We ask some of the new platform’s more visible members how it’s going
Hunter Harris cultivated a huge audience at Vulture writing music and entertainment stories that were incisive, witty and fun to read.
Readers stanned Hunter for her sharp voice. Megan Thee Stallion loved their interview so much that she printed out quotes from it and wore them on the cover of her debut album. But as the world changed, the entertainment industry also found itself at a near standstill.
“I’d been at Vulture for four years, I had a really positive experience, and I learned a lot,” Hunter said. “But the pandemic brought a radical shift overnight, specifically for people who write about art, culture, entertainment, and celebrities. Suddenly, there were no movies to write about. Everything was just coming out in such a weird way.”
So when the digital newsletter platform Substack sent Hunter an email this past July asking if she’d be interested in leaving her full-time staff writer gig at Vulture to start a newsletter, the idea was intriguing.
“They introduced the platform as something that could give me a lot more power over my own work, my own schedule, more autonomy, that sort of thing,” she said.
Substack offered to help Hunter publish her newsletter full time, fronting the cost for graphic designers and editors. This past November, she made the jump and published the first edition of her “Hung Up”, much to the fanfare of her community that she now calls her subscribers.
“It felt sort of freeing, in that my life was already changing so much because I couldn’t control it like I once did,” said Hunter. “Why wouldn’t I want to control something? Make it a life choice I’m making—not one the pandemic is making for me.”
How it started
It’s not just freelance writers—these days, publishers are relying more on newsletters and subscription-based revenue models, too.
I spoke with Axios Media Reporter Sara Fischer about this trend over the summer, following reports that outlets like The Atlantic and The Daily Beast saw their subscription numbers reach record highs in 2020. This year, the newsletter trend has grown to include several high profile journalists starting newsletters on Substack in order to scale their personal brands without dealing with the constraints of working for a large publication (read: having editors who require that the things they report be properly sourced).
But for most music journalists, the end goal of newsletters is less about making a living and more about having a platform to write about the sounds that move them.
Journalist Gary Suarez launched his rap music newsletter, “CABBAGES”, in January as the music journalism industry continued to collapse around him. For Gary, the decision to start a Substack newsletter was an opportunity to rectify what he saw happening in music journalism.
“I watched layoff after layoff, closure after closure, venture capitalists sucking the life out of brand and basically turning into scrap,” he said, explaining that the problem he wanted CABBAGES to solve was twofold.
“One was, how do I move forward in a shrinking media landscape? And two, how do I answer the question I got on Twitter nearly every other week from an independent hip hop artist—’How do I get covered? How do I get music Journalists, music critics, rap blogs, etc. to listen?’”
Steve Smith, an arts journalist who covers classical, experimental and new music, similarly started his “Night after Night” newsletter in April to spotlight what’s happening in avant music. We met while Steve was the Director of Publications at nonprofit new music venue National Sawdust and ran the National Sawdust Log (while still hustling as a regular contributor to the New Yorker, New York Times, and many other incredible publications). When The Log folded in March due to pandemic-related budget cuts, Steve found himself unemployed for the first time since 1997.
“I basically just didn’t want to stop what we had been trying to do at National Sawdust Log in terms of the interviewing people who weren’t getting interviewed elsewhere,” Steve said. “At The Log, everything was predicated on the fact that the conventional mass media, the big mass media, basically doesn’t exist for marginalized art music anymore. By and large, this whole ecosystem is not being served. And so we have to invent new platforms.”
How it’s going
Hunter’s biggest question mark when she made the Substack leap was whether or not publicists would still provide her with access to their clients.
“Half of my job is defined by access,” she said. “Talking to artists, getting screeners, working all of these things out with publicists. Can I still get time with them? I think arts journalism is definitely worse for a lot of the gatekeeping. How many relationships will I be able to maintain when I start a new job and my subscriber number is zero?”
Hunter’s she’s still working this out, especially during the pandemic when release dates are still so up in the air, but has found liberation in the lack of a safety net. “I wanted the opportunity to build something that wasn’t based on whether or not like a celebrity talks to me or whether or not a publicist responds to my email,” she said.
At the level of visibility Gary is running CABBAGES, he reckons Substack considers him pretty small potatoes. “I wasn’t recruited, you know, they didn’t reach out to me in any particular way,” he said. Nonetheless, he’s managed to score some pretty high profile interviews—including rapper Kool Keith and Bad Bunny collaborator Mick Coogan.
“At the moment I have about 1,800 subscribers, and less than 4% of those are paid. The platform has been good for the ease of conversion, the ease of getting somebody to subscribe. But the truth of the matter is, is you have to be a pretty aggressive promoter to get any kind of traction, and then you really do need to come with some sort of following or platform to do well.”
Gary’s robust Twitter following has gone a long way toward getting those numbers where they are. “That helps me in terms of even just getting them on board for free,” he said. “And then at some point they go, ‘Well, it’s only seven bucks. It’s a Starbucks breakfast. It’s a fast food meal.”
Steve remains cautiously optimistic about Substack’s potential to help music writers scale their output into a viable source of revenue. He credits Todd Burns’ Music Journalism Insider, a weekly catch-all weekly newsletter collecting notable music stories and profiling the journalists who write them, with showing him that this model could be sustainable.
Steve also saw Joshua Kim, who used to run a blog called Tone Glow that focused on long form experimental music writing and conversational interviews with experimental artists, find success transitioning Tone Glow into a newsletter on Substack.
“It’s kind of amazing how he’s gone from being unknown to virtual ubiquity,” Steve said, adding that academics, like musicologists Doug Shadle and Will Robin, have also started Substack newsletters as a repository for their work research. Steve likens the words on both their newsletters to the bonus features on a Blu-Ray—it’s the extra stuff that has spilled out of their main body of work.
Right now, Steve’s Substack doesn’t function quite that way—”Night After Night” is his main output, flush with new music recommendations, news and more. It’s also a way for Steve to keep himself writing consistently and stay visible in the community.
“When I started up and got the initial payments from the first wave of subscribers, suddenly there were a few thousand dollars in the bank that wasn’t there before,” said Steve. “It wasn’t going to save the day, but it definitely made me feel less valueless than I had been a few weeks earlier. That was a big deal.”
Inspired by his colleagues, the author of this piece just started a Substack, too. Subscribe to The Tardigrade Times.