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Community, Music

UNCOOL: Reviving Long-Form Journalism For The iGeneration

By: Sarah Munn –

David Greenwald (left) and Daniel Siegal (right).

In a world of hashtags and 140-character summaries, the idea of long-form journalism seems outlandish. Reading 3,000 words or more, in a row? Articles up to 10,000 words long? Who has that kind of time? And yet, despite that widespread opinion, obviously some people somewhere do have that kind of time, with a variety of outlets still offering this type of journalism though many may consider it old-school.

Lengthy, in-depth articles can be found regularly on sites like Longform.org, One Week // One Band, The New Inquiry and The Classical. For a broader range of long-form articles, there’s Longreads.com, which collects pieces from all across the web, wherever there are writers still producing this type of work at places like The New York Times, Vanity Fair and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Music journalism in particular, lends itself well to the long-form style with its multiple options for stories, whether it’s an analysis of the societal significance of rock, a deep, tell-all profile of a band your parents grew up listening to or a long look at the creative process of your favourite musician.

David Greenwald and Daniel Siegal are well aware of the possibilities there are in long-form music journalism and they aim to bring them to fruition with their new project: UNCOOL.

Described by its founders in their introductory video, UNCOOL is “a new long-form Internet music publication, but one that has no advertising, no listicles and no bullshit! No blog posts, no news stories about Rihanna’s Instagram, just great writing about music that matters.”

How It Works

A visit to UNCOOL’s Kickstarter page will tell you exactly how the magazine will operate. Each month, there will be a long-form cover story, with one new article, also long-form, each week. The team at UNCOOL follows the mantra of maintaining excellent quality writing with the goal of properly paying the staff for their hard work.

The first UNCOOL rule is to keep the articles lengthy – in this case, size does matter. Each monthly cover story will be at least 3,000 words, though they may reach 10,000. The other weekly articles will follow the same format. The second rule is that there will be no advertising anywhere on the website.

Greenwald explains why. “Advertising is dependent on traffic. If you’re a traffic-based website and that’s how you make your money, it means you will tend to run articles that drive a lot of traffic for minimal expense,” he says, referring to easy-click pieces like photo galleries and listicles.

“UNCOOL is a new long-form Internet music publication, but one that has no advertising, no listicles and no bullshit!”

“If we wanna run long-form work that takes several weeks to put together or might not have the flashiest headline, that means we need more direct consistent support,” says Greenwald.

UNCOOL will instead be funded by the Kickstarter campaign for the first year and by subscriptions beyond that.

The third rule is that almost anything can be covered in an UNCOOL article. The writers may put fingers to keyboard on a profile of the most recent chart topper or an exposé about an amazing unknown guitarist from 50 years ago, reflecting the spectrum of music we have access to today.

 

 

Who Are These Guys, Anyway?

Founders David Greenwald and Daniel Siegal are a pair of young Los Angeles journalists who met while working at Brand X, a former youth culture offshoot publication of the L.A. Times, which shut down in 2011. California produced these two dedicated music writers almost 30 years ago. Greenwald, 27, grew up in Ventura, Siegal, 25, in Pasadena. Both have been passionate about music for a long time, though Siegal dates his love of music back to the earliest date he can remember.

“I used to listen to “Louie Louie” and The Eagles on a tape cassette when I was four years old,” says Siegal, remembering the Walkman his dad gave him.

Siegal’s father was also a music-lover who played guitar and had around 2,000 records.

“He was essentially a music nerd and I grew up in his footsteps,” says Siegal.

“As I came to writing, it just sort of made sense, ‘Well music is my favourite thing, it turns out writing is probably the thing I’m best at, why not do these together?’”

Originally, Siegal had been on the political science track, majoring in it at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and considering law school as the next step. He decided he wanted to write when he graduated and quickly got into giving it a shot with an internship at The L.A. Times.

