#001: Mark Richardson Interview (Pitchfork, WSJ)

Plus: The week in music journalism + job listings

Welcome to Music Journalism Insider! In this inaugural issue, we’ve got an interview with former Pitchfork editor Mark Richardson, a whole bunch of job listings, and a round-up of the week’s best journalism. But first… what the hell is this thing?

Hi!

My name is Todd Burns, and I’ve been involved in music journalism since 2002. I co-founded an online publication called Stylus Magazine that helped launch the careers of a number of writers I didn’t have any business editing. I later went on to work at eMusic (for a minute) under J. Edward Keyes, who now helms the ship at Bandcamp Daily. The big boss at eMusic was Michael Azerrad. I remember him giving me a piece of advice once: “Don’t box yourself in, talking only about one type of music.”

So! I naturally went from there to edit Resident Advisor, an electronic music magazine. A few years after spending almost every weekend in a Berlin nightclub, I got a call from a creative agency that was working on the Red Bull Music Academy project. I started editing their web magazine at the beginning of 2013, and found myself with the space and blessing to do just about anything I wanted. So I did! Podcasts, online radio, weird digital projects, interviews, documentaries, and an online magazine that never had to pivot to video.

All good things come to an end, and so did that.

My work with Red Bull ended last week, but it was announced earlier this year. I also had the good fortune of becoming a dad in late April. Which is to say, I’ve been doing a lot of looking inward lately. I’ve come to two big conclusions: 1) I’m (still) in love with music journalism. And 2) I want to go through my one trip on this Earth believing that there are others that feel similarly.

So! With that preamble out of the way, welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. They say it’s in a bad place right now. It feels like there’s less work than ever to be had. The pay for that work is lower than it’s ever been. And what’s more, music doesn’t seem to be at the center of the cultural conversation in the way it maybe once was. Everyone seems to be forming a union. You know. Just in case.

I don’t know. Call me crazy, but I think things are as good as they’ve ever been. Maybe even better. Everything’s more diverse: the people telling stories, the stories being told, the formats through which they’re telling them. I have an incredibly tough time keeping up with all of the incredible work that comes out each week.

I’d like to celebrate the good stuff and talk plainly about the bad, too. I look at Music Journalism Insider as a sort of trade publication for music journalism. But I’m merely one person, and can’t keep track of everything that’s happening out there. So please feel free to email me anytime. Tips, corrections, complaints, general banter: I’m here for all of it. I want this newsletter to be exceptionally useful to those that read it. If you’re a music journalist and you aren’t getting something out of it, then I’m doing it wrong.

A note on programming: I’ll likely be in your inbox two or three times a week throughout November and December. (I’ve got a lot of interviews lined up that I’m excited to share, including chats with Chris Richards (Washington Post), Jill Mapes (Pitchfork) and David Toop (The Wire).) And, depending on how things go, I’ll likely be making parts of the newsletter paid starting in January 2021. (Did I mention my family got bigger this year?)

OK, on with the show!

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News

  • Ryan Reed finished his daily news shift at the news desk for Rolling Stone. [Twitter]

  • Lindsay Zoladz has left The Ringer to go freelance. [Twitter]

The Week in Music Writing

Each week, we’ll be highlighting some of the best music journalism on (and off) the web, whether it be writing, video, podcasts, or something else entirely. The excellent MusicREDEF does this on a daily basis through their must-read newsletter, so you may see some overlap… consider these sections an additional co-sign of great work.

Bad interviews. We’ve all had them, but this interview with Van Morrison published in The Guardian seems like it was a particularly tough one. Especially because the writer loves Van’s work so much. When asked why he unveiled two songs off his latest album for his live show, Van replied:

“Cos those are the ones the band learned. I don’t know, is this a psychiatric examination?” It is not. “It sounds like one,” he says. “The band learned those two songs, so those are the ones they knew. There’s not really any great intellectual Bernard Levin debate, you know. It’s just, it’s just … it’s just music, that’s all it is.”

Charming!

