits grew, and detractors were abruptly silenced. In 2010, with over 300 interviews to date, tens of thousands of devoted readers, and naysayers left in the dust, Prasad has released his first book Innerviews: Music Without Borders [Abstract Logix]. The collection features 24 exclusive interviews with iconoclastic musicians including Björk, Chuck D, McCoy Tyner, John McLaughlin, Victor Wooten, and Joe Zawinul. Wooten wrote the book's foreword.

The book has received nearly universal acclaim from dozens of publications including The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, and National Public Radio (NPR).

All About Jazz: I remember talking to you about the Innerviews book as far back as 2008. Can you walk readers through the inception of the idea to its release?

Anil Prasad: The inception of the book the resulted from Innerviews readers, saying, "You know, this content you're doing for the web really would be good in an extended book length format." Over the years, several dozen of those emails came through the site's feedback form. I would email these people back and say, "Given that you can get everything on the website for free, why do you want to hold this in your hand? Why does this interest you?" They said there's still something important, impressive and tactile about holding a book and being able to take it anywhere. I carried that idea around for a while. I finally decided to do it thinking it would be a pretty cool snapshot of a moment in time, especially given that the site has been going for so long. It would give me a chance to revisit pieces that I really liked and it would open up opportunities for brand new interviews as well. It was a long and arduous task trying to get a publisher for the book and I talked to all kinds of people. I talked to agents and the B.S. factor was so high in getting a book out that I decided I didn't want to deal with it.

As Innerviews, I'm a one man operation. I can do what I want, how I want, when I want. I asked myself "Why do I want to deal with this collection of idiots, all telling me what it should be?" It was only when Abstract Logix declared its interest that I chose to seriously make it happen. Souvik Dutta, the founder and head of the company, said "Do whatever you want, just make sure it's good." I thought that's a brief I can work with. He literally let me conceive the book as I saw fit, funded it, and played a critical role in making it happen. So that's how it came about.

AAJ: You've interviewed Tori Amos in the past and I noticed she wasn't in the book. Scouring through the Innerviews website, it seems the interviews in the book clearly weren't all based on star power. Can you talk about how you chose what interviews would be in the book?

AP: The decision about what interviews to include was based on the quality of the interview and the Tori Amos interviews were very project specific. One was about a Christmas album and one was about her debut album. They didn't really get deep enough into the broader themes that you find in the book which are about the creative process, collaborations, motivations, history, and spirituality. All of the interviews in the book are very expansive. Also, I didn't just want it to just be about really famous people. That was one of the benefits about Abstract Logix. Souvik said, "As long as there are some things we can hook a marketing effort to, great, but it doesn't have to all be about celebrity musicians." So you have people like Jonas Hellborg, Noa, Martin Carthy, and Michael Hedges. These are incredibly influential people, but not necessarily household names. I actually remember a reviewer who wrote me going, "Who the hell is Jonas Hellborg?" [laughter]. I said, "Well, if you read the chapter you might find out. In fact, that's a good way to learn about who he is." But most of the reviewers have been very, very kind to the book and respect the fact that it's pretty eclectic.

AAJ: How did you come up with the idea of promoting the book the same way an artist would promote a new album, as opposed to the conventional book release approach?

AP: It goes back to a book called White Bicycles (Serpent's Tail, 2007), by Joe Boyd. This is, by the way, a fantastic and essential book chronicling Boyd's work as a highly influential producer for the likes of Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, and Sandy Denny, just to name a few. I spoke to Boyd about the unique way he marketed the book. He said "Why would I put out a book about making music, the creative process and my experience as a producer and send it out to a general book review base as opposed to sending it specifically to music journalists enthusiastic about the subject matter?" This approach worked out extraordinarily well for Boyd. He hired a publicity firm that specialized in music.

