Music criticism isn’t much of a job for those who seek the celebrity that comes with being instantly recognizable. Long gone are the days where a critic might gain the kind of fame that would beget Philip Seymour Hoffman playing them in a movie, or appearances to quip about ‘80s ephemera on VH1 talk shows. In the current media environment, a critic’s visibility takes another form—Twitter followers, bylines, masthead associations. Most music critics are writers, and by nature, writing is a private profession done best behind the privacy of a computer screen—no face required.
That is, unless you’re a vlogger. A new era of music critics has mostly given up writing about the art form to put their faces front and center on YouTube. Among this burgeoning scene, a handful of stars have begun to emerge. BIG QUINT INDEED is an excitable Californian who shakes with glee as he sinks into a song he loves; Dead End Hip-Hop is a roundtable of five wizened rap heads whose tastes play to the Whatever happened to the real hip-hop? crowd.
But the most popular music vlogger, and certainly the most recognizable, is Anthony Fantano, aka The Needle Drop. Watch one of his videos, and his head will stick in your brain. It’s an interesting cranium, easily reduced to a black-and-white cartoon outline of a bald man screaming in anger, which serves as Fantano’s online profile picture. Pale, round, buzz cut—he resembles a default avatar in the create-a-player segment of a videogame, his face framed by big, blocky glasses.
On a blustery New England afternoon, Fantano and I attended the WESU Fall Record Fair, an annual vinyl dealers event at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Fantano was hunting for records to feature on “Vinyl Update,” a recurring segment in which he unpackages and reviews new purchases. As we walked, we discussed the Needle Drop, which has, since its launch in 2009, grown from a part-time hobby into a full-time job, netting millions of views, hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and enough ad revenues to support his family. “I didn’t know it would become this popular when I started and I don’t know how popular it could become in the future,” he said while flipping through records from the Fugs and Devo.
It didn’t take long for a couple fans to recognize Fantano. First, a stocky record seller in a Japanese Pink Floyd shirt stared at him for a beat before snapping to recognition and shouting: “Anthony Fantano!” Then, a floppy-haired college student gaped as Fantano walked by and gushed, “Oh my God, it’s Anthony Fantano.”
Pictures were taken. When asked if he lived nearby, Fantano offered the evasive answer of “I live in Connecticut.” The student seemed legitimately blown away, but his friend, an Asian woman in a windbreaker, didn’t know who Fantano was. “He’s really famous,” the fan said.
“I’m not that famous,” Fantano said with a smile, before thanking the pair and saying goodbye.
It was a tame interaction, Fantano later told me. One time at South by Southwest, a fan asked for a picture with him. Fantano’s then girlfriend—now his wife—offered to take the photo, only to laugh when she used the guy’s phone. Later, she told Fantano she’d accidentally swiped into the stranger’s photos folder and found it full with photos of him, portending ominous usage of the new pic.
It’s abnormal for an independent music critic to draw this sort of attention, but Fantano has emerged from the gauntlet of personal fan blogs and amateur commentariat to become his field’s first superstar. In a supposedly democratized media landscape where anyone can build a following, Fantano’s viewership numbers breathe life into the Silicon Valley clichés. From mid-September to mid-October, The Needle Drop collected around 5.1 million views. Users spent an average of four minutes on each video—an engagement time many website editors would die for. Numbers aren’t everything, but there is a strong case for him as modern music’s most successful individual critic, with a reputation tied to no entity but his own.
His videos follow a simple format: Fantano talks into a camera about songs and records while providing context and highlighting things he did and didn’t like. When he reviews albums, he ends by giving the record a score that flashes across the screen in big, cartoon letters. He peppers his videos with nerdy jokes inspired by his loves of Monty Python, Adult Swim, and Tim Heidecker—absurdist weed humor that fits the meme-heavy sensibility of forums like Reddit and 4chan, where he is massively popular. (“My fans love memes,” he said. “They turn me into a fucking meme every day. The only thing I get more than Anthony Fantano hate is Anthony Fantano memes.”)
The style of his reviews, however, is what makes people tune in. The camera remains trained on Fantano’s face, allowing him to speak directly to his audience. In the background, the cover of whatever album he’s reviewing is projected on a wall-mounted screen. Fantano studied journalism in college, and he approaches his reviews with a reporter’s literal feel for description. He doesn’t speak metaphorically, and though he’s politically savvy, he’s more likely to point out that a record’s politics exist than to explore what they mean.
