Anthony Fantano is the Roger Ebert of music — all thanks to YouTube
The music video for a recent remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”, a song that broke the Billboard music chart’s all-time record for most consecutive weeks at number 1, depicts the track’s featured artists storming Area 51 in animated form. The gates of the military base are guarded by a sleeping cartoon who appears to have dozed off from his shift guarding Thanos’s infinity gauntlet while playing Minecraft.
The animated guard is none other than Anthony Fantano, a popular YouTuber and music critic whose likeness sounds the “bruh moment” alarm to warn the world of an impending musical invasion.
Fantano has just come off tour, a sentence not in the lexicon of most music critics. Even fewer have been featured in a music video as significant to the present industry as his cameo in “Old Town Road”. On Fantano’s primary YouTube channel, theneedledrop, he aims to upload five album reviews per week, content served to his almost two million subscribers. His secondary channel “fantano” features single track reviews as well as livestreams and video essays, and hosts over 780,000 subscribers of its own.
Fantano’s content features little more than solo monologues touching on an array of music but are often catalyzed by light edits and a healthy side portion of memes. In a world where traditional music publications’ power is fragmented, he has seized an audience as well as cultural relevance. In fact, he’s arguably the most influential music critic in the world.
Fantano began uploading music reviews on YouTube in 2009. Despite the influx of millions of subscribers over the past decade, the format of his reviews has hardly changed. A hunger for music criticism and discussion from fans hasn’t gone away while traditional media (largely that of the written variety) has struggled to adapt to the internet era. His channel has been bolstered by the fact YouTube’s algorithm deems the content advertiser friendly (except on occasions like the time he reviewed a Joyner Lucas’s song titled “ISIS”, a phrase that tripped the YouTube algorithm and instantly demonetized the video). His upload schedule is grueling. On top of an expected five album reviews per week, he is likely to post another three to five videos per week on his secondary channel.
Fantano’s success is emblematic of the way new media stars call the shots over our culture. Popular tech YouTubers are just as likely to get their hands on a new gadget or iPhone as any credentialed publication. Sneaker unboxers and makeup tutorial uploaders are showered with freebies not only from startup brands but powerful industry publicists.
Fantano doesn’t fancy himself much as an influencer and he bristles when asked about his ties to traditional media and the music industry itself. While he may occasionally be offered an early listen to an album he reviews, he generally hears a new release the same time any normal fan would. How he feels about the album, however, carries much more weight.
One of his recently popular reviews came in July when he scored Chance the Rapper’s debut album The Big Day a rare 0 out of 10 possible points. After the review was posted, Fantano said he received a few emails from people he described as record executives connected to major labels reaching out to talk about his work. He turned the offers down, explaining there was nothing he could do for them and vice versa.
“I’m not trying to rub shoulders with any record executives,” he says with a laugh. “If rubbing shoulders in the industry is what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I just want to talk about the music and share a musical experience with the fans.”
The walls between himself and the legacy pillars he often hopes to avoid aren’t always so clear. In 2017, The Fader published an article titled “The Needle Drop pioneered music vlogs. His lesser known channel pandered to the alt right” in which the music magazine outlined a sloppy, if not reckless, portrayal of Fantano’s content. The article mostly focused on a since-deleted spinoff channel in which Fantano produced meme videos related or unrelated to the world of music.
Where a thoughtful conversation could have been brought up over political correctness, comedy and alt-right presence on social media, the article painted widely with an out-of-touch internet culture brush, resulting in the piece’s complete removal and an undisclosed settlement made between Fantano and The Fader. The quarrel was a reminder of the competitive and increasingly narrow lane of music media in which both voices occupy.
“I just want to talk about the music and share a musical experience with the fans”
Fantano is aware his meme-heavy work may be taken less seriously among traditional media gatekeepers but the payoff comes in the form of an engaged fanbase of young people more in touch with TikTok and Reddit than print media.
“Memes just show that people are engaged about something,” he explains. “A meme is just a little inside joke for a group of people that care about a certain thing.”
The community centered around his reviews is what gives the channel its growing influence within the music industry. Though Fantano says he doesn’t always pay attention to the after effect of his reviews, he does often hear from artists who credit a positive review for increased music sales and sometimes even in record deals.
Despite the fragmentation of both media and the music industry, critical reviews still serve a purpose. With the onslaught of music releases becoming a seemingly bottomless void, more fans are turning back to tastemakers able to help comb through the glut.
“That’s probably been one of the biggest change over the past 10 years, there is just way too much music for me to cover,” Fantano says. “People always say ‘How do you keep up? How do you hear all this stuff?’ I barely feel like I’m keeping track of everything.”
I reached out to dozens of artists and publicists whose work has been reviewed by Fantano, almost all of whom (whether reviewed positively or negatively on the channel) either did not respond or declined to speak on-record about Fantano’s reviews. Robert Swerdlow, manager of the UK rapper Little Simz whose album GREY Area was given a 9/10 review by Fantano, told me they were aware and “truly grateful” for Fantano’s review.
After a review earlier this year of the Japenese band Otoboke Beaver’s album Itekoma Hits, Fantano explained that a representative from the band’s team reached out to thank him for the positive review (also a 9/10) telling him that his 8 minute and 48 second video essentially bested two full years worth of PR campaigning.
While relaying this story to me, Fantano suggested I check out the album for myself. The sincerity with which he underscored the recommendation was striking, as if he were certain I would enjoy it, which is perhaps why he’s such a totemic figure to many.
“At the end of the day, I would love for the artists that I give positive reviews to to continue coming out with music,” he says. “That’s ultimately what I want as a fan.”
All Rights Reserved for Robert Kelly