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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 Emma Garland; memorist Nabil Ayers; and choral music expert Michael Alan Anderson. Plus! A collection of passionate Editor’s Letters from music magazine history and much more! But first…
Emma Garland is a culture writer and editor based in London. Originally from Wales, Emma spent more than seven years working at VICE as an editor, and nowadays, she’s freelance with bylines in a variety of places. Jay Kay from Jamiroquai once called her about a piece she wrote about the band’s comeback show. (You’ll have to read the interview for the whole story… but despite being described as “Prince in a fleece,” he totally loved it.) In this excerpt from our interview, Emma describes where she sees music journalism headed.
After a long decade of music publications and websites being shut down or integrated into more general coverage, I think we’re seeing a return to independent media and dedicated niches. People are essentially doing early-2010s-style blogging on TikTok now; CREEM has re-launched and seems to be embracing the cultural return to irreverence. People want curation, but I don’t think they want it from brands who have demonstrably spent the last 5-10 years pandering to trending topics, algorithms and industry “pivots.” I also think audiences want more meaningful coverage. Given the amount of time and money we collectively spend consuming media (the average Joe Rogan episode is 2.5 hours long) I don’t buy the argument that people “don’t have the attention span” to read anymore, I just think people want music journalism that is a) good, b) respects the intelligence of its audience and c) feels new—even if it isn’t, necessarily.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
Fewer profiles that read like press releases. Less micromanaging of artists to the point where it’s impossible to get access and then a default for members of their team to be sat in the room (or on Zoom) with you during the interview. More putting me up in hotels for a laugh. Less dumbing things down for an assumed general audience (if someone doesn’t recognise a cultural reference and they’re otherwise invested in the piece, they will look it up, they are literally reading it on a computer). More working class journalists, more myth-making, MORE HUMOUR.
From Emma Garland:
I’d like to shout out United Sex Workers, which is a trade union representing sex workers in the UK. The UK is currently going through a cost of living crisis so bad it’s prompting people earning six figures to reconsider turning the heating on. At the same time, many cities across the UK are introducing bans on strip clubs—ignoring sex workers during the consultation process, and then stripping them of a livelihood. USW is currently crowd-funding to launch legal challenges against the bans, starting with a judicial review against Edinburgh City Council. You can donate here and find out more about USW here.
Nabil Ayers is President of Beggars Group US and an author with bylines in The New York Times, NPR, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and GQ. His new memoir, My Life in the Sunshine: Searching for My Father and Discovering My Family, details much of his life in the world of music, including his first encounter with his father, the musician Roy Ayers. Nabil is currently on tour with the book. In this excerpt from our interview, Nabil describes the book.
It’s a memoir in which I cover a lot of ground—my mother deliberately got pregnant with me when she was 21, with my father’s consent, knowing he wouldn’t be in the picture; my life growing up as a bi-racial child in both very diverse and very homogeneous communities, and my life surrounded by the music of my father, Roy Ayers, whom I’ve never known. It’s chronological, and music is the thread that ties it all together—whether it’s me buying my first album when I was 5; or playing my first show with a band in front of 6,000 people in Seattle in the early ’90s; or getting to present a platinum record award to Pixies backstage at Madison Square Garden. Mostly, it’s about my father’s influence over me despite his non-existence in my life.
How did you come to write this book?
I started writing a lot of short pieces for no apparent reason other than that I felt like I needed to do it, not for anyone other than myself. I liked some of what I wrote, so I started to shape some pieces into pitchable 1500-word personal essays, and cold emailing editors at outlets with the goal of getting published. It worked, and I got better at it (both writing and pitching). I landed pieces in the New York Times and GQ, and soon I was writing a lot more, and realized that when I wrote about my childhood and my father, the pieces were much longer, and didn’t really fit that short personal essay format. Soon I had many of the pieces of a larger thing and I realized it could be a book, so I started working on it in that context. I don’t think I could have sat down and said, “I’m going to write a 300 page book.” I had to do a lot of the work and surprise myself by already having a head start.
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The Sonics. The Who. Neil Young. The Mamas & The Papas. Merrilee Rush. The Yardbirds. The list of artists Jini Dellaccio photographed feels mythical and nearly endless. Considered the first female rock photographer, Dellaccio carved her own path with a singular perspective that captured the freshness and constant motion of an exciting scene.
Her Aim Is True tells the story of her career, revealing a “just do it” mentality that made her a direct participant in the music of her subjects by showing what it looked like to her. Just like the first bands she photographed, Dellaccio’s approach was gritty, confrontational, to the point—and, above all, genius. Operating mostly in the Pacific Northwest, she was submerged in the rawness of garage rock from the very beginning, which led her to develop a unique style via a “punk” attitude—years before the term had even been invented.
