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 electronic music expert Zoë Beery; freelance writer Melisa Yuriar; and Grateful Dead enthusiast Mark A. Rodriguez. Plus! Reading recommendations, a doc about Latin American rock, and more! But first…
“One of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that, no matter how much you try, no matter how much time you spend reworking and rethinking, sometimes a piece just doesn’t work.” - Eleanor Halls
Zoë Beery writes about electronic music for Resident Advisor, Bandcamp, and the New York Times, and works with the safer spaces teams at venues and events such as Nowadays, Horst Arts & Music, and Sustain-Release. In addition, she does “copywriting and editing, branded content, and editorial consulting with startups, companies, nonprofits, and the like.” As she explains in this excerpt from our interview, this is essential to her work as a music journalist.
I don’t make the majority of my income writing about music, or through bylined pieces of any kind. I support myself through copywriting and editing, branded content, and editorial consulting with startups, companies, nonprofits, and the like. The most I, and every freelance journalist I know who isn’t famous, can get is $2/word, and only for print features that take months of work. This is the same rate freelancers have gotten since the 1990s and it is wildly disproportionate to the hours required to write these kinds of stories. It’s insulting and humiliating and often doesn’t feel worth the gratification you get from publishing something you’re proud of.
This, I think, is the main thing I would impart on someone who wants to start writing about music: unless you are one of a lucky few who lands a well-paid staff job, you cannot make a living doing only this. Your favorite writers are either reliant on day jobs/unglamorous corporate freelance contracts, or they have family money they don’t talk about that allows them to get paid $200 per piece or take a low salary at a prestige publication. Why am I still doing this? Writing is not, to pay homage to the sorely missed David Graeber, a bullshit job. Feeling like your work matters is hard to give up once you’ve experienced it.
The meaning has more trade-offs than the low pay. Music writers exist because if you’re a big enough music nerd you will eventually wind up either there or as a DJ (or both). When you love something this much, when it has changed your life, it feels wrong and unbearable to keep it to yourself, so you find ways to share it with other people beyond just passing albums to your friends. But turning it into work changes how you experience music. You likely will not be able to turn off the “should I write about this?” impulse. If you do go down this path, protect some element of music for yourself. Maybe you don’t write record reviews so that you can just listen as a fan, or you don’t cover festivals so that you can just enjoy them. And be sure to build practices (“hobbies” I think they are called?) outside of music. This will keep intact the sense of wonderment crucial to writing well.
From Zoë Beery:
Rather than identifying a place to donate to, I’d like to encourage people to rethink how they do this, based on what I’ve learned from my reporting on wealth redistribution. Choose a percentage of your income (10% is typical, but not everyone can afford this, and people with more money can afford more). Identify 2-5 people or places you want to support, ideally small organizations working on the ground, with at least one being something with no direct benefit or connection to you. Divide up the budget into a monthly contribution to each place. Why? Organizations, especially the small ones that do the most important work, need to be able to count on ongoing donations for their planning, instead being inundated sporadically during the holidays and following news stories related to their cause. Plus, doing set-and-forget means you will give away an amount meaningful to you, rather than randomly throwing money at things when you occasionally remember.
Melisa Yuriar is a music journalist with bylines in Dancing Astronaut, Saint Audio, Festival Insider, and Gray Area Magazine. Her favorite part of being a music journalist? “Writing about the music, and the creatives who dream it all up… There’s nothing else I’d rather do in this life. I’m a lucky gal to have had the writing opportunities I’ve had in my career thus far. I never take any of it for granted.” In this excerpt from our interview, Melisa talks about how she organizes her work.
I begin any story with a good ol’ excavation. I research what’s been written before about the topic by gathering relevant facts, I formulate around 10-15 thoughtful, open-ended questions for an interview, and then I conduct the interview itself. After transcribing the audio, I dissect the most pertinent quotes and information for the piece before I actually begin to write. Next, I leave everything on the proverbial back burner to marinate.
During this ‘marination’ period, I cook (have recently fine-tuned my focaccia bread recipe!), or go for a run. I start writing when the lead comes to me. Yes, really. :-) Once the lead is down, everything else quickly follows. Longer pieces can take weeks to form, while others take several days or merely a few hours to pen. It all depends on the subject matter and how inspired I feel.
Every once in a while, a music documentary is so captivating and informative you find yourself constantly hitting pause so that you can take notes and make a playlist later. That’s the case with the six-part series Break It All (Rompan Todo in the original Spanish), which details the fascinating history of Latin American rock from the 1950s to the 2010s through first-person testimonies of musicians, producers, and DJs.
The journey begins with Ritchie Valens’ 1958 hit “La Bamba” and traces a comprehensive and immersive trajectory that highlights groundbreaking artists like Los Jaivas, Almendra, Tanguito, Manal, Los Saicos, Aterciopelados, Café Tacvba, and many more. Needless to say, social and political contextualization play a key part in this narrative: “In many ways, we’re not telling the story of rock in Latin America but we’re telling the story of Latin America, through the point of view of rock,” series creator Nicolás Entel told NPR in 2020. As such, Break It All not only discloses the immense role Latin American rock played in terms of a broader cultural revolution, but also offers a singular perspective of world history through the eyes of those who helped soundtrack it.
Who was the founding editor of The Face?
Mark A. Rodriguez is the author of After All is Said and Done: Taping the Grateful Dead, 1965–1995. The publisher, Anthology Editions, describes it as a book “featuring dozens of interviews with tape enthusiasts and members of the Grateful Dead organization as well as hundreds of cassette covers… [it’s a] saga of homegrown psychedelia, anarchic graphic styles, and black market fandom as written in magnetic tape.” In this excerpt from our interview, Rodriguez explains the book himself.
[This] is a book about a few things: the art project I have been involved with for 12 years, a book showcasing the folk art of deadheads via colorful and uniquely designed tape covers, as well as a history through interviews and archived documents of the conversations and decision-making process that led to the officiating of a tapers section within the architecture of the Grateful Dead’s live concert environment.
The art project I mentioned is where I am trying to collect every Grateful Dead live performance that was recorded on audiocassette and was distributed by deadheads through their tape trading network from 1965 to 1995. This particular collecting effort was—and is—the basis for a series of sculptures of which 9 have been completed.
Thanks for reading! 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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Nick Logan was the founding editor of The Face.
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.
Feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…