How to Write Like an Editor

How thinking like an editor can bullet-proof your writing.

Originally published on my Medium on December 2, 2016.

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I come from a family of writers. My parents are both attorneys, and I spent my formative years in school learning how to write bullet-proof essays. It wasn’t until long after college, though, that I really began to see writing in more lights than simply as “a writer.” In fact, it was only recently that I’ve been able to think and write like an editor.

If you look around the blogosphere, and on Medium in particular, you see a lot of the same stuff. Not the same topics per se, but the same issues with the writing. A lot of it’s choppy, half-baked, passionate but not convincing, and many times riddled with grammatical mistakes. A lot of this can be avoided though.

A lot of time people see writing as a number of things — none of them good. They see it as tedious, superfluous, nonchalant, boring, or easy.

Writing is not easy, and writing on a higher level than “just writing” is a skill which takes constant practice and dedication. But for time-sake, here’s a crash-course to make your writing tighter, stronger, and all around better.

(Note: This won’t cover non-writing aesthetic choices, like pictures, gifs, videos, etc. This is focused solely on the art of writing and editing.)

Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Grammar
  2. Spelling
  3. Tenses
  4. Formatting
  5. Thesis
  6. Argument
  7. Length
  8. Style

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Grammar

Let’s get this one out of the way early. Poor spelling and grammar will kill any piece you write. Every time. Without fail. Don’t think you’re fooling anyone — we can all tell when you’re too lazy to proofread your article for mistakes. Learn to love multiple drafts.

So Rule #1 in writing like an editor: edit your damn article.

Caveat: I’ll cover this more in Style, but keep in mind that sometimes the most readable pieces aren’t necessarily the ones that follow 100% of grammar rules. This took me a long time to learn and become comfortable with. Be at ease using contractions, beginning sentences with “and” and but,” and using slang terms like “gonna,” “bullshit,” and “fuck.” This gives your writing personality and makes it much less stilted. Just remember not to go overboard with things. If it doesn’t serve your argument, don’t fuck around with it.

Rule #1: Edit your damn article.

Spelling

We live in the era of spell-check. There’s literally no reason for spelling mistakes. If you don’t care enough to use spell-check, I don’t care enough to read it, end of story.

Tenses

This usually falls under grammar, but it’s important to break it out here. A lot of people seem to have problems with tensing, even some of the smartest, most insightful writers I enjoy reading (including hyper-successful founders, investors, marketers, etc.). It’s something people stumble over when it doesn’t make sense, and a lot of times it’s hard to pinpoint.

The best advice for keeping proper tensing is to read the wonky sentence out loud and see if it flows. If you’re having trouble with it, your readers will too. It should flow easily off the tongue, and if not, reexamine your tenses.

Formatting

Like grammar and tenses, formatting is one of those things you’ll need to take a step back on and read through an editor’s eyes. It’s one of the most tedious parts of editing, but one of the things that sets good pieces apart from complete crap.

Look and Feel: First, does it look good? If it’s blocky and hard to read, chances are people will never read it (unless you’re maybe already famous). Break things up — the “new paragraph” is your friend.

Italics, bold, and underline are essential to making something interesting to the eye, but don’t overdo it. Too much bold and you’re shouting at me; too many italics and you’re making me read a French pastry recipe.

ALL CAPS: Like bold, all caps is akin to yelling at me. Try to stay away from this. However, if you’re going to yell at me, make it count. Do it only if you really need to.

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Bullet-points: Learn to love bullet-points, but don’t go overboard. Unless it’s an article that’s meant to be mostly in list-form, don’t overdo it. Not everything has to be bulleted — I’m reading your article, not your grocery list.

Punctuation: Vary your punctuation (more on this in Style). Learn the difference between a hyphen (-) and a dash ( — ), and when to use them to break up your text.

Rule: Hyphens are for combining words (like punk-rock) while dashes are used to break sentences (see 3rd paragraph of introduction).

Quotes: Ok, say it with me now: Double quotes (“ ”) are for the beginning/end of any quotation, while single quotes (‘ ’) are for a quotation within a quotation. That means if you’re quoting an article in which the article is quoting something or someone else, you need both. Also learn when to use block-quoting as opposed to singular, smaller quotes (Medium has thankfully made this much easier for people to understand and use).

Colons and Semi-colons: For fuck-sake, do not use colons or semi-colons if you’re not 100% clear on how to do it. Your writing won’t suffer much — if at all — if you leave them out. It will suffer A LOT if you put them in and don’t know how to use them. Stick to what you know and don’t try to over-impress your reader.

For the record though: Colons usually break a sentence right before you list something, or move to a clause or phrase which is meant to clarify the previous clause or phrase.

Semi-colons break a sentence and separate two independent clauses which tackle the same thought.

[Brackets]: Last thing, but very important. Brackets are used to tell your reader that you’re changing something from the original quote, but more for formatting, aesthetic, or clarification reasons. For example, if you’re simply changing the tenses of a word from singular to multiple, just put the “s” in brackets so I know you’re making a minor edit.

Like this: “Kurt Cobain drew influence[s] from his favorite album[s] when writing the follow-up to Nirvana’s second album.”

Remember: [Brackets] are not the same as (parentheses)!!

Thesis

This is the “idea” we all learned about in 3rd grade that “goes at the end of your first paragraph.” Except that’s bullshit, and much too simple.

Your thesis is your main concept, but isn’t necessarily your “argument” (see next point) and doesn’t necessarily need to come at the end of your first paragraph. It goes wherever it fits best, though this is usually towards the top of your article.