And so, I was inspired to take a similar tact with the Innerviews book. The book contains very musicianly-oriented pieces. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but the book is actually about making music. It's not about fashion. It's not about artist cooking tips. It's not about all the silly crap that celebrity journalism has become. Therefore, it made sense that the book should go to music journalists for review. After all, they're the ones who would have previously heard about the artists, and they're people who would hopefully appreciate the in-depth nature of the content, and see some relationship between what they're doing and what's in the book—as opposed to sending it to someone who writes about dance, cinema or cooking, and having that "who the hell are these people?" factor creep in. It was also a question of economics. With a book like this you don't want to send out 1,000 review copies and have 975 of them be ignored. So we took a very highly-targeted approach and made sure to get it into the hands of people who appreciate eclectic music.

AAJ: How did it work out for you?

AP: It's worked out extraordinarily well. I would say about 98 percent of the reviews have been extremely positive. I'm really happy. I think Boyd's strategy worked. And if there is any music journalist that is reading this who is putting out a book, I would strongly recommend foregoing the traditional book marketing situation unless you're writing a book about Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney or someone who has an existence in ultra-mainstream culture. Instead, go to the people who listen to the music and know and write about music. The other point of the music marketing component is the extremely influential nature of the blogosphere and social media outreach. I think a lot of the reasons this book has achieved any traction is because it's talked about among fans and listeners—people who want to promote the work of the artists contained in the book.

AAJ: Will there be a digital edition of the book?

AP: There are plans for a digital version of the book in 2011.

AAJ: What was it like having other music journalists review you work?

AP: Generally very positive. I guess because the Innerviews website has been around since the dawn of the web in 1994, a lot of music journalists already knew what it was and could make the linkage between the book, the website, and who I am. So I think they've generally been really fair and accommodating. Of course there have been some really silly reviews saying things like, "The cover is very grey. Why is it so grey? Wouldn't some color have been nice?" or "Wow, these interviews are really, really long. Who would want to read such a long interview?" One review went "I've never heard of any of these artists and you probably never have too." [laughter]. Crap like that is pure journalistic laziness, really. I want to emphasize that we're talking about a fractional element here, because the response has been terrific overall. But it is interesting to see what people focus on.

AAJ: On that note, I checked archive.org to see if I could see an earlier version of the site, but nothing was available. Is that intentional?

AP: Yeah, I've done that on purpose. You can't access old versions of Innerviews on archive.org. The interviews on the site, as well as its look and feel, and structure, have become incrementally better over time. The interviews been re-edited and reformatted over time with new graphics added. And while I think there is great value in archive.org, in the case of Innerviews, the best version of the site that you are ever going to see is the one that is up at this moment. No one likes to go back and look at their high school yearbook photos, you know?

AAJ: Stepping back to your formative years as a journalist, you've said that in journalism school you were heavily influenced by your professors' out-of-the-box thinking and alternate methods for interviewing. Can you talk about those methods?

AP: Sure. It's absolutely not rocket science and I don't think you need to go to journalism school to get any of this stuff, although it's certainly helpful if you have the opportunity. Don't ask closed-ended questions. Ask open-ended questions that aren't "yes or no" focused or necessarily revolve around boxed-in answers. You'll see things in the book and the website like, "What's your take on this?" or "Can you elaborate on that?" or "Tell me more about this." They're very simple devices that put the burden of the interpretation on the interview subject's shoulders. I think that's really important. That's where you're going to get the most interesting answers as opposed to something that would result in a yes or no answer.

Another thing of value is really deep research, going into an artist's catalog or looking at previous interviews or articles and pulling out nuggets from their past and cross-referencing against their current project and doing a compare and contrast. If I'm talking to several artists in succession and an interesting topic emerges, I might ask all of them about it. When I interviewed Joe Zawinul, which is still one of my favorite interviews, he said that America is in a state of decline because the number of real storytellers is dwindling. I hit a few other artists with his quote to get their reaction. So many people just took that one and ran with it in interesting and unique ways.

With music journalists, when they receive a CD or downloadable album, it comes attached with a one-to-three page artist biography. For many music journalists, their research begins and ends with that bio. That's why so many interviews read exactly the same. There's a certain amount of carbon copying in music journalism, and there's really no reason it has to be that way. With the web, there's such a wealth of music journalism history to tap into now. In mere seconds, you can Google your way into dozens of articles on the person you're covering and come up with really interesting and novel questions.

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