A conversation with the music editor for LA Weekly. Brett Callwood has worked for a slew of alt-weeklies, including Denver’s Westword, Detroit’s The Metro Times, SF Weekly and you’ll soon see his byline in the relaunch of the Village Voice.
Brett walks us through his process for determining coverage each week at LA Weekly, plus he gives us his insights on the Los Angeles music scene, if genres even matter anymore, and his thoughts on the future of music journalism in general.
Rachel: Hello everyone, I’m Rachel Hurley from Sweetheart PUB and this week on the Music Rookie podcast I spoke to with the music editor for LA Weekly – Brett Callwood. Brett has worked for a slew of alt-weeklies, including Denver’s Westword, Detroit’s The Metro, SF weekly and you’ll soon see his byline in the relaunch of the Village Voice.
Brett was kind enough to walk me through his process for determining coverage each week at LA Weekly, Plus we talk about the LA music scene, if genres even matter anymore, and Brett’s thoughts on the future of music journalism in general.
So let’s get started.
Rachel: Thank you for sitting down with me and taking some time. I did a little bit of research on you this afternoon. I was quite surprised to see you have an overwhelming Wikipedia page.
Sometimes I go to do some research on who I’m going to have on the show, and I kind of have to search, you know, I kind of have to like look for some
Brett: funny story. So that Wikipedia page I’m mildly embarrassed it’s a funny thing. When I was still in London I had a friend,
A woman called Alison who was running a fanzine of rock and roll fanzine
and it was called, it was colorfully called Bubble Gum Slut and it was, it was all about local rock and roll. And, and anyway, we both said, wouldn’t it be fun to have a Wikipedia page? So we did each other’s Wikipedia page, but then over time I moved here and we lost contact. And then my Wikipedia page that she had done became very out of date.
And I was left with no choice. You can’t take them down once you can’t take them down. Yeah. It’s very, very difficult. So This like kind of protects that freedom of speech thing. So so somebody else had done my Wikipedia page, but I, what I can do is edit it. So it’s kind of embarrassing because I’m kind of self editing my own Wikipedia rather and just let it be wrong all the time.
And I wish I could take it down, but it’s very difficult. That’s why it’s there.
Rachel: That’s great information. And it made me realize we have a lot of intersections in our lives. And side note, I’ve always wanted a Wikipedia page, but you can’t make your own. And no one would make one for me. So, and I’m not going to like pay somebody to make an Wikipedia page.
So it’s not that important, but anyway you wrote a book about garage rock and and this is not going to be, this is your life. This is just going to be a little, little snippets to like show you where we kind of connect. Cause you lived in Detroit and wrote a book about garage rock. So you’re probably familiar with like the Memphis garage rock scene.
Rachel: So that’s where I live Memphis. You know, very deep into that and know a lot of those players and Goner Records and Gonerfest and then you move to Colorado and I actually lived in Broomfield for two years. So.
And I looked back at all of the, you know, different things that you’ve written about, and it’s really like heavy on the rock side, you know, metal and rock and right. Now, you know, you’re at LA Weekly you’re the music editor at LA weekly. And that’s what I mostly want to talk about because obviously alt weeklies have changed a lot over the years and you know, there’s a lot going on with that, but, but now I assume that you’ve had to like spread out your genre interests to cover a lot more.
Areas of music then not just focusing on those things that you’re an expert in. And I think that’s interesting because that’s kind of, one of the reasons why I moved into Americana music is because you can grow older, more gracefully in Americana.
Brett: There’s a lot of truth in that. Right. Yeah, I think it’s, it’s, it’s fun.
I mean, I think most writers as of write about music start doing it because they love what they love and, and, and their passionate about what they’re passionate about. And that’s completely normal and natural and healthy, I think. And as you get as you, your career develops and then you’ve go in my case from purely writing to writing and editing You you, you, of course you have to, I mean, I’ve written for alternative weeklies in three cities in the United States since moving here from England and part of the responsibility, not just evolved, but the responsibility is make sure you’re covering as much as possible as diverse a range of music.