Otherwise, metal mag Kerrang scored an interview with Threatin, a guy who “became a viral sensation after faking his entire career.” The electronic music world was busy talking about race and privilege, in the wake of (white, Russian) DJ Nina Kraviz showing off her cornrows on social media. And Huck showed how (UK) hip-hop magazines shaped (UK) rap.

A Short (Non-)Commercial Break

The Week in Music Books

This week, the book of note is Flea’s Acid for the Children. When I saw this book announced, I casually looked for the ghostwriter to see if they’d be up for an interview, but couldn’t find one. Apparently Flea decided not to bring one in. I found that curious… and apparently so did Alex Pappademas, who dwells on this topic at some length in his recent New York Times profile of Flea:

David Ritz, the author of 46 biographies, has helped bring forth the life stories of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles. He did not write “Acid for the Children,” but he will politely acknowledge that his editorial input is probably the reason it is less than 1,200 pages long…. (Flea remains a bit in love with the voluminous original version of the book: “I do see a beauty in it.”)…. [Flea]’s suspicious of books that credit a ghostwriter, and didn’t want to write one that did… “That really pissed David Ritz off,” Flea said, laughing. They began a creative conversation anyway.

Other notables out this week:

The Week in Music Podcasts

Oftentimes, the most interesting music criticism comes from those outside of the discourse. Jason Concepcion isn’t that far outside of it. He does work for The Ringer after all. But he’s more likely to be recapping a Game of Thrones episode than he is to be talking about music. That changed this past week when he was invited on the always-excellent Heat Rocks podcast to talk about one of his favorite albums of all-time, Herbie Hancock’s Thrust. It’s not one of Herbie’s most critically beloved albums, but Concepcion makes a strong case as to why it should be.

News:

Country fans take note: Reba McEntire will be launching a new podcast in 2020. (Hard to say if it’ll be music focused, but one can hope!)

Elsewhere:

The Hit Parade - Slate’s Chris Molanphy offers an expert ride through British alternative rock in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Song Exploder - A guitarist from Slipknot breaks down the track “Unsainted.”

Mogul - This bonus episode from the new season explores why DJ Uncle Al is a Miami bass legend.

Celebration Rock - Steven Hyden brought his podcast out of hibernation for a very special best-of-the-decade episode with the internet’s biggest emo fan Ian Cohen.

The Week in TV / Film / Video

Music journalism on television? It’s happening more and more. The New Yorker explains how we might actually just be in a “golden age of hip-hop television,” using Untold Stories of Hip Hop (WE tv), Hip Hop: The Songs That Shook America (AMC), Rhythm + Flow (Netflix), and Wu-Tang: An American Saga (Hulu) as the evidence.

Docs: Vice, meanwhile, is focusing on hip-hop in Russia. (Apparently authorities are having a tough time cracking down on it.) A documentary about the famed Apollo venue will be making its way to HBO this week. Resident Advisor just premiered a lengthy film about the electronic music scene in Sydney. And you can watch a doc about the reggae label Trojan (in the US) if you’re willing to download the Breaker app.

Interviews: DJ Premier talked with Hot 97 about the new Gang Starr album, Billie Eilish and Billie Joe Armstrong chat with one another for Rolling Stone, and A$AP Ferg recounts an unforgettable night at the VMAs.

Journalism: Theneedledrop reviews the new Swans album, Todd in the Shadows remembers The Clash’s awful Cut the Crap, 8-bit Music Theory celebrates the silence of Silent Hill 2, and Sideways breaks down Sweeney Todd.

Biden Loves Vinyl, But…

Q&A

Mark Richardson (Pitchfork, Wall Street Journal)

Mark Richardson is a name that most folks in the music journalism world will know. He worked at Pitchfork for 20 (!) years, ascending to the throne as Editor-In-Chief in 2011. He left Pitchfork last year, and has since gotten a regular gig at The Wall Street Journal as the rock and pop critic. We talked about his career in music journalism via e-mail late last month.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

I started writing about music in 1997. I was living in San Francisco and my friend Josh and I self-published a webzine about the Bay Area hip-hop scene. We were complete outsiders but loved the music, there was so much happening and we wanted to document it. I wanted to write and had long been a music fan and consumer of books and magazines about music, but for some reason I had never thought to try it myself.

