Below you can find my interview with MTV.com staff writer James Montgomery. I'd like to thank James for taking time out of his busy, hectic Pete Wentz interviewing schedule to do this. By the way, the guy knows his stuff and has good taste in music; yes, even for working at MTV. I think you'll find the following read very interesting, especially those of you who want to become a journalist, those of you who hate MTV, and so forth. Enjoy!
Q: Please state your name and just what it is you do.
A: My name is James Montgomery, a staff writer for MTV News. I cover rock and emo/Warped Tour/MySpace/whatever you call it punk for MTVNews.com. I also write the occasional story about the Pussycat Dolls.
Q: MUSIC Television, what happened to all of the music?
A: Well, it's still totally there, it's just that things have changed a whole lot since MTV first started back in 1981, and so have the ways music is shown on the channel. And in a way, MTV gets sort of a bad rap for "not showing videos" like they did back in the day, but the fact is that nothing happens like it did 25 years ago. Nowadays, the channel's audience has changed, as has the way they get and listen to music, and as such, the channel has had to change. There are still videos, they're just played on across a much wider spectrum (MTV, MTV2, MTVU, Overdrive, etc etc etc)
Q: Is there a need for the ridiculous amount of reality shows?
A: Um, well, I supposed you're asking about the reality shows on MTV. There's a need for them inasmuch as they do phenomenally well for the channel, and they attract a demographic that advertisers crave. Also, I think they're a pretty fascinating look into what you crazy-ass kids are doing with your lives (I am old). I think when they're well done, the shows are really, really well done, and overall, I'd say that MTV does a good job of straying into anything that's too tawdry or sleazy (unless you count Date My Mom). Bottom line, they're entertaining.
Q: Have you met any of the casts from Real World, Road Rules or the Challenges? If so, which ones totally suck at life? Which chicks aren't really that hot in person?
A: Sadly, I have not met anyone from either of the RW/RRC casts. Although occasionally I do see that Rachel girl from the "Return to New York" version of The Real World at shows. But I think she works for Fuse now or something.
Q: Do you hate those kids they feature on My Super Sweet 16 too?
A: Oh man, I think Super Sweet 16 is completely amazing. I guess it's sort of easy to hate the kids, because so many of them act so ridiculously, but I kind of think that a lot of that has to do with the way they were raised. I don't think they hear the word "no" too often, and so their senses of entitlement are through the roof. Also, it helps to have a bit of distance between yourself and being 16 (though I have a creeping suspicion that for a lot of the kids who read this site, that's not yet an option) because I know, in my case, I was just as insufferable and snotty as a lot of kids on the show. Except for me, it wasn't about getting cars or having Jay-Z perform at my party, it was about judging whether or not other kids were "cool" enough to listen to Archers of Loaf.
Q: Will MTV's primary focus ever be on music videos again?
A: I don't know. That's the programming department's call - as long as the shows we broadcast continue to do well for the channel, well, then I don't know why we would change that just to establish "cred" or whatever.
Q: When does MTV make the decision to cover an emerging band (i.e. You Hear It First)?
A: Well, when I first started here, I figured that in order for a band to be featured in a You Hear It First, they just had to have major label backing and a ton of cash being thrown behind them. I was really, really surprised to learn that nothing could be further from the truth. We have weekly YHIF meetings, and basically anyone"from an Intern on up" is allowed to bring in a CD by any band they're really excited about, play them for the room, and explain why they'd be a great band to feature. It's really open and really honest and really pretty vicious at times, but I think that more often than not, we end up with a really cool list of bands to spotlight. Of course, it helps if they're good lookin' kids, and they do need to have distribution so that a kid in, like, Kansas can go to the record store and find the band's music, but aside from that, pretty much anything goes. Just in the past year, I got to do YHIFs on Sufjan Stevens and Regina Spektor, two artists who aren't necessarily "new" to the savvy masses, but to a portion of the kids who tune into MTV, it may be the first time they actually hear their music.
Q: Does MTV realize that when they run those You Hear It First features everyone pretty much has already heard of the band being featured, especially those that read AP.net?
