One of the best parts of this industry is the people you get to meet. When you get right down to it, this is an incredible community of like-minded, passionate, inspirational people, and getting to work with and call those people my friend, has been one of my favorite pieces of running both Infectious and Muddy Paw PR over the last 10 years.
For today’s Industry Interview, I wanted to interview a talented writer that I’ve been lucky enough to get to know over the last few years—Jake Kussmaul of Music Existence.
Hey Jake, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! What has you most excited right now? (it can be music or non-music related. Like for me right now, in this moment, I’m most excited about eating ice cream later)
Oh man, I love ice cream!
In general, I’m mainly excited about continuing to build a vast worldwide music collection. I got started with that around 2006, long before any trace of music journalism entered my mind.
I’m not only into music from the US and Europe, but also Canada, Latin America, and especially stuff from Southeast Asia, like the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When I saw that even the most popular, influential albums from those countries (we’re talking from way too long ago) were somehow incredibly hard to find, it became my mission to obtain whatever I could. I have Discogs and eBay to thank for that journey (laughs)! But I’m glad to have seen proper digital re-releases of those albums in recent years. That not only has me overwhelmed, but it gives me hope that more albums will be released in the future.
On another international note, I’m happy that Kopitiam (90s Malaysian sitcom) is now on Netflix. I’m nearly four seasons in and officially hooked.
You’ve been at Music Existence for 4 years—it looks like July was actually your 4-year-anniversary, congrats! How did you first get involved with Music Existence?
Thank you, that means a lot!
The reason for that path actually starts out sad. Originally, I tried looking for conventional employment opportunities. I was driven, motivated, hopeful and ready to see what the job world truly had to offer. But gradually, I figured that because I’m in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, consistent lack of feedback from potential employers, and playing phone tag with the two employment agencies I was linked up with at the time, those opportunities seemed few and far between. So, before the ‘how’, here’s why I got involved – I guess I was just exhausted.
Prior to applying, I had completed a journalism internship to suffice one remaining credit (that even the Dean overlooked) for my AA in Communications & Media Arts, which was inadvertently followed by an honorarium that I never received. After that, I had a radio station internship that ended up in limbo, two freelance writing stints that ended abruptly, and a part-time job opportunity that was planned for over a year but ultimately didn’t materialize, after nearly every single person I’d been in contact with went completely dark on me.
I’ll be honest with you, at the time, I genuinely felt like I was trapped. All I wanted was some long-term means of showcasing my skillsets, but I was under the notion that, in being disabled, I’m at a severe disadvantage by default. Meanwhile, I’d lost my starry-eyed naiveté, a whole lot of brain cells, and developed this newly intensified, combined sensation of anxiety and depression in the process. The best way I can describe it is like having a couple Irish coffees (initially feeling a kind of blissful delirium) but then getting struck in the chest with a bowling ball (like being smacked back into reality). Up until that point, I thought things were looking up, but I hadn’t felt that bad in such a very long time. It’s good that I can laugh about it now, but I consider those twists and turns to be some of the most unhealthy, bizarre, and perturbing of my life, and I don’t wish them upon anyone.
Now for how I got involved, that part is undoubtedly more positive. During one of my random searches, I saw that this site called Music Existence had an internship listing for new writers. In the initial email, I went through the cliché cover letter process for what seemed like the millionth time, and sent along any writing example I could muster from that formative period, under the mindset of, “Yeah, they’ll never check it.” But lo and behold, not only did I hear back in a few days, they wanted me on board! I felt spiritually rejuvenated like I had something to look forward to. Well, I did look forward to it, and still do (laughs)
Without any hint of distrust, I can say that it’s been an enjoyable ride, especially in transitioning from a contributing intern to a regular staff writer just one year into it. I can remember a time long ago, when my insight was largely confined to 90s music, after becoming disenchanted with the plethoric production spectacle of the American mainstream at the time (I “tapped out” in 2005). But since joining the Music Existence team, my faith in modern music has officially been restored. I’ve developed my own voice, and have found my rhythm with each kind of article, which is pretty cool. This isn’t without its learning curves, but nothing has been totally impossible to handle.
