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 NPR Music features editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen; Chicago Tribune editor Kevin Williams; Rob Bowman, author of The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story; and Dr. Stephanie Doktor, author of the article “How a White Supremacist Became Famous for His Black Music: John Powell and Rhapsodie nègre (1918).” Plus! Reading recommendations, a movie about Slint, and more! But first…
Andre Gee and Jessica McKinney discuss the value and harm of TV and concert performances that include images of Black trauma
Jack Hamilton says that Democrats need to stop relying on pop culture to woo voters
Sheldon Pearce explores the perils of the posthumous rap album
Denzil Bell on the connection between grime and Christianity
Bob Mehr reflects on winning the 2021 Grammy for Best Liner Notes
Elias Leight ventures into the black market practice of manipulating streaming numbers
A.Z. Madonna hopes the “era of genius worship” will end with the passing of James Levine
Elijah C. Watson spotlights the movement to pay hip-hop pioneers [h/t MusicREDEF]
Rich Woodall on the current music catalog spending spree
Zachary Lipez, interviewed by Brady Gerber
Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a features editor at NPR Music. He also does some writing and podcasting, and in his free time, he plays in the bands Bad Moves and Art Sorority. This interview, however, focuses squarely on the art of editing, about which Daoud is incredibly thoughtful. In this excerpt from our interview, Daoud describes his basic approach to editing a piece.
I think all the time about the scene in The Prestige where Hugh Jackman’s magician character watches his rival, played by Christian Bale, pull off the most mind-blowing magic trick he’s ever seen—but the presentation is so staid and matter-of-fact that no one else in the audience is impressed. In the story, Jackman is set up as the flamboyant showman, where Bale is more of a disciplined technician, and the point in the end is that they sort of need each other to be whole. That’s a handy metaphor for the balancing act of feature writing, especially about something as personal as music. To be understood, your ideas need structure and substance, but to be beautiful and memorable, they need to connect with the reader’s emotions.
So to me, the editor’s job when a first draft comes in is basically to be a test audience, who is empowered to raise their hand and say “I love it,” “I don’t get it,” or “I get it, but I’m not sure if I care yet.” It’s a negotiation at first, but as you continue through drafts and make finer tweaks, it can start to feel more like true collaboration, with both of you demanding the best out of the work. When you tell a writer a day before your publish date, “I just realized this paragraph might work better at the end than the beginning, but I need a transition sentence from you to make it fit,” and they send you back the perfect puzzle piece to fill the gap? That’s a great feeling.
New podcasts: Unsung Stories is celebrating the women of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and the Computer Music Center; Dylan Green has launched Reel Notes, which focuses on the relationship between rap and film
The New York Times team breaks down the Grammys on Popcast
Joseph 'JP' Patterson, editor-in-chief of Complex UK and founder of TRENCH Mag, is the latest guest on Rhymes Like Dimes
Stephen Thomas Erlewine talks about greatest hits albums and AllMusic on Money 4 Nothing
Jada Watson discusses her research into BIPOC representation in country music on the latest episode of The Table
Kevin Williams is a long-time Chicago newspaper journalist and editor. He is currently Senior Content Editor, News at the Chicago Tribune, but also spent a long stint at the Sun-Times. As such, he has lots to say about what it feels like to cover a city’s scene—and why it's so important. In this excerpt from our interview, Kevin explains the importance of professionalism in his role.
People don't know that even after all this time I am still nervous, verging on terrified when assessing music. That is someone's work, effort, heart and soul. The responsibility that you have to do right by it, to be fair and honest and come to it in a way that leaves you out and honors the work is always a challenge. Too many music writers take it casually. It's serious AF. And it's hard because I love music, so detaching myself from it so that I can do work is hard. Beautiful songs make me cry, still, and when at a show, I still struggle to show no reaction, lest someone get an idea of how my review is going to read from my demeanor. I learned that ages ago from the late Sun-Times classical critic, Robert Marsh. People think I'm a grouch, but nah. I do, however, take my job and my role very seriously.
Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber is writing a memoir
Dan Kane has retired from his post at The Canton Repository
Metal Edge editor Gerri Miller has passed away
Thomas Hobbs is starting a series of Zoom discussions with music writers
This is a helpful glossary of terms for newbie writers and editors
You can browse every new release on Spotify by genre at this website [h/t Deep Voices]
Slint’s story is tailor-made for a music documentary. The band of obsessively dedicated teenagers from Louisville, Kentucky, released only a handful of songs in their original run from 1986-1990, with an aura of mystique around their genre-defining post-hardcore masterpiece, Spiderland. Lance Bangs’ 2014 film Breadcrumb Traildelivers the definitive oral history of their trajectory, joined by members of the Southern city’s eccentric music scene and other underground heroes such as Steve Albini, Drew Daniel, and Matt Sweeney.
