Indie Labels

Music Media Through A Teen’s Eyes

The way in which new and undiscovered music is covered by the music media has changed in recent years, with independent blogs no longer wielding quite the same power they once did. That said, certain publications still hold a significant amount of sway when it comes to artist exposure, and the taste-making of the listening populace.

Guest post from AWAL

Something miraculous happened between 1.5 and 2.8 million years ago. Scientists swear it. 2001: A Space Odyssey swears it, too. Humans, slowly transitioning from upright primates to fire-wielding cave artists, developed bullshit detectors. Way back when, during simpler times, this meant not falling for ancient pick & rolls. Rival homo sapiens trying to swipe your clobbered rodent dinner by tossing sticks in the air? Not today, our clever ancestors replied. Not. To. Day.

In 2019, you’ll find a gentler descendant of this social mechanism governing public support for pretty much anything art-related. Natural selection has fortified and sharpened our emotional intelligence — so much so that we can now not just perceive whether someone is full of shit, but also discern whether someone gives a shit. And where one person gives a shit, others form a line behind them. Boston-bred writer Seamus Fay gives many shits, which is increasingly important in a volatile music media landscape where hot takes and flavors of the month often box out the surfacing of (and continued support for) fresh faces. The new school logic goes like this: If an early adopter reads about a new artist and the writer articulates why they should care, the reader just might. The result: engaged fandom.

Fay, still riding out his teenage years, founded his own site halfway through high school. Its sole purpose? Document the music makers grinding it out across New England and treat them like they’re the stars they could one day become. His local coverage gave many rising acts their first thoughtful press look; eventually, it unlocked access to more eyes and ears. With his mission unchanged, Seamus started bringing his passionate, detailed coverage of emerging artists to influential platforms like Lyrical Lemonade and Pigeons & Planes. Look around the internet and you’ll find dozens of kids forging similar paths. To them, it doesn’t matter who cosigned or what the PR team looks like or how many streams you have. If the music’s special and the story resonates with them, it’s getting covered. Blogs might not be the rain-making titans they once were, but they’re far from dead. The kids will be alright. 

“Blogs are still invaluable,” says Tim Larew, a writer and artist manager who left a lasting mark on Boston’s hip-hop scene during his studies there. “The playlist game is a completely different space and not all artists are cut out for it — especially not early in their careers without a machine behind them. Quality journalism will always be an important outlet for helping artists build their narrative and bridge it to the world.”

Artists live a life without the validation or positive reinforcement found in traditional lines of work. With that in mind, young, caring writers play an integral role in upholding a healthy music ecosystem, one that goes well beyond one-off premiere looks.

“I think one underrated aspect of these long-form pieces, these thoughtful write-ups, is that it’s motivation for artists,” Larew continues. “Sometimes a spot on New Music Friday or Most Necessary, though appreciated, can feel manufactured. Dropping a song in the playlist may be strategic, but it doesn’t require much effort. There’s no faking a thoughtful writeup. When an artist knows there’s someone out there — even if it’s just one writer — that understood what they were going for and cared enough to help convey and translate that to their (or the publication’s) audience… that is special. It makes a lot of artists want to keep going.”

“It’s definitely important to acknowledge that blogs don’t have the position they used to — of being groundbreaking sources that break new artists,” says Eda Yu, who’s written for VICE, i-D, and other publications. “But as the landscape has changed, their value has also shifted. They’re places you can read cohesive stories about your favorite artist, or maybe uncover other interesting facts you didn’t know. For me, covering smaller, especially historically marginalized artists is a responsibility of having my platform. I made a commitment early on in my career as an arts and music journalist that I would always try to hold space for those stories — and I’m excited to see media move towards a place where they do so too.”

Seamus, Eda, and writers like them don’t take the power they have for granted. They get it, after all: Aspiring music journalists and aspiring artists have more than a thing or two in common.

The teens and twenty-somethings who refuse to regurgitate press releases and attempt to put themselves in the artists’ shoes can single-handedly help those artists find their core fans. The readers-turned-listeners are as likely as any to wind up buying a ticket or copping the latest hoodie. Quiet Luke, a do-it-all New Yorker architecting 21st century blues that’d make David Lynch blush, explains the lasting value of a blog post  from someone like Fay. 

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Quiet Luke

“Seamus has a great ability to understand the packaging that music is presented in, but also see past that and unravel the delicate thing inside — what actually makes a piece of music special — and he handles both with great care,” Luke tells us. “As the world fullfils the frenetic prophecy that file sharing and ‘shuffle’ play divined, as playlists and social media like TikTok become omnipresent, blogs ultimately become less relevant as ‘gatekeepers,’ but a thoughtful writeup can still greatly affect the perception of a song or artist, and that’s still important.”

