It’s not often that site owners or writers in general are glorified when they are sometimes the heroes behind the scenes. While everyone is quick to support their favourite bands, no one perhaps spares a thought on the writers who spread the word and help them make more fans in the first place. No one sees their hard work which is usually voluntarily done without any hope for compensation of any kind. They may not be musicians but perhaps they don’t need to be. They have a different skill set which is taken for granted – writing. And it will never go out of fashion, or relevance. The power of the written word is here to stay and it often determines the success of an obscure album. So here’s a small attempt to applaud the efforts of such people, starting with the friendly, affable and extremely prompt owner of the well-known site No Clean Singing who goes by name Islander.
Transcending Obscurity (Kunal Choksi): What made you start No Clean Singing? What was the catalyst for doing so (for example, I was insulted for running just a forum so I started a site to support it in 2004)?
No Clean Singing (Islander): I started the site in the fall of 2009 with a couple of other people who are no longer involved, really just for the hell of it. Back then there were fewer metal sites and blogs on the internet than there are now. I had become a daily reader of some of them, such as the then-fairly-young Metal Sucks and a blog called Reign In Blonde. They were light-hearted and entertaining, as well as sources of new music, and I just thought I’d try my hand at it as a hobby. I had no aspirations and no expectations that anyone would read it. It was just a means of self-entertainment and self-expression.
I also decided I would only write about music I liked and wanted to recommend, rather than pretend to be some kind of critic. I wasn’t aware of any metal blogs with that kind of philosophy back then, and I vowed that for however long the thing lasted, that would be the mission — to support music I enjoyed rather than tell people what they shouldn’t listen to or make fun of bands.
NCS: Back when I started the blog I listened to more hardcore and metalcore than I do these days, and one of my favorite groups in that area was Bury Your Dead. BYD’s vocalist Mat Bruso had left to become a schoolteacher and he was replaced by a guy named Myke Terry. He introduced clean vocals into BYD’s music, which annoyed me. And they weren’t the only band in that field who were doing that — kind of straddling the fence between heavy, hard music and pop metal. I thought it was an awful trend, and I really didn’t have much use for clean vocals in extreme metal to begin with. So that’s what gave me the idea for the name. It was sort of a joke, but sort of serious, too — though I’ve never had any strict ban on music with clean singing, even at the start.
TO: Can you tell us when exactly did you start your site? What were the biggest hurdles you faced?
NCS: The first post was in November 2009. Most of the hurdles at the start involved just learning all the crap you need to know to set up a web site — getting a web host, figuring out what blogging software to use and how to use it, trying to design an appearance and format for the site that wasn’t ugly as sin, etc. Getting people to read the posts wasn’t something I considered a hurdle, because I pretty much assumed no one would.
TO: How much readership do you have circa 2016 (if you don’t mind me asking)? Which have been your most popular posts?
NCS: We have a Google Analytics account that tracks traffic at the site, so I can tell you. Even though we don’t accept advertising, which is why most people use Google Analytics, I read those stats because I’m curious (actually, “obsessed” is a more accurate word these days than “curious”). Over the last 6 months we’ve had about 1.1 million page views and about 260,000 users. About 40% of the visitors are in the U.S. and the rest scattered around the world.
The most popular post during that same six-month period was my interview of Mgla, followed by some of our 2015 year-end list columns. Though I’m kind of embarrassed to say so, our most popular post since the site began was my friend DGR’s review of BabyMetal’s debut album in 2014 (viewed more than 21,000 times), followed by a post from 2010 about Gojira by someone who no longer writes for the site (viewed almost 20,000 times) and Andy Synn’s review of Devin Townsend’s ‘Deconstruction’ album (over 16,000 views).
TO: Were you ever a part of the forum days? They were hugely popular back in the day and some of us (including me) still cherish that ‘community’ feeling. How do you think the social media platforms have changed that? How important are they for No Clean Singing?
NCS: I was never part of any forums. I’m pretty sure my path into metal and writing about metal was very different from most people’s. The only social media I’m currently involved in for the site is Facebook. In the early days I had something on MySpace (I guess it’s still there), but I eventually abandoned that. The only thing I do on Facebook is add a status linking to new articles after I post them at the site, and I also post a piece of artwork on our FB page every day. I don’t mess with Twitter, Instagram, etc. No time for it.
As for how important FB is to our site, the reach of my FB statuses is such a tiny fraction of our page’s 20,000 likes that I assume most people find out about new NCS posts through RSS feeds or getting e-mail alerts if they’ve registered at the site for that. But FB is extremely important as a way to get info about bands and new releases and to communicate with bands and labels. We get a shitload of e-mailed press releases and promos every day, but at least half of the music I write about I discover through FB posts by bands and labels and through links from friends that show up in my news feed.
