I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. Click here to subscribe!
Peter A. Berry is a writer-editor with bylines in Okayplayer, Stereogum, and many more. Previously, he was on staff at XXL, but he’s currently freelance.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Growing up, I was obsessed with music, historical figures, superheroes and basketball, so I'd go to the library and get biographies on Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Anne Frank, Michael Jordan, and then comic books and graphic novel compilation magazines like Shonen Jump. I would write anime-esque stories in fifth grade. After a three or four year period of being into pop music and wanting to be in NSYNC, I saw 8 Mile* and decided I wanted to be a rapper. That fueled my interest in rap, and by then, I was already into writing. In college, I was an editor for my school newspaper and briefly, a president of my school's public relations club. Even then, I wasn't sure how sustainable a writing career would be, so I studied PR pretty heavily as well to keep my options open.
For my first job, I wrote articles, mostly news articles and lists, for $10 an hour at a now-defunct website that was owned by the folks who own Newsweek. Looking back, the rate was low, but I honestly felt super certified; I was a real journalist with tangible proof of my work. Within a year I'd be promoted to staff writer for the site, covering Dragon Ball Super and bits of rap whenever I got the chance. Unfortunately, I got laid off. But fortunately, the person that hired me for my first job had moved on to be the Managing Editor at XXL. I emailed her the day after I was laid off, and while XXL didn't have any positions open, there was a news writer who was going on vacation, so she set me up to be a backup news writer. For about eight months, I would fill in for XXL's Weekend News Editor or other news writers taking time off. As I proved myself a good news writer, I was given transcription assignments, occasional interviews for the site — stuff like that. About eight months in, a news writer left and I took the position. Within a year, I'd be promoted to XXL's Assistant Editor position. From there, within that year, News Editor. I worked on staff at XXL until early 2021. After that, I worked with Netflix's TUDUM for about a year while continuing my freelance music-culture journalism career. And I've never stopped!
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I'll try to be brief. At my first job, my copy editor Keith Planit really schooled me on AP style and just getting the facts right without over or understating stuff. He was amazing because he's a guy that's literally written comic books for major publishers, and he was an industry veteran who was always happy to answer my questions about journalism, Hollywood, comics, movies, etc. Great guy.
As a news writer at XXL, I was extremely fortunate to work with then News Editor Max Weinstein, who to this day is one of the most natural reporters I've ever known. He was so picky about certain language choices, and I always appreciated the nuance of it all. I appreciated his granular attention to detail. I saw his extreme work ethic and his love of the craft and I thought, "This is what it takes."
Current XXL Editorial Site Director, Georgette Cline, has always been huge for me. She taught me the nuances of writing news, really emphasizing structure and more of what can and can't be assumed for a headline, etc. She also gave me my first feature interviews with rappers and got me my first magazine byline! (It was a list for the best rap albums of 2016, the Winter 2016 issue). She's a super talented journalist. Can't say enough good things about her.
Former XXL Executive Editor John "JFK" Kennedy (Current LEVEL Editor-in-Chief) was also huge. He really brought my profile and essay writing skills to the next level. Really emphasized the concept of form follows function, which was important since I was trying to be a show-offy writer early on. He's probably the person most responsible for me becoming the writer-critic-editor I am today. He's the best writer-editor I know of.
Former XXL Managing Editor Bianca Torres hired me for my first-ever writing gig and basically brought me on to XXL. I'm super grateful to know her, she inspired me with her independent hustle she had as a reporter even before she joined XXL. She's just great.
XXL EIC Vanessa Satten is a real OG who I love. She taught me so much about reporting — real reporting, reaching out, using databases, following up, editorial cycles, etc. — and the concept and value of breaking news, how to manage folks, how to search for valuable stories, etc. She also trusted me with a lot of responsibility early on, putting me in high-pressure situations while giving me the insight I needed to get through them.
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years?
I've become much more strategic about who I pitch and how and when I pitch it. Because I spent so much of my early career in staff roles, I'm still a bit new to the realm of all-around freelancing, but over the last year, I've gotten a better handle on it. I used to be somewhat spontaneous and arbitrary — now I'm more deliberate. It helps that more people contact me to write instead of the other way around, now.