Greenwald had begun his journalism career much earlier, starting by writing for his high school newspaper then going on to the University of California, Los Angeles, which he says had the top-ranked college newspaper in the U.S. at that point. Greenwald was a writer there for two years, later progressing to music editor and then arts and entertainment editor. From there he interned with Billboard, Entertainment Weekly and The L.A. Times and after graduating, began working as a web editor at Access Hollywood.

Greenwald, who is inspired by classic music journalist Lester Bangs, knew he’d probably be a writer when he was a kid, but it was seeing the movie “Almost Famous” that led him to where he is now.

“That was definitely the thing that pushed me in the direction of music journalism,” says Greenwald, explaining how powerful the movie was for him.

“As I got more and more into music and wanted to evangelize a little bit for some of these bands I was discovering when I was 15, 16, music journalism seemed like the natural way to do that.”

Fast forward about 10 years to the time when Siegal was interning and writing for blogs. He was also following Greenwald’s blog and noticed that he got hired at Brand X.

“So we were in the same building,” Siegal recounts. “And so I said to him, ‘Hey could I come down and say hi and maybe pitch some freelance stuff to you guys,’ and I went down and we spoke, and spoke to the editor, and they said, ‘We’re actually hiring an associate editor right now, why don’t you apply?’ and I did, and it was great!”

Siegal was the associate editor at Brand X for 10 months before it closed.

“That’s where I really got to love music writing,” he says.

It was after the publication shut down that Siegal and Greenwald began discussing the possibility of creating a place where they could do the kind of music writing they loved – something they’d been given the editorial freedom to do at Brand X.

“When we were kicking around this idea, neither of us expected that this was going to be the next Pitchfork or something that had a million readers,” says Greenwald, who has been running his own music blog, Rawkblog, since 2005.

“Our hope is that there are five or 10,000 readers out there who would be interested in this kind of work, who pick up The New York Times or The New Yorker and want to see another place for just long-form music writing. And so we’re trying very hard to find those people right now,” says Greenwald.

Finding The Readers

They’re looking for that audience on Kickstarter, a popular crowd-sourcing website that has collected $440 million in pledges since it began in 2009 to fund video games, comic books, photography collections and various other projects and inventions. The company proclaims a 43.69 per cent success rate of all  projects, of which to date there have been almost 81,000.

“As far as our inspiration, I think it was really seeing the Kickstarter success of other journalism projects like Ad Hoc, The Classical are two that really were inspirational to us. And seeing, that ‘Oh people are interested in supporting these kinds of things and they’re able to raise enough money to make it work’ and so we just kind of came up with a fresher concept from what we had discussed a year ago (after Brand X closed) and decided ‘Well let’s put it out there and see if people might be interested,’” says Greenwald.

The in-depth, meaty style of writing they advocate pays homage to traditional music journalism, now somewhat an endangered species in a world where the stories that will get the most clicks, rule. Both Greenwald and Siegal agree the journalism industry and the role of the music writer have changed.

Things Ain’t The Same 

As someone who was at a publication that was shut down, Greenwald knows what journalism is like today.

“I think it’s in transition and it’s going to continue to stay in transition,” he says.

“So it’s a very scary time, I think for everyone. My hope is that people will be interested in supporting things directly and not letting the advertising market and the economy dictate what gets published and what doesn’t,” says Greenwald.

Siegal sees the changes that have occurred in music journalism over the years.

“Back in the day, you just physically couldn’t listen to everything on your own if you were a music fan,” says Siegal. “You had to rely on music journalists to listen to stuff for you and tell you what it sounded like and put it in context so you could know whether to invest your money in that LP.”

“It’s been said plenty of times but YouTube killed music journalism.”

Greenwald echoes that sentiment from the viewpoint of a music blogger.

“Music blogging has transformed drastically in the last seven years. There’s been a lot of discussion lately about how it’s just not really needed,” says Greenwald, noting that because of sites like Spotify and YouTube, music has become more available than ever before.

“The role of someone who might be a discoverer or curator of obscure music or someone who might tell you if something is bad or good, those roles I think are becoming less and less important,” he says.

