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: A new Notes On Process column with Jessica Hopper! Interviews with ska expert Aaron Carnes and blues aficionado Steven Ovadia. Plus! One of the best podcasts I’ve listened to all year. But first…
Two weeks ago, I put a note in the newsletter about creating an informal program of matching mentors and mentees in the music journalism world. The response so far has been great! Thank you to everyone who has gotten in touch. This’ll be an ongoing thing, so please do reach out if you fall into one of these categories:
Are you looking to offer up your experience in a mentorship role to a young music journalist? Please email me with the subject line “Mentor” and a little bit about how you think you might be able to help!
Are you looking for a mentor in the music journalism world? Please email me with the subject line, “I’d like a mentor!” I’ll try to hook you up with someone willing to volunteer their time and experience. If there’s a specific type of person you’d like to be paired with, please don’t hesitate to let me know.
The latest edition of Notes On Process is here! The idea of this column is simple: I invite a writer to a Google Doc where I’ve copy-pasted one of their pieces and added a bunch of footnotes with flattery, jokes, and questions. They reply to my queries, and then we provide you with a link to the doc where all of our marginalia is visible. The goal is to provide a window into the writing and editing process, so that folks can see how great writers think about their work.
This edition focuses on Jessica Hopper’s searing 2003 piece “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” Jessica has just put out a revised and expanded edition of her 2015 book, The First Collection Of Criticism By A Living Female Rock Critic, which features the essay alongside oral histories, interviews, and much more.
Aaron Carnes has just published a book, titled In Defense of Ska. Bringing together historical research and personal anecdotes, Aaron takes a variety of approaches to defend the genre he loves. He also has a podcast of the same name, co-hosted by Adam Davis. In this excerpt from our interview, Aaron explains why he wrote the book.
I fell in love with ska in 1992 when I saw the band Skankin’ Pickle play at a venue in San Jose. I was unfamiliar with the music beforehand. It blew my mind. I loved it. I thought the high energy and elaborate stage show was fantastic. I had a band already, but after that show I nudged us towards playing ska. Listening to ska, playing ska, and going to ska shows completely overtook my life for several years. After my band broke up, I was less involved, but I stayed a fan of the music. Years later after I became a music journalist, I really got into reading long, in-depth music books. It got on my nerves that something didn’t exist for ska that wasn’t academic, especially when everything from hardcore to thrash has in-depth oral histories. I thought I might do an oral history, but the more that I noticed that pop culture treated ska like it was a joke, the more I felt I should take a unique approach to writing about the genre. I needed to talk about the elephant in the room right up front. You think ska is a joke, and I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.
The Drums of Winter welcomes viewers into the lively musical gatherings of the Yup’ik people of Emmonak, Alaska. Inside the kashim (dance house), the Yup’iks joyfully sing, drum, and wave feathered fans in synchronized movements. The songs they perform date back generations, sharing stories and blessings for a prosperous season.
The putrid stench of colonialism emerges midway through the 1988 documentary, with the letters read by a Christian priest attempting to “save” the Yup’iks, who he describes as “disgusting.” In their communal culture, the Yup’iks believe the more you share with others, the more you will receive back. This stands in stark contrast to the priest’s letter, which praises a famine where the Yup’iks come to him for help, putting the so-called “sinners” in his debt.
Despite the church and government’s best efforts to shut down their spiritual events, the Yup’iks persevere. At ceremonial potlatches, the poorest members of the community are offered sleds full of fish to share in the celebration. With the simple act of allowing the subjects of the documentary to tell their own story, The Drums of Winter is a celebration of the Yup’iks’ beautiful traditions and compassionate beliefs.
Metal magazine Kerrang! was first introduced to the world as a one-off supplement in what other music publication?
Steven Ovadia is the creator of Working Mojo, an online publication that features interviews with blues songwriters about their creative process. Steven does all this in his spare time, when he’s not working as a tenured academic librarian at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. In this excerpt from our interview, Steven explains where he thinks music journalism is heading.
This is more aspirational, because I’m not at all sure if the industry is heading this way, but I hope as writers find their niche, we’ll be able to explore musical subcultures more thoroughly. At the same time, I also hope there will be more curation (this is the librarian part of me speaking), so that you can assemble fantastically in-depth articles, almost creating the perfect music publication comprised of disparate, specialized writers who might not even know each other.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
I want to see true independence for writers, with less need to rely on platforms. I enjoyed this interview with Ann Friedman where she got into her tech stack. Unfortunately, if you can’t get under the hood of your tools, to a certain extent, writers are at the mercy of whatever corporation controls the tool. I dream of a world where writers can share their work on their own terms, in their own way, without interference via the tech and big businesses that don’t care about the content.
Having said all of that, I’d love to see more of a role for editors in the writing process. I’m a one-person shop and I know my work is weaker for not having a strong editor to shape things. There’s such an emphasis on getting everything online as quickly as possible, but it would be great to crack how small publications, like mine, can work with editors, without my going into personal debt. Good journalism is labor-intensive, but how do you pay for labor?
From Steven Ovadia:
NYC Books Through Bars sends books to the incarcerated, all over the U.S. I donate through Greenlight Bookstore, a local Brooklyn bookstore that handles the delivery. I love the idea of exposing people to new ideas, and I also appreciate that it helps an independently owned bookstore (or I hope it helps…). So while charity shouldn’t be about efficiency, this project happens to check that box.
Here are three easy ways you can support the newsletter:
Insider Extra - An additional e-mail from me each week, usually featuring job listings, freelance calls, and more
How To Pitch Database - Access to a database with contact information and pitching info for hundreds of publications
Reading Recommendations - Access to a resource page collecting great pieces of music journalism, sourced from great music journalists
Advice - Access to a resource page devoted to collecting advice from journalists and editors on how to excel at music journalism
Interviews - Access to the hundreds of interviews that have appeared in the newsletter, with writers and editors from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Guardian, and more
Kerrang! was first published in Sounds in 1981.
Do you have a question you’d like to see included in Trivia Time? Hit reply and let me know.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…