‘Pitching Into the Void’: Music Writers Share their Secrets to Success

By Gabe Rosenberg June 13th, 2014

In the center of a Highland Park tea shop, Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan stood by a group of synthesizers plugged into two low-quality speakers. Corgan played along to Adrian Praetzellis’s LibriVox audio recording of the Hermann Hesse novel Siddhartha. The performance, which took place this February, lasted as long as it took Praetzellis to read the novel—eight straight hours.

Freelance music journalist Sasha Geffen, now associate editor at Consequence of Sound, sat in the audience through the entire eight-hour performance. When Corgan had announced his experimental instrumental Siddhartha interpretation just 10 days prior, Geffen cold-pitched coverage of the event to Noisey, the music arm of Vice magazine. They bought it.

As Geffen and other writers tell it, succeeding as a freelance music journalist depends on showcasing a strong sense of originality and critical thought—looking, as VH1 would say, behind the music.

Rehearsal space

Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek reporter and associate editor of PopMatters, began writing about music in high school. And like other burgeoning critics, he initially did it all for free.

“That was never something that I expected to make any money from,” Schonfeld said. “It was something I just did in my free time because I wanted to.”

Geffen began her freelance career in a similar manner, with an internship at the Cambridge-based Performer Magazine, which doesn’t pay interns or writers. But they did give Geffen the opportunity to contribute, and over nine months, she built a portfolio full of show reviews, band interviews, and profiles of people in the music industry.

Schonfeld and Geffen both began covering the industry as students, writing articles and conducting interviews on nights and weekends. Later, when they searched for paid work, those experiences became very important.

“I think the key is to use the free writing as a way to really develop,” said Mark Richardson, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork and a former freelancer himself. “Writing stuff for free that’s kind of junky content isn’t necessarily about you as a writer and your ideas is never a good idea. But writing for free that allows you to write interesting pieces that showcase your talent, that does have value. I can glean a lot more about someone’s critical approach from an eight-hundred-word blog post than a hundred-word blurb in a newspaper.”

Richardson began writing for Pitchfork in 1998, when the site couldn’t pay anyone. Geffen, too, started at Consequence of Sound as an unpaid contributor.

After accumulating enough clips and experience, however, Richardson and Geffen were able to reach out to other publications for paid assignments. Eventually, their unpaid freelancing turned into steady staff writing gigs, and then to paid editorial positions.

Pitchfork now publishes five album reviews per day, five days per week, in addition to columns, features, cover stories, and other original content. With 100 reviews to fill each month, Richardson is always on the lookout for new writers to pay. And while he accepts freelance pitches, he also seeks out writers when personal blogs catch his attention.

“I’d say we have four or five people writing reviews for us because they were writing on Tumblr and seemed like they had interesting thoughts about music,” Richardson said.

As is the case with all freelancing, many music journalism pitches will never turn into published stories—out of lack of interest, repetitive coverage, or simply bad luck.

“A lot of the time it can feel like you’re pitching into the void,” Schonfeld added. “You need to keep on pitching into the void, because for every four emails that don’t get a response, maybe one will.”

Niche factor

For newcomers pitching out of the blue, Richardson recommends freelancers tailor their pitches both to the publication and their own writerly expertise. Pitchfork, for example, covers all news stories in-house and gives high-profile album reviews to writers who already have an established relationship with the site.

“Pitch things that are interesting but low-profile,” Richardson said. “Someone who’s never written for Pitchfork is never going to be reviewing the new Arcade Fire album.”

Instead, freelancers should consider what specialized scenes, sounds, or acts they’re interested in. As an example, Richardson brought up Chris Molanphy, a pop-chart columnist who freelances for outlets like Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and NPR. When it comes to analyzing Billboard’s chart history, Molanphy knows more than just about anyone else—only he can provide Pitchfork with pieces like “I Know You Got Soul: The Trouble With Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Chart” or “Daft Punk, Discovery, and How the Grammys Affect the Charts.”

Knowing a particular site’s style and audience always helps when trying to develop relationships with editors. And with so many music blogs and magazines out there, tone can vary wildly.

According to Geffen, Noisey runs a lot of silly, irreverent pieces but stays away from most breaking news, which is why her first-person account of Corgan’s show fit so well. Pitchfork, on the other hand, often takes a more academic approach for features. And as Schonfeld explained, Consequence of Sound focuses heavily on live music, especially in New York City.

Right time, right place

Geography is another key factor that lends authority to a successful music pitch. Geffen, who lives in Chicago, has a vested interest in the city’s local music scene, and her pitches were (and are) often about emerging artists in the area.

Knowing a location can lead to exclusive opportunities. Joel Oliphint, a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, successfully cold-pitched Pitchfork a story about the nearby Musicol Recording Studio, a Columbus institution and one of the few remaining places where bands can record, mix, master, and press music in the same location. Richardson and Pitchfork’s staff couldn’t cover it themselves, so Oliphint got the assignment.

Timeliness and novelty don’t hurt, either. Relevance to a current event or developing trend, or simply the sheer oddity of a possible story makes a pitch—especially a cold one—stand out.

Schonfeld looked to tap into the Internet’s rampant ‘90s nostalgia when he decided to conduct an interview with the once-ubiquitous Smash Mouth.

“I’m always pretty fascinated by ‘Where are they now?’ features on bands that were incredibly popular for a very fleeting amount of time, and also I loved Smash Mouth when I was in elementary school,” Schonfeld said. “I reached out to the tour manager, and they were happy to set up an interview.”

Additionally, 2014 marked the 15th anniversary for the release of the song “All Star,” making a story about the band more than just an obscure suggestion. Schonfeld went into the interview with those elements in mind, and a Noisey editor leapt at the chance to run it.

Geffen’s Corgan pitch also hit all of the sweet spots: specialty, oddity, timeliness, and tone. When proposing the Corgan piece to a new Noisey editor, Geffen didn’t just rely on the “silly” factor of the Smashing Pumpkins leader playing an eight-hour synth show; she found her own angle, looking at the close relationship between Corgan and his local Highland Park community. Her final piece, published with the deadpan title “We Watched Billy Corgan Play An Eight-Hour Freeform Synth Interpretation Of ‘Siddhartha,’” is less a live review about an influential musician than it is a bemused profile of a hometown hero and his artistic whims.

While a livestream of Corgan’s performance was panned and ridiculed by the Internet, Highland Park natives called it “meditative” and “relaxing.” As Geffen sat in the tea shop, half-watching Corgan moving around wires and half-watching the audience staring at their idol, she could tell he was still loved. There was the story.

Image by Juan Naharro Gimenez
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