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: A new Notes on Process column with Danyel Smith! Interviews with Billboard reporter Tatiana Cirisano; Chicago music historian Aaron Cohen; and classical music composer and writer Leonard Lehrman. Plus! Pitch me on writing music documentary reviews! And much more! But first…
Throughout July, I put a note in the newsletter about creating an informal program of matching mentors and mentees in the music journalism world. The response so far has been great, but I’ve gotten FAR more folks wanting a mentor than the other way around. Are you open to offering up your experience in a mentorship role to a young music journalist? Please email me with the subject line “Mentor” and a little bit about how you think you might be able to help! I’d love to pair you up with someone looking for guidance.
The latest edition of Notes On Process is here! The idea of this column is simple: I invite a writer to a Google Doc where I’ve copy-pasted one of their pieces and added a bunch of footnotes with flattery, jokes, and questions. They reply to my queries, and then we provide you with a link to the doc where all of our marginalia is visible. The goal is to provide a window into the writing and editing process, so that folks can see how great writers think about their work.
One of Danyel Smith’s best known pieces is her ESPN story about Whitney Houston’s performance of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Danyel has talked about that piece at length elsewhere, not least on her excellent podcast Black Girl Songbook, so I wanted to ask her about something different. We traded some notes on another piece about the Star Spangled Banner, sung by José Feliciano, called “The Perilous Fight.” Danyel is one of the best music journalists out there, and she left a lot of wisdom in the doc. I hope you enjoy it!
From Ronan Munro:
Oxford has a great ongoing project called The Young Women’s Music Project which helps young women learn about and perform music and all the issues around it, via gigs, workshops, talks, training and more. They’re always in need of funds.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve featured documentary film reviews in the newsletter in the “Stuff You Gotta Watch” column. I’m currently looking for one or two more people to contribute reviews to the section. One of my major goals is to feature films that are NOT in the zeitgeist right now. The more obscure and the less timely, the better. (Seriously!) I’d love to turn people on to unexpected things and/or remind them of long-lost films that deserve a second look. The reviews pay $50 (USD) and are typically two or three paragraphs long. (You’ll also need to send me screengrabs from the doc to include with the review.)
For anyone interested, please send me an email with the subject line “PITCH: Music Docs.” Please include in the email three screengrabs from your favorite music documentary, a list of your three favorite music documentaries, and some examples of your writing. I’ll take pitches until the end of this week, and then respond to everyone once I’ve had time to go through all of the submissions.
Tatiana Cirisano is a reporter at Billboard, focused on the intersection of music and technology. Before working at Billboard, she was published in places like Nylon and Complex. She makes her home in Brooklyn. In this excerpt from our interview, Tatiana offers a tip for music journalists.
Don’t take anyone or anything too seriously. I mean, of course, you should take your work seriously and take pride in that. But it’s easy to get distracted by Hustle Twitter, everyone else’s outward projections of success, etc., and start thinking that you don’t belong or that everyone else knows 100% exactly what they’re doing (I promise you, they don’t). I also say this because I think that this industry can feel so fast-paced and high-stakes that I sometimes forget to enjoy the experiences I’m having, whether that’s interviewing an artist I love or covering an event. Don’t forget to have fun with things.
A UK artist once complained, “These critics approach music like books, like book collectors. They don’t listen with their ears. You never get a sense that they like music.” Who said it?
Aaron Cohen teaches humanities and English composition at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications. His most recent book, Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power, is all about the outside forces that shaped R&B in Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s. The reason that I got in touch with Aaron, though, is because of a recent Chicago music history project for which he wrote about 50 Chicago music landmarks. In this excerpt from our interview, Aaron explains what it’s all about.
The project is an effort by the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) to mark significant spots of musical history in Chicago. The city is working with the graphic arts company Sonnezimmer to design a web site that includes a map of the locations, photos of what the locations look like today, and also vinyl markers on the sidewalks in front of each location. People can use their smart phones to tap the code at each location and read about its musical significance. The ideal is for the first 50 markers to also represent the diverse range of musical idioms that have been crucial not just to Chicago, but showcase how much music the city has given to the world: blues, jazz, classical, folk, rock, house, gospel, soul to name just a few. Some markers also show how Chicago is not just the birth place for musical styles, but also is crucial for the history of manufacturing and selling instruments (from the Hammond organ to the harp) and jukeboxes. So I’m excited about how wide ranging the project is, especially since so many people in and outside of Chicago need to know how much range and depth there is to this history.
Leonard Lehrman has been passionate about music since birth. In his interview with me, he says, “I was given a toy piano, songbooks, and crayons, and promptly started to try devising my own notation to help me remember melodies.” In addition to writing music, he’s written for countless outlets, including Opera Monthly, Jewish Currents, and SoundWordSight.com. In this excerpt from our interview, he breaks down a typical week.
Sunday mornings, I play at a mostly Black Lutheran church 8 minutes away, where I’ve been since 2014… Mondays (and other days as needed) I work as Reference Librarian at Oyster Bay-East Norwich Public Library, where I’ve been since March 1995. (I’m the oldest librarian there, and also the one who’s been there the longest). Tuesdays I rehearse with violinist Daniel Hyman, whom I’ve known for 10 years, and with whom I’ve been doing monthly Zoom concerts (along with soprano Helene Williams) since last December, in conjunction with our local Valley Stream library. The President of the Library Board recently said we had “put the library on the map.”(!) Other days I work at editing, archiving, arranging, orchestrating, or printing out parts for my 12 operas, 7 musicals, 237 other works, adaptations and translations (from German, Russian, French, Romanian, Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino) and organizing performances of them, as well as writing occasional reviews of performances and recordings. I just finished what I believe is the first complete setting of Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”
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.
Here are three easy ways you can support the newsletter:
Insider Extra - An additional e-mail from me each week, usually featuring job listings, freelance calls, and more
How To Pitch Database - Access to a database with contact information and pitching info for hundreds of publications
Reading Recommendations - Access to a resource page collecting great pieces of music journalism, sourced from great music journalists
Advice - Access to a resource page devoted to collecting advice from journalists and editors on how to excel at music journalism
Interviews - Access to the hundreds of interviews that have appeared in the newsletter, with writers and editors from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and more
If you can’t afford to subscribe for access to ongoing supporter extras, no matter the reason, please hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll be happy to give you a free one-year subscription to the newsletter. This offer is extended especially for college students and recent grads, but is open to anyone.
The artist in question is Neil Tennant, one half of the Pet Shop Boys. He said it in The Bulletin in 1986. [h/t rockcritics.com]
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…