Being Freelance: An Interview with Philip Sherburne

Philip Sherburne seems to be living life as a journalist in a best-case scenario situation. He is ostensibly his own boss, working from home, in a foreign city of his choosing, writing about his favourite kinds of music, and all while having quality time to spend with his wife and baby.

Surely someone in such an ideal position is, and always has been, highly focused and driven in their career choices? “I have a vague recollection of working on the high school newspaper, and in college I was photo editor of our student paper. Strangely though, I never thought seriously about a career in journalism.”

Despite this, Philip has had a serious career as a music and culture writer since the late 1990s, and is widely regarded as an expert in electronic, experimental and underground music. He is a contributing editor at influential music site Pitchfork and his work has been published in The Wire, SPIN and Resident Advisor.

For the majority of that time, Philip has been without a contracted position and has instead worked freelance, a traditionally less stable role, from his home in Barcelona. “I actually stumbled into journalism by beginning to write about music while I was studying literature in graduate school, and totally miserable. I kept it up after dropping out, when I had a succession of internet jobs in the late ’90s and early ’00s. When I finally got laid off, in 2002, I had enough freelance work to support me.

“It’s been pretty organic from there. I haven’t had a full-time gig since 2002. Instead I’ve managed to patch together a bunch of part-time gigs.”

Philip has carved out a comfortable niche that means he is almost as ubiquitous amongst the music critic community as those in staff jobs at the top publications. It seems he does not miss that way of working. “I’m more in control of my free time, which is nice, particularly since I have a family. And being freelance has allowed me to live abroad for almost ten years now, which is also nice.

“That said, I have to hustle to earn a living, and my job situation is pretty insecure. Then again, most desk jobs are equally insecure these days. I can’t really complain.”

Before ending up in the Catalan capital, Philip moved from his home in Portland, Oregon to Berlin, and continued hopping around until he decided to settle. He admits that it makes for a unique working environment. “It’s odd, in that I haven’t met half the people I work with or for. And it’s a little bit strange being removed from the culture that I primarily write about.

“I do feel a bit on the outskirts here sometimes. But as my career has moved towards doing more criticism than reporting, my location isn’t that limiting.”

In his time, Philip has had the opportunity to interview musical pioneers, such as the elder statesman of ambient music Brian Eno and the enigmatic Richard D James, more prominently known as Aphex Twin.

As someone who admires these figures greatly, but still has a job to do, how does he keep his cool? “I actually think I’m a pretty terrible interviewer.

“I tend to go in with a huge list of questions and a very detailed sort of narrative arc that I want to work through, which is totally antithetical to having a spontaneous conversation.

“I will certainly tell an artist if I’m a fan of his or her work, although acting like a fan boy is never a good look.”

Having to juggle a number of positions without the guarantee of more work beyond the last set of deadlines, Philip has gone on to use his journalistic skills in a steadier working environment – writing copy for music streaming services such as Google Music and Rhapsody. “It’s not the most creatively rewarding work, but it pays the bills.”

He is in an authoritative position to expound on the highs and lows of the freelancing world, and he is anxious about trying not to paint it in too harsh a light.

He explains that, especially at the outset, young journalists may have to work multiple jobs, and freelancing provides the time for this. But when they become assured in their respective fields, this time for extra work could turn into time for extracurricular activities that would be otherwise impossible in a full-time position. Until recently, Philip was a prolific DJ and producer alongside being a journalist.

This is the give and take of the industry he works in and it can benefit you as a person as well as a professional. “Since my wife and I had a baby, I’ve pretty much put the music on hold, just because I don’t have time for it anymore, nor can I handle the late nights out. But, for a long time, I felt like making music and being a music journalist were pretty complementary. I certainly think that making music helped my critical abilities, though I’m not necessarily sure the opposite could be said.”

Philip also entered the industry when it was on the brink of making vast leaps in the way news and critical opinion was received and presented and how important new technologies, like the rise in social media, affected journalistic work. “In many ways, I think I’ve had more experience with online media. I don’t really think about print that much.

“I came up writing for print mags and alt weeklies, to a certain extent, but I really got my start writing for online magazines and my own blog.”

When asked what it has been like trying to adapt to the changing face of journalism, he explains that it comes with the territory. “I feel like this is a little bit like asking a fish what being wet feels like. Since I began, the industry has been in a state of perpetual transition.

“I do seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time — for instance, my first cover story for SPIN was just months before they shuttered the print edition. At least I got to do one.”

The life of a freelance journalist may be far from the idyllic existence Philip’s career seems to represent, but it is evidence that it is still something young journalists can aspire to.

Follow @PhilipSherburne on Twitter and visit his website

 

Here is a selection of some of my favourite articles written by Philip:

A Conversation with Brian Eno About Ambient Music (also see a previous post of mine raving about this feature)

Big in Japan: Visible Cloaks and the Power of Cultural Exchange

Arca’s Warped Beauty

Strange Visitor: A Conversation with Aphex Twin

Review: Elza Soares – The Woman at the End of the World

 

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