I'm surprised to hear that you got your start with a hip-hop zine. Who were some of the early groups / tracks that pushed you to write about music?

Circa 1996 - 99, I was completely fascinated by the scratch DJ world, and the center of that was San Francisco. I had heard stuff like “Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” years before and enjoyed it, of course, but what DJs like The Invisibl Skratch Piklz or Kid Koala were doing was on another level entirely. The idea of transforming recorded music with your body and turning it into something new sparked my imagination. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. On the one hand you had multiple DJs jamming together like a band and improvising, like the Piklz do “Da Clamz of Death”:

And then you had Kid Koala making a real-time remix of “Moon River” that sounds simple but is completely virtuosic:

There was a club in the Tenderloin called Deco, and they had a weekly “open turntables” night in the basement. DJs would show up in this tiny room downstairs, including the Skratch Piklz guys and other DJ crews, just jamming for fun, and you could stand two feet away and watch them and it was fascinating. To me, it was like being at Minton’s Playhouse in 1947 or something, I know that sounds crazy now. The idea of remixes and transformation of recorded sound was in the air, and here was a way to do it in real-time with your body. That turned out to be kind of a dead-end, but it was hugely exciting at the time.

So scratch DJs was the base, and from there I was getting into stuff like DJ Shadow, Latyryx, Blackalicious, Kool Keith, Del the Funky Homosapien, and so on, it was all connected.

A year after the zine began, Pitchfork, then a tiny website started by Ryan Schreiber in his bedroom, put up a call for writers and I applied with a review of an X-ecutioners show. I started writing for Pitchfork in February 1998 and that was the start of my career as a music critic. 

Within a few years I was freelancing elsewhere, as well as writing about technology for magazines like PC World, and I continued to write for Pitchfork. Early on I developed a niche writing about electronic music, particularly the more experimental varieties. I really enjoyed thinking about the detail of sound and the way specific sounds (rather than words or melodies) can carry emotion. Other music writers had difficulty discussing instrumental music but that came easily to me, and that was where I built my identity as a critic.

Around 2005, I started to do some part-time editing for Pitchfork and then I moved to Chicago when I was hired as Managing Editor in 2007. I became Editor-in-Chief of the site after Scott Plagenhoef left in 2011, and my title was changed to Executive Editor after Conde Nast acquired Pitchfork in 2015. I left Pitchfork to freelance in 2018. Early this year the Wall Street Journal asked me to be their rock and pop critic. It’s not a full-time position. I file one piece a week and then I freelance doing other things. 

If there's a theme through this it's that I got lucky and bet on the right horse, starting with Pitchfork when it was super tiny and then growing along with it. It also took me a long time to support myself with music writing and editing, so I guess I was patient. And I found a niche, a thing I was good at and paid extra attention to it, and I built from there. 

Now that you've had some time away from it all, what do you make of your time at Pitchfork?

It was the great professional challenge of my life. I don’t imagine I will ever be as personally invested in an organization as I was with Pitchfork. For 11 years I was completely devoted to it and it was hugely exciting to be there as it was growing and becoming central to the conversation around music. It was also very stressful, because during that same period social media grew and information became a 24-hour thing, so I never felt like I could unplug. I also grew tired of being part of “the site you love to hate.” I don’t have that desire for confrontation, that’s not how I’m wired. I worked with many incredible people and being there and helping people to find their own voices as writers and editors is the most gratifying thing now. I feel like I left at the right time, for both me and the site. I got what I could get from Pitchfork, and the site got what it could from me. It was time for new ideas and I think you see that happening now, and it’s a good thing. I don’t miss it at all, but I still enjoy writing for the site.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

My primary mentor was Scott Plagenhoef, who was the Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork when I was hired. He taught me a great deal about how to be a manager and maintain integrity when pulled in many different directions. He also knows more about music than just about anyone I’ve ever known. 

