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No Expectations 020: For You to Sing
Mailbag: Can you make a career in music journalism? Plus, a new section for recommended shows.
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I’m on vacation in Arizona until Sunday so this newsletter is the first mailbag edition of No Expectations. Last week, I snagged the email@example.com email address and made a call for questions. There are a few more really thoughtful reader responses I’ll be getting to in future weeks too. I appreciate everyone who’s reached out so far.
Mailbag: Is a Career in Music Journalism Dead on Arrival?
I’m a freelance writer as well, mostly shitty commerce articles and clickbait to pay the bills, but this year I’ve started writing the occasional album review on the side. I love doing it and would love to get paid for doing it (don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you how).
Anyway, right before I saw your post about taking questions, I saw another one from Larry Fitzmaurice suggesting that the idea of music writing as anything but a hobby is all but dead, at least for now. I guess I’m just wondering if you agree, or if you happen to have a more hopeful outlook.
I think I’ll keep writing about music and other things that interest me regardless (while doing what I have to do to live), but if you have any other guidance for me it would be much appreciated.
I’m sorry to say that Larry is basically right but I don’t necessarily think that should stop anyone from pursuing work in music writing. Ever since I started writing about music as an intern for The A.V. Club in 2012, it’s been “the worst time to get into music journalism.” Early on, the most common piece of advice I got about getting into this industry was “Don’t.” Since then, it’s objectively only gotten worse. Layoffs and companies not filling up vacant positions has been the dominant storyline of music media throughout my entire career and most of the places I’ve spent considerable time writing for either no longer exist (RedEye Chicago) or have been so gutted editorially that they’re not doing really any significant music coverage.
In my decade in this industry, I’ve been gainfully employed for a little over half of it. I spent two years at RedEye Chicago, over three at Vice, and six months at Netflix’s Tudum, which wasn’t even a music journalism job. The rest of my career has been freelance, being paid by the article and usually having to invoice after the piece publishes. I try to stick with outlets that pay fast and fairly (or take an invoice earlier in the process) but the standard is getting a check 30 days after your piece is live. I consider myself one of the luckier ones in the industry. I’ve had great bylines for reputable outlets my Grandpa has heard of and full-time work writing about the things I care about. Money has been mostly tight but 10 years later I’m able to live comfortably in a relatively cheap city. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another full-time job in music journalism. I would definitely like to but there are so many other laid-off freelance writers who also deserve another shot at full-time employment.
I have had a solid career which could have only happened for reasons that had nothing to do with how hard I worked or how well I wrote. For much of my twenties, my rent in Chicago was ridiculously cheap: from 2013-2019, I didn’t pay more than $500. I split the rent with roommates or girlfriends. My last lease before this current spot was a spacious one-bedroom in Roscoe Village for $950. It increased to only $1075 by 2023 in the seven years I lived there (the new tenant is apparently paying $1300—still a good deal for the space). Had my rent been any higher, I would have been in a different field years ago. I don’t know if you can still find a spot in a convenient location in Chicago for that price anymore. You certainly can’t in New York City or Los Angeles.
Right now, the way I pay my bills isn’t through traditional journalism. Mostly, I write a lot of artist press bios. A label or a publicist will have me interview an act on their roster, I’ll write 800-1000 words from our chat about the album they’re about to release, and that artist’s team will use that copy to send to journalists or radio stations, use as the official bio on streaming services, venue websites, and internally. I charge a base rate of $500 now (this rate is for signed artists with a label press budget) and ideally try to do two or three a week. The industry standard bio rate is $250, which is what I originally charged when I started doing them. I like doing this work because 1). They usually pay within a week of filing 2). You get to be the first person to interview an artist before they go through a press cycle 3). I’ve carved a niche where I’m good at doing them, and 4). They pay better than most music-centric outlets.
I’ve also been doing a bit of non-music freelancing for publications, mostly lifestyle print magazines which tend to pay better than most music outlets ($400-$1500). I’ll occasionally write branded content for certain publications and websites, which is really where the money can be. (One time, I got paid $2000 for basically three hours of work—though these gigs are not common). I don’t pitch certain music websites as much these days because some of the bigger outlets have rates closer to $250. In my twenties, I was content with stacking $250 checks (which, remember, have not been taxed yet) but at this point in my life I need to be smarter about my rate, what assignments I can take on, and how to better pay my bills. I might not have tweeted about the copywriting I did for a streaming website after I got laid off from Netflix, but I can guarantee it helped pay my bills more than the music profile I did for a magazine that I did post about.
