The only music critic who matters (if you’re under 25)

Meet Anthony Fantano, the YouTuber with 2.26 million subscribers who is probably the most popular music critic left standing

 

A few years ago, Rhode Island noise-rock band Daughters had an unlikely breakthrough, thanks in no small part to a goofy, baldheaded online enthusiast. The group had just released its first new album in eight years, and although the music’s punishing heaviness wasn’t exactly welcoming to a wide audience, a Daughters tour had sold out and its label noticed a sudden spike in sales and streams, drummer Jon Syverson recalled.

Syverson, who was approaching 40, even heard from a cousin half his age, who’d excitedly tried to explain the uptick in attention. “Oh, my God,” the teenager told him, “The Melon reviewed your album; he wore the yellow flannel and gave it a 10 out of 10!”

Syverson had no idea what his cousin was talking about. But to a certain subset of young music fans, Daughters might as well have hit the Lotto jackpot.

YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano: “I don’t want to have to sell my soul to basically make the same amount of money I’m making now.” Photograph: Jillian Freyer/The New York Times
YouTube music critic Anthony Fantano: “I don’t want to have to sell my soul to basically make the same amount of money I’m making now.” Photograph: Jillian Freyer/The New York Times

The influential evangelist in question is the YouTuber named Anthony Fantano (34), who has been speaking album and song reviews directly into a camera for more than a decade on The Needle Drop, his channel with 2.26 million subscribers, making him probably the most popular music critic left standing.

Across thousands of videos on multiple platforms, including a recent partnership with the Amazon-owned livestreaming site Twitch, Fantano has built up a legion of followers and imitators who trade in nicknames (“Melon” is for the critic’s pale dome), inside jokes and Easter eggs (wearing a yellow flannel shirt signals a rave, red flannel means a pan). Along the way, he has helped to push a notoriously insular and endangered art form – the record review – toward a new default medium and younger audience.

Taking his early cues from his favourite video game vloggers and upstart wine critic-turned-entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk – as well as the philosophy and politics monologuists and debaters that were crucial to defining the YouTuber aesthetic – Fantano put himself at the forefront of a still-growing wave of reaction and review videos, from food and sports to thoseviral twins rediscovering U2, Hozier and Phil Collins.

But few have built the sort of independent one-man empire that Fantano has from his suburban Connecticut home, with merchandise, a paying pool of Patreon subscribers and (pre-Covid-19) live appearances, plus fervent message board chatter, social media hate, meta-memes and endless videos about his videos. And in a struggling media climate, with the music magazine landscape all but decimated, veteran bloggers scraping to get by and survivors such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone subject to corporate overlords, Fantano’s DIY bedroom model feels increasingly like the future.

I was eating, sleeping and bleeding YouTube for quite a long time

“Obviously a lot of what is around now is heavily influenced by my aesthetic, my style, my delivery,” Fantano, a vegan teetotaler, said recently over FaceTime, where he was as long-winded as in his videos, which often top 10 minutes.

He noted that while he was not the first to bring the early YouTuber, articulate-rant treatment to music, he was meticulous about crafting his channel, studying competitors, including websites that still relied on the written word, and keeping his approach simple, intimate and communal.

“I was eating, sleeping and bleeding YouTube for quite a long time,” he said. “I had consciously chosen something that I found to be really uncomplicated, because I envisioned the delivery and the makeup as being something that was easy to copy, so other people could get in on the conversation.”

With more than 900 million views across his YouTube accounts, Fantano, who functions as an entertainer as much as a critic, has become a touchstone among music-focused, millennial and Gen Z content creators even as they refine and expand upon his format on platforms like TikTok.

Dev Lemons, a musician and college student whose @SongPsych account does bite-size criticism by-way-of music theory and news, called Fantano “a celebrity and an authority” among her cohort. “I know so many people that just won’t listen to something because Anthony Fantano was like, ‘It’s not worth your time,’” she said, noting that she has “looked into Pitchfork before,” but mainly consumes video reviews.

“There’s so much more personality,” she said.

Another college student and musician, Ethan Fields (20), has used his time at home during the pandemic to build a TikTok fan base, savvily interpreting popular songs in the style of other musicians. Fantano, Fields said, was an early influence on his knowing and silly insidery content.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else like him, who’s had that reach,” Fields said. “If you told somebody on the street, ‘Name a music critic right now,’ if they’re under the age of 25, they’ll say, ‘Anthony Fantano.’” (Asked if he could even name another music critic, Fields had to take a moment. “Ummm, let’s see ... honestly ... I’m trying to think. There’s a guy from Rolling Stone who loves U2?” he said. “David Fricke?”)

I feel like I can break an artist. I do have the power to do that

The old guard has not exactly embraced Fantano. Robert Christgau, a rock critic for more than half a century, has called Fantano’s career an “achievement,” but sniffed, “I don’t ‘watch’ reviews. I read writing.” In an email, Christgau added, “I literally never think about Anthony Fantano and would probably have trouble recalling his name. This isn’t a dis – I don’t know his work well enough to dis it.”

