An interview with

Amy Phillips

Senior Editor, News, Pitchfork

True To Me Too: What were some of the first sources of music news you read growing up?

Amy Phillips: Definitely magazines, actually more than magazines probably the daily newspaper in Philadelphia where I grew up.  The Philadelphia Inquirer is probably where I got most of my up to the minute music news (laughs) in the entertainment columns. Magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin, Alternative Press, Option, things like that.  Then of course MTV and MTV news.  I didn’t really have the internet until college.

What made you want to write about music?

The first thing that really made me want to was Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are the Nirvana biography.  I read it and I was a huge Nirvana fan and I loved the idea of someone whose job it was to hang out with the band and write about it.  Then just reading all those magazines and concert reviews in the local paper.  I thought I love to write and I love music so I guess I could do this as a job.

What was the music scene like growing up in Philadelphia?

At the time it was a lot of hip-hop, that was definitely very big, The Roots were starting out and Jill Scott. Looking back that was probably the most exciting stuff  coming out of Philadelphia when I was growing up.  I can’t say I was into tons of local bands maybe some pop-punk and emo stuff, really early first wave emo, 1998, 1999.  I wasn’t really involved in the local music scene.  I was much more interested in touring bands.  I kind of regret not getting involved more at a local level cause I’m sure there was tons more stuff that I would have discovered.

A big turning point for me was in 8th grade we had a career day in which you would shadow someone whose career you wanted to have.  For a day you would go with them on the job and I went with the music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer to a Foo Fighters concert. It was their first tour.  I saw what he did and how he took notes and he showed me around his office. That was mind blowing to me at 13 years old.  I thought wow when I grow up I want to do this.  Of course today the idea of a 13 year old wanting to be a newspaper rock critic is kind of absurd but back then it wasn’t.

What were some of the first jobs you had and how’d you get those?

For me it was all about having internships, working for free to eventually get paid.  My first internship was at Philadelphia City Paper, which is a weekly in Philly, during my freshman year of college.  Then I interned at the Village Voice and CMJ magazine.  In all of those cases I just kind of volunteered to write about whatever music stuff they would offer.  Eventually they would give me a chance and I would get more and more work and getting actually paid to write for various places.

I became known as being reliable and I would turn my stuff in on time so editors would recommend me to other people and I was able to freelance a lot.  When I graduated college I worked part-time at the Village Voice, they had a very short lived internet radio station that I helped run part-time. I freelanced the rest of the time.  I was somehow able to get my name out there and keep going, a lot of the places I wrote for don’t exist anymore but at that time, 2003-2004, there were a lot of places that would pay you to write about music.  Way more than there are now. I was able to cobble together a living that way.

What did you take in school?

I went to Columbia here in New York and I majored in American Studies.  I did not go to their journalism program because they did not have journalism for undergrads, I guess because they want you to pay more money and go to their grad school.  I don’t really have any formal journalism training, I just did American Studies and a lot of interning and writing on the side.

I came across your old blog and I noticed you had a really high view count in 2004, which was before social networking and thought that was really impressive…

More In The Monitor?  Oh my god.

Yes ma’am.

Wow, I can’t believe that’s still out there.

It’s got about 92,000 views.

Wow, really?  That’s great.  We definitely didn’t know what we were doing, we weren’t paying attention, it was just me and my friend having fun.

I was going to ask what the goal was with the site and what you learned from it?

I guess the goal was to be part of the online conversation and give our opinions of things when we weren’t being paid to.  My friend who I did it with was also a freelance writer at the time.  I guess the goal was just to get people to read our work and hire us (laughs).  But really it was more just about having fun and being silly. I can’t believe it had that many views.  We didn’t really promote it much we just talked about it among our friends.  Back in the day I don’t even think there were RSS feeds, it was tough to be able to monitor blogs like that.  We weren’t really super super invested in it. We didn’t put a ton of time into it.  I remember it was around the same time Brooklyn Vegan started and they definitely put a lot more time and effort into their blog and it paid off of course cause it’s still around and very widely read.  We both got jobs, she got hired at the Associated Press and I got hired at Pitchfork and it was kind of oh well we have full-time jobs now we don’t have time for this. So we shut it down.

Do you think starting the site helped you land jobs or was it something to do for fun?

I do think it helped me get this job at Pitchfork actually.  It was really so long ago but I remember people from Pitchfork saying they’d read my blog so I guess they kind of thought oh this girl can write about things as they’re happening.  I certainly didn’t have any experience being a news editor or editing anything other than my college papers.  I don’t know to what extent it helped but I think it did.