A: I don't think they do. I mean, you have to remember that a large portion of our audience doesn't read AP, so for them, it may truly be the first time they do hear a band. The same can be said for artists like Regina or Sufjan. For kids who read Pitchfork, those artists are old hat, but again, there's a portion of the people who watch MTV who don't go to Pitchfork every day. Basically, it's impossible in this day and age to truly think that a YHIF band has actually never been heard by anyone anywhere; although we could maybe start creating bands on the spot. That way the first time they show up on MTV will truly be the first time they are heard. Ever.
Q: What's the best way for an aspiring music journalist to get their start?
A: Well, obviously it helps to be in a program, like a newspaper in high school or college, where you're writing each and ever day, because you'll automatically become a better writer (and you'll learn how to file stories on deadline, which is an invaluable skill that a surprising amount of journalists don't possess). When I was in high school, blogs didn't exist, and in college, they were really just in their infancy, so I'm sort of unaware of how they would help, but I think that once again, writing every day is a good thing, so blog away.
Also, when you're working for a high school or college paper, or if you're writing a blog, try to interview as many bands as possible, and take them all seriously (no "hilarious" questions about which bandmembers' farts smell the worst, no questions about where the band got their name). You need to begin to accumulate clips, because they're what are going to get you Internships at bigger newspapers or music mags (they're honestly a lot more important than the rest of your resume). Also, when applying for said Internships, it doesn't hurt to triple-check your cover letter for spelling of grammar errors. I've seen tons and tons of resumes chucked just because a kid put a "your" instead of a "you're" on their cover letter.
Finally, when you do land an Internship somewhere, and this might seem like a no-brainer, but try to be in the office as much as possible. Every day if you can. Do good work. Don't blow off small tasks (getting coffee, making copies, etc). Don't have an attitude. Don't go out of your way to interject yourself into conversations. It all sounds basic, but you'd be shocked at how many kids fail to grasp it. Just by being dependable and thorough, you're gonna be ahead of about 70 percent of the interns out there, and eventually you'll start getting asked to do bigger things (like writing pieces for the magazine), and members of the staff will start asking what you're doing after work (going to bars with editors/writers is always a good thing - unless you're getting really creepy vibes from them). Basically, this field is all about building contacts, and if someone knows that you're a good worker who's not going to screw something up, then they'll think of you the next time a position opens up. Or they'll introduce you to someone at another publication who will.
Q: How did you personally get your start?
A: I went to the University of Florida and majored in journalism, but, to be quite honest, their program was kind of, uh, lacking. But luckily, Gainesville was blessed to have a truly independent newspaper run by students, The Independent Florida Alligator, so I started writing there, for a sort of "alternative" section called Detours. We basically wrote about bands like Hot Water Music and stuff like beer bongs and weed, but it was a good place to learn how to do interviews, and I was writing and editing every single day, so I couldn't help but get better.
While I was still at UF, I did internships with Comedy Central in Los Angeles, and at Baltimore Magazine in, um, Baltimore, where I got to write about stuff like farmer's markets. And finally, after I graduated, I was lucky enough to intern at SPIN right here in New York City, were I basically decided that since I didn't have anything else going on, I was just going to show up every day. I did transcriptions and made copies and got to work with a lot of really talented people like Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas and Caryn Ganz, and Jon Dolan and eventually just got hired on in the research department. Because everyone knew my face (and because I could talk about basketball), they just decided to let me start writing smaller pieces for the magazine. Pretty soon I was freelancing for a couple of nice publications, and after about a year and a half of that, I got the word that MTV was looking to fill a staff writer position, and that I should apply. So I sent my stuff in and basically that was that.
Q: What bands inspired you do want to be a music journalist?
A: I always thought it would be an amazing and humbling challenge to interview Thom Yorke, so Radiohead would be one. Kim Deal, because she always seemed to have her shit together (despite the fact that she never did). Beck, because he seemed so out there (even though he's a really nice dude). Basically, I grew up reading music mags in the early 90s, when it was cool and sexy and somehow honorable to write about rock and roll, because it was important and because bands seemed to have something to say. And I think I've just depressed myself horribly.