So there’s so much going on in all of the cities that I’ve lived in and across particularly LA it’s so huge that the job is to make sure that everybody feels welcomed from. You know, every style of music, but also culturally and gender and sexuality, it makes sure nobody feels that this isn’t the place for them.
And that’s kind of, that’s kind of the, the job, I think always a huge part of the job and also what I learned as well as that just because of kind of music. Isn’t it. My favorite kind of music. That doesn’t mean that I’m not fascinated to interview people involved in it. Sometimes my favorite interviews have been people that personally, I don’t care for their music at all, but they’re still fascinating people to speak to.
I think that’s part of the growing processes you realize it’s, it’s not all about me, you know, it’s certainly not all about me. And then. The the further brunch of that is that as an editor in healthier times, when when there isn’t a pandemic hit. And even before that the industry we all know has been struggling a little bit for a while.
In healthy times we have a freelance base. We have a network of freelancers that we use regularly. That’s that’s our knowledge base. So we don’t, nobody knows everything. I think music editors I need to know a lot, but they still can’t know everything. So it’s important that we have writers from different they cover all basis.
Right. But yeah, I love the job because I love music.
Rachel: Right. And I feel that way a little bit when I delve into more of the country stuff, because I didn’t really grow up listening to country. I’m from Memphis. And a lot of people get that confused and Nashville is the country, city, and, and Memphis is the soul /Stax city.
And you know, and I go to Nashville sometimes I’ll meet people and they’ll expect me to know every single thing about country music, because I represent a country client and I’m just like, no, I just have an ear for, you know, what I think is good. And I can write about any type of music. And I know the outlets that I need to pitch it to.
So, you know, I don’t need to know the background of Merle Haggard so, and that comes from just a general knowledge of music. And it’s funny, cause the older that you get, the more you realize that, you know, without even having tried to know it, right.
You’re like you pick up the bag and the rolling stones and you know, all these stories. Cause you’ve seen movies and you’ve had conversations. and newer people come up. That, you know, someone will say, Oh, they’re just a rip off of this other band. That’s an older band. And then you’d go back and listen to that older band.
And you’re like, you’re right. They are a rip off of that right.
Country and America.
Brett: And it’s been fascinating, fascinating part of the road as well. For me. I mean, one of the, one of the expressions I’m sure you’ve heard is that people will say, I like all kinds of music except country and rap that people will say that.
And I always. Cringe at that because I think what they mean a lot of the time is I like everything apart from the country and rap, which is prevalent on the radio right now. And we, we know the, both of those styles of music. You only have to scratch the surface and you can find some really, really fascinating things.
Country has really suffered, I think, in, in cities like LA, because there’s a preconceived notion of what a country musician or a country fan is even, and it’s going to have a lot to do with Confederate flags and that kind of nonsense, you know, better than me. I’m sure that that’s like just a subset of, the amazing stuff that goes on.
So I I’ve, I’ve definitely learned a lot through, through our country writers and now I’m pretty confident, wriiting a good country piece. I liked the music a lot.
Rachel: You know, there’s no specific genre. That is one thing. There are subsets of every single genre, you know, and pretty much you can find something you like in every genre and different things rise to the top.
And that’s the kind of the stuff that kinda sounds the same. You know, and so that’s why people get the idea that, Oh, this is what this has. It’s the thing. But there’s, I mean, there’s just tons and tons and it gets confusing sometimes, because especially now that we have a lot of people saying, Oh, we live in a genreless world.
There’s no real music genres anymore. Which, you know, I understand because I work on records that. They kind of delve into five different genres. You know, maybe they’re a little Americana, a little folk, little indie rock, a little electronic, and it makes it more difficult for me because I’m trying to like package it and sell it.
And if you can’t really, get that short description that, really pulls it all together quickly so that, you pitch someone like yourself. And you can read a couple lines and be like, this sounds interesting. I’m going to listen. If it’s just like, country rocker from Nashville releases, new song, you know,
Brett: it’s snap, it’s snappy.
Yeah. Both of our industries are guilty of needing that snappiness. It’s it’s funny because I, the genre is definitely still there. But what’s, what’s interesting when I, a couple of years ago when I went to Coachella and I was probably the oldest guy there by a decade but when I went to Coachella, I, what I noticed was, yeah, I mean, the genres are a definitely still there, but the young festival goers just don’t seem to care about them like that.