“He takes the time to not only engage with, but also develop a relationship with the artists and music he writes about,” adds South Carolina artist Kyle Lux, who caught Fay’s attention with the cruise-control R&B he’s been drip-feeding audiences in recent months. “He‘s genuine and always carries intent and his stories are a testament to that.” 

No one needs to tell those born around (and especially after) the year 2000 about the dwindling appetite for lots of words. BUT. But. Excessive amounts of anything breed a little resistance. We all know about the 10s of 1000s of new releases landing on DSPs daily. Access is a good thing, but the sheer volume of it all also means lots of skimming and skipping tracks, lots of remembering a song’s name but forgetting the name of the artist who made it, lots of unappreciated talent. Sincerity, even if only for a small portion of the listening population, can pierce the haze of consumption overload.

“Writers like Seamus are so important because they are excited,” Larew says. “They care. I met Seamus when he was 15. He was in the crowd at the first ever Cousin Stizz show in Boston in 2015 — a 200 cap, sold-out venue — and introduced himself as someone from the area who started a blog because of how excited he was by what was going on in the local scene. He dove in head first, and within two to three years, before he was even in college, he’d become a voice that mattered in that same scene. There’s no money or machine fueling that — that’s someone doing what he’s doing because he loves it, and wants to contribute to artists’ potential growth and careers. Music media will continue to transform but it will always matter and never die as long as people like Seamus — and the younger versions of him he inspires — are around.”

Caring about the music first and foremost (not the A&R credit, not the management team involved, not the IG following or TikTok views) is far from commodity. When Fay investigates the sources of future classics in Atlanta, or Yu spotlights gifted, underrepresented creators, perceptions shift and scenes blossom, however slightly. Elujay, perhaps Oakland’s finest supplier of summertime energy that Björk could (and should!) vibe to, sums it all up. 

“Blogs are imperative when they give a glimpse into the artist’s mind and aren’t just repeating a Spotify bio. When they’re thoughtful, it motivates me, and it inspires me when I read about how other artists made their songs, what prompted their initial rise, struggles, etc. Seamus keeps it real and transparent and is super thorough. It’s always pleasant to hear about the artist background from a first-hand account.”

Years of industry premiere-chasing inflated the value of first looks. When their impact dipped, the sweeping claims about blogs’ diminished influence followed. We might be far removed from the good ol’ days, when a 2Dopeboyz post meant 1000s of mixtape downloads, but exclusivity was never really the point, and helping others make sense of abundance is still a full-time job. Few people have watched the ups and downs of music media as closely as Alex Gardner, who left the UK after graduating from uni to help build Pigeons & Planes. Last year, the site relaunched as a channel on complex.com, abandoning the content rat race that daily news demands to go all in on essays and artist discovery.

“Thoughtful coverage of new and emerging artists is more important than ever in this landscape of playlists, viral stars, and constant streams of social content,” Alex tells us. “It’s easier than ever to make music and share it but harder than ever to cut through the noise. Yet the stories from the fringes and the underground are often the most interesting, and can tell us much more about the future of music than another softball superstar cover story. There will always be people like Seamus who want to help tell such stories, and we’re happy to provide a platform for them at P&P.”

“He’s incredibly plugged in with brand new artists/scenes and he’s constantly putting us on to new music,” Gardner says of Fay. “He’s discovering things incredibly early and has a great ear for what is going to have a lasting impact rather than being a passing trend. More importantly, however, he approaches his work in an open-minded way with a passion for sharing and discovery. It’s not about music media or clout but because he cares about music. I get the sense that even if nobody was reading anything he wrote, Seamus would still be digging through SoundCloud or YouTube to find the next moment of magic in a song.”

Elsewhere online, just a hop, skip, and search away, COLORS tries to uphold that same commitment to unproven or budding acts. What started as a simple-enough YouTube channel has become a go-to artist breaker for teams everywhere, making it more and more common to see bonafide stars here, but goliaths still share real estate with the folks who will one day replace them. Brandon Payano helps source and book emerging artists for COLORS Studios and echoes Gardner’s views. 

Little Simz 2019 Colors performance 

“Right now, there’s a community of us that realize how intentional we can be in giving emerging talent a platform to showcase their dreams to an audience that’s actually looking to discover music without it feeling forced. With COLORS, we try to make sure that for every Doja Cat, Common and Earthgang video, you get the chance to discover a Sho Madjozi, ICECOLDBISHOP, and Baby Rose at the same time. The dynamic of that type of curation is pretty thought-out from the moment we even begin pitching and discussing artists being on the platform. Social media has easily allowed for platforms like R&B RADAR, Rotation Weekly, Level, NOT97 and more to really put a spotlight on up-and-coming artists in really engaging ways that actually keep you within the environments they’re creating; adding playlists, brief editorial and entertaining conversations via podcasts, all about great music.” 

