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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.

The Pleasure of Deadlines According to Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a writer, editor, author, and music curator who's been lending her considerable talents to TBC since 2017. But she was honing her craft professionally for close to two decades before that (and she points out that her fervent energy for writing dates back at least as far as elementary school). She wrote a book on Duran Duran's Rio (2021) as well as Lady Gaga: Applause (2022), and other titles are in the works. Annie is profoundly passionate about and fluent in rock, pop, punk, and New Wave music, among other genres, and without breaking a sweat can throw down 16 reasons why her hometown, Cleveland, is truly the only place that could be the home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Here, she told us about her accomplishments, challenges, dreams, and nightmares. 

What is the piece of work you've created that you're most proud of? Describe how it came together. 

The 33 1/3 series book I wrote on Duran Duran's Rio. (Available in two editions!) It's a long, complicated story: I pitched the book in 2007 and 2009, to no avail, and finally wrote a better proposal in 2018 that was accepted. I started working on it in late 2019 and spent the first very fraught part of the pandemic at home, doing interviews, research, and writing, and finally finished it in fall 2020. I labored over the writing, the word choices and arrangements, the editing and copyediting because I had been wanting to write the book for so long—helping to place Duran Duran's music in the greater canon was deeply important to me. I'm enormously proud of how it turned out and that people like it!

What is the most challenging part of your job, and how do you address that? 

Time management. Projects with hard deadlines are preferable, since then I can plan better, but I often have projects with long deadlines (or amorphous deadlines). Trying to balance short- and long-term deadlines is tough for me because things keep getting pushed off. That old saying about assignments expanding to fill the time you have is so deeply true. My best solution is not to overschedule, because that's when I tend to get overwhelmed—it's definitely a work in progress. 

What's the best work advice you've ever received? 

That there's enough work to go around—so operate from a mindset of abundance, not scarcity. 

Name one time you said "yes" to something that felt like a leap of faith, and you're so glad you did. And name one time you had a hard time saying "no" to something, and you're so glad you did. 

Back in the 2000s, I said yes to a job working as the music editor at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis. I moved to the city knowing absolutely nobody, just my soon-to-be co-workers, into my first real full-time day job out of college. In hindsight, I marvel at how much confidence it took for me to make such a bold move. But years later, that job has continued to pay dividends for me professionally and personally—and I'm so grateful for taking it and for everything I learned.

As far as saying no—years ago, I applied for and was accepted to grad school for journalism at UC Berkeley. I opted not to go because it would've been very expensive. While I sometimes wonder what might have happened had I moved to California, many very good things happened because I didn't go, so it was ultimately the right decision. 

Professionally speaking, what's your biggest fear? What is your ultimate dream? 

Biggest fear: having assignments and opportunities dry up and editors stop emailing. Ultimate dream? To write a book that makes the New York Times best seller list.

What have you been listening to/watching for pleasure (not for work) recently? 

The K-pop group IVE, the forthcoming albums from Hannah Jadagu and Laura Cantrell, and my current favorite jam is Julia Jacklin's "I Was Neon." I was also marveling just this morning about how spoiled I am to live in the Cleveland area, because we have an abundance of amazing college radio stations—four or five come in clear enough for me to listen when I'm driving around. So I've been flipping between those lately, too. Watching: new season of Single Drunk Female, the Brooke Shields documentary, and finishing up the second season of Girls5Eva.

If you could hang out with any musician/performer/producer/actor, alive or dead, who would it be? Why, and what would be the first thing you'd ask them? 

David Bowie, because I find him absolutely fascinating. I'd ask him what he's reading.

How to Build a Fans-First Music Service

As a cofounder and head of product for Gimme Radio, and before that VP of product for 8Tracks and Rhapsody, Jon Maples has amassed a ton of wisdom around building experiences for music fans. In his most recent role, he focused on not just any fans, but on diehards of specific genres. It was a different remit compared to those of the big players in streaming music, who focus on building products for the largest and broadest audiences possible. Here, he discusses how to identify a product opportunity, how to keep your own biases in check when making product decisions, and the approach he takes when determining if a new tech trend is mostly hype.

For someone who’s not from a tech background, how do you usually explain what a product manager does?

It's three things: It's creating a business case for a product, which means figuring out if it's something that the business can actually make money on. It’s defining what the product is, and a lot of times we talk about this as product-market fit. And the third thing is technically building it, and that's usually two parts. The first part is dealing with technical people who can define the right way to build it. And then it's the design side of it, to make it look and work as well as possible for users. What a product manager mostly does is try to influence people, from the user level all the way up to the CEO.