Q: Many bands and artists dream of "making it" on MTV. Do you feel that since you write for MTV you've reached the highest point in your career, or is MTV just another "stepping stone" to something bigger (i.e. Rolling Stone)? Where else would you like your career to go now?
A: I don't know. I mean, in terms of exposure and influence, MTV is pretty much tops. But there's always the jaded indie kid inside of me who'd like to be the editor at a music mag or an alt. weekly somewhere. I always want to feel happy and challenged with my work, and at MTV I do. Or maybe I'll join a band.
Q: What's a typical day in the life for you?
A: I get up in the morning and try not to wake my fiancée up, get on the subway and try not to talk to anyone and then come to work and basically get a feel for what's happening in the news that day. I check a lot of sites like AP and the wires, and check in with publicists at various labels to follow up on calls I made the previous day. At 9:30 we have a daily news meeting, with the whole news team and we pitch the stories we'd like to work on that day. After that I get to work making more phone calls and sending emails to contact publicists and bands. I do quick phoners with subjects and then write my stories, trying with all my might to make my deadlines. Sometimes I'll have an on-camera interview with a band here at MTV or out in the field for a feature or an on-air piece. I also spend time checking in on my fantasy baseball team and bemoaning my lack of quality starting pitching.
Q: Do you get told by your bosses or the "higher-ups" what to cover? For example, there seemed to be a good amount of articles covering Fall Out Boy's "beef" with The Killers. Were they done simply to drive internet traffic, or were you really interested in the subject and just found them to be newsworthy?
A: My editors have a good feel for what our readers want to see on the site, and over time, I developed a sense for the same. So I sort of edit myself. We'll do stories on plain old bizarre, man-bites-dog stuff from time-to-time, and if we feel that a band is really getting a lot of buzz, and there's not enough time to turn around a You Hear It First piece on them, we'll do something about them. But basically I have about 12-13 bands that I know our audience will be interested in reading about. In the case of the Killers vs Fall Out Boy thing, it featured two bands that were really successful, and it was fairly ridiculous, so it was a win/win, in a way. Also, it behooves me to keep tabs on Mr. Pete Wentz, because, well, the dude's a walking headline.
Q: How much freedom do you get when it comes to what bands you cover? Are you only limited to band that get a pretty good rotation on MTV (i.e. Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights, etc.), or can you venture out a bit and try to get smaller bands more coverage (i.e. Cartel, Armor For Sleep, Circa Survive, etc.)?
A: Well, I think I sort of covered this above, but, yeah, it helps if the band is in rotation, or has a video on TRL or a big tour coming up. Basically, if there's a news hook to hang the story on, it's fair game. And I do try to follow bands that I read about on various sites - I've been hearing Cartel's name a whole lot lately. Armor for Sleep were definitely on my radar a few months back. You wanna try to find bands that have the talent and the buzz to break through, to become a successful band (like My Chem and FOB), because you want to have your hooks in 'em early. My Chem and FOB both started out that way for me.
Q: Do you ever visit AbsolutePunk to find things to write about?
A: Oh yah, Absolutely. The first time I spoke with Jared, I thought he was contacting me to serve me with a cease-and-desist order. But sites like AP (and Alt Press and Punknews, etc etc etc) are a great way to read about rumors, and then you can take those rumors to the labels and get a story out of them. I can't tell you how many times a label publicist will be amazed that I know about something because I read about it on another site. Publicists try their hardest to keep things under wraps, so sites like this one are great tools to pry news out of them.
Also, whenever one of my pieces is linked to on AP, I always read the comments, mostly because I can't get enough of 13-year-old kids critiquing my writing ability.
Q: What or who stops you from writing articles about bands that you really enjoy?
A: Nothing really. Though it's kind of a bummer that Pavement split up. I would've liked to interview Bob Nastanovich.
