Finding Balance with Philip Sherburne
Finding Balance with Philip Sherburne
Guidance

Finding Balance with Philip Sherburne

Arguably the world’s best electronic music journalist just wants to grow tomatoes.

How’s this for lucky: I first met Philip Sherburne—possibly the preeminent electronic music journalist of his generation—in 2002, because he was friends with my college roommate, and they produced a DJ night together at a local bar in the San Francisco neighborhood where I lived. We’ve been colleagues ever since—first at the alt-weekly SF Weekly, then o.g. streaming service Rhapsody, then Spin, and now Third Bridge Creative, where he’s completed over 11,000 assignments for TBC clients since joining the crew as a founding team member in 2015. 

Sherburne is best known for his coverage of electronic music, regularly spotlighting the genre’s most compelling new artists. But he grew up on punk and hardcore, and it’s not uncommon to find him opining about artists like Cat Power or Smog. The guy just loves music, and writing, and both these facts come screaming off the screen when you read him. These days, he lives in Menorca, Spain, with his wife and daughter. It’s no small feat to forge a 20-year career writing about underground sounds, but Sherburne’s managed to make it look easy. Here, we discuss how he did it. 

So how did you get your start doing this?

I studied English lit in college, and when I got out I had no idea what I wanted to do. And then I went to graduate school, and I was not particularly enamored of graduate school. I was in Providence, Rhode Island, and because I was a music obsessive, I started doing some record reviews for a local Providence college publication. Then—I think it was ‘98—I pitched the Wire magazine on a piece on Plug Research, which was this label in Los Angeles. And I flew myself to Los Angeles to spend a weekend with those guys. I think the Wire paved the way for XLR8R and then SF Weekly around the same time. And then yeah, just one thing after another.

At what point did you start to think of music journalism as your career?

I guess that was 2002. During that time I was beginning to write; I was working at Ask Jeeves, which is a search engine the older Gen Xers will remember. I was there for the Bay Area’s first big tech boom. And then everyone started getting laid off, and so around the time that I got laid off, I managed to step into a part-time role as San Francisco editor of FlavorPill. And so that covered my rent, basically, and that allowed me to freelance on top of that. And so I was very lucky because from that point on, I had a writing gig that could cover my rent and so everything above and beyond that was sort of gravy.

In the times I’ve been a freelancer, that was always crucial: having the anchor gig. When you look back at the fact you've been doing this now for two decades, what do you think has contributed to your ability to make this your career?

I think a lot of it is luck, kind of being in the right place at the right time. Like how I just happened to land this one anchor gig at the same time that I was getting laid off from this other job. And I was lucky that I continued to get a succession of anchor gigs like that. There was Rhapsody for many years. Then there was a period when I was living in Berlin, and I had a gig with Beatport. And then I went from Beatport to Spin as a contributing editor, and then I went to Pitchfork, where I've been for the last nine years. So it’s just a lot of luck, being able to get those anchor gigs.

In the early stages of a career, most people aren’t worried about things like 401(K)s and buying a house, and then you get to a point where you start thinking about those things. You've been a freelancer for two decades. At what point did you start to think about those more adult things?

Definitely in my 30s, like mid- to late 30s. For a long time, I didn't have health insurance, and then I got into some credit-card debt too, just because some of that I carried from grad school. And so it was actually in Berlin when I got a semi-decent paying job, and rent was cheap. And that’s when I said “Okay, I need to get this shit together.” And since then saving became a focus. Because it's a precarious, precarious industry, you know?

Yeah. So how do you think of your safety net? Is that something you worry about?

Yeah, I worry about it a little bit. I think it's something that I’m probably not doing enough to address.

Well, you bought a house. 

Yeah, there’s that. And I’m growing a garden so, you know, if worse comes to worst… Honestly the stuff I worry about is like droughts and floods and plagues, as much as anything these days, as much as 401(K)s.

Lately it feels like it’s hard to figure out which of the things we need to be most worried about. 

