Freelance Spotlight: Carolyn Vallejo

Hello and welcome to another installment of our Blogger Spotlight series. We missed all of you during our day off yesterday and thought it best to make up for our absence with a bonus piece of content to help kickoff the weekend. If you have any questions about the content of this blog, or if you would like to learn more about the services offered by Haulix, please email james@gmail.com and share your thoughts. We can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

We have spent the majority of the last six months talking to the people who created or currently lead the most influential music sites on the web. As we head into 2014 we want to continue these efforts while also expanding our reach to include others who have dedicated to their lives and talent to the pursuit of a career in the music industry, including freelance writers.

The life of a freelance writer is one we cover far too rarely on this blog, but in the months ahead we hope to share more stories from this side of the writing world in order to provide a more complete picture of life on the journalism side of entertainment. Today we’re diving into this effort with a feature on Boston resident Carolyn Vallejo, who has contributed to publications like Alter The Press!Performer Magazine, and Big Cheese Magazine. You can read her story below.

If you would like to learn more about Carolyn, we highly recommend following her on Twitter and bookmarking her digital portfolio. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.

H: Hello! Thanks for taking the time to be a part of this feature. Would you please tell everyone your name, what you do, and the publication(s) you work with?

C: Hey James! My name is Carolyn Vallejo and I’m a music journalist. I work mostly with Alter the Press! but have freelanced for a bunch of music publications including Performer Magazine and Big Cheese Magazine. I’m also the editor of a financial journal in downtown Boston.

H: A life in music is not one every person would choose for themselves. When you think of your earliest memories with music, what comes to mind?

C: My mom says that when I was 3 my favorite song was “Woman in Chains” by Tears for Fears – kind of a sophisticated choice for a toddler. I remember being obsessed with the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” As an adult you can see how trippy and drugged-out the album is, but there’s definitely a childlike imagination to it all. I also grew up listening to my brother drumming in the house day and night and, later on, mixing electronic music. I hijacked my mom’s 12-string when I was younger, too. So it’s pretty much been everywhere since I was born.

H: Some of the people we have spoken with mention a specific moment/album/event that steered their life towards a career in music. Do you have anything like that in your history?

C: Having grown up with so much music around me, I don’t think it’s something I consciously decided to do one day. Having a career in music is more of something I feel I need to do, because it makes me happy. So there wasn’t really a specific event, but there have been certain people who have come in and out of my life who remind me that it’s actually possible to have this type of career and lifestyle.

When I was in college I changed my major from journalism to advertising at one point because I felt like it was naïve of me to pursue a career in music journalism, and that I wasn’t being realistic. But eventually I was introduced to people in Boston’s music scene who reminded me that that was the worst idea I ever had, and that a career in music isn’t a pipe dream. Those people definitely steered me back on track.

H: As a writer, who or what inspires you?

C: People are my biggest inspiration. You can stop any random person on the street and they will have an incredible story to tell, they just might not have ever been asked. As a writer you can tell those stories, and that’s something I think is crucial to the human condition. We’re so quick to judge or to not make any effort to know someone. But a writer can help you show what’s really going on inside a person. I think that’s why I love music so much, because it’s another outlet for a person to show the world who they are.

H: You’re a bit of a unique case for this blog. You have a site or two your work with primarily, but you also work as a freelance contributor. When did you first begin your career in writing, and what was your first ‘gig’? (unpaid work counts)

C: I’ve technically been freelancing since I was about 14 or 15, writing for local papers and websites. But my first legitimate job working in music journalism was writing for Big Cheese Magazine while I was abroad in London during college. My second day on the job they sent me out to a warehouse to interview Sum 41. I wanted to puke I was so nervous, but then I gained my footing and confidence and started writing some awesome features that I’m still really proud of. That was an unreal experience.

H: You first came on our radar through your efforts with Alter The Press. When did you join the ATP team, and what can you tell us about the application process?

C: I had followed Alter The Press for sometime, but in the summer of 2012 they Tweeted that they were looking for new writers. I sent in some of my work, and ATP editor Emma Garland dug it. In addition to sending in clips, Emma asked about what bands I love and what labels I follow. She’s based in the UK so everything was done online. I’d say about 90% of my freelancing gigs have actually started from Twitter connections, strangely enough.

H: There are a number of sites offering featuring the same artists highlighted on ATP. What lead you to apply at this publication over one of its competitors?

C: When you’re freelancing you totally can’t be picky, but ATP is part of a community that wants to support bands, not bring them down through scathing reviews just to get readership. ATP definitely finds a balance between objective music journalism and that need to support musicians.

I also have a great relationship with its founder Jon Ableson. He backs me up when things get hairy and trusts me as a writer. Having the support of an editor is super important and has kept me loyal to ATP.

H: As a professional you’ve managed to find a number of gigs outside the world of music, yet you continue to make strides in this field as well. What keeps you invested in music journalism?