This trait is the sort of thing that’s criticized by more seasoned critics, whose authority comes from their ability to synthesize multiple political considerations into a perspective that feels objectively true. But Fantano’s is an authentically personal approach—a considered hesitation to avoid generalization, and speaking for anyone else. It can be frustrating when he appears to dismiss a record without digging into his reaction—his unimpressed read on the gender politics of Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues came off as rushed, not knowing—but he’s only being honest about his point of view, and his familiarity. It’s a refreshing approach to his viewers, who are young, scattered across the globe, and 94 percent male. (He shared that last fact with some embarrassment.)
Fantano’s style makes him particularly gifted at avoiding the more belabored constructions of print criticism, having adapted to the rhetorical advantages of video. The subtle modulation of his expressions—the way he affects an exhausted look, bugs his eyes in excitement, or talks with his hands—replace what might’ve been more tortured sentences. In a review of Swans’ 2013 record To Be Kind, one of three albums that have received perfect scores from Fantano–Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Death Grips’ The Money Store were the others–he didn’t accentuate the record’s heaviness by comparing it to “the Sisyphean boulder,” or something convoluted. Instead, he practically growled as he pronounced the word—heavvvvviness—while flaring his eyes. It communicated that, yes, the record did rock.
As such, he comes off like a savvy amateur—a critic who learned by listening to lots of music, not by reading other critics. These days, Fantano says he’s too busy to spend afternoons brushing up on unfamiliar music from the past. But Fantano is also diligent about keeping in touch with his thousands of followers—he listens to their suggestions about what he should hear and responds to their frequent queries. (On November 21, 2016 one fan asked him via Tumblr: “Hey bro. Long time fan here. Was just wondering why are you such a SJW vegan pussy?” His reply: “Because my parents raised me right.” 150 followers shared the two-line interaction.) His enthusiastic, personal method resonates deeply with fans, whose devotion and support for him might seem astonishing otherwise.
Fantano told me that the intimacy and interaction between YouTube creators and their audiences drew him to vlogging rather than trying for a television career. “TV is full of total douchebags,” he said, pointing to recently scandalized Access Hollywood host Billy Bush as an example. “It’s full of these fake, boring personalities. They don’t really have anything to say, and don’t really think anything. If they do, they keep it to themselves and put on their fake persona for TV.” He mentioned the Amazing Atheist, an irritable vlogger who offers caustic opinions on politics and religion, as an influence: “What he illustrated for me was that you could come out there and be successful and have your own individual bold opinion that everybody disagrees with, and it’s not the end of the world.”
The perspective he talked about was a middle ground between outrageousness and focus-tested talking points. Fantano isn’t an incendiary thinker, but he won’t say anything he doesn’t absolutely believe—won’t use highfalutin oratory to prove an ego-burnishing point, even if it scans as naive to some critics. In a world dominated by pompous media bullshit, this is his most attractive quality: Fantano’s ability to seem totally, credibly real, an everyman talking directly to you.
Credit: The Needle Drop YouTube
Fantano’s tagline is that he’s “the internet’s busiest music nerd,” which might actually be factual. He reviews around twenty albums a month, along with weekly compendiums of new songs, monthly roundups, one-off rants, explorations of his vinyl purchases, and so forth. Since 2009, he’s uploaded 2164 videos to his channel, an average of between five and six videos per week. The high output puts constraints on his reviewing style, which he described as “workmanlike.” “I make reviews like the way some people might make chairs,” he said, “which is probably a terrible way of looking at the process of consuming music, but I consume music in a way that’s different than your average listener. I have to ingest music at such a high rate, in such an efficient way, that I can’t afford to be sitting around and listening to the same album for weeks and weeks and weeks on end.”
After the record fair, we were sitting in his office, one of two rooms in his house that Fantano dedicates to the Needle Drop. Previously, Fantano and his wife resided in a crowded apartment, where they lived among the cameras used to film his videos. In his office, a standing desk held a large, flatscreen computer monitor. The lemon-painted walls were decorated with tokens of his success—drawn posters featuring his cartoon avatar, signed records from Jello Biafra. An open-faced storage unit held scattered CDs, papers, books, and a glass trophy he received for being named the O Music Awards’ blogger of the year.
Fantano was trying to figure out the week’s schedule—what albums he needed to review and how much time he had to review them. A record by a quirky metal band named Brain Tentacles piqued his interest, though not enough for a full review. His fans were asking for his thoughts on Campaign, a Ty Dolla $ign mixtape of which he had almost nothing to say. Meanwhile, he had to record full-length reviews of new records from Belgian metal band Oathbreaker and Solange.
