With the rise of blogging, social media, and streaming, as well as increasingly more cuts in staff at news media outlets, music journalism is in a precarious position, you could argue. In spite of this uncertain future, freelance music journalists continue to fly the flag for a craft that has long been at the centre of popular music and the culture around it. Nick Fulton and Sarah Gooding are two freelance music journalists who started their trade in New Zealand with Einstein Music Journal, a music blog, before moving overseas. Nowadays, the couple is based in New York, writing for publications from Rolling Stone to Noisey. Sam Smith speaks with Sarah and Nick about how they got into writing about music, their work, and the future of music journalism in an ever-changing industry.
Sarah: I went to AUT and studied communications with a major in journalism. For me it was a pretty natural thing from there like getting an internship at Real Groove magazine and then moving to Groove Guide and then just regularly writing from there, starting up EMJ with Nick.
Nick: My path was a little different, I guess. I went to university in Wellington, I did a media studies and geography double major. As part of my media studies degree I d,id some pop music papers and they were the best papers I did in my degree and kind of got me inspired. And then a friend at the time told me about starting a blog and at the time I hadn’t heard about what a blog was, this was like 2004 maybe. So I went online and put down some thoughts and started writing for Salient Magazine, wrote a few reviews there and then just started writing a blog, the first thing I ever wrote about was a live review of Connan and the Mockasins‘ farewell party when they shifted off to London. And then from there it just became a passion really and something that I think Sarah and I continued doing because we are just so passionate about it.
Sarah: Yeah, mostly pitching but sometimes we get approached and assigned pieces by various magazines and things. But mostly either hunting out stuff like a pure fan approach through consuming music constantly through all these different means, but also getting approached by publicists about artists. So they pitch us and then we weigh up whether we want to write about them.
Nick: And it has changed over the years too. Like when we were younger a lot of stuff we would write about was purely through our own exploration and finding stuff on Myspace, which was a huge thing when we started. I sometimes wonder whether I would have even have got to where I am without Myspace because it was such a great resource for discovering music and finding music through music almost, like discovering an artist via an artist. Now it is an algorithm, but back then it was actually an artist that had chosen to put another artist in their top friends or whatever on Myspace. It was like a personal recommendation from an artist. But then now, we are more established music journalists so we get pitched a lot more from publicists and for me probably a bit more than Sarah maybe but most of the stuff I write about now probably comes via a publicist.
Sarah: It comes so many ways though, like I went to a show on Halloween, it was like a DFA Records party and I really loved the ban that I saw Guerilla Toss, and so I posted on Instagram about it and then one of the founders of DFA emailed me about them and said hey can I send you music and I was like yeah. You never know how you are going to find the next thing that you write about.
Nick: Well obviously we have got to figure out what we are going to write about first. So obviously that means being approached by publicists or artists or either finding it ourselves and then figuring it out whether it is something we want to pursue. And then pitching and getting it approved and then from here I guess is where the creative process more starts when we start doing the research. So there is a lot of deep diving into the back catalogue of an artist’s work, listening to what they have got available, and both Sarah and I always try and read everything that is online just so that we are informed of that artist and everything that they have done.
Sarah: I guess for me the creative process starts really early because you are having to be so critical from the very beginning in terms of deciding whether you want to write about them or not. So before you even pitch a story you are listening really closely, contextualising them in music and all of that stuff.
Sarah: Well, there are so many more opportunities here. So many more publications and artists and it just feels like the opportunities are endless. And like also it feels like you can get assignments here that you couldn’t get if you were over there because you are able to meet up with artists a lot more easily rather than waiting for them to come to town on tour or something, they are just more likely to be there.
Nick: And you can write more in-depth stories to because you can meet up with artists because every artist comes to New York. But also, I think too, you are part of the industry in New York, it is the centre of the music industry. For example, we were out last night at the Mexican Summer Records tenth birthday party and we were interacting with publicists that we know and bumping into people that work very closely within the industry.
Sarah: One of them we used to work with on our blog when we were back in New Zealand. Now he has started his own publishing company. It feels like you are able to do much bigger things here.
Nick: And also, recently I have come to realise that some assignments we wouldn’t have got without being in New York. There are bigger publications that really want you to interview that band or artist in person like it is a deal breaker for them assigning that to you.
Sarah: That is what the Rolling Stone editor said to me actually with my piece on New York band Pill, he wanted me to meet them somewhere at a place that meant something to them.
Sarah: Pretty hard. You have got to have different hustles going.
Nick: I think there are two elements to that question. One is how hard is it to make a living as a freelance music journalist, obviously there are also staff jobs at certain publications where you can be a music journalist on staff and write about music all day. Obviously, you can make a living being on staff, but as a freelancer, you have definitely got to have side hustle and do different types of writing.
Sarah: Definitely, like we choose what we write about and who we write for.