Can you talk a little bit about how your role changed when you started working at Conde Nast? 

It didn’t change all that much at first. Being an Executive Editor or Editor-in-Chief at Conde Nast means spending a lot of your time engaged with people on the corporate level, plugging in to broader content/growth strategies and so on, and I always wanted to be more focused on managing the editorial of Pitchfork. So it took me some time to get in the swing of that, and the roles post-Conde weren’t as well defined as they could have been, in terms of who at Pitchfork was responsible to whom in the corporate structure. I was there for not quite three years post-acquisition, and it was always changing, people were constantly moving in and out, there was some restructuring in the sales and operations areas, that’s just the the nature of things in media. 

You worked as a lecturer at CUNY for a few months. Tell me a bit about that experience and what you learned from it.

I taught a course in Arts Criticism to graduate journalism students. We focused on writing about film, television, and music, but spent a bit more time on music since that is my area of expertise. Teaching criticism is hard, because you can teach people how to structure a review, where to offer context, and so on, but it’s very difficult to teach them how to generate ideas. That was my main challenge.

Most of the people in the class hadn’t written much (or any) criticism, and they hadn’t read all that much either, so it was fairly introductory. I had to meet the students where they were, which was a good reminder that most people don’t live in the world of critics. It was really hard. The most challenging thing for me was the performance aspect of teaching. The class met once a week for three hours, and you really have to summon an enormous amount of energy to carry the class forward, to direct things and keep people focused on the task at hand.

Walk me through a typical week these days.

Each Monday morning, I file my Wall Street Journal piece, which is usually a review of a new album. Sometimes I have to spend half a day on Saturday and/or Sunday to take notes so I’m ready to file by Monday, and of course I’ve already done a lot of listening and thinking by that point. I usually deal with edits that afternoon, so Monday is my WSJ day. The rest of the week varies quite a bit depending on what I’m working on. It’s a mix of research for upcoming pieces, administrative stuff, and working on an app I’m helping to develop, which I will discuss another time. Sometimes I’ll have a freelance piece for another outlet. It varies a lot.

How has your approach to your work as a writer changed over the past few years?

The biggest change has been writing for the Wall Street Journal, because it’s a general audience and I have to frame my pieces for someone who may not be familiar with what I’m discussing. That has actually been a lot of fun and has improved the clarity of my writing. I can’t assume anything and I have to lay out my observations as clearly as I can within a small amount of space (the pieces are typically 800 words). I work with great editors who push me and it’s really wonderful. Beyond that, I’ve enjoyed getting to write for a wider range of places having been mostly confined to Pitchfork for so long. For that 11-year stretch I almost never wrote for anyone else, so this is exciting.

Where do you see music journalism headed?

I’ll distinguish between where it seems like it’s headed and where I hope it’s headed. Music writing supported by advertising in an environment that demands growth ultimately has to cover things that are at the center of culture. That’s just math. So much of what exists online in terms of culture writing is celebrity-based for that reason. Obviously there are many interesting celebrities making fascinating music, but it’s only a sliver of what is actually going on. Pitchfork continues to do a good job covering smaller artists in addition to the big names, and they can do that because the number of music magazines is so small, and their audience cares about underground music. But that will continue to be a tension in music writing as a whole. I hope music journalism as a whole figures out a way to be financially viable while centering on music that is not by celebrities. 

Perhaps the biggest change since I’ve been doing this is music journalism has basically become a branch of “culture writing” rather than a thing unto itself. Now everyone writes about everything—music, film, TV, online culture, etc, because they have to, and there used to be more music specialists. 

What's one tip that you'd give a music journalist starting out in 2019?

