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March 4, 2013

Hot Off The Press: Andy Mulkerin, Music Editor Pittsburgh City Paper

Andy Mulkerin, music editor (Pittsburgh City Paper)

Andy Mulkerin, music editor (Pittsburgh City Paper). Photo credit: Brian Taylor (btphotographer.com)

I grew up outside of Pittsburgh and went to Pitt for non-fiction writing, putting most of my extracurricular time and energy into media activism with the Independent Media Center and into music, mostly at the Mr. Roboto Project. In 2007, I became listings editor at Pittsburgh City Paper, and in early 2011, I became music editor for the paper.

-Andy Mulkerin, music editor (Pittsburgh City Paper)

1. How did you get started in writing? When did you get drawn to music journalism, in particular?

I started in journalism in high school, when I joined the school newspaper, partly because it was an interest, and partly as something to do with some friends. By the end of my high school, I’d gotten serious about it — but not writing about music. I was into hard news and politics. In college, most of my writing, besides for school (I went to Pitt for non-fiction writing), was for activist media outlets. I did a smidge of music writing for a friend who worked for some school-related publications, but that was about it. I did a news internship at City Paper. But I was always interestedin music, and when I ended up talking to City Paper about a full-time job in the listings department, I also started pitching some music article ideas to the music editor. Then I worked my way up from there. 

2. A lot of musicians are seeking blog and Internet coverage. Where do you see the role of traditional newspapers in a musician’s career?

One of the things that newspapers still have is recognition within a general audience. There are plenty of genre-oriented websites, and some of them are plenty well-respected, but only appeal to a certain audience that already knows what it wants. A newspaper is local to a certain geographic area, and publicizes artists of all genres (ideally) to a general local audience. It’s one of the stepping stones toward household-name recognition, rather than underground popularity.

3. What is the most valuable skill a person needs to be successful in music journalism?

I don’t know if it’s really a skill, maybe more a mindset, but I think to be good, you need to be open. Listen to and appreciate all kinds of music. If you name any one kind of music, I can tell you one or two people I know who have a ton more knowledge about it than I have. But, on the whole, I have a more general knowledge than most people I know — I know a bit about hip hop, a bit about harsh noise, a bit about punk rock, a bit about black metal, a bit about jazz, etc. etc.

If that was a cop-out, and you still want a real skill — storytelling. And that’s common to any journalist/non-fiction writer. You need to be able to recognize a story and tell it in a way that’s true to the subject and is honest.

My favorite music-writing piece this year wasn’t a review; it was Kelefa Sanneh’s piece in the New Yorker about Odd Future and Earl Sweatshirt. It was an incredible piece of journalism, a story masterfully told — it told us about the group while, more importantly, telling us a lot about community and family.

4. As an editor you are bombarded with requests by publicists. Can you share any real-life examples of good or bad pitching?

The worst pitches are the ones that are clearly not personal in any way, and that have errors in them. PR emails that have my name wrong, that suggest that I come out to a show that’s inPhiladelphia, that have multiple spelling errors — those tell me that they’re coming from someone who’s not careful about what they’re doing; and if they’re not careful, why should I care? The other thing that’s a bad idea: Being confrontational or defensive. If our first interaction is you telling me how no one ever covers you, or how you hated the review you got six years ago, or how you don’t like anything that’s going on in Pittsburgh music, it’s already going to be hard for me to take you seriously. (All of those things have happened.)

The best pitches are ones that come early, ones that are respectful; ones that give me important dates in relation to an artist (release date, upcoming shows), and ones that link me to music I can listen to. The best PR folks (and artists who do their own PR) follow up regularly, but not TOO quickly. (Every day is too often. A follow-up about a week later, then maybe a few days after that, is great.) I do get tons of emails, and I can be busy; I never ignore a local artist on purpose, but sometimes it takes a couple follow-ups to nail me down. As far as national publicists go, I know they’re emailing a lot of people every day, so usually I’ll respond to a few of them when I have time just to keep the lines of communication open, and otherwise I’ll only reply if and when I need something (photos, etc.) or when I know I’m running something, just to let them know to expect it.

5. What has been your greatest career achievement thus far?

Oh, geez! I don’t often think in these terms. I guess having the job I have is an achievement in and of itself; there are only a small handful of people in town who cover music on a regular basis. I can think of a few stories I’ve written at the paper that I think of as my best work, because I’ve achieved that goal of identifying a real story and telling it in a way that I think honors the subject. Ina more general sense, I feel accomplished when someone tells me that they feel like local-music coverage in the paper has been better under my editorship than it was in the past. There will always be people who complain — some for good reason, some not — but hearing specific positive feedback that’s not just flattery never gets old.