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No Expectations 023: Imagine What Could Happen
Thanks for 1000 subscribers. Two mailbag questions from readers and music for writing.
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No Expectations hit 1000 subscribers over the weekend. Thanks to everyone who’s said a nice thing, shared a blog, or just hit subscribe. It means the world. This weekly newsletter is something I do for fun so it’s incredible that there are now a whole thousand of you signed up for the weekly email. I started this in December and didn’t import any emails to build a reader base, so it’s been a joy to see it steadily grow from scratch. It also feels really validating that it happened in just five months. I appreciate it so much.
If you feel inclined and are able to, it would rule if you could sign up for a paid subscription. When I hit 100 paid subs, which will probably happen relatively soon, I’ll be introducing paywalled newsletters into the regular editorial schedule. Before that happens, a paid sub gets you access to the entire archive. It also helps me as a freelance journalist get some extra cash as I chase invoices and look for a full-time gig. It’s rough out there so don’t sweat it if you can’t swing it.
A question from an aspiring journalist
Mailbag: I'm currently doing a journalism graduate program and just breaking into the industry. From doing some research on you, I see that you have always covered entertainment (the research being a quick LinkedIn search). I was wondering if there was ever a time that you felt you could or maybe should use your talent of storytelling to tackle 'important topics'. The world at the minute seems like a mess and I'm split.
Do I go down a road covering sports stories or do I dedicate my time to try and change the world for the better? I know this is probably quite a complex question that is situational and personal but any advice would be appreciated.
- Kieran O
I've mostly written about entertainment but I wouldn't necessarily view having a focus as a journalist—in your case sports—as something that stops you from “changing the world for the better.” When it comes to tackling "important topics" or being a force for good, it's not really an either/or situation. As a sports journalist, you're not just a stenographer writing out box scores, game recaps, and stats. You have an opportunity to dig deeper into the issues surrounding the entire ecosystem of professional athletics.
You can write profiles on athletes who come from marginalized communities and overcame obstacles. You can report on the economics of the game. You can ask whether owners are spending their money on causes their fans won't agree with. You can investigate who's screwing over their employees and players. You can look into what these people are doing to give back to their communities. You can also investigate allegations of misconduct against the athletes and notable figures in the game. These sorts of stories cover sports but also make the world a better place by exploring structural and social issues. You love sports as a fan but you should think about your work a little more holistically. To be sure, it’s fun for you but you also have a responsibility to be a good steward as a journalist. Think outside the box scores and think about how the business of sports, the athletes, the TV deals, and everything else affects not just fans but communities in myriad ways.
The more you investigate the ways sports are a reflection of the culture at large in good ways and not so good—both as a unifier of communities and a business influenced by the whims of billionaires–the more you'll see writing about it journalistically as an important job and not just a fun thing to do. At the end of the day, all you can hope is to do good in the spaces you love and care about. Do you think there's no positive change to strive for writing about sports or do you think the only good work is done by investigative reporters who work at ProPublica?
In my case, even though I often write about bands and movies I like, there's still a service there beyond entertainment gratification. I try to write responsibly, thoughtfully, and accurately about the acts I cover. I choose people to write about who often aren’t the ones getting the most press, label money, and radio play. There’s value in giving the people who can maybe sell a couple of hundred tickets at a local venue a platform rather than the stadium stars who already get most of the attention. In either this newsletter or in a publication, I’m trying to support artists who go about their careers ethically and independently to the best of my knowledge. I’m also giving people an alternative to the things they already know about. Sure, I’m not doing FOIA requests often or doing long exposes on public officials’ corruption but there’s still utility in the work. Something as simple as giving folks context surrounding the music they like is a good thing.
Entertainment writing isn’t just recommending cool things to check out. Journalists who cover music, film, TV, and other industries report on actually important things: How streaming can be a bad deal for musicians, how Livenation and AEG can devour local arts communities and venues and be bad for fans, and how COVID kept artists out of work and jeopardized live music. They report on racism, predatory behaviors, and other bad things that happen in places that are supposed to be safe and inclusive. All of these topics are things I’ve covered in my decade of writing about entertainment, which is something a LinkedIn I made a few months ago to apply for a job doesn’t really show. I mean, there’s a whole writers' strike happening right now that’s going to affect the future of TV and film for decades no matter the outcome. It’s a huge deal and these issues are unequivocally important.
