Inside D.C. entertainment

Correction:

An earlier version of this story said: "The music journalism industry had been built on establishing authority; sites like Pitchfork demonstrated that a college student making $75 per review could have as much or more impact as a dues-paid critic writing for $1.50 a word." Chris Dahlen, who was not in college when he wrote the Pitchfork review of Travistan, says he doesn't remember exactly how much he was paid for it. Mark Richardson, Pitchfork's managing editor, isn't sure what Pitchfork paid in 2004 but says its record reviews now pay between $75 and $110 depending on placement.

Good news, music journalists! You can make up to 70K/year.

December 14, 2010 - 11:45 AM
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You're not gonna stand next to Kate Hudson, though

For all the talk of the death of the music industry, the vaporization of freelance jobs for classical musicians, or the inexplicable failure of the last Nelly album, Boston's Berklee College of Music has a little good news for anyone hoping to turn their passion for tunes into a paycheck: You can still draw a salary, and sometimes a decent one: sound designers on video games make between "$80,000 - $120,000+." A road manager in the concert industry? "$25,000 - $125,000+." Webmaster in the record industry? "$28,000 - $150,000+."

If you're a music journalist, though, the upper end is a little less flexible, Berklee found (read PDFs of it). These positions, which you can get into by "writing for campus publications or by volunteering to cover events for smaller publications," start at $20,000 and top out at $70,000 per year.

Or you can become a supervisory park ranger and hope for a couple kickass annual reviews. Same result.

Berklee's Career Development Center didn't reply to my phone calls, so I can't speak to its methodology, but one freelancer I spoke to says the college nailed it. 

"That's amazing. That's exactly the range that I was gonna say," says Andy Greenwald, a freelance writer whose jobs include being the pop critic for Penthouse (Penthouse has record reviews?), writing books with titles taken from songs, and constructing dialogue for video games.

Not too long ago, the cowpath of a music writer was pretty well etched in the loam — you started at an alt-weekly, badgered your way into the pages of a glossy magazine or newspaper, turned that into a staff job, then stayed until a career in academia or something opened up, or your significant other finished law school. Now, Greenwald says, "I don't know why you'd go into this career if you have hopes."

Part of the problem is the existence of a medium that's been inarguably awesome for rock criticism: The Internet, which eliminated the need to bang on an editor's voicemail for months begging for the privilege of writing a 120-word blurb on Eve 6's second album.

The music journalism industry had been built on establishing authority; sites like Pitchfork demonstrated that someone making $75 per review could have as much or more impact as a dues-paid critic writing for $1.50 a word. When D.C. native Travis Morrison's released his first post-Dismemberment Plan solo album, I gave it an enthusiastic review in Spin (and stand by it!); Pitchfork famously gave it a 0.0. That killed the album the way Broadway critics killed stage shows in old Hollywood movies. (“Everywhere I went, the local papers would regurgitate the Pitchfork review,” Morrison told Washington City Paper. “I could tell that the audience wasn’t sure whether they should be there.”) That review will be mentioned in Morrison's obituary; I suspect I'm the first person to ever Google mine.

"I know for a fact," says Doug Brod, Spin's editor, that music journalist salaries "go higher than that," referring to the study's maximum. He's been at Spin since 2003, during which time the full-time editorial staff has shrunk to six people, writer contracts have been eliminated, and FTE pay has stayed steadier than Pat Mahoney's drumming during LCD Soundsystem live shows. (In Oct. 2003,  there were 20 full time edit staffers, plus 12 contract writers, including Greenwald and me, plus a flotilla of freelancers.) "I don't think we've had raises for three years," Brod says. Also the magazine's word rate has gone down some.

The lower barriers to entry for music writers, Brod says, have been good for Spin, in that it's become a lot easier to find good critics. Finding critics who can do music journalism -- make calls, break news, and use their exquisite taste in music to guide them to the next story -- though, is still a grind.

"It's a matter of having to learn the steps," he says. "What makes a good interview, what makes a good quote. Someone can be a great critic and really get to the meat of a piece of work, but give them a tape recorder and put them in front of a band or have them get on a bus and tour with a band, and sometimes these guys just clam up."

So maybe it's instructive to look overseas, to the U.K., where music journalists still have clout — financial, if not cultural. Britain's National Union of Journalists lists the standard rates for pieces, and a group of freelancers somewhat successfully negotiated with Bauer publications after it proposed some onerous contract provisions for writers at Q, Mojo, and Kerrang!

Dorian Lynskey, a freelancer and a longtime pop critic for the Guardian, says that the Berklee survey's upper limit (about £44,000 in British money) is "kind of what I would hope to earn" as a critic. "Although the only time I topped that was when I wrote for American titles."

Not that it can't be done in Blighty: "I know there are two or three of the big newspaper critics at salaries of over £50,000, but some of those have been in place for a while. That's not really a realistic goal going forward, but it certainly exists."

Lynskey says having a two-income family makes it possible for him to live in pricey London. "Maybe if it was just me earning it would be a little harder. It's only when you compare yourself to people in other industries that you feel like it's not enough."

British writers have one great advantage over Americans: The prices for their pieces are standard. In the United States, things are considerably more freewheeling when it comes to payment. "I will say that not only have prices plummeted but so has people's desperation with the lack of jobs," Greenwald says.

Maura Johnston, who edited the music-news website Idolator before departing for a career as a freelancer for the Awl, the Village Voice, and many other outlets, agrees. "I think that what you have with music writing in the Internet age is a peculiar problem of oversupply that might be specific to music," she writes in an instant-message chat.

Unlike Greenwald, Brod, Lynskey, or me, Johnston never had a primarily print-based career to compare her previous earnings to — in the mid-'90s, she even left journalism school at Northwestern University to study Internet communication theory in the university's communications department.

Johnston estimates she's been paid by 20 different outlets this year. By being "widgety" — doing "charticles and stuff" — she's able to regularly place pieces in print publications like Newsday that are working hard at adapting their entertainment news to the demands of online consumers, but she's probably the most prominent music journalist on the Web. Which is kind of terrifying, since her financial aspirations include not having to share an apartment with a roommate.

"I feel like for me [prices] have really stayed the same," she says. "I started with alt-weekly money, which is not a lot, and it's generally still not a lot. When I reviewed for Blender (briefly) it was $1/word and that was close to the best rate I've received. But that was also print, so it had the assumptions of readership bolstering its rates."

Critics at large daily newspapers still make well north of the Berklee line, even though their employers are pretty well disabused of any assumptions of readership (J. Freedom du Lac, the Washington Post's former music critic, says he came in above $70,000). They've held on partly because they cover music as an industry, if one whose products are becoming hopelessly decentralized, and because they're expected to report as much as opine.

The magazine picture is darker. Blender is now deceased; as David Carr once wrote, Google "fixed" the problem of such companies not knowing how much their editorial content was worth. That's especially difficult when covering music, where the infrastructure has changed so much in the last decade: now an artist can make a living selling 20,000 copies of a record. Making money off of writing that appeals to such a small audience is extremely difficult.

"It used to be a hierarchy where you could have your number and stick with it. Now, as in all postapocalyptic movies where people are Dumpster-diving, everyone's scrounging for the cans of Dinty Moore these days," says Greenwald.

Greenwald's edging ever closer into full-time television writing, he says, but he still can't quite give up on the idea of sounding off about music. If Penthouse disappears, he says, "I'm calling up Latin Inches and seeing if they need a reviewer."

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