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 Seattle music journalist Martin Douglas; hardcore scholar Shayna Maskell; and the author of a fascinating new article on ambient music, Victor Szabo. Plus! The first issue of DownBeat, reading recommendations, and more! But first…
Martin Douglas is a digital content producer for the website of KEXP, Seattle’s excellent radio station. In more than a decade of writing about music, he’s had bylines in Bandcamp Daily, Pitchfork, and Passion of the Weiss. (He also writes extensively about wrestling for Fanbyte.) In this excerpt from our interview, Martin outlines one thing he’d like to see more of in music journalism.
One thing most people know about me is that I’m obsessed with regionalism. I love being able to tell a place by its music or its buildings or its dialect. Even before I took over the Pacific Northwest music column for KEXP, I learned everything I possibly could about the history of music in the area. People who write for national publications sometimes take potshots at alt-weeklies for being small potatoes, but I feel as though local papers and websites are doing an important service in documenting civic culture—something national publications couldn’t begin to do.
My ideal scenario would be to have one fantastic writer in every city, one with a deep familiarity of that place. One who everybody knew about, one who everybody sought out when they needed to know everything cool in that city. A special sense of pride is washed over me when someone asks me to make a list of cool places in Seattle. There’s something very special about feeling a connection to a place and getting the privilege to help document its history, no matter how tucked away it gets or how insignificant it feels to people not from here. It would be cool if exceptional music writing were supported in every city and people wouldn’t feel the need so much to move to New York or L.A. to gain a modicum of widespread appreciation for their work. It’s a spiritual reward for me to get paid to rep where I’m from.
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Shayna Maskell is Assistant Professor at George Mason University’s School of Integrative Studies. Her new book is Politics as Sound: The Washington, DC, Hardcore Scene, 1978-1983, which captures vibrant music being made in the capitol by bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat. In this excerpt from our interview, Shayna offers one tip for those considering writing a book.
Love your topic. You’re going to be with it FOR YEARS. And that’s a beautiful thing. It’s also a difficult thing. I think those of us who write about the music we love also walk this tenuous line between ruining the music we care so much about. It’s like the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.” I have sung that song to my twin boys since they were babies—it’s one of their favorites now that they have a sleepy time mix—and I sometimes lose the emotional attachment I had to it. When they were infants, I used to have to stop singing it to them because I would have tears running down my face. Now I sing the words without really even hearing them. There’s a fine line between honoring what we love and losing that emotional connection.
From Shayna Maskell:
My husband and I have been donating to our local diaper bank during this pandemic. Diapers aren’t something that we often think about during a crisis but they are unbelievably expensive (particularly if you have more than one kid wearing them at the same time) and a great way to support your community. I also want to give a shout out to Peaceful Fields Sanctuary, a local vegan farm sanctuary that is an amazing place to visit and give to.
Bathtubs Over Broadway distinguishes itself in the rare record collector genre by pushing the rarity off the charts. Literally. The corporate industrial musicals that Late Show with David Letterman writer Steve Young loves were not created for public consumption. Companies as disparate as General Electric, Chevrolet, and American Standard commissioned these shows to motivate their sales forces; Young considers the latter’s The Bathrooms Are Coming! the genre’s standard bearer. In his hunt to collect every last one of these records, Young finds a community of actors, songwriters, and fellow collectors (including Jello Biafra) united by their involvement with these peculiarly earnest creations.
Most press about Bathtubs Over Broadway—and Young himself—would have you believe this movie is about one man’s hobby saving him from a life of disaffection and isolation. But more interesting is the juxtaposition of this community with the capitalist forces that birthed these musicals. This relationship is never explored in depth, but it hovers in the background, not invalidating but complicating what might otherwise be a straightforward feel-good film.
How much did it cost to buy the first issue of jazz publication DownBeat?
Victor Szabo is Elliott Assistant Professor of Music at Hampden-Sydney College. His most recent article is “Why Is(n’t) Ambient So White?” As Victor explains, it’s an exploration of how the genre has “become racialized as ‘white’ relative to other genres of popular/electronic music (say, house music).” In this excerpt from our interview, Victor explains the article a bit more.
I looked toward important moments in the genre’s historical development—namely, Eno’s coinage of the genre, and its later adoption by UK house artists like The Orb and the KLF—as key inflection points wherein the ambient genre tag was prominently attached to expressions of hip highbrow white subjectivity. Media discourses simplistically went on to center and canonize the contributions of white and light-skinned artists to the genre, based on its highbrow construction, while sidelining equally relevant contributions from dark-skinned musicians into genres racialized as non-white (e.g. jazz, R&B) or genres centered around dancing. In addition to tracing these inflection points and discourses, the article more broadly theorizes how genres become racialized, and proposes a framework for rethinking genres in “strategically anti-essentialist” fashion. (Feel free to email me if you do not have access to the article and would like a copy.)
How did you first find out about the subject / realize it was something you wanted to pursue?
The title of the article is actually based on a question I received during a Q&A session at a conference, where I was presenting on the ambient/space-music radio program Music from the Hearts of Space: “Why is ambient so white?” It was a fair question in response to my presentation, and also one that, despite having pondered it myself, I didn’t have a great answer for. (As a white man studying a supposedly “white” genre, I had become accustomed to race being an unexamined aspect of my own identity and object of study.) It spurred me to think harder about this question, given that I was writing a book on ambient music. The editors of the Oxford Handbook of EDM, Robin James and Luis Manuel Garcia-Mispireta, agreed that it was a question worth pursuing for their collection, and so I dug in.
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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Founded in 1934, DownBeat originally cost 10 cents to purchase. According to the rate of inflation, that amounts to $20.47 today.
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…