One of the things that I remember learning from you, that I believe is one of the main principles of product management, is: “You are not the customer.” Can you explain what that means?

Yes. So, it's extremely easy to be biased about product, because at the end of the day, we all use products. Why “You are not the customer” is important is because it makes you check your own biases about what you're building. If you are not the customer, then you have to go talk to the customers and gather evidence to figure out what they want.

Is it harder to keep your biases in check when you're a product manager for a music product, given that we all have such strong opinions about music?

Yeah, I mean, let's face it, the whole thing about “You are not the customer”—it's something we all aspire to as product managers, and you're never gonna do it. Everybody's gonna fail to a certain extent, because you're biased. So in music, yeah, it becomes more challenging. I don't know how many times I've heard from everybody, from a CEO to a designer to an engineer, “That's not the way I use it.” So if you have evidence of what's going to be successful or not, you're going to create a much better product than if you just simply rely on your own biases.

You’ve designed music products for a mass audience, but at Gimme you were very focused on creating an experience for this subset of music fans, which is the diehard audience, the true fans. What’s the difference between the two approaches?

I think there's a lot of authenticity that you can't really fake. Like one of the first things that we thought about was basically throwing out the playbook on how we design a product and thinking about the culture that we wanted to reach from the beginning, and letting that drive everything. We started with metal, and actually not all metal music, but specific genres of metal that don't get as much exposure, like death metal, black metal, a lot of thrash metal. We really tried to focus on speaking directly to those fans and embracing the culture around them from the beginning.

You led product at Gimme for about six years. How did your vision for the service change over time?

I think we saw ourselves much more like a streaming service at the beginning, and much less like a fan service. The thing that we really changed over time was focusing on what fans want and how they help the midlevel artists—not top-level, but midlevel artists—make a living, which was through engagement with their most important fans.

Gimme once did an NFT promotion with Deicide. We’re a couple years into the hype cycle around NFTs. What’s your view on them here in 2023?

I think in music, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what the value is. For NFTs across the board, there are going to be some very interesting approaches. A lot of people are talking about music rights and NFTs: You buy an NFT and you get a share of publishing for a song. That shows promise. But for us, we were really focused on physical merch more than digital merch. So what we wanted to explore was whether we could find ways to match and extend the value of physical merch through NFTs. So we did it for the Deicide box set. And what we were trying to do is test the demand for NFTs to see how many fans actually see value in them.

As a product person, you have a lot of experience encountering new trends and trying to figure out when something is legit versus when it’s just hype. How do you think through that when it comes to things like the blockchain and AI and these new shiny tech trends?

Yeah, that's a trap. It really is. Because when you're building products in the digital world, people expect you to be all over [trends]. I think there's a couple of things that have to happen. The first thing is going through the basic product approach, where you figure out when it's valuable enough for users. I pretty much try to put the brakes on everything like that from the beginning. And something our CEO and I talked about all the time was when was the right time to do it. There is pressure, not just because it's the new shiny thing, but because investors are expecting you to have an answer for a lot of these things. But it's also extremely valuable to wait and to experiment. It doesn't mean you are against these new trends. It's just that you have to wait to see if the demand develops.

Do all the developments in AI make you uneasy?

I think it's a fool's errand for anyone to try to fool anyone with AI. People can spot the lack of authenticity, and they don't want something that's fake. Everything needs to be tuned by a human. AI at its best is going to work when it's a tool for other people to use. People say, “Oh AI is gonna take over the world. And we're gonna be able to fire name-your-profession.” I don't think that's the case at all. What I think is it’s going to become a very powerful tool for people who know how to tune it, who know how to use it to accomplish things that would otherwise take a lot of time and a lot of effort.

Finding Balance with Philip Sherburne

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.

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.

How Do I Describe What I Do?

My career in music journalism began back in the fall of 1998, when I did a two-month unpaid internship at Eye Weekly (RIP), an alt-weekly in my hometown of Toronto. During that time, I was given the opportunity to realize my dream of writing articles and reviews for the paper’s music section, which I had read religiously throughout my teens. But I also performed a whole bunch of other tasks, including, but not limited to, proofreading, research, sorting incoming faxes for the concert-listings editor, sourcing file photos, and covering celebrity Scrabble matches for front-of-book news items.