In gaining my confidence back, I’m glad to have covered interesting topics, and so many solid albums from both emerging and established artists. One part about Music Existence that I’ve grown to enjoy, which was initially one of those learning curves, has been the ability to interview musicians, some of whom I’ve idolized for years, as well as people involved in the music industry – you included! Never in my life have I thought I’d be able to do that consistently, meet tons of interesting people, and most importantly, acquire actual industry experience. As of this writing, I have several hundred articles to my name, many of which are interviews. I’m especially proud of having sought this opportunity on my own, and I think I’ve gotten better at trusting myself.
With that, I’d like to especially give a shout out to both Ana Santos and Stephen Vicino for taking me in and recognizing my strengths. You guys are awesome! Thank you for four wild years!
I first entered the music industry 10 years ago when I launched Infectious in 2009, and it has changed a TON since then. Even in the last 4 years, how have you seen the music industry, and especially the world of blogging shift and change?
Yeah, I totally agree with you. When you mention 2009, I was 18 years old at that time. That was kind of the peak of the so-called emo revival, and by then, emo became much less of a musical movement and more image-centric. Sure, it still had some genre ties to indie rock and punk, some of it was decent, and there were genuine fans of it out there. But with the fickle nature of social media gaining prominence around the same time, it turned into of the many internet-dominant trends that were either heavily mocked, enjoyed ironically, or otherwise, simply shrugged off.
You and I are in the same age group, and even though we’re still young and hopeful, we can’t deny how saturated and processed the industry has gotten, especially these days. Listen to modern music made in the last four years, and it may sound alright on the surface, but if you’re not in the right mood, you might write it off as a freshly-rendered project file coated in plugins. Because that’s what it can amount to now, more than it ever has. A decade ago, and especially before then, you had a lot more success when it came to labels hearing just your rough demos. In rare cases, even your demo would suffice commercially. Remember “Shine” by Collective Soul? Yup, that was a demo recording, and it’s their biggest hit! Anyway, if a label was keen on your demo, and all went smoothly, chances are they’ll utilize their resources to help you become the best version of yourself musically. That way, once you eventually get to recording and releasing your music in a professional setting, it’ll kick ass and resonate with tons of people. Not so much anymore. Nowadays, you could submit something, and if the kick drum is a little distorted, the synth’s a little tinny, or your vocals are slightly off-key, they’ll just go dark on you; never mind send you anything resembling, “We’re not overly interested, but thanks for trying.”
There’s no question that it was difficult getting label attention even back then, but this is different. It’s gotten to the point where your “demo” needs to be absolutely flawless, not just coherent and structured well. Then what? Is that so, weeks later, they can say, “Glad to have you with us, but, you know, your sound could use a tad more EQ…” They’ve already accepted your “flawless” entry the first time! That doesn’t make much sense now, does it (laughs)? By that happening, you could say that the artist isn’t necessarily at fault; they’re simply up against much higher industry standards. On another note, an artist’s record certification and chart placement are now additionally based on streaming hits through sites like YouTube and Spotify, rather than just music sales, so it’s a whole other ballgame to consider.
With that new system in place, we can see how a large part of the industry has broken through to the internet. No more traditional news media hyping up regional scenes like California, Chicago, or the Pacific Northwest. This is cyberspace – an international platform where billions of people may be listening to what you have to say, but at the same time, those billions of people may be largely indifferent. Because you’re sandwiched amidst a broad demographic, it gets complicated. For instance, since there’s been a proliferation of new internet-based labels (or worse, those who claim to have been in the business far longer than they actually are), it’s somewhat easier to get scammed – and trust me, I’ve been there! There’s other stuff, too, about some artists faking the extent of their online presence, buying social media engagement, and finding ways to tamper with streaming algorithms. Also, it’s gotten to a point where an artist’s musical popularity has to coincide with their meme status, in order to ‘truly’ make it big.
