Given the chaotic nature of the music business and the many opportunities for offering opinions online, calling oneself “the Internet’s busiest music nerd” is a big statement.
But for Anthony Fantano, the Connecticut-based proprietor of the reviews outlet The Needle Drop, the claim is hardly far-fetched.
Fantano has become one of the most recognizable music opinionators of the digital age, thanks to both his seemingly constant output and his tactic of dissecting albums while in front of a camera — his sturdy black glasses and zealous enthusiasm are as instantly recognizable as his willingness to hop among genres is broad. His YouTube channel has more than 450,000 subscribers. A subforum on the community Reddit follows not just his own missives, but also any mentions of him online, with fannish fervency. And now he’s taking his show on the road; on Wednesday he’ll be at the Middle East for an evening of music chatter, both serious and lighthearted.
“I don’t really think reviewing music is something you’re going to get famous doing overnight,” Fantano says via Skype. “It was over the process of doing many reviews every week, and maybe grabbing the attention of a handful of people with each review — the crowd has just kind of grown. Now it’s to a point where I continually put out new reviews, but my back catalog continues to push [traffic] as well. “
The Needle Drop grew out of a podcast Fantano had been doing while interning at WNPR in Hartford; he began playing around with video reviews in 2009. “I figured I’d try out YouTube as a bit of an experiment,” he says. “Among all the people who were kind of coming up out of nowhere in the late 2000s and covering indie music, [video] would set me apart.”
Fantano’s climb was slow in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Internet time, but the steady approach has led to his 1,500-plus videos having serious sway.
“I’ve never spent any money on advertising,” he notes. “You could argue that my biggest, most breakout review was the Kendrick [Lamar] I just put out. I’ve never had so many views congregate onto one video in such a short amount of time.”
That clip, Fantano’s look at the Los Angeles MC Lamar’s fiery statement “To Pimp a Butterfly,” has racked up more than 750,000 views since landing online last month. The 22-minute clip neatly summarizes Fantano’s appeal to a certain stripe of deep-dive music listener; Fantano’s enthusiasm is unbridled and contagious, and he doesn’t describe the record so much as advocate for it. His many-listens-derived wisdom allows him to embody a friendlier, streaming-era spin on the old stereotype of the record-store clerk with discographies embedded in his brain. (Fantano gave “Butterfly” a perfect 10, one of only three recently released albums to achieve that distinction since the site’s launch; the other two were by hip-hop provocateurs Death Grips and reborn noise titans Swans.)
“Often, people assume critics want to dictate taste, or that they’re elitist,” says Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor at Rovi. “Anthony Fantano flips that trope on its head: He positions himself as an enthusiast, and that positivity can’t help but attract an audience.”
Fantano’s brand of positivity is more about the possibility of music, and the feelings it can evoke in listeners, than it is carte blanche for whatever records might come down the pike. Even when he’s iffy on an album, he’s rarely dismissive out of hand. “For me, it’s important that reviews — at least mine, anyway — convey emotion, whatever that emotion is, and describe best and accurately whatever it is about the album makes [me] feel that way,” he says.
The Needle Drop is Fantano’s full-time job, and his plans for expanding it include introducing other faces to the mix. “I would love to bring on other writers not only to review and talk about new music, but to encourage those people to hop on camera and join in on the video reviews.”
And events like Wednesday’s are an attempt to fill out the other side of his videos’ conversational feel.
“It’s a mix of current events in music and wacky, silly stand-up stuff,” says Fantano. “I always liked popping up in a place, inviting my fans out, and then having a discourse with them in person. That’s what I try to do with The Needle Drop, even though it’s difficult to have a two-way conversation. Inviting them out to a show is a cool way to get face-to-face with them and learn what they’re thinking about in terms of what’s going on in music today. I kind of feel like I owe what success I have so far to listening to what my fans think and say.”
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.