The thing to remember about your thesis is that it’s your broad topical concept, which means it’s flexible. Flexibility is good. Don’t feel shackled to a boring, hyper-specific point. If broad works better for the sake of your piece, then go broad, and get more specific in your argument.

This is how you write like an editor: accept that flexibility is a good thing, and that there is no 1, 2, 3-step process for plugging in pieces to make a good essay. Experiment, beginning with your thesis.

Argument

I see this a lot as an editor. People confuse their thesis with their argument. They are not the same thing. Your thesis is the concept or topic you’re going to tackle; you’re argument is how you hammer your points home.

Do not, for the love of God, use the 5-paragraph essay format unless it fits your topic and article. This is meant to be a learning tool, not something you do when you actually start writing complex pieces. It’s too constraining, and makes people put in (or leave out) points depending on how many spots they have left between their intro and conclusion. Again, writing is about flexibility, not rigidity.

Here’s the big secret: make your argument fucking bullet-proof. Take a side, and pound your theory home. You don’t need to be a jerk about it, but hedging your bets and sitting on the fence is a very tough thing to do right, and takes a ton of practice. And even then, it’s really only good in certain situations.

If I can drive a truck through holes in your argument, reexamine it. Leave some flexibility for yourself so you don’t back yourself into a corner, but make your argument solid. (Hint: this is where you use all those wonderful quotes, links, and examples we’re all so fond of).

Length

This is something that’s become somewhat taboo in our bite-sized, bloggish culture. The concept of writing anything long is considered “old” and “ramble-y.” Posts that appear “too long” are labeled “tl;dr” and relegated to the bottom of the pile.

But the reality is that some pieces should be longer. Or not. It all depends on the article and what you’re writing about.

If you’re just giving me a list of things (ideas, tips, etc.), then let me know at the beginning that it’s a listicle. If it’s just a fleeting thought to consider, don’t gear me up at the beginning for a long thought-piece, otherwise when you end abruptly, it feels like the bottom has just dropped out.

But if it’s a topic and argument that demands a long-form length, then be damn sure you give the piece what it requires. Trying to squeeze too much into a bite-sized article is a sure-fire way to tell your readers you have no idea how to articulate what you want to say. There’s a reason that publications like The New Yorker specialize in long-form content: they know how to flesh out an argument, and how to do it well.

Cut, Cut, Cut

Be willing to cut. Sometimes less is more. Be honest with yourself: if those extra two paragraphs don’t serve your argument or style, kick ’em to the curb. Learn to love deleting extra junk. There’s nothing as paralyzing as “blank-page” syndrome, but there’s nothing more unsightly than flabby content that serves no purpose. If you write 3 pages and delete everything except for the 1 paragraph that’s exceptional, it’s a good day.

Understanding length and how to use it to your advantage is equally as important as understanding how to format to your advantage.

Style

Now we’ve finally come to the most important thing no one tells you about and everyone forgets about: your style is everything. It took working as an editor for me to understand that everyone has a unique style, and that’s what makes someone’s writing compelling — or boring.

Writing like an editor means understanding what style works for you, and really flexing your creative muscles with it. It means exploring the types of slang that make your writing your own, what types of structure you totally own, and what topics are in your wheelhouse. If you’re an expert in something, write like you are. If you know you’re not, then proceed more gingerly and don’t try to pretend you’re something that you’re not.

Use punctuation that you’re a master at; there’s no “learning on the job” when it comes to punctuation. Poorly chosen punctuation can absolutely kill a piece with potential.

The reader can always tell.

The irony is, the more you write about something, the more you know about it, and the more you begin to develop original thoughts on it.

Your voice is your own, and is the one thing you have complete control over. Understand that voices change and evolve over time — your early writing will look a lot different from your more mature pieces. This is a good thing. Learn to isolate what makes your writing voice special without getting bogged down in the past. Once you have it, run with it.

And that’s about it, for the moment.

And that’s about it, for the moment. I could tackle tons of other topics like introductions, conclusions, transitions, titles, citations, or writing a series of pieces, but I think I’ll save those for another day. The important thing to remember is that writing is a process. One and done isn’t how to play the game.

If you’re going to write something, get in the trenches and get dirty. Don’t make me read some half-hearted piece of crap if you don’t have anything real to say. The hard part is knowing what’s real enough to write about, so I’ll leave that up to you.

Find me on Twitter and let’s talk tech, writing, and music!

Dear Medium Publishers, Do Not Request My Story If…

Dear Medium publishers, do not request my story if you’re not going to respond to my follow-up emails. I work very hard on every piece that I write, and I take my writing seriously.
You should take it seriously too.

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What I Want to Know

Any time someone requests to put one of my stories in a publication, there are some things I want to know. These are:

1. When will you want me to submit it?

Some publications want to wait a certain amount of time before publishing and some do not. I don’t want my piece just floating out there in the ether. If you want to wait and push it out later, let me know so I can plan for that.

2. Will you want to change anything, and how will we agree upon that?

I’m very particular about what I write and how it’s written. I have no issue with altering it a little to fit the publication’s desires, but I want to know how the process goes. Is it casual and easy, or are you going to act like my boss? (Hint: this is not the right way to persuade me.)

3. What kinds of things will you want to change?

Every publication is different and has certain things they want to project. I respect that. But I need to know what sorts of things in my piece you might want to change. Are they stylistic things, title or header changes, or will you want to change something that now affects the overall message of the piece?

Some style things I can do to part with, others I will not—it just depends on the piece and the message. And it depends on how accepting and respectful you are of my style as a writer. If the article in question just cannot be morphed to fit the publication, perhaps we can collaborate together on an idea for a new piece that is exactly what you’re looking for. But never try to force anything.

