SOCAN members! Do you ever wonder who makes the decisions that can influence the path of your musical career? In a new series of articles, under the heading Decision-Makers, the SOCAN online magazine interviews some of those people to find out what makes them tick, and how best to approach them.
A self-admitted “night owl,” who survives on sleep deprivation and obsesses over every sentence, Ben Rayner’s brain doesn’t start firing until at least 4:00 p.m. He’s known for his sardonic wit, which have led some to describe him as “that guy who just doesn’t give two shits.” The reality is this: when it comes to critics, Rayner is one of the premier purveyors of musical taste in this country. As an industry “decision-maker,” he cares more than most. He admits one of his faults is never saying no; Rayner does his best to respond to the more than 650 e-mails he receives each day. The Toronto Star music critic/columnist also listens to more music than most – making it hard not to respect his opinions, even though they often stray to an underground scene or new niche others neglect.
Says Rayner, “I always say to people who ask me why I do this, that I like hanging out in bars, sleeping in late, and going out to rock shows.”
Born: Colchester, England
Employer: The Toronto Star
First Cassette: Rick Springfield – Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet
Favourite Band: Joy Division
Seminal Record: The Jesus & Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Rayner and I exchange texts for a week before we chat in the late afternoon [I wanted to make sure his brain was in top condition.] The music writer is hard to pin down; that’s not surprising when you learn his work/life balance these days vacillates between a job that sees him out at shows until the wee hours and dad duties to 18-month-old daughter Polly, appropriately named after PJ Harvey. The 43-year-old laughs when we finally connect and I tell him the name of this new SOCAN series of articles.
“I don’t consider myself a decision-maker,” he says. “I’m more of a ditherer… A passenger, not a go-getter!”
Somehow this leave-it-to-fate life philosophy worked; in June of 2018, this “passenger” celebrated his 20th anniversary at The Toronto Star. It was inevitable Rayner ended up in journalism, and in a career that revolved around music; his parents met while working for the same newspaper in England, and his dad was an audiophile and mixed-tape enthusiast. As a teenage goth/punk kid, Rayner read music magazines like Spin and the now-long-defunct Graffiti voraciously; bands that formed the soundtrack to the writer’s formative years included The Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division, The Church, and The Damned.
One wonders how, after two decades in the business, he still keeps it real, and stays on top of what’s hot, cool, and trendy in the minds of the hipsters?
“I read a lot of music journalism, listen to a lot of music, and keep my ear to the ground,” says Rayner. “That hasn’t changed; what has changed is the volume of music, and whole scenes within the city that I can only skim. Many people say, ‘Keeping up with music today is a full-time job.’ And yes, for me it is. But I have that luxury because it is my full-time job!”
Rayner recently celebrated his Star milestone just like every other anniversary for the past two decades: up north, in the woods, and at a rave. “That’s my solstice,” he adds. “That’s how I still keep it real!”
How did this tastemaker end up as the chief music critic for one of Canada’s oldest and biggest dailies? Flash back 22 years. During his fourth year of journalism school at Carleton University, Rayner got a summer gig at The Ottawa Sun covering some entertainment, some hard news, and even the crime beat. He liked Ottawa, and didn’t expect to ever live in Toronto, but that’s where fate punched the next ticket on this journalism journey.
1. Be Patient: “Just don’t badger me! I have a short temper and I will freeze people out. I have literally hundreds of people a day pitch me. Don’t take it personally. Sometimes you won’t hear back. I’m just not interested.”
2. Know Your Target Audience: “Don’t pitch me on The Tenors. Most publicists know when they will get a hit.”
3. Make it personal: “I know it’s hard not to do a mass e-mail, but personalizing your note goes a long way to get my attention. I will always open an e-mail if I know you. And if I like you, I’ll open your e-mail for the rest of my life.”
“When The National Post arrived, The Toronto Star decided to compete by hiring a bunch of young writers, so I applied,” says Rayner. “I didn’t think I would get it; I thought I had botched the interview, so I went and did some mushrooms with a friend at Christie Pitts and sulked; one week later I get a call offering me the job.”
Rayner joined the newspaper’s entertainment section in 1998; the rest is musical history. Over the years, he’s interviewed everyone from Neil Young and Robert Plant to Lady Gaga and Iggy Pop. While his tastes veer towards what he describes as: “music that makes me uncomfortable,” he does his best to cover all genres: from mainstream pop to classic rock, country to hip-hop, electronica to alternative.
After two decades on the music beat, how does Rayner choose who and what he writes about?
“I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve had a good relationship with most of my editors over the years. They’ve always trusted my judgement. When I started, my one ace-in-the-hole was that I landed in Toronto as a fairly young rave-kid into electronic music, when most of the music coverage focused on the negatives of this scene: ‘Oh no, all our children are on drugs!’ But I talked about the music, and had an in with the promoters: I was a fan of the music, and also attended the parties. Immediately, I had this little niche that no one else had.
“The Star has been very good to me,” continues Rayner. “They took a chance on a 22-year-old kid. They’re always willing to defer to my knowledge. That said, I can’t ignore Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, or Drake. It’s a balance.”