And that. I, I like, I like the fact that the people that I saw going crazy for for example, Greta van Fleet who I’ve been reading, the only reason I keep reading, the only reason greater than fleet are doing great is because of all boomers that need to see Zeplin again and bloody blah. But at Coachella Greta van Fleet
the tent was packed to sweat. And it was all the same people that were watching Beyonce and Tyler the Creator. And so I liked that. I liked the fact that when it definitely, when I was a kid, you had your indie kids and your punks and your metal kids and your ravers and your hip hop heads. And, and now that’s, that’s just.
That’s not there. The musical genres are still there, but the kids are mingled and others. I think that’s healthy. I like that.
Rachel: I also think though, at those types of festivals, like Bonnaroo Coachella and ACL, it’s kind of just the thing to do to go see everything. You know what I mean? Like sure.
Brett: For sure. But the people knew the words, the word. Yeah. It was impressive.
Rachel: I went to Bonnaroo like I, I went one time in 2011, did it once. And I was like, okay, I’m done. And yeah, I got to see so many bands that. I would probably would have never checked out except that they were playing this massive festival.
And it was fun just to like hop around. And 2019, I went to ACL and I had to choose between Tom York and Guns N Roses they were playing opposite each other. And I was just like, I mean, I’m more of a Thom York fan, but when are you going to get a chance to see Guns N Roses
So back to all weeklies tell me all the ones that you worked at.
Brett: Okay. So in Detroit is the Metro times. Okay. And then I was the music editor there. When I moved to Colorado, it was for a different job. I was the editor of a glossy magazine, but I was freelancing for Westward regularly.
And continue to after I moved to LA for a long time until I got the music editor job here. So, so I worked at the Metro times. I freelanced at the Denver Westword regularly, and then I worked at LA Weekly and then I freelanced since moving here for a bunch of papers, a bunch of all weeklies the OC weekly before that died, sadly, SF weekly, Tucson weekly.
And is that it? No, I’ve I now since our owners purchased the Village Voice I’m often appearing in that as well. The revitalized village voice. Yeah.
Rachel: That’s some big news, so did you find that all of these alt weeklies were run the same way and had the same editorial process?
Or was it kind of different at each one?
Brett: I think it’s become the same. When I went to Colorado, the Denver Westward was essentially being run as a a daily newspaper in terms of there was fresh copy every day.
And then they kind of cherry picked the best content for the print edition each week. It ends up really being. In the modern world, a flyer for the, for the website everything’s online. Metro Times was a little behind the curve on that when I was there, I think it was, we would put up, we would put up occasional blogs, but it wasn’t like every day there’d be fresh content , like strong daily newspaper content.
But, I think nowadays it is since I left Detroit it’s pretty much the same model we’re all trying to make sure that we’re covering local news for progressive slant, for sure. Everywhere. Which I’m pleased about we’ve kept that at the LA weekly. And just make sure we’re covering as much as possible, like I said earlier, and that’s true everywhere.
That’s true. Everywhere.
Rachel: I just wanted to get that just want to make sure that, you know, we’re kind of talking about , alt weeklies in general, right. And so obviously you’re going to cover in LA tons and tons of different types of music, tons of different styles.
I’m sure you have a lot of different scenes in LA. What are some of the biggest scenes in LA right now?
Brett: I mean, you can’t look a lot further than hip hop. It’s huge everywhere, but it’s still a, you know, the West coast scene is still enormous and people like Kendrick and stuff, it’s just a healthy and vibrant and buzzing.
And we’ve got to keep covering that. And of course, electronic music, those two aren’t going anywhere in any city that they’re only going to keep growing. So Yeah, it’s very important that we make sure we continue to cover hip hop and electronic music in depth, rock music, as much as we keep being told, it’s dead, we’ll never really die. So whether we’re talking about indie or, punk or whatever, with the different branches of that, it’s,
Rachel: I mean, is there like a punk scene in LA right now?
Brett: Oh, for sure. Yeah. It doesn’t go anywhere.
