Name: Gabe Rosenberg
College: Wesleyan University
Class Year: Sophomore (Class of 2016)
Major: American Studies
Why He’s in Center Stage: Music journalism extraordinaire
Social Media Fun-ness: Find Gabe on Tumblr, Twitter, or Facebook.
When did you know you wanted to be a music journalist?
When my older sister introduced me to the magic of the Beatles in the 7th grade, that really got the ball rolling. I hadn’t been that into music – just Fountains of Wayne, the first band I ever liked and still my all-time favorite – but going into 8th grade, I started to really ask for new music influences. I had people make me mixtapes, I listened to all the CDs my older sister ever owned, I was voracious. When you get to the point where you constantly need new music, the search for brand new artists and albums consumes all your time, then either you have an addiction or a future career, although they go hand in hand.
An English class assignment in 8th grade was actually what got me interested in journalism as a whole. I was so into the whole thing, interviewing a family member or something, and my teacher told me to look into the newspaper when I got to high school. When I could finally join in the 10th grade, I went right for the Arts and Entertainment section. I loved reviewing new albums, and I would put way too much effort into them. I became editor of that section the next semester, and then music journalism just sort of became my beat.
What I really loved, and still love most, is not just doing subjective reviews, but actually doing those interviews and digging into music trends. My first ever article for the newspaper as a sophomore actually became the cover article, which was unheard of— A&E articles never made the cover! It was all about students and teachers at the school who listened to vinyl and CD instead of digital collections, at a time when the vinyl revival was just picking up speed again. Another one I was proud about was an article on rock bands that came out of my high school, and I got interviews with tons of band members and put together this really excellent article that really shed light on the local music scene, something that had previously gone ignored. That sort of journalism was the type I really liked, and the type I wanted to be part of: not simply being a critic, but being a documentarian.
How did you get into photography?
To tell the truth, I took up photography because I realized I couldn’t draw. I was super into cartooning for years, and then realized, “Wait, I’m no good at this.” So one vacation, my family went to St. Marten in the Caribbean, which is bright and colorful and fun, and I took my older sister’s old camera and starting taking shots. It was a dinky Canon point-and-shoot type camera, nothing at all artistic, but the sort of thing you can take mediocre pictures without much fuss, and I got quite into it. I documented the whole vacation, except my parents got annoyed because I never photographed my family, so as far as we can tell now, I was the only one who had actually gone. When we got back home to Pittsburgh, I kept the camera and began photographing all sorts of colorful places: the birds in the National Aviary, the plants in Phipps Conservatory.
I like to say that I was self-taught, and that’s mostly true. Composition and all the artistic elements I figured out by trial and error, and of course by looking at a ton of photographs for fun.
But the technical parts, like what the heck “aperture” is and more advanced techniques (as well as some basic Photoshop), I learned through summer classes at a local photography studio. As with most things, you can get a long way on your own, but if you want to really figure things out, professionals are certainly helpful.
When did you start putting together your love of music and your love of photography?
When there are free outdoor concerts in the summer, you learn that a camera is a nice thing to bring along. Obviously the first thing you go to a concert for is the music itself, but I’ve always loved concert photography, especially in magazines like SPIN and Rolling Stone, which I’ve been reading since middle school. The sort of photography I enjoyed, I figured out, was not nature photography— plants and birds are pretty, but there’s no emotion. I love street photography because I find people so fascinating, and concert photography is so dynamic because of the lights and action. It’s easy to take a decent concert photograph, but to take a really wonderful concert photograph is something else entirely. I’ve gotten so much better at it over the years, because I’ve learned what settings work best and what sort of style I prefer. When the lighting is right and you’re quick on the trigger, you turn a photograph into an impressionist painting, all color and emotion and you can almost hear the music coming out of it.
You’re an American Studies major at Wesleyan. How did you choose Wesleyan, what the heck is American Studies, and how does it play into your music journalism career?
Trying to explain all that, I have to go back to junior year of high school. I was really into both English and history, and I took AP US History, one of the most difficult and most rewarding classes at my high school. And for our end-of-year project, we have to write a ridiculously long and complex research paper, but on any subject we liked. I decided to do mine on music, and in particular about the ‘60s soul musician Sam Cooke. I wanted to study how race and economics affected his music, because those big issues are really what interest me. The paper went beyond what I even first expected, and ended up being about a phenomenon in which black musicians like Sam Cooke and Quincy Jones and even Michael Jackson appealed to white audiences in order to manage financial success, but once they were successful, they often went back to help other black musicians and tried to create a music industry free of racial limitations. During that paper, and especially once I completed it (and got a good grade, that helped), I realized that was the sort of thing I wanted to study. It was better than anything I’d ever done in English class. It was substantial and interesting and the required listening was awesome.
