My Path Through the Crumbling Field of Music Journalism

The job of writing words about music feels increasingly scarce.

by | November 30, 2018

By David Turner

In early November, a disappointing but familiar story unfolded across Twitter. A number of editors tweeted that they were fired from the Fader, one of music journalism’s last real tastemakers. The firings again brought out calls for greater unionization within the industry — always a good thing. Still, the familiar cycle of firing and hiring turns the field of music writing, built on passion, into an endurance test of who can survive worsening labor conditions.

Even more than other journalism beats, music journalism is in a state of upheaval. In 2017 Pitchfork shuttered its upscale print publication, even though the company was acquired by Conde Nast in 2015. Vice shut down its electronic music site Thump, amid broader company layoffs. MTV News, my former employer, fired most of its writers. And the culture website Uproxx laid off a number of staffers only to be bought by Warner Music Group months later.

The instability of music industry’s biggest titles means things are even harder for music journalists, especially freelancers. The job of actually writing words about music feels increasingly scarce.

“The game is set up so music writing has to be done by twenty-somethings with two or three roommates and a safety net from their families,” Charles Aaron, a veteran music journalist for decades, told me over email. “Or by people who have day jobs and write at night. Or overworked editors.” What’s not clear when you get an entry-level job in music journalism is that your editor is probably only a few years older than you, struggling to make sense of the field as well. Finding a writer with more than a decade of experience can be a frustratingly rare.

“Media organizations make a habit of touting diversity and how much they value their editorial staff, at least in statements,” says Brian Josephs, a Brooklyn-raised writer who has written for Spin, Billboard, and Pitchfork. “You can’t tell me I’m valued if my bank account says otherwise.”

When just getting a foot in the door is often championed as good enough, writers, especially those who are not white and male, or from firmly middle-class background, can be frustrated to see that talk of inclusion doesn’t lead to greater staff diversity or higher wages.

What Aaron describes is also what I’ve known about music journalism since I wrote my first Pitchfork review in 2012 for $85, when I was 19. I didn’t study journalism in college, I just wrote on Tumblr a lot. A few writers took a liking to my work (thank you David Drake and Brandon Soderberg) and I wasn’t afraid to send a cold pitch. While in college I wrote for Pitchfork, Noisey, and Spin. I never declared music journalism my career goal, but between waking up at 6 AM to finish edits on a piece and sending pitches while half-awake in junior-year classes, I was already committed. In late 2015, nearly 18 months from my college graduation and less than a year after moving to New York City, I got that elusive full-time job at MTV News.

The best part of the job was the freedom provided to me by my editors. The first couple months I was there I got to fly down to Atlanta to cover the city’s rap dance scene. I got to write a mix of album reviews, riffs on concerts, and interviews with some of my favorite artists. Still, the honeymoon period of the job quickly faded once I started seeing pieces killed for baffling reasons. Many of the lofty promises of the MTV News experiment weren’t being fulfilled — talk of a PBS roundtable show never materialized nor did gimmicky Facebook Live ideas, and older MTV News staffers were frequently leaving the company.

Music journalists who arrived in the 2010s after the late recession are increasingly disconnected from the magazine and alternative weekly culture that birthed contemporary music journalism. Most entry level jobs aren’t asking for thoughtful criticism or in-depth reporting, but rather are slotting young writers into a grind of producing endless news content. It could be a tour announcement, a Kanye West tweet, or an indie band covering a pop song. This particular brand of content offers little insight into a writer’s personality, taste, or prose style. A SEO friendly headline, a couple paragraphs, a few backlinks to the site’s own content, and that’s that.

This content might serve a particular reader’s interest in a constant feed of content, but as a journalist it’s easy to see through to the fact that it’s mostly repurposing press releases.

“I don’t even know what ’music journalism’ means anymore,” says Jeff Weiss, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, over email. “With the demise of alt-weeklies, the near-extinction of print, the rise of the news-heavy click economy, and the lack of legitimate access to artists (not to mention the dearth of funds required to bankroll ‘journalism’), the field has become something almost unrecognizable.”