At the end of my term, I somehow convinced our editor-in-chief to pay me a modest weekly stipend—I think it was $100?—to come into the office a few days a week and essentially serve as the staff gofer, in addition to my freelance writing contributions. (This was an era when you could still get a room in a shared Toronto apartment for $300.) One day, our editor was giving somebody a tour of the office, introducing each staff member with their job title. When he got to me, he said, “And this is Stuart. He… uh… he’ll eat glass for 50 bucks.”

Twenty-plus years later, my situation isn’t all that fundamentally different. While music criticism is what drew me to writing, the job of “full-time music critic” has become all but extinct over the course of my career, so the key to surviving has been to find other gigs that complement and support my music-writing endeavors. And just as the music industry has transformed in the digital age, so too have the skill sets that music-media workers use to flex their knowledge.

Here at Third Bridge Creative, my responsibilities range from writing and editing display copy for streaming services, to building playlists and programming niche online stations. And through all that work, I’m in an advantageous position to keep tabs on emerging artists and trends that I can then explore further in my freelance writing work outside of the TBC umbrella.

So in light of all that, when somebody asks me what I do for a living, I’m at a bit of a loss for words. “Music critic” doesn’t really cut it anymore, because traditional music criticism accounts for maybe 10 percent of my workflow (though, still, somehow, roughly 100 percent of the emails I receive). “Writer/editor” feels like it’s tethered to an old print-media model, but then “curator” just sounds, to my ear, way too pretentious to say out loud with a straight face. So for now, I think I’ll stick with Professional Glass-Eater—I may be able to demand a better rate and higher-quality panes these days, but the teeth-grinding hustle is forever.

Confessions of a Curator: How a Longtime Music Critic Gets the Job Done

This post was originally published on June 1, 2016, on The Dowsers, a “magazine about playlists” produced by Third Bridge Creative. You can read more about that project here.

“Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.” — Lester Bangs, Village Voice, 1979

I love writing about music, even when I don’t dig the music I’m writing about. After 22 years of cranking out album reviews, artist features, curated playlists, and everything else you can think of, my mind still races and my stomach still fills with butterflies whenever I tackle a new assignment. If a few days pass without writing about music, I get anxious — tense, even. It’s a feeling I can only describe as a cross between acute caffeine withdrawal and existential woe.

When I tell folks that I write about music for a living they invariably assume it’s wild and romantic. Either I’m chilling at home, blasting my favorite records at all hours of the day (and night). Or, I’m partying backstage with cool musicians. The reality, however, is way less glamorous. Most of the time I’m glued to my laptop, writing about music I don’t even like. I mean, I don’t not like it; it’s just that I wouldn’t listen to it for enjoyment, and that’s a crucial distinction.

Here is the music I do like: the weirder the better. My collection is packed with obscure vinyl and tapes that sound as though they were created in another dimension by freaktastic aliens. As I type these words, Laser Temple of Bon Matin’s Bullet In2 Mesmer’s Brain! soaks my noggin in lo-fi psych-noise that teeters on the edge of gooey chaos and higher-level form. So yeah, that’s what I’m into, as a civilian.

Now here is the music I spend 80 percent of my working life covering: testosterone-drenched rock and metal. I’m talking about all those commercial riff-ragers who climb Billboard’s Top Hard Rock Albums chart week in and week out. These include older bros Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, Linkin Park, etc., but also younger metalcore and post-hardcore acts like Asking Alexandria and Falling in Reverse who incorporate hair metal and EDM into their tunes.

But despite the fact that my relationship to the latter is about as clinically professional as a doctor’s is to his stethoscope, there is a very real chance that you have been super stoked when reading one of my reviews of Linkin Park or rocking out to one of my post-grunge playlists on one of the streaming services. And if this is the case, which again it likely is, then you may be wondering how I can get you so enthused for music that I would never play for myself when off the clock.

Let’s dive into that.


I knew music writing was the thing for me as soon as I began working on my first assignment in January of 1994. A couple weeks before, I had walked into the offices of the Western Herald, the student daily at Western Michigan University, and introduced myself to A&E Editor Shirley Clemens, who promptly asked me to write an article on the then-controversial used CD marketplace (ah, the ‘90s). And just like that, I began driving around Kalamazoo, from record store to record store, interviewing owners (including Flipside Records’ Neil Juhl, a local legend who would play a pivotal role in turning me onto Detroit proto-punk and free jazz) for what would eventually become “The Great Used CD Debate.” It was an astonishingly terrible piece, yet I was hooked.