4. How’s your grammar?

Grammar is extremely important to me. I am obsessive about the need for grammatical correctness, so make sure your publication seeks to make sure every piece is grammatically well-written—I want to be in the company of other competent writers.

It nonetheless is a tricky play because phrasing and writing can sometimes be grammatically incorrect even if it is colloquially correct (for example, if I’m writing an informal piece and use the phrase “I wanna”). As an editor of a publication, I expect you to be able to identify the difference between colloquially correct phrasing and straight grammatically incorrect sentence structure.

5. Who has the final say?

It’s your publication and you decide what’s good enough to go in; I respect that. But this is such an important question because of how Medium is set up. Once a piece is submitted and accepted into a publication, it’s open to the editor to edit as they see fit. This is one reason I’m extremely picky about who I work with.

Based on the questions above, I want to know who will have the final say. If you want my piece to say one thing and I want it to say another, I want to know if you’re just going to go over my head and edit my post without my knowledge or consent. I’m much more likely to continue to submit to your publication regularly if you respect my ability to say, “I’m not sure I want to edit this piece like that, but perhaps we could do another piece together.”

 

What a Request for My Story Should Look Like

This is a conversation I had with an interested editor during July. Notice how the person was extremely accommodating to my questions and patient when providing the answers. This is how a request for my story or collaboration should go:

My email, after the initial request for my story:

Their response:

My further response, and the beginning of a working relationship:

That’s how your requests should pan out if I have questions.

A Response Email Takes Five Minutes

In writing and publishing, as well as in every other part of life, it’s about the relationship that’s cultivated.

This is especially important if you’re asking me for material with an understanding that there will be no monetary compensation. 

There have been a lot of great pieces recently on freelance writers and not writing for free or for “simple exposure.” Personally, I think think this is an individual choice for each writer. At this point in my career, I’m ok with it, as long as what I get out of it in the end is a solid relationship with real opportunities for networking and exposure. If you tell me you’re going to give me exposure, then do it: tweet about my article, and tag me so that I can continue to build my writing reputation.

Not Answering My Follow-up Email

Because these are some of the basic things I consider when I’m writing a piece, requesting my piece and not emailing me back about my questions tells me:

  • a. You’re not serious about really wanting my piece
  • b. You don’t care how I feel about my piece as a writer
  • And/or c. My piece isn’t important enough to you to send me a simple response email

Time is valuable, and I don’t expect you to answer all of the above (and any further questions I might have) in one sitting. You don’t need to write me a book of a response, but really, a response email acknowledging my questions takes five minutes. My time is valuable too. If you want to work with me, then work with me, and treat my time as a writer as equally important as I treat yours as an editor/publisher.


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Real Music Journalists Are Biased Little Punks

A couple months ago I wrote a post entitled Why Music Journalism Bias Works—this is the deeper philosophy behind that notion.


Music Journalism Is a Messy Business

Music journalism is a messy business—it’s dirty, glamless, mostly thankless, and at times will make you tear your hair out. It’s a struggle every day, just like writing a novel or painting a masterwork. Only this novel forces you to deal with real people in real time in dingy little clubs for (most times) no money and little attention thereafter. Many times those people remember your name just long enough to ask you to write up a review of them, or to ask you to promote their newest EP. Sometimes, if you’re extremely lucky, you’ll find yourself crossing paths with people who you truly connect with—people who remember your name because they recognize that, like them, you’re an artist too. The deeper you get into this crazy world, the better you get at discerning these people from the ones who will only break your heart.

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Email from an artist

If you want to be “the enemy journalist” like the boy you saw in Almost Famous, go work for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair and write about intra-band politics or drug problems. That’s not real music journalism—that’s pretentious drivel the mainstream sucks down with a straw when they want to feel raw and grungy for a moment on the subway. Real music journalism takes place in the dark hours after show-sets as you sip a warm, flat beer waiting for the band to finish loading their gear into the van and hoping they remember to come chat with you before taking off for the next gig. The artists who remember are the golden ones to keep close to your vest.

Being a music journalist is not the same as being a music critic. A critic is inherently critical, and most times that’s in a negative, non-constructive way. There isn’t a desire to see an artist rise above the noise and reach their greatest heights—most times it’s just about tearing apart their latest release. Journalists, however, are freer. They retain the criticism-arrow in their quiver, but use it to augment an argument for why the artist deserves some amount of attention. It’s not about the power trip—it’s about expressing the same artistic voice as the artist, simply in journalism form. Sometimes that voice even connects with other writers, and you find yourself on the other end of the interview!

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Email I got from another music blogger when I was writing back in 2011

I’ve never been seated in a cushy booth with a comped drink, and I’ve only been guest-listed once (and even that was for a minor $10 ticket). I’ve been plagiarized and at times conveniently “forgotten” once an artist feels they’ve reached an “adequate level” of popularity. You learn to shake it off and focus on the real mission: get that next piece written and out to the world.

You Better Have a Late-Night Preference and Pair of Comfortable Shoes

If you want to be a music journalist—a real music journalist—you better have a late-night preference and a pair of comfortable shoes. Most times, the most intriguing things happen at the end of the night, when the show is over, and the other fans stream out to go home and sleep. And you’re still there with that warm beer in your hand, the bottle empty except for the little bit at the bottom, waiting to catch the merch person as they pack up the table. “I’m a music journalist/radio DJ, and I’d love to grab the band for a quick minute if that’s cool,” you say, hoping that the extra hour of waiting in the dive bar wasn’t for nothing.

