Industry Insight: The Interview Series 5 – Starting Out in Music Journalism

Questions.

Insights.

One professional.

With music industry experts providing thoughtful discussions from insightful queries, we take a deeper look into how it all works.

From the Ground Up: Breaking into Music Journalism

Gem Stokes

Editor for CUB Magazine / Music Freelance Journalist for EUPHORIA Magazine

I wanted to dive into a different direction for the next insight. I wanted to express the difficulty and the hardship to venture into music journalism, and the pressures of working from the ground up via freelance. In terms of journalism, freelancing is perhaps the best bet. Actively going the distance, putting yourself out there on your time is always evidence of your passion and your ability to showcase your writing style. Starting a blog, interviewing artists and professionals? That’s the first major step of looking like you want to do something. It may not seem right at the time, having no choice but to use your free time to actively set up your next career step, but no company will hire a writer or journalist without any prior experience of writing, freelance or otherwise.

So, I wanted to gain some further insight into someone who has been writing successfully for a couple of years and is actively looking for their big break.

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Tell us how you first started out! On any plethora of your journalist activities, was it just a case of dropping them an email to state your interest?

I started out writing odd gig and film reviews whilst I was in my later years of school. Even as a spotty teenager, I knew that I wanted a career that involved writing. But, for the meantime I was just going to uni to study English Lit and didn’t know where to go from there.

I fell into writing for my university magazine, which quickly turned into other publications, and it grew from there, really. My freelance journalism was a little different, it was more a case of doing a lot of online self-teaching and reflecting, and then putting those skills into action to write commissions.  

What made you fall into music journalism? 

I’ve always been an avid concert-goer, and the idea of going to gigs for free was very attractive. I’ve always felt a special connection to music, and every time I write, it seems to flow out of me in a way that I don’t experience with other types of journalism.

Being a part of the queer community, as well, made me feel like there was another dimension to music that I wanted to share and enjoy.

What would you say was your first breakthrough or moment into music journalism where you felt like you can do this more often, as a full-time job? 

Definitely when I received my first commission for a press release. I worked tirelessly for days on end whilst juggling essays on this one little project, and I was amazed at how gratifying it felt to have been hired to create a piece of work that I was really proud of.

Commissions started rolling in from there, and my first commission has since featured in the Top 40!  

What would you say motivates you to do what you do on a daily basis?

Like anyone living in London, paying the bills is a big motivator, but, luckily, it runs deeper than that. I know I have a unique voice and perspective, and a way of writing unlike anyone else, and I enjoy using my platform to create content that’s enjoyable, original and important.

I want to change the world, and I believe I can, so I won’t stop fighting until I get there.

What do you like about what you are doing?

Journalism doesn’t feel like a job to me, anymore. I truly believe that when you enjoy what you do, you don’t work a day in your life.

Having major opportunities to interview and work alongside my favourite artists is also super enjoyable.

How hard is it to balance creativity and originality when you are writing? 

Admittedly it was quite a struggle for me at first. I still go through phases of writers block where I feel like everything I’m churning out is total nonsense.

The best way to ensure creativity and originality is to speak from the heart (and also plan, a lot).

I can see you are dabbling a lot into a lot of freelance journalist positions at the moment, it’s impressive! How hard has it been to juggle so many roles? Would you say that the market for music journalism is hard to tap into? 

Thanks so much! It’s been almost impossible to juggle so many roles, but luckily (or not), I’m a workaholic, and I thrive when busy. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices, and I’m still trying my hardest to not constantly take too much on.

The journalism industry (especially music) is extremely competitive.

Think: the cut-throat environment of Drag Race, but at the pace of a self-titled Bon Iver track, because no one is very good at promptly answering emails. It’s hard for my mind to rest when I’m not 24/7 grindin’. It’s easy enough to get into the industry, but the hardest part is getting paid. But once you’re there, you’re in it.

What’s the best bit of advice you ever received – lecturer or friends – about the music industry, and music journalism in particular? 

Never be afraid to work for free.

Especially in my early days as a student, you can’t expect to be incredible and get paid straight away. You need to write, and write, and write, and write some more, until you have a headache from constantly staring into the abyss that is WordPress.

Sharing your work, and reaching out to magazines is how you receive bigger and bigger clients, and build your network.

What do you reckon is next for you? 

I’m taking some time to focus on commissions, and to build my network and portfolio.

I’ve given myself a mental goal of a year to achieve a well-paid job at a big music firm,  or a residency as a freelance writer, somewhere. Perhaps I’ll even start working towards my goal of becoming an investigative journalist/foreign correspondent. (If anyone is hiring, feel free to drop me a DM at @gemstokes ).   

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Since this was published, it seems like all of Gem’s work has paid off – now she has landed a job as a music journalist at The Line of Best Fit, an independent new music magazine establishment based in London.

Well done Gem!

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