Blogger Spotlight: Tamar Anitai (MTV Buzzworthy)

Hello and welcome to another edition of the Haulix Blogger Spotlight series. Today’s column is by far our longest to date, so make sure you bookmark this page in case you get pulled away by a cute cat video or, you know, work.  If you have a writer or publication you feel deserved to be featured in an upcoming installment of this series, please do not hesitate to email james@haulix.com and share your recommendation.

Say what you will about the age of reality television, but I have yet to meet a person in the music business who doesn’t still want their MTV. Programming changes have occurred, sure, but the original national stage for all things alternative is still a force to reckon with thanks to the unstoppable efforts of their digital team. Of those, no brand is probably more widely recognized than the Buzzworthy Blog, and this afternoon we’re going to learn about the young woman who leads this long-running section of MTV.

Fate has a funny way of making you think twice about the things you were once sure of, and for a long time Tamar Anitai was sure she wanted to become a rabbi. She entered college with this goal in mind, but along the way realized the rabbinical life was not for her, and as many do began examining her other interests in search of a potential career path. After a few attempts elsewhere she settled on an English major that, coupled with the introduction of the internet to households across America by way of AOL in the early 90s, eventually lead her to a number of internships at various print publications (yes, news was still printed regularly at this point). Here Tamar cut her teeth in writing, and as her career turned digital she began working more heavily with music. She now serves as the Managing Editor the Buzzworthy blog, and today we could not be more excited to share her journey.

Tamar has a gift for wordplay that never ceases to amaze me, and from the early days of this column I knew she would deliver a great interview if the opportunity ever presented itself. We tried for months to connect and the results could not be better. She has built a career for herself through hard work and determination that is nothing short of inspiring, and the craziest part of it all is that she still has a long life in writing to lead as she helps guide MTV’s online presence into 2014 (and beyond).

If you want to stay up-to-date with everything Tamar has going on, make it point to read the Buzzworthy blog daily and follow the official Twitter account. Any additional questions or comments can be left at the end of this post.

H: for the record, state your name and job title

TA: Tamar Anitai, and I’m the managing editor of the MTV Buzzworthy Blog.

H: Let’s start simple. Do you remember the first album you purchased with your own money?

TA: Oh man. I think it might’ve been the Technotronic “Pump Up The Jam” cassingle, the analog precursor to the iTunes single download!! It was definitely from an Eastern Cleveland mall that I’m sure no longer exists. That and the cassingle, both long dead!

H: When you think of your earliest memories of music, what comes to mind?

TA: Folk music that my mom listened to – Mamas and Papas. Stuff my dad listened to when I was a kid – Bob Seger’s “Like A Rock.” Listening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and being terrified by Vincent Price’s voice.. Watching the making of the “Thriller” video on MTV and being mesmerized and also terrified by Michael Jackson’s werewolf eyes.. Early ‘80s Madonna – the “Borderline” video and how she wore different colored neon socks was like an early Stan moment for me! I was a huge Madonna fan. I still have her “Like A Virgin” tape. I remember listening to a lot of Power 108 in Cleveland and taping it off of the radio. I was really into Debbie Gibson and still wonder about that face she drew on her knee on her “Out Of The Blue” album cover. That was kinda punk. I used to sit in my room for hours and wonder what the New Kids On The Block were doing at that exact same moment and if they or other famous people really used the bathroom. Whitney Houston had a tremendous impact on me in terms of loving a commanding female belt. Her “Whitney album is one of my first albums. I’ve always had a love of musicals from very early on – “West Side Story,” especially. Anything Rodgers and Hammerstein or Sondheim. Anything Barbra Streisand. Oh, and I really loved freestyle R&B. Still do. The Jets, Sweet Sensation, Taylor Dayne. There you go – lots of disparate answers for you. That still kind of informs my musical influences and tendencies today – broad, random and disparate.

H: I know you’re busy, but i want to cover as much ground as we can in this piece. You have been working in writing/content creation for more than a decade at this point. Do you remember what inspired you to follow a career path in journalism?

TA: I started out wanting to be a rabbi. My mom’s still bummed that didn’t work out. Ha. (But for the record, I go to temple more than she does, so that counts for something, right?) In college when I realized rabbinical life wasn’t for me, I thought I might want to teach writing, until I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted to do either.. I liked performing and the theater and singing, and I did that as a kid and in high school and college, but at heart, I lack the ultra ultra cut-throat competitiveness you need in those fields, and I wanted to have more options to be able to support myself, (so I became a writer – HA HA!), so performing became less important to me as a career path. I knew I loved writing and was good at it, and I’d hoped that I’d be able to support myself that way, and I figured it was a hard skill that will always be needed in some way or another (at least I sincerely hope so), so I pursued an English major with a concentration in journalism and technical writing. I always loved non-fiction, journalism, anything that was telling real stories or providing commentary, context, or insight, putting many pieces together into a package (which is a huge part of why I love digital editorial – you have the ability to tell a story dynamically and multi dimensionally). I was only ever really interested in journalism and non-fiction. I’ve never really been interested in creating fiction. I have a massive amount of respect for novelists, short story writers, anyone who can create a whole new world on a blank page. But I do believe truth is stranger than fiction.

