Last weekend I sat down with my friend and fellow writer Jay Balfour over coffee and we talked about his career as a freelance music writer to find out what it’s like to write for music blogs.
A graduate of Temple University, Jay has been writing for some of the biggest music websites for the last four years. We had a candid conversation about what it’s like to be a freelance writer in the music industry, and the ups and the downs of following entertainment writing as a full-time career. Here’s what he had to say.
Ploymint: When did you start writing?
Jay Balfour: I published my first piece in 2012, the year after I graduated.
PM: Who was it for?
JB: I started writing for this magazine, a print publication in Brooklyn called Applause Africa. And it was kind of a record review in the magazine for this Nigerian funk album that came out in the 70s that was reissued. That was my first experience, then I started working for a website called OkayAfrica shortly after that.
PM: And what was your major in college?
JB: I majored in Philosophy and I minored in African American Studies.
PM: So you didn’t go for journalism or literature?
JB: I did not, it didn’t really occur to me. I guess being a writer wasn’t what I had in mind in school. I was kind of thinking I could do the philosophy thing and go to law school. Then after I left and all throughout college I was working construction jobs. Some freelance writing popped up for me by chance and then I enjoyed it so I figured I’d give it a go. I started to network specifically in that world but I did not go to college to be a journalist or a writer.
PM: What publications have you written for?
JB: I’ve written for all sorts of publications. I wrote a little while for Complex, I’ve written for Pitchfork, and I freelance for places like Billboard, Philly Voice, and Rebel Music Academy. I did something for Double XL and then a lot of other places where my name appeared as a byline, and sometimes I was technically ghostwriting.
PM: What was the best publication that you’ve written for?
JB: In terms of music writing and reading about music I’ve always loved Pitchfork, so once I got to write some stuff for them, that was a really proud moment for me. It’s still one of my favorite websites as a reader so I’m still happy to be a writer for them as well.
PM: And what makes you like Pitchfork over other publications?
JB: I guess one thing that I learned to like in college was cultural criticism. I like reading album reviews, I like reading movie reviews, I like reading essays of stuff going on around the world and different cultures so in terms of music writing, I think Pitchfork is one of the more consistent places for that type of perspective.
PM: What do you mean by consistent?
JB: I think there’s a level of–there’s so many product reviews, there’s so much writing there. But I think they have one of the best critical voices on the web. And I don’t think that’s exclusive to Pitchfork. I think there are so many great places that are doing writing and some of them are just people that are blogging on their own. But I think having good editors is important and that’s why I think some of these big websites like Pitchfork, Fader, or Billboard, or the New Yorker or The New York Times are so consistent. I think it’s not only having good writers but having good editors make a publication consistent.
PM: What’s the best article you’ve written?
JB: Not the best, but I think is the most attention grabbing have been some of the interviews. I think the most famous people I’ve interviewed were Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart, and that came out of nowhere. It was something my editor assigned to me. And I’m a huge music fan so anything about music is pretty cool. I like writing about albums I like, and I like writing albums I don’t like.
PM: What’s the most difficult thing for you as a freelance writer?
I think pitching is definitely an area that’s been tough for me. Which is why I think it’s important to have consistent work. So I think if you can have regularly scheduled assignments it’s really important, otherwise it’s tough sometimes because maybe you don’t have a good idea for a couple months, or maybe you don’t find a worthy subject for a couple of months. Really, that’s not an issue if you’re treating it as a full time job. There’s plenty of stuff to write out there. But I think there’s time where it’s not necessarily writer’s block, but subject block. You need to be putting yourself out there constantly to get to write different pieces.
PM: Do you have any tips for people with no experience at all and want to get into writing?
JB: Just start early and often. I do think that it’s definitely part of the process that you’re going to have to work for free at some point, but I think it’s important that you don’t do that for too long. If you want to have your own blog I think you should be doing that because you’re passionate about it. But you’re probably going to have to work for free as an intern. I think it’s an unfair situation especially in the entertainment freelancing world, that entry level jobs are often filled by unpaid interns. So just people who can afford to take an internship have a leg up. And then other than that, I’d just say not being afraid of rejection because you’re going to pitch 100 things and 20 of them are going to be green-lit, and I think that’s just the way that it goes. Starting early and pitching early, are my biggest pieces of advice.