Fantano is a generalist, which means he reviews everything—everything, from ANOHNI to Zayn. There are sounds he’s more naturally attracted to, but his fans follow all genres of music, and expect him to do the same. His delay in reviewing the Solange record frustrated him, as he followed the steady stream of YouTube comments and Twitter replies asking when it was coming. But he hadn’t spent enough time listening to it—hadn’t figured out how to talk about what he’d heard—and so the review remained unrecorded. Fantano said he tries not to read other reviews or artist interviews before recording his videos: “What’s more important to me is that I have my own personal reaction.”
“I’m liking it more than I thought I was going to, which is always a good thing,” he said, before floating a set of adjectives to describe her music: elegant, classy, tasteful. I watched him listen to the record, which he did on speakers, and then over his headphones while sitting on the floor. He tapped his foot as he listened, though he appeared to be focusing intently. “I’m having a good time,” he said of his listening process. “I enjoy the music for its cerebral aspects, for its intellectual components, you know.” As he listened, he tweeted a screenshot of the record’s Apple Music listing, along with the caption, “I’m on it. <3”
In the meantime, he recorded short reviews for the Ty Dolla $ign and Brain Tentacles releases. For these, he used his iPhone, not the professional camera reserved for lengthier videos. Facing the window overlooking the side of his house, so that the natural light would catch his face, he hit the record button and talked off the top of his head. Each video was completed in a few minutes, one after the other, and uploaded to his YouTube channel without editing.
The obligatory nature of the Ty review was reflected in his analysis, which resounded as a hearty meh. “It’s not that bad of a tape,” he said. “There are some decent moments on this thing.” His energy was noticeably muted, leading one viewer to comment: “You kinda look sad in this video… What’s up buddy?” He was wholly indecisive about the Brain Tentacles release—he seemed intrigued by it, but he couldn’t commit. The review would eventually log 30,000 views, his lowest-watched video of the month. The second most up-voted comment said: “Review A Seat At The Table by Solange!!!!!”
Fantano, who is 31 years old, was born in Connecticut. His parents divorced when he was young, which meant he moved around a lot, and often listened to the radio during car rides between his parents’ houses. As a teenager, he settled in Wolcott, which he called a “small, dumpy town.” His tastes in music were informed by his friends, with whom he frequented the local record shops and swapped mp3s downloaded from early file-sharing sites like Napster and KaZaa. “I never had anyone older to tell me what music was,” he said.
At 15, he weighed more than 300 pounds—weight he subsequently lost thanks to a strict diet. The lifestyle changes reverberated beyond his appearance—people starting treating him nicer, which upset him because he was “still the same person.” A youthful dalliance with nu-metal gave way to what he calls “real music”—classic rock, punk, early hip-hop—along with a mohawk and an ornery teenage disposition. His early, structured ideas about music, such as a belief that no good punk was made after the ‘80s, melted away when he got to Southern Connecticut State University and started working at the college radio station.
“I was meeting metalheads and emo kids and indie kids and other punk kids who weren’t just listening to the older punk,” he said. “They were listening to Against Me!, and they were listening to all those Fat Wreck Chords bands.”
At SCSU, Fantano studied political science, broadcast communication, and journalism. He lived at home and continued working at his high school pizza parlor job to pay off student loans. A professor helped him get an internship with WNPR, where he pitched a podcast about music. He called it The Needle Drop, taking inspiration from part of the show’s intro, where he recorded the sound of a needle dropping onto a record. More importantly, the title served as an organizing ethos. “I wanted to have the vibe of sitting down, chilling and listening to a vinyl record,” he says. “The idea of the show was to slow down, hang out, and enjoy the inner workings of this album that I’m going to be talking about.”
This was a new, nervous era for traditional media, which was still figuring out how to use the internet. If it seems curious that a recent college graduate could pitch and run a podcast for an NPR affiliate, consider that in 2007, podcasting was in its primordial stage. The understanding of the medium was so inchoate that Fantano and his producers didn’t learn until weeks after the podcast’s launch that they couldn’t play songs on the digital air without a license.
Even with support from the radio station, the podcast felt like a dead end to Fantano. “People who are my age or a little younger and are into something like the Frank Ocean album, they’re not going on NPR to hear about it,” he said. He was still working at WNPR, as well as the pizza place, but he yearned to try something different. “After a year or two of doing those, it was just like, ‘I don’t really feel like I’m moving anywhere,’” he said. “If I’m going to continue this, I need to try one more big thing, and if that doesn’t work out then I’m just going to fucking go to political journalism or I’m going to go be an accountant.”