After spending a few years playing with local legends like Squirrel Bait and Maurice, childhood friends Brian McMahan and Britt Walford began to explore a more expansive, emotionally vulnerable sound. Linking up with guitarist David Pajo, they made their unceremonious live debut at a Unitarian church under the name Small Tight Dirty Tufts of Hair. The band’s stacks of amps caused elderly audience members to file out in droves, but the young musicians knew they were onto something special.
As the documentary explains, Slint’s dissolution was set in motion after McMahan experienced a near-fatal automotive accident. This close brush with death would send him spiraling into depression, resulting in the anguished vocals and vivid themes of alienation that make Spiderland so powerful. McMahan quit the band shortly after its recording to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. Though they would not step on stage again together for another 15 years, Slint’s cult popularity only grew larger. Listen to McMahain painfully intone “I’m sorry, and I miss you” and you’ll understand why.
Tantacrul explains how reality TV music cues misrepresent the world
Daudi Abe, Amy Coddington, and Eric Harvey discussed their recent hip-hop research as part of the Popular Music Books In Process series
60 Minutes profiles the St. Augustine high school band, the group that “desegregated Mardi Gras parades and is now playing through the pandemic”
12tone on why blues lyrics are more important than you think
Rob Bowman has a Ph.D in ethnomusicology and wrote the award-winning book Soulsville U.S.A.: The Story of Stax Records. His newest book is The Last Soul Company: The Malaco Records Story, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the longest-running independent record label in American music history. Early on, the label became known for secular music—King Floyd’s “Groove Me,” Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” and Dorothy Moore”s “Misty Blue”—but its catalogue came to include an enormous amount of gospel as well. In this excerpt from our interview, Rob explains how.
By the late 1980s Malaco was helping to pioneer and then dominate the mass choir phenomena, racking up massive gospel hits by the Mississippi Mass Choir, the Georgia Mass Choir and the Florida Mass Choir. The latter two were actually signed to Savoy Records which Malaco acquired at the end of 1986, Malaco would later acquire Apollo Records, Atlanta International and the Vanessa Bell Armstrong albums from Onyx Records. The Apollo purchase gave Malaco the classic recordings of Mahalia Jackson and the Roberta Martin Singers. The purchase of the Savoy catalogue meant that Malaco also had seminal recordings by the Ward Singers, the Davis Singers and Rev. James Cleveland. The combined catalogue that the company now controlled is simply astonishing and represents the largest repository of gospel music in America.
From Rob Bowman:
I am only alive due to a double lung transplant that I received in Toronto, Canada in 2013. Of course, since Canada has a national health care plan, it was completely free. I encourage everyone to donate to support lung transplant research. In the USA, a national program exists at: Lung Transplant Foundation. In Canada, donate to TGH—the hospital doing the finest research on lung transplants in the world.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by folks I’ve interviewed.
Dr. Stephanie Doktor is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Music at Colorado College, researching intersections between art music, jazz, and popular music, and considering how one can hear inequality in musical sound. She recently published an article in American Music entitled “How a White Supremacist Became Famous for His Black Music: John Powell and Rhapsodie nègre (1918).” In this excerpt from our interview, Doktor briefly summarizes the piece.
John Powell was an American composer who initially based much of his music on ragtime, spirituals, minstrel tunes, and jazz in the 1900s and 1910s. But in the early 1920s, he became a politically active white supremacist. Most notably, he facilitated the passing of Virginia’s 1924 Racial integrity Act which required people of color to register their race with the state in order to prevent passing and integration. (This law helped legalize sterilization and became the theoretical groundwork for the Holocaust.)
He continued to perform his Black-based music at the same time he was collaborating with Marcus Garvey to have Black Americans removed from the nation. Instead of interpreting his pre- and post-war agendas as radically oppositional or his musical and political careers as antithetical to one another, I consider how they are actually imbricated. Doing so helps problematize the structure of modernist concert music. Put differently, Powell was not an outlier but rather a product of American modernism.
Call for Chapter Submissions: The Convergence and Divergence of Music in Games and Films
#1plus1plus1is3 is a 3-day virtual symposium celebrating Prince; you can register here
Call for Proposals: Dancecult Conference 2021 will take place in September
Call for Papers: openwork, “a new interdisciplinary journal focused around experimental music, art and scholarship,” is accepting proposals for its inaugural issue
Call for Papers: Americas: A Hemispheric Music Journal is producing a themed issue on sound, activism, and social justice
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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…