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 New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu; Toronto music expert Jonny Dovercourt; and ludomusicologist Tim Summers. Plus! Reading recommendations, listening recommendations, and more! But first…
“Richard Meltzer’s mother hoped her only son would, like her, become a math teacher. So much for that.” - J. HIllenburg
Hua Hsu is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a professor of literature at Bard College. Hua serves on the executive board of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. He was formerly a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. He is the author of Stay True, “a gripping memoir on friendship, grief, the search for self, and the solace that can be found through art.” In this excerpt from our interview, Hua talks about writing the book at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center.
Each morning, I would get in around 7:30, I would turn on the lights to the Center, empty the dishwasher, make a pot of coffee, and just sit in my office and stare at pictures or old ephemera, and listen to playlists for specific moments of 1995-1998, and just write in a way that I’d rarely write at home. I’m usually obsessive about structure, beginnings and endings, transitions, etc. But I just let myself explore. Then, shortly before the library would open to the public, I’d go up to the beautiful Rose Reading Room and just read for 15-20 minutes. It was humbling in a few ways. Like, you’re in this room, in this institution, and who are you, really? You’re just trying to write something that might contribute a tiny bit to the knowledge stored here over the decades. And then it was humbling, too, because once people start coming in, most of them are tourists, and they could care less about you and your “great work.” It kept me grounded even as I felt very high and very low writing the book.
From Hua Hsu:
Charles Aaron and Amanda Petrusich are writers I’ve known and admired for years. It’s one of the things about social media that you get these glimpses into other writers’ lives—on their feeds, they become legible as friends, family members, parents, children. They’ve each brought so much joy and insight into the world through their work, and they could each use a hand right now.
Jonny Dovercourt is the co-founder and artistic director of the Toronto non-profit organization and concert series Wavelength Music. Jonny has also worked for arts institutions including long-running new music space The Music Gallery, small press Coach House Books, and the Images Festival of experimental film and video. Jonny is the author of Any Night of the Week: A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music, 1957-2001. In this excerpt from our interview, Jonny discusses the research that went into the book.
I never made better use of my Toronto Public Library card. I did deep searches in the online archives of daily papers The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. I read the music section of every single issue of NOW Magazine—the original alt-weekly and competitor to Eye—from when it was founded in 1981. (Unfortunately Eye had gone out of business and its online archives have been deleted, though I could track down issues through Wayback Machine and others on microfiche at the Reference Library.) I borrowed ‘zines and music magazines from the ’80s from the original publishers. I hung out at the Exclaim! office and read through every single issue in their bound archives. I visited the Toronto Archives, though that was less helpful than I hoped. And I did about 100 interviews, both in-person or via email.
Through all this, I built a master Toronto Music History Timeline document in Word, and then started to break it down into eras. A theme started to emerge: the importance of venues. Originally I had planned to write more about record labels, promoters, and the media, but the venues were really telling the story. It was the network of places people could play that was the strongest piece of infrastructure in Toronto music, and when clubs opened or closed, it often marked the beginning or end of a chapter. That’s how I started to organize the book.
Who was featured on the cover of the final issue of NME?
Tim Summers is a lecturer in music at Royal Holloway University of London. Tim focuses on the music of video games, film, and television. But he’s perhaps best known for his work on video games, as he is the co-founder of the Ludomusicology Research Group. In this excerpt from our interview, Tim describes what he finds so interesting about this area of research.
I adore working in media music, and I particularly love working on game music. The community is fantastic and, because the medium engages so many different academic perspectives, it’s a wonderful space for different disciplines to meet and work together. It’s also a relatively new field of study, which means there’s the exciting possibility of new frontiers. There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill and energy in the field, because we’re working with music that’s very personally meaningful to people.
What’s one tip that you’d give a student considering a life in music scholarship starting out right now?
Find your tribe(s). It sounds very fancy to say that we made a Ludomusicology Research Group. But to be honest, it’s little more than a few people who have similar interests, and choose to help and support each other, and the community at large by putting on events so that anyone else can join in. But my colleagues and friends, both within the group and beyond, have been a huge support in my career, professionally and personally. We continue to make new friends as the conferences continue. There’s an especially difficult moment in the academic career path where you finish your PhD. You’re often used to having the support and guidance of an institution and mentor. It’s a shock leaving that, particularly if you, like me, don’t get a postdoc position. Not everyone has to have a research group, or come to one of our Ludo conferences (though everyone’s welcome), but find the community where you feel like you fit. There are amazing study groups by the RMA and AMS, so go explore! Make friends and collaborate.
From Tim Summers:
I’d love to highlight Help Musicians. It’s a charity that supports musicians in all kinds of ways. They have done tremendous work, particularly over the past few years when the performing arts have had such a difficult time.
Thanks for reading! And thanks to Miranda Reinert for her help with this edition of the newsletter. In case you’ve missed any special features, I’ve published a number of them 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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Stefflon Don on March 9th, 2018. (In a stunning red fur-lined cape!)
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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