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. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with Billboard editor Andrew Unterberger; anthems expert Steve Baltin; and TikToker Annabelle Kline-Zilles. Plus! Reading recommendations, a doc about Black American music, and more! But first…
“I can’t remember life without music. When I was young, I sat in front of my parents’ stereo like it was the Wailing Wall and would reveal the meaning of life if I paid proper attention” - Lisa Levy
Andrew Unterberger is a deputy editor at Billboard. He got his music writing start at Stylus, an online magazine I co-founded in 2002. Since then, he’s worked at SPIN and done a good deal of writing about the Philadephia 76ers. (Anyone that follows him on Twitter will know his abiding fandom.) In this excerpt from our interview, Andrew gives a bit of advice to young music journalists.
I usually tell young writers that the two easiest ways to make headway in music journalism—assuming you already have a decent base of writing and reporting skills—is to prove yourself either as someone who can be a go-to for a specific musical niche, or someone who can generally be relied upon to write pretty well about just about anything. Neither path is necessarily easy. If you want to be known as the pre-eminent writer on Memphis rap, or Frank Ocean, or Tumblr-era alt, or the ’90s swing revival or whatever, there’s a lot of other voices you’ll have to rise above—but once you do, and people know that you’ve put in the work there, you’ll get editors/pubs reaching out to you whenever they need a story on or around that subject, and that’ll prove absolutely invaluable for your career.
And to be a good generalist, you have to pay attention to all kinds of music all of the time—something that even a lot of good music writers understandably lack the interest or patience for—and you have to be comfortable writing about artists or scenes you might not be immediately familiar with. But if you can get there, you’ll be the kind of writer where editors go “Well, I don’t have an obvious writer for this piece, but I bet you could probably do a good job with it,” and that’s also invaluable.
The other advice I have is simple and fairly clichéd, but it’s really to just go for it. If you have an idea for a project or story but aren’t sure where it’ll go or if anyone will read (let alone pay for) it, just do it and do it well, find somewhere for it to live, and figure out what purpose it’ll actually serve for you later—you never know who’s paying attention and how that may help you down the line.
And if there’s a pub you’d like to write for and you think you could do good work for them, just reach out to them—tell them who you are, what you’ve done, what you’re about and what specifically you could offer, and let them know you’re around. I’ve gotten extremely, exceedingly lucky in my career, but so many opportunities in my life I’ve gotten just because I had an idea for something I could do and I asked the right people if I could do it for them, or because someone saw something I had done back when I thought no one was really reading and was interested in me doing something similar for them. It never hurts to ask and it never hurts to just do something you want to do just for the sake of doing it. Even if nothing comes of any of it in the short-term, it may ultimately lead to open doors elsewhere.
Steve Baltin is an author and journalist with bylines in Rolling Stone, The L.A. Times, and many more. He’s also the host of the podcast My Turning Point. His new book is Anthems We Love: 29 Iconic Artists on the Songs that Shaped Our Lives. In this excerpt from our interview, Steve explains the premise behind the book.
It’s a look at how a song evolves in popular culture. I speak to some of the greatest artists of all time, from the Doors and Brian Wilson to U2 and Earth, Wind And Fire, who take readers on a song’s journey from inception to pop culture classic. For example, Nile Rodgers discusses Chic’s “Le Freak,” Carly Simon chose “Anticipation,” I spoke with Stephen Marley about his father Bob’s “One Love.” We discuss how a song takes on a life of its own through cover versions, iconic live performances, use in films and TV and more. And, most importantly, fans’ relationships with the song, including getting married to the song, conceiving babies to the song, naming kids after the song, like Hall & Oates’ “Sara Smile,” and more. The heart of Anthems We Love is how fans make a song their own.
What was the hardest thing about the whole project?
At first it was booking artists, but once that started to happen the issue became narrowing down the songs included. Originally this was intended to be 20 songs, but given the quality of artists saying, “Yes,” I couldn’t turn them down. For example, it took U2 months to say yes. So kept booking additional acts, but once they said, “Yes,” of course they were in. I’m working on the follow-up book and probably have more than 40 interviews done.
From Steve Baltin:
I am a huge proponent of animal rescue. Have a rescue dog and cat, have done stories with Tommy Lee, Mark Hoppus and more specifically on animal rescue. There are so many worthwhile organizations and shelters to donate to. I donate a lot through Cuddly and Network For Animals. But any local shelter is great.
Black Music in America: From Then Until Now is a documentary that doubles as a time capsule. The 30-minute film examines over 400 years of African American history from an early ’70s perspective, allowing for a glimpse of an era when the contributions of Black music to American culture were only beginning to be more thoroughly acknowledged—and just before the explosion of hip-hop.
Commissioned by the Learning Corporation of America in 1970 and subsequently archived at the Library of Congress, it was filmed and broadcast at a time when music documentaries weren’t as easily accessible, before the proliferation of a more serious historicization of popular music.
Though progressive restoration and digitization of similar resources has made more material available in the decades that followed, in 1971, Black Music in America provided what was—for many—the first essential look at a rich cultural heritage. The documentary features the likes of Mahalia Jackson, Count Basie, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong (shown during his 1957 visit to Ghana), a very young Irene Cara as a cast member of 1970 musical The Me Nobody Knows, and what is believed to be the only filmed footage of Bessie Smith.
What two records received an A+ rating in Robert Christgau’s first “Consumer Guide” column in July 1969?
Annabelle Kline-Zilles is an independent music curator and content creator, as well as the founder and owner of That Good Sh-t Music. She gained renown through her excellent TikTok, which currently has more than 100k followers. She’s relatively new to the music journalism world, so in this excerpt from our interview, I asked her to explain her journey so far.
I grew up loving music and in a family who always was going to concerts and playing music around the house. As I got older I became increasingly infatuated with the world of music, constantly going to music festivals and staying involved in underground music. In 2020, I made a TikTok with the subject “What his favorite rapper says about him,” and it took off! I used that momentum and kept posting music content.
Then, in January of 2021, I started my company That Good Sh-t. I would curate custom playlists for people, and then started expanding into merch and in October of 2021, started putting together live shows. As my Tik Tok career grew, I began working directly with artists and their teams to help market their music. I eventually was asked to come on tour with Earthgang at the start of 2022!! Then, I recently started working with Noisey to create content for them. That Good Sh*t has continued to expand as well, recently accomplishing an interview with JID and our largest show ever with midwxst and Skaiwater in NYC. It all came with consistent hard work and always dreaming big.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
I would love to see people covering music that is impactful and meaningful to them rather than just covering whoever is hot right now. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing popular artists getting covered, but there are so many amazing artists who don’t get covered in music journalism just because they’re not the most popular. I also want to see more women!
From Annabelle Kline-Zilles:
Safe Place For Youth! They empower young people experiencing homelessness, and do a great job of doing so with mindfulness of racial and social inequality. From working on the street giving out resources, to providing education, they do amazing work.
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.
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