In honor of Small Business Week, we’re going to be bringing you a week of new interviews with industry professionals—one right after the other. Kicking things off is Joe Ballard, editor and hiring manager at Mind Equals Blown, as well as freelance editor for several independent authors. Check it out below!
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. How are you?
I’m quite well today. Although I currently can’t hear out of my right ear (I’m taking meds for it), which makes listening to music rather interesting. On some songs I’m hearing certain little additions that I’d never heard before!
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I grew up never really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. As a kid, it was meteorology. Everything about the weather fascinated me – and it still does today – but never being a big fan of public speaking, the weatherman career was not to be. In middle school I discovered a love for drawing, but after taking art courses in high school I found it to be a little too “organized” – I preferred freedom to draw whatever I wanted and learn from my mistakes – and decided that it wasn’t for me.
High school came and went and I didn’t get much out of it. The only three constant interests were books, music and writing, so I knew I wanted to do something related to at least one of those fields. Eventually I went to Illinois State University and pursued a Publishing degree to become an editor. Despite writing my own poetry and short stories for many years, I realized that a lot of people out there have much more talent and I wanted to help make their work be the very best it could be. That’s why I chose both to become a book editor and to join Mind Equals Blown – together, they let me work within my three major interests and help others all at the same time. What could be better?
As the hiring manager/editor of Mind Equals Blown for the past 4 years, what advice do you have for bands submitting to online outlets?
Show that you’ve done your research on us. For example, if you’re in a thrash metal band, I’m probably the last person on the staff you’ll want to get in contact with. But we have plenty of big metal fans on our staff, so get in touch with one of them and you’ll very likely get a response. Every staff member has an individual page listing his/her favorite bands and genres, so use those to decide who would be best for you to contact.
Also – and I can’t stress this enough – always include a large-sized promo pic of your band. Whether you want news coverage or an album review, every article we run includes a professional photo of the band. There is nothing more annoying than trying to sift through party pics on a band’s Facebook or checking Google Images for a proper photo. Whatever you want covered, whether it’s a new song, a new album or a tour, include the necessary photos.
Likewise, what advice do you have for those applying for positions at MEB?
Make yourself stand out from the pack. You can do this in two ways: First, when submitting writing samples, make sure they are 100% error-free. As a book editor who has dealt with some linguistic monstrosities from hell, showing a strong grasp of proper language use wins major bonus points with me.
Second, put your personality into your articles. Anyone can make the effort to write as perfectly and professionally as possible, and that’s great, but you have to do more to stand out. We have a writer, Sammi Chichester, who is a master at combining personality with professionalism in her writing. She now works for Revolver Magazine and has been with them since 2012. Another one, Steve Alcala, puts his heart and soul into every article he writes. I hired him as an 18-year-old kid and he’s now a staff member with Absolutepunk.net. If you want proof that personality takes you far in music journalism, check out anything the two of them have written.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in this industry over the years, and how have you overcome it?
Getting my own name out there has definitely been the biggest challenge. Being an editor includes a lot of often-thankless tasks and behind-the-scenes work that many people aren’t aware of. This frustrated me at first, but I realized the only way to get around it was to start doing my own writing and show readers what I can do. I don’t write many articles at all, but when I do it is always something unique, such as interviewing Kat Robichaud of The Voice, writing a tribute to Anberlin, or crafting a feature article on a glass sculptor-turned-lead vocalist. The responses from readers have been universally positive, and I believe that’s because I go for distinctive topics over conventional ones.
You also run the MEB Facebook page, and I imagine you see a lot of band’s social media accounts. What do you think is one of the major mistakes that bands are making in their social media presence?
There are two common mistakes I see. One, bands who post on our wall saying “I liked your page. Like mine back!” This just screams desperation – as if we’re just another number in your ‘like’ column – and it only ensures that I will not check out your band. If you want us to listen to your music, send us a proper e-mail including a song, or a full album if you want us to review it. If we dig you, we’ll find you on Facebook and other outlets quickly enough.
The second mistake is when bands release a new song on FB and then only make it available for users who ‘like’ their page. At first I didn’t see this as a big deal, but the often-negative responses on FB and in music forums show that a lot of potential listeners are turned off if they have to ‘like’ your page just to hear a new song. So my advice is: if you’re streaming new music, make it available to everyone. If it’s good enough, the excitement and anticipation will spread on its own.
What is one of the biggest mistakes bands make when submitting to MEB?
For newer bands submitting to us about covering your music – and this goes for PR reps as well – personalize your first message. It amazes me how many times I get an initial email from a band/PR worker that is clearly either automated or copied/pasted. I find that disrespectful. Show me that you’ve done even a minimal amount of research, either on me or MEB, and I’ll do everything I can to help you. Every member of our staff has his/her own personal info page which lists our favorite bands and genres. Don’t take a random shot in the dark; know who you’re getting in contact with and your chances of success will increase tenfold.