When all is said and done, though, we understand that there are plenty of artists who do this legitimately, and there’s a ton of great music put out every day. It’s easier now to contact certain key people to listen to your music, and whether you hear from them or not, no one’s at fault there – just keep going regardless. Perhaps the biggest change I’ve seen is that it’s rarer to make a living solely from music these days, but what’s important is that the music is alive, no matter what.
Now, as far as how blogs have changed, that’s kind of a tough one. I know you’d sought more emphasis on this part, but here’s what I know. There’s a ton more music-oriented ones for sure, and you know that, since you’ve sort of pioneered the movement (laughs)! Other than their similar widespread presence, I notice that some larger publications have adopted a more relaxed, “blog-esque” tone to their article style. There’s definitely greater freedom involved in terms of how writers can express themselves. I remember seeing explicit language being used in some of them, and I was surprised, to say the least. On the other hand, blogs can now be presented to the point where they resemble traditional websites. The line is kind of blurred in that way, but I guess it’s a sign of changing times.
What piece of advice can you give those wanting to get into music journalism?
That’s a good question! As someone who got involved with this industry pretty much on a whim, it can be frustrating at times, but fun overall. If you find a site you can contribute to with a decent following, be sure to send along some samples that not only demonstrate your ability to write, but your passion for and enjoyment of music. Whatever piece you’re assigned first, if the turnout is solid, you can make connections with all sorts of people, be they publicists, artists, or others involved in music to any capacity. Just remember to keep communication open, friendly, and reasonable. I’m a musician who had ventured into journalism, and I’ve known of others (some personally) who have done the same. Give it a try, and you’ll find your rhythm soon enough.
You and I know all too well how frustrating it can be to get lackluster submissions from not only artists but publicists. As a publicist myself this part blows me away. For any emerging artists submitting their music to you, what are a few pointers for what TO do and what NOT to do?
The interesting thing is, based on my experience, artists who have written to me personally have done so with the proper approach. Here’s an example off the top of my head demonstrating what an artist could do:
My name is [insert real name], and I go by [artist name]. I’ve been following Music Existence for a while now and have discovered so many cool new bands thanks to your articles! This [whatever day], I’ll be releasing my new single, [song name], and would love for you to review it if it’s your style. I’ve attached my bio and press photos for reference. Let me know if this is something you’d be into and thank you for your time.
This example reached me just fine. It’s professional, establishes a connection with what I do (mentioning the outlet by name), and contains all proper assets. But also, it’s straightforward. There’s no attention-garnering gimmicks, no forced sense of urgency, and they understand that even though their music may not resonate with me right away, they give me a choice to check it out. Assuming their bio has enough information to reference in a potential article, and they include professionally-taken portrait and landscape photos, I’ll give the artist some thought, thank them for their submission, and if it makes for a solid article of any kind, I’ll write about them.
Keep in mind. Artists are not the only ones responsible for getting the approach down. Publicists are too. That said, here’s something a publicist should not do:
How many bands do you know where the lead singer is a beautiful young redhead woman who also plays drums and does both at the same time??
Well I’m this band’s publicist, and here’s a sample of their art
I’m telling you…
This song absolutely stopped me…
Dead. In. My. Tracks.
[sends a single music video, nothing more]
Did it work?? Have I succeeded in garnering your attention??
Listen and be amazed just like I was. You WONT regret it!!”
When I open something like that, here’s what’s going through my mind: I’m forced to “be amazed” by this band I haven’t even heard yet. Even if their music is admittedly good, I’m annoyed by this point. What’s with those hype-fueled ellipses and indentations, and multiple punctuation marks? Why did the publicist write ‘won’t’ without an apostrophe? No ‘thank you’ either? Plus, by only sending the video, they expect me to dig for their social links and…I dunno…where’s the story? Who is this band?
