Mailbag: What Working in Music Writing Has Done to My Love of Music

Mailbag: What Working in Music Writing Has Done to My Love of Music

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday, along with some thoughts and criticism around the music in the playlist.

Hello! Maybe you follow me on Twitter and are surprised that I'm sending one of these out, after I mentioned that this week would be an off week for the newsletter. Maybe you don't and are like, "What the hell is he talking about right now?" Well, to keep it brief-ish, I had a brief spat of technical difficulties that took the web browser version of this newsletter offline for a spell, so I initially halted publication this week in anticipation of a more prolonged period of fixing things up. However, I got things off the ground and running again, so, here I am.

Before we get to today's Mailbag post though, some more housekeeping to take care of: Over the next month, I'll likely be migrating this newsletter's hosting site back to Substack. The reasoning is simple: Letterdrop recently informed me that I should be preparing to change platforms due to a shift in their own business model. I appreciate the home they provided for this newsletter over time, and even though I'm not thrilled to undergo another migration, much less back to a platform I've already once departed, other options are limited and I need a home for this thing that will have some sort of stability (although, time will always tell, haha).

If you have any questions, comments, or gently-worded hate mail regarding this pending migration, you can reach out to and I'll answer anything you send over that isn't a death threat. I don't think there will be any changes to subscription pricing or structuring—I believe Substack allows you to adjust subscription pricing on your own now—but if there are, I will communicate them ahead of time to give everyone time to change their own plans accordingly if need be. Thanks as always for sticking with it regardless, and in 2023 there will guaranteed be plenty of stuff for you to enjoy as well.

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OK! So let's get down to business—specifically, the second-ever Mailbag installment. This one comes from Twitter user @ratduff, who recently asked:

"I've always wondered: how does your job affect your overall enjoyment and consumption of music? Meaning, when you are given an album review assignments, or even multiple assignments, do you dedicate your time to those albums only or do you carve out time to balance out your music consumption? Does your constant consumption of contemporary artists make it hard to revisit older, loved albums? What percentage of music you listen to are genres that you wouldn't normally or artists that you don't enjoy?"

I'm going to work backwards with my response here to get some of my shorter replies to this multi-part question out of the way. As I gestured towards in the first Mailbag segment back in September, I listen to a lot of stuff daily that I don't typically gravitate towards or enjoy—by design, really, it's how my listening habits are structured at this point. (I won't go into explaining that structure because, again, you can go back to that first Mailbag and realize that it is a very detailed explanation.)

Because the way I listen to music is so methodological, that means that I'm not spending a ton of time being like, "Hey, I'm going to go through a phase where I'm listening to music from the '50s," or, "I'm really into Can's entire discography right now." (I do love Can, though.) A lot of the non-contemporary crate-digging I do is through reissues or recommendations that I'll throw onto one of the queues, and I still make regular older-music discoveries as a result (who knew I'd love Tom Petty's Wildflowers so much?). But as a listener who's also actively disseminating recommendations to other listeners, most of my listening time is focused on new-ish music discovery, which, like, it's not like there's a ton of that being done in general these days anyway...

I digress. So, let's talk briefly about how my listening habits change when I have music-focused assignments. For interview prep, I'll often spend a day or two taking in the artist's whole catalog to really live within it, and that goes double for prepping to write a review—which, to be fair, I really don't do that much anymore except for when I'm asked to by, say, Entertainment Weekly or Stereogum.

Over the last two years I've been on, let's call it an "involuntary hiatus," from contributing to Pitchfork, where most of my review-based writing was going during an 18-month span that started with my departing VICE in early 2018. To date, Pitchfork remains the place I've longest worked at in a full-time capacity—just shy of five years—so when taking that into account, as well as my own pathological two-out-of-two-therapists-disapprove need to be accepted and approved of by LITERALLY EVERYONE, this "involuntary hiatus" (which was communicated to me as a refusal to add me back to their pool of freelancers, with no further explanation as to why) got and remains under my skin.

However, when I divorce myself from any self-obsessive tendencies (not an easy task), I can see a silver lining to being cut out of contributing to a publication whose taste I had a massive hand in shaping throughout the first half of the 2010s. When I started working full-time at Pitchfork in March of 2010, one of the greatest thrills of maintaining the Tracks section was the ability to really dig into virtual and physical promo stacks to discover stuff that people hadn't heard yet and share those discoveries with everyone. Sometimes, I'd watch acts get signed to labels off the strength of being posted in Tracks, which was at once exciting and terrifying.