I don't think this is a question of whether or not sports is a good path but it's how you think about sports, how sports intersects with so many so-called important topics, and how to thoughtfully cover the ways it does. I don’t know what sort of job you’re going to get after graduation but I hope whatever it is in journalism, you can turn your beat into a way to explore real issues.
Another question from an aspiring journalist who’s incredibly also named Kieran
Mailbag: I'm a recent college grad with a degree in marketing. I was a student-athlete at my university, and while I performed very well academically, I mostly prioritized my athletic standing over all else. I've always enjoyed writing, and it has come easy to me as the son of a high school English teacher and a sports journalist. I began writing about music in the winter of 2020 and dedicated myself to it as the pandemic eased some of my other responsibilities. I started writing for a music discovery platform and publication, a little over a year ago and have made so many great connections, learned so much about music, and improved vastly as a writer. I still continue to self-publish on my own site, taking on topics and interests that are more self-gratifying or niche-targeted. Four months out from graduation, I have been living at home and catching up with family, applying and getting rejected from marketing positions, and writing as much as possible as I have now identified it as a true passion.
While all of this background is potentially useless for you, I am in need of guidance in any form. I know you disqualified yourself from professional advice, and I accept if you aren't looking to offer any. You're likely getting more than you bargained for in this email alone! If you would oblige in any advice given my position, I'd be incredibly grateful. No Expectations is a priority read for me every week and has already diversified my palette when it comes to music.
1. What are your do's and don'ts of a pitch email?
2. What's your ideal environment to listen to an album for the first time (excluding live shows)?
3. Can you speak to the value of a good editor? I've personally never had one, aside from having my mom proofread my work when I first started!
4. Benefits of freelance vs staff?
1. What are your dos and don'ts of a pitch email?
Keep it short and sweet.
This might seem counterintuitive but never go more than two or three graphs in a pitch email. The sweet spot is probably 250-400 words that explain why it's a good fit for the publication, why there's an interesting angle here (beyond it's a good album coming out in a few weeks), and why you're the person to tackle it. Link to previous clips and explain who you are but let the pitch speak for itself without going overboard by practically writing the assignment in a cold email.
Look up pitch guides
The whole process of freelancing and pitching has gotten thankfully more transparent in the decade I've been writing. Basically, every publication has a pitch guide you can look up online with their own dos and don'ts. I'd study them, especially from publications you'd eventually want to write for because being able to adapt to an outlet's editorial voice is an important skill for any freelancer. The Outline (RIP) has a great one and even though that site no longer exists, it's still a useful tool to think a little more critically about culture writing. Freelancing With Tim has a useful page full of 60+ pitch guides.
Give your editor a sense of how quickly you can turn it around
If this is a longer project, let them know you'd need time to corral sources and write out the story. If it's a quick turnaround, let them know you can file within a week. It helps with scheduling and it saves the editor an extra step.
Take it personally
Chances are you'll get a lot more rejections than accepted pitches. This is normal. Do not stress or take it personally. It took me months to land my first freelance pitch out of college and even then I had bylines at The A.V. Club to get my foot in the door elsewhere. Keep at it and don't be too hard on yourself. You have clips and an obvious passion for the gig. It'll come.
Send a finished draft as your pitch
This isn’t really helpful to your editor. Even if you have it already written, send a pitch, and then an amended draft later depending on the assignment if it’s accepted.
2. What's your ideal environment to listen to an album for the first time?
I'm not really an audiophile, or I guess it’s just I don’t have the money for a gnarly setup. I have a hand-me-down Bose Soundtouch 30—which I think is discontinued—but it works great for my space. I listen to most albums for the first time in my living room, which is where I work. If I'm writing about something, I'll listen to it multiple times in different contexts—in the Ford Fusion, when I have friends over, or via an Airpods Pro on walks. I have a separate stereo system for the vinyl setup, which gets play but not as much as I used to. My favorite way to listen to music is with a bud over a couple of beers. At least with my friends, especially the ones who are also musicians, you’d get some insight into songwriting and some brutal critiques. The best feeling though is when you show them something they haven’t heard but absolutely love. There's not really a formula to it.
