It's About Love

The Daily Vault at 20

by Jason Warburg

20_150You just never know.

In one of the reviews referenced in my entry in our 20th Anniversary feature “20 Albums That Influenced Me,” I tell the story of getting to know the “girl next door” (actually three doors down) in my freshman-year college dorm, becoming friends before either of us had an inkling there might be higher stakes involved. Thirty-six years later, we have three grown children and a new grandchild.

Neither of us saw that coming at the time; it just happened.

You could say the same for my relationship with the Daily Vault, and writing about music. In fall 1997 I was casting about for a new outlet after having spent much of the previous 18 months writing a music column for On The Town, a local arts and entertainment biweekly in Sacramento, California. In my travels across the then-still-new expanses of the interwebs, I came across The Daily Vault, a music review site founded by Christopher Thelen and staffed by a small but hardy band of music aficionados not unlike myself.

After I contacted Chris, he signed me up, and since then I’ve simply never stopped writing about music. The appeal of the Vault is simple and obvious: no strings, no corporate interference, and near-total freedom to write about whatever music-centric material or topic captures your interest. We’ve never made a serious effort to turn the Vault into a business venture; to this day it offers no payment to writers and runs in the red every year. And no one cares, because that’s not the point. The Vault isn’t about money; it’s about love.

I searched out the Vault in fall 1997 because something was missing from my life. I had recently discovered a new passion—writing about music—and the Vault offered a platform to do so with abundant freedom. For the next five years I did exactly that. And then Chris arrived at a moment he hadn’t anticipated—the moment when he realized he needed to give up running the Vault. Having made that tough decision, he did something remarkably generous: he asked the writing staff if anyone wanted to take over the site and keep it going. Two hands shot up, and fellow staff writer Duke Egbert and I worked as a team for the first year after Chris retired from editorship of the site in January 2003. At a certain point Duke decided he, too, needed to take a step back, and I’ve occupied the editor’s chair ever since.

That in itself might have been overwhelming—it’s not like I had any experience running a website, working with labels and publicists, dealing with advertisers, or any of the rest prior to January 2003—if not for our community of writers again stepping up and filling the void. Benjamin Ray (who first joined the team in 2004) served as assistant editor for around three years, teamed with and then succeeded by Melanie Love (2005), who has served in that role ever since. Their advice, support, and sharp editorial eyes have been absolutely critical to keeping the site going.

Others have come and gone (and sometimes returned again) through the intervening years, though the cast of characters has solidified around steady long-time contributors like Vish Iyer (2003), Ben, Melanie, and the ever-prolific David Bowling (2007). More recent arrivals like Ken DiTomaso (2010), Tom Haugen (2012), Curtis Jones (2012), Pete Crigler (2014), and our resident rookie Ludwik Wodka (2015) have each made substantial contributions to the site over the past few years; I’m especially grateful to Vish and Tom for stepping up to take over primary day-to-day management of our social media accounts (Vish = Twitter; Tom = Facebook).

And then there are our contributing writers, who disappear for months at a time only to reappear when it suits them, all former full-time staff writers. Thanks to Jeff Clutterbuck (2004), Paul Hanson (1997), Mark Millan (2008), and Michael R. Smith (2006) for your occasional, continuing contributions to the site. Finally, a huge (HUUUGE) thank-you to the designer behind the site’s look, Angela Tannehill, and the man who keeps the tracks clear so we can keep the trains running, Vault webmaster Rick Watkins.

Probably the greatest reward of writing for the Vault for nearly 20 years has been the friendships that have resulted: with writers on our staff, with artists we’ve reviewed, and with the publicists who bring the music to us. I am struck by the sheer number of significant people in my life whose connection to me traces back to the Daily Vault. This is a gift.

Beyond those connections, the Vault has offered its staff many other benefits. For me, it offered the simple opportunity to speak my mind about music to an audience that gets it—an opportunity which led me over the past two years to the realization that, without ever intending to, over the course of more than 700 reviews and dozens of interviews and essays I had written the guts of a book (My Heart Sings The Harmony: Twenty Years of Writing About Music). Proof once again that you just never know.

I was also struck in prepping for publication the raft of features associated with the site’s 20th anniversary by the genuinely personal revelations our writers were moved to include in their columns. I learned that Chris Thelen launched the site from (his words) “a rathole apartment” where he was living with his wife and young daughter. (Twenty years later, he’s a single dad of three with a house in the ’burbs and a new fiancée.) I learned that David Bowling saw Jimi Hendrix play live three times (!) and had fun explaining to his grandson that his family didn’t own a TV set until he was 10. I learned that Ben Ray’s adventures as a David Bowie fan began when his parents split when he was 12 and his mother got custody of the ChangesBowie album. I read about Pete Crigler associating the Saigon Kick song “Coming Home” with returning home after the rare visits he had growing up with the birth father he’s never connected with, and Vish Iyer getting an education in Western rock ‘n’ roll through a series of pirated cassette releases he came across while growing up in Mumbai. I read the part where Ludwik Wodka imagines his father time-traveling back to 1977 to shoot Neil Peart. (There’s a good reason, trust me.) Finally, with damp eyes, I read the part where Melanie Love, who graduated high school already a three-year veteran of the Vault, traveled across the country eight years ago to start college and promptly “holed up in a café writing a DV review because it was the only thing that felt like home.”

In my own “20 Albums That Influenced Me” column I found myself telling my own stories about listening to the Beatles with my brothers and learning about Yes from a seventh grade classmate, about my first concert and the local bands my high school and college friends and I followed fervently, and about the web of friendship and passion for the music that connected all of these people. I was also reminded by the commemorative essay submitted by former staff writer Michael Broyles that the Vault is many things to the many people who have trod these virtual halls over the past 20 years. For some it’s an outlet, or a platform—or maybe even a launching pad (I still love seeing Sean McCarthy’s byline popping up all across the interwebs… we knew you when, Sean!). For others it’s a refuge from the storms blowing through other parts of their lives. I know there have been times over the years when it’s been that for me.

I could go on and on about how we’ve had writers from all over the world, of all sexual, religious, and political persuasions, all united by our love for music (and writing about it), but I’ve spouted off enough already. I’m really just here to say thanks. Thanks to all who have been and still are a part of the DV community for making this a place I keep wanting to come back to, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s truly a labor of love and I’m grateful to every member of the DV family for helping us keep the lights on all these years.

Circling back around to the "girl next door" I mentioned waaaaay back in the intro, we hosted 18 people for Christmas Day dinner at our house this year, including our kids, their spouses, and their spouses’ families. At one point I took Karen aside and whispered in her ear: “Look around. Every single one of these people is here today because we fell in love.”

I’ve never met most of the Daily Vault staff in person—though it’s been great fun meeting the few that I have—but they are family, too. We are all here for the same reason: the music. The fact that you, the audience, come here every day to read what we write about the music is a gift for which we are grateful—but ultimately, it’s not why we’re here. I’ll venture to say each of us would do this regardless of whether our audience was five million, five thousand, five hundred, or five. It’s about love. Thanks for being a part of it.

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