Melody Lau, RSJ ‘12, is an Associate producer at CBC Music.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
My goal from the very beginning was to become a music writer. Music sparked my love of writing in high school, and my ultimate dream was to work for a music publication. I remember that prior to applying for colleges and universities, I reached out to a music journalist I admired for advice and she replied: "If you want to be a music writer, don't go to journalism school." In some ways, I understand why she said that. Some of my biggest learning experiences came from freelance opportunities and generally diving head-first into the world of music journalism. J-school covers a wide range of journalism, and if you go in with a niche in mind, unrelated courses can feel impractical. But j-school also helps you build a journalistic foundation and gives you the time to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps you go in with one interest, and j-school unlocks a new one. And most importantly, as I remember being told often during my time at Ryerson, it is always useful to learn about other fields of journalism in case you change your beat later on. That is definitely the reason why some of us signed up for business journalism! (I unfortunately dropped that course after two weeks.)
How had that idea changed by the time you graduated?
I don't know if it changed that much! Throughout my time at Ryerson, I remained focused on music journalism. I started a blog in my first year, and began freelancing for various music publications shortly after that. If anything changed, I think I just became more realistic about my chances of landing a full-time job in the niche field I wanted to work in. (I am very lucky to have a full-time job in music journalism now, but I have also spent time freelancing full-time.)
How did you arrive at your current position?
Good timing and with the help of a good friend. I had been working at Much/Bell Media for three years, and was looking for a change. But with music journalism in Toronto/Canada shrinking at a rapid pace, full-time jobs are hard to come by. I had expressed my frustrations with a friend who works at CBC Music and she informed me of a position that had recently opened up there so I applied immediately. Thanks to her (she put in a good word for me), I secured an interview and have been there for five years now.
Can you talk a little about what your day to day job looks like?
My job entails a number of different roles and tasks so my day-to-day schedule varies depending on the types of projects I work on. On any given day, I could be writing short news pieces, writing long form features, editing other people's work, setting up interviews, conducting interviews, producing videos and/or brainstorming for upcoming projects or events. I love that my schedule is never uniform. I'm lucky to have the freedom to pursue projects I want to work on and am encouraged to learn and grow at my job. When we have time, we also have access to courses to help us pick up or refresh our skills.
What is something that people misunderstand about working as a music journalist?
I think there's a glamourized idea of music journalism that still exists for people who may not be familiar with the world of music and/or journalism. I often get questions about receiving free music or concert tickets as a luxury, but the reality is all of those perceived benefits come with a lot of work. As a music journalist, listening to music requires time, attention and analysis. It's a thoughtful process that goes beyond, "Is this good?" It requires a lot of research and contextualizing. Concert tickets are often given to you in exchange for a review, which is a lot of work when you consider how late live shows run until and how short the turnaround is for reviews. I'm not saying it's not fun, but that novelty does wear off over the years. Music journalism may seem frivolous, but some of the best music writing I've ever read reveals a larger picture that intersects with politics, technology, feminism, and society at large. Music has the power to change the world, and to be in the world of music journalism is to witness that power and learn how it all works.
What would you say to people who want to get into music journalism?
To anyone looking to get into music journalism, my advice is to read about and listen to as diverse a range of music as possible. Being an expert in one type of music is helpful in establishing the types of places you might be interested in writing for, but diversifying what you listen to can also help you get a deeper understanding of music as a whole, and how genres have spilled over and inspired each other. I'd also say that building a portfolio is important, and I don't mean writing for established publications. I started off creating my own blog and posting my own writing as a way to have something to show editors, but also as a form of practicing. A lot of my early writing wasn't good, but it was a good way to figure out what my writing style was. A good number of writers who work for places like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork now used to share their music criticism on Tumblr or LiveJournal. As the saying goes: everyone has to start somewhere!
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Most challenging is staying on top of all the new music that comes out now. The internet, streaming services and apps like TikTok have changed the way people consume and support music, and of course there's an oversaturation of music now, too. Having to sort through all of that takes time and a good ear. Having worked in music journalism for over a decade now, a real struggle I've seen others go through (and I myself have experienced) is maintaining a love for music. Music can easily go from being a hobby and a passion into a chore so finding a balance can be tough.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
My favourite part is just the privilege I have to spend so much of my time diving into music and discovering new artists. My coworkers and I share new music with each other on a daily basis and nothing is more gratifying than introducing the people around you to a new and exciting artist, song or album. Essentially, I love the ability to be a real music nerd around other music nerds. And this happens less frequently, but I truly cherish the moments where I get to interview artists I've looked up to for years. That's the ultimate opportunity to nerd out.
What story/project are you most proud of working on?
There have been a few big projects at CBC Music that I've worked on that I feel extremely proud of. Last year, my colleagues Andrea Warner and Holly Gordon and I teamed up to write a feature on early 2000s Canadian boy bands, which involved us chasing and interviewing bands that we grew up listening to like the Moffatts, SoulDecision and Sky. I also recently wrote a feature on Asian-Canadian artists and discussed the importance of representation amid a time in which anti-Asian violence is on the rise. I don't often put myself into my writing, but the process of putting this piece together (and the conversations I had with the artists featured) was really personal and meaningful.
You have also served as a judge for music/arts prizes in the past. Can you talk a little about what that experience is like?
Yes, I'm currently a juror for the Polaris Music Prize, the Prism Prize and the Juno Awards. The experience for each one has been different, but great in its own way. Every prize/award requires a lot of work: listening to and evaluating albums, songs, artists and music videos. In the case of the Polaris, an internal message board forum allows jurors to share their opinions and spark discussions. In 2014, I served as a grand juror for the Polaris Music Prize, which included two straight days of being locked in a room and having intense debates over the nominated albums. It was a truly invaluable experience and seeing the winner get crowned that evening was a real highlight.
You previously started and ran your own zine for a number of years. What inspired you to do so? What was your favourite part of that experience? What advice would you give to people who are thinking of taking on similar projects?
The zine (Static Zine) started off as an idea that my friend, and fellow j-school grad, Jessica Lewis brought to a group of women in the Toronto music scene. Eventually, that group narrowed down to just me, Jess and our fellow managing editor, Aviva Cohen. The intention wasn't to create a music zine, but to just do something fun. Thanks to Static, we were able to travel to zine fairs in Canada and the U.S., and put on concerts and events across Toronto. It's similar to creating your own blog, but with the added satisfaction of holding a physical product. Ultimately, I must warn people who want to get into zines that you don't make any money from them and it's more of a passion project than anything. But because of that project, I gained two best friends. Also, the zine scene is a wonderful, DIY-focused community that I learned a lot from. So go to your local bookshop or comic book store and pick up some zines now!
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
I truly enjoyed my time at the Ryersonian. It was the last semester of my undergrad and it's a shorter experience than working for the magazine, but it was a really memorable way to end j-school with. It was stressful at times, but it prepared us for real world newsrooms. I spent most of that time shooting and editing videos, a skill I wish I still had today.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
This sounds silly, but stay in school! Two years into my undergrad, I was struggling with mental health problems and seriously considered dropping out. But my professor, the great Kamal Al-Solaylee, talked me out of it. If you feel overwhelmed, I'm a big advocate for therapy, but also just talking to someone in general. Also: copy editing is one of the most important courses you'll take so pay close attention!
Grads at Work is a series of profiles of RSJ alums. If you know of a notable grad you’d like to see featured, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.