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 The Quietus co-founder Luke Turner; TV/podcast producer and music writer Greg Heller; and Dr. Michael Beckerman, chair of the Department of Music at NYU. Plus! Reading recommendations, a documentary about Creation Records, and more! But first…
Earlier this year, I interviewed The Quietus co-founder John Doran. Soon after, I emailed the website’s other co-founder, Luke Turner, to see if he’d be up for a chat too. In addition to being a driving force behind one of the most vibrant and genuinely exciting music websites in the world, Luke is a writer. His book Out of the Woods is a “memoir about the irresistible yet double-edged potency of the forest, and the possibility of learning to find peace in the grey areas of life.” He also freelances for a variety of music publications. In this excerpt from our interview, Luke explains his current day-to-day.
I am a horrendously disorganised person so no two days are the same (this is fine really as I am allergic to routine). As anyone who works in our precarious industry will know, it’s impossible to make a decent living from just one job, so I always see myself as having three. There’s The Quietus, where I’m more in a publisher role these days and have to spend most of my time making sure we’ve enough revenue coming in to keep ticking over, my various freelance hustles, and then book research and writing. So today I’m jumping between accounting software and invoicing for tQ, writing a pitch for a radio programme, and doing line edits on my next book. I have no focus whatsoever so I tend to do one thing for three minutes, go to check something, get distracted and then two hours later remember what it was I was doing in the first place. I am deeply envious of the organised, and do not trust them.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
One of the biggest articles we published in the early years of tQ was a piece I wrote about how the baby boomers “stole” music with their supposed ‘golden age’ of music and music journalism, a critique of the ’60s and ’70s era that was often held up as unimpeachable. If this was an attack on rockism, I have a bit of a feeling of “careful what you wish for” and wonder if now the pendulum towards poptimism has swung too far in the other direction. Mainstream pop exists in this rarefied space where it is beyond critique, where every fast-released album by megastars is given gushing reviews after only a few listens to be sure of hitting the SEO, where artists are appraised on their celebrity, “journey” or even their ethics rather than whether or not they’re any good, or interesting.
I’m quite bored of a lot of more mainstream artists seeming to say the same thing and miss complicated, abrasive characters. To focus so excessively on corporate pop often designed to feed tech algorithms excludes not just what was always the underground, but also those who 20 years ago would have been able to have a good underground-adjacent career. It’s an old joke that people say we make up the artists in tQ’s top 100 records of each year, but I wish that more publications did deep dives that ignored genre, profile, the established music industry, what works on social media or what they feel they ought to be covering. I would like to see more focus on creative graft rather than pop grift, and more skepticism of consensus. What’s the point of knocking down the hoary and hairy old rock canon only to replace it with a different yet equally boring one?
Greg Heller is a TV/podcast producer and music writer. He’s worked on Behind the Music, but perhaps his greatest claim to fame was a column in a local San Francisco newspaper. As Greg writes, “So divisive was that column, I not only got a legit death threat, but an SF club once held a night in my honor—‘Greg Fucking Heller Night’—complete with banners, t-shirts and a signature cocktail (the California Asshole).” That fearlessness has been a driving force in his career in music. In this excerpt from our interview, Greg discusses where he sees music-centric documentaries headed.
I have a doc series in development right now, with director Lance Bangs, that tells the stories of the strangest, least likely bands snared in the post-Nirvana dragnet of major label signings. As part of my research I sat down to do something I rarely do—watch a bunch of music documentaries. I found so many of them burdened down by rockist reverence—that kind of Eric Alper-y “these guys rule!” nonsense that makes actually KNOWING the artists impossible. So yes, there’s been an explosion in the actual volume of music docs, but rarely do they feel insightful or relevant. They’re just… fluffy. So often I can feel that the filmmakers want viewers to understand why THEY love these musicians, rather than present who these musicians are to let us decide if WE love them too. This is why Todd Haynes’ VU doc was so astounding, because he let the actual people tell their actual story and left it at that. You judge, the film does not judge for you.
So where is it headed? I am not sure. But I am sure that the trend of making more and more music docs is attracting more and more filmmakers who are fanboys or fangirls before they are storytellers, people who treat rock or jazz or hip-hop artists with the type of mind-numbing worship that makes finding the truth impossible.
What’s one tip you’d give a music journalist looking to work on film or TV projects?