This there’s always the legacy bands, which nearly all of them are still going, but, and then there’s so many young bands and They seem to be more and more inclusive too. There’s just so many labels. There are labels that purely focus on queer punk. Like, you know, that that’s how they identify their genre
and that started a long time ago, Panty Division and stuff, but it seems to be growing and growing and, and that’s like That’s getting bigger and bigger. So yeah, but Punk and all its different styles, rock and roll of all these different styles isn’t going anywhere, but you can’t, you really can’t look any further than hip hop and, electronic, R and B of course, as well.
And, and Pop right there.
Rachel: And you guys have like a small Americana scene there.
Brett: Oh, yeah, we do. Yeah. And when when you’re familiar with Johnny Whiteside, right? Yes. You know, Johnny? Yeah. When I was still able to have a freelance nest for awhile and a budget Johnny was covering that in depth.
He introduced me to a whole bunch of stuff. No, there’s I think a city like LA or New York or so there’s everything because there’s such a diverse array of people, you know, we’ve got Latin music and all this cool stuff. But for sure, there’s an Americana scene. There’s a country scene. Bluegrass, it’s all going on here.
Just got to find it.
Rachel: And so how do you decide what you’re going to cover? Is it the story angle?
Is it the amount of people you think are going to read the story? Are you looking very closely at analytics? I know that for LA weekly and a lot of alt weeklies, it’s got to tie in with a show, you know, most of the time, unless it’s a bigger overall like a cover story or something like that, you know, you need to tie it in with the show, but what are you looking for when you decide to cover an artist?
Brett: Yeah. Yeah. All that. I mean, no. Apart from analytics, I don’t look, I don’t look closely at analytics. I think, I think if we’re doing our job in every other area, the analytics and I might be wrong on this, somebody might slap my wrist on this, but I think the analytics will take care of themselves if you’re doing everything else.
So you’re making sure that, you have every genre covered and you’re making sure that you have you know, you’re covering basically when I look at my, at the front page of the LA weekly, and I look at the music section, I see, I get alarm bells, if there’s, you know, if it’s all white or white men, for sure.
So I want to look at that and see diversity. So that’s, I mean, that’s, I think if we’re covering diversity and genre called gender, everything else The analytics will take care of themselves because people will know, like I said earlier, they’ll, they’ll feel welcome. So I don’t look too much at that.
Like you said, like a feature to correspond with an event. Used to be a show the last year that hasn’t been the case it’s been. So we’ve, tried to tie it into record releases, single, you know, whatever, whatever we can, some kind of event, but unlikely, likely to be an event.
And so it, doesn’t just like, why, why are we doing this now? That has to do, has to be a reason why we’re doing it now. Besides that it’s just, yeah, it’s just gotta be a story that piques the interest and, and yeah, I mean really, as I said, there’s no, I can’t think of a viable reason besides this is I, in my head, I have a little bit of a.
Rotation you know, w w it was hip hop. We make sure we do some, we haven’t had this in for a while. We haven’t had that genre for a while, so let’s make sure, so in my head is, but it’s not hard and fast. It’s not, you know, Because there might be an event that would put that out of sync. So there’s no, there’s no hard and fast rotation, but in my head there’s a loose rotation.
We make sure we cover everything. And then besides that once, if I’m looking for that week, a hip hop story or a rock and roll story, or a electronic music story or whatever, I’ll look for the, for the press release that piques the interest. I like titles. I think first press releases start with a really good title.
Right? So. Well, I know, I know most PR understand that most journalists in a day, we’re getting three, four or 500 emails. Very, very hard to read them all in depth. We just can’t. You just can’t. So those, those titles have to hook you in and and there’s really good ones.
Rachel: Well, I’ve always been torn on that myself.
From like writing kind of a click baity headline that I think will like make somebody, look at the press release versus writing a subject line that tells you exactly what it is.
So that’s right. You know,
Brett: I didn’t say clickbait. No, it has to be as much information as possible in a short space of time.