That's part of why I want to garden, ya know? I want tomatoes, at least. I'm probably fooling myself though, because I think feeding yourself and your family from your own garden is probably well beyond my skills, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

A while back, you explained to me how you organize your music listening system, and I remember being really impressed. Do you still have that sort of system?

Yeah, I don't think it's as methodical as it wants to be. But basically everything that looks potentially interesting to me, either a record that I might conceivably review, or at least that I want to consider, goes into a Google spreadsheet, with basic data—artist, title, label, format, release day—and I take all of those and I download all those promos. And then there's the stuff that I come across randomly, on Bandcamp or wherever. A lot of it's just chance and aleatory. Every month I discover stuff that blows me away that I still just get so much pleasure out of writing about, so something's working.

Did you just use the word “aleatory”? 

I did. 

Well you stumped me. That’s actually related to my next question. You are hands down one of the best pure writers I know. You never run out of new, creative ways to describe music. As somebody who is very attuned to that aspect of the job, how do you feel the importance of writing itself has evolved over the years? I mean, in particular, I think we're all freaked out by the ChatGPT stuff.

I think the importance of good writing is only going to increase because you look at the ChatGPT stuff and it's a semi-convincing mimicry of human speech and prosody and writing, but when you start looking at it with an editor's eye, you're like, “Wait, but what is it actually saying?” 

Do you feel anxiety about it? 

I don't feel personal, professional anxiety, although maybe I should—like ask me in a year when I've lost all my jobs and I’m making Molotov cocktails in my basement lair with an Edward Albee shirt on—but no, it hasn’t caused me anxiety. 

It’s like we were saying earlier: What are the things that are going to cause you the most anxiety? Is it climate change? Is it your personal finances? Is it the AI takeover? Take your pick…

I'm also anxious about what it could do to music because we already see the sort of flood of content that's created simply for playlists, and now throw AI at that. And so what happens when Spotify is suddenly overloaded with AI music? 

I just remembered when we were at Rhapsody, you were the one who coined the term “SEO pop.”

Yeah, this is going to be like that times a million. 

 

What were some of the examples we used to see at Rhapsody…?

It was like an artist called “Dubstep” with a record called Dubstep and then the songs would be called “100 BPM Workout Mix.”

 

Right, it was just totally crude. 

But it was pointing in that direction.

Yes. A lot of reasons to be anxious. So you recently started a record label, Balmat; you have your writing and curating career; and you have your family. How do you balance these different things? Are you someone that has very strict working hours? 

It’s difficult. I think in some ways, it's kind of organic. Like, I've just found a mix of work that works for me. Pitchfork, Third Bridge, the record label… That's a good mix. I'm working on an essay right now for a major European arts festival, and I'm kind of wishing I hadn't taken it on because I think that my balance is off. It's just one extra thing and it's just on my mind always, and it's like, "Can I hang out with my family this weekend? Or should I finish this thing?" So yeah, you make some choices. But I think the work tends to expand to fill the available time for it. So I also think it's important to make time to do things with your family. My wife and I have started going to the gym three times a week. And it's two hours a day, three times a week, but it's two hours a day that I'm not on Twitter.

Last question is the most cliched, but here goes: What advice do you have for folks just starting out? Do you ever get that question?

I do. I get emails from people sometimes. I think there's one thing that I left out when you asked what made it possible for me to do what I do. Like many other people, I just happened to come up at a time when blogging was—I was about to say viable but not viable because nobody made money off it—but it was just a dynamic, exciting thing. And everybody was blogging and there was this exchange of ideas and it kind of overlapped with mailing-list culture and bulletin-board culture and just all of these people discussing music online. And it became a really good way to become a better writer. You know, I was lucky to come up with all the alt-weeklies, SF Weekly, stuff like that, but also with the blogosphere. And I think younger people coming up now—it's tough because they don't have the alt-weeklies, and blogs aren't really a thing. But I think the most important thing is to be writing, to be practicing writing to be getting better at writing, and then to be pitching outlets. And that's a whole other conversation, How to pitch, how to know who to pitch, where to pitch... but the writing is the first thing, and just practicing. And reading. It’s so obvious that it sounds kind of like a cop-out, but that's the only way to get better.

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