Q: It seems lately that since bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance are gaining mass popularity, MTV is once again really focused on rock music. Do they rely on you to know the details about the bands you cover and report to them, or do they know a lot themselves?
A: You'd be surprised by just how knowledgeable most of the people who work here really are. That said, I do think a lot of them have a difficult time wrapping their heads around the whole emo/Myspace genre, so they sort of rely on me to keep tabs on what's happening and who's about to break. Of course, where there's smoke, there's fire, and as long as bands like My Chem and FOB and Panic! sell records, there's bound to be more and more attention from MTV. Basically, we let kids (and the record-buying public - if they still actually exist) decide whom we cover. Your dollar speaks volumes. And so does your illegal downloading.
Q: What do you believe is the "next big thing" (if any) that will be remembered about music today (i.e. The Beatles in the 60s, Nirvana in the 90s, and so forth)? What will be the next revolution in music?
A: Wow. Well, honestly I'd like to see rock and roll become big and important and awesome again, and for that to happen, I think we need to see emo go away. Because it's getting kind of ridiculous out there now - every band looks the same, the music is becoming diluted, the sentiments are vapid, it's just like how rock was in the late '80s. You see the same clichés in every video (the shouting parents, the suburban hell, the terrible green-screen effects), and every band has the same haircut. And generally when things start to get stagnant, something will come along that's completely different and blow everyone away.
It's all cyclical: Nirvana wrote great songs, but the reason they connected was because people were getting tired of seeing the same dolled-up pretty boys in every video. Kurt Cobain looked like a normal dude, someone who would pump your gas or be in your shop class, and that's why people latched on to him. And after a few years of the everyman, kids got tired of that and wanted some ass-kicking, ballsy (and, in retrospect, pretty terrible) rock. So we had the rise of nu-metal. Once kids got tired of guys in backwards ballcaps, they turned their attention back to musicians who seemed more real, and more attainable. Hence the rise of Fall Out Boy. But now, if anything, emo music has become too normal, too samey and too safe. Every kid in every band looks just like someone in your math class. So I think that the next big thing is going to be the return of the rock star: an untouchable golden god who offends people and lays waste to dressing rooms and enjoys the spoils of rock (and also is not in the Darkness).
Of course, I could be totally wrong about this. I've been saying that hip hop has been stagnant and a cliché for about a decade now, and kids still eat that stuff up with a spoon. Also, I once believed that And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead were gonna be huge.
Q: Why do you think underground acts are now embracing outlets like MTV and MySpace when bands like The Dead Kennedys tried to distance themselves from the corporate-minded side of the music industry only some 20 years ago?
A: This question is interesting, because I just finished reading Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is this really excellent book about the struggles of all these super-important, DIY bands on indie labels during the 1980s bands like the Minutemen and the Replacements and Black Flag. It's about how they would make these incredible records on the cheap, then tour in vans, and sleep on floors and stretch each dollar to the absolute max (Mike Watt called it "touring econo"). And all I could really think about was how much these bands could've used something like MySpace. They could've posted songs they'd done, so when they'd head out on tours, they'd be playing to actual fans, not just 5 dudes in Milwaukee. They could've had web sites, and sold merch through them. They could've made incredible connections, could've booked tours. The list goes on and on.
I think something like MySpace is an incredibly valuable tool for a band, and it's already proving to be a powerful social force. And I think that, yes, even though Rupert Murdoch now owns the site, it's still free, and anyone can post songs they've written on there, so I think it's about the most communal, "punk rock" thing going nowadays. It's changed the way bands tour and are promoted. Labels hire people to patrol MySpace for new bands. Kids can chat to their favorite acts, can actually be added as their "friends." I don't see how that's a bad thing at all.
Q: Kind of tying into that, why do you think kids really don't mind one of their favorite bands signing to a major anymore?
A: Well, I think kids are incredibly savvy and connected. They know how the business works. It's not a secret that a lot of so-called "independent" labels have deals with majors, distribution or other wise, and as such, the whole operation has changed. Smaller labels now sign bands to three-record deals not in the hopes that they'll put out three records with them, but that they'll sell enough copies of one album to attract the attention of a major, who now has to buy the band's contract out. And the smaller label gets to keep the really successful album. That's how the little guy survives these days, by doing glorified A&R work for the big boys.
