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 Billboard stalwart Jason Lipshutz, Atlanta freelancer Jewel Wicker, and Canadian music expert Andrea Warner. Plus! Reading recommendations, prog rock, and much more! But first…
“When TIDAL asked me to write an essay about whether Artificial Intelligence could fulfill the role of the music critic, my first thought was ‘Can I get A.I. to do the piece for me?’” - Simon Reynolds
Jason Lipshutz is executive director of music at Billboard, where he has worked since graduating from college in 2010 (with the exception of a one-year break in 2015). He’s had seven titles at the publication. As he puts it, “My favorite part of my job is that every day is totally different… I like being deployed in different areas at Billboard, and never get precious about any of my tasks.” In this excerpt from our interview, Jason explains where he thinks music journalism is headed.
From a practical standpoint, music magazines and sites will continue to lean into coverage of popular artists for web traffic purposes, while coverage of smaller and independent artists will continue to be harder to find. That sucks, but also makes sense, as the music media world has consolidated with mind-boggling speed [with] a lot of talented writers unnecessarily pushed out of jobs.
One silver lining is that there will always be compelling voices with new and interesting storytelling methods outside of the music journalism establishment—maybe they’re on Substack, or TikTok, or Mastodon, or something that doesn’t exist yet—and they’ll certainly influence the next iteration of that establishment (if they want to). The other silver lining is that popular music is being increasingly democratized, with years-old songs becoming radio hits, totally unknown artists becoming streaming sensations, and songs from all over the world gaining U.S. attention because enough people have demanded as much.
For instance, platforms like YouTube and TikTok have helped an incredible amount of non-English music, from Afrobeats to K-pop to Latin pop, break into the U.S. mainstream over the past six years. Consequently, a wider variety of voices—which frankly should have already been receiving editorial opportunities before this moment—have become crucial in covering those spaces. I’m hopeful that the future of music journalism not only allows more voices to thrive as more music from the perceived fringes pushes toward the mainstream, but that they are compensated fairly in doing so.
Jewel Wicker is a freelance entertainment and culture reporter from Atlanta, Georgia—a place central to what she does. Much of her writing focuses on the city and the many stories within it, with bylines in publications such as GQ, Billboard, NBC News, The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and more. In this excerpt from our interview, Jewel talks about how her approach to music journalism has changed in the past few years.
I’ve continued to broaden the way I think about being a music journalist. Reporting can take so many forms and I’m so lucky to have been able to write in both digital and print publications, curate live exhibits and co-host a podcast in recent years. It keeps my job interesting and allows me to meet people where they are with relevant information and news.
How do you organize your work?
I use Notion, Apple’s calendar app and a physical to do list to stay organized. Notion is the place where I track all of my assignments for the year, as well as my professional budget and goals. I use my digital calendar and physical to do list to map out my work days throughout each week. I am pretty strict about not working on the weekends unless I’m profiling an artist or working on a feature that necessitates it, but I do like to take a few minutes each Sunday to write out a daily to-do list for the week ahead. That gives me peace of mind and helps clamp down on some of the Monday blues.
At the beginning of Timeshift, which looks back at the golden age of British prog rock, narrator Tommy Vance declares, “Progressive rock is the music that time forgot.” The film does a good job of explaining why. Featuring bands like Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and Emerson Lake & Palmer, the documentary explains the genre’s emergence as a perfect storm. Styles and influences coalesced to reject “simple” pop music in favor of unbounded virtuosity, often girded by a bucolic folk foundation.
Several key musicians make appearances. So do John Peel, Bob Harris, and Charles Shaar Murray. Timeshift: Prog Rock also juxtaposes the genre with its supposed nemesis (punk), showcasing harsh critics denouncing prog’s pomposity and pretentiousness. In fact, it would be precisely this inaccessibility, both in technical and practical terms, that eventually dictated its downfall. “Prog musicians,” Tommy Vance concludes, “went from musical royalty to dinosaurs overnight.”
In 1982, Greil Marcus made a top 10 list of the worst rock critics ever. Who topped the list?
Andrea Warner is a freelance writer and the author of Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography and We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music. She’s the co-writer and associate producer of the 2022 documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, and co-hosts the weekly feminist pop culture podcast Pop This! Andrea is a settler who was born and raised in Vancouver on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. In this excerpt from our interview, Andrea explains how her approach to music journalism has changed in the past few years.
I listen more and try to talk less. As a white settler and cis, straight woman, I’ve been thinking a lot about de-centering whiteness and decolonizing. I’m trying to confront my own complicity in upholding and benefitting from systemic barriers and institutional oppression. My own process is ongoing and accountability is crucial. That’s the work I’m trying to do on myself and it’s a work-in-progress. I have so much to learn and unlearn and then re-learn. There are often real power imbalances between interviewer and interviewee; it’s a vulnerable thing for someone to trust you with their story and I don’t take that for granted. It’s also not necessarily my job to tell other people’s stories. That can be a pretty colonial mindset, or at least often has its roots in a colonial way of thinking. Consent-based journalism is the way forward, especially for writers working with historically oppressed, marginalized, and under-represented folks and communities.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
Write with your whole heart, listen with your whole body, and don’t worry about what’s cool. Find writers whose work you admire and writers whose work challenges you to think in ways you never have before.
From Andrea Warner:
UNYA (Urban Native Youth Association) is a vibrant hub for Indigenous youth and lots of incredible young musicians, rappers, MCs, and songwriters have come up through UNYA. They’ve continued to provide programming throughout COVID and are an essential resource for many Indigenous youth.
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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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…