Siegal sees technology as a culprit in the crimes against music writing as well.

“It’s been said plenty of times but you know, YouTube. YouTube killed music journalism. YouTube and Spotify,” says Siegal.

He explains that because of these sites, as long as there is Internet access and a device to connect to it, almost any piece of music can be found.

“Boom,” he says. “Every song. Every song.”

With so much music being so easily accessible, fans no longer require the opinion of a skillful music critic. They can pre-listen to all their potential new favourite songs online, then choose if they want to buy them of their own accord. They can follow their friends and idols on Twitter and copy their musical tastes. Is there anyone left who wants to read good, solid music journalism? Will there be enough readers out there who want to support UNCOOL? This is the dilemma Greenwald and Siegal face.

Despite the worry and the changes the industry is going through, it’s not all bad.

Siegal sees two points of view, that of the music writer and that of the music lover.

“As a music critic, I think fundamentally the role of the music critic as gatekeeper taste-maker is in ashes. And I think that’s fine, just how it is. And it’s only sad if you’re a music writer,” he says. “You have to take the broad view, which is that, if you’re a music fan, there’s probably never been a better time to be alive.”

Greenwald sees a career benefit.

“I use Rdio instead of Spotify and even using that in the last year as a journalist, it’s unbelievable because if I’m writing about some band I’ve just been assigned, I can go on and listen to two of their albums. It’s been incredible as far as what I’ve been able to hear. It just expands your scope as a listener and I think it’s great that people are able to hear so many different things and be able to dig into their taste in that way.”

Greenwald also sees a lot of great work being done in music journalism today.

“The thing that’s great about the Internet,” he says. “Is there’s more writers than ever before who are interested in participating and who are able to, so I think there’s a lot of fresh voices and people who bring a different perspective.”

Perhaps Siegal sums it up best: “Journalism’s not gonna die. It’s just gonna change. It’s just gonna be made into what people get the effort, and the energy and the passion to change it into. It might change into something I don’t like. But you know what, that’s not the end of the world. You know, I don’t like mayonnaise and people put mayonnaise on their sandwiches all over the fucking world, and I can‘t help it.”

Hope Is In Sight

Long-form journalism has found a place in other publications, as mentioned above. It’s even spreading to our own backyard, with The Toronto Star’s Star Dispatches, electronically-downloaded long articles that take a more involved look at news stories. And the recent Kickstarter success of the aforementioned Ad Hoc, a new music and culture website which also offers up long-form features, is hope-inspiring. They surpassed their goal of $33,333 in a little more than a month, closing at $37,626 on March 5.

With UNCOOL, Greenwald and Siegal are ready to get the ball rolling. They already have their team in place.

“The whole point was never to have it be about Dave or I,” says Siegal. “The reason we found these writers is that they were writers we loved. We sat down and we said, ‘Who are the music writers whose work we really, really love?’ and then we emailed them all and asked if they’d wanna get on board.”

The response has been good, with 11 well-known writers now part of the team. They have been posting introductory videos on UNCOOL’s Tumblr page.

The talented list includes Henry “Rizoh” Adaso (Houston Press, Vibe), Amos Barshad (Grantland, New York Magazine), Harley Oliver Brown (Village Voice, Pitchfork), Jamieson Cox (Pitchfork, Buzzfeed), Daniel Kolitz (Prefix, Thought Catalog), Rachael Maddux (Paste, Pitchfork, The Paris Review), Devon Maloney (SPIN, Vice), Chris Ott (Shallow Rewards, Unknown Pleasures – 33 1/3 book), Scott Tennent (Pretty Goes with Pretty, Spiderland – 33 1/3 book), Simon Vozick-Levinson (Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly), Jeff Weiss (The Passion of the Weiss, Rolling Stone, L.A Weekly).