In the mid ‘90s when it became a little more commonplace to own a personal computer, and AOL brought the Internet (or some rudimentary portal version of it) and email into the mainstream, and the Internet started growing and becoming available, I loved the fact that you could just get lost in any number of online worlds and connect with people absolutely anywhere in the world. I was in college and thought I might want to write for magazines, and then I interned at several magazines and newspapers, which was an invaluable experience on every level. Newspapers actually let me write. Magazines wouldn’t let us like 1000 feet from their pages, which ended up being a blessing in disguise because I realized I liked the pace of newspapers and became less interested in the extremely slow life cycle of magazines. I liked the pace of daily papers more, but I realized I really loved the ability to publish instantaneously to the Internet, so I finally realized I wanted to “something with writing on the Internet.” Broad, I know, but the opportunities for online editorial are also very broad and more democratic.

H: Which came first, the love of music or the love of writing? When did you first begin to combine the two?

TA: Probably a love of music since I can identify so many different songs for every different year and phase and crucial experience in my life, and I can’t say that I have personal writings I identify with for every part of my life. (I have really embarrassing poetry I wrote in middle and high school and during my Tori Amos phase, though.) But music has provided the meaning behind moments for me. Writing was something I enjoyed when I was in school and realized I was good at it and not horrible at it, like I was math or gym. Ha. I worked at AOL from 2000 – 2005, and I began to combined the two professionally when I got a job at AOL Music in New York in 2001.

H: From what I’ve learned, you got your start in the business by reviewing theatrical productions. Can you tell us a bit about finding your footing in the entertainment business?

TA: Well in high school I was one of four local student movie critics for what was then the Virginian-Pilot/Ledger Star newspaper in Hampton Roads, Virginia. I applied for that gig and wrote a movie review about how I didn’t see “Jurassic Park,” and I guess my sarcasm helped land me that gig. I think I got paid about $25 an article. Not bad for 1993. So I actually had legitimate press clips when I started to put together a portfolio after college when I started looking for jobs. I lived in New York the summer between my junior and senior years of college. I interned at Jane Magazine (R.I.P!) back when it was still part of Fairchild on 34th Street. I interned at W for the then-features editor James Reginato, and I was unpaid at Fairchild, so I needed to make some money. I worked at a smoothie place in the West Village, and because neither publication let their interns write, I knocked on the door at Showbusiness Weekly (like, literally, I think I actually knocked on the door) and asked if they needed theater critics. So they hired me as a freelance writer. (Turns out people love free or extremely cheap help!) I reviewed some off-off Broadway shows, and I did some editing. Actually, I don’t even think I was paid. I gave it away for free. Man, I was a whore. Actually that’s not even being a whore because whores are, by definition, paid. I was a slut, I guess, editorially. But really, I was hustling because I knew I loved New York and wanted to come back after graduation, and I knew I’d need to support myself. I didn’t have any money to spare, my parents were spending money they barely had to put me in an NYU dorm for the summer (no one I knew had heard of Craigslist yet, so you stayed in the dorms). I ate a lot of ramen and other various soups to get that experience to help land me back here after college.

In college I reviewed theater (huge conflict of interest come to think of it, since I also performed – ha, whatever). I went to school at James Madison University in Virginia, and when I graduated, AOL was growing just an hour and a half north in Dulles, Virginia. I loved being online and couldn’t wait to get out of school and hopefully land an editorial job online. I applied to AOL and was offered entry level editorial/ programming jobs at their parenting channel and their local guide channel, and I went with the local guides, which were called Digital Cities back then. They were basically a rudimentary Yelp. I worked in the DC area, had great bosses, wrote and edited, and when a job opened up at AOL Music in New York, I applied and was like LOOK. I’M YOUR GIRL. I PUH-ROMISE YOU. I GOT THIS. At the interview, I bonded with the other programming managers over Jeff Buckley. And I got the gig. That eventually helped me get this job at MTV. Between then I also started my own fashion blog called FashionBinge basically just for fun (don’t laugh – it’s still on Blogger), and I’m so glad I did because I basically taught myself the basics of blogging, SEO, coding, and I still had a place to keep writing..

