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Peter A. Berry

Q&A: Maura Johnston

For Maura Johnston, restlessness is a secret weapon. Over the past two decades, the writer-editor has channeled her need to stay busy into a multi-lane career path that’s seen her work as a DJ, a music critic, an author, and beyond. In her time as a media professional, she’s written for Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, the Boston Globe, and beyond, and worked as an editor for The Village Voice and a founding editor for Idolator. Now, when she’s not deejaying for fun or analyzing new music, the TBC contributor works as an adjunct professor in Boston College’s journalism department (she teaches, appropriately, a course called "Writing About Popular Music"). Here, she chats about her career evolution and how to stay ahead of a rapidly changing media landscape. 

You’ve seen a lot of industry and technology changes in your time as a music critic, and those changes have made music more accessible than ever. Do you find that the function of your job has evolved in response to those changes? 

If you think about the way that you read a newspaper, especially a culture section, your eye falls on things and then you just start reading. But with the structure of journalism online, you have to take that split second to be like, “Am I gonna click this?” And it seems like such a weird thing to focus on. But it is that kind of a split-second decision that you see the results of in [website] traffic reports. Even people who are interested in music only have so much time in the day, and I get it. But, I do think that there is still a function in trying to help people figure out what's going on, because I see with my students that they'll just put stuff on playlists and it'll be this sort of decontextualized [thought]. I feel like it's important to contextualize and help people figure out what's going on. That's always been the case for what I've put forth. It's important to also let people know about your passions and to let people know about things that really excite you, because those things might be lost to the playlist wind.

You’ve appeared in four music videos. Which was your favorite?

I will never forget the Speedy Ortiz video [“The Graduates”] because that was my friend Ivy and our friend Aurora. It was the day after the Grammys, and I only remember this because they were visiting from out of town for a Grammys party, and there was a giant blizzard and we trudged in the snow from my apartment to the now-defunct Alston Diner, which was this vegetarian diner in my neighborhood. I'll never forget that day because of everybody who just showed up in this foot and a half of snow. [Maura first appears at 2:05.]

As someone who’s worked in radio, as a critic, and also as an adjunct professor, you seem to have a flexible idea of how to apply your skills, which feels increasingly important in an unstable media landscape. Was being this versatile always part of the plan? 

I've always just been really restless. I think it's more that I always loved radio. Radio was how I found out about a lot of the music that I love today. I loved MTV. I’m always busy because if I don't keep busy, then I get kind of bored. I think also, you know, it's like you kind of have to [be versatile]. I think about how the money is flowing and not flowing and stuff. And so I'm always sort of trying to be ahead of that. Teaching is really great in that way, ’cause teaching is like my stability. And I learned so much about how to deal with the upcoming landscape too. Because I'm starting to get students who were born after 9/11. Watching even the shifts in how they consume media over the time that I've been at Boston College has been really interesting and eye-opening—and a little distressing.

What’s a piece of advice you have for any aspiring journalists? 

I think flexibility and curiosity are the two things. And also just trusting, and I know this sounds like such a cliché, but trusting your gut. If something doesn't feel right for you, like the pain that you're gonna go through, trying to fit yourself into a mold that you don't fit into or that just feels wrong. It’s not gonna be worth it in the long run. I think flexibility is a combination of curiosity about yourself doing unexpected things and curiosity about the world around you. Flexibility to go with that curiosity because that way, if something comes up you can immerse yourself in it.

Staff Mix No. 6: The Best Rap and R&B Duets of the Aughts

“They just don’t make them like they used to” is the type of cliché to earn audible eyerolls, but when it comes to rap and R&B duets, the sentiment is not just trite nostalgia. In the first decade of the millennium, artists like Ja Rule, Fabolous, Jay-Z, and others turned collaborations with R&B stars into Billboard Hot 100 mainstays. These songs were different in their tonal makeup from later pairings of this kind, with a level of unabashed romance that feels like the opposite of the more nihilistic, post-Weeknd sounds that have helped define the most popular hip-hop and R&B songs of the 2010s and 2020s. The tracks here are love songs unafraid of tenderness, celebrations of being engrossed in affection.