In all seriousness, when a publicist (regardless of how long they’ve been at it) sends you any kind of feature request for their band, there’s a mutual understanding that the band they’re representing is talented. Not only that, but also, that the publicist will utilize their resources properly and consistently, and, most of all, that they won’t ever take advantage of their artists. Chances are we’ve both seen it happen a lot. But as long as bands and publicists work together effectively, it keeps that bond strong and lasting, and ultimately benefits the industry as a whole.
What’s your absolute favorite emerging band right now that we should check out?
Right now, it’s got to be the Texas sextet, We Are Band Nerds. The band is currently unsigned, and has a really cool genre combo of hip hop with heavy, atmospheric alternative rock. They’ve been the subject of several “reaction” videos, their latest album, Clarity, was released back in April, and they’ve got big shows on the books.
I discovered them this year through a YouTube playlist that features bands with African or African American membership, which is awesome. Here’s the song that really got me into their music. It’s from their last album, but it made me recognize that they have something going for them.
“Fake in You”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xgna6won5NM
And here’s their Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/wearebandnerds/
You’re also a counselor at Crisis Text Line. We talk a lot about the importance of mental health and self-care here, and I think it’s incredible that you’ve made helping others in this way a regular part of your life. How do you see the tie in of struggles with anxiety or depression in the music industry, and what advice do you have for those that might be struggling?
To be honest, I noticed that tie the hard way, through the passing of an artist I had a slight hint of a friendship with. I emphasize friendship, because that can be a complicated line to establish. Usually, after I interview someone, and appear to make some sort of genuine connection with them, they don’t seem to think about fostering some sort of continued communication; they simply keep it formal – perhaps somewhat distant, even – and move on.
Not this guy. In fact, when I initially made a Facebook post about interviewing him, not only did he find the post and ‘heart’ it, he messaged me telling me how excited he was and gave me his number to call him the following day. After our interview, we had several on-and-off small talk conversations about music and life. That’s never happened to me before or since, so I appreciated that gesture. He seemed like a good-hearted person who wasn’t affected by that air of entitlement that people develop once they become famous, which was refreshing. He had quite a popular band that received mainstream news coverage, played multiple large-scale venues, and I was familiar with their music a number of years prior to our interview, so at least I was prepared in that sense.
Here’s what I wasn’t prepared for. Shortly after he and his band signed with a major label, something that would normally be considered a high, they were heavily mismanaged and were subject to harsh, indifferent, downright unprofessional treatment. It was a hell of a nightmare, but especially for him. He’d message me around that time, asking me how I was, and from what I gathered, tried his best to laugh the extent of the situation off. When I told him that I was thinking of putting some music out, he said,
“Awesome, just don’t do it through some shitty label, haha!”
I responded with, “Ahh man. I heard what just went down. Was everything going okay until this point?”
“Yeah, life just happens, I guess. People thought that since we got signed, now we’re stars, but actually, no one can escape reality.”
In response, I told him,
“Yeah, I know. You’re a human being and stuff happens. It’s what became clear to me when I broke past the illusion of your music and talked to you. That’s what I saw in you when I first interviewed you, just a regular, cool guy. And you are, man. You’re gonna get through this mess, I believe it.”
His response to me was:
“Thanks bud. Your support definitely counts, man. I appreciate it.”
That was before what I’d find out would be his first suicide attempt. I was deeply shocked, as anyone would be, but he did manage to find help after that, so I was relieved for the time being. Eventually, the band relocated and came back strong. But back in June, that sinking feeling returned once I found out he’d passed away. To this day, the cause of his death is unknown.
My anecdote goes to show just how fickle the industry has become. A record label (a major at that, which doesn’t come around often especially these days) initially insinuates that they see potential in signing you. Then, slowly, once that happens, and even with everything in place, you’re somehow brought onto an email thread where those at the label who are actively working with you are also pettily talking behind your back. When you confront them about it, they show no remorse in telling you how ‘abysmal’ your music is. But they do so with an indifferent tone, like you’re an afterthought, all the while your music remains unreleased indefinitely.