My experiences at the Western Herald helped me snag bylines in a handful of dailies and alt weeklies, as well as an internship at The Boston Phoenix in the summer of ’96. But the bulk of my writing between 1995 and around 2003 actually appeared in punk and indie zines. These included Jeff Bale’s Hit List, Copper Press, Sound Collector, Badaboom Gramophone and my personal favorite Your Flesh, which along with Touch and Go was the Midwest’s go-to zine for hardcore punk, scum, noise-rock and proto-grunge.

Zines were (and still are) my favorite outlets: You can curse (underrated perk), be willfully eccentric with story structure and write about extreme underground music without sacrificing its essential undergroundedness, all of which appeals to me because, well, that’s the stuff nearest and dearest to my heart. Writing about an obscure and utterly fascinating weirdo like the late Mikey Wild (a.k.a. The Mayor of South Street) is way more fun than jockeying for an interview with whatever flavor-of-the-year tops Pazz & Jop.

On the flipside, zines don’t pay. And that was a problem for someone who desperately wanted to make a living from music writing as opposed to a normal desk job. So, by 2004 I chose to double down on writing for outlets that paid, including alt weeklies like SF Weekly, The Village Voice and Seattle Weekly. As with many music journalists of my generation, this path eventually led to curatorial work for the growing number of streaming music companies, which — surprise, surprise — can be weird about me even mentioning their names (google “NDA”), but suffice it to say you’ve used at least one of these services, if not multiple.

Actually making a living off music writing and curation had a critical side effect, however: In the words of the Meat Puppets, I split myself in two. The more I found myself working for outlets for actual money, the more I found myself writing about stuff beyond the underground music that was my first love. I began covering mainstream rock, blues, country, EDM, folk, chart pop, jazz, reggae, and even Warped-approved post-hardcore. The list goes on and on, really.

It turns out that developing these two different headspaces is fairly common among music journalists and curators. Many of us write about commercial music, while the vinyl that makes it onto our turntables after work is significantly less mainstream. But because so few of my peers don’t particularly enjoy acknowledging this reality, much less offering in depth examination on the subject (generally speaking, no one pays you for that either), it’s something of an elephant in the room. I can only speak to my personal experiences, and they look something like this…


Writing about and curating music I listen to only as a professional can be both more difficult and easier than writing about stuff that appeals to me on a personal level. It’s harder when the music is bland — no unintentional weirdness, no good backstories, just utter blandness. Virtually all indie beyond 1996 fits this mold. It’s mediocre to the point of hideousness and should be banned by Congress (just joking, but not). In contrast, covering metalcore (as well as post-hardcore of the Warped Tour variety) is far easier. Sure, the music can oftentimes be borderline unlistenable, but there’s no denying that it’s packed with character (however absurd). Crank I Prevail’s version of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” off Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 6. It’s so stupid, but stupid in a way that makes me want to know why these guys would actually want to create such a bizarre chunk of sound. It takes real effort to make something so audaciously loud and dumb and that marries mosh-pit breakdowns to plastic teen pop in such a hamfisted way.

Whenever I’m in professional mode (and it doesn’t matter if the assignment in question is harder or easier) my mantra always is “this isn’t for me.” There’s a part of me that believes all music comprises one giant universe, but there’s another part of me that believes it contains multiple universes. The former me believes I should rail against everything that I don’t dig no matter the cost, while the latter says, “Not so fast. Some stuff simply isn’t meant for your ears.”

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about: In the spring of 2010, an editor at Spin asked if I was up for reviewing Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes’ debut album. I snagged the assignment because it was decent pay, and I know a thing or two about the history and evolution of Southern soul, blues, and rock ’n’ roll, thus it would be a fairly easy assignment. (Bang it out and move on to the next thing.) Now, if I had allowed the universalist in me anywhere near that review, he would’ve insisted on writing, “Seem like nice kids, but don’t waste your time. Go buy an old Eddie Hinton record instead.” But that approach doesn’t work. My editor would’ve made me rewrite it anyway. Plus, I probably wouldn’t have gotten more work had I dismissed the record outright, and those are things I have to consider.