Nothing more, nothing less. Keep scrolling for our full interview with Seamus Fay. 

In The Weeds With Seamus Fay

Question #1 coming in hot: When did you first explore the world wide music blogosphere?

Pigeons & Planes was one of the first blogs that I started spending lots of time reading. End of middle school, early high school. It was a place worth visiting to try and find new artists. A few years ago, I found one artist, Tunji Ige, on their site and loved him right away. It was an interview, around the time “Day2Day” came out, that remix with Michael Christmas and Makonnen. My favorite [Laughs]. The article was about Tunji making music out of his dorm room — way before the whole ‘bedroom pop’ phase. It validated what Tunji was doing and made the fact that it was all in his dorm seem cool. Not unofficial or amateur. 

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Tunji Ige

The next step was seeing Tunji at a show. Michael Christmas was opening for him. Kaido was opening for him. Other Boston artists like Jefe Replay and Plad Finesse were there. When I saw the way people reacted to artists from Boston, it caught my attention because I had no idea this was all happening so close to home. I started digging through SoundCloud and got a bit obsessive, googling a million things. I got a sense of what was happening around the city and wanted to help make a home for it, something like Pigeons but local. 

Within a week of that show I signed up for WordPress and sent the login info around to all of my friends, like, “Let’s do this together.” This was Graduation Music. But no one really cared [Laughs]. It just became my own thing. I started by writing about “You Can Do It Too” by Pharrell, which was an old song. It was just a way for me to freak out about all of these songs I loved that my friends didn’t know yet. I was trying to cover all of the Boston music I was learning about too, and it ultimately felt right to focus on that. I started asking to interview artists who I was seeing at shows and that’s when I really caught the writing bug. That’s when Graduation became helpful and added value to people. This was junior year of high school. 

“Day2Day” deserves a spot in music history. Origin story for the name Graduation?

I was in a study hall in 8th grade and just doodled logos and words. “Graduation” was always a cool word to me. I originally used it as a placeholder. I just needed a name, and I didn’t really tell anyone about it for awhile either. It was an outlet for myself first and foremost. So the name was whatever. I never talked about it at school or marketed it at the start. 

Were there startup costs associated with it? Did you have to stop doing other stuff?

WordPress is free if you let them run ads on your site and if you keep “wordpress” in the URL address. I wanted to make it a little more official so I paid like $40 to remove that, and then I made it .org instead of .com because it seemed super official to me, which was dumb [Laughs]. People searching graduationmusic.com would come up empty handed. I think it ended up being $59.99 a year to turn this interest of mine into something real. That little bit of money helped me take it more seriously.

At the beginning, I’d write a post or two before bed, after school. Then I sort of got addicted to it when it became more about spotlighting emerging artists who I thought deserved more attention. It took an hour or two a day back then, and it felt right, it felt good. The time I put in wasn’t even a thought. It felt productive, like I was building something. When you see even a few more people reading the site every day, it was enough to encourage me to keep going. I tried to maintain a balance, though. I never shut out my friends or whatever. 

It took a lot of hard work to balance everything, but I wasn’t paying any bills when I started in high school. I had free time even after school and work to go to shows, writer, etc. It’s a fortunate situation that isn’t a reality for a lot of people, and many people in the media are coming from a place of privilege. It’s something we all have to be conscious of, extending opportunities to the people who don’t have the same privilege someone like myself did.

Now you’re in college and the same thing can be said. I’m sure the pressures you have to juggle to still run the site are mounting. Stakes are a bit higher.

In its own small way, by the time I got to college, Graduation had enough people reading where it started to matter a little bit in the area. People appreciated the posts and the writing and maybe because of that it was never a doubt in my mind that I’d do writing and school as best as I could. There are days where I know I don’t have the time to write something. If I don’t, I just feel weird when I go to bed [Laughs]. My parents or my sister read stuff from time to time and they know I’m not focused on school when a lot of posts are going up. I’m like, “Don’t worry! I wrote them a few days ago! I’m studying!” If my grades ever drop, they might shut me down for a day or two [Laughs]. It does help focus you, though. If you have 10 hours to fill before an exam and you only need six to actually study, you’ll still probably stretch it, be unfocused. The responsibility of the site actually helped me manage my time. 

