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 music scholar Ralph Locke; gal-dem culture editor Kemi Alemoru; and freelance writer Kieran Press-Reynolds. Plus! Travis Scott, reading recommendations, and more! But first…
Ralph Locke is Emeritus Professor of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, and a research affiliate at the University of Maryland, College Park. Over the course of his illustrious career, six of his articles have won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. One of his main concerns? Musical exoticism. (He’s written two books about the subject.) He goes into some depth on that topic in our interview, but in this excerpt, Ralph talks about the music writing that interests him the most.
[It’s] discovering how a piece relates to, or even was demonstrably shaped by, its cultural and social contexts. I should add that the piece can be one that I love, or like a lot. Or it can be, at least to my taste, not so cogent or fully shaped. After all, there’s a reason why we perform Beethoven more often than Woelfl or Reicha. But the works of second-rank composers can be interesting, too. Sometimes they display surprising imagination—throughout or at certain moments. They can also help us hear the recognized masterpieces in fresh ways by comparison.
The field of historical musicology—my field—turned out to be the perfect place to explore the relationship between a piece and other pieces, or between a piece and its broader contexts. Some other academic fields of music (notably music theory/analysis) tend to isolate a piece from “lesser” music of its day, from the uses that people have made of the piece, and from what they have felt and written about it. I’m not putting those fields down; I just find the connections to what was in the air (musically, culturally, socially) particularly intriguing. And I also like to take the opportunity to point out (briefly, without forcing the matter) some parallels—and some revealing differences—between how music related to cultural and social life back then and how it does today.
Kemi Alemoru is the culture editor at gal-dem. Before her work there, she spent three years at Dazed, moving from intern to staff writer. Along the way, she’s freelanced for Vogue, The Guardian, and many more. In this excerpt from our interview, Kemi explains how her approach to work has changed over the past few years.
The pandemic has made me rethink my attachment to what I do. For a long time I was my job and my job was me. If it was going well, then I was amazing. If it went badly, then I was a piece of poo on the floor. Now I am trying to make work something I do rather than what I am. I want to give myself the freedom to take breaks and have experiences and not let things pass me by. To wallow when I need to, to devote time to falling in love with my life and those in it. Mostly I do this all for enjoyment so I just have to continually check in to ask myself what it is I want to do and what stories I want to tell.
Where do you see music journalism headed?
In the UK I am excited about the success of rap and therefore the growing scene around it. All journalism is in a really weird place and the financial models for digital journalism still don’t feel fully sustainable. If Twitter and FB shut down tomorrow, it would pull the whole industry down with it. I look forward to seeing us think about how to feed people the information they need, give them more of what they want and encourage them to develop a sense of loyalty to publications or favourite writers. And pay for that content if it serves them.
From Ronen Givony:
The Black Triage String Ensemble is an all-volunteer organization based in Milwaukee that performs after shootings and at crime scenes in the region as a means of helping to heal the local community. You can read about their work in Kenosha and elsewhere here and here, and donate some money at this link.
Few visual manifests are as crucial to understanding early ’60s counterculture as Murray Lerner’s first solo documentary, Festival! Filmed over the course of three editions of Newport Folk Festival, it captures the event’s dizzying mid-decade acceleration and features several historical performances—including Dylan’s controversial electric set in 1965.
The film is heavily reminiscent of direct cinema’s aesthetics and language (Robert Drew’s Primary often comes to mind), which is probably why it feels so socio-politically relevant in both its form and content. This has always been folk’s perpetual instigation, of course, but sometime between 1963 and 1965 something shifted. As a new demographic group took over popular culture—and before the system had time to commodify the phenomenon—a window of possibilities opened wide.
If watching Festival! today feels strangely familiar, that’s because it introduced a cinematic language that would become a fundamental reference for the concert film format. American poetic realism at its best, the film remains a powerful portrait of a whole generation’s inevitable loss of innocence.
What musician was featured on the cover of the debut issue of Ray Gun magazine in 1992?
Thanks so much! Here are three things you could do:
Kieran Press-Reynolds is currently Insider‘s US digital culture fellow and a freelance writer. In his young career, he’s already had pieces in the New York Times, Highsnobiety, and more. In this excerpt from our interview, Kieran talks about where he sees music journalism headed.
I’m a fan of Hyperpop Daily, this rap- and hyperpop-themed Instagram shitpost den. Its strange posts about how different artists are “popular loners” and why the page’s owner supports communism but refuses to read theory don’t really qualify as journalism. But I reckon some kind of similarly hyper-irreverent and absurdist publication that fuses short form video content with memes and serious criticism could be huge in the future.
I think articles trying to discern how different platforms and new tech are impacting music culture are going to become increasingly popular, evinced by the surge of TikTok trend pieces in the last twoish years. A lot of the most exciting new music in recent times has been made by people nursed on programs like Discord, SoundCloud, Minecraft, Twitter, TikTok, Roblox—everything is imbricated, these virtual worlds are heavily impacting the way young musicians make music and the music itself. That was especially apparent during the early days of the pandemic, when loads of artists were performing DJ concerts inside video games and collaborating with other musicians solely through trading files over DM.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
Investigative stories that dig into behind-the-scenes music industry operations. I would also like to see music critics get more experimental with style and form in profiles and reviews. I love reading work where I can feel the writer’s voice and the way they write makes me rethink my own style and/or my relationship with a certain song or artist.
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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…