Jason Tate Interview
|Todd L. Burns||May 18, 2020|
I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.
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. Jason also writes a weekly newsletter called Liner Notes.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Dumb luck and being at the right place at the right time I guess. 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.
Was there any backlash when the site started covering more than just Blink-182?
At first, yes and no. The website at the time was known as a Blink-182 fanpage. So people were visiting it for a long time just based on that, but I had been writing about other music from time-to-time as well. I was writing about MXPX for a while, various other Tooth and Nail bands like Slick Shoes, and early stuff from bands like New Found Glory when they were first starting. Little tiny blurbs where I would say, “hey, if you like Blink-182, you might like this band” or “if you like this kind of music, you might like this band.” At the time, I was starting to think that it didn’t make sense for there to be like 3000 individual band pages and fan pages. There would be a New Found Glory fanpage and an MXPX fanpage and a Blink-182 fanpage. I wanted to write about all of those bands, but I didn’t want to make individual sites for every single of them. So there was a little bit of backlash from people who just wanted to see Blink-182 wallpapers or whatever. But it was the early 2000s, so it didn’t really matter that much to me—I was 18 and I was just goofing around online in my dorm room. I didn’t know that it was ever going to be an actual job.
When did you start to get the impression that this was going to be a full-time job?
Right around my sophomore year of college was when I started to realize that the website was getting really popular. It was doing a lot of traffic. At the same time, I was in college getting a business degree and spending all of my time on the website. So I went to my parents and I basically said, “Uh, I don’t think I want to do college any more.” And, because they’re my parents, they were like, “Well no, you’re going to keep doing college.” So I said, “Well, can I take like a semester off?” So when a bunch of my friends went abroad my junior year in college, I took that first semester off. I ended up staying at home and working full time on the website, and that’s when I started seeing it really start to blossom and the traffic basically quadrupled. When that started happening, I thought, “Okay, if I can figure out a way to monetize it a little bit more, this could potentially be a job.” I went back to school, finished my degree, and then as soon as I was done with that, I had a little bit of savings that the website had made over the last couple of years, enough to pay for rent in California for a few months, so I decided to see what would happen. Around that time, I teamed up with a company called IndieClick that was selling ads, and that was when it became pretty apparent that running the website was something that I could do full time. While all my friends were starting actual jobs, I decided, well, I’m just going to do this.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
There were definitely a lot of different people within the music industry that—I don’t know that I would consider them mentors— but they were definitely people who I knew I could turn to for advice. That includes Richard and Stephanie [Reines] at Drive-Thru Records, Brad [Fischetti] at One Eleven Records, Vinnie [Fiorello] at Fueled By Ramen at the time. There were people like that whom I always felt like I could talk to and get some ideas. They would also always come to me and bounce ideas and bands back and forth. People like John Janick who is now at a much, much larger label than he was at the time. And Aubin [Paul] over at Punknews was definitely somebody that I talked to quite a bit. I was usually just bouncing ideas off of different peers who were either writing with me on the website or doing similar types of things online. It felt like there weren’t a lot of people who had done any of this stuff at the time. Trying to be a “blogger” or “music writer” on the internet wasn’t really a job, so there weren’t a whole lot of people to talk to.
What do you look for in a new writer?
A lot of times, I’m looking for a unique voice and a unique perspective. I’ve read so many different album reviews and interviews at this point that I kind of have an idea of what the basic beats look like, so I know when somebody’s just doing a version of an album review that I’ve seen 3000 times. Sometimes that’s great, and some publications may be looking for something like that. But I’m looking for somebody who is actually willing to express an opinion on the music itself as opposed to just describing the songs. I’m looking for somebody who is willing to take a chance on new and different music than everybody else is covering.
Of course, most of the time, we’re gonna cover the bigger artists as well, but if if somebody comes to me and says, “look, this band has no followers on Instagram or Twitter, but I really want to write about this EP that they just self-released on Bandcamp,” that’s interesting to me. That’s the kind of stuff that I am way more drawn to than somebody reviewing the new 311 record or whatever. Personally, it comes down to the unique voice and perspective that someone is capable of getting across. I want to see something that I couldn’t just write myself and doesn’t just read like robot-generated content.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is definitely the freedom. I enjoy the freedom of choosing what, when, and how I work on different things. I still enjoy the creative side of it. I like being in the weeds of designing what the website looks like and thinking about what the content on the website is going to be. But my favorite part is probably when somebody discovers a band that I write about for the first time and then they start talking about them. And I can watch that band go from being relatively small with only a few people talking about them to all the sudden being a giant band that everybody’s talking about. That feeling never gets old.
Are there any trends in music or music journalism that you’re keeping an eye on?
In the music world, my personal taste recently leans more towards stuff like synth pop, ‘80s throwback sort of sound, the dance feel of that kind of music. That’s been something that I’ve been interested in over the last couple years. Here are some artists that I’ve been into lately: Now Now, Sigrid, All Time Low, Lauv, The Dangerous Summer, Meet Me & The Altar, Vasudeva, The Maine, and The Night Game.
As for music journalism, I think that, obviously, newsletters are very big, lots of different people are starting newsletters. Things like that that are kind of throwing back to a feeling that I remember when I first started “blogging” and when everybody kind of had their own little place online. You would open up a website and you would type in a URL and you would read what somebody had to say. When social media got popular, that disappeared for a long time. On social media, if you didn’t fit in to what the algorithm wanted to say, then your stuff just didn’t get read. As things start moving back towards the idea of something coming into your email inbox once every couple of days, to me it feels a lot more like the original blogging and the one-on-one that you would have with a specific author.
