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Q&A: Aural States Founder Greg Szeto

January 28, 2009
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The Aural States blog launched a year ago this month, starting small and growing to a cast of roughly a half dozen writers providing some of the more thoughtful and broad online music coverage in Baltimore. This weekend, the blog goes balls-out in celebration of its one year anniversary, throwing together more top-tier local bands than you’re likely to see outside of July’s Whartscape/Artscape festivities. This week we got together with founder Greg Szeto for a quick e-mail exchange about the blog’s growth, the festival, and Baltimore music in general.

City Paper: So, Aural States has been around for a year now and it’s been a big year for music in Baltimore, what are some personal highlights? Lowlights?
Greg Szeto: Honestly, it’s kind of sappy but pretty much all of it has been a highlight. Making tons of new friends while enjoying the great community and music with everyone has been fantastic. But if I was pressed for highlights, I would have to say that getting press access to cover Bonnaroo was a big one for me personally, sort of an external validation of the project that definitely emboldened me and raised my sights for Aural States. I’ve also immensely enjoyed every interview (especially Bela Fleck!) and the tons of music I’ve gotten to hear.

Lowlights are few and far between. There was a bit of drama and general anxiety surrounding our Whartscape pre-interview, but that’s really all I can think of other than your standard concerns over regularity and quality of content.

CP: One of the blog’s strengths, at least to these eyes, is that is has a diverse cast of contributors. How did the current crew come about?
GS: I started the site, ran a few pieces, and went through some restructuring before I dragged Alex Mudge into it; I had known him from a previous writing gig around town. Our most frequent classical contributor, Sam Buker, I knew through mutual friends as an elegant writer. So I coerced her into helping me pick up the slack in that department. Everyone else either submitted content to be considered as a contributor or I’ve met around town and expressed interest in the project.

CP: Did you have any sort of model for what you wanted Aural States to be?
GS: When I started, it was mainly geared toward being an outlet for myself and my rantings . . . sort of a Hype Machine MP3 blog with a bit less PR spam and a bit more quality control, and healthy amounts of heart and depth. But as things have progressed, I discovered that I really want Aural States to be a vehicle for a new way of writing about music, and a response to what I think is wrong with the current paradigms.

I want Aural States to combine the strengths of the shallow, hype-track, blogosphere approach to music and the foreboding dense, pretentious style of coverage, most notably embraced by Pitchfork. I think there can be a thoughtful, in-depth assessment and appreciation of music that is meaningful and accessible to both the expert and the uninitiated. I mean, is it really useful or elegant to namedrop 10 progressively obscurer bands or genres to describe 10 different aspects of a current artist’s sound? The only thing you end up doing is alienating the vast majority of readers and disservicing the artist being discussed by giving them only cursory consideration.

CP: Another strength of Aural States is classical music coverage, which is rarely put into the mix with pop coverage in quite this way, at least on a blog. What audience do you have in mind for this? Classical aficionados? Indie kids that haven’t really been introduced properly? If it’s a balance, how do you try to work that?
GS: Honestly, I had myself in mind, and my earliest collaborator/contributor Alex. I’ve got an eclectic (to put it mildly) palette of musical tastes and Aural States’ content is fairly representative of that. But I was hoping to try and pull in any and all people who might not think twice about classical music, when in actuality, it can often be one of the most exhilarating forms of music you can see and hear performed. I hope that we have something to offer classical aficionados too, and in turn expose them to sounds outside their comfort zone. The balance is difficult since I go to many more shows than I do classical concerts/recitals, but bringing Sam on board has really lifted that concern from my mind.

It also doesn’t hurt that a few of us are classically trained.

CP: What kind of ordeal was putting together a festival like this? Had you done anything like this before?
GS: Well it helped to have a right-hand man organizing the dance night. (Big ups to Alex for that.) But it was remarkably difficult at times to track people down and sort out details. Conflicts were still coming up earlier this week. But in the end, everyone was surprisingly enthusiastic about throwing us a birthday bash and I’m really thankful for everyone on the bill. Gathering up local business support was, surprisingly, one of the easiest things to organize; for that I am eternally grateful to all the merchandise sponsors: thanks for doing me these huge favors!

And this is my virginal booking/promoting experience. Kind of rough and awkward at times, but ultimately pretty sweet at the end of the day.

CP: What are your personal picks of the lineup?
GS: Again, this is going to sound like a cop-out answer, but they are all personal picks. In curating this festival, I was extremely discriminating and stringent about the criteria for performers. Attending other festivals, I realized that I’m really tired of quantity over quality. I want it to feel like a life or death decision over whether you want to be at the Club Room or the Talking Head at any given time on Friday night. And I think I accomplished that, as far as my tastes are concerned. Pound per pound, it’s the best, most diverse festival line-up (especially per dollar) that I’ve seen come through the area.

The Aural States Festival takes place Jan. 30 at Sonar with Arbouretum, Wye Oak, Lo Moda, the Pleasant Livers, and more. 6 p.m. $10. The second night, Jan. 31, is at Whole Gallery with Craig Sopo, (occasional City Paper contributor) Cex, and Garret McIndoe. Donations at the door. For more information visit auralstates.com.

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