#085: Trust The Writer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with The New Cue’s Ted Kessler; Kate Solomon, author of a new book about Amy Winehouse; and freelance writer Danielle Chelosky. Plus! A new edition of Notes On Process with early Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres. And, naturally, some bagpipes. But first…
The Best Take
Jessica McKinney interviews the person behind the biggest Beyoncé fan account
Nyshka Chandran explores why South Asian audiences aren’t particularly interested in hearing South Asian sounds
Amanda Petrusich wonders whether genres are a thing of the past
Natalie Weiner on how country music is changing, whether it likes it or not
Yasmine Summan explains how alternative beauty favors whiteness
Tressie McMillan Cottom writes about the pleasure and importance of deep research
Daphne A. Brooks writes about the dearth of Grammy nominations for female liner note authors
Jesse Bernard on food in New York rap
Chloe Lula explains why the sound of Mars is so disappointing
Q&A: Ted Kessler
Ted Kessler is the editor of The New Cue, a newsletter that has just launched following the closure of the print magazine Q. Ted has been working in music journalism in one form or another since 1989, with stints writing at Select and NME. (He also devised and edited an anthology of writing about people’s fathers a few years ago called My Old Man, featuring contributions from Rod Stewart, Tilda Swinton, Adam Cohen, and more.) In this excerpt from our interview, Ted explains what’s changed in his approach to his work over the past few years.
This is a very difficult question for me to answer as I am an old man who has worked in music journalism for around thirty years. Obviously, technology has changed a little in that time. I’d been on staff at NME for a good five years before anyone even mentioned this thing called “The Internet.” I have to say that—other than slowing slightly through age—my approach is very similar to how it was in 1993. I’m just trying to write as well as possible for whoever will pay me the most while treating my work sympathetically. I think that’s the best you can do. The people who were reading back then are the same kind of people who read now.
I am a very practised editor today so my editing has improved a lot, especially in the last decade, but my big thing about editing is commission the right journalists for the right jobs. If you do that, you won’t have to make big changes to copy or ask for rewrites. I increasingly see those big, brutal rewrites so beloved of many print editors as proof of a failure of commissioning, a sign of weakness masquerading as a show of force. Get the right people to write for you, tell them what you want and you will get it back. If they have confidence that you’re not going to wipe your ego all over their work no matter what they deliver, you will get better writing in return more often. So, that’s one thing I’ve learnt over time. Think about the commission harder, trust the writer more.
ICYMI: A Short History Of Unofficial Music Journalism In The Soviet Union, 1977-1991
Last week, I published the latest in a series of features about music journalism of the past. Russian academic Kat Ganskaya wrote about the Soviet Union’s history of unofficial music journalism. Here’s just a bit from the piece.
Like the music of the late Soviet Union, music journalism was formed in two directions: the official and the so-called underground (podpol'ie). In the case of the underground press, the circulations were small (some would even come in editions of one). But samizdat played a crucial role in shaping the image of rock music among young people. It was also the crucible for the early years of music journalism in post-Soviet Russia; some of the best-known Russian music writers and editors of the 90s and 00s started their career in samizdat.
Samizdat created an alternative space of communication for subcultural youth. As Roxy editor Oleg Reshetnikov put it in 1987, “The main driving force behind [samizdat] was the half-forgotten nowadays ‘joy of human communication.’ It was a thrill to make the magazine all together and to feel like-minded, so the most important thing in the magazine was the idea of a pure thrill.”
Not Familiar With This At All
Larry Fitzmaurice and Matthew Perpetua chat about the state of music media on Fluxpod
Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell talk with Joe Levy about their ballots for Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time on Auriculum
Marke B chats about his life in electronic music on Rave to the Grave
Carole Boinet, deputy editor of Les Inrockuptibles, was interviewed on The Stack
Boy band expert Maria Cristina Sherman was the latest guest on Office Hours
Baylen Leonard talks about country music publication Holler Country on The Country Music Media Podcast
Notes On Process: Ben Fong-Torres
The latest edition of Notes On Process is here! The idea of this column is simple: I invite a writer to a Google Doc where I’ve copy-pasted one of their pieces and added a bunch of footnotes with flattery, jokes, and questions. They reply to my queries, and then we provide you with a link to the doc where all of our marginalia is visible. The goal is to provide a window into the writing and editing process, so that folks can see how great writers think about their work.
