I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at email@example.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with AbsolutePunk founder Jason Tate; “bringer together of unexpected things,” Emma Warren; experimental music expert Matthew Blackwell; freelance writer Nina Corcoran; video game scholar Hyeonjin Park; and German hip-hop heads Davide Bortot and Stephan Szillus. Plus, lots of links to cool stuff. Promise. But first…
The First Hour of This Week’s Verzuz...
Q&A: Jason Tate
Earlier this year, a number of great writers sent me pitches for oral histories of magazines. I wasn’t able to commission all of them (the best of the bunch will be appearing in future editions of the newsletter), but I was nevertheless incredibly curious to hear more from some of the runners-up; I've asked several of those writers to submit one interview each. Here’s the first.
Jordan Walsh, whose work has appeared in The Alternative and Magnet, talked with Jason Tate, founder and editor-in-chief of the recently redesigned Chorus.fm and the now-defunct AbsolutePunk. AbsolutePunk started as an outlet for blogging about Blink-182, but eventually evolved into a hub for all kinds of emo, alternative, and pop-punk music, covering bands like Paramore and Fall Out Boy as they were appearing on the scene. In this excerpt from the interview, Jason talks about the early days of AbsolutePunk.
I started the website basically by accident, when I was around 14 or 15. I was just goofing around online. It was the mid-to-late ‘90s, and I liked computers, I liked technology, and I liked music. The whole internet thing was kind of just starting, so I started tossing some stuff up online. I liked Blink-182, so I decided I’d just start putting up photos of Blink-182. Then Blink-182 got really popular and so more people were using the internet to search for that kind of stuff. When I went off to college in 2001, I had a whole lot of extra free time and that was when I transferred the website over from being just a Blink-182 fan page into an “all music” discussion forum. And then the kind of music that we covered blew up even more right around that time.
Read Jordan’s full interview with Jason here.
This Past Week
... was brutal. With layoffs at Conde Nast, VICE, Buzzfeed, and many others, it feels like the sky is falling. I don’t have any particularly smart answers as to what to do in the face of all of this. But what I can say is even while it’s clear that many don’t regard arts journalism as “essential work,” it’s also been evident over the past few months that the arts bring people together in ways that few other things can. I’m sure there are far smarter people than myself working on alternative ways of making music journalism an industry that can sustain folks who want to make a living doing it. For my part, this newsletter was always meant to showcase interesting and laudable things happening in music journalism, and I’m going to continue to do that for as long as I can. I hope you find it useful. Thank you for reading and supporting it! As ever, if you have ideas for how the newsletter can better support you or the work you're excited about, please email me.
Rob Harvilla looks at the history of albums that have received a 10.0 from Pitchfork
Laura Snapes profiles Charli XCX as she makes an album during the pandemic
Ryan Leas talked to Jason Isbell about feral hogs (and other stuff)
Kory Grow interviews John Waters about the recently departed Little Richard
Andy Beta chats with five artists over 70 about their lives in the age of the coronavirus
Q&A: Emma Warren
I count myself very lucky to have worked with Emma Warren for many years on the Red Bull Music Academy project. Emma is one of the most skilled interviewers I’ve ever seen. It’s a pleasure, then, to let you know about her new project in collaboration with International Anthem—a limited edition 7-inch by Angel Bat Dawid, bundled up with Emma’s recent book Make Some Space and a 17x22 broadsheet “foreword” by Piotr Orlov. It's a truly impressive package. Emma’s interview was fantastic, so it was hard to pick an excerpt, but I think this passage, where she talks about the importance of mentorship, is really important.
That’s a big subject and one I feel very strongly about. Probably the biggest influence on my professional life was 2006-2013 when I worked as a mentor at Live Magazine. This was a youth-run publication based in Brixton where thousands of young Londoners passed through. I followed the esteemed Queen of Grime Chantelle Fiddy into the role of Editorial Mentor and worked alongside a shifting editorial team of teenagers to make a print magazine and later a website and YouTube channel. It was hilarious, sometimes frontline, sobering, memorable. All mentoring is two-way, but I swear I got more back than I gave. I learned everything I needed to know, and that proximity to the everyday racism that the brilliant young writers, designers, coders, poets and stylists experienced shaped me. It opened my eyes and I became committed to continuing to keep them open.
Respect to anyone doing youth work of any kind, not least because the work is two-way and is very often passed on by the person who is nominally on the receiving end. The proverb is ‘each one teach one’. I also call it the gift that keeps giving.
Read the full interview with Emma here.
