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 freelance writer Brodie Lancaster; David Bowie expert Chris O’Leary; music journalism veteran Wayne Robins; and music researcher Jay Bruder. Plus! Lots of recommendations and a special announcement. But first…
Three 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.
Brodie Lancaster is a freelance writer and critic, and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine, a 2017 memoir of “pop culture, feminism and feelings.” Most recently, Brodie spoke with Billie Eilish for Vogue Australia. In this excerpt from our interview, Brodie talks about how her approach to her work has changed over the past few years.
I go through pretty extreme shifts with my work: from seeing it as a tool to make money, to using its success or failure as a barometer for how I am as a person; from wishing I could spend long, considered stretches of time thinking and working on ideas, to panicking if I don’t have a steady stream of deadlines. At the core of all my best work, the stuff that has been best received and made me feel proud, is pretty simply the things I care about.
An example of that is a feature I wrote on the Avalanches’ new record for The Big Issue last year. It was my first IRL interview after a very long, strict lockdown in Melbourne, and I knew I wasn’t an expert on the band but had a very strong, immediate response to We Will Always Love You. We ended up talking for over an hour, more a vulnerable conversation than an interview, and I was excited and inspired at every stage of writing the piece (even the hellish transcription). When it was published I bought a copy from a vendor on the street, and he told me he’d just been telling someone about it. Feeling that care for a story doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s something I want to chase as much as I can.
In 2015, NME asked its readers to vote for the best covers in the magazine’s history. What band was voted 1 and 2 in the poll?
Chris O’Leary is a freelance writer and blogger. His latest project is 64 Quartets, in which he is presenting deeply researched essays about some of the most fascinating foursomes of all time. Previously, he blogged and wrote two books about the music of David Bowie. In this excerpt from our interview, Chris talks about a particular issue he’s worried about in music journalism.
One of my hobbyhorses is that the 2000s-2020s will be the new dark ages. Very little of the present, internet-wise, may survive. The paradox of today is that we chronicle mundane existence to a degree that no human beings have ever done before, but we do so on phones with short lifespans and via platforms that will one day be bought, folded into each other, and shut down. I still have a huge box of photos from the ‘90s, but my early ‘10s are now only documented by maybe 50 digital shots that I shifted from an old phone into a Google Drive, which isn’t the soundest archival move.
The 2000s already are full of holes—there are so many dead websites, ghost message boards by now. I spent some of my mid-20s arguing on Salon’s Table Talk boards, which is where I worked out some ideas I’d later use in my writing, but all of that’s long gone. Again, a minor Bowie example—he was a message-board regular on his BowieNet site in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, talking to fans, putting up diary entries and film recommendations. Yet much of that had vanished by the late ‘00s. If fans hadn’t saved it in PDF form or as screen-shots, it would’ve been lost. A lot of it was lost.
You see this play out all the time on YouTube—one day you’ll have every musical performance on David Letterman on there, then two months later, half of those videos have been pulled. Maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It’s all sandcastles, really.
Third Bridge Creative is hiring curation specialists in Germany and the Netherlands for an online radio platform. They are looking for individuals who have encyclopedic knowledge of those countries’ current music landscapes, and can translate that knowledge into compelling curation concepts and collections. It’s a part-time position, with the project starting in August. If you’re interested, please fill out their talent survey and reach out to at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wayne Robins was the longtime pop writer for Newsday and New York Newsday from 1975 to 1993. (Before his stint there, he was the editor-in-chief at Creem.) These days, Wayne runs an excellent Substack, freelances for a few outlets, and teaches writing as an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens. In 2022, he will be inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame, the only music journalist to be admitted. In this excerpt from our interview, Wayne recounts a powerful piece of advice he once received.
Joe Koenenn, the arts editor who hired me at Newsday, [once said] you can’t write about a Barry Manilow concert and say it’s bad just because you’d rather be seeing the Ramones or Rolling Stones. You have to judge Barry Manilow by his own standards, as Barry Manilow: Is he giving the audience an entertaining show, or is he just phoning it in? Is the pacing good, is he engaged, is he breaking any new ground, is he being the best version of Barry Manilow he can be?
One day, when we were still using paper and typewriters, Koenenn called me over to his desk, held up a record review, and said, “Wayne, you can’t say ‘this record sucks.’ What you have to do is explain why it sucks, in which ways it sucks, how it sucks relative to…their last record? Something else in the same genre that doesn’t suck? Then cross out the word ‘sucks’ wherever it appears, because you won’t need it: You will have explained to the reader that the record sucks, without having to use the word sucks.”
From Wayne Robins:
My youngest daughter, now 26 and in fine health, needed a liver transplant when she was nine months old. We support the Gift of Life Family House of Philadelphia, which offers support and lodging for transplant patients and their families. Or, affiliated with this organization is the Jessica Beth Schwartz Scholarship Fund, which offers cash gifts for those who, like my daughter, survived pediatric transplants to help them attend college.
Jay Bruder is a music researcher and writer. In addition to a weekly radio show on post-WWII music for BluegrassCountry.org, Jay works on research for reissues. His newest project comes out later this year: a deeply researched box set titled R&B in DC 1940-1960 - Rhythm & Blues, Doo Wop, Rockin’ Rhythm and more… In this excerpt from our interview, Jay explains how he came to love this music.
During my high school years in the early 1970s I didn’t much like what was being played on Top 40 radio. This was about the time of Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling,” and the beginning of the 1950s revival on the Oldies format radio stations. I found that type of music more interesting. I quickly realized that Washington had a rich history, yet it was not being documented in the way that others were documenting New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. That sparked both my interest in discovering this old music, and in documenting the history. Once I started meeting the artists, who were so gracious and welcoming, I was committed to getting their stories down on paper.
Throughout the month of August, I’ll be doing a series of special editions. There’ll be a history of the Soviet Union’s official music journalism, a Notes On Process with one of my music journalism heroes, and much more. The regular newsletter format will resume on September 7. Thanks for reading!
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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…