A prestigious byline is great but sometimes you can’t justify the amount of work you’d put in for them if you’re only going to get $250, of which around 30 percent goes to taxes. Plus, the pitching process is arduous. You can get your pitch approved and your piece filed, but your editor might be out of town or swamped, delaying the editing process and when you can invoice. The time from pitch to publishing to payment can easily take months. And that’s if they pay you on time: Once, a magazine named after a Bob Dylan or a Muddy Waters song took nine months to mail me a $400 check (they sent it after I tweeted about it, which basically risked my chance of ever writing there again). Freelance writers have to deal with these things fairly often. I’m a lucky case: I can comfortably pay my bills with freelancing and no outlet has ever fully ghosted me.
This is basically a roundabout way of saying there is no typical “career in music journalism” but if there is, it looks more like what you’re doing than the folks who have the “20 jobs currently available” in this field. Most writers I know have day jobs and I’m guessing most of the writers you admire do too. If someone is a full-time freelance music writer, there’s a good chance they are taking on part-time work with branded content, marketing copywriting, or writing pieces about non-music topics. It’s important to diversify what you can write about if not for monetary reasons but also the fact that making your passion your source of income can make you hate music pretty quickly. If you only want to write about music, you can make it work as a full-time freelancer but you sort of have to operate at a mind-boggling pace—at those introductory rates, you gotta do 3-4 a week. As far as salaried jobs in this field go, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve been pretty lucky to be able to spend a significant chunk of my career with a job in media but my no-exceptions decision to stay in Chicago has disqualified me from several positions in New York or Los Angeles. Basically, at this point in my career, my goal is to get any full-time job that allows me to do the newsletter. I like freelancing but it’s too hard to predict and I really hate paying for health insurance out of pocket.
You wrote that you’ll “keep writing about music and other things that interest me regardless,” which shows you’re doing this because you love it and not for the money. You’re writing about music because you’re passionate about writing and you already pay your bills from writing. The writing that makes money might not be the thing you care about but it does pay. No matter how turbulent media is and boy is it ever, there will always be paid assignments to go around at the bigger outlets. Find a pitch guide online, send clips of your writing and a decent pitch that’s no more than a couple grafs, and soon enough you’ll establish a rapport with editors, get paid work, and build out your portfolio. As long as you are professional and kind, turn in your copy on time without errors, and be gracious with edits, more work will come.
I don’t see the media ecosystem suddenly becoming flush with open positions for music journalism anytime soon. (In Chicago, there is only one full-time staffed music journalist at a local outlet in Friend of the Substack Leor Galil of the Chicago Reader and it’s been that way for years). That said, I’m not pessimistic about music writing itself. This industry ebbs and flows in both talent and job prospects but right now the actual quality of the writing is at an all-time high while the job prospects are at an all-time low. There are so many good writers it’s a little overwhelming but the problem is that these talents haven’t been given the opportunities to hone their craft, develop a voice or a critical sensibility, and often leave the field after a few years of trying to make a living. The avenues for a traditional career in music journalism are drying up but the writing, especially from voices who have historically been excluded from this industry like women and people of color, is more vital than ever.
There’s still a demand for excellent music writing but I’m not sure the traditional outlets, which are underfunded but incentivized to chase clicks, ad dollars, and popular artists over the less click-worthy underground acts, are able to make it work long-term. While Substack isn’t how I pay my bills, I’ve already made a few grand from subscriptions which makes me think that writing on this platform could eventually be a way to make a living. More than that, having this outlet has allowed me to feel better creatively as I pursue other ways to survive outside of music journalism. While freelancing, I’d get really down on myself if I couldn’t land a pitch about a great band anywhere but here, I can write about whatever I want and promote the music I love in whatever way works for me. It’s freeing.
I don’t want to ever discourage anyone from music journalism—more people should be thoughtfully engaging with art and criticism. It always feels disingenuous when someone who has sort of made it work attempts to keep others from following a similar path. I didn’t take the “don’t” advice a decade ago. Careers aren’t linear. I’ve bounced around a ton and I’ve been laid off three times in the decade I’ve been doing it. That said, I’m objectively one of the lucky ones. You deserve a fair rate and a comfortable living but if you can’t find it in the full-time freelancing or a music journalism staff job, paying your bills outside of the industry does not make you any less of a writer. What matters is that you want to write because you love it and you can’t imagine your life not doing it.
