Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Are you willing to pay for CNN.com? Prepare to be asked before year’s end
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Oct. 25, 2023, 10:20 a.m.
Aggregation & Discovery

Meet the first-ever mixtaper at The New York Times

“I think the streaming economy has brought on a lot of paralysis of choice. When you can listen to (almost) anything with one click, where do you even begin?”

As some newsroom roles go the way of the dinosaurs, other new jobs are being born. This is the first in an occasional series of Q&As with people who are the first to hold their title in their newsroom.

The internet, now in its Zettabyte Era, is defined by abundance and choice. One new role for news organizations? Helping readers cut through the noise and discover the digital bits worth reading, watching, and listening to.

At The New York Times, that role often takes the form of a newsletter. There’s The Morning to help readers digest the a.m. onslaught of news; Watching to reduce decision fatigue next time you log in to Netflix; Cooking to pluck seasonal culinary inspiration from thousands of digital recipes; and the Today in Tabs-esque It Happened Online for stories for the very online. And, to navigate the 100 million (or so) songs available on Spotify, there’s The Amplifier. The twice-weekly subscriber-only newsletter is billed as “your alternative to the algorithm” where “a real, live human helps you discover songs you’ll love.” It’s written by pop critic Lindsay Zoladz.

Recent editions of The Amplifier have focused on Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and other cross-generational covers, songs prominently featuring “yeah!”, female artists covering Bob Dylan, and new ambient music to “create a bubble of tranquility.” Sometimes Zoladz explores the musical influences of an individual artist (“This is the rare playlist that features both Billy Joel and Bikini Kill”) and other times, newsletters are organized around a state or season or punctuation mark. Each newsletter comes with a Spotify playlist and YouTube links.

I went back and forth with Zoladz — the only pop music critic not named Jon at the Times — about her unique role and reclaiming “music discovery” for the humans. Our conversation is below.

Sarah Scire: How “first” is this position? I know your title of pop critic isn’t a first, but your work handpicking songs and blending recommendations with criticism in The Amplifier newsletter feels new and relevant. Are you the first-ever…mixtaper? Can you talk about what pop music coverage has looked like at the Times before or apart from this role?

Lindsay Zoladz: I’ve only been at the Times for about a year, so I can’t give much of an inside perspective of what it was like before then. But, like a lot of publications, most of our criticism is focused on what’s happening now — newly released albums, current trends in music, etc. I think my colleagues at the Times (specifically my fellow pop critics Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica, two of the best in the game) have done a great job giving readers historical context about the present moment.

But something I appreciate about The Amplifier is that sometimes I can go completely left-field and give readers a playlist without an obvious peg to what’s currently on the charts. Like, a playlist of all songs with exclamation marks in their titles? Why not! What I’m essentially trying to do with The Amplifier is bring a critical sensibility to so-called “service journalism” — recommending songs but also providing historical context and, hopefully, a bit of critical insight.

Scire: What is your job and how, specifically, did this role get created? Did the Times look for someone to write The Amplifier? Did you pitch the idea for a newsletter that would be “an alternative to the algorithm”? Something else?

Zoladz: I had been freelancing for the Times for a little over two years when I heard that they were looking to hire someone to write a music-discovery newsletter. While I had some mixed feelings about the newsletter format — I recognize that there are so many of them out there that it really takes a special idea to make one stand out — I thought it would be a great opportunity to write about some of the artists I wanted to champion. In the age of clickable headlines, it can be difficult to find a way to get readers excited about artists they haven’t heard of before. But introducing people to new artists I feel passionately about is one of my favorite parts of being a music critic. I’ve found the newsletter to be a handy way to open people’s ears to things they may not have given a chance before.

In the age of digital streaming platforms, the act of discovering music — which used to happen via word of mouth, passed mixtapes from friends, or even specialized message boards — has become streamlined and anonymized. Even the phrase “music discovery” has become commodified into corporate jargon. So something I was vocal about from the earliest stages of the newsletter was that I wanted to put some of the spontaneity and human connection back into that experience.

