Like so many good ideas, the venerable music website Gorilla vs. Bear started because Chris Cantalini spent a lot of time on the internet at work. The Plano native didn’t grow up obsessed with music; playing basketball in high school was his way in. There, he gained an appreciation for hip-hop—genre-bending stuff from acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul—but after graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas in the early aughts, he found himself working at an insurance company and looking for something to ease the dullness of cubicle life.
One day in March 2005, he started a blog. “I wasn’t aware of the broader [music] blogosphere—I didn’t understand a bunch of people were doing this,” says Cantalini, founder of the longtime Dallas-based music blog Gorilla vs. Bear. “So confidence didn’t really enter into it; I didn’t have an expectation anyone would read it at the time. I was just doing it to sort of archive and document new stuff I found on the internet being online all day.“
Music has changed significantly since the rock revival of the early aughts, in ways beyond the fact that packed CD binders are no longer omnipresent in cars. So has the music press: long-standing institutions (like the original Spin magazine) as well as smaller blogs, kept afloat as labors of love (from Tiny Mix Tapes to Hipster Runoff), have either downsized or shuttered amidst a shrinking journalism industry. What’s more, musicians now interact directly with fans on the likes of Instagram and TikTok, and high-profile acts interview each other in lieu of getting the traditional profile treatment by skeptical journalists. And streaming service giants like Spotify put a good chunk of the industry’s back catalog on demand via a few clicks. These realities existed even before the coronavirus shook every facet of the music industry to its core, particularly the future of live performance.
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Yet this spring, Gorilla vs. Bear—Cantalini’s tastemaking site with a bio that commemorates the time it was called “the New Yorker of hipster blogs”—continues forging on, and celebrated its fifteenth anniversary in late March. Even if the music press landscape seems to need entities like it less than ever before, our new reality, with countless hours to fill and an endless supply of things to stream, has only reaffirmed the importance of a website like this. These days, Cantalini’s work may actually be more valuable for readers than ever.
That’s in large part because of Gorilla vs. Bear’s particular editorial approach. While many peer blogs attempted to focus on wide-reaching genres, from indie to metal to hip-hop, and their respective waves of popularity, Gorilla vs. Bear has always—and only—reflected its founder’s individual taste, which has traditionally leaned towards synth-driven pop experiments. Through his site’s run, Cantalini has championed artists whose music moves him, like Canadian pop star Carly Rae Jepsen, or the experimental hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces, or retro country Austin artist Molly Burch. On the internet of today, editorial outlets hope to find a well-defined niche in order to attract a dedicated (even if small) audience. Gorilla vs. Bear has done both naturally for more than a decade. “Music is very unpredictable, and I’m caught off guard all the time by unexpected sounds and things I wouldn’t have expected to be into,” Cantalini says. “So it’s not a conscious decision to stay niche, but it’s a reflection of what I listen to personally.”
While other surviving music sites from the early aughts eventually grew into fully staffed outlets such as Pitchfork—which publishes news and features, in addition to album and track reviews—Gorilla vs. Bear has largely stayed a recommendation machine throughout the years. Outside of occasionally ceding the page to bands he admires and working with photographers, Cantalini is still the site’s sole author. His posts present a song or act with as little information as needed; there’s no embellishment. The music does the rest of the talking. That way, readers get to feel like a part of the discovery, too.
As Jane Penny, who fronts the seventies-soft-rock-meets-modern-electronica band TOPS, puts it, “He’s like a hype man, not a Hypebeast … I follow the site because his taste is really sophisticated and well curated. It’s nice when someone has an editorial vision for what they want to represent, but it’s free from judgement.“ That’s why a site like Gorilla vs. Bear remains indispensable: music discovery is harder than ever. While more music may be accessible via streaming services and the likes of YouTube, the tools to comb through this content firehose remain mediocre at best. Amid shifts in the media and music consumption landscapes alike, Cantalini has rightfully earned a reputation for seeking out and introducing audiences to new, worthwhile acts.
Early coverage on Gorilla vs. Bear also helped launch some of the biggest Texas acts of recent decades, from the Dallas art-pop songwriter St. Vincent to Denton’s eclectic electronic act Neon Indian. Gorilla vs. Bear posts highlighting the work of Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo appear two years before his 2009 debut LP, Psychic Chasms; Annie Clark’s work shows up on the site a year before her first St. Vincent release, 2007’s Marry Me. Texas Monthly once even acknowledged Gorilla vs. Bear as an early champion of Leon Bridges’ career; Cantalini coincidentally first heard about him through White Denim, his favorite Texas band of the blog’s existence. More recently, readers might have learned about Austin synth musician Lou Rebecca through Gorilla vs. Bear—she was set to DJ the site’s now canceled SXSW 2020 showcase.