So, I let the other me, the one who believes in many universes, handle the review. This entailed writing a piece geared toward who I thought would even be curious enough to read about the Alabama Shakes. I came up with an imaginary twentysomething who digs The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and maybe some Fat Possum garage rock, but who lacks the knowledge about Southern music to know that the Shakes aren’t totally original. Basically, I created what social media types like to call a “persona” and went about weighing the pluses and minuses of the music while keeping in mind the expectations of this persona.

This is the very mindset I’ve used to become a know-it-all in modern hard rock, alt metal,  metalcore, post-hardcore, and beyond. I’ve put together in-depth playlists on virtually every aspect of grunge, from proto- to post- to neo- to stripper- (yup). I’ve created sprawling album collections that offer consumers the full breadth of the nu metal movement, both the landmarks and obscurities. I’ve written reviews of every Linkin Park album, twice.

The sheer amount of research and listening I’ve devoted to these genres is bonkers. I can list five electronic producers who have remixed Korn tracks off the top of my head. I can explain the minute sonic differences between all three of Creed’s key spin-offs: Alter Bridge, Projected and Tremonti. I can even go into great detail on precisely why PVRVIS and Blaqk Audio are harbingers of the forthcoming Goth/industrial revival that will sweep through mainstream post-hardcore.

I initially claimed this turf out of professional survival. It’s hugely popular music both in terms of sales and streaming, yet the number of my peers willing to even acknowledge it is incredibly small. Finding writers, curators, and digital merchandisers with the knowledge and desire to craft content in hip-hop, pop, indie pop, and even classic rock is easy. They’re a dime a dozen. But not so when it comes to modern hard rock. Chew on this: Nickelback never made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone despite selling in excess of 22,000,000 records between 2000 and 2011. The freakin’ Boston Bomber made the cover, but not one of the biggest selling and most influential rock acts of their generation — which isn’t an endorsement of their music; it’s just a fact.

So yeah, it was a no-brainer move to begin covering this stuff, but after a while I actually began to grow an attachment to it. Strange, I know. But I figured that if I was going to be the content producing guru for the modern hard rock demographic, then I was going to own my work. I even developed a persona for myself when crafting this content, and it’s one that’s best captured by the line quoted above: “Bob just wants to make sure that some kid has something decent to put on the eight-track while he cruises down Woodward.”

Rock critic Lester Bangs wrote that in his 1979 review of Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town album for the Village Voice. We don’t need to cite a lot of statistics to more or less agree that the average fan of this music clearly isn’t living in Williamsburg or the Mission or Silver Lake; they’re living in flyover country, in the Rust Belt and in the South. They’re the very kids who back in the late ’70s popped a Seger eight track into their car, only nowadays they’re texting while earbuds fill their ears with Asking Alexandria or whatever. There certainly exist varying shades, like between those who are more Warped/alternative inclined and those who go for more of a 3 Doors Down/meat-and-potatoes sound. But the point is: The audience for my curator persona was the kids and young adults of what they call Middle America. That’s who I write and curate for.

This persona is not an abstract concept for me. I draw from personal experience. I myself am working class and from the Rust Belt (Syracuse, New York). And while I logged numerous years in New York City and San Francisco, the bulk of my life has been spent living in medium-sized cities in Middle America, including my present residence in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the adopted home of Sleeping with Sirens (see what I mean?)). I grew up in a shabby neighborhood flanked by factories, all of them slowly dying. The kids in my neighborhood were working class troublemakers whose walkmans always blasted some mixture of hard rock, thrash, and hip-hop in the years directly before all three merged into nu metal. Not only that, but Syracuse was an early breeding ground for metalcore, including one of the genre’s pioneering acts, Earth Crisis.

To this very day, some of my nearest and dearest friends are hard rocking bros. One hauls trash for a living and worships groove metal. Another is a former skater turned drummer turned massive bodybuilder. So, whenever my work takes me to the land of Kroeger, Chino and Weiland, I imagine a composite of all my childhood friends. If I’m creating a playlist of alt-metal anthems, then I craft it as though my goal is to give one of them the absolute best listening experience. I ask myself, Would they want to make the windows in their cars rattle with these jams? Would they hit the weights while cranking them? Would the tracks I’ve selected stand up to hours of repeated listening as they indulge their video game addictions? My sincere hope is that they do, because it’s not likely that Laser Temple of Bon Matin is gonna do the trick anytime soon.


Third Bridge contributor Justin Farrar has written for Spin, Village Voice…actually, his resume is outlined pretty extensively above. Follow him here: @JustinFarrar

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