It’s they said, if you looked at my Wikipedia, see that for a little while I did advertising copy. And what I learned from that was how to get a lot of info in a short manner. Yeah. Yeah. So, you know what I mean? Like the title doesn’t have to be. Click baity in that in a, in a tacky way, but you want to get as much information on there as possible because we’re just, we’re just scrolling through sometimes.
Rachel: And you take pitches from artists, correct? It’s okay. If an artist just emails, you and says, this is going on.
Brett: Yeah. I mean, I, I, I’m not, firstly, I take pitches from whoever gets, whoever has the story. Yeah.
Rachel: So they should put in their headline what if they just want to pitch you something, what’s the best.
What’s the best headline, the best subject line.
Brett: So, yeah, that’s a good question. So to distill it down for LA weekly, I’m often looking at whether from, I want to know where the put, where the artist is form style of music name and what the, what the event is, what the, what the, what the press release is. So if it’s like LA artist XXX Is dropping album or is performing show blah.
Yeah. I mean, you just want to get it all in there, right?
Rachel: that’s the thing and that’s why I like talking to people about this is because every editor is kind of different. And for more like features at different magazines a lot of editors want you to, just to write the headline.
You know, what’s the headline, right? So that, and then they know if I click on this, then other people will click on this and want to read it. Right. So you’re always kind of like go write the headline or do a, write this, you know, just the subject of what, what it is and for alt weekly assume you guys are way more into events and you know, things from dates.
Versus a glossy mag or whatever, where it can be kind of more evergreen. So that’s good information.
This is another thing that, you know, I go back and forth with, with a lot of different editors and how they. Manage things like I did an interview with American Songwriter and they talked a lot about how they were looking more and more at analytics based on what they were going to cover.
And they are starting more to look at like an artist. Social media following. Right. And so, and like, I think even rolling stone, one of the editors there has in his his signature we don’t cover people with less than 10,000 Facebook fans. Right. And so. Yeah. And I think that that’s also just like, kind of a brush off where if they do learn about something through their own tastes or whatever, I’ve definitely seen people covered on there that are not as big, but it’s something that like the editor found or maybe was passed on by someone that they know or whatever.
But it, I think it is to keep them from being constantly pitched. A bunch of smaller artists that they are never going to cover. So I guess the question is, are you looking at people’s fan bases and maybe you’re like, this is, you know, this is kind of interesting. It’s okay. But look, they’ve got a hundred thousand Facebook fans.
We should cover this because it’s going to draw a lot of eyeballs to our site.
Brett: Sure. I mean, no, no, no. I think that approach is probably fair for Rolling Stone probably a magazine of that stature, which is covering people.
That makes sense. To me. To me that wouldn’t make sense for LA weekly or any alt weekly Because again, I think part of the responsibility is we’re saying, this is what’s going on here. And this is something you should check out. Not necessarily, this is something that you’re already checking out or lots of people already know.
This is something that you should, because this is cool. And we would hope that one day we can help these people. Get to the stature where Rolling Stone would pay attention to them. I think, I think now that it’s a leg up, I don’t think it’s a, it’s not a, it’s not a matter of it being a leg up from where like, Oh, we’re helping you.
It’s more that. The job of alt weekly is to shine lights on what’s going on in the city. Right. I think, and so the music section of that is shining lights on things that are going on that people don’t necessarily know about already. But yeah, you know, there’s, there’s definitely a realistic, if not cynical side to it where we we’ve got a.
We’ve got to get eyes on the paper and it helps, it helps the smaller bands that we’re shining a light on if there were already eyes on the paper. So occasionally for sure, it’s important to make sure we put people in that have, have a lot of fans, but it’s certainly not the be all and end all. Yeah, you bet.
Yeah. Have we have to balance it? Yeah, I would never not. I would never, I would never do that. That would never do the Rolling Stone thing, but again, I think it’s appropriate for them because I want the smaller bands, particularly the LA bands for the city I’m covering to come to me. I want them to feel they can do that.
Rachel: Ann Powers wrote just a Facebook posts this week about, the hot take pieces and covering albums, like the day that they come out and just, covering anyone with a big name because it like draws eyeballs to your writing, but it doesn’t really leave any time for you to digest what they’ve done because you know, the album comes out at midnight and you’ve got to have a review written by the next day to get it out.