Weiss’s reported work ranges from covering the late 2000s trail of Louisiana rapper Lil Boosie to over a decade following L.A.’s local music scene. His career shows the range of what music journalism was, and still can be at the margins. His own personal site, Passion of the Weiss, serves as an early training ground for many writers who eventually make it to the big leagues. Alphonse Pierre, who wrote a column covering New York rap, made the jump to a full time position at Pitchfork earlier this year.

Since the days of rock-and-roll, the record industry has evangelized the idea that music is the realm of the young. The same logic could extend to music journalists.

Among the writers I spoke with there appeared to be little defined direction for their future. Either one is able to climb one of the few editorial ladders that exist and end up as a staff editor commissioning youngsters or it becomes more feasible to just dip out and switch to the side of a streaming service or label, the way technology or video-game reporters often shift into public relations roles or just go directly into the companies they used to cover.

Carl Chery, who is currently Spotify’s Head of Urban Music, previously worked at Apple Music, but before jumping to curation worked at XXL. Scott Plagenhoef followed a similar path. He was the Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork before moving to Apple Music. Major music streaming services are littered with former journalists. Money and job security are often cited as a reason why journalists move to the other side. And if even full-time jobs feel unsustainable in music writing, then freelancing is worse.

“Even when you’re more established, the industry rates still don’t seem like fair compensation,” says Christina Lee, an Atlanta-based freelance writer, over email. “In order to make freelancing worth your while, you have to be an extremely quick thinker and turn stories around in no time at all.” The music industry itself might be seeing a return to increased revenue, but as streaming services prosper they’re also altering the landscape of music writing.

Bandcamp, a company I’ve written for, is devoted to selling MP3s and physical products, but it also offers a full editorial site. The work there often highlights lesser-known music and pays writers at a rate that averaged to slightly less than $.50 / word, which is certainly better than a normal rate among music publications. Apple, Spotify, and Tidal often hire former music journalists and use them for producing the copy you might see on their platforms, but these copywriting gigs provide little more stability than traditional freelancing.

Pitchfork, the site that defined indie music in the 2000s, still produces daily reviews despite publications like Fader or Noisey entirely side-stepping the format. My last Pitchfork review paid $175 — it was a lead review — but when talking to writers for this piece I found that the range for a lower-tiered review started at $120 and ones at the top, tackling big-name pop acts,could fetch $300, or potentially more.

The gaps in pay represent one of the hardest aspects of freelancing. It’s hard to know how much one’s work is potentially worth. If Pitchfork, a rare outlet still committed to the album review, is saying through their pay scale that A-list pop is worth more than a smaller band, it positions freelancers not to champion smaller acts but simply offer commentary on what is already known. It’s harder to champion art from the margins if you’re sacrificing money not aiming for larger acts.

I was let go from MTV News before it got hit by the pivot to video that laid off nearly all of my former co-workers. (For those who still ask, Chance the Rapper didn’t actually get me fired.) My last full-time job was at TrackRecord, a now-defunct music site that was started by Univision in 2016 and moved to Gizmodo Media Group in late 2017. I was excited at the idea of a music site in the line of Jezebel, Gizmodo, and Kotaku, blogs I’ve read since high school. But when I got my first paycheck my first thought was that I should save as much money as possible, because who knew when this trip would inevitably end. It ended for me in late June 2018, and I’ve slowly returned to freelancing.

The record industry explicitly sells children a dream of fame and fortune — escape from whatever their circumstances are. Music journalism functioned in the same way on a smaller scale (thank you, Cameron Crowe) by offering opportunities for free tickets, hearing music before anyone else, and interviewing the chosen few who do make it in the industry. It’s the dream of being on the inside of culture.

Yet doing the work often means getting paid less than other journalists — those in business or politics, for example — or sitting in constant dread that a publication might fold. The assumption is that these issues aren’t a big deal and should just be accepted because you are getting to do what you love. In 2018, it should be clear that writing about music isn’t love, it’s labor, and its conditions should be better.

Subscribe to Study Hall for Opportunity, knowledge, and community

$532.50 is the average payment via the Study Hall marketplace, where freelance opportunities from top publications are posted. Members also get access to a media digest newsletter, community networking spaces, paywalled content about the media industry from a worker's perspective, and a database of 1000 commissioning editor contacts at publications around the world. Click here to learn more.