I initially approached the duty with total naivete, believing that when it came to working in music media, that deep listening really was all you needed to do to get the job done suitably and appropriately. In reality, much of working in music media involves aspects of consuming music that have nothing to do with actually listening to music. I'll try to paint a picture of what my jumbled inner monologue resembled when it came to my full-time work at music publications at large:

  1. The base level was "Here's an opinion about this music." Maybe I love it, maybe I hate it, maybe I don't have a dog in this fight and am interested in what others more well-versed in the artist/genre have to say. Either way, this is the straight-from-the-tap level of things, totally untainted by any outside influence.
  2. The next level is where the trouble begins immediately: "How is the site going to receive this music?" More specifically, "How personally am I going to take the site's critical evaluation of this music?" There's a lot of so-called youthful passion at play here, where you devote yourself so thoroughly to having an opinion about something that whether the publication confirms or repudiates your opinion is of deep personal consequence. (I say "so-called" because, if you're the type to carry this impulse at any time, it never really goes away.)
  3. Then you have another layer of doubt and distrust towards those ultimately making the decisions. This is due to many things—we're talking personal biases, random acts of discrimination, and seemingly baffling aesthetic preferences all of which you've bore witness to. An earlier draft of this post featured specific theoretical examples of these occurrences that, upon re-reading, came off as childish and needlessly specific, so I'm depriving you of those, sorry. But these are experiences that happen everywhere, at every ad-supported music publication, and if you're someone who loves listening to music passionately to begin with, they amplify the negative and positive vibes associated with listening to music at all times, to a ridiculous and often all-consuming degree.
  4. Oh yeah, and then we get to "the conversation," "the discourse," or whatever you want to call the gaping maw of music chatter on social media. Critically, most if not all music publications have been totally defanged in the last five years by forces out of their control, their tastemaking abilities only moving the needle to serious effect through the publication of myriad canon-setting-and-resetting lists—so in 2022 "the conversation" really does make up 95% of music criticism at this point. But from, say, 2010 to somewhere between 2016 and 2018, the decisions music publications made were effectively cogs in the machinations of driving "the conversation," so maybe if your mind had been deeply poisoned by a career of music writing (as is/was mine), you're listening to stuff and hoping your coworkers enjoy it with you and scowling at the people who just don't get it, man and also thinking "So when we put this out there, how are people going to talk about it?" and then maybe even feeling some sort of disappointment when people don't talk about it even though you should probably be feeling some sort of relief about avoiding scrutiny for another day.
  5. Astoundingly, this is all easily felt without having written one word about the music that you're listening to itself. So, like, writing a review, or a profile, or a critical piece? It's all of the above, plus you feel like you're constantly swatting a red dot off of your forehead that may or may not actually be there to begin with.

Everything I just described is, and I mean this sincerely and with a deep amount of self-reflection, no way to live. And yet it's how my relationship towards consuming music more or less trended while working full-time at a variety of music publications. Working in a freelance capacity eased the pressure of some of this self-derangement a bit, but only by a little, as the constant footrace of freelancing itself added new and unique pressures when it came to what, how, and why I was listening to music on your free time.

The bottom line is that I gravitated towards music writing at a very young age (I've technically been doing this since I was 15, for 20 years now) simply because I loved music, and the more of an established music writer I became, the more I found that being a music writer in a full-time and professional sense can really make you hate music, too. I am writing purely from personal experience here, but based on endless conversations, bullshit sessions, IMs, DMs, texts, Google Chats, and whatever else makes for interpersonal communication these days, I am positive that other music writers have found themselves and are potentially operating in some version of the ideological hellhole I've laid out above.

Over the last two years, my relationship to music listening has improved considerably as a result of actively focusing on what my priorities are as a listener and a critic, instead of trying to "keep up" with the remnants of opinion immediacy that still course through music media. If I can be candid (lol), quitting drinking played a huge role (I still think it's underestimated how much of the media class in general is literally fueled by alcohol, and how the bulk of decisions made in that space are tainted with the perpetual yo-yo'ing of seratonin levels that constant alcohol consumption results in) as did starting this newsletter, where I really write for myself and my audience and no one else in particular.

Of course, once you're in it, you're kind of in it for life: I recently told my wife about how much I've been enjoying the Wet Leg record, which she'd been listening to throughout the year already. I said to her that I believe the backlash against the band is largely because they make making music sound so easy, and she said to me, "What backlash?" which was a reminder that, even as the conversation doesn't really rankle me anymore, I'm still an active participant in some form.

All this is to say that working in music media can and will literally destroy your relationship to listening to and writing about music if you are not mindful enough of who you are, what you do, and why you live to do it. And as much as there exists the career-gamified rush of something like a Pitchfork byline or a high-level editorial job (which, let's be real, I would also take either if offered, all the while trying to apply any so-called "wisdom" I've since accrued), I'm extremely satisfied with listening to music on my own terms for now, with few external pressures existent at the moment. More importantly, I'm a lot less miserable, too.

If you have your own question—about music, writing, music writing, or anything else at all—you can reach out any way you want with it, including at I'll try to answer anything I can in future installments.

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Jamie Larson