Also, I think that major labels aren't run the way they used to be. I generally think that they know how to handle bands, so you don't hear quite so many "the major label screwed us over" horror stories anymore. Sure, some bands get lost in the shuffle, but majors realize how to make money, and so they'll stay out of a band's way, let them make the record they want to make, and then promote the shit out of it.
When I was growing up, part of what was upsetting about an indie band signing to a major was the sense that my little secret was about be let out of the bag. And nowadays, it's harder for a fan to sit there and think that "this tiny little indie band belongs to me and me only," given that the band probably has a MySpace page with thousands of friends.
Q: Do you listen to the bands you cover? What are you currently listening to? What are some of your favorite bands?
A: Yah, I listen to Fall Out Boy (I put Cork Tree on my Village Voice "Pazz n Jop" critics' list last year, though don't tell anyone or they may revoke my membership card) and I'm really excited to hear the new My Chem album. I'm also really impressed by the Early November's triple album, partly because it's a triple album and because I really admire bands that are willing to go to these grandiose, somewhat ridiculous lengths.
I'm really, really into the Plastic Constellations, and think Crusades is one of the best records of the year because it's so rough and determined (and because they sing about dragons). The new Elected record is really good, and so is the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Show Your Bones. Um, I like the Girl Talk record too, and the Islands album. I just heard this record by this band called Candy Bars, and I was pretty blown away. Metal Hearts. Ghostface. The new mewithoutYou album is amazing. And Mastodon's Blood Mountain is the best thing you'll hear all year.
My favorite band of all time is probably Pavement. Or Modest Mouse. I really have a soft spot in my heart for Matt-Sharp era Weezer, and I'll listen to anything Radiohead does. Q and Not U were pretty great. Beck. I think Sufjan Stevens is amazing. And I'm sort of embarrassed to admit it, but I really missed the boat on Neutral Milk Hotel, and have only my fiancée Sasha to thank for getting me into them.
Q: Who is/was your favorite band/person to interview and who is your least favorite and why?
A: Dave Grohl is always great, because he sort of realizes just how ridiculous all of this is, and he's willing to go with that. One time I interviewed him just minutes after he was wrapped in tin foil and eating hot dogs in the Viacom cafeteria and we spoke about Dischord records and how every musician from DC has a receding hairline. Of course, Pete Wentz is always really fun because he's so honest and so willing to talk smack if smack need be talked. Brandon Flowers from the Killers is good, because he's always willing to go there too (though he kind of hates me). We are Scientists are totally awesome because they're super smart and hilarious. Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips is always great because he'll just go on for hours and hours about anything. Rivers Cuomo was surprisingly sweet too.
As for bad, well, I haven't had any total nightmare interviews, but it's always a let down when a band's not into being interviewed, for whatever reason. But maybe that has more to do with the questions I'm asking. I don't know.
Q: Did you think Pete Wentz's "peter" was cute?
A: It's funny, because I was in the very bathroom where he took those pictures about two months ago, and all Pete wanted to talk about was the Morrissey poster on the wall. But I guess I would have to say no. Though it certainly worked all you kids out there into a veritable frenzy, which made my job easier for a good month. So I guess, in retrospect, I owe his member a debt of gratitude.
My only objection was that although he obviously wouldn't put himself in a position where he is bad mouthing anything about MTV (you don't shit where you eat), I couldn't help but think that some of the answers weren't entirely honest
The MySpace genre basically represents the cookie-cutter sound we're getting from punk-pop bands who suddenly feel it's necessary to scream. Though I'm not blaming this sound--all music goes through this: punk got stale just as quickly as this. Only now, we're part of the iGeneration and everything is a lot more obvious.
Also.. good emocore is (somewhat/slightly) better than good punk. Though the worst of punk and the worst of emocore both suck some serious ass.