I read some of your earlier reviews, specifically your Sonic Youth review, which received mixed feedback.  Did you get any advice early on about dealing with criticism or negative feedback?

I definitely was very young and naive and didn’t know a lot about how my words would be received.  At the time I was excited that it generate all this controversy, I did not think it would get the response that it did, it got a crazy amount of response and I really didn’t expect that.  I was happy that I had kind of stirred people up.  I still 100% stand behind that review, I still agree with it, I still think it’s a bad album (laughs) I still think Sonic Youth should have broken up then.  But I feel that if I could take it back I would because I feel like that kind of writing, that kind of provocation, can come across as click-bait these days.    You can write something contrary just to get people riled up and just to get peoples attention.  I feel like that’s kind of the Village Voice’s M.O. these days, to post anything controversial just to get people to pay attention to their site.  If that review in anyway prefigured that or contributed to that I don’t want to be a part of that at all.  That being said I still stand behind the review and I’m glad I did it.  I would not say that I felt bullied or felt ganged up on or anything I was excited to have generated that much controversy for sure.

How did your position at Pitchfork come about?

I had been freelancing for them for a little bit, I had written a few reviews and features.  Then in the spring of 2005, Ryan Schreiber, who is the founder and head of Pitchfork, contacted me and said we’re thinking about really ramping up our news section, which at the time was I think a few articles a day, maybe even 5 or less than that ,maybe 3, it was very casual, they had someone part-time doing it.  They said we were thinking of investing in this and ramping it up and making it a full-time position would you be interested?  I don’t know what necessarily made him think I’d be good at that, maybe it was my blog, I don’t know, as I mentioned I certainly didn’t have any experience doing news or editing a website.  But I said yah sure, I was 24, I was looking for a steady job, I definitely didn’t want to be a full-time freelancer anymore.  They said you have to move to Chicago for it so I said okay and picked up and left and moved to Chicago. And it was a really good decision (laughs).

I think it’s working out.  What are the responsibilities of the senior news editor?

I am in charge of the entire news section.  I look for news, in addition to the writers who all look for news.  I’m in charge of assigning what goes into the section and editing what gets written.  I look for the news, I assign it, and I edit it.  That involves a lot of just staying on top of things.  Whether that’s emailing and conversing with label people and publicists or monitoring Twitter, RSS feeds and Facebook or coordinating with various writers about what’s going on.  It’s a lot of different things at once.  Sometimes it gets to be very overwhelming but most of the time it’s manageable.

In such a fast paced environment what kind of skills are needed to keep up and work quickly but also efficiently?

It’s very difficult to do what we do at Pitchfork news well.  I think that people probably think that it’s easy but it’s very hard to do things not only quickly but accurately and in a way that people want to read.  People can do news quickly but it won’t necessarily be accurate.  Or the opposite, they can get things right and present it really well but they can’t do it quickly.  So it’s really a balancing act.  I think it’s just a matter of being able to think quickly and multitask and know your audience and know who you’re writing for and what your site is, what the style is.  Every site is different, every publication is different, so something that’s right for Pitchfork may not be right somewhere else.

What’s a typical day like for you?

It pretty much revolves around bouncing back and forth between my email, messaging with writers and occasionally publicists, Twitter, RSS feeds, and our content management system.  I kind of bounce back constantly between all of those things for the entire day. Usually the morning is a lot busier than the afternoon.  There will be a glut of things we need to get up from early morning or overnight, although we do have someone who’s based in Britain who is able to take care of some of the early morning things.  It just involves a lot of juggling different things.

How much time do you spend online?

We have a part-time night and weekend contributor.  Me, myself, I am online pretty much from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed (laughs).  Just monitoring things and whether I’m sitting in front of the computer or I’m on my phone that’s just kind of the way it is.  That’s actually changed a lot from when I first started.  When I first started in 2005 there was no Twitter, no YouTube,  Facebook might have just started, it was not 24 hours, there were no videos, you couldn’t post tracks, it was very very different. There was a lot less news then there is now.

How does an online newsroom function differently than a traditional newspaper or television newsroom?

I haven’t worked in a newsroom other than my various internships and they were for weekly or monthly papers, it wasn’t a daily thing.  I’d imagine probably the similarities are more than the differences these days.  Every traditional print outlet is also doing things online.  With print obviously you need to be more careful and take more time because it’s a lot easier to go in and fix something and alert people that you’ve fixed something online than it is in print.  Also the deadlines are daily or weekly rather than every minute online.  There’s probably the same amount of pressure.