When I was searching for colleges, then, music was extremely important, and so was a good history department. Wesleyan University had all that and more. The ethnomusicology studies at Wesleyan are world famous, and the music department is also unrivaled. I’ve always liked singing and playing music, but studying music history was really what I wanted to do. And American Studies was sort of the perfect department for me. It goes beyond simple history in that it combines race studies and gender studies and queer studies and culture studies in wonderful courses that really challenge and expand your basic idea of what constitutes history. The potentials are limitless. Plus, the intro class was called “Soundscapes and Aurality,” and was all about sound technologies and society. So that just sold me, right there. The class ended up being an exploration into how sound and our interactions with sound shape our society and our culture, just up my alley.
American Studies is sort of the realization of my academic interests, which have parallels to my journalism interests but go a little beyond what I can do for a college newspaper. But I wanted a major that would supplement my learning and allow me to not just be a good writer, but a knowledgeable one, so that I can bring my own learning into my writing and really write about the important and complex things in the world. I needed more than an undergraduate journalism degree for that, in my mind. And it excited me. It awoke the excitement for learning in me that most high school classes had squashed.
Building on the previous question, how have classes you’ve taken in high school and college impacted you as a music journalist?
Like I said above, that intro to American Studies class really gave me more things to think about when it came to music. It went beyond race and economics, which I was already interested in, and went into the actual means of which sound was created and reproduced and how that affected the very fabrics of society. Really extraordinary stuff, and very relevant to today, especially as we get into this new digital world. I wrote a research paper for that class as well, all about Napster and how digital downloading altered the relationship between artists, their labels, and audiences. Obviously that sort of thing is very important now.
This past semester, I also took an amazing lecture on the “History of Rock and R&B,” which is pretty much exactly how it sounds. It was exactly what I needed. It spanned popular music of the 20th century, based in the blues of the 1920s–40s, going into rock and roll and all its permutations, along with soul, funk, punk, disco and hip-hop. There’s a lot there, and it’s definitely a survey course that can’t hit everything, but man, was it in-depth. The professor is not only extremely knowledgeable about American and African-American music, but he made sure the class was also about the race, gender, sexuality, and economic relations of music, as well as its technology. I knew a lot of music on my own, from having music-loving parents as well as my own inquisitions, but that sort of course is highly recommended for anyone who wants to write about music. Because there’s so much you don’t know, and in order to have any idea about the state of the music industry, you have to know its roots. Every popular artist, as much as any obscure indie artist, has taken influences from around the world and from history. Learning that is instrumental.
Favorite concert you’ve covered?
I’d have to say my favorite was Edward Sharpe and the Mangetic Zeroes, just recently on June 7th. It was a free outdoor concert as part of Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival, and they were the big headline act on the first night. They were also the biggest name I remember seeing there, and they drove 12,000 people to this park. The concert was colossal. I went down to cover it for WYEP, which is a local NPR-affiliated music radio station that I’m interning at this summer. I literally had to elbow my way up to the front of the crowd, which was packed so tightly, it was such a popular concert. Even then, there were about five rows in front of me, so I had to deal with a huge amount of hands waving and people jumping. So I incorporated that into the photographs. That’s what you gotta do in a situation like that: use it to your advantage. I shot right through the hands, used them to frame the musicians in the band. And of course my success rate was so small, but I knew that, so I shot around 1,600 photographs in a 3-hour period, between the openers and Edward Sharpe. I got such amazing photographs, though.
The band itself was amazing, a perfect band for an outdoor atmosphere, and everyone knew the lyrics and was singing along, myself included. They had such brilliant energy and charisma, and the music was so tight and well done. It was a perfect act. It also helped that their lighting was gorgeous, and constantly changing, so I always had new things to try out and new colors to experiment with. So it was challenging, probably the most difficult concert I’ve ever attempted to photograph, but by far the most rewarding. I wrote a rave review for WYEP’s music blog afterward, and had my photographs published on their Flickr page.
Favorite blog post(s) you’ve written?
I definitely have articles I prefer more, but I’m actually really proud of a blog post I did for Wesleying about an outdoor, free Amanda Palmer concert. The performance was semi-impromptu, part of this mysterious Humanity Festival that a student had organized, all about creating a community and addressing issues of inclusion and access. And Amanda Palmer is a famous alumna of Wesleyan, and she shows up often, so I came into the school hoping I’d get to see her before the end of the year.
I wasn’t disappointed. She only brought her ukulele, something she does often, and played a set of half covers and half original songs. But it was a wonderful, open sort of event, with just beautiful weather. I wrote a summary post about the performance, as well as some commentary on the atmosphere of the event and how Amanda Palmer’s music and singing played well into that. That, for me, went a little beyond simple music criticism and into something a little more personal and substantial, which I liked. Of course, I also took some great photographs, which I included in the blog post. I also enjoyed that somebody in the comments called her a Scientologist, which is hilarious. Commenters are so fun, but never take them too seriously.
