How to get paid to write about music

SXSW held a panel where successful editors shared their perspectives on music journalism

So, you want to make a career in music journalism—interviewing and writing about musicians and artists from all walks of life, and get to pay your bills while you’re at it? It’s not as simple as we would like to think. Editors from various media publications have to juggle freelance work with full-time jobs and publish articles by night to make ends meet. With this in mind, SXSW held a panel where successful editors and journalists offered their perspective on how to make it as a music journalist. The panel, held at the Austin Convention Center on March 15, featured Emilie Friedlander, the editor-in-chief of THUMP, Matthew Schnipper, the managing editor at Pitchfork Media, Eric Sundermann, the editor-in-chief of Noisey/VICE, and Andre Grant, the associate digital editor for GOOD Magazine. Each editor shared their struggles and successes as they climbed their way to journalism success.

From left to right, Emilie Friedlander, Andre Grant, Matthew Schnipper and Eric Sundermann. Photo by Sandra Hercegova

Before becoming the editor-in-chief of Noisey/VICE, Sundermann had his fair share of jobs and internships after graduating from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He interned all around New York City at SPIN Magazine, to and at Rolling Stone all while working at Vinnie’s Pizzeria. This continued until he landed his first staff job at The Village Voice, an online publication local to New York City. According to Sundermann, the experience of combining internships with a night job taught him a lot. “The bottom line is that you have to work really hard and you have to be okay with that, and you have to be okay with not being rewarded for that,” he said.

Schnipper’s first article was on hip-hop record producers, Cool & DRE for Fader, about 10 years ago. “I did not have any interest in Dre. I sent a bunch of [pitch] ideas to a friend and they didn’t like any of them—nobody wanted to write about this story, so they called me and said, ‘Hey do you want to do that?,’” Schnipper said. “I would say that’s how a lot of the rest of my career went—trying to get people to pay me for my ideas. Usually they didn’t, but then I could do [their ideas], so that was helpful.”

Grant got his first paycheck after writing a small introductory paragraph on Big Sean. “I remember how bad the interview was,” he said. “I freelanced a lot for small publications. Eventually, I got a job out west in Los Angeles at Hiphopdx and moved on from there to freelance again.”

Friedlander’s trajectory began not by working at any commercial publications, but by self-publishing. “I had my own little blog that I started a couple years abroad after college,” Friedlander said. She did that for many years and then started freelancing for various small publications. “They would send me 10 records in the mail, and I had to pick some to write about,” she said. She then moved back to New York and got hired at a Pitchfork sister site called Altered Zones, which was the first editor job she got paid for. “That site didn’t survive, as a lot of sites are short-lived. There’s a lot of change in the industry,” she said. Eventually, Friedlander became an editor for Fader and VICE.

After introducing themselves and giving some background on their careers, Friedlander asked the panelists which characteristic or decision helped them get paid to write about music. According to Sundermann, it’s the relentlessness that matters. “You gotta keep on doing it—it’s not a glamorous thing. Even if you are successful, you’re still not paid a lot of money. You really have to love music, obviously, and you have to love to write about it,” he said. It is also important to be flexible, he added. “You are pitching to editors who run their publication the way they run them, and they are inviting you to write for them so you have to play by their rules,” he said. “As an editor, when you get pushed back from a writer from certain angles, it’s like when someone invites you to their house and you start insulting their house,” said Sundermann.

Friedlander said that every publication is a commercial entity that formats stories in certain ways and that as writers, we should be willing to listen to the editors. “You have to take it with a grain of salt — that might not be fun, but that will help you get invited back,” said Friedlander. She added that versatility and being receptive of feedback is very important. “Just be the kind of person who really wants to dot every i and cross every t. When you see someone who is like that and who really wants to put in the extra mile and make the story great, those people are actually rare and editors will be grateful,” she said.

Schnipper said it is vital to always have new ideas when it comes to pitches, “I was pitching like crazy, I thought some ideas were genius and someone said, ‘No. Not for us or not for anybody,’” he said. “You can’t get mad at that—being able to move past those failed pitches and come up with new ones, that is what’s important,” Schnipper said.

Grant added how persistence is important as well. “It’s definitely not Sex and the City, you’re not getting paid $500 a word,” he said. “Always come up with new pitches. It’s a grind and it’s a journey, and you just have to be there for that journey.”

The editors then discussed the key ingredients that make a great pitch. According to Schnipper, pitching is all about expressing your writing skills as much as you can through whatever mode available. “If you are going to send emails, send one with a good subject line. If you can write a good email, you can probably write a good story,” he said. “Be brief. If you can send me a quick email that is eloquent, pertinent, if it’s got a joke in there—I’m not against a joke, ever—if you’re funny, be funny, if not, maybe don’t try.”

“When I’m putting your work on the site, it’s important that it is good for the publication, and having a pitch that makes that clear is the most important thing for me,” Grant said regarding successful pitches. “Yes, it is your work, it is your writing, but you are working for someone. They are paying you, so for that exchange they need to see the value in what you are providing,” Sundermann said.

Both Friedlander and Sundermann also added how internships are a great way of landing a potential job in the music journalism field. They have both interned at various publications themselves, which has led them to where they are today.

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