With the amount of music being released I’m sure you’re swamped with people trying to get on the site.  How do you decide what’s newsworthy?

That’s an excellent question and one we ask ourselves every single day (laughs).  For news it has to be something that we think our readers are going to be interested in and care about.  We’re not going to post about a band that’s just starting out, one  that we haven’t posted about anywhere else on the site, in news because nobody really knows who they are yet so it’s not really newsworthy.  Every single day we go back and discuss what we should put up.  Sometimes it will take a while for a band to work up to being newsworthy, sometimes it will happen fast, but there really is no concrete answer.  It’s just things we think people want to read about.

Do you have any advice for building networks and collecting and distributing news for other sites that might be focused on a different topic unrelated to music?

It would be a matter of promoting it through social media and going to other websites and message boards.  What happens a lot of the time is someone from a different site that you might not be checking everyday says “hey we have this story about this thing, check it out” and sometimes we’ll “say oh yah that is newsworthy” and we’ll link to it.  I feel like obviously in this day and age there’s a billion websites, there’s a billion bands, you should be promoting yourself but not willy-nilly.  You need to know your target audience, know who you’re talking to, because it becomes very transparent if you’re promoting yourself and you’re throwing everything at the wall and just seeing what sticks.  Do your research into who exactly you’re talking to.

Do you think the internet has changed the way people write about music?

Yes for sure, absolutely. Now you can listen to anything that’s being described, it’s not just here’s what it sounds like, it’s here’s what it sounds like listen to it right now.  I think it has certainly changed.  There’s so many more places to read about music, there’s so much more music, everyone is kind of vying for attention in a different way.  You can’t really have the luxury of assuming that anything you write will necessarily be read by anyone.

Asides from getting to hear a lot of music early or at the moment it comes out what are some of the other perks of your job?

The biggest perk is that I get to do what I love as a job.  I get to be music obsessive and learn everything I can about music and be immersed in it as my job.  That’s amazing and incredible and I can’t believe I get to do it.  Also just being in an office and being around likeminded people who are just as passionate about music is great, to be able to bounce ideas off everybody and talk and be in this environment is just wonderful.  Feeling comfortable, we don’t need to dress up or wear suits or anything, that’s definitely a perk.  And yah of course getting access to all the music and getting access to concerts.  But really just getting to do this as my job is the biggest perk.

You’ve done some pretty big interviews, do you have any advice for interviewing artists?

I really don’t like doing interviews much these days.  I think that the majority of artists are boring, that they don’t have a lot to say or that they are just parroting whatever the line is on their latest album or their latest whatever.  It’s very difficult to get them to be interesting.  I feel like the only two I’ve done in the past few years have been Bjork and Jack White who are defiantly interesting people.  I think the key is to read as many interviews as you can with that person and figure out what hasn’t been asked and what an interesting angle would be.

Of course this is if you’re trying to do an interesting feature.  If you’re just trying to do a news story, if you’re just trying to get the information and get to the point and get out of there, if you’re just in search of information about this, this, and this about the album, make sure you’re professional and don’t take up to much of their time.  That’s the way to go.  But if you’re trying to do a more in-depth feature then trying to figure out the angle that no one else has is the way to go.  It really depends on what the purpose of the interview is.

Do you still have slow news day?  How do you handle that?

We certainly do.  What we usually do on those days is work on other projects.  The writers also do features and other things so they work on those.  We also work on banking stories of things we know are going to happen, like we know that there is going to be something happening so lets get the story ready with the basic details. We’re not really bothered if a couple hours go by and there’s no news because there is always so much other stuff happening on the website that there is always a stream of content.  There are definitely times where we’ll post things we might not have posted on a more busy day.  The other thing about slow news days is that you never ever know when it’s going to change.  I can specifically remember the day MCA from Beastie Boys died.  It had been a really slow for hours before that and then boom that happened, so you really never know.  It’s not like you can slack off.

Do you have any final advice for someone looking to become a music journalist?

You should only do it if you really love it, don’t expect that it’s going to make you a lot of money.  I think if you come into it with that approach you’ll be a lot happier.

Do you have any final advice for someone looking to become an online news editor?

Get ready for your loved ones to be very frustrated with how much you work (laughs).  If you’re okay with that then go for it.

All Pitchfork Music Festival Paris photos courtesy of David C. Sampson

Date: January 19, 2014 • Category:
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