For those looking to start their own music blog, what advice do you have as far as where to start and first steps?
Know your target audience, however specific or broad it may be. If you’re young, take some marketing and publishing courses in college and learn your trade. Some schools these days even have courses all about social media marketing.
When building your staff, only hire people you trust 100%. If you’re serious about building a brand, don’t just round up some friends for the sake of having extra writers. Take your time and find people with the skills you’re looking for.
I know it’s generic, but never be afraid to make mistakes. You can learn 50 times more from failure than you can from success. I should know.
Tell me about a typical day for you.
Six mornings a week, I start off with a good five-mile run. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, it does not burn you out for the rest of the day; it gets you energized and ready for the day ahead. Then it’s time for the dreaded e-mail login to see the barrage of messages I need to respond to: bands, labels, PR firms, applications from potential new staff writers, press releases, you name it. I have two separate accounts: one for all things MEB and the other for contacting book authors and saving manuscripts.
True to the life of being an editor, though, there is no “typical day” really because my schedule is different every single day. Some days I spend a whole morning/afternoon editing a manuscript; other days, a staff writer will post an article that needs to be published immediately, so I need to be there when I can to edit, format and publish it. Probably the number one skill you need to be a professional editor is working under major time constraints. I love it though; it keeps you on your toes every day, not knowing what’s coming next.
In addition to your duties at MEB you edit books for self-publishing authors. Being around so many different writing styles, do you have any advice for those looking to find their voice?
The best piece of advice I can give – and this is for both editors and writers – is learn to adapt. Every publication you ever work for will have a different set of writing rules and guidelines. As a book editor, I clearly outline my editing style to authors so they know exactly what they’re getting from the start. On the flip side, they show me what writing style they’re going for and how they plan to convey it, so I have to adapt my own skills to be what the author wants; it’s their project, after all.
With MEB it’s slightly different – my boss has always let me implement my own styles regarding editing and formatting rules. Most of our writers, regardless of their background, adapt to any “unfamiliar” rules pretty quickly. At the same time, I try to be as open-minded as possible when editing and give them the freedom to express themselves. It’s a fine line balancing rules and freedom, but you have to maintain consistency for the good of the site. So whether you’re an aspiring writer or an editor, learn to adapt your skills to each individual situation and you will go far.
What advice would you like to pass along to those looking to break into the music industry?
Start early. Get involved with your school newspaper. Carry a journal everywhere you go and write whatever random thing pops into your head. If you’re a fan of a music website that has openings, send them an application. The worst that can happen is they say no. Do whatever you can to build experience. Regardless of your age, there is a place out there for everyone. You just have to find it.
One of our newer writers, Emma Guido, is just 15 years old and writes for three other music websites besides MEB. Her skill level is beyond her years and whether she decides to pursue journalism or something else as a career, I have no doubt she will be extremely successful. Teenage writers are often the most enthusiastic and they show what can be achieved through hard work and a constant willingness to learn.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My British Lit professor at ISU told the class one day, “Work smart, not hard,” just before he announced that our remaining classes that week were cancelled because he and another teacher were taking a road trip to Chicago for a hardcore punk concert. He was in his 40s. I hope I’m even half that great in my 40s.
What is one question that you don’t think is asked nearly enough that you’d like to offer insight on?
Everyone, regardless of age or job title, should constantly ask, “What can I do to improve?” The most important lesson I learned in college was to never stop learning. Finishing school does not mean your “education” is complete; it’s never complete. Always ask yourself (and others) how you can do better and be open to changing your ways.
In your perfect world, where would you like to see the music industry in 5 years?
Oh wow, that’s a great question. In an idealistically perfect world, bands would make far more money from album sales, ticket scalpers wouldn’t exist, and record labels would always act ethically. And Anberlin wouldn’t be disbanding.
Realistically, I’m excited to see the continuing expansion of crowd-funding campaigns. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea when it first emerged a few years back, but some artists are coming up with incredibly unique rewards for people who are willing to help fund their music. A lot of record labels remain stuck in the past (much like the publishing industry) and are often too late in catching up with the times; bands working together, bouncing creative ideas off each other, and staying closely connected to the fans who keep them doing what they love.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If you’re reading this, that means you’re staying tuned to Infectious and you’re already awesome. Stay tuned to Mind Equals Blown as well – we’ve got something game-changing on the way.
And thank you for the interview, it’s been an honor!
You can get in touch with Joe Ballard via email for both Mind Equals Blown and publishing inquiries here.
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