How Peter A. Berry Discovers New Music

If I haven’t been a rap fan my whole life, it’s something close to it. When I was three, I’d turn my mom’s hair brush into a microphone and jump onto the nearest chair to rap Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” (needless to say, I didn't know what the lyrics were about!). Mom and my grandmother cheered me on. Back then, I would passively absorb sounds I heard on the radio; it was the ’90s, so the internet didn’t factor into my listening habits. Now, as a music journalist and former rapper who’s online virtually all the time, I rely on a variety of playlists, social media platforms, and conversations to find new music from the wide range of underground and mainstream rappers I love. 

My road to music discovery was initially paved in TRL, Atlanta’s V-103 radio station, and playground word of mouth. During those years, music wasn’t as accessible as it is now, and there was a certain thrill to only getting to find new artists through TV and radio, and that turned video countdown shows and trips to and from football practice—with the car radio blasting—into musical safaris. Everything was new and a little magical. 

Riding through Cobb County on various side missions with my parents, I remember listening to Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” and Big Tymers’ Hood Rich, belting out the lyrics in my mom’s green Ford Explorer. I discovered Crime Mob’s “Knuck If U Buck” while sitting in my dad’s silver Dodge Neon. I love the radio stations 95.5 The Beat and V-103; their blend of pop and hip-hop was perfect for the sensibilities of a young rapper who was also an aspiring Backstreet Boy. Episodes of TRL and 106 & Park were just as formative for my music discovery habits. Before I understood things like Billboard Hot 100 placements—before streams were a thing—the setups of these countdowns let me know what music other people thought was important, serving as a kind of compass for me. 

As networks gradually ended video countdown series and I eventually moved to Brooklyn, making car rides a lot more infrequent, radio and TV stopped being factors in my process. From that point, I became more deliberate, searching YouTube and various mixtape streaming platforms (shoutout to DatPiff!) to find new heat from artists like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, J. Cole, and others. Additionally, Twitter and Facebook let me see what my friends were listening to, giving me another rough guide on what was trending. 

I don’t use Facebook anymore, but Twitter remains a real tool for me, as are playlists on Apple and Spotify. My work history hasn’t hurt, either. Because I’ve been a music journalist for years, my email inbox is also a solid source of new drops from emerging artists. Publicists shoot me info about acts they want me to cover, and many of them turn out to be excellent.. In my career, writing about new and interesting musicians has given me endless opportunities to explore, allowing me to interact with their material on a deeper level and making me even more appreciative of what they do. And in many cases those explorations lead me to scenes that are new to me. 

Between streaming-service deep dives, my job, and social media, I’m pretty much locked in with the newest sounds, and conversations with friends often lead me to catalog artists that I haven't yet discovered. When it comes to New Music Fridays, I log into Twitter and see what discussions are unfolding before I go aurally exploring. Sometimes I'm re-engaging with artists I already know that have put out something new, other times I'm getting to know someone brand-new to me, but either way it's always exciting.

Jocelyn Brown on the Sweet Spot Between Knowledge and Intuition

Jocelyn Michelle Brown is a music supervisor who turned her nerd tendencies into a multifaceted career. In the time since her mother taught her how to make a mixtape with a dual-deck boombox more than 30 years ago, she’s worked as a music critic for a local Florida alt-weekly, a public relations coordinator for an indie label, a DJ, and now as a music supervisor. These days, she operates as the principal of Reality Club, a music consulting agency she founded three years ago. As a supervisor, she has advised on music for films like Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game (2022), Ferguson Rises (2021), and others, helping determine the proper synergy between music and tonality for the projects. Here, she chats about the not-so-obvious TV theme that helped inspire her career path, her music listening habits, and more. 

What things in your childhood led you to your career as a music supervisor?

The real origin starts with Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice theme. Miami Vice was a thing that my mom and I watched. No little kid should have been watching Miami Vice at this time, but it was the ’80s, and parents do what they want. Whenever I heard those initial notes, I'd come tearing outta wherever I was. 