When the documentary initially came out, Dellaccio was still alive and photographing at the age of 95. She passed a year later, in 2014, on the same day of the year Brian Jones and Jim Morrison had. The timing somehow felt like a symbolic confirmation of the central role she played in rock mythology.
Nothing is more passionate than the first editor’s letter from a magazine. It spells out exactly what you want to do, why you want to do it, and often why you hate everything else that is happening right now. Here are five inaugural Editor’s Letters from a variety of music publications:
Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone, 1967: You’re probably wondering what we are trying to do. It’s hard to say: sort of a magazine and sort of a newspaper. The trade papers have become so inaccurate and irrelevant, and the fan magazines are an anachronism. Rolling Stone is not just about music, but also about the things and attitudes that the music embraces. We’ve been working quite hard on it and we hope you can dig it. To describe it any further would be difficult without sounding like bullshit, and bullshit is like gathering moss. -
Bob Guccione Jr., SPIN, 1985: For too long the music and youth culture press has deteriorated, from the fiercely challenging, imaginative and sharp-witted force it was a generation ago, to either a slick homogeneity on the one, older side, or a mostly babbling incoherent discredit on the other. Gone are the passions and the excitement of rock ‘n’ roll. There are few clear, bright reflections of its free and open spirit.
Lori Twersky, Bitch, 1985: Why Bitch? Because lots of what gets written about women in rock is ALL THE SAME.
The fanzine Faith, 1999: Why bother doing a fanzine anyway? The war against Corporate Dance Music PLC has long been lost…. Yeah, Fuck it, the war’s lost but a bit of guerrilla action could be fun… It’s time for those who do give a shit to get off their lazy arses and start doing things.
John Holstrom, Punk, 1976: DEATH TO DISCO SHIT! LOVE LIVE THE ROCK! KILL YOURSELF. JUMP OFF A FUCKIN’ CLIFF. DRIVE NAILS INTO YOUR HEAD. BECOME A ROBOT AND JOIN THE STAFFF AT DISNEYLAND. OD. ANYTHING. JUST DON’T LISTEN TO DISCOSHIT. I’VE SEEN THAT CANNED CRAP TAKE REAL LIVE PEOPLE AND TURN THEM INTO DOGS! AND VICE VERSA. THE EPITOME OF ALL THAT’S WRONG WITH WESTERN CIVILIZATION IS DISCO. EDDJICATE YOURSELF. GET INTO IT. READ PUNK.
Got a fascinating first Editor’s Letter you’d like to share? Hit reply on this email and let me know. I’m especially interested in digital publications!
Who was the first female writer at Rolling Stone?
Michael Alan Anderson is a professor of musicology and the artistic director of Schola Antiqua. He’s also the author of Music and Performance in the Book of Hours, which surveys references to Gregorian chants and performance cues in books of hours, or Christian prayer guides. As Michael explains, “these devotional manuals were the most popular and widespread books of the late Middle Ages.” In this excerpt from our interview, he shares why he finds this area of scholarship so fascinating.
As their astounding survival suggests, books of hours were owned by many individuals, not just the elite or the Christian clergy, as was typical of other surviving books in Europe from centuries ago. Musicologists have scarcely paid attention to books of hours because they lack musical notation. Art historians, on the other hand, have had a major stake in this genre, on account of some of the fascinating and intricate images that were sometimes included in these books. But the reenactment of liturgies—not gazing at images—was at the heart of one’s experience with a book of hours. And those liturgies present texts that transmit a rich sound experience that a trained musicologist can quickly ascertain and uncover.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
Probably music and healing. I have edited the Eastman Case Studies series for the last seven years. In the series, we shine a light on issues in the contemporary music landscape and frame them as management scenarios for class discussion. Of the 22 case studies I personally wrote, I was most moved by the Phoenix Symphony’s partnership with Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation and the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. In multiple phases of a research trial, symphony members were paid to develop custom programs and perform live music for patients with advanced stages of dementia who were living in long-term care facilities. I saw up close the promise that music can have for saving and extending lives of our most vulnerable citizens. I was also glad to see the 2014 documentary Alive Inside bring this kind of idea to a wider public.
From Michael Anderson:
Having started my musical life in choral music, I try to keep in touch with and support the choral arts today. Of late, I have been moved by the work of Tonality, directed by Alexander Lloyd Blake. Their mission is among the boldest I’ve seen for an arts organization: “to deliver authentic stories through voice and body to incite change, understanding, and dialogue.” The group’s desire to stir audiences to social action presents a challenge to polite concert audiences everywhere. In 2021, I profiled Tonality in the Eastman Case Studies series.
Thanks for reading! And thanks to Miranda Reinert for their help with this edition of the newsletter. 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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Robin Green became the first bylined female writer for Rolling Stone in 1971.
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