TO: You’ve confided in me that you actually pay money to further promote the bands that are written about on your site via Facebook. What is the purpose of that? Do you see yourself going for advertisements on your site in the future? If not, explain your reasons.
NCS: It’s annoying as hell to have to pay FB so that more than 5% of our followers will see my statuses, but I do that when the status is about a song or album premiere that we’re hosting. I don’t pay much — usually only five bucks — but I do it to support the bands. That’s really the only reason. We don’t accept advertising on the site or make money from it in any other way, so more traffic at NCS has no economic significance to us, but it can mean something to the bands whose music we’re premiering. And since we only premiere music that we like (or at least that I like!), I just consider it another part of the site’s overall mission — which is to support metal and spread the word about bands who are doing good things.
We’ll never accept advertising on the site. Thanks to my day job, I don’t need the money. And I like the fact that no one who writes for NCS (including me) is doing it for money or has a business interest in getting people to visit us.
TO: Tell us something about your day job. How do you manage to run/update the site in spite of that?
NCS: It’s not a regular 9-5 job. Sometimes it’s a goddamn typhoon that keeps me busy 15-20 hours a day, day after day. It can involve a lot of travel too. But most of the time I have the time and the freedom to do what I do for NCS, and I realize that puts me in a very fortunate position. So even though I get annoyed at my job when it pulls me away from the site, I’m really very fortunate. That job is what makes NCS possible.
TO: What’s the most challenging aspect of running a webzine according to you?
NCS: My answer is probably a rare one, because most people doing this as intensively as I am are trying to make a buck or build a career as a writer, publicist, whatever. I’m not. So the biggest challenge for me is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to spread the word about as many bands as I would like to help. Every day I come across new music I enjoy, most of it from bands who are relatively unknown. I want to say something about all of them, but I can’t.
There are some other challenges, but I’ll save them for the next answer (since I looked ahead).
TO: What advice would you like to give to other smaller webzines and blogs out there?
NCS: Looking back over the last 6+ years of our own experience, I think the two biggest challenges if you want other people to read what you’re doing are (1) writing things that people will find entertaining and/or useful (and not painful to read), and (2) getting noticed.
Since the beginning, I’ve tried to notify bands and labels every time we’ve written about their releases. If they like what they see, most of them will help spread the word about NCS. And another thing I think has helped is that we haven’t focused all our attention on bands and releases that most people have already heard of and could read about at dozens of other places. I think serious metalheads are interested in making new discoveries, and (speaking for myself) it’s more satisfying to help spread the word about bands who aren’t already high up on most people’s radar screens.
As for the first challenge, I’ve been really lucky that some very interesting, smart people who have their own distinctive “voices” and are good writers have chosen to throw in with me over time — and also lucky that all those people have had different tastes in metal, which enables us to bring diversity in the genres of metal we write about.
I’ll mention one more thing, even though it’s probably obvious: Unless you’re already a well-financed business with money to spend paying writers and publicizing your site, you’ve got to be persistent and patient. In the early years, our own growth was very slow and gradual. A smarter and less stubborn person than me would have given up a long time ago.
I guess people who read my scribbling know that my tastes are very broad, and they’ve only expanded over time. I genuinely enjoy most genres of extreme metal, though as the years have passed my tastes have become increasingly extreme. I enjoy listening to black metal and death metal the most these days. I still have no use for power metal. Trying to name my favorite bands is too hard (same reason I don’t make my own year-end lists). I have so many favorites, and I seem to find a new one almost every week.
TO: What is your take on strict supervision of content? In this line, is being an ‘elitist’ helpful in the long run?
I’m not trying to criticize what anyone else does, I can only say what we do. We don’t have any rigid boundaries around the kind of music we cover (though it does tend to be more extreme than many places), and the only litmus test we have is that the writers must honestly believe that the music they’re covering is good and worth recommending. But beyond that there are no assignments at our site — everyone who writes for NCS chooses what they want to write about, and I don’t exert any dictatorial control over that.
I don’t know whether we come off as elitist or not, but I doubt it. There are definitely some harder graders out there. We’re also not trying to be elitist, unless you define elitist as praising only what we honestly feel is worthy of praise. That’s what I think all the NCS writers do. I guess the fact that we don’t spend time telling people which bands and albums suck may keep us from coming off as elitist. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, that’s just the way it is.
TO: How would you encourage people to read more?
I can’t think of a way to do that. We just have to continue trying to write well, to stay honest, and to stay true to our principles. More people will either find something worthwhile in what we do, or they won’t.
TO: Thank you very much for your time and interest, not to mention your help in supporting Transcending Obscurity bands and promos. May karma give you its due. Cheers Islander!
NCS: Thanks a lot for doing this, and cheers to you too.