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. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with Sly & the Family Stone expert Joel Selvin; Jazz Weeknights host Annie Parnell; and Ludwig Van Toronto digital content editor Anya Wassenberg. Plus! Reading recommendations, the definitive Bossa Nova documentary, and more! But first…
Iris Berry had had enough. For the second time that day, she stomped from behind the bar, across the dance floor, past rows of U-shaped red leather booths, through the haze of cigarette smoke and stale beer, over to the DJs to ask them to turn the music down. - Shawna Kenney
Joel Selvin is the author of Sly & the Family Stone: An Oral History. Originally published in 1998 as part of a series of oral histories commissioned by Dave Marsh, it’s been recently reissued. Composed of 40 interviews from the band and their close associates, the book is told entirely in their own words. “When I collected the interviews, nobody had been around asking and everybody unloaded on me,” explains Joel. “The scary story they told me in vivid images was more of a nightmare than anything.” In this excerpt from our interview, Joel explains how he came to write the book.
It was an assignment, but one I eagerly undertook. I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Dance to the Music.”
Where were you the first time you heard “Dance to the Music”? What did it feel like to hear music like that?
It was a sunny Saturday morning and Sly was doing a now-rare guest stint on KDIA. I was driving down the freeway next to Berkeley’s Aquatic Park when he dropped the needle on his new single. As soon as those voices started, it was like a door opened in my mind and I saw a new world of song.
What was the easiest thing about the whole project?
Probably editing down the transcripts. That, and spending the small sum I was paid.
Annie Parnell is the host of Jazz Weeknights at VPM, Virginia’s home for public media. She only started freelancing in 2020, but her writing has already appeared in Paste Magazine, The Boot, and elsewhere. In this excerpt from our interview, Annie explains where she thinks music journalism is headed.
Rachel Cholst had a really insightful assessment thread on the state of the industry recently. I think that like the journalism industry at large, music journalism is faced with some major shifts and challenges. There’s a pressing need to adapt and a clamor to be heard on both the artist and critic sides. At the same time, though, more voices are breaking into the conversation than ever, which is key.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
Don’t be afraid to pitch and talk to other writers. I felt really awkward reaching out to more established voices when I was first starting out, but each time I was met with so much excitement and got some really valuable pointers and even personal recommendations to editors.
From Annie Parnell:
Girls Rock! DC provides music summer camp programs that provide girls and non-binary youth in the Washington DC metro area a space for self-expression and community through music. They focus on fostering leadership and a passion for social change.
Bossa Nova is one of those things that’s better felt than explained. For those looking for a thorough dissection of the genre’s hows, whos, wheres, whens, and whys, Paulo Thiago’s This Is Bossa Nova might be the best option.
Originally titled Coisa Mais Linda after a song by Vinicius de Moraes (and the opening line of Tom Jobim’s immortal “Garota de Ipanema”), this comprehensive documentary details the history of Bossa Nova from its Copacabana origins to international acclaim, discussing numerous influences that include samba, choro, and jazz, as well as disparate masters of the form like Gershwin or Pixinguinha. Narrating the film are composers Roberto Menescal and Carlos Lyra, two of the genre’s founding figures, who never hesitate to pick up a guitar mid-conversation and demonstrate how a particular chord sequence or arrangement magically unfolds into a superb tune.
This Is Bossa Nova is also loaded with insightful interviews and astonishing performances (a large portion of which were filmed specifically for the documentary), along with an impressive dose of archival material featuring some of the greats: Silvinha Telles, João and Astrud Gilberto, Elizete Cardoso, Tamba Trio, Nara Leão, and many more.
What noted synth pop musician also worked as an assistant editor at Smash Hits in the mid-’80s?
Anya Wassenberg is a longtime freelance writer, writing instructor, and, more recently, a singer and songwriter. Currently, Anya is the digital content editor at Ludwig Van Toronto, one site in a classical music-focused digital news media network. In this excerpt from our interview, Anya talks about where she thinks music journalism is headed.
I think it’s less and less about the music, because music literacy in general has dropped and even disappeared. There are few places where kids are taught music in schools as a regular part of curriculum, so how can you expect people to be able to talk about music with any kind of knowledgeable background?
I’d love to see much less celebrity worship, and much more discussion of the actual music. A lot of music writing and journalism is fluffy celebrity pieces, which does help to support the music industry, it’s true, but doesn’t encourage any kind of real understanding of the art. It also helps to support the worst as well as the best parts of the music industry, by which I mean its commercialism.
I still look at music and all arts journalism in the traditional way—as a kind of bridge between artists and audiences. You can help broaden perspectives and educate/inform people about the art and the industry.
We rarely talk about the way the music industry really operates, i.e. where the pop music biz is essentially run by marketing research and computer algorithms that blend a style of music they know will sell. Most music writing is about perpetuating the illusion of artistry.
From Anya Wassenberg:
I’m a big fan of Sistema, an organization that brings music education to kids in underserved communities. It has branches all over the place, but you can contribute to Sistema Toronto here.
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed any special features, I’ve published a number of them in the newsletter, including articles about music journalism history, what music journalism will be like in 2221, and much more. You can check out all of that here.
I also do a recurring column in the newsletter called Notes On Process. The premise is simple: I share a Google Doc with a music journalist where we go into depth on one of their pieces. It hopefully provides an insight into how music writers do their work. You can check out all editions of Notes On Process here.
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Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys worked as an assistant editor at Smash Hits in the mid-’80s.
Thanks for reading! I make playlists from time to time. Check them out if you’re interested. And 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…