3. Can you speak to the value of a good editor?
You can't beat having an editor. Having someone who knows your voice and knows how to effectively tell stories is pretty essential for getting better as a writer and thinking about how to do the job. You need someone to look at your work critically, tweak things, and simplify your copy. This is really important for writers who are starting out because at that age I didn't know when to rein it in or when to showcase a little bit of voice and personality. You can either overdo it or be too conservative in your approach. Editors can really allow you to hone your voice, craft your arguments better, and have your back so you don't embarrass yourself in public. They're an essential part of the process.
No Expectations is obviously unedited but the only ways I’ve been able to pull it off to some degree is that I will constantly think “What would one of my old editors say about this?” as I write a sentence and my partner will sometimes offer to look over a draft. The editors I’ve had over the years haunt me even though I haven’t talked to many in months. It’s a good thing.
4. Benefits of freelance vs staff?
With freelancing, you have the freedom to make your own schedule, pitch the things you want to pitch, and be your own boss. That can be great when you’re consistently getting good paid work but it can also be a curse. You have to hustle and you always have to be on, diligently checking emails, pitching, getting the assignments done, being on top of invoicing, and putting away money for taxes. It fucking blows most of the time. Nothing beats having a full-time job where you can work with a team of editors and other writers who push you to be better all while getting a regular paycheck. I would not be freelancing full-time if I didn't have to right now. Basically, the sweet spot is having a full-time gig and still doing the passion project freelance assignment when you can.
2023 - Favorite Tracks (So Far)
Here’s a reminder that I have an ongoing ‘Best of 2023’ playlist over at Spotify. I update it almost daily and it’s already at over 150 songs. There’s a good chance you’ll find something you dig on there.
What I listened to:
‘Music For Writing’ is the theme of this week’s playlist.
North Americans, Long Cool World
North Americans is the instrumental folk project of guitarist Patrick McDermott, who teams up with pedal steel player Barry Walker Jr. on the new LP Long Cool World. The compositions on this album are all inviting, simple, but evocative doses of expansive Americana. McDermott’s acoustic guitar grounds the songs while Walker’s steelwork makes them soar. I’ve been listening to a lot of instrumental music lately and I’ve been trying to find something I can write to, and this has been doing the trick.
Blithe Field, Grits Kissed
I’ve written about Spencer Radcliffe a bunch over the years, mostly about his indie rock music as Spencer Radcliffe and Everyone Else. I profiled the guy in 2017 and again in 2019 for VICE but I haven’t really written about his also excellent ambient project Blithe Field. Grits Kissed, the latest full-length from Radcliffe, sprawls out over an hour with glitched-out experiments, heady drone, and some gorgeously delicate moments
Jeffrey Silverstein, Western Sky Music
Portland’s Jeffrey Silverstein also gets an assist from pedal steel player Barry Walker Jr. on Western Sky Music, which is out tomorrow. There are both expansive and plaintive instrumentals on here and rollicking songs where Silverstein sings, channeling the middle point between a Bill Callahan croon and Kurt Vile’s conversational delivery. The latest single “Sunny Jean” is a lot of fun.
What I watched:
The Wire (Season 2)
Listen, I know Season 2 of The Wire is a little slow and unconventional compared to the rest of the series but I think it’s my favorite. This is a season about the death of work and what happens to communities when jobs leave. Frank Sobotka is one of the most compelling and tragic characters of the entire series and he makes up for Ziggy (though everyone knows a Ziggy-type in real life). It might not reach the peaks of Season 4 but it’s the one that sticks with me the most. Frank’s “We used to make shit in this country” monologue is an all-timer too.
What I read:
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz
An American Summer is a collection full of heartbreaking and human vignettes from 2013 about Chicagoans who’ve been affected by gun violence. These are real portraits of real people—the former gang member who’s devoted his life to violence prevention, the crime scene reporter developing PTSD, the teen who turns to drugs after his family dies in a fire—and though it’s unflinching, it’s necessary reading.
The Weekly No Expectations Show Calendar
Saturday, May 13: Rat Tally, Sunday Cruise, Hemlock, Superdime, Forgetting Sarah Marshall at Beat Kitchen. Tickets.
Saturday, May 13: Jeff Parker at Elastic Arts. Tickets.
Wednesday, May 17: Brendan Kelly, Elway at GMan Tavern. Sold out.
Wednesday, May 17: Westerman, Twain at Lincoln Hall. Tickets.