I think it’s sick, whether you’re dealing with one person or a group of people, that they can assume control over you, and manipulate the atmosphere at their choosing. They can willingly create that tension and make you feel uncomfortable, just because they can. On the flipside, they can just as easily choose to create a positive environment and properly nurture your career. The bottom line is, an artist’s success is not as clear cut as it may seem.
As someone who has suffered bouts of anxiety as a child, and depression as an adult, I want to say this, whether you’re a musician, or someone facing adversity in general:
Whatever it is you’re going through, that struggle manifests itself in a myriad of different ways. You may wake up almost every day feeling hopeless. You may have experienced a death among your close friends or family years ago that didn’t have closure, or of someone you were just getting to know. Or maybe, it’s a rift in a friendship that’s even been resolved, but still hurts. Regardless of how long it’s been, you can’t help but dwell on those things.
But if anyone hasn’t told you, I’ll tell you now: It’s okay. Your feelings are valid, you’re important, and you deserve to be listened to sincerely. I understand that there’s no single means of helping someone, but I, and everyone else together, can learn along the way. Remember to take care. You got this!
What one thing do you wish you could change about the industry?
My one wish is that the entire music industry wouldn’t be so fickle. That means that all music recorders, performers, journalists, radio DJs, producers, and everyone else involved, should recognize the value of one another, and function as a genuine team. Right now, these sections of the industry are being treated as separate entities, with some holding greater, or, dare I say, “more important” emphasis over others.
For instance, consider an interview scenario, where an artist thanks a writer for asking insightful questions, and even lets them know that they’re available down the line for follow-ups. If that writer were to, let’s say, get something in the article incorrect, or they transcribe something that the artist didn’t mean to say, sometimes, the artist blames the writer for the mistake, or they direct them to the errors in blatant, almost condescending ways. Then, after all is fixed, instead of the artist telling the writer all is good, and possibly even sharing the interview, they stop responding to the writer entirely, unfriend them, even block them – all without further communication. I’m not sure of their reasons for doing so, but it has happened to me, and I’m sure others, too. Maybe the artist finds that they can have better success through another medium. But still, even when things appear to go well, and it feels like a genuine connection has been made, for that to suddenly evaporate without any explanation, it just astounds me.
I understand, though, that it works both ways. An artist isn’t necessarily required to share every single interview they’ve taken part in, and there are also instances where a writer unexpectedly shies away from cooperating with an artist, even when communication is otherwise sensible and reasonable. Again, the lack of communication is a contentious issue, but truthfully, you never know the full extent of the situation on either side. It could be anything, and life just happens, I suppose.
The point to make clear, though, is that I’m not “just some writer,” and they’re not “just some artist.” The radio DJs aren’t some random atom in some bigger-than-life, elusive assembly, and neither are the producers. We’re all in this industry together. Remember – we’re a team!
Where can our readers find you?
You can find me on –
Music Existence: https://musicexistence.com/blog/author/jh-kussmaulgmail-com/
Anti-Hero Magazine: https://www.antiheromagazine.com/author/jake-kussmaul/
And here’s the interview you and I did: https://musicexistence.com/blog/2019/06/26/interview-angela-mastrogiacomo-muddy-paw-pr/
Thank you so much for chatting! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want to thank you for interviewing me. I didn’t think this would happen so soon, but I’m flattered, and honored, and this is just the beginning.
While I was working on this interview, I told my girlfriend that, for the first time, someone’s going to interview me. She told me, “Didn’t I tell you that I’m proud of you, even without knowing this? You’re my incredible partner for life.” and that made me feel through-the-roof grateful!
I also hope my family, and my friends from all over the world, from all walks – and wheels – of life, get to read this. Keep on rockin’, everybody!