The Back-Up Plan

UNCOOL needs $54,000 to fund production for one year. See a break-down of their financial plan here. With 12 days to go, they have reached $8,634 with a total of 219 backers.  Ideally, the full amount will be pledged by the deadline, January 2. However, if it isn’t, Greenwald and Siegal have started to come up with a plan.

“Rest assured, we’re gonna’ do something,” says Siegal.

Greenwald elaborates. “It is really important to me that we showcase our writers and that we do something for the people who have pledged to us so they don’t feel like they wasted two months of having their credit card billed.”

One option is to do a one-time publication which includes a story from each writer. Nothing is set in stone, but both Greenwald and Siegal feel it’s important to do something even if funding doesn’t pan out.

“It’s not that there’s no one else doing good stuff, but we wanted to try to make a place that could only do good stuff.”

“We would love to have enough subscribers and enough of an audience to be able to do it full time and to really dream big and write really crazy stories for it,” says Greenwald.

He explains that the more funding they receive and the more readers they have, the more time they could spend on amazing articles, with the option to take on even longer pieces like books.

Siegal envisions an ideal scenario of people tweeting UNCOOL stories each week, discussing how good the writing was, how it made them think and saying, ‘Hey, did ya see this article?’

“It’s not that there’s no one else doing good stuff,” says Siegal. “But we wanted to try to make a place that could only do good stuff.”

 

More With The Guys: Interview Extras

Two music writers so immersed in their fields surely have a lot of tales to tell. We chatted with them about their experiences with music, their favourite things to cover and their advice for new writers.

 

How Have Your Music Tastes Evolved? 

Siegal’s favourite genre is dance music. This is a far cry from what he liked as a teenager.

“I’m just generally more open-minded than I was. I mean in high school, I pretty much only listened to death metal. You know, really horrific, disgusting death metal,” says Siegal.

“And then for a couple years after that in college, I got super into electronic music. And then I think what happened when I started writing about it, is that it forced me to broaden my horizons.  At that point I’d already decided I wanted to listen to a broader range of music. I didn’t wanna lock myself in any specific genre.”

At the moment, he is finishing up an article for UNCOOL about the neurological basis of how dance music works and why almost anyone around the world will be affected by a good beat.

“The type of writing I like most is stuff like that, that teaches me something I didn’t know about something I liked.”

He also says, “I am just a sucker for work that gets inside an artist’s creative process. The how and the why and the what of making their music and how this album came to be and why those decisions were made and what drives someone to get up and get in the studio every day or to write this album because in a way it’s sort of a metaphor for why any of us do anything. Why do you get up and go to work the next day and how do you make sure you do a good job?”

Greenwald, who says indie rock is his favourite thing to cover, also loves to write about the artist’s process.

“I really love doing interviews and getting to spend time with artists and find out how they work. I feel like many interviews don’t necessarily ask about the process of recording or crafting the songs and sometimes they’re more interested in other aspects but to me, I’m always interested in actually how the songs were put together. Did you do it at home, did you it in the studio, what was that process like. That’s always interesting to me,” says Greenwald.

Most Meaningful Music Experience

Both of these writers have seen countless shows, listened to who-knows-how-many songs and done lots of interviews. We asked them what their most meaningful experience with music has been to date.

Greenwald holds two moments up high in his memory.

“One was seeing Elliott Smith at The Fonda Theatre in L.A. in 2003. That was about eight months before he died,” remembers Greenwald. “He’d been my favourite musician for a couple years already at that point and he just played an unbelievably long show. He played a track from his old band that was like 12 years old, just a really incredible set. So that was a really special thing to have seen, especially because he died so soon after.”

Greenwald’s second most meaningful experience was seeing The Softies perform in Portland, Oregon this year.

“The Softies are kind of the band that became my favourite after Elliott and they hadn’t played shows in years and they did a handful of reunion performances this year and so I actually flew up to Portland for the week and took a little vacation and was able to see them.”

The show was made even better because Greenwald had previously met one half of the band, Rose Melberg, in L.A and got to see her again.