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), Sunshine & Bullets (bottom left)

Me with: Those Mockingbirds (top left), Bloody Diamonds (top right), The Steppin Stones (bottom left), Sunshine & Bullets (bottom left)

In fact, the most rewarding, productive nights are when the band is real enough where their merch person isn’t an employee, but just a friend who agreed to do a  favor for a night. Those are usually the bands (artists) who you can catch as they move offstage and then sit behind their tables, happily selling $10 shirts and $1 stickers. Those are the singers, guitarists, drummers who you can grab. “Hey, I loved your set. I’d love to do a quick interview for my music blog if you’re down with that.” Hold your breath, but on the outside act nonchalant, like it’s whatever to you anyway. Then that awesome sentence: “Sure, let me grab the members and we’ll meet you outside in a minute.” Success!

Twenty minutes later you’re on your way home, your iPhone camera roll richer for the funny, quirky little interview that it now holds. You’re already thinking about when you can upload it to your blog and YouTube channel, and have promised to tag the band on Twitter and Facebook so they can promote it on their end.

Those are the nights you feel badass, the nights you let your creative self breathe.

As the Relationships Grow, So Does a Mutual Loyalty

The upshot of it all is that many of the artists you have brushes with move in and out of your life without much of a blip. But there are also those who seem to latch onto your attention, and as your fascination with them grows, so does your loyalty to them, and so does their loyalty to you. You’re not “the enemy” who they want to stay away from; you’re the valued source who they tap for advice about their new direction, the recipient of unmastered mixes and singles before they’re ready for anyone else, and of the album’s first copies when it finally drops. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might find yourself mentioned in the liner notes (one of the biggest rushes of my life to this day).

Mastered copy of an artist's new EP I received yesterday, 2 months before official release

Mastered copy of an artist’s new EP I received a couple weeks ago, 2 months before official release

If you want to write unbiased pieces, write about politics, economics, or world affairs, not music and not art. The very bias they tell you to do away with in journalism school and college writing classes is the very thing you should never lose. It’s your unique, creative voice that separates you from the professional critic whose “unbiased” approach is so cold and metallic it lacks any sense of joy in the music. It’s critical for the sake of mere criticism; real music journalists know this is a cop-out. Real music journalists are biased little punks who live and die by the artists they swear loyalty to. Their fealty is palpable and brusque, and immune to irrelevant blurbs written for soundbite effect and nothing else.

If you want to be lauded, go write a bestseller. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the fans who are so fanatical that music consumption for them is an addiction to be nurtured and enabled. It’s for the artists, the creatives, the music die-hards who simply strum better with a pen than with a guitar pick.

Spotify’s Sony Contract: What It Means for Everyone

With the leak of Spotify’s contract with Sony last week, there’s a lot of attention on the streaming service right now. I’ll be taking a closer look at that contract over the next week, but for now I’ll focus on the fallout over the last week. In particular there seems to be a lot of renewed interest on the music space, more so than I’ve seen in a while. I think, though, that this has to do with a lot more than simply one contract between two companies; for the first time perhaps, the general public (including music producers, artists, and general music listeners) is aware of the kind of deals being struck behind the scenes.

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Even as Spotify soars in newer valuations that have the company somewhere in the $8B range, yesterday’s leak shows that such a valuation may in fact be misleading—Spotify has to cough up around $43M just for licensing from Sony alone. How much do you think they need to cough up for the other two majors, Warner and Universal? Even if we snip off the extra $3-4M, and assume an upfront licensing fee of $40M from Sony—and then simply assume similar prices for Warner and Universal—then Spotify has already spent $120M of investor money. And that’s just for the privilege of having access to the major labels’ stable of artists.

Also, don’t forget that’s before royalties and any other metrics that Spotify has to hit. Therefore it’s more like $43M upfront for the privilege to pay more later on; it’s not a one-and-done purchase. And most unfortunate for Spotify, this latter number is also predicated on how an artist performs in popularity, something they have essentially no control over.

I’m not going to rewrite Micah Singleton‘s article, but I will draw on a number of points he highlighted and what they mean in reality. There are numerous points of importance, but these are the ones I think the general public really needs to be apprised of. Though the contract has since been removed, we got the basic gist:

  1. Written by Sony—First let’s just take a moment to note that the contract was written by Sony. Of course this is their prerogative, but when considering the fact that Sony holds the rights to much of the content that Spotify wants to license, it clearly illustrates who is subject to whom. Frankly, since Sony holds the content rights, they (and the other major labels) essentially hold Spotify’s lifeblood in their hands—that’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. Realistically Spotify is not built around an independent and free model, so they need to play ball with Sony and the other labels, or they won’t play at all. Period.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 8.01.23 AM
  2. Advances—Spotify paid Sony $42.5M just for the right to license the music. That’s an upfront fee just to get in the door. This means that anyone looking to compete head to head with Spotify or Rdio needs to magically have about $130M lying around or in funding before they even get their feet wet (projecting the combined upfront licensing fees of the Big Three major labels). One of the reasons that Spotify has to raise such massive funding rounds is because these advances are somewhat annual, and thus need to be renegotiated all the time. And as the major labels continue to get squeezed in their wallets, these numbers are only going to rise for services looking to use major label content.
  3. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.33 PMDivided How and Among Whom?—As Singleton points out, Sony can essentially do whatever they want with that money; there’s no stipulation that it has to be divided in any particular way, or that any of it has to go to artists or songwriters. According to multiple sources, that money usually stays with the label and is generally not shared with artists. This particular point has raised such criticism that its prompted both a response from the EU, which is now looking into Spotify’s contracts, and virtually obliged Sony to come out with a public statement on the matter. Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.36.56 PM
  4. Most Favored Nation Clause—Essentially a clause that guarantees that Spotify’s balls remain in Sony’s vicegrip. The clause guarantees Sony the right to amend  any portion of the contract if it perceives that any other label has a better deal than it does. This means that Sony is essentially never bound to Spotify in any way; it can decide—based on its own perception—that another label has a better deal (which it may or may not) and rework the entire deal for its own benefit. And Spotify has to swallow everything.
    Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.41.24 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.42.20 PMWhere this really kills Spotify is when used in conjunction with the clause dictating payment based on market share. Thus, if another label has a better deal in that regard—perhaps double what Sony is getting monetarily—then Spotify has to cough up and pay Sony the difference.
  5. Spotify’s 15%—Basically exactly what it sounds like. Spotify takes 15% of the revenues from third-party advertising right off the top. What they do with this money is unknown, though it’s quite plausible that they’re not redistributing it to the artists, and are probably giving third-party advertisers a raw-ish deal. Next time Spotify releases a statement saying that they don’t have the funds to pay the artists more money, let’s all remember this little financial tidbit.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.47.16 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.48.28 PM
  6. Sony’s Ad Spots—This one’s pretty easy to understand: essentially Spotify is obligated to give Sony a certain amount of free ad space on its service. The ad space—which is clearly worth a fair amount of money—is given to Sony at a massive discount.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.53.33 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.09 PMBut that’s not all; Sony retains the right to sell the credited ad space to whomever they want, whenever they want. Again, Spotify gets squeezed.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 2.54.41 PM
  7. User Metrics—Spotify essentially has goals it needs to hit in terms of its user metrics (on both payment tiers), and if it misses those, it could be penalized. Conversely, if it exceeds expectations in either of the tier metrics, it recalculates that number so that Sony gets paid more. In English, what this means is that the better Spotify does, the more money Sony is entitled to, but doesn’t necessarily mean that it all works out for the streaming service.Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.40 PM Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.07.51 PMIt’s important to remember that Sony isn’t in the business of making sure that it backs up Spotify. It—like the other major labels—is licensing its music to numerous services, so its only real loyalty is to its bottom line. How that affects Spotify is essentially irrelevant to the major label.
  8. The Royalty Distribution (Forget About the Artists)—Without going too deeply into it (Singleton’s initial analysis and infographics are worth consulting), it basically boils down to this: the royalties per stream are so miniscule that you need to be getting millions of streams in order to make any real money (and by real, I mean anything more than $10.00). We all know that independent artists are never going to get to that level trying to compete on an unfair playing field, so let’s just put that point to bed right now. One thing that is worth noting now, though, is that not even every artist has a contract entitling them to royalties. So for all the bluster about royalty payments, many of the artists signed to major labels aren’t even entitled to fair cuts from the streaming.Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.33.02 PMBut even more so, the way in which streaming royalties are calculated is so incredibly convoluted you almost need a degree in economics just to understand it. That’s not how it should be. For independent artists—and even mainstream artists who simply want to understand the financial dynamics—this is yet another way of keeping them in the dark. No one in any other industry would accept some sort of voodoo economics principle when it came to calculating their earnings, so why should music artists—mainstream or independent—have to settle for that? That’s the point, they shouldn’t.

There are numerous other points worth discussing, but these are some of the major ones that discussions of the music industry revolve around. Though arguably a major embarrassment for Sony and Spotify, the leaking of the contract between the two really shines a bright light on what goes on behind the scenes. It clarifies that what happens behind the curtain affects every type of artist, and underscores why more transparency and reform is needed in the music industry. And it highlights something else: the music industry is not dead and foregone. We’re now right on the precipice of a whole new type of music industry that’s taking shape every day. Those who accept and embrace the new dynamics will be the ones who benefit most from them when they inevitably come.

 

Thanks to Shelley Marx for reading early drafts of this.

Taking Days to Breathe

There are days that sit in between one’s most productive days; they perch halfway in between relaxation and frustration. They’re relaxing because you find yourself somewhat able to recuperate in your mind, but are frustrating for almost the same reason—you feel lazy, unproductive, distracted. Some of these days aren’t so bad, and you might enjoy the reprieve a bit. And still many of them are terrible because what have you got to show at the end of the counting hours?

These are the days which all creative types loath. You can’t hate them fully because you know in the back of your mind you need to take days to breathe, to recharge and reset. But we hate them nonetheless because our minds are most always on—they never turn off and we like it that way.

It’s hard as a creative type—particularly as a writer—to accept that these stretches of time are necessary. In the end, we simply can’t be on all the time, though we try to fool ourselves into thinking so. We might like to believe that we can forge ahead—push through—on a creative and/or intellectual level, but it’s rarely ever our best work. Many times it’s a placeholder for the better work to come. Sometimes it’s that push-through right after those sorts of days that we are most proud of in our work portfolio.

Take a day to breathe every now and then—the work only really suffers when you burn out completely.

SoundCloud’s Failed Highwire Balancing Act: The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

Trying (and Failing) to Balance Two Completely Different Paradigms

The SoundCloud-Sony Breakup

The Sony-SoundCloud Breakup

It’s been a tough week for Sony between its leaked contract with Spotify and criticism over its moves with SoundCloud. And yet, inasmuch as the former is embarrassing and will certainly come back to bite the two companies, the latter is arguably more problematic because it’s not simply between Sony and SoundCloud; it’s between Sony, SoundCloud and the independent artists and fans. That last little caveat is something that Sony can afford to ignore—but it’s going to become an increasingly difficult reality for SoundCloud.