H: Do you have any advice for those that are currently starting out with dreams of finding steady employment in entertainment as far as early work and internships are concerned?

TA: All of the above. Be willing to hustle. Outside of anything illegal or that offends your sensibilities or moral code, be willing to do absolutely anything. I opened Jane Pratt’s mail, and she didn’t even know who I was, but I wasn’t too good to open mail at Jane, transcribe interviews, fetch coffee, whatever. Be eager. I heard the legendary Joan Rivers speak at the Lucky FABB Conference a few years back, and her advice to the group of bloggers was you’re never ever ever ever too good for a job. Ever. At any age. Say yes. Amazing advice. Be willing and be open. But you’ve gotta hustle. Rarely does anyone give you anything, so don’t be entitled, and don’t expect opportunities to magically appear. Sometimes they do, but they’re rarely “magic.” You’ve probably laid the foundation or left a breadcrumb trail to you earlier in your career. But if you’re not leaving those breadcrumbs behind then they’re never going to find you.

H: From theatre to AOL, you spent a number of years crafting your content strategy efforts before you eventually found your current home at MTV. What can you tell us about landing this job?

TA: I had had a job for a year and a half or so at a stock photo agency doing their communications and marketing. It was a small company that was being grown and groomed to be sold to Getty. I got that job because I’d had three jobs at AOL within five years and was still early on in my career and was looking for a change. Once I was there I realized I missed working at a somewhat larger company, and I saw the gig at MTV and jumped on it. Another piece of career advice – my first role at MTV was at least two or three years junior to where I was at that point, but I knew MTV would be a great place to work and provide far more opportunities, so I didn’t look at that more junior title and say “Oh, I’m so beyond this.” Look beyond the title. Titles mean little when it comes to your day-to-day opportunities and obligations, especially if you’re working for managers who are willing to let you get your hands dirty and experiment and do what you’re good at and do more of that. I’m really glad I didn’t give a shit about titles, because the opportunities here have been tremendous.

H: The Buzzworthy label is one of the most well known aspect of MTV, and it seems every artist or group in music wants to have that label attached to their efforts. What makes an artist buzzworthy?

TA: It’s like art or porn – you know it when you see it. Ha. Just kidding. Kind of. There aren’t many strict parameters beyond, of course, pop music, though we don’t delve too far into country or much metal. Pop music is, of course, extremely broad, which is great because you can cast a really wide net in terms of the content you’re curating. But really, it’s an artist whose sound absolutely grabs me on some level. It might be, like, wow, this is really visceral, emotional, profound music that reminds me of Fiona Apple. It might be like, wow, this feels like early Green Day. Or this is SUCH a good, shameless party jam. An artist that’s Buzzworthy is someone who’s making music that I know will connect with a certain type of person or fan base on some level. It’s something I hear and I can say “I know EXACTLY who this appeals to,” and there’s so much value in that.

H: You’ve successfully grown MTV’s web presence and traffic year-over-year in spite of the growing number of competition in the market. What can you share about your content strategy (without giving away any secrets, of course)?

TA: Well, I have the benefit of the longview, right? Having done this for a while, I can usually identify and say, yeah, historically, this type of content “does well,” this type of content doesn’t, but it’s always been important to me to present the Buzzworthy audience with smart, fun, funny commentary on pop music, and the bigger names are usually the ones who perform better. But you’ve got to have your eyes and ears open for new artists who are under the radar but could be the next One Direction or Katy Perry. Or artists who may never play Barclays or Glastonbury but who are still amazing and deserve recognition and coverage. I love being able to say “Hey, I love this, and I hope you will too.” Anyway, performance and metrics and traffic are important, but curation is just as important. And knowing what type of content to create is hugely important. The same formula and type of content doesn’t work for every artist or song. It’s not one size fits all. Another thing i love about online editorial and working for MTV – there’s so much room to experiment.

H: Some people believe there is no need for critics in the digital age. Do you agree? (Support your response)

TA: Wow, good question. I don’t agree. I think people are looking for trusted names and brands and to cut through the noise and clutter. There’s more music content and entertainment options out there, which is wonderful – it’s literally impossible to be bored. If you’re bored in 2013, you’re doing everything wrong. But given that there’s a bottomless well of available music options, you want that voice who finds the good stuff for you. Which isn’t the same thing as making decisions for you or telling you what to think or believe. I always want Buzzworthy to feel like a person. That nice, cool, funny kid in your class who’s friends with everyone, nice to everyone, and you always trust to be into good music. The kind of person who owns their taste and isn’t into the snobbery of it but loves to discover new music and wants to share that with you. too.

