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 Afrobeats expert Christian Adofo, Canadian music aficionado Michael Barclay, and social media savant Todd Hoover. Plus! Reading recommendations, a documentary about Tower Records, and more! But first…
Christian Adofo is a journalist, author, and cultural curator. He’s had bylines in The Guardian, Mixmag, and more. His latest project is A Quick Ting On Afrobeats, a book that “chronicles the social and cultural development of the eponymous music genre—tracing its rich history from the African continent all the way to the musical center of the Western world.” In this excerpt from our interview, Christian explains his research process for the book.
It was methodical. I explored musicologist literature from the likes of Francis Bebey, the late JH Kwabena Nketia and John Collins. Copious papers with extensive research from the Academia website. Getting into deep YouTube wormholes on channels making use of lost videos on accounts with song playlists, event promo and interviews documenting uni raves around Afrobeats/UK Funky. Podcasts. Also my own interview archive where I made use of transcripts and poignant reflections on the whole movement which are still relevant now.
How did you go about writing the actual book?
My process usually consists of watching and reading for research. Jotting down relevant quotes for each chapter and then proceeding to write themes I want to make a pit stop at before I conclude a chapter. Also, ensuring it flows into the next cohesively. I also like to write from pen to scrap paper first to edit as I go along and not find myself opening a laptop without my thoughts already down, ready to type up. So, in a way, you can say there was an eco-friendly recycling aspect in bringing this book to life through this process too.
From Christian Adofo:
I would like to highlight the Free Books Campaign which started in 2020 led by Sofia Akel who gets books by authors of colour—who are typically underrepresented in the publishing industry and education system—to those who are unable to access them, by donating books to individuals, families, youth clubs, community centres, charities and schools in the UK.
Michael Barclay is a writer focused firmly on the Canadian music scene. He was a 2021-22 journalism fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College, and has worked for the CBC, Maclean’s, Exclaim!, Eye Weekly, The West End Phoenix, and freelanced for many more. His third book on Canadian music is Hearts on Fire: Six Years That Changed Canadian Music 2000-05, which details artists like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Peaches, Kid Koala, The Be Good Tanyas, The New Pornographers, and Arcade Fire. In this excerpt from our interview, Michael talks about getting his first book deal.
The book deal [for Hearts on Fire] was easy because my last book [about Tragically Hip] was a huge success. And that book deal was also easy: I had a relationship with the publisher because of my first book.
The real struggle goes back to 2001 when my Have Not Been the Same co-author Jason Schneider was pitching that project around. No agent would touch us. No publisher would touch us. We were three nobodies (Ian A.D. Jack was our third co-author) who wrote for a regional alt-weekly. Books about Canadian music didn’t sell. Eventually our pitch landed on the desk of Michael Holmes at ECW Press, a mid-size Canadian indie whose initials originally stood for “Essays on Canadian Writing”—I mean, talk about dry and academic. But by 2000 they’d just started to branch out into pop culture: books about music, sports, television, and… wrestling (they still publish an unusual number of wrestling books, along with bestselling fiction, public policy and poetry).
I still have no idea why they accepted our idea. Have Not Been the Same was a 750-page whopper with huge overhead costs that wouldn’t even make money unless there was a second printing (which there eventually was, in a 2011 revised edition). But by putting out that book, I think it was a statement on their part that they were willing to take risks on bold projects. I’m eternally grateful. They’ve since had many successful music books, including books by Rush drummer Neil Peart, a bestselling biography of Van Halen and a book about Drake’s early years.
“In 1999, Tower Records had sales of over one billion dollars. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy.” The opening lines of Colin Hanks’s documentary sets the tone for a chronological tale of the legendary record retailer that begins in 1941 at the drugstore of founder Russ Solomon’s dad. When they realized used records sold like hot cakes, they also began to sell new ones—and suddenly, they were in the record business.
A first store opened in 1960 in Sacramento, and—from then on—the story is inextricably linked to the history of pop music. Quickly spreading to strategic locations (San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City), Tower Records conquered the country, got big in Japan, and even launched a magazine, Pulse!, which was published monthly between 1983 and 2002.
All Things Must Pass is a fitting title for this documentary. Firstly, because it employs a direct reference to pop music, inarguably the motor behind Tower Records’ overwhelming success. It also describes the inevitable cycles of life, which always include a rise and a fall. Finally, it suggests the replacement of one paradigm with another: just like Tower Records gradually swallowed local record stores, digital music, internet piracy, and mass discounters did the same to the giant chain. What comes across in this film most strongly, though, is the joy and passion that still shines in the eyes of Solomon and his employees so many years later, as they reminisce about 45 years of a life surrounded by shelves of music.
Who was on the cover of the final print issue of SPIN Magazine?
Todd Hoover is the self-described “CEO, PR representative, and coffee-fetching underling of Todd’s Top Tens.” Those top tens began life on Facebook, but have more recently found a home on Instagram and TikTok. Todd’s reviews have a distinctive style, always starting out with the line, “Listening to X’s album is like…” It provides a neat pathway into what Todd calls album descriptions. (“I honestly consider myself more of a historian than a journalist, per se.”) In this excerpt from our interview, Todd explains what he’d like to see more of in music journalism right now.
I would like to see more unabashed geeking out about the music people appreciate the most. I would also like to see more emphasis on musical history, as opposed to only focusing on current trends.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
Be yourself, and remember why you love music in the first place.
Please recommend a great piece of music journalism and let folks know why you picked it.
There are way too many to mention! I will say that Samantha Heller is the journalist who inspired me to start doing video reviews on TikTok.
From Todd Hoover:
MusiCares provides health, finance, and rehabilitation services to musicians. If anyone could use support right now, it’s them—especially in the grueling aftermath of COVID-19.
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 here.
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Azealia Banks was the last SPIN cover star, appearing in the September/October 2012 issue.
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…