I have developed so many music-related film and TV projects that have met with a “won’t find a big enough audience” verdict of doom and most of the time the network or studio that passed had a valid point. Never suppose that because something is meaningful to you, someone else will care. If your answer to “Why am I making this?” is “to make money”—move on. If the answer is “because I love this band!” that’s not enough. If the answer is, “Because this story is important, has some universal truths and I know I am the ideal person (with the best access) to tell it”—keep trying. Keep working on it. Keep meeting people. Reach out to a filmmaker you respect, just blindly. They will probably ignore you but who knows. If people are indeed telling you it’s “too niche,” think of ways to “trojan horse” your ideal story inside of something with wider appeal. Can you broaden the context without real compromise?
And be realistic. You might fucking LOVE the Arctic Monkeys but you are not going to get the Arctic Monkeys doc made because you do not know the Arctic Monkeys or their management and 25 super established filmmakers do. Find your story.
From Greg Heller:
I would strongly urge people to take a look at the work Music & Memory are doing. They use music (often on donated iPods) to help brighten lives/restore lost memories for the elderly. Imagine all those precious memories you have intrinsically tied to a song or an album or a show. Now imagine them… gone. Who would you even be anymore? Music & Memory are helping people retrieve those memories and restore who they are. It’s profound and inspired work.
In 1976, 14-year-old Bobby Gillespie asked a slightly older Alan McGee to chaperone him to Thin Lizzy’s show at the Glasgow Apollo. This is the story that kicks off Upside Down, an exciting documentary about Creation Records, the once home of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Oasis, and many others. In many ways, that Thin Lizzy show helped change UK music forever.
Founded in 1983, the story of Creation Records is closely intertwined with the turbulent life and times of McGee, who ran it until its closure in 1999. Bearing the title “President of Pop,” McGee was known for being enthusiastic both about his artists and the rock & roll lifestyle itself, the latter eventually taking a toll on his health and bringing about the end of Creation.
Resorting to graphics reminiscent of an intricate subway map, Upside Down pinpoints the numerous connections of a prolific British indie scene that helped establish a bridge to the euphoric Britpop era. Through extensive interviews, archive material, and several bits of fascinating footage, the documentary reveals how Creation was instrumental in providing a platform for the artists without ever attempting to condition their art in any way.
The turning point, of course, would arrive with the signing of Oasis, which happened at the same time half of Creation was sold to Sony after years of critical acclaim but little to no financial success. This moment, brilliantly depicted in the documentary through a sudden seriousness and ominous background music, would represent both the consecration and downfall of the label. Decadence and disenchantment would do the rest.
Who were the first two women to each be featured solo on the cover of XXL Magazine?
Dr. Michael Beckerman is the Carroll and Milton Petrie Chair of Music, Collegiate Professor of Music, and head of the Department of Music at NYU. In short, he’s a big deal. He got his start, however, when he “chose to work on the arcane subject of Janáček’s theoretical works. Though I didn’t know it, I had started the process of ‘buying low and selling high.’” His excellent work on an emerging subject of interest led him from Columbia to Washington University in St. Louis, and then to UC Santa Barbara and NYU. In this excerpt from our interview, Michael explains what he’d like to see more of in music-related scholarship right now.
First and foremost, it’s certainly not for me to say what people should do, or to imply that what I do or like is better or more important than someone else’s work. Having said that, it’s my view that certain parts of the humanities have sold their soul to various theoretical approaches. I have three problems with this. First, theories are neat and reality is messy. In order to theorize you have to flatten reality to conform with your theory. Everyone is supposed to remember that, and continually wrestle with, and test a theory against new evidence that challenges it; ideally if you love a theory you also want to put it out of business by collecting contrary evidence. But this doesn’t happen very often. Second, at just the moment the field purports to be dealing with issues of the disenfranchised and marginalized, it has in many cases adapted a thick mode of writing which can’t be understood by virtually any of the people it claims to represent. So that’s a problem. Finally, for all the talk about decolonizing music, no one is speaking about decolonizing academic prose which, if anything, represents far more of a survival of colonial mentality than any piece by Mozart or Janáček.
What’s your favorite part of the work you do in music?
If I were to be really honest I’d have to say it’s those moments where I think I’m genuinely on the track of understanding something new. And those are even better when you’re collaborating with a colleague. Of course, it often turns out that the “something new” isn’t actually anything new, or actually anything at all, but I’m always thrilled by that sense of discovery, passion, and hope that you might finally know something.
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed them, I’ve published a number of special features 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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Eve and Da Brat were each featured solo on issue 11 of XXL, on covers #11A and #11B respectively.
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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