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

SoundCloud, now a platform for major labels and advertisers

News broke over the last couple of weeks that Sony has started pulling their artists’ music from SoundCloud—regardless of what the artists want. To Sony, SoundCloud isn’t a viable option since it doesn’t presently have a strong monetization plan (as if services like Spotify and Rdio do), and until the label and streaming service can come to terms, it seems that any and all Sony-controlled material will be stripped from SoundCloud.

This has put SoundCloud in quite a precarious position. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to alienate its initial die-hard independent fanbase, but on the other it’s been actively seeking out a deal with Sony, as well as with the other two major labels, Warner and Universal (already having one in place with Warner). SoundCloud is trying to balance two completely different bases and paradigms that are moving in opposite directions: 1) the major label paradigm which is still predicated on an obsolete business model, and 2) the independent paradigm which is increasingly embracing “free” as a big part of the future.

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What the major label industry really looks like; The Big Three

What I Said a Month Ago

On April 9th, SoundCloud signed a deal with Zefr—that same day, I wrote a post on why independents should very soon kiss SoundCloud goodbye; why the Zefr deal was essentially irrelevant for them. It seems I wasn’t the only one who’d identified SoundCloud’s prospective problems, as a day later on April 10th, PandoDaily writer David Holmes came to the same conclusion and published a piece with a similar premise. Holmes’ post validated many of my points, and cleverly brought up a few others, all to conclude, as I had, that the Zefr deal was a band-aid for a bullet wound. And now the bullet wounds are really beginning to gush blood.

This week, electronic artist Madeon released a heavily critical statement regarding he Sony-SoundCloud breakup, noting: “Thank you SoundCloud for being such a great discovery platform over the past five years. Well done Sony for holding your own artists hostage.”

Ouch. Snap. Burn.

Clearly Madeon (along with droves of other EDM artists who’ve gained significant followings on SoundCloud) isn’t pleased with Sony’s “money first” thought process and strategy. And while Sony has the legal right to pull music which it holds the rights to, in the grand scheme, it’s not exactly a play which will endear it either to the fans it seeks, or the artists it works with. Actually, it has the complete opposite effect.

Who’s the First Priority?

But what lies beneath the surface of this very public breakup is not simply an issue for Sony, but a major issue for SoundCloud. People expect Sony to act like a major label—because that’s what it is. But increasingly, SoundCloud has been chasing the major label content which it thinks could help it become more competitive with Spotify, Rdio and Apple. In the process, it’s spitting in the faces of the people who loved SoundCloud for what it was before: free discovery.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.55.46 PM

Excerpt from my original April 9th article

And as SoundCloud moves closer to the major label paradigm, it becomes increasingly irrelevant for independent artists, regardless of genre. Independents are where SoundCloud cut its teeth, so now, moving away from the free-model will leave them somewhat toothless. Case in point: SoundCloud’s new NMPA deal, which, again, is irrelevant for independent artists.

The thing about the independents is that, unlike major label artists who are tied to the major label business model, they’re not tied to anybody. Their loyalty can and will be to whoever gives them the best service as a first priority, not an afterthought. This means the best service for the independents, not the best they can do after the major labels have had their fill. SoundCloud is trying to perform a balancing act on a razor-thin highwire and it’s 600lbs overweight. It’s trying to straddle two completely different business paradigms, and managing to piss everyone off in the process.

Free Is Here to Stay—Live With It

The free paradigm which the labels are beginning to get fed up with isn’t going away—something which Peter Kafka seized on in his article on Spotify. Free is a way of life now, and as independent artists continue to explore the benefits that free affords them, they will increasingly detach themselves from the obligations of the major label paradigm. Services like SoundCloud will eventually have to choose a side—something that’s going to be exceedingly difficult for SoundCloud now that they already have a deal with Warner and are chasing deals with the other two major labels.

Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 3.56.48 PM

Excerpt from my original April 9th article

It seems that they’ve already made their choice, and it won’t be too long before droves of independents notice. They don’t have to and won’t settle for being second-tier priorities, and will look for alternative options. In the meantime, Sony and SoundCloud will duke it out until the former signs the latter to a major label-style contract.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re an independent, kiss SoundCloud goodbye.

Karma, Passion and Identity: A Response to Chris Sacca’s Bleeding Aqua

Chris Sacca‘s post “I Bleed Aqua.” yesterday is the must-read (or rather, reread) for me today. It’s poignant and candid, enabling it to speak on a deeper level than perhaps would be possible, had it been more reserved. It touches on business terms, but it’s really not about business at all. It’s about relationships and identity.

Sacca illustrates his relationship with the service in an intriguing way, preferring to start the post with a declaration of his passion for it, rather than examining it as a wise business investment. Though he touches on this candidly in the following paragraphs, they fade somewhat when compared to the arguably deeply personal thoughts he shares.

For him, it seems to be so much about the relationships and personal experiences it’s allowed him to have—how it’s allowed him to share milestones in his life with friends (and complete strangers), and to glean from that a certain conversation with the world. As he bluntly notes, “Twitter went from just being an investment to a huge part of my identity.”

And like with so many things, I make the music analogy in my head. If Twitter was the indie band trying to gain any sort of traction in its early days, then Sacca was the truly passionate fan who brought people to their shows and proudly wore their T-shirts. He was (and is) the fan who identified something so magnetic that by his own words, they became a part of him—a part of his identity.