I blew through Wind of Change, a podcast that follows New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe as he tries to find out whether the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change” was written by the CIA
Emilie Friedlander discusses her VICE article “There Is No Such Thing as Independent Music in the Age of Coronavirus” on Endless Scroll
The past two episodes of You’re Wrong About walks through Jessica Simpson’s autobiography
Reply All tries to solve a Christmas music mystery
The latest season of Origins will focus on Almost Famous
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Q&A: Matthew Blackwell
One of my favorite newsletters of the moment is tusk is better than rumours, which is run by Matthew Blackwell. Matthew describes the newsletter below, so I won’t bother explaining what it is. I'll preface that by saying, however, that Matthew writes about experimental music in a clear and compelling way that is inviting to those who may not be familiar with it. As someone who has spent some time doing (and editing) this type of writing myself, I can safely say this is no small task. If you’re into experimental music (or want to get into it, but don’t know where to start), I’d highly recommend subscribing.
“tusk is better than rumours” provides primers of experimental artists and composers that have large discographies—where do you start with somebody like meredith monk, say, who has released 15 major albums and counting? i hope to provide an entry point to new listeners by having a guide to a different artist appear in their inbox once a week. over time, the site itself will become a resource that people can turn to as a learning tool. i imagine a future reader scrolling through 100, 200, 500 articles and saying “ah yes, i’ve always wanted to get into yellow swans, but jesus, i remember their discography was a nightmare… maybe now i’ll jump in.”
for me, the basic unit in music is the discography. i got my education in music from allmusic.com. that was an amazing resource for people my age, and one that goes underappreciated. my folks had a 56k dial-up modem all through my teenage years, so i couldn’t download much music. instead i had to use my wages from my summer job at the softball field to buy cds, so i pored over allmusic to select the best representation of an artist from their discography. i spent a lot of time determining if like, Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes was the more “representative” guided by voices record because the $17.99 i had to spend for either was a lot of money to me. keep in mind that i had no way of actually hearing guided by voices before purchasing the cd, so the writing on allmusic was all i had to go on. so what i hope to provide to readers is what i wanted to have as a young listener (and frankly what i still want): a more personal version of allmusic, a guide to artists’ entire careers but with a strong editorial voice.
a secondary motive for starting “tusk is better” is to reaffirm the singular, subjective, unique perspective of the critic. it’s always bothered me how the voice of the critic is subsumed into the name on the masthead, so that for instance jenn pelly’s review of Fetch the Bolt Cutters gets reported as “pitchfork gives fiona apple a perfect 10,” or a sticker on an album will tout reviews from stereogum or spin or whatever instead of the individual writer. this fuels a misunderstanding that there is some sort of critical consensus where there is really not. the tagline of the newsletter is “all rankings guaranteed definitive and all opinions guaranteed correct,” which makes fun of that whole notion. this is also one of the reasons that i use weird capitalization, to remind the reader at all points that this is just one guy recommending stuff to you, and of course the writing is damaged and biased. all writing is, but some writing is sort of spackled over after the fact and made to look authoritative.
Read the full interview with Matthew here.
It’s Getting Hot In Herre… So Pass The Shrimp
Q&A: Hyeonjin Park
Hyeonjin Park is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. Hyeonjin is focused on video games, specifically on players' engagement with music and sound in video games within a sociocultural framework. Or, as Hyeonjin puts it: “I'm interested in how people are hearing things while they play video games. How are they making sense of it? What meaning are they giving to the music and sound?” In this excerpt from our interview, I asked Hyeonjin to summarize their recently published article “The Difficult, Uncomfortable, and Imperative Conversations Needed in Game Music and Sound Studies.”
This field needs to have conversations that most other academic fields are stumbling through as well on equity, inclusivity, diversity, and accessibility. I'm of the opinion that the music world struggles more with these than many other fields because it's a privilege to learn how to play an instrument, have the time to do so, and so on.
Game music and sound studies face a similar, if not, worse problem. Not only is there the privilege of learning music to consider, but also the privilege to own video game consoles and have the time to play them. I'm focusing a lot on class, but that's because, for the most part, you can't really succeed in this field unless you have the money to access these things. The people who have this kind of access will get their foot in the door more easily because of a system that was established long before we were alive. Now throw in other human categorizations: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. The more injustices you face in each group, the harder it is to join this hot mess of an elitist club. I could go on and on about the oppressive system that's been in place for centuries, but for the sake of brevity, let me jump straight into why these conversations are difficult and uncomfortable. It really boils down to one word: empathy.