C: In a way, it’s those gigs outside the world of music that keep me invested in music journalism. My “day job” is working as the managing editor of a financial journal. It’s taught me so much and I love the job, but writing about finance and law all day really reminds me why I love music journalism so much. It’s so important to do what you love. Of course, you have to pay the bills, but it’s worth the extra effort and time to pursue your passion.

H: There seems to be new writers and blogs popping up almost every day of the week. If you could speak to them, what advice would you offer aspiring journalists and bloggers to help them get started with a career in the entertainment industry?

C: MAKE YOUR OWN WEBSITE. For the love of God, reserve a domain name, learn basic HTML and get your portfolio online. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with an editor trying to get a gig and telling them, “here’s my resume and a couple clips, but just go to my website – everything you need to see about what I’m about is right there.”

Also, be honest with yourself about what you’re writing. My worst album reviews are the ones where I focused too much on how I wished the album would sound and what I wanted the band to be. But I’ve never regretted a piece in which I was honest about an album or a band member, even if it was a controversial review. Most likely you’re entering the industry because you love music, and of course it’s great to get support from the musicians you cover. But you’d be doing a disservice to yourself by kissing up to a band for the sake of readership or being liked.

H: You’ve written a number of album reviews in 2013. What do you look for when reviewing an album?

C: The best albums of all-time can be seen as cohesive, singular pieces of artwork, from front to back. One song isn’t complete without the ones that come before and after it. So I definitely look for that cohesiveness in any record I listen to.

I also try to put the album in context, not only in terms of the trajectory of a musician’s career, but in terms of what was going on in an artist’s life while they were writing. The first album I reviewed for ATP was The Early November’s sort of comeback record “In Currents.” I did a lot of research on why the band ever took a break, how they felt about aging and marriage and getting back together. All of that really came through in the record, which helps an album sound cohesive and, in turn, helps a review sound cohesive.

H: While we’re on the topic of reviews, we might as well touch on distribution. Which services do you prefer press/labels/bands to use when sending you music and why?

C: I always prefer press to send albums you can download, not just stream. When you’re preparing for an album review or to interview an artist, you want to listen to their work throughout the day in different settings, not just while you’re at your computer. So being able to download a record, whether it be from Haulix or Soundcloud or a file emailed to you directly, is what works best for me. When I was working in London the record companies would send albums to the office, and bands would mail their demos in. I wish labels would bring that back!

H: When it comes to discovering new music, where do you turn to find bands and artists you may have otherwise never heard?

C: Talking to friends about what they’re listening is always a great way to check out new bands. You can’t be lazy when it comes to finding new music. Music publications and bands and labels are always Tweeting about what they’re listening to, so I always keep my eye on that, and I make sure to get to shows early to catch opening acts I’m unfamiliar with. If a restaurant or a record store is playing something I like, I’ll go up to the manager and ask what it is. That’s actually how I’ve found a lot of my favorite music. I’ll always look for the speakers when I enter a store so I can SoungHound what they’re playing if I like it. That app rules.

H: Without getting too specific, could you tell us a little about an average day in the life of a freelance writer?

C: Unless you’re insanely lucky, freelancers, at least when they start out, need a day job. So that means every day I go back and forth between a financial journal at an office and my music journalism. Between tasks I’ll be scouring Twitter for music news or sneaking out on my lunch break to do a phone interview with a band (I actually did that the other day to interview Frank Iero). It’s a lot of crafty scheduling and can get exhausting, especially when you get home from a long day at the office and then start writing a feature. But it’s worth it.

H: What is your ultimate career goal?

C: Realistically, I want to be able to financially sustain myself with my music writing. I don’t think I have a singular goal, more like a bunch of milestones I want to hit. There are big music publications I would like to write for, and I’m planning a move out west where there are more opportunities to write about the entertainment business. I guess my biggest goal for my music journalism career would be to keep it going for as long as possible.

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

C: I think there can be a lot of negative energy in the industry that we could all do without. Whether it be feuds between bands, feuds between music publications or what have you, it’s frustrating to know that the music community can be so close-knit and supportive just as much as it can be hateful within itself.

One thing that I think is already beginning to change is the status of women in the industry. I think the idea of being surprised that there’s a girl in a band or a female manager is finally starting to get old. But there’s obviously a long way to go, and I can’t wait for the day when I walk in to do an interview and I’m not self-conscious about whether the band will take me seriously or not because I’m a girl.

H: 2013 is quickly coming to a close. Do you have any goals for 2014 you can share with us at this time?

C: I’m starting the process of moving out west where there is more of an opportunity to keep writing – I’m stoked to check out the local music over there. Other than that, I want to start mixing my own music. I’ve also set a new year’s resolution to conquer Boston’s rap scene before I leave!

H: I think that covers everything. Before I let you go, would you like to add anything else?

C: Just to say thank you for the support! It was fun being on the other side of an interview for once.

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.