You Get What You Pay For
a.k.a. A look at the (fairly grim) economics of music journalism.
Last week I interviewed Philip Sherburne, a Contributing Editor at Pitchfork and one of electronic music’s most respected journalists. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but one particular exchange has been stuck in mind ever since:
Shawn Reynaldo: Some people might assume that you, being a prominent electronic music writer at a prominent outlet, must be making a solid living. But do you actually earn enough from Pitchfork to survive on that alone?
Philip Sherburne: No, I have other work as well. I do un-bylined work for content providers. I curate some playlists for a streaming service, and also do some writing and blurbs for other streaming services. I used to occasionally do some press-release writing, but I gave that up a long time ago because I just don't have the time. But yeah, I've never been strictly a Pitchfork contributor. I've always had a matrix of different work because it's the only way to survive.
Journalism as a whole is a precarious, notoriously low-paying industry, so it’s not exactly breaking news that writing about music—especially when it’s focused on relatively niche genres like electronic music—isn’t a lucrative enterprise. At the same time, it says a lot that someone like Sherburne, who’s got more than two decades of experience under his belt and is widely recognized as being at the top of his field, doesn’t earn enough from his work as a critic to pay the bills.
This isn’t a unique occurrence. Over the past decade, as numerous electronic music media outlets have either gone under or significantly reduced their editorial budgets, scratching out a living purely as a journalist—which has never been easy—has now become even more difficult. In most cases, writers looking to make a serious go of it these days have two options:
Try to get hired for a staff editorial position somewhere. In all of electronic music, only a few dozen of these jobs (at the most) still exist, and they usually don’t pay all that well, but they do at least guarantee a steady paycheck. In terms of actual work, however, they usually involve churning out a large volume of highly-clickable content, or (in the case of more senior staff) supervising the creation of said content. (Between that and the low pay, it’s not surprising that many people only last a year or two in these roles.)
Go the freelance route, and supplement any journalism income with other work. That work can sometimes be music-related—between the growth of streaming platforms and the increasing presence of brands in electronic music, an entire industry of (mostly un-bylined and rarely publicly discussed) content creation has sprung up during the past decade—but plenty of journalists also put their talents to use in other fields (e.g. writing marketing or instructional copy) or simply work odd jobs to make ends meet.
If one were to list electronic music’s top active journalists, most would fall into the second category. And while there’s no shame in someone getting paid to curate a playlist, pen an artist bio or do something completely unrelated to music, none of that stuff is journalism. Somehow, during a time when electronic music has grown into a global, multibillion-dollar industry, its top journalists are frequently being paid more to do other things—and the critical discourse is suffering as a result.