Where do you see music journalism headed?
Pessimistically? We'll continue relying on the same sites and the same billionaires in an endless cycle of random layoffs and rebuildings as we complain about how messed up the game is. Optimistically, we'll band together and create more of our own platforms like a music Defector, or something. We'll give more money to independent blogs like Passion of Weiss and No Bells so they can expand into national powerhouses that do music journalism the right way. I hope we can do that, and I'm going to do my part. I subscribe to multiple Substack and Patreon accounts, and I think every single writer that is able to should do the same. We're really all we've got.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
Even though people are always down on critics, I love album reviews still, and I want to see more. Reading stuff from Meaghan Garvey, Jeff Weiss and Paul Thompson really opened my eyes up to new sounds because they were able to contextualize things so well with language. Writers like those kind of taught me how to appreciate the music. We need more sites besides the standard ones to publish album reviews.
I'd also like to see more funding. We need more staff jobs. There are so many talented writers and editors out there who would have had solid salaries at big — or even alt-weekly/alternative — outlets 20 years ago. But the status quo has seemingly changed so much, and the effect trickles down in a really negative way. I learned so much from my early copy editors. I'm wondering how many publications even have those anymore? And if they do, can they give the same type of detailed, meaningful feedback I got? It grows harder and harder to imagine, and I know I wouldn't be where I am without them. But when so many great writers are struggling, and they don't have the resources to tell the stories that really need to be told, we lose something, and I think we've already lost a lot.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
Like everyone else, I despise clickbait, even if I understand their utility. Sites need traffic. It is what it is. But I hate the circumstances that have led to it, and I hate the clickbait itself just as much. We need more original reporting.
What's one tip that you'd give a music journalist starting out right now?
Become great at one thing early on, and work hard to do it. I didn't begin as a music journalist, but my proven ability to write a high volume of news articles (I wrote thousands before I became a XXL Editor) got me a shot at a big publication, and I built from there.
Times are very hard, you need to have a flexible imagination when it comes to thinking of ways to use your skills. Most things truly aren't mutually exclusive; just because you get a job as a social media person for a big tech company doesn't mean you have to give up journalism. Get up early and send some pitches. Apply the skills from your social media job — your whatever job — to your music writing career. I've picked up crazy gems in completely unexpected places. Don't be narrow-minded.
How do you typically listen to music, both in a professional and personal sense?
I pull up Apple Music and blast the new albums I'd been looking forward to on my JBL Flip speaker. It's usually evening, a little after work. Then, when I'm on my way to different functions, I plug in my Beats and listen to the music on the subway. Sometimes I'll go to the bar and listen. Playing music in different contexts really helps me absorb all of it the right way.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
I love Luh Tyler and Veeze. They're so, so good. In general, I also love Noname, MIKE, Earl Sweatshirt, Armand Hammer, all of Griselda, Babytron. Doja Cat is my favorite rapper today. No particular trend, but I just love these artists.
What's your favorite part of all this?
I love the sociology of it all. I love learning about the lineage of sound — how culture and music meet in a dope ass collision. I love hearing about the inspiration behind the work of these musicians; why they do it, when they started, all that. I love being tasked with breaking down the anatomy of an album when I'm reviewing it. I love being around other writers who love the music and the culture surrounding it as much as I do.
What was the best track / video or film / book you've consumed in the past 12 months?
Track: Armand Hammer: "The Flexible Unreliability of Time & Memory"
Book: Sowmya Krishnamurthy's Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
I think both these pieces exemplify where my writing is today — the framing, the contextual analysis, all that.
Anything you want to plug?
I think LEVEL and No Bells are doing really awesome work. My guy Andre Gee has been killing it, his cover story with Latto and Snoop Dogg's conversation was great. Shouts to Preezy at VIBE, loved his Jermaine Dupri cover. I also think HipHopDX’s album review section is a little underrated.
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