Scire: Do you remember the first mixtape you ever made? And, I guess, more generally, I’d love to hear about the kinds of previous experiences — personal, professional, etc. — that led you to this job.

Zoladz: When I was about nine years old, my dad rigged up our home stereo system so it could record audio directly from the TV. So my earliest mixtapes were these collections of the audio of music videos accompanying the songs I liked — always with the first few seconds clipped off, because it was impossible to press play quickly enough when a song I liked came on.

Because we had a satellite dish, I watched a lot of MuchMusic (the Canadian music video channel) in those days, which meant that my earliest mixtapes were compilation of the pop hits of the mid-to-late 90s (“Men in Black,” “Semi-Charmed Life”) intercut with semi-obscure Canadian bands (Sloan, Bran Van 3000) that I mistakenly assumed everyone else knew about. They should have, though!

When I got a little older, I started making mixtapes and (on those mid-aughts CD-Rs that they made to look like tiny vinyl records) mix CDs for friends, often with incredibly detailed liner notes. I’m sure none of them are terribly surprised I ended up writing about music for a living.

Scire: It feels as if The Amplifier is trying to address something similar to information overload. Can you tell me about writing and recommending for people who “feel overwhelmed by the amount of music at their fingertips”?

Zoladz: I think the streaming economy has brought on a lot of paralysis of choice. When you can listen to (almost) anything with one click, where do you even begin? I guess that’s what I’m hoping to give readers: Starting points from which they can then follow their own curiosities into different genres and artist’s discographies. That first initial spark of discovery that will lead them to unexpected places.

Scire: How are you thinking about the mix of music in the newsletter? Does it, for example, need to be more diverse than your own tastes? Does it have to “have something for everyone”?

Zoladz: I try to keep the selection as diverse as possible in terms of genre and time period. I think my musical taste is relatively eclectic — I have to keep my ears open, as a critic — but I also want to push myself to discover new artists too, in keeping with the “music discovery” spirit of the newsletter. I’m constantly finding artists I don’t know about from the songs Jon Pareles chooses for our weekly new music playlist, for example, and I like sharing those with readers as I discover them.

Scire: I wanted to ask about the format. There’s something compellingly personal about a mixtape or mix CD or even a shared playlist. Is the email newsletter particularly well-suited to sharing recommendations like this?

Zoladz: There’s a real intimacy to the email newsletter — I’m literally popping into your inbox, in between emails from family members, electronic bills, and hastily deleted spam. I think there’s a built-in personal sensibility just by virtue of that, and I try to respect that. I want these newsletters to feel like the liner notes I was writing for my friends’ mixtapes in high school.

Scire: What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities in being “the first” at a news organization?

Zoladz: The greatest challenge for me has been finding the time and mental energy to work on other stories — two installments a week can certainly be a grind! But I also have been getting a lot of positive feedback that makes it all worthwhile. I do think The Amplifier is filling a need for a lot of people that they might not have even realized that they had.

It’s also been gratifying to be able to build something completely from scratch at such an established institution as the Times. I still feel like The Amplifier has room to grow in some directions I’m not even thinking about yet, which is quite exciting. I’m also glad that whenever someone finds out what I do for a living and asks me what I recommend listening to — the number one question I get, by far — I can just tell them to subscribe to my newsletter.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Oct. 25, 2023, 10:20 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Aggregation & Discovery
PART OF A SERIES     The First Ever
Show tags
 
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Are you willing to pay for CNN.com? Prepare to be asked before year’s end
The cable news network plans to launch a new subscription product — details TBD — by the end of 2024. Will Mark Thompson repeat his New York Times success, or is CNN too different a brand to get people spending?
Errol Morris on whether you should be afraid of generative AI in documentaries
“Our task is to get back to the real world, to the extent that it is recoverable.”
In the world’s tech capital, Gazetteer SF is staying off platforms to produce good local journalism
“Thank goodness that the mandate will never be to look what’s getting the most Twitter likes.”