Today, I’ve interviewed longtime rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres about the introduction to his book The Hits Just Keep on Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio. You can check out the Google Doc here.
You can also check out Ben’s memoir of his childhood, The Rice Room, here.
Tim Sweeney is pausing his long-running Beats in Space radio show
Laura Barton is launching a series on BBC Radio 4 this week
Me At The Bagpipe Show
Q&A: Kate Solomon
Kate Solomon is the author of the new book Lives of the Musicians: Amy Winehouse. (Editor's note: Amy Winehouse catalogue is currently on Universal Music, my employer.) In addition to her new book, Kate is a freelance writer for The Guardian, The Telegraph, and many more. In this excerpt from our interview, Kate offers a bit of advice when it comes to negotiating book deals.
Laurence King approached me about the series when they were first putting it together—I think a friend of mine had suggested me to them. We had an initial chat about the books, what artists they were hoping to cover and how the books would be positioned before they asked me to put a proposal together—which was daunting because I’ve never done that before. A few googles later and I came up with a vague structure and approach for Amy and they liked it.
Negotiating the advance was quite tricky, I think I managed to get a whopping £500 extra out of them... I would recommend any writers in the UK—especially those like me who don’t have an agent—join the Society of Authors who offer a service where they vet your contract for you and give you advice about what to push back on. I think the publishers were quite surprised when I came back with a detailed list of things I wanted reworded or percentages I wanted upped. Alternatively, you know, get an agent.
A Cause Worth Supporting
From Kate Solomon:
My mum still lives in my hometown of Wolverhampton (which is like this horribly neglected Midlands town with basically nothing going for it) and she does tons of charity work to support refugees and migrants who have found themselves there—she’s currently running the entire length of the UK during lockdown to raise money for the work of Wolverhampton City of Sanctuary which is an insane 800 miles of running, so any support would be incredible.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by folks I’ve interviewed.
Congrats to Bob Mehr, winner of the Best Liner Notes Grammy
Writing advice from Octavia Butler (h/t Megan Long)
Maggot Brain editor Mike McGonigal has been hospitalized
Pitchfork’s union organizers have published anonymous testimonials about “years of underpayment”
Google Arts & Culture has a microsite about the history of electronic music
A Musicologist Goes Viral During The Meghan / Oprah Interview, A Play In 4 Acts
Q&A: Danielle Chelosky
Danielle Chelosky is a freelance writer for Billboard, The FADER, MTV News, SPIN, and more. She also writes a newsletter called The Waiting Room. Still a college student, she says that “really, I just have been nonstop freelancing, interning, and writing since I was, like, 17 or 18. Right now is the first time I’m not doing an internship because I’ve realized that I deserve to be compensated for all of my work (and everyone does!).” In this excerpt from our interview, Danielle explains how she first started navigating the world of music journalism a few years ago.
Summer after my freshman year, I landed an internship at Kerrang! that was for college credit. I commuted to Brooklyn two days a week and learned about a process that would take over the next few years of my life: writing up news posts, using a CMS, learning SEO, writing headlines, looking at press releases, planning features, communicating with publicists. I started to understand the music industry and the journalism industry a bit.
I spent a lot of time on Twitter trying to understand what freelancing was. I was 18 and I definitely annoyed some people (apologies if you were one of them). I remember Eli Enis being a really big help with contacts, so shout out to him for being transparent and consistently generous. I found Twitter threads that explained how to write pitches; I realized it was very formulaic. Eventually I got one accepted, and then I got more accepted. I sent pitches all the time. I spent nights writing up pitches and scheduling them the next day. I did it for fun. I would send the same pitch to a bunch of places in hopes that one would accept it. I still kind of didn’t really know what I was doing, but it seemed right.
As I freelanced more, the easier it got, obviously. I prioritized music writing over school, which isn’t a big deal for me because I go to the most liberal school ever and my classes aren’t insanely challenging or anything. But I treated music writing as my homework because I knew I wanted it to be my career. It came first to me.
Call for Papers: Music, Mortality, and Ritual: A Death Studies Symposium, taking place in May
Call for Papers: The Digital Libraries for Musicology conference will take place in July
Oxford University Press has made a list of articles about music and technology available for free until the end of July
A two-day symposium celebrating Unsung Stories: Women at Columbia's Computer Music Center is happening in April
A panel called Gender in Jazz: Narratives, Practice and Justice will take place this week
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The Closing Credits
Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…