That you still didn’t see it as a commitment really emphasizes your values. You wanted to build a communal place and just tried to do a couple things really well —  like-minded people earnestly, thoughtfully writing about special artists in and around Boston. It wasn’t about ad revenue or national exposure. You saw the glory in staying local and it became an invaluable stepping stone for so many.

A lot of what we did at Graduation honestly came from face-to-face run-ins, saying hi to people at shows and sending early articles to artists and managers and different people in the area. DM discussions and back-and-forth comments. We never really tried to do marketing. It felt like a tight circle, all word of mouth, and I think that works for anything if you’re really just trying to appreciate what other people are doing. I didn’t watch any sites come up so I had no blueprint for traffic or numbers or money, which honestly helped. The thought behind it, however vague, was if I really care about writing about artists and try to contextualize and understand where they’re coming from, people will care back. 

Feedback from artists and managers and friends sort of validated that. Probably a month after Graduation started, I met [manager/writer] Tim Larew at a show. [Tim helped unify many players in the Boston scene during the early 2010s and works with Boston artists Cousin Stizz and Michael Christmas.] I really looked up to him and just meeting him as a kid in high school meant a lot to me. A year later, he’s in my corner, giving me advice and support. It’s also that sort of thing, however small, that drives me to keep at it.

I think that focus on what’s around you, who’s around you, there’s something to learn there for artists who are trying to foster hometown support. Graduation Music was like your first mixtape in a way. It helped put you on the map at home. It helped define what you stood for. It introduced you to your day-one supporters. It doubled as a proof of concept that you could really do it and wanted to keep growing. Now as a result you’re writing for bigger sites like Pigeons and Lyrical Lemonade, and the thoughtfulness and the spirit you bring is still clear as day. Was it an adjustment for you, making that jump to bigger sites?

People have noticed that I try to put a lot of thought into every write-up, which is something I’m grateful for, and I’ve been able to keep that and refine that at a place like Lyrical Lemonade. It’s been amazing to watch Lyrical Lemonade grow after the last year. There have been a few writers I was friends with who we were able to bring on. There’s an amazing person Jack Gregory from Nashville who wrote for Elevator. He’s adding another puzzle piece to it. The writers are all reading each other’s stuff, so we push each other in that way. Mutual motivation. 

There are no rules. Everyone trusts each other’s taste. If you love something, whether it has 10,000 plays or 10,000,000, write about it. I’ll end up writing about some artist’s second account where they post demos. It doesn’t matter how big or small they are if it’s great. At Lyrical, there isn’t a big editorial approval process. We all know what the site is about and we trust what we each think is special so it’s sort of free reign. There’s an artist Elujay who I like a lot. After I wrote about him, I sent him the link, and he was like, “Oh that’s so crazy, I didn’t think I was hip-hop enough for Lyrical Lemonade,” and that was crazy to me. In the last year or two it’s become more open to more genres. Hip-hop’s the predominant theme but hip-hop is everywhere so the genre doesn’t really matter. The hands-off editorial approach of Elevator and Lyrical has let newer writers naturally shift the focus to become more open.

Why’d you decide to try and make the jump to more established platforms when you did? How’d you get through the door?

I came to accept that the best way I could keep helping new artists was to work at places with more reach. 

With Lyrical, I pretty much emailed the editor Elliot Montanez and was like, “Hey, I’ve started this blog. If you want me too I can also write for you.” He was like, “Cool, here’s a log-in.” [Laughs]. It wasn’t exactly like that, but more or less. Eventually, they were like, “Oh, this is actually cool.” I decided to blindly shoot my shot and thankfully they were open to it. 

With Pigeons, I submitted a drafted piece about Key! and his influence in Atlanta and beyond. But before that, in January of 2018, I emailed Pigeons randomly — their submission email. I was like, “Hey, I’m a writer, here’s my site, let me know if you want me to do stuff.” But that’s just not how it works usually. Like, here’s an overwhelming amount of my work, I have no ideas for you, what do you think? [Laughs] I never got a response because it made no sense. After I learned more, I sent the Key! article. A complete idea. The subject was direct. Like, “Pitch:” followed by the name of the article. And I knew covering Key! would make sense for them.

When you’re looking at different cities, different regions, do you discover Graduation’s counterparts? Rising sites or young writers focused on what’s happening in their own backyards?  