H: When it comes to receiving music for feature consideration, which services do you prefer and why?

TA: Honestly, I love the ease of use of Soundcloud. Any of the services that require a separate login and password, which I’ll inevitably lose, slows you down a step, or two. When people send me unsolicited MP3s that kill my inbox, I’ve been known to drop a few F bombs.

H: What is the hardest part of this ‘job’ you’ve made for yourself?

TA: Oh keeping up with the emails, absolutely. Balancing all of the projects I’ve really into and excited about (I get really really hyper and excited about new projects and opportunities. I’m definitely that person who like rushes into someone’s office all gung ho and breathless and like THIS ONE TIME, AT BAND CAMP hyperventilating about some new thing I want to try or implement or share.) But I really do love being busy, and I love that the day flies by. I’ve been at MTV for seven years, and I can’t remember ever once saying or feeling anything like “Man, this day is dragging” or “I’m so bored.” That just doesn’t exist. I’m very fortunate.

H: How would you describe your writing style to someone who has never read the Buzzworthy blog?

TA: The Buzzworthy Blog is where Stan culture meets music discovery. My writing style is usually very first person. I love to be a clown, and I hope that my writing comes across as self-deprecating and inclusive. There’s so much contrarianism and negativity. I love saying WHO CARES about guilty pleasures. If you love it, why is that a reason to feel guilty? I always hope you read my writing or Buzzworthy’s writers’ and feel like you can totally relate because a friend is recommending this to you. People usually tell me I write exactly like I talk, and I take that as a compliment.

H: Music is in a strange place right now. EDM-infused pop is still everywhere, but there is a growing admiration for artists using more throwback-like sounds as well. What do you think the next big thing in music will be?

TA: I kind of love that even that even though dance music is huge and obviously sampling and remixing and slick, glossy production (shout out to Mike Will Made It because I love what he’s doing not just to hip-hop but to hop, and I’ll always love anything Max Martin touches – he’s truly music’s Midas), I love that a guy like Ed Sheeran, who just shows up with a guitar and hoodie and sells out Madison Square Garden three times over, I love that there’s room for singer-songwriters like him and Jake Bugg. I LOVE Haim, so I’d love if more people were more receptive to girls and guitars. Guitars in general are kind of disappearing since dance music. I really miss the singer-songwriter/guitarist. Think about how many songs you love you can identify just by a few opening guitar riffs (shout out to Katy Perry though for opening “Teenage Dream” with that intoxicating guitar riff) “Come As You Are,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Losing My Religion,” the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” or “Laila,“ “Sweet Jane,” “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt, “Blackbird,” “Last Night” by The Strokes. I miss a bunch of dudes with guitars! Ha.

Almost any Simon and Garfunkle song. So I’d love to see guitars get their due.

I’m glad AutoTune is basically over, except for Daft Punk or Kanye, because they always get a pass.
Speaking of Katy Perry, I love that her “Walking On Air” single as brought back that deep house ‘90s feel to radio, because I never get sick of that.

H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?

TA: More open format radio and less redundancy on the radio. I wish terrestrial radio were programmed more openly and freely. Label deals with radio stations often benefit the same handful of artists, which is great for those artists, and the success of those artists can help labels boost and buoy funds for smaller artists, but it’d be amazing to hear those artists on the radio in the first place instead of the same 10 songs over and over, even if they’re songs or artists I love. I’d love for more discovery to happen on the radio in the first place. But I think this is actually a very exciting time and place for the music industry. Yes, there are fewer labels than in the past, but there are more avenues for music discovery than ever before on every piece of smart technology you own, even your actual TV set. And you don’t have to have a traditional record deal to build a fan base, which is rather incredible. My problems, though, aren’t that much with the music industry itself in terms of labels but rather looking at music more holistically and historically and realizing that music history and lessons are so crucial, and funding for music in schools is no longer a guarantee. When I was in elementary school you didn’t have a choice – you had to lean at least one instrument. So, funding for music in schools is so much more important to me than the commercialization of music and album sales. If we don’t expose kids to music and give them the option to learn to read and write and play music we’ll have much bigger problems than dwindling album sales. Music in schools is literally the future music industry.

H: Before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about what you have planned in the months ahead?

TA: I have a few incredible Buzzworthy Live acoustic performances coming up, some exciting Live From MTV live music events in the works, some great short-form videos I really hope everyone will love, the EMAs on November 10 are going to bigger than ever with some extra special events planned, our comprehensive MTV year-end review, artists to watch in 2014, we’ll be going back to Hangout Fest in 2014, and so much more.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.