Empathy is a really hard skill to develop because it's unbelievably exhausting. The most empathetic people are the ones who face injustices on a daily basis because they're familiar with the struggle that no one should have to face. Having scholars from marginalized communities makes a world of a difference because they empathize and extend their hands to those who face similar struggles, actively helping them out, making it clear that there is space for their voices to exist; that they matter. The best part of all of this? Mentees become mentors, and they often pay it forward, continuing this chain that emphasizes the importance of helping one another. By doing that, we create more diversity in our field, which means there will be so many more ideas on the table. It's not to say that the voices of one particular demographic have the same ideas, but their lived experiences will be far more similar than many others whose voices are barely heard or, unfortunately, nonexistent.
Read the full interview with Hyeonjin here.
The Journal of the American Musicological Society is looking for an Associate Editor
The Punk Scholars Network has launched a new website
A new journal, Jazz and Culture, is seeking proposals for special themed issues by guest editors; email proposals to Pittjazz@pitt.edu by July 1, 2020
Contrapulso, a Latin American journal of popular music studies, is seeking contributors
Q&A: Nina Corcoran
Nina Corcoran is a freelance writer with bylines in publications like Pitchfork, Stereogum, NPR Music, and many more. She has also served as music editor at the print magazine Dig Boston, so she’s seen the industry from both sides of a publication, and from both print and digital perspectives. That’s why I found it so interesting to hear her response to how her work has changed over the past few years in this excerpt from our conversation.
Definitely a shift to downsize self-pressure. Writing for print is stressful in that you get one shot to put your thoughts down before it's frozen on paper forever. Writing for the internet is stressful for the opposite reason. You can almost always go back and edit your work, and the deadline is often flexible. That's great for the occasional mistake, but it's horrible for a deadline because it feels impermanent. That combined with the possibility of a wider readership online has always stressed me out. It's like you want to beat your critics to the punch, to solve every possible takedown before it happens, to not make a mistake when the verification is out there, somewhere, online, but you allow yourself to spend way too much time working on the article as a tradeoff—and neglect your mental and emotional health in the process.
My writing changed for the better when I stopped trying to accomplish all the things I could do to make an article better than the previous one, instead settling for the things I should do. It's impossible to continually out-do yourself. You get burnt out if you try, and nothing's worse than burning out as a freelancer. You've got to set a boundary. Doing so made the actual process of writing so much healthier for me.
Read the full interview with Nina here.
Industry Twitter Reading List
Kim Kelly asked editors still accepting pitches to let folks know what they’re looking for
Sonia Weiser linked to a spreadsheet where journalists are offering help to other journalists with resume tips, portfolio critiques, and more
Lindsay Goldwert had a thread with some tips for those looking into copywriting work
Q&A: Juice Magazine Interview (Davide Bortot & Stephan Szillus)
Earlier this year, Julian Brimmers pitched me on an oral history of Juice Magazine. Full disclosure: Julian is an old friend of mine from Red Bull Music Academy, an enterprise that was filled with folks from Juice. The reason Juice became such an important conveyor belt to RBMA was simple: It was Germany’s pre-eminent hip-hop publication, filled with great writers and sharp editors. The two editors that helmed the Juice ship during what was arguably its golden era were Davide Bortot and Stephan Szillus. In their chat with Julian, they talk extensively about the magazine and the German hip-hop scene, but their experiences, as this excerpt highlights, are much more broadly relevant.
In hindsight, what was the most gratifying part of the job for you?
Davide Bortot: Always the moment when new music came in. Promo CDs, listening sessions, or a Stephan Szillus 320k mp3 hook-up. Also, I have to say that the possibility of being in dialogue with people I wouldn't have met otherwise has been the most valuable lesson. I didn't fully understand the value of that at the time. But in retrospect—as corny as it sounds—I have to say that hip-hop journalism taught me to deeply engage with perspectives vastly different than mine.
Stephan Szillus: Juice has been a second family for a long time. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. The hip-hop scene that I grew closer to through Juice gave me a sense of community. Being respected. A lot of my personal relationships came through that. And being able to travel and see the world through a culturally tinged lens. Visiting those corners of New York that no tourist ever sees. Sitting in a suburb of Prague with Common and watching him record the second verse of "Don't Break My Heart." Being witness to the creation of an art form that is more important to me than anything in this world. The idea that that was what paid your bills—it’s an astonishing thing.
Read Julian’s full interview with Davide and Stephan here.
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This Week’s Certified Banger
The Closing Credits