And the next week nobody cares. And it doesn’t leave a lot of room to cover smaller artists that are trying to like break through that bubble of, 30 Drake stories and 25 Taylor Swift stories. But those are the kind of articles that get people to come to the site and, you know, music, magazines, or alt weeklies they’re in the business to make money and to sell advertising.
And you sell advertising based on. The analytics and the numbers that people that read your site. So it’s a balancing act for sure. And more and more I’ve noticed that editors aren’t as interested in breaking new music as they are in keeping their numbers really high. So it’s great that you are interested in knowing about younger, more obscure music and want to shine a light on it.
Brett: So I think a lot of music editors are interested in doing it, but for every music editor, there’s a problem, especially not necessarily all weeklies, but especially at dailies and bigger magazines with bigger budgets for every music editors, as a features editor, and then an editor-in-chief or a managing editor, there’s a chain of people and it’s all being fed down.
The these are certain things you have to do. I’ve I’ve worked for editors that. Would like to cover more new music, but I’ve been basically told point blank that they can’t. And and so that’s it, everyone’s just trying to survive. The industry is in a precarious position. And right now, especially LA weekly is advertisers were all the places that.
were closed for the past year. Yeah. So it, the fact that we’re still here, I think it’s I’m incredibly proud that the owners found ways and you know, it’s difficult to criticize any decisions that come down from the top, if it’s basically to keep the doors open, you know?
Rachel: Right. No, I totally understand that. And then my question to you is where do you see the future of this?
Have you thought about where you think things are going in terms of music, journalism?
Brett: Yeah, I’ve thought about it. I don’t know to be Frank. I really don’t know.
I can’t give up on alt weeklies yet. Like I, I can’t and won’t. Like if that decision might ultimately be taken out of my hands. I just love the service that alt weeklies provide, and I still think it’s something that you don’t get anywhere else. And that’s even in.
Taking into account. The fact that you know, budgets have been down, so there’s less staff and, you know, some might say it’s not what it once was when they were all 80 pages and there was three news writers it each out weekly and, and et cetera, et cetera, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s not that anymore, but I think at some point.
People will at any, it might not even be, I don’t think it’s necessarily a, a print versus online thing, because like I say, all the alt weeklies have busy websites. And yet it still seems to be the case. This is what it always confuses me that, you know, online is the future, but every time. I know weekly, like for example, in Seattle says that we’re going to close down the print and go online only that’s that’s covered nationally as a death knell for that publication.
When, if that seems to be a conflict, it’s, it’s a strange thing where you think publications are going online. Because that’s the future. And yet everybody else is saying, well, that means you’re dead. Then if you’re only online, it’s strange. It’s a strange thing. So what the future holds? I don’t know. I think that if if we’re able to keep producing quality work and, and And keep covering the things that people have always been interested in, which, you know, with things that aren’t necessarily being covered elsewhere.
There’ll be, there’ll always be a readership and and there’ll return if yeah, if we can just keep doing what we’re doing, I think, I think it’ll always be there. I hope
Rachel: There’s just something kind of visceral about it. You know, going to the coffee shop and grabbing the alt weekly and opening it up on the table and like drinking your coffee or beer or whatever. And it’s not the same experience, like scrolling on an iPad, you know, you can use it to those, like spread out and look at everything.
So I would hate for that to go away. But, everything just seems to be going to this point, where all the money’s being pulled into one direction and I don’t know how we break out of that. So yeah, I don’t know either,
I guess we’ll find out
I was hoping you can solve it for me.
Brett: Yeah. I’m not the right guy for that. I just know, I just keep doing what I’m doing and maybe I’m just hopelessly naive, but I dunno. Yeah, like I say, I’m just not ready to give up yet. Then my, that day might come. I hope, I hope not too soon.
Rachel: All right. Well, I’m not going to keep you any longer. Thank you so much for taking the time.
I thought you gave us some great information and yeah. Thanks a lot.
Brett: Well, thank you. Thanks so much. That was fun.
Rachel: And there you have it. Thanks again to Brett for taking the time to chat with me this week.
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