There’s this game that is popular in preschools called Memory, and it revolves around flashcards and pairing up images relative to those flashcards. That’s kind of what was going on with me relative to hearing that theme song and knowing [what was on the screen when] the percussion came in, where you'd hear the guitar solo; parts where things would amp up, where things would ramp down. I was pairing all of those sounds to the images that were flashing. And my mom, God bless her, she'd be like, “Who's that?” And I'm like, “Lieutenant Castillo.” What's that? Speedboat. What is that? That's a flamingo. My life as a music supervisor is really funny, that fundamental pairing of sound and image is still very much a thing. I've just always thought musically in that way, even when there's no image in front of me that exists in my mind, I'm seeing something and creating an entire story there. 

Helping curate music for a show or movie is undeniably cool. What’s your favorite part about the job?

It's that Rubik's Cube element. It's solving a problem musically, right? For me, it's looking at what the director is aiming for or what the brand client is aiming for, and presenting them with options. There's always a moment where I can go with the expected thing that is being asked for, or I can introduce them to something that's a little outside the box that also meets their ask. And I get to be the person who walks them through that and explains, “I know you're attached to this Minnie Riperton song and it's wonderful, but it's also overused. Here's a new artist who's reminiscent vocally, but doing some different things that I think might be a little more relatable to your audience. And her new album comes out in two weeks, right around the time when your campaign is expected to drop.”

Before you worked as a music supervisor, you worked at a radio station and then as a DJ. How did those jobs prepare you for what you do now?

I would say the radio station figured in in terms of knowledge of catalog, learning about which record labels had which artists and specialized in which things, what [artist] backstories were, how they connected to other artists, other collaborators. 

DJing, however, was a little different in that you're there in a bar, you're observing social interactions, you're observing what people respond to and what they don't respond to, and really able to read emotion and feeling and tonality. If someone's talking to you or coming up to you or complimenting what you do or making a request or outright telling you they hate what you do—which did happen sometimes—you're able to really register all those ranges of emotion and response. And to me, I took that with me into my job to let that inform how I thought about [taste, as in] I know I like this, but is Debbie in Nebraska going to respond to this? When I put this song in a commercial for McDonald's, is the creative team gonna respond to it? It's rarely about me. It's more about, what are people gonna respond to? What do I know people have responded to? 

For your job, you have to provide and advise creative teams on the music to choose for films and TV series. Has having to listen to music so critically for a job changed how you listen to music for leisure? 

I can't not notice it [laughs]. Every time I go to the movies, I have to stick around for the end credits just to see who worked on what. But that's to satisfy my own personal curiosity and to write people and give kudos when they've done something really cool. There's no way for me to watch something now without observing what happens musically. In terms of my casual listening, yeah, it does change things a little bit. If I were to be completely honest about what I choose to listen to in my spare time, man, lately it's been a fair amount of ambient [laughs], a fair amount of instrumental music that is not jazz. Sometimes, [it’s] just straight-up proto punk, like the Stooges or Death. Stuff like that doesn't cross my desk so much relative to the publishing realm or music supervision realm. Because for me, that's a pocket of interest that I need to protect. I need to still be able to connect to music as a fan.

What’s something that you think needs to change in the world of music supervision?

There aren't a whole lot of music supervisors of color who are looked at for a lot of jobs. I hope that changes because we are here. We're not necessarily seen, we're not necessarily heard, but we are very much here. And that's literally across every ethnic group that you can see. There are Middle Eastern music supervisors, Latin music supervisors, African American music supervisors, AAPI music supervisors. We are here, we want that work. We're doing the work to get the work, but we're not necessarily the people who get called into the room. I want that noted because there's a perception that we're not there, and we are. We are.

Staff Mix No. 3: The Other Ones

By the time Backstreet Boys’ Millennium was released in May 1999, the music industry was up to its neck in teen idols. A few years prior, acts like BSB, Spice Girls, and NSYNC had opened the proverbial floodgates for a new generation of talented young pop stars, with artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera emerging a short while later. The fandom for them delighted label execs, and soon a river of similarly fresh-faced performers was flowing. 

BBMAK never had a song as big as “I Want It That Way,” but their 1999 single “Back Here” remains an underappreciated Top 40 gem. Ireland-based quartet B*Witched never became as big as Spice Girls, but "C'est La Vie” brims with optimism and sprightly bounce that evokes pantheon teen pop (and it sold over 3 million copies worldwide). And though 98 Degrees are properly designated as a Second String Boy Band, there’s no shame in having been even in the same league as BSB and NSYNC. Their “I Do” is a romantic ballad at its unashamed best. 