Over the years, Fantano has professionalised – working with a managing editor, a video editor, a booking agent and an entertainment lawyer (whose son was a fan) – but the look and feel of his videos has hardly changed since he started The Needle Drop in 2009, with a plain backdrop and a digital representation of the album cover in question over his right shoulder. Such consistency, a result of his type-A workaholism, has been crucial to Fantano’s success.

His output is regular and optimised: a review almost every weekday, plus immediate reactions to new tracks, music news and other recurring features on his second channel, which he started in 2017 to circumvent the YouTube algorithm. (“The more content you’re dropping on a single channel, the less likely it is that YouTube is going to appropriately promote all of it,” he said.)

His critical voice – earnest, adjective-heavy enthusiasm mixed with boyish, 4chan-inflected internet humour – and his taste, which can be eclectic but skews toward heavy rock, outré and experimental pop and rock-influenced rap, are also reliable. The only five albums to earn a perfect 10 from him are by Kendrick Lamar, noise-rap trio Death Grips, the Kids See Ghosts duo of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, aggressive rock band Swans, and Daughters, which he praised for its “nuclear bomb of cathartic hideousness” and “vile displays of auditory abuse.”

Predictably, The Needle Drop’s most popular videos take on polarising stars like West, Eminem and Chance the Rapper, but Fantano often avoids big-ticket Top 40, which could bring him more views, in favour of proselytising for something smaller or stranger. He referred to what he does as giving a “synopsis or CliffsNotes” for an artist or album, but also obviously values his role as a curator and tastemaker, too.

“There’s no number of negative reviews I can give to Nav that can end his career,” Fantano said, referencing his takedowns of the slyly popular rapper. “But I feel like I can break an artist. I do have the power to do that.”

A child of divorce raised in Connecticut, Fantano began his musical journey with the radio and MTV before he fell into hard rock and nu-metal around the turn of the millennium, obsessing over bands such as Korn and Slipknot. As a young teenager devoted to junk food, video games and file-sharing, he once weighed over 300 pounds, but lost nearly half of that as he got into punk and started wearing a mohawk to school.

Maybe people feel like I’m not entitled to my platform

At Southern Connecticut State University, Fantano threw himself into the college radio station, eventually becoming its general manager. Graduating into the dawn of a recession, he worked at a pizza place and interned at a local NPR station, where he briefly wrote about music and helmed a little-heard podcast that anticipated The Needle Drop. But an editor’s headline on a story he wrote, which inflamed Bob Dylan fans, convinced Fantano that he only wanted to work for himself.

It was a golden age of music blogs, and Fantano was watching the landscape shift underneath the usual gatekeepers, he said. But he struggled to build an audience for his personal website until he hit on an idea to stand out: “Just get on camera.”

A bigger fan of Tim & Eric and South Park than Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs, Fantano felt no fealty toward the rock critical establishment, and said he was only ever an occasional reader of Pitchfork, the defining music publication of his generation.

“Me and some of my friends thought it was funny when they did the Jet, monkey pee-pee video, you know?” he said, referring to an album review that was simply a crass YouTube clip.

Anthony Fantano has been speaking music reviews directly into a camera for more than a decade. He has more than 900 million views across his YouTube accounts. Photograph: Jillian Freyer/The New York Times
Anthony Fantano has been speaking music reviews directly into a camera for more than a decade. He has more than 900 million views across his YouTube accounts. Photograph: Jillian Freyer/The New York Times

Having spent a lot of time on 4chan, the vulgar message board, Fantano infused his internet presence with winks, contrarian irreverence and attempts at humour, like a recurring “roommate” character that is just Fantano in a fake moustache. He became a favourite of the 4chan music forum known as /mu/, but Fantano’s flirtation with that world also led to controversy when he was accused in a 2017 article in The Fader of courting the alt-right with a spin-off channel that reviewed memes instead of music. The article was later deleted amid a settlement, and both sides are bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

Fantano said he started that channel to make more money from YouTube, and acknowledged that there were some “grubby, close-minded, young, aggressive male types hovering around the content.” (The Needle Drop’s audience on YouTube is only 6.5 per cent female.) He said 4chan was “toxic and problematic,” yet also “where most internet humour draws back to – all of us are guilty of that original sin, in a way.”

In the years since, he has become more vocal on social justice issues, adding, “My politics have become, as a result of reading things online, more intersectional.”

He chalked up the backlash he has faced to jealousy. “There’s an element of, ‘I would like to be in that guy’s shoes,’” he said. “Maybe people feel like I’m not entitled to my platform.”

Ultimately, it’s Fantano’s self-image as an outsider that continues to animate much of his work, even as he has become hugely popular, a sort-of gatekeeper of his own. Still, he maintains almost no relationship with record labels or the broader music industry, and said he has turned down numerous offers to be absorbed by a larger brand.

“I don’t want to have to sell my soul to basically make the same amount of money I’m making now,” he said.

As for the future of music criticism and his role in it, Fantano could only blow a raspberry. Does he even care? “In the traditional sense, probably not a lot,” he said after a long pause. – New York Times

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