He’d missed joining the wave of music blogs at the start of the millennium—it was too late to start another indie mp3 site like Gorilla vs. Bear. At the beginning of 2009, he decided to shoot a video—a review of a Jay Reatard record, which is now lost to the internet’s archives. (Later that year, he received a DMCA notice related to the clips of music he played on his videos; rather than anxiously litigating for the privilege, he took all of his old videos down in 2010.) He was just messing around, but that moment turned out to be a breakthrough. Fantano had discovered his format.
Over the next year, he kept recording reviews and slowly amassed followers—no more than a thousand or so, but enough that YouTube was interested in partnering with him for a share of ad revenue. There were other music vloggers with nascent channels who applied for the partnership, but Fantano was the only one chosen—a stroke of luck he says “didn’t make any sense to me at the time.” His channel grew 10,000 subscribers by the end of 2010, then 50,000 by the end of 2011. He learned how to properly edit his reviews, thanks to instruction from Shirley Braha, a former TV host (and current owner of Marnie the Dog) who produced online videos for MTV. Soon enough, he was earning enough income to leave the pizza place.
Though he continued his affiliation with WNPR until 2014, an incident in 2012 inspired him to set a goal of going it alone. An essay he’d written to accompany a playlist of songs from under-the-radar debut albums by classic artists posted to the national NPR website with the editor-created headline “50 Failed First Impressions,” triggering a deluge of angry comments from readers who thought he was slighting Bob Dylan.
“At that point I was just like, never again,” he told me. “If anybody wanted to look me up they could probably see my YouTube, and think I’m a total moron for coming up with that. The money you’re paying me isn’t worth being embarrassed by some awful title like that.” While the experience of having your text overlooked for a leading headline is familiar to many writers, many of them would just suck it up and move on. But the YouTube channel promised Fantano total control of his content. Clearly, it was the future.
Credit: The Needle Drop YouTube
After a few days, the Solange review snapped into place. In his formal shooting studio, where blackout curtains shaded out the sun, he set up his camera, flipped on some high-powered lights, and sat down on his stool. His appreciation for the record had grown after he’d examined the lyrics more closely and noticed they were more political than he’d realized.
Shooting the review still wasn’t easy. He stumbled over his sentences and seemed uneasy about his read on the album. Reviews of A Seat at the Table published on music websites had emphasized its blackness, but he merely pointed out those themes, and skated away from breaking them down. (“While I may not always agree with the mindset that fuels the politics of this record, much of it is pulled from Solange’s personal experiences, which honestly, I can’t really argue with.”) This self-consciousness was occasionally awkward, but similarly level-headed—as a straight, white man, it was true that he didn’t really have grounds to argue with her personal experiences. Unlike the Ty Dolla $ign and Brain Tentacles review, he frequently paused to sit in thought. The filming took a half hour, though it would be edited down to just eight minutes. The review would eventually tally around 140,000 views, about par for the course for his channel and better than most mainstream music publications. (His reviews of other big albums this year tracked even higher–Frank Ocean’s Blonde has nearly 800,000 views, Kanye’s The Life of Pablo over 1.5 million.)
Whenever he was shooting a video, Fantano appeared to flip “on.” His gravelly voice pinched into something nasal; his words were pronounced with harder inflections, as though an emoji hand clap punctuated each syllable; he made sustained eye contact with the camera. There was a marked difference between this more alert personality and the dry, reserved person he was with the camera turned off.
When I asked him if he felt The Needle Drop was a character he portrayed, Fantano demurred. “Everything I said about that record on camera I would say to somebody in person,” he said. “Maybe not put quite as perfectly, and maybe with some more swears in there.” A moment later, he acknowledged that he withheld information about his real life on camera, in order to preserve a line between his public and personal sides—no easy feat given that his personality forms the core of his videos’ appeal.
Fantano wouldn’t disclose his annual earnings from Needle Drop, but given his sponsorships and YouTube’s payout scale, which is based on several factors but generally awards higher ad revenue to channels with highly engaged viewers, it’s safe to say he makes a healthy living. (Commercials for Netflix, Comedy Central, and Sonos appear regularly.) “There are a lot of people who are mad that I’m able to do what I do and be financially successful at it,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I’m not just sitting on top of a giant pile of money, and that’s because I try to do responsible things with my money. I’m not being a complete moron with it.” Aside from funding household considerations like mortgage and car payments, some of his earnings go toward a part-time salary for Austin Walsh, a former fan turned regular collaborator who edits the majority of his videos, and also toward paying a freelance editor.