Nick: Yeah, you have more freedom but you don’t have healthcare. Some people just got laid off at The Fader and one of the editors first comments was about losing his healthcare coverage. So there is a good and a bad side to both being on staff and being a freelancer.
Nick: Well, I think it is to be a storyteller. I have always seen the role of the music critic to kind of be someone that contextualises the work and informs the public more about the artist and telling the artists story or the story behind the music. I think that is the most important role of the music critic. I think it has changed, criticism used to be very heavily dominated by reviews and critical reviews and I think that now we can all listen to music on Spotify and streaming, it is much easier to make up your individual minds about music because you can just click a button and listen to it before making a decision to purchase it or whatever. So I think the role of the critic now is to tell more of the story of the album and the artist.
Sarah: Yeah, go more in-depth. Everyone can listen on Spotify or everyone can share their own review on Twitter or wherever so you have to dig a lot more deeper and often tell a much more personal or meaningful story.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely, I think as long as there are still super nerdy fans like me out there, hopefully, there will always be a place. You know people that study the records and the liner notes and everything and want to learn more about the artists and the music and where it fits into music history and all of that, definitely I think there will still be a place. I am not sure what form it will take though.
Nick: Yeah, I think there is definitely a place. How people engage with music journalism is much different but I think there is still a place. I like what Sarah says about music journalism almost being like liner notes, like when you are listening to music on Spotify or Apple Music you don’t have that physical thing in front of you and sometimes you can learn more about an artist through music journalism than you can by just putting on the record.
Nick: I think a lot of the critical work is done behind the scenes. When a publicist reaches out and sends me something and it doesn’t connect with me, I go back to the publicist and I pass on covering it. And to me, that is like a critical moment, that is where I make my judgement. I don’t really see the value in being negative necessarily. I only decide to pursue a story if I am invested in it because if I am not invested in it as a writer then I am not going to probably tell the best story.
Sarah: I think objectivity is kind of non-existent really. I think everyone has got personal biases and things that are really impossible to shake so I don’t know if I even try to be objective. Everything is subjective right? You connect with it and you try to tell an honest and interesting in-depth story.
Nick: Nastiness creates controversy sure.
Sarah: Those things can be interesting to read. It is kind of like gossip or something. I don’t know if you get much out of it really.
Nick: A lot of the time the best criticism is completely ignoring something. When we were running our blog, we kind of at one point did reviews and I always felt a bit strange about it, I wasn’t quite sure if it was the right thing to be doing. Like writing negative reviews especially if it was a local artist in New Zealand, people that I would see on the weekend at Whammy Bar or whatever. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to do or not and I did feel bad about some of the pieces where maybe it was better off to just say no, let it lie, and let other people enjoy it who find it enjoyable.
Sarah: Yeah, I could never really do that. It would be hard to lie.
Nick: Be curious and expect to face a lot of rejections but don’t let it get too much to you. Don’t let it get you down, don’t completely leave the industry because if you have a passion for music and a passion for writing then you need to pursue it because if it is what you want to be doing you should absolutely just keep doing it.
Sarah: Yeah, like follow your passion. Like, if you are really passionate about jazz or metal or a particular style focus on that because I feel like that is where you are going to do your best work because you are emotionally invested in it.
Nick: But also explore things, explore music beyond New Music Friday or what is on the cover of The Fader. Go on Bandcamp, scroll to the bottom of a record and see what is being recommended as similar to that record and then click on that and listen to that. And then do the same thing, go and listen to the next recommended record and listen broadly and learn where those records fit in to the wider landscape of pop culture history and the history of music. Reading as well, reading is very important.
Sarah: Read as much as you can. Study the good writers, there are certain writers out there that everything they write is just gold and you will learn so much from how much attention they pay to things and you can definitely learn a lot.
Nick: Don’t be afraid to reach out to other writers that you admire and ask them questions or just say that you like them even because people are really approachable in this industry. We reach out to people still and people reach out to us and it is really nice to be at either ends of that communication. There is so much you can learn from other people, even if you feel like what you are asking is super lame, it is not lame because everyone learnt from someone and everyone asked that question at some point.
Nick: It is a really interesting question. Like magazines have been getting rid of staff for nearly a decade now and it is all going online and now we are seeing culture sections online even cutting staff. The Fader just cut staff, Vice has been consolidating their channels, so it is very interesting. Obviously, Spotify has become this big dominant force in our industry and you know Spotify’s definition of an editorial is a playlist. Even the definition of what editorial means has kind of been blurred. But I think everything is cyclical, I think it is hard to predict really what will happen to music journalism. In a few industry forums I am in there has been a bit of talk about political writing and how the only way to make a living as a writer now is pivoting to politics and becoming a politics writer because politics is so hot right now, publications are expanding their political sections because there is so much to talk about in that space and they are doing that at the expense of cultural sections. Maybe in two years time, if we are done with Trump and Brexit there will be a lot more optimism in the world and people will want to read more happy writing and cultural writing might come back into fashion. It is very hard to predict.