Are there any particular newsletters that you follow?
I follow quite a few. In the music world, I really enjoy Bad Sandwich Chronicles by the lead singer of The Lawrence Arms. Luke O’Neil, he has a really good substack newsletter. One of the first tech newsletters I started reading was Stratechery by Ben Thompson, which is really interesting. Dan Ozzi, he has a really good one. Courtney Coles has a good one that I’ve been reading, Daily Rituals. And I still follow a bunch of different tech blogs and stuff like that but those are mostly all through RSS and not newsletters. They have newsletters but I’m ancient, so I still read RSS as well.
If you had to point folks to just one thing that you’ve written or created, what would that be?
At this point, I think I’m most proud of what Chorus.fm has become. There’s still a bunch of stuff that I want to change about it, but I do think that it’s the most actualized version of what I think that an online publication and community should look like. So many things were just band-aided together in the AbsolutePunk world. Everything was moving so fast back then that it never had a cohesive or coherent thought behind it.
As for writing, I hate everything I write like two days after I write it. But about a year and a half ago, I made it a goal to write something every single week. That was when I started the Liner Notes newsletter that goes out every Friday. Some of them I enjoy and some of them I read and I realize I should have proofread more. But, by and large, I think that those are pretty good. There are a couple of reviews over the years that, if I re-read, I would change a billion different things about them, but there are a couple that I still consider relatively well-written enough that I don’t cringe if people read them. The latest one that I enjoyed writing was The Night Game album review. Also the Thrice Vheissu album review a lot of people cite as being inspirational for wanting to write about music.
Has the transition from AbsolutePunk to Chorus impacted the way you work with your group of writers and how you bring people on?
A little bit. Back then, we had anywhere from 35 to 45 different people writing at any given time. Now, it’s definitely smaller. I think there are still like 25 different people who have written at least one piece for the website. But there’s definitely way less pressure to put out content. I’ve said some of the stuff that I think about with my own writing to the other people who want to write on the website. I’ll basically say, “Write about what you want to write about and if you aren’t feeling inspired right now, don’t.” And some people crank out content pretty frequently because they have a bunch of stuff they want to say and they have a bunch of albums they want to write about. And some people only ever once in a while have the itch to put together a review or whatnot. The big change with that is not feeling like we always have to be pushing content out and instead just doing what feels right.
Can you talk a little bit about a time in your career that you thought was particularly exciting?
The parts that are exciting and the things that I have a nostalgia for are watching bands start to blow up in that early or mid-2000s era. Bands like Fall Out Boy, Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance, Panic! at the Disco, Paramore—when that group of bands started getting really popular. That was when the music scene that I enjoyed and was interested in writing about started seeing mainstream success. Watching those bands go from people that had just sent us demo CDs to all the sudden they’re on MTV and they’re the biggest band in the world, that to me has always been the most exciting thing to watch. And of course, now they’ve become so big that you flip on YouTube and they’re part of like nostalgia week or something. A YouTube channel will be like “you remember when this band was popular?” And I’m like, oh god. I feel like I’m getting older.
Considering that “emo” was a big part of AbsolutePunk and is a big part of Chorus, what was your impression of the “emo revival” that happened a few years ago?
I like a lot of those bands. At its core, that is a type of music that I enjoy. I think it’s interesting to watch people take things that meant a lot to us when we were younger and basically re-package and sell them back to us as nostalgia. Sometimes, that’s strange. But watching bands continue to push out new music that has been inspired by the past is basically what music has always been about. If it gets packaged as an “emo revival,” I kind of roll my eyes at it, but I do enjoy a lot of the music that comes from it.
Maybe it’s just the cynic in me when it comes to the music industry, but it seems like the emo revival was a thing that they were pushing. Different industry folks and different labels were like, “oh, it’s the emo revival,” and then it didn’t sell well enough for them to keep doing it, so they kind of moved on to the next thing. Every once in a while, you’ll still see bands try to push that or you’ll see different artists that are still making that kind of music, but it doesn’t seem to have the same push from labels or bigger publications.
What does the future look like for you? What’s next for Chorus?
I’m in the process of doing a pretty big redesign. We’re stuck in quarantine and there’s not a whole lot else to do, so for the last month I’ve been rewriting the entire website. When I first started doing this version of the website, it was the first time I had ever done any sort of programming or coding on Wordpress. Everything else in the past was this crazy spaghetti custom code that AbsolutePunk had become. Now that I understand Wordpress a little bit more, I’m having more fun diving into making a version of the website that’s more in line with what I would like it to be in my head.
I’m also still writing the newsletter every Friday, that’s exciting to me. I’m just hoping to continue to be able to do this same sort of stuff and keep growing the site and the audience. But not so fast that it becomes overwhelming and not to the point where I feel the pressure of the audience being too large. For me, it’s more about trying to have some sort of connection with the people that are reading what I write. I would much rather have a smaller group of people that really like what I’m writing about and really like the bands I’m talking about than feel like I have to have everybody in the world reading my stuff every week.
Jordan Walsh is a Philadelphia-based music writer who grew up in Florida. His work has appeared in The Alternative and Magnet Magazine.
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