100 percent. Jack Gregory is all things Tennessee. Nashville especially, where he’s from. Fresh Fruit Only covers lots of music from Florida. Jake Caramanno, this kid from Philly who champions the city’s artists on Elevator, he’ll DM me about artists I never would have known otherwise. And I’m hopefully doing something similar for people in Boston. To give people everywhere a window into where you come from is so important. Donna-Claire from DJBooth is one of my favorite writers, someone I often look to for inspiration. Caitlin LoPilato is also fantastic! The blog world seems to be a primarily male space, so I think it’s important that blogs are conscious of representation and welcoming different perspectives. 

That said, I think almost every writer can do a better job adapting to and understanding tastes around the world, just as a general rule of thumb. COLORS is the god platform in terms of embracing any style from any part of the world. They have one A&R, Yano [Brandon Payano] who’s such a great person and so good at tapping into different types of music. Borders are being blurred — look at Bad Bunny in the U.S. — and it’s only going to keep moving in that direction. I try my best to familiarize myself with what’s happening. We’re in London now which is crazy because so much music being made here is amazing. The R&B here is amazing with artists like Hope Tala. It’s like being a global citizen of music. Language barriers seem to mean less and less now.

Hope Tala’s latest ep, Sensitive Soul

There’s not enough time to hear everything. In conversation with artists, managers, A&Rs, whoever else, what sorts of things move you to dive in and what sorts of things make it harder for you to take something seriously? Do you have pet peeves?

Context always helps. Just sending someone a link to a song on SoundCloud isn’t the most compelling thing. Hearing a bit about the artist as a person, what they’re about, that helps. I don’t like it when people talk about their influences when they’re sending music. Especially when they bold the influences — “I’m influenced by Justin Bieber” — to make it look like that person was involved somehow, but they just like listening to Bieber [Laughs]. It’s kind of gimmicky. Anything that feels transactional is a missed opportunity. 

Is there a story behind the song or the project? What do you want listeners or viewers thinking about after they hear or see your work? What can you tell a writer about you or your work to help emphasize that? That helps the writing process and helps the writer communicate to other potential listeners why they should care. Random Twitter DMs that start and end with “Listen to my song,” not saying hi or introducing yourself in any way, it’s just not a real human interaction. 

It helps to understand that writers don’t have infinite time, so being thoughtful doesn’t hurt. Relatedly, getting mad at a writer for not covering a song, coming at them, that’s counterproductive. If writers wrote about every single song they listened to there wouldn’t be a point. I think it’s always good to ask for feedback in those situations. If you’re sincere and a good person you can keep that line of communication open and actually form meaningful bonds. It’s also just one person’s opinion. 

Beyond that, I love it when artists themselves are submitting their music. When they get big, a publicist will do it, but I like talking directly with an artist because you get a better sense of who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.  

Lots of writers find themselves managing as a result of feedback back-and-forths.

It’s definitely out in the open now. I’ve never actually managed anyone, but you see lots of people doing it and I do have the kind of relationship with different artists where I give feedback and we talk. On one hand you don’t want to take advantage of that sort of thing, but I also think to be writing about music in 2019 you need to be invested in understanding the artists as best as you can. My favorite interviews are usually when the writer’s known the artist for a long time and can capture their presence with words. If you’re not a bad person and you’re just trying to spotlight special music, I think it’s possible to balance all of that. Especially if people are being upfront about it. Most writers are interested in it now I think, managing. Ultimately writers are really just passionate music lovers. You have to be passionate to take the time to blog about something and show others. I know it’s tricky but it’s sort of a logical step — if you really love something, you want to add more if you can. 

Where do you think blogs sit in the artist marketing totem pole? 

Blogs are often a bit late to start covering buzzing artists, so I always try to couple any blog research with alternative taste-making platforms to look for new music. Lately I’ve been into regional YouTube channels such as 4Sho Magazine, HalfPintFilmz, etc. I’ve been trying to keep tabs on the TikTok world too, mainly through Spotify playlists that track any songs starting to move on the platform. 

Whether they’re already making a dent or no one knows their name yet, who are a handful of Boston artists who everyone reading this should spend time listening to? (P.S. Reader, if you made it this far, we owe you a trophy.)

Lord Felix is definitely one. He’s from Brockton, Massachusetts. I just think he has impeccable taste and he’s worked so hard to get better and try new things. It’s inspired me as a writer to do the same. Felix is in the group Van Buren, and that’d be a second one. Seeing them come together and do two hometown shows at the House of Blues was special. Their collective energy, no egos, it really makes me so excited, in addition to loving the music. Another artist from the greater New England area is Lonny X from Connecticut. He’s actually done random blogging here and there. He’s just a hustler [Laughs]. He runs his own label, too. He tries to be great in everything he does. Also, one more would be Connis, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, he’s a super talented artist who pushes everyone else too. He supports everyone. There’s so many special artists, you just have to look and listen.

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