But Cantalini has by no means limited his championing of new artists by geography—his site embraced the internet’s ability to be virtually placeless. “I got shit early on for not focusing more on local stuff,” he admits. “But I never wanted to be the type of site who only focuses on local stuff whether it’s good or terrible. I don’t want to be the ‘Support live music’ type who will post anything as long as it’s from my town.”
TOPS is another good case study. Penny’s Montreal-based band started in 2011, and over time they went from obscurity to selling out venues in places like Austin and Dallas. It started when fellow Canadian act Grimes used her Gorilla vs. Bear takeover time to share early TOPS singles (alongside fellow Canadian acts such as Mac DeMarco and Majical Cloudz) in 2012. Cantalini has consistently written about TOPS’s music in the years since, including debuting their first single in January, off their album released this week. Cantalini then invited Penny and the band to do their own site takeover. “It’s hard when you’re just starting out and learning how it’s going to go, then a huge site writes about you and it’s like, ‘Ah man, that’s not what we’re about,’” Penny says. “The Guardian wrote about us once; that was a big moment for our parents. Gorilla vs. Bear was really nice in comparison. Here’s this site that says, ‘I’ll give you my entire site, take over. Make ten posts and show everyone everything you love.’”
Takeovers have remained a unique feature of Gorilla vs. Bear right alongside its themed playlists (like Cantalini’s summer “Modern Yacht Rock” series) and Polaroid shoots. And now Cantalini has adapted the idea as one part of the site’s response to how COVID-19 has put the future of touring and the near-future of releasing music in question.
Since the beginning of March, Gorilla vs. Bear has continued to share new music. But readers will notice more explicit mentions of how to support artists, such as a post about a recent day on which Bandcamp waived its typical fee and artists on the platform received 100 percent of proceeds from sales on the site. He’ll also post tips on Instagram about bands playing Quarantunes, a new YouTube channel conceived by artists and labels to curate live sets weekly. And every Sunday since the start of last month, Cantalini has invited an artist he admires to put together a playlist to share on site. The playlists are free, often available as even an MP3 for those without Spotify, but this allows Gorilla vs. Bear to promote the artists’ record archives or latest singles in the hopes of driving some attention and possible revenue for artists in these uncertain times.
Cantalini recognizes that being a music blogger is not lucrative—the economics of the internet have shifted away from direct traffic and ad sales, making online publishing much less sustainable than it was before. But despite that reality, Cantalini has managed to keep Gorilla vs. Bear as his only full-time focus. A major part of that is because of his support system. “I have kids, my oldest is eight, so this affords me the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad when I’m not traveling,” he says. “And my wife works full time at a ‘real job’—she works a lot and is really supportive.”
Good home infrastructure alone can’t keep a nonmusician afloat in the music business, though. Readers can subscribe to Gorilla vs. Bear on the subscription service Patreon; in return, they receive things like personalized playlists. But Cantalini has also diversified his approach over the years: in 2006, Sirius XM radio sought out musical tastemakers to host weekly radio shows—Gorilla vs. Bear included. Cantalini continues to host that regularly (“Blog Radio: Gorilla vs. Bear,” Thursdays on Sirius XMU). Cantalini also began working with local Dallas venues, like his soon-to-be longtime partners at the Granada Theater, to produce live shows and festivals, inviting acts he’d write about frequently. For now, the latest edition of his not-quite-annual festival, Gorilla vs. Bear 8, is still scheduled to take place this fall in Dallas. And two years ago, Cantalini also started a label, Luminelle Recordings, which identifies talented acts, releases music, and promotes live shows and tours. The label’s acts, some of which were scheduled to perform at SXSW, have also participated in COVID-19 initiatives, like Quarantunes sets and Bandcamp sales.
“Very early on I decided I didn’t want this to be a music criticism site; my goal was always to focus on music discovery more than anything else,” he says. “I had no illusion that what I’d say about some music would be particularly interesting. I don’t have anything to add to what the artist is trying to say, so I prefer to create the excitement and get people psyched about what they’re about to hear—that’s the goal.”