By Olivia Ladd, Studio M staff //
Dan Weiss is a freelance music journalist based in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is the former (and last-ever) reviews editor at Spin magazine. Nowadays, when he’s not making music under Dan Ex Machina, he’s writing for Billboard, Mic, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound, Pitchfork and other notable music publications about everything from The White Stripes to Juggalo culture. Find him on Twitter at @kissoutthejams.
Where did you go to college and where did you intern?
I went to a state school in New Jersey called William Patterson and I interned at CMJ after that.
Music writer Dan Weiss.
How did you begin your career as a music journalist?
I started writing first for Stylus magazine and Lost at Sea, both of which no longer exist. There were a bunch of baby Pitchfork-type sites around in 2007. I was just writing wherever would take me. Those were unpaid. Stylus was pretty notable in particular because, even though it closed that year, a lot of the writers ended up going onto lots of other stuff. About half the staff is at Pitchfork still and I went to various places. Andrew Unterberger from there ended up getting me a job at Spin and now he’s at Billboard. It’s crazy that that staff really ended up putting roots down in the field.
How did you make the transition from writing unpaid to pitching and getting paid to write about music you want to?
It’s really an accident almost. My first paid piece was for the Village Voice in 2007. I just pretty much pitched people until they took me. I pitched every couple months for years until (Pitchfork) had me write something there.
About pitching your own stuff versus having assignments– it’s interesting now because most of the paid stuff probably is things that you’re assigned. I do pitch my own stuff fairly often, but I also take a lot of stuff where I’m asked to do something or an editor gives me an idea that they want me to do.
I would say that it’s not necessarily the best time for freedom, quote unquote, in this industry if you want to get paid. Without getting too deep into it, it’s very hard to start a media company these days that can keep its head above water financially and also kind of go for full creative freedom, so there is a lot of clickbait, a lot of stuff like that. I, myself, do a lot of “top 10 Bon Jovi songs,” kind of lists and stuff like that for places. I don’t mind it. I like it a lot of the time. Some people really feel like that kind of work is soul-destroying, but I’ve always been into lists and ranking. It’s kind of like fun brain puzzles for me sometimes. But that’s no reason to not pitch whatever your dream project is. If you’ve got a passion for something and you can convince an editor in a couple paragraphs that you have expertise on the subject and you’ve got a fresh angle on it, then you’re probably gonna do pretty good.
Can you talk about some of your recent freelance work?
I was with Spin for two years and then I got laid off along with a couple other people on staff. I freelanced for seven years before that, so I still consider myself finding my footing again in freelancing. I did a lot of big passion projects at Spin, some big features. I’m only dipping my toes back into that thing. Partly, that’s because I’m focusing on my band and my music a lot right now. But obviously, I’m paying the bills with freelancing. I love all the places that I write for. I guess I’m sort of at the point in my life where I don’t have to write for a place that I don’t love, which is nice. It takes a long time to get there. I’ve gotten a lot of dream projects out of my system. With writing, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of my favorite musicians and heroes, some of the more realistic goals. I’m pretty much just writing for friends now. If I have to write at more places for money reasons, I’ll do it.
I’m never gonna not writing about music. I’m never gonna not want to pay attention to what’s going on even though I feel a little more detached from music right now than I normally do.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the world of music journalism?
There are a lot of people who know how to do all kinds of business meeting kung-fu. I don’t really consider myself to have those kind of people skills. I think the way that that I broke in was I did everything. I said yes to everything. I did every $25 listicle, I did obituaries for San Francisco Weekly. I pretty much did all these $20 things and made them add up because I thought that I had the aptitude for that. I’ve always been a piece-by-piece person. I’d say, if you’re willing to take any kind of music work and maybe– if it’s not something that you want to do necessarily– maybe it will help you. Learning how to write an obituary properly is a great way to break into news reporting and just putting your journalism skills to the page, and putting facts and information in the right order.
As far as the fun stuff, doing those kinds of things for editors shows them that you’re trustworthy and reliable and eager for work. Then they start consulting you on what your own ideas are. You don’t have to wait for that necessarily, you can definitely start giving them your ideas sooner. Sometimes they take them. Just don’t hold yourself back from anything.
I’d also say, the more ground you cover, good. I don’t know what genres you listen to, but the more the merrier. Let’s say that someone just died and you only know a little bit about them– but that’s usually the time when sites and magazines are taking pitches on an artist and maybe it’s a good time to acquaint yourself with their work and see if there’s anything you can say about it.
I know it’s hard to be an expert on something when you’re just learning about it yourself, but you have to present yourself as an expert.
I can feel confident writing about a metal band I like, but I’m not the kind of person who can write about how it fits into the scene as a whole. I might like one or two metal albums a year versus 20 or 30 hip-hop albums. It’s kind of like, write what you know, but try to know more than what you know. I would say that some people don’t feel confident pitching things that they don’t know a lot about. Even just a cursory Wikipedia lesson or reading about stuff all the time, reading about things that are gaps in your knowledge that might interest you– it never hurts to have even just a little bit of information. Even if you think something might be an angle, but you don’t know how to support it yet– even if you just have the observation, you can just flesh it out and research it like you would reserach anything else. I think too many people come into this with the idea that you have to use whatever is already in your head, but it’s constantly a learning process. Never feel like you don’t know enough about rap or country or something. If you’re interested in it, you’ll find the things that you wanna know. It’s all about enthusiasm.
Also, you mentioned concision — a really good thing to do when you pitch is be concise. I’m sure you already know that, but one or two paragraph pitches– or if you can even give them the headline, if you can make the editor visual what the piece would look like in your pitch — you’re golden.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m kind of a crazy person because I didn’t realize that this wasn’t a viable career for a lot of people. When I first entered into it, I noticed that the other people on (the Stylus) staff were professors, lawyers … this was a hobby for a lot of people. I thought that I would have to find a second career. It’s luck that I haven’t really had to yet, but I’ve also lived with very low overhead and small means, personally. I would say, it does take years to really live off of it. If you really want to be a music journalist, don’t be discouraged, but you don’t want to be unrealistic about it. Just to get your name out there is a few years commitment at least, having a day job and stuff like that.
I would just say, do whatever you want to do. If no one takes the pitch, it’s always worth doing your own post about it. Getting a really good, well-written blog post in your portfolio never hurts. Just be prepared to do things that aren’t maybe what you want to do, but you don’t want to do only that stuff either.
Olivia Ladd is a senior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.