For anyone who missed Sacca’s Periscope talk with Peter Pham on Wednesday, a huge topic that they covered (well, huge in my opinion) was the concept of good karma and relationship building. When discussing the process by which he builds and cultivates his relationships (personal as well as professional), Pham stated that one should do things for others without asking for anything upfront: “create value before asking for value.” Pham and Sacca seemed to agree that the dynamic of good karma was something they both subscribed to. Pham went on to discuss how it’s through this dynamic of good faith and positive relationships that he’s built his (former and current) companies.

Sacca’s subsequent post on how he thinks about his relationship with Twitter is telling of this sort of relationship dynamic. In many ways, it illustrates the notion that I discussed in my post on being excellent; letting your passion inform your professional decisions as much as good business strategy. As I examined with Product Hunt, letting concepts of community and positive relationships inform one’s business tactics is a winning strategy. Even as he discusses the concept of being critical of some of Twitter’s moves towards the end of the post, he does so in a way that reaffirms his love of the service, and excitement at what it is and can be.

Perhaps the strongest sentence is also the simplest. Just three words: “I bleed aqua.” That’s how Sacca caps his post—a blunt, positive statement. And that’s exactly how the post as a whole comes off: blunt, positive, reaffirmed, excited.

Be Excellent: Even After a 4-Year Hiatus, People Remember You

"Be excellent to each other"

“Be excellent to each other”

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from a guy who I didn’t know. At least, I didn’t think I knew him. I didn’t recognize his name, and couldn’t remember where I would have met him. And then it hit me—I did know him, from years ago!

Perhaps one of the most magical things about Facebook is how it’s enabled people to reconnect with people they haven’t seen in long bouts of time. Yet, inasmuch as reconnecting with old classmates or coworkers is nice and can dredge up all sorts of nostalgic feelings, reconnecting with people you’d even forgotten about is certainly a different kind of trip.

Screenshot of Facebook message from old band contact

Screenshot of Facebook message from old band contact

The guy who messaged me yesterday was someone I’d connected with years ago, and we haven’t spoken since early 2011. At the time, he was a guitarist in a band in the U.K., and I was a hungry new music journalist who’d stumbled across their band page. I’d fallen in love with their garage rock sneer, and written up a short piece on them. We’d exchanged a few messages and gotten to know each other a bit.

And then they went silent (on a hiatus and then breakup, I’m now aware). I moved on and went to college, and frankly forgot about them. Not out of malice, but simply because people get busy with life.

Yet to get this message yesterday from him—telling me he’d taken a break from music for a few years but was now back with a new project, had some demos, would love my opinion on them (was I even in the music industry anymore?)—was as thrilling as our first correspondence. It reminded me of why I love the independent music industry so much. It reminded me of the dynamics that are so magical—that you can go years without speaking to someone, move on with your life, and resume your conversation like no time had passed at all.

"Party on, dudes!"

“Party on, dudes!”

I’m not perfect by any means, but I do my best to take to heart Bill and Ted’s poignant mantra: “Be excellent to each other.” You never know what will come of your relationships with people.

I’ve since listened to his demos and they’re awesome. I’ll be messaging him tonight to see how I can become involved in his new project. This is where the real thrill is in the music industry. At the end of the day, like so many other arenas, it all comes back to the people you meet and the relationships you develop. Everything else is secondary.

Learn to Really Talk to People

Many nights I stay up and reflect on deep things that transpire throughout the day, and ponder meanings of ambiguous gestures by people. Tonight though, I’m thinking less about ambiguous happenings and more on specific thoughts flowing through my head. Tonight, the notions from the day are simpler to decipher.

I always go back to my belief that relationships with other people are everything. They define our lives, and open up doors for us even when we’re not necessarily looking. Talking to people, and being able to do so with relative ease, is something that I believe everyone should learn how to do, at least on some level. But people need to also learn to hear others; not just listen, but hear. Hear what other people are saying, even if you need to listen for the words between the words. Being able to read the non-verbal cues that people put out—what’s important to them, and how to augment those things with your own positivity—is one of the sure-fire ways to cultivate meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with people. Everything else follows that.

“On Our Horizon”: The Commencement Speech I Never Gave at Brandeis University

As we approach the graduation weekend for numerous schools around the country, I’ve been reflecting on the past year. A year out of the dorm, and a year beyond the home I made during my college years.

I graduated from Brandeis University a year ago this month, and as I see posts containing the words “graduation” and “college” beginning to trend on Facebook and Twitter, I remember what it was like sitting my dorm days before life would take a major turn.

4-inch-72dpi

And I think about the commencement speech draft I wrote, but ultimately didn’t end up giving during graduation. Another wonderful speech was chosen, but as I reread the words the went pen to paper 12 months ago, it’s striking just how much they still hold true today. Even more striking, though, is just how applicable they might be and are to most every student graduating now, regardless of the school.

I’m struck reading it just how much it still resonates with me. And it seems that it should see some sort of public viewing, even after a year, and even if it’s not from my lips at a graduation ceremony. So I suppose I’ll take a chance and publish it here.

The terms may not apply to every school, and the people referenced may have long since found new avenues. But I still think perhaps some few might get something out of reading it. I certainly did writing it. I wrote it while listening to the song “You’re a God” by Vertical Horizon; I’m not sure what exactly was in that song, but to me, it seems to capture the surmounting victory and limitlessness of graduation perfectly.

So I’ve simply copied my original text; no corrections, omissions or substitutions. Honest words for an honest feeling, take from it what you will. This is how I felt a year ago this month. Accomplishment and pride in oneself go hand in hand as we forge through tough times to hit our most celebrated highs. To all those graduating, congratulations on reaching a new horizon.