These B-team artists range from genuinely talented to enjoyably corny, and in the shadow of the Britneys, Justins, and Christinas, they found a measure of spotlight.

On Getting Your Artist Story Right

The dance-music auteur known as Afriqua has plenty of story to tell. He was born Adam Longman Parker in Virginia and educated at the Royal Academy of Music in London. A classically trained pianist, he managed to place in the DMC DJ world championship when he was just 12 years old. His works—a stylish blend of house, disco, and techno—pay homage to his Black heritage, and they’ve made him a distinct voice in the world of electronic music. Currently signed to R&S Records, he made his Mutek debut in 2022, and can frequently be found DJing around his hometown of Berlin, including the illustrious Panorama Bar. This May, he'll release the EP Maxi Single, a gleaming constellation of dance-floor thrills. 

In this Q&A, Parker — who became a Third Bridge client this year — talks to us about how he connects with the people who love his music, why he thinks opening up about his creative process deepens that connection, and why keeping his professional biography up to date is as important for him as it is for his fans. 

One of the hardest parts about making music for a living is finding out where your fans are and how to reach them. How did you find yours?

For me, it was really trial and error, and it remains so. I'm doing my market research in public. When I was younger, it was just a matter of, “I’m making music, I want to put it out and let's see what happens.” And then I was able to see from that, “Okay, well these are the DJs who like my stuff, these are the radio stations that like my stuff.” Social media gives this really amazing, detailed look into the characters and the sort of scenes that really [click] with you. But you really never know what people are going to totally resonate with, especially if you're taking creative risks.

So then I think a lot of the art becomes getting more data in a way that is on brand. So figuring out a way to kind of like, tease stuff or tease ideas and get kind of constant feedback from your fans in a way that doesn't water down your brand or undermine your quality. For me, that's been recently doing more videos and stuff on social media, because it gives me a chance to say, "All right, I made this track and maybe this track is never gonna come out, but I can do a cool video around it and tease it." I deepen my relationship with my fans because they are part of the creative process. 

What do you think is the most important thing for you or any other artist to communicate to fans? 

I think that people learn a lot more from seeing how you go about your creative process than they do from the resulting work, especially now. You might have a song that pops on Spotify just algorithmically, but nobody knows who you are. I think what really distinguishes an artist nowadays—and I say this as an artist but also as a fan of so many artists—is giving people something to invest in, in terms of the story behind the work. Because I think that [it's important] for fans to recognize that their feedback is an essential part of the process of creating art. 

Let's talk about album rollouts and music promotion. When putting together your album covers, your press releases, or anything else, what do you think is the most important thing to consider? 

I think the most important thing to consider is the tone. It’s very easy for the content tangential to the release of a piece of music to get out of your control and end up being totally off-brand with what you're actually trying to express. And the hard thing about it is, it could be exactly the [right] information, but just presented in the wrong way.

Obviously, your music is personal, and it says a lot about you, but there’s a different kind of journey when you don’t use a lot of lyrics to tell your story. With that in mind, how important do you think it is to have a bio that really says what you’re about? 

Instinctively I feel like it's something that's always been missing from my operation. It's always been a bit of an afterthought, like, “Oh shit, we need a bio. Oh shit, the bio needs to be updated.” The further you get into your career, the more difficult it is to really sum it up. And I kind of want a nicely written bio for myself, as well, to just remember what I've done. 

It can be difficult to keep that sort of throughline for your own career when you do so much. And when you start to get to a point where you're constantly busy with different projects, with different people, [it's necessary] to really make the decision of what's important, and what actually needs to be represented and what are the key principles that bring your project to life. I think that having all of that stuff written properly is invaluable when you're trying to keep multiple stakeholders and press aligned.

I used to have the thought, earlier in my career, that people would take the press release and I thought they would dive deeper and they would come up with their own interpretation. I don't wanna count on anyone anymore to get my story across. I wanna tell my story, and know that whatever people are working with, based on the story that I'm telling, at least my story has been told fully from my perspective. I think that's an artist's responsibility, you know?

Interested in working with Third Bridge to help tell your story? We create a variety of editorial and marketing materials for the artist and label community. Hit us up if you'd like to discuss your project.

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