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 gospel music writer Tim Dillinger; Oxford American‘s Danielle A. Jackson; author Roy Christopher; and Okayplayer staff writer Robyn Mowatt. Plus! Tributes to Greg Tate and much more. But first…
This past week, the music journalism world lost one of the most inventive and important writers ever. Here are just a few places to start in exploring Greg Tate’s incredible legacy.
Tim Dillinger is an essayist and independent researcher with a focus on gospel, contemporary Christian music and Women’s Music. His newsletter God’s Music Is My Life has quickly become one of the best sources of writing about gospel music anywhere. In this excerpt from our interview, Tim explains where he thinks music journalism is headed.
I’m enjoying seeing the number of independent researchers and writers making space for themselves to write about the artists/albums that weren’t necessarily the best-sellers or the most well-known, but have important stories that need to be told. The newsletter format has been incredibly helpful for those of us who don’t want to fit the cookie-cutter format a lot of the major outlets are looking for. I don’t know where we will all land, but I think writers taking more control over their content is definitely what’s ahead.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
I love the way that Craig Seymour is corralling the audience for his upcoming book on 90’s R&B by sharing some of his research finds, his thoughts on the artists and songs he’s writing about and dialoguing with his [potential] readers, ultimately proving to publishers [who have stated otherwise] that the audience exists.
I’d like to see more of that particular openness and dialog—it’s one way I feel like social media can contribute to the work versus the litany of ways it detracts from it.
From Tim Dillinger:
Not directly music-related, but I do live in Music City, so everything is connected in some sense. Crossroads Pets is a great organization here that is doing incredible work not just finding loving homes for pets, but also providing paid internships for young adults who lack the experience and connections to break into the workforce and providing affordable housing for people on the brink of homelessness. Emmylou Harris is a founding board member (so there’s the music connection!).
Danielle A. Jackson is the editor-in-chief at Oxford American. Each year, the magazine devotes a single issue to music and, in the process, puts out some of the year’s best writing on music. I did a quick interview with Danielle about this year’s issue. In this excerpt from our interview, she explains why the magazine continues to devote an issue to this artform every year.
This is the 23rd edition of the OA music issue, which started in 1997 as a sort of spectacular grab bag of Southern music. Articles by or about artists like Al Green, Rosanne Cash, Sam & Dave were featured; Robert Palmer wrote what’s been described as a definitive essay on the blues, “Why I Wear My Mojo Hand.” In his intro letter, founding editor Marc Smirnoff wrote about how the Beatles and the Rolling Stones sent him, in a “clean progression,” to loving other musicians. State themes began with Arkansas in 2009. Most years, a CD compilation was bundled with the issue, except 2020, when we commissioned about two dozen curated playlists from folks like Brittany Howard and Adia Victoria.
I find myself returning often to Smirnoff’s editor’s letter from that first issue. “It would be impossible to put out a comprehensive issue on Southern music…The hope is that we have succeeded in reminding you…there is much to consider; much to return to; much to learn.” We publish the issue to celebrate the bounty of our region and to dive into it, deeply, with nuance and immense love and care. We put them out because readers love them and are invested enough to tell us what we get right and what we get wrong every year. We put them out because we believe understanding the South is a pathway toward understanding the whole country.
Which bluegrass musician was one of three artists featured in the first Oxford American music issue in 1997?
John Lennon once famously said that French rock is just like English wine: lousy. But if there’s an era that escapes this unflattering comparison, it’s got to be the late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk scene portrayed in La Brune Et Moi.
Of course, it also helps that the French excel at their cinema—even in low-budget productions like this. Featuring underground actor Pierre Clémenti (who you may recognize from Philippe Garrel’s wilderness experiment La Cicatrice Intérieure, starring Nico) and a cast of unknowns recruited directly off the streets of Paris, La Brune Et Moi is a docufiction hybrid that utilizes a fictional background (largely derived from the 1956 classic rock’n’roll film The Girl Can’t Help It) to showcase the crème de la crème of a musical niche usually referred to as Jeunes Gens Modernes (“Modern Young People”). Artists like Taxi Girl, Marquis de Sade, Edith Nylon, Ici Paris, Go Go Pigalles, Artefact, and many others feature.
Often considered a “cursed film” (one of the actors committed suicide shortly after and protagonist Anouschka effectively disappeared after the film premiered), La Brune Et Moi was a failure both in terms of box office and critical reception, but it’s this somber aura that only enhances the film’s anthropological value.
Roy Christopher is a self-described “aging BMX and skateboarding zine kid.” In our interview, he lists no fewer than seven significant projects he’s been working on over the past few years. But perhaps foremost is Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future, “a counter-cultural history of the twenty-first century, showcasing hip-hop’s role in the creation of the world we now live in.” In this excerpt from our interview, Roy describes how he got started writing about music.
My path to this point started with making zines. My friends and I started making photo-copied magazines in high school. We wrote about BMX, skateboarding, and the music we liked… I was an art major for the first three years of undergrad. When we started making zines, the page layouts were the first thing I got really into, but eventually the writing drew me in. If we wanted something covered, we had to write about it. Other than teaching myself to write, the main thing I picked up there was the fan’s impetus to spread the word. I’m more of a fan than a critic. The reason I do what I do is foremost because I want to tell people about something cool I found.
Writing for zines eventually led to writing for magazines and then websites. I spent the first half of the 1990s working in record stores and making zines and the second half working at magazines and making websites. I went back to graduate school around the turn of the millennium and got a couple of degrees in communication. Now I write books that combine all of the above. Dan Hancox at The Guardian described my 2019 book, Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future, as “written with the passion of a zine-publishing fan and the acuity of an academic.” That’s the kind of compliment you hope for, and it comes from pursuing a certain kind of goal.
Robyn Mowatt is a staff writer at Okayplayer. After an internship at Ebony, Robyn has gone on to freelance at a variety of places, including ESSENCE and Revolt, in addition to an associate editor gig at Hypebeast. In this excerpt from our interview, Robyn offers a tip for aspiring music journalists.
Send the email. The email could be a pitch, it could also be an email to someone you look up to. Never be afraid to reach out to those you admire, or those you want to be in community with. Building community and cultivating relationships with other journalists have been extremely beneficial to my career path.
What’s your favorite part of all this?
My favorite part of music journalism will always be interviewing. Speaking with artists about how they created an album or a single + having a conversation that feels natural is a supreme feeling. These conversations often don’t feel like interviews, many of them feel like chats with friends.
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…