“It was really great to not only see them play again but to say hi to Rose after the show and have her remember who I was – that was a nice fanboy moment,” says Greenwald.

For Siegal, it is Coachella 2008 that stands out.

“This is super cheesy,” says Siegal, describing it as a life-changing experience, all clichés aside. He even wrote a 40,000 word novella about it.

“I wasn’t a dancer, I came from listening to death metal for years, I didn’t hit the dance floor,” says Siegal.

Despite his hardcore background, he had the time of his life listening to Prince and others perform.

“It was just one of those magical weekends that could only happen in the presence of music, and people and substance abuse perhaps, where you kind of get out of yourself, and you get out of your shell,” says Siegal.

Navigating The Music World

Music is universal. It crosses cultures, bringing people together and yet also providing unique individual experiences to all who listen to it. We wondered how these guys navigate that as thinkers about music.

Greenwald says this is a difficult question that comes up a lot in criticism.

“I think it’s important to look at music in a broader context – especially in the age of Twitter. Artists are connected with and reflective of their fans in crucial ways. But it’s just as important to look at what the music is accomplishing on its own merits without being overwhelmed by the marketing apparatus or an audience response,” he says.

“Sometimes the artist’s image or angle is more interesting than the music (I argued as much in a Sleigh Bells review this year), so it really comes on a case-by-case basis, but ultimately I think the discussion should always come back to a personal response to the music itself. It’s the only opinion you can really know for sure, after all.”

Siegal has experienced the cross-over from experiencing a song individually to enjoying it with others. He says music’s power to bring people together is most evident in physical situations, such as live shows.

“For me, there’s nothing more beautiful than developing a rich individual connection to a song and then hearing it played out at a show or a club and having hundreds of other people join you in that love,” says Siegal.

“I remember a year or so ago becoming obsessed with “Naive Melody” by The Talking Heads, as these sorts of things happen, and after a week of listening to it non-stop, I went out to A Club Called Rhonda, a club night here in L.A., that has actually held events at Wrongbar in Toronto,” he says.

“Now, after four hours of deep house and techno and all that, the DJ dropped an edit of “Naive Melody,” and getting to dance along with a huge crowd to this song I’d been privately loving sort of sums up the power of music – to take something you thought existed only in your heart and let you share it with a crowd. It’s not surprising that so much of house music talks about “church,” because it is almost a spiritual feeling.”

Advice For Young Writers

With such ambition and success early in their careers, it seems only natural to ask Greenwald and Siegal for their advice to new journalists, specifically those who want to venture into music journalism.

“I would say it’s a tiny field and you’re gonna have to work really hard. It’s going to be about five per cent glamourous on the day when you have a great phone interview with 50 Cent and about 95 per cent just working really hard and transcribing two-hour interviews,” says Greenwald.

He sees two paths aspiring music writers could take. “Either you’re going to have to get that great staff job – there’s only a few – or you’re going to really have to hustle as a freelancer and be writing a ton of stuff every week.”

Greenwald warns against illusions that it’s still 1974, pointing out that people really have to be ready for the kind of work they’re going to need to do. However, he says, “If you really love it, then go for it.”

When it comes to writing for iconic publications like Greenwald has written for (GQ, The Atlantic, The L.A. Times), he says there are two key points to keep in mind: Networking and clippings.

“The more you have on your resume and the more connections you’ve made, the easier it is for someone at GQ to have heard your name and to take a chance on giving you a story,” says Greenwald.

He encourages writers to pitch their ideas and follow up on them.

“Eventually someone is going to give you a chance and someone is going to help you out and then you use that to get to the next place.”

Siegal proffers the idea of writing for free as a stepping stone to get to a paying job. In his early writing days, he offered to write a restaurant review for the blog Hometown Pasadena. They agreed and from there a bridge to other opportunities developed.

“I didn’t get paid but now I had a link. I did more for them and I used those clips to apply for my first real job.”

You have until Wednesday January 2nd, at 11:59pm EST to help fund UNCOOL.

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