On Our Horizon

Everything we need is right here before us. We have conquered so much to be here now, and our tide is still rising. To my fellow graduates of the Brandeis University class of 2014: Congratulations!! We’ve reached our horizon!!

What we have accomplished here today is success unto itself. We have succeeded in becoming what we always thought we might be, but never truly could be until we came here, to Brandeis; we have succeeded in fully becoming the best versions of ourselves: compassionate, driven, talented, destined. As far as we move in the future, as uncertain as our paths might seem, or scary the times may become, we will always know that it was here at Brandeis that we become heroes, the masters of ourselves, our pasts and our destinies.

I could never be anything but honest in saying this to all of you. As Brandeis graduates have stood here before me to say, “thank you” is what we can only begin to communicate back to our esteemed President Lawrence, Provost Goldstein, the members of the board of trustees, and Brandeis alumni. Even more, though, to the distinguished and hard-working faculty and staff, our honored guests, our friends, and most importantly, our families, without whom none of us would be standing here today.

In the seven semesters that I’ve spent here at Brandeis (yes, I was a Midyear, and such a cult status will never be lost on me haha), I’ve learned more than I could ever articulate at this particular moment. I was breathless with excitement and determination on the day my acceptance letter came, and I only became more so the moment my college career began here, a feeling I’m sure you all share.

Because that is exactly the kind of school that Brandeis is; the kind of school that challenges us to achieve all that we can, the kind of school that challenges us to be masters. Yet Brandeis is the sort of place that welcomes not only those students who are academically bright and accomplished, but those students who possess other talents, most more than anyone could ever imagine. Brandeis accepted me when I certainly didn’t have the 4.0 GPA. Yet they saw in me not what I had ever been (in grade school, high school, or whatever), but what I could be as a Brandeis graduate. For all of you, I can only begin to imagine the potential that Brandeis saw when your names came across the desks here.

And what a breathtaking community we’ve cultivated here, like no other anywhere on earth. We are not content to crawl; Brandeis students run everywhere, most times with three or four textbooks in hand! But I’ve seen Brandeis students achieve amazing things: I’ve seen students create a more stable sense of community than I have likely ever seen, rejoice with one another when the times are wonderful, and console one another when the times are tough.

Little did I know when I stepped foot on campus during Orientation the experiences at Brandeis that would unfold before me; the experiences that will forever shape my life. Here’s just a little bit of what we did. Things we loved (and some things we regretted so much haha!):

  • We rode down the library hill in the snow, flipping over on impact at the bottom
  • We all somehow got through UWS
  • We fought tooth and nail for the best seats in the library during finals (regretting immensely when we left for just a minute to grab a coffee!)
  • We put together amazing broadcasts on BTV and WBRS (seriously, who doesn’t have a WBRS shirt?)
  • We dominated in sports (sometimes haha), led by our captivating athletes (and yes, we all tried desperately to figure out what our mascot actually was (apparently an owl with a law degree who sits on a jury))
  • We totally rocked the social justice thing; no we didn’t always agree, but hey, we’re the judges and jury, so would anyone expect us to?!
  • We absolutely excelled in the classroom, and collected majors and minors like they were baseball cards (and yes, I still only have one major, so I might be back in the future!)
  • We hung out at Ollie’s way past our bedtime, rocked out at Chum’s and ordered Asia Wok way more than any of us want to admit (yes, this is another regret we think back on warmly haha)
  • We mentored each other, competed with one another, and learned more in four years than many of us thought possible
  • And most importantly, we made friends and relationships that will last a lifetime

Brandeis is just one more step in our life’s journey, but one that we will hold close forever. Last year, I went abroad and found myself in Amsterdam, in a city, country, and culture vastly different from my own (ok, not that different haha). And although I miss Amsterdam every day, while I was there I found myself missing Brandeis every day. No, I didn’t miss the BranVan so much, or the Rabb steps, and I for sure didn’t miss that ridiculous East Hill most of us had the displeasure of trekking up in the winter. No, what I missed was the sense of community that one can only describe as “Brandeis social justice.” Because it’s not something that we do to create a sense of community for social events in Waltham or Boston, but also something that we create for each other here, every day.

It’s something that begins to envelop prospective students the minute they come for a tour, and something we all feel throughout our time here. And while I made wonderful friends while I was abroad, and felt a sense of community that was special at that time in my life, nothing was or will ever be able to replace what we have with one another here at Brandeis. The support we give to one another, the benefits we afford each other and the pride we take in one another…these are all things that we came to learn best during our years here.

And now this time has come to an end, and it’s time for us all to move to our next chapters in life. But what a ride it was! We handled it as best we could, and I must say, I think we absolutely succeeded. I could say that I believe that the degrees we receive today are a testament to our accomplishments. Except they aren’t. They are an affirmation of what we already know: we, us, here right now, we are our own testament. We are all we need. Look to the people sitting beside you today, and take pride in the people they are, take pride in yourselves. Let us take pride in who we have all become. We have become the heroes of our own stories, masters of our own destinies, if only for a little while. That is what our degrees are a testament to: that we will never give up, and that the drive and success we found here at Brandeis will follow us our whole lives through.

So today as we strike the next notes in our symphonies, remember what Brandeis taught us: be fearless, take risks, dare to dream, dare to strive for something more. Reach the crescendo like we did every day here. Continue to be Brandeisian in every moment of your lives, lending hands to the world and spreading the values that were instilled in us here. We’re pretty stubborn, I think we’ll make it work.

I am inspired by every one of you every day, and look forward to seeing the amazing things that you all, that we all, accomplish. Congratulations, class of 2014!! We are heroes. We did it!!