After years of grinding, Fantano has reached a level of stability that many music writers would find enviable, but constant shifts in the media business mean that his future remains uncertain. Fantano’s YouTube subscriber base is around 800,000 users—robust, though far below top creators like videogame enthusiast PewDiePie (49 million subscribers) or Chilean comedian/musician HolaSoyGerman (29 million subscribers). To earn enough money to pay Austin a full-time wage, Fantano started recording more regularly on That Is The Plan, a separate channel where he reviews memes and records often irreverent videos that don’t fall into the record review format. (After showing me the draft of a conceptually cluttered video where he reviewed the Pepe the Frog meme, he cackled, shook his head, and said, “It’s so bad … Okay, this is ready to go up on the internet and ruin my career.”)
His immediate goals were tangible—reach 1 million subscribers, throw a party to celebrate it—but he worried about doing too much, too quickly. A forthcoming partnership with Sirius to host a radio show was a natural extension; a potential album review show on Adult Swim, brokered with the network by a mutual friend, was perhaps not. (“I don’t know if TV is where I see my format working.”) Revamping his site to improve the organization of his videos was an easy goal; turning it into a daily hub of music news or inviting new faces to record videos felt like a reach. Sponsorships had to make sense—he declined a partnership with Warby Parker, the trendy eyewear brand, after they blanched at a proposed comedic approach to his endorsement, which was the only way he could justify repping for a trendy eyewear brand. “I can’t or won’t do anything that will endanger my future,” he said.
Fantano is not unaware of his detractors, who range from viewers who think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about to fellow critics who think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The things that make him a successful vlogger—his speed, his unpretentious humor, his willingness to review everything regardless of his genre fluency, his refusal to assume a deep understanding of an artist’s politics or feelings—are at odds with traditional print and online criticism. He brought up an interaction with a Pitchfork writer who eagerly introduced himself at South by Southwest. The writer told Fantano he was only joking when he previously wrote on Twitter, “Anthony Fantano makes me want to quit my job.” Every music writer we spoke to is at least aware of Fantano’s work—some of them find it dumb, and at any rate, don’t want to talk about it on the record. It doesn’t bother Fantano too much, but it does bother him. “It obviously took time and took a lot of effort,” he says of his work. “I would at least like to be treated with the same amount of legitimacy. That’s all.”
Zach Hart, proprietor of the music blog We Listen For You, has been friends with Fantano since The Needle Drop launched. “Anthony just wants to talk to his followers,” Hart told me. “He’s all about expressing how I, personally, feel about music. I’m going to expose something about myself that is very personal and I’m going to share it with you because that’s how I connect to music. I think Anthony does that. For professional writers, to see a guy who gets to have complete control over what he says and when he says it and what he does—it’s not a jealousy thing as much as it’s different. I think a lot of people think that, you know, that’s not the way you should do it.”
Music criticism is subject to the same vicissitudes of commerce as the rest of media—there are more quality writers than ever before, but less money with which to pay them, and fewer established publications to employ them. There are a thousand ways the industry could change between now and next week, but Fantano anticipated that publications would soon seek to emulate his success by insisting their own writers get on camera to share their thoughts. The commercial potential is immense: Advertisements for videos are sold at higher prices, and millennials are thought to crave video content. Every serious publication interested in making money has to invest resources in this area, the conventional wisdom goes. Pitchfork now posts a recurring Facebook Live segment where two of its editors talk about the week’s music; Complex and Vice’s music channels have experimented with having staffers host filmed segments; SPIN also has plans to do more with Facebook Live.
Fantano, who has resisted overtures to partner exclusively with any publication, expressed doubts over whether a “big entity” could successfully edge into his territory. “Some of them might not be good at vlogging,” he said, referring to the uneasy prospect of putting writers on camera. “Some of them might become good at it, and then decide they want to break out and do their own thing. You know, sites would have to start forcing these people to sign contracts, and it might not be worth it at the end of the day.”
In any case, Fantano still has several advantages over the field, if only because he’s been doing it for longer than anyone else. His thousands of fans follow him whether he’s reviewing a small scale release or an internet meme, and he’s honed the skill of on-camera criticism that’s both strong-willed and conversational. Most importantly, his coveted fan base wants him to just keep doing what he does for now.
While he’s developed a sincere relationship with his audience, Fantano is as brutally honest about the future of The Needle Drop as anything else. In our interview, he referred to the patronage of his fans as “like a business relationship” in a lot of ways. “It might seem less romantic, but I think if you treat it any other way, you’re bound to either burn out or get your heart broken. If your whole channel revolves around people being in love with you, eventually people aren’t going to be in love with you anymore. Maybe you’ll become less cute, or other lovely people will come down the line.” Sitting on a couch in his living room, he seemed unfazed by the idea. “There’s always going to be a moment where it’s out with the old, and in with the new. That’s probably going to happen to me one day.”