Favorite summer song?
I’m gonna be honest, if Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” becomes the big summer hit this year, I will be so happy. That is such a damn good song, way catchy and easygoing, and from a great band that I really respect. Otherwise, I’d have to say “A-Punk” by Vampire Weekend, although to be fair, any Vampire Weekend is my summertime jam. My family listens to them constantly on our vacations, and they’re made for the beach or car. So they’re my favorite summer band, hands-down. Oh, and Cee-Lo Green’s “F*** You” was an awesome summer song. The explicit version, though, not the clean, more radio-friendly “Forget You,” which got old very fast. The whole fun of the song was the fact that it was so upfront and non-apologetic, as well as being a bright and musically interesting R&B tune.
Favorite album of all time?
I’d have to say that Welcome Interstate Managers by Fountains of Wayne is my all-time favorite album. As I said before, FoW has been my band of choice ever since middle school, because they’re just so fun and talented. There is no band out there with the same cleverness of lyrics and storytelling ability, without ever getting hokey or too self-absorbed. Their ability for wordplay and penchant for crafting relatable characters is unparalleled. And they’re amazing musicians to boot. I’ve seen them live twice, and their songs come across even better in person, with such catchy melodies but never simplistic, and excellent guitar solos.
Welcome Interstate Managers is their best work, and their most critically and financially successful— it’s the album with “Stacy’s Mom” on it, which of course is a brilliant pop song. But it’s also such a surprising album because it’s so experimental. Aside from the energetic and fun power pop, they also play around with and completely nail a handful of other styles: San Francisco psychedelic rock, ‘60s Beatles-esque rock, country/folk-rock, even disco. It’s a quintessential driving CD, accompanies me on every single significant road trip. And no, Fountains of Wayne is not a guilty pleasure. There is no guilt involved whatsoever.
Any advice for aspiring music journalists (or just journalists in general)?
I have two major pieces of advice for anyone who wants to get into the music journalism business. The first is to simply write, and write often. When you’re just getting started, especially in high school, it really doesn’t matter where you write, although I suggest some place public. If you can’t contribute to a high school newspaper or student blog, then make your own music blog. I did exactly that, starting with my senior year of high school. It’s great practice, especially since I was moving away from the Arts & Entertainment section into the Features section, to try and get some variety in my stories and tackle some bigger issues. A nice little blog on Tumblr gave me an excuse to keep up with the music scene, which is so important.
I’ll add that as another point: read a lot. Like all journalism, you have to read good music writing to make good music writing. You also should try to keep up, at least a bit, with music trends and new music. A blog is great for that: write about what you love, write about what you hate, what’s new, and even what’s old. Think about it as a running mixtape. If you want, advertise it on your Facebook for your friends and family to read. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But you can always use it as part of your resume, and it’s a personal initiative that employers love to see. Plus it’s fun, and great procrastination.
The second piece of advice also applies to anyone who wants to be a journalist: learn to conduct a good interview. You will not get by in the journalism industry if you don’t know how to talk to someone in person, or at the very least over the phone, to get their story. Interviews are what turn music criticism into music journalism. They’re what people really like to read, what publications really like to print, and what employers really like to see. Good interview skills will get you very far in this world, so don’t lose yourself in the world of album reviews. As fun as they are, they’re dessert in the music journalism world. Q&As and profiles are the meat and potatoes, and you’re going to have to interact with people if you want to become part of that world.
Where do you see yourself and your music journalism career in five years?
I’m certainly planning on attending graduate school after Wesleyan. I’d love to get a Masters in Journalism, although I will certainly apply for jobs as well, just in case somebody wants to pay me right out of college. My plan, however, is to not narrow myself to music journalism. I used to be very one-track-minded when it came to my writing interests, but that’s expanded in the past few years.
For my college newspaper, I write in the Features section, and do profiles and stories about student groups and events and those sort of things, broader than just music. Music blogging and journalism is more of a side project and a pipe dream, mostly because I want to make sure I’m employable. That’s also why I’ve been doing a lot of layout and design, something I’m also interested in and enjoy. Any sort of magazine writing or work is my career goal. Where that will take me, I don’t know, but I certainly love San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City especially. The music scenes there are especially great, and there’s plenty of other technology and culture going on that I love to write about. But I have a feeling I’ll always be doing some sort of music writing— whether that means having an unpaid side gig as a contributor to a music blog, like I’m doing now, or whether it means a full-on career, I don’t know. But I never stop listening to music, so why should I ever stop writing about it?