I will actually offer two, both of which I think are important and I would hope be helpful for anyone starting out. The first is that the best way to get a foothold in writing about music is to narrow your focus and become an expert in an area of music not a lot of people are covering. Think about scenes and sounds where interesting music is happening and to which you feel a personal connection but that also seem under-covered. I often notice a new byline by a young writer first because they're writing about an area of music I'm unfamiliar with and doing so with authority. Trying to break through by writing about Kanye and Beyonce is very difficult—there's so much music out there that people are responding to but not enough people are writing about. A foothold in a lesser-covered area is a great place to build from.

The second is to make a point to learn about music by reading books, instead of just reading what's online. Fifteen years ago the internet seemed like an endless resource for information about music but now it seems very limited. A small percentage of music history and thought is available online, and the vast majority can be found in books and old magazines. Libraries have both. It's actually pretty easy to detect when you are reading someone who knows music only through reading online—they have the same set of assumptions and references as everyone else. Do what you can to deepen your knowledge and have the broadest possible understanding of context. 

What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?

I’m interested in the rise of new age music in the last decade. I’ve been interested in this subject for a long time but it’s really taken off in the last few years. Functional music for relaxation is no longer embarrassing, and new age spirituality in general has enjoyed a huge cultural resurgence. I’ve always been interested in these things and it’s fun to see them go mainstream. It’s also incredible to see how much ambient/new age music is being made on Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, and so on. The tools are there and people are using them. 

The artist new-to-me who has most excited me in the last few years is guitarist Bill Orcutt. I’m fascinated by anyone who can create an original language on such a familiar instrument and make it comprehensible. 

What is the best track / video or film / book you've consumed in the past year?

My favorite book is probably Electric Eden, Rob Young’s book about British folk, which came out about a decade ago. I didn’t know a lot about it and it’s a huge, dense, sweeping history that by the time you are done makes you feel like an expert. And now I’m happily exploring those recordings with all that context. 

What's your favorite part of the job?

I still love writing about music, somehow it’s still exciting and often daunting and I’m grateful I get paid to do it. And the feeling of excitement I get when I hear something wonderful and I know I’m going to spend time listening to it and figuring out how it works still gets me going.

Before We Get To The Jobs Board, Please Remember

Jobs Board

This first edition is a bit hefty, because we’re including everything we see… even stuff that’s been up for a bit. Most weeks, though, we’ll only include jobs that have popped up in the past seven days. The only internships listed are paid (as they should be). Want to list a job? Hit reply on this email and send us the details.

Managing Editor - Oxford American [Little Rock]

Editorial Director - Vulture [New York]

Music Biz Reporter - Rolling Stone [Los Angeles]

Senior Editor (Lifestyle and Entertainment) - Men's Health [New York]

Head of Content - Resident Advisor [Berlin]

Associate Editor - Pitchfork [New York]

Editor - Dazed Digital [London]

Features Writer - Vulture [New York]

Senior Staff Writer, Latin - Billboard [New York]

Senior Staff Writer, Latin - Billboard [Los Angeles]

Senior Editor, Music, Classical - WQXR [New York]

Head of Social Media - Pollen [London]

Senior Writer - WIRED [San Francisco / New York]

Staff Writer - i-D [London]

Assistant Digital Editor - Texas Monthly [Austin]

Editorial Assistant - XXL [New York]

Social Media Coordinator - Pollen [Los Angeles]

Part-Time

Coordinator, Music Programming/Latin - SiriusXM [New York]

Internships

Digital Editorial Intern - Crack [Bristol]

Summer 2020 Books and Arts Criticism - Wall Street Journal [New York]

Fellowship - Arts Critic - New York Times [New York]

Freelance Calls

LAist - Looking for “stories that tell a deeper story about life here in SoCal.”

Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything - “If it has the power to impact the way we live, work or play, we want to hear about it.”

The Content Farm, In Short

Question of the Week

This week’s question, in honor of the Van Morrison piece in the Guardian: What was your worst interview, (and why)?

Hit the reply button and let me know. We’ll post some of the best answers next week.

Finally!

Yes, finally. If you like what you read here, please feel free to tell a friend! This is the first edition, and—as you can hopefully tell—some amount of work went into it. I’d love to keep it going, but can only do so with your support!

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