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 Telegraph editor Eleanor Halls; New Zealand hip-hop podcaster Martyn Pepperell; and UK hip-hop expert Arusa Qureshi. Plus! Lots and lots of recommendations! But first…
Eleanor Halls is associate culture editor and music editor of The Telegraph. She’s also co-host of the excellent podcast Straight Up and author of the Pass the Aux newsletter, both of which often focus on the journalism world in one way or another. In this excerpt from our interview, Eleanor talks about where music journalism is headed.
I think we need to have honest conversations about the role of music journalism and whether much of it still has any value. I worry that music journalism—interviews and reviews—is becoming PR to some musicians. Most journalists are freelance and don’t have the support of editors or publishers, and reply on publicists for talent access so they can get work. It’s no wonder they often feel too intimidated by an artist and their team to write what they really think.
Having been on the receiving end of angry PRs, I would be terrified of having to deal with them without the support I get being on staff. But this means that more and more music journalism I read comes across as if it were written by a breathless fan rather than a journalist. I get it, they want the artist to like—and crucially, share—their work, but we need to be honest with ourselves about whether this is actually journalism.
That’s not to say that I want writers to write sniping takedowns of artists—absolutely not, unkind journalism is totally unnecessary. But I don’t really see the point of a piece that simply presents the artist in the artist’s own terms, as they present themselves on Instagram. Why would you need a journalist for that? I think the majority of fans and music lovers appreciate researched, insightful, fair and honest journalism. But I think stan culture on Twitter has distorted that reality.
Martyn Pepperell is a freelance journalist, copywriter, broadcaster, and DJ from Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa (the Māori name for Wellington, New Zealand). He has bylines in places like Wax Poetics, Mixmag, and Dazed, but this interview focuses around a big new project: Aotearoa Hip-Hop: The Music, The People, The History. It’s a documentary-style exploration of the history of New Zealand’s local hip-hop scene. In this excerpt from our interview, Martyn outlines the scope of the podcast.
Our story begins in the late seventies and early eighties in Wellington’s disco nightclub scene, where Tee Pee, the first hip-hop DJ in New Zealand, got his start. From there, over the first season, we move around the country tracking the rise of the several waves of DJs, rappers, producers, nightclubs and record labels, ending on a pivotal turning point in 1996.
The podcast is hosted and voiced by DJ Sirvere, who provides narration around music, and quotes from over one hundred recorded interviews. It’s about music, but it’s also about style and how a generation used hip-hop to have fun and push back against discrimination, structural racism and inequality at the same time.
Some of you might be familiar with songs by commercial tier New Zealand hip-hop artists like Scribe, Savage and David Dallas, or the more underground sounds of acts like Ladi6, Homebrew and Avantdale Bowling Club. Season one isn’t these guys. It’s about the prehistory that created the conditions that would eventually allow them to flourish. By the time you’re reading this, Season one should be out. Season two, however, that’s going to be a 2022 release.
From Martyn Pepperell:
MusicHelps! is a New Zealand music charity, originally established in 2012 as The New Zealand Music Foundation. They provide emergency grants and professional counselling services to New Zealand music workers in need. They also conduct a regular survey to measure the mental, emotional and physical well-being of local music workers. As you can imagine, this support has been very valuable through the pandemic.
What magazine is generally considered Australia’s first pop music newspaper? (Hint: It was published from 1966 to 1974.)
After a spot in the West Coast production of Hair and a virtually ignored album with his band Pidgeon, Jobriath was a down-and-out nobody. Everything changed when Jerry Brandt, Carly Simon’s first manager, heard a demo tape and vowed to make him a star, but an over-the-top publicity push including everything from full-page ads in Vogue to a huge billboard in Times Square quickly turned into an Icarus move. (Flying too close to the sun also meant burning out before anyone could properly acknowledge his glow.) By the time his 1973 debut LP came out, everybody already seemed to have had enough of Jobriath.
It didn’t help that his shows were often sloppily put together, or that the album’s baffling overproduction buried Jobriath’s voice. Retiring in 1975 after a mere three years in the business (“emotionally damaged and flat broke,” as the documentary puts it), he would reinvent himself as cabaret singer Cole Berlin in early ’80s New York, before dying from AIDS-related complications in 1983. Jobriath AD is a tragic, loving, and intimate tale of how damaging overhype can be, and a deserved tribute to one of glam’s best kept secrets.
Arusa Qureshi is a writer and editor based in Edinburgh, focused on diversity and accessibility within arts and culture. She is the former editor of The List and writes mostly about music. Her new book is Flip the Script, a book about women in UK hip-hop. In this excerpt from our interview, Arusa declines to give any advice… but then offers a great tip for early career music journalists.
I feel as though I’m still fairly early in my career, so not equipped to be giving out advice! One thing that I’ve really battled with this year is imposter syndrome. From losing my job to writing a book, and working on various new things in between, I’ve felt scared a lot of the time and those feelings of being not quite good enough never leave. But I would encourage anyone at the start of their career to read as much criticism as possible, write often (even if it’s just for yourself) and most importantly, don’t compare yourself to others. I know it’s easier said than done, but when imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, it’s so worth remembering to focus on your own path, whatever that may be. Things don’t often happen in a straight line, so just go with it and if you have a genuine love and interest for a topic that goes beyond surface level and that consumes your thinking on a daily basis, you’ll find a way to fully immerse yourself in it.
From Arusa Qureshi:
I’m biased because I’m part of the team, but We Are Here Scotland is a really important initiative for underrepresented musicians, artists, designers, writers and much more. So many people in the creative industries lost their jobs over the pandemic and it’s becoming harder and harder to get adequate support, even more so if you’re from a marginalised background. WAHS is about supporting creatives of colour through funding, professional development and mentoring, with the ultimate aim of reaffirming the importance of BIPOC representation within the arts in Scotland. Our Creators’ Fund recently closed but we’ll be doing another round in the new year, giving Black and POC artists and creatives across Scotland the chance to apply for a one-off bursary for anything from recording costs to arts materials. We have a GoFundMe that remains open for anyone interested in donating to the fund.
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, including the latest one with Danyel Smith, here.
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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…