Photo credit: Thomas Hammond
It’s no secret that The Free Times is the lifeblood of creative arts in Columbia, SC. From their coverage of grassroots initiatives, to community spotlights for local artists and even tips for finding the best taco in town--The Free Times has it.
As part of The Free Times (and Jasper) crew Kyle Petersen reviews music and provides an essential critical ear for the community. We picked his brain about how he got started, how to pitch music to him, and where he sees room for improvement in the music scene.
You can find more of Kyle's writing here.
SC: First off, tell me a little about yourself—who are you? How long have you been writing? How did you get your started as a professional music critic/writer?
KP: I started writing about music as an undergraduate at USC—a little blogging, but mostly internally for WUSC 90.5 FM, the college radio station. I was music director there from 2008-2009. After that I started graduate school in English here and began writing professionally—mostly about music, and mostly for the Columbia Free Times and Jasper Magazine. But I’ve also written a fair bit for other alt-weeklies like Charleston City Paper and Asheville Mountain Xpress.
As for “how” I got started in a larger sense, it was a lot of fits and starts for me. Getting a lot of reps in at WUSC helped, and then blogging a bit until I felt like I could test the professional freelance waters.
awareness about the niche or artistic space you occupy. Naming folks you’ve collaborated with or played shows with can help as well.
If you have a strong “hook,” something that grabs immediate attention, that’s great, but it can’t be too artificially constructed or transparent either. And it’s the music that has to grab most of all.
As for materials, I’m all about a tight one-sheet (bio, album details, etc.) and a download link—including album art and a couple of promo shots is a good idea too. This shouldn’t do the heavy lifting, although it needs to be professional enough as well. There’s probably other writers out there who dig hard copies, but I don’t pop much into the CD player anymore.
SC: What do you wish more artists knew about your job before they contacted you?
KP: That it’s rarely personal—coverage, no coverage, good review, bad review. Sometimes it’s a nebulous sense of “newsworthiness” that governs what gets covered, sometimes it’s print deadlines, sometimes it’s because I’ve already got a calendar’s worth of assignments and sometimes it’s the fact that I just can’t stomach a prog-rock record this week. Taste factors into it somewhat, but probably less than you think. As for what I write, I’m mostly focused on 1), articulating a thoughtful and engaging perspective, 2) serving the reader’s interests, and 3) presenting the art and its cultural context in a fair and valid way. All three of those are interconnected and all three are important. And I know I don’t always succeed in hitting those goals, but I am trying every time I write something.
But also I think it’s important to confirm that what “people say” about promotion is mostly correct. Send your stuff out widely and early, do reasonable follow-ups, be polite. It all makes a difference, even if not very quickly or directly.
SC: What do you view your responsibility is to the music that is submitted to you?
KP: As the Assistant Editor of Jasper, if you’re a Midlands-based artist I think I have to at least listen and consider the record for coverage, although our Music Editor Michael Spawn does a lot of the heavy-lifting on that now. We have limited space and only come out a couple of times a year though. We’d like to ramp up our web coverage at some point, but we’re pretty budget-strapped as it is.
As a freelancer, I don't think I have a whole lot direct responsibility. I'm looking for things that I both a) want to write about and b) will appeal to the editor/publication I'm pitching them to. Just because you send me something doesn't mean either of those points becomes relevant. As a freelancer you are a bit hungrier, as it were, for stories to pitch though, so it might be paradoxically more helpful to hit them up than editors who are often getting bombarded with coverage requests.
SC: Tell me about the Columbia music scene. What makes you hopeful? Where do you feel the scene has room for improvement?
KP: I honestly love the Columbia music scene—there’s oodles of amazing musicians here and it’s always evolving and changing. Being a college town of our size has always been a boon for rotating great talent in and out of our community. Having USC School of Music and the Philharmonic are also a highly underrated luxury. And while we’ve long been a white, male, cis-dominated scene—and still are in a lot of ways—I feel like we’re seeing swells of diversity of various kinds, whether it’s the burgeoning hip-hop and electronica communities, Girls Rock Columbia, or Kari Lebby’s Hoechella Festival. And despite Conundrum closing, venue-wise we’re not in a horrible spot—Township and Music Farm seem to be doing okay, New Brookland Tavern is a stalwart (god bless ‘em, that would be the biggest hole if they ever called it quits), and Tapp’s and Infinite Room (along with 701 Whaley, Art Bar, if Art, and lots of house shows) are doing a decent job filling in for those offbeat bills. A good listening room is obviously still missing (RIP White Mule), but I think it will happen eventually. There’s a lot of positives to take away.
Improvement? Like I said, a listening room. More diversity in the audience as well as on stage. I think we could see bigger and better festivals at some point (although what we have now isn’t bad), but that will probably come along with the larger growth of our city, both economically and artistically. And not to knock Toro y Moi or Washed Out, but a breakout act or two that stuck around and nurtured the scene a bit more could go a long way.
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