Karen Bliss is a music journalist based in Toronto, Canada.
Over the course of her long career, Karen has written about the music industry for Rolling Stone, Variety, Pollstar, Hits, The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, and dozens of others. Her interviews include such household names as Beyonce, Metallica, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears, Eddie Vedder, Jimmy Page, and the late Kurt Cobain.
Since 2010, Karen has been the Canadian correspondent for Billboard.
During her tenure at Billboard, Karen has written hundreds of stories about the Canadian music industry, and interviewed countless artists, most recently Robbie Robertson, The Lumineers, Sam Hunt, Serj Tankian, Peaches, and David Foster, as well as actors Beanie Feldstein and Renee Zellweger about their music movies.
Karen interviewing Keith Richards
In 2013, Karen won Music Journalist of the Year at the 2013 Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Awards.
Karen is also the founder of anti-tabloid online publication Samaritanmag.com about charities and causes.
In an interview for Show4me blog, Karen shares her insights on her job as a music journalist and how musicians and their teams can make it easier for journalists to cover their work, performances, and music.
What challenges do you and music journalists in general face when working with musicians?
I don’t think there are specific challenges music journalists face when working with musicians. We don’t actually work with them, for the most part. It’s our job to be well researched and have a great conversation/interview with the musician to tell their story in the best, most truthful way. How we do that involves an appreciation of their music, listening to their answers and following up with more questions to get to the heart of what they are doing and their goals.
I wish it was as simple as this artist’s music is mind-blowing.
What mistakes do you see musicians and their teams make when it comes to their relations with the media? What do you wish they did differently?
On occasion, I find musicians and their teams are always suspicious of the media. This stems from a long-held cliché, I assume. But really this is only a person talking to you about music, not some criminal enterprise or shady business deal. No reason to be suspicious. Plus, you are in control of your answers. If you don’t like the question, don’t answer it. If you have been involved in drugs and your music is about addiction, for example, I think it is fair for a journalist to ask about that, but again the musician is in control of his or her answer. If someone asks who you are dating or about a divorce, it’s okay to say that’s personal and has nothing to do with my music – but if your album is all about it, then it is fair game and silly not to discuss.
Also, choose your outlets wisely. Don’t paint everyone with the same brush. Some outlets care about the personal, some about songwriting, some about the business.
Karen with Bruce Springsteen
A few things I wish teams – managers and publicists – would provide are liner notes. This is a really big beef for me.
Back in the day, I would be able to read vinyl or CD sleeves – the lyrics, the studio and writing credits, the thank yous – but now I have to ask multiple times for the liner notes, and still often don’t get them. I want to do the most interesting interview possible and not have to ask basic questions, or worse get information wrong because I didn’t have access to it, and having those liner notes is a crucial part of my research. I just don’t get why this isn’t readily available.
The other thing is fact-checking. Often people say things that chronologically don’t make sense or just don’t add up. They trip over their words or say “did” when they meant “didn’t.” I am able to fact-check if I know the artist or management and they will clarify. But when it’s an international act, often it takes ages to get the accurate info or the publicist doesn’t have contact again with the artist/management/label to get the required info – or maybe they don’t care and have moved on to other projects.
Start small, start local, and build from there.
I find it funny how the press has a reputation for getting it wrong or making things up when I realize how many things are wrong in actual interviews but it’s so tough to fact-check after the interview has been conducted.
And finally, if you don’t want to do an interview, don’t do it. Why be rude or difficult to a total stranger for no reason? It’s only happened a few times to me over thousands of interviews but it really wastes everyone’s time. I don’t get the point? Playing into the rock‘n’roll stereotype?
Are musicians better off reaching niche publications or they should aim for the biggest players in the music media when pitching their stories?
If an artist doesn’t have a profile or a unique relevant story, then no point in aiming for the biggest players. Start small, start local, and build from there. Big players can mean local newspapers, so can’t hurt to try that.
Play shows and focus on writing great songs, communicate with your fans because they are the ones who will promote you and support you.
What are you looking for in a story – does it matter if a team is pitching their show, upcoming album release, a special project, or a tour?
Such a difficult question to answer. There are so many variables. I wish it was as simple as this artist’s music is mind-blowing – and sometimes that is all it takes, however rare those artists are, but other times it comes down to whether people care – as in if your profile is rising, and what plans you have to help that happen.
Ultimately, artists shouldn’t worry about what music journalists are looking for. Just do your thing, tell your story, work hard, and keep working hard. Play shows and focus on writing great songs, communicate with your fans because they are the ones who will promote you and support you.
How do you discover new musicians to cover?
Internet, social media posts, recommendations from others, music mags/sites and trades, press releases, even TV shows and movies (I use Shazam a lot).
Do you care about fan stories and experience?
Not usually unless it’s unique – the Grateful Dead, Springsteen or one-offs, such as an artist pulling a couple onstage for a marriage proposal or to join them on guitar, but even those happen so often that they are not necessarily news. P.S. I am a fan.
Karen with Bryan Adams
Many events these days get live-streamed – does it make your job as a music journalist easier or harder?
It doesn’t affect me. It is good that press conferences or award shows are streamed if I am unable to attend. The stream doesn’t always work and cuts off or won’t load but it’s helpful. But this happens only once or twice a year that I might watch the stream instead.
Many musicians have the impression that music journalists and publications only care about A-list musicians. Would you say that’s the reality or are there ways around it? Can an extraordinary album by a lesser-known act catch your eye?
I’ve addressed this above. A-list publications care about A-list musicians because people want to read about them, but they are often instrumental in breaking new acts, with their finger on the pulse, and connections to people in the industry able to tip off writers. And of course, an extraordinary album by a lesser-known act can catch my eye – that’s what has kept me going all these decades and what enabled me when I was starting out to interview Pearl Jam, Lenny Kravitz, Counting Crows, Nirvana, Linkin Park, Faith No More, The Black Crowes, and many more before they blew up.
Now more than ever this time in music history will see the emergence of innovative and cool companies.
What has changed in music journalism in the past decade and has it gotten easier to reach the musicians you are interested in covering?
There are definitely less good paying gigs. Many publications and sites have gone under because of a lack of advertising and investment. Also, in an ideal world, the experienced music journalists would see pay raises, even on a per piece basis, and it wouldn’t be a continual struggle.
In answer to the second question, I don’t think it’s any easier or more difficult to reach musicians I’m interested in covering. I go through the required channels and either they want to do an interview or they don’t.
Karen with The Rolling Stones
From where you stand, where do you see the music industry going in the future? What would be your predictions for 2020 and the next decade?
The first part of your question is too general, but I do think that now more than ever this time in music history will see the emergence of innovative and cool companies. There are a lot of brilliant minds out there and I look forward to seeing what the next decade holds.
And if there are any investors or sponsors reading this piece to the end who are possibly interested in supporting my online mag, Samaritanmag.com, about good people trying to change bad things (music heavy), please contact me.