What I listened to:
Superviolet, Infinite Spring
I know I’ve been giving this Superviolet LP a lot of love in this newsletter lately but honestly, the only way to get folks to check something out is to simply Not Shut Up About It. Ohio musician Steve Ciolek (who you might know from his work as frontman of the Sidekicks) called Superviolet’s debut album Infinite Spring because of that first day of the season when the weather is great and you get that euphoric feeling that anything is possible. It’s easy to get that feeling from the songwriting here. “I was just very in love while writing all of the songs,” Ciolek said in the press bio. “I was falling in love, being in love, getting married… Committed love just became this big theme of the songs, along with the sort of fearless honesty that comes with that.” Album of the year contender out Friday.
What I watched:
Life Itself (2014, directed by Steve James)
I haven’t revisited Steve James’ heartbreaking and inspiring Roger Ebert documentary since it was in theaters so I decided to put it on as a comfort watch. Like most people, Ebert was my introduction to criticism and whenever I watch a film that came out before his death in 2013, I’ll read his review first. It’s an incredibly emotional documentary and on second viewing, I was struck by how much Ebert needed Siskel despite their publicly tumultuous relationship. It’s sort of a metaphor for criticism in general: you need both the elitists and the populists in order to have a thriving critical landscape. There’s also a scene in there where Ebert is in the hospital weeks before his death. He’s about to get a feeding tube inserted but stops the nurses so he can play Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” proving that no cancer diagnosis can ever stop dudes from rocking.
What I read:
Chicago: A Biography by Dominic A. Pacyga
I’ve been on a Chicago history kick lately and I decided to revisit historian Dominic A. Pacyga’s sprawling 500-page Chicago: A Biography. I read it when I was at RedEye but never got around to finishing it. While it was a little dense for me in my early twenties, I breezed through it this go around and learned a ton. The book starts with Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable and ends with Obama, ruminating on the ever-changing neighborhoods, the bloody labor strikes, the institutional racism, the Daleys, and the industries that built this city and the left. It’s urban history written as a biography. I live in the best city in the world and it’s been rad to be like “oh, that weird building down my block was once a communist organizers hub that was raided in the early 20th century.” It’s also nice to just be able to explain who the streets were named after.
Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren
I read this in college but beyond the prose, I couldn’t appreciate it fully as someone who had just moved to the city (from Michigan, where Algren’s from too) and spent most of my time only exploring the neighborhoods off the Red Line. Now that I’ve lived here for almost 15 years and have a solid grasp of the neighborhoods, the history behind his references, and an understanding of the Chicago sensibility (I still won’t call myself a Chicagoan though), this rereading really hit. A bonus is that my edition of City on the Make was co-annotated by Friend of the Substack Bill Savage, my onetime neighbor in Rogers Park, my former bartender at Cunneens, and current baseball friend. Required reading.
Musk’s takeover of the platform has not only strained the dinner-party metaphor (a new host comes in and dominates the conversation, demanding money from you and accusing the hosts from before of being F.B.I. stooges?); it has also strained the sense of conviviality that made Twitter feel like a party in the first place. The site feels a little emptier, though certainly not dead. More like the part of the dinner party when only the serious drinkers remain. Whiskey is being poured into wineglasses, and the cheese plate has become an ashtray. It’s still a great time — indeed, it’s a little looser — but it also feels as if many of us are just avoiding the inevitable. Eventually, we’ll scrape the plates, load the dishwasher and leave the pans to soak (“Hey, cool Dutch oven — are those the twin suns of Tatooine?”). It’s possible the party will stretch on until sunrise, when the more sensible guests will return. But for now, someone just turned up the lights, and it’s probably time to ask ourselves: What exactly have we been doing here for the last decade and a half?
No Expectations Chicago Show List:
By far the biggest reader feedback so far about No Expectations is folks wondering why I don’t do a weekly list of recommended shows. I’ve always thought that even though I live in Chicago, this newsletter is more of a general music blog rather than a local-specific site. Most of my subscribers don’t live here but a plurality does so I’m going to try a new thing at the bottom of the weekly blogs. Note: This week, I’m in Arizona so I won’t be at any of these.
Thursday, April 20: Disq, Lurk, Footballhead at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Friday, April 21: Rat Tally, Burr Oak at Golden Dagger. Tickets.
Friday, April 21: U.S. Girls, Jane Inc. at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.
Friday, April 21: Cola, Red Tunic, Eli Winter at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Saturday, April 22: Bikini Kill, Ganser at Salt Shed. Tickets.
Sunday, April 23: LIES, Aitis Band at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Sunday, April 23: Pinback, Disheveled Cuss at Thalia Hall. Tickets.