Blogger Spotlight: Kate Russell (The Music Obsession)

Hello again, everyone! It’s a pleasure to have you join us this afternoon. We discovered the person at the center of today’s feature via Twitter just a few short weeks ago, and after seeing their passion for this industry we knew they needed a bit of space on our company blog. If you know of an individual or company we should feature in an upcoming spotlight interview, please email james@haulix.com and share your recommendations. We can also be found

We loved the content featured in March, but looking back this past weekend something clicked: Sometimes we get so carried away with all the big name writers and industry folk people ask us to speak to that we overlook the young minds currently shaping the future of music journalism. This blog is for the next generation of professionals, after all, and as much as the decade-long professionals can aide you in traversing the often tricky terrain of music there is still something to be said from the insight your more immediate peers have to offer.

Today we are returning to our blogging roots with a look at Kate Russell, the founder and editor of The Music Obsession. Kate’s life changed forever when she attended the Bamboozle Music Festival in 2008, and for the better part of the last six years Kate has been sharing her views on music with the world via TMO. We spoke with Kate just last week about her history in music, as well as the origins of her site’s name and the various difficulties facing young bloggers in the music industry today. You can read what she had to say below.

If you would like to learn more about Kate and The Music Obsession team, make sure you follow the site on Twitter. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.

H: Please take a few moments to introduce yourself to everyone:

K: Hi everyone! I’m Kate Russell, a newly 21 year old from Long Island finishing up her third year at NYU. I enjoy coffee, crafts, and talking to people. And of course, I’m the mind behind TheMusicObsession.com.

H: Thank you for joining us, Kate. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. I must say, I am a little surprised you were able to get the url, ‘TheMusicObsession.’ Did you have any other names in mind for your site prior to launch?

K: It’s fairly generic sounding, I know. But it gets worse – for the first 3 months of its existence, The Music Obsession was actually “The Music Update.” Even 15 year-old me soon realized how lame that sounded. I wanted something that was sharp sounding, so I considered ‘The Music Addiction’ but I thought that was too dark or could have a negative connotation (also it was taken). There were a few hours spent on thinking of something that stuck out in a memorable way, something that just sounded good. I liked the idea of a 3-word title because it lends itself so readily to an acronym, and starting it with ‘The Music’ shows what I’m focusing on. Considering I’d had zero experience with marketing or establishing a brand at the time, I’m pretty content with what I ended up with. It might not be the most original blog title, but I’ve learned to love it.

H: When was launch exactly?

K: I think I created the site on June 5th, but I didn’t publish anything on it until June 8th, 2008. I was 15 and thought this would be a cool thing to try.

H: Let’s take a step back from that for a moment and learn a little more about you. What do you believe is your earliest memory of music?

K: I clearly remember the first CD I owned being NSYNC’s ‘No Strings Attached.’ I dearly loved them, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears. The classics for people my age, basically. When I got older, I expanded my tastes to things other than pop sensations. I found The Used and Good Charlotte, and those two became my first favorite bands that I found myself rather than through the radio (even if they hit the radio later on). They’re still two of my favorites in all honesty.

H: I know that was a bit of a loaded question, so I’ll try to make this one a bit more fun. Tell me, who was your first musical obsession? Bonus points if you include a story of your early fangirl ways.

K: I think Good Charlotte was the first real obsession for me. I may or may not have had pictures of the guys in my locker surrounded by heart stickers in 6th grade… Let’s be real though, they’re fantastic and I regret nothing. As for my fangirl stage… There was a lot of Forever The Sickest Kids involved in that stage. I once traveled to a random golf course in New Jersey just to see them play. That band and A Rocket To The Moon really encouraged that stage in my life because their music was so cute and the musicians themselves were genuinely nice guys every time I met them, so it made me want to support them and go out to shows and buy their t-shirts and so on. Being a fangirl gave me the early motivation to actually talk to the bands though, so I can’t be ashamed of that part of my early music days. At least I didn’t sob every time I met someone I admired or anything like that (thank goodness).

H: Having a passion for music discovery and discussion is one thing, but taking steps towards establishing a corner of the internet dedicated to your interests is another level of commitment altogether. When did you realize your love of music was a bit more extreme than everyone else?

K: When I started finding bands that weren’t as “mainstream,” music based conversations became harder. I’d ask friends if they had heard of this one band and when they hadn’t, where could I go with that? After having that failed attempt at a conversation numerous times, I started realizing that this was more important for me than it was for the people around me. Music became my cause and I wanted to pursue it and give a voice to those bands nobody had heard of yet, but that deserved to be heard. I was a little crusader for the smaller bands because of endless conversations where nobody knew what I was talking about. That’s how this whole thing started. I realized my ‘obsession’ with music was stronger than most people’s, and I felt I needed to do something with it.

H: In the ‘About’ section of your website you highlight an experience at Bamboozle 2008 as being instrumental in your decision to chase after a life writing about music. What can you tell us about that event and the impact it made on you?

K: My first concert was the Honda Civic Tour in 2007. It was seated, and I saw Fall Out Boy among other Fueled By Ramen types. So the crowd was mostly people my age and a little older, and the seats at Jones Beach kept it relatively tame. My second concert experience was the 2008 Bamboozle Festival. The line-up had much more variety and of course as a result, the crowd included all sorts of people of various ages. It was outdoors, general admission, and in a different state (I’m from Long Island whereas Bamboozle takes place in New Jersey). I was so overwhelmed by the festival in all the best ways. There was music everywhere you turned, and I was unfamiliar with 90% of the acts performing. I walked around listening to new bands, receiving free samplers from record labels, and just talking to people just as excited about music as I was. It was so new and exciting to be surrounded by so many like-minded people – whether or not they liked the same kind of music I did, they were all there for the music and that was enough for me. This gave me the idea of creating a space where music-oriented people could go and find out about acts they wouldn’t have heard otherwise, and thus my site was born a month later.

H: The site has been around for over half a decade at this point, but it wasn’t until September 2013 that you began bringing on additional contributors. Tell me, what lead to this change?

K: That sounds like an incredibly long time when you say it that way. Wow. Not to be cliche, but this site is my baby. It’s my own creation, full of my ideas and has taken up a lot of my time over the years. Look at it this way – I started the site when I was 15, and I turned 21 a few weeks ago. So I’ve had this site as my outlet for over a quarter of my life. I had known that I wanted to expand for a while, but in September as I started my junior year at NYU, I realized that I *needed* to expand and in order to do that I needed to take on more contributors. I had a lot more on my plate between classes, internships, a part time job, and the site, so in order to keep the site updated regularly, I couldn’t do it on my own anymore. It’s hard to acknowledge when you need help, but I looked at it as more of a need to bring in new perspectives. The whole point of my site is to introduce readers to great acts they don’t already know, and through bringing on more writers, I get to find out about acts even I didn’t know yet. It’s been a great addition.

H: How many people make up the Music Obsession team today?

K: There are about 6 contributors including myself. I recently launched an application to take on more, and I’m generally always open to guest writers as well.

H: Are you looking to add more people to the team? If so, how should those interested in contributing go about applying to TMO?

K: I’m definitely looking to add more people! The application I just set up is through internships.com, which can be found at bit.ly/WriteForTMO. I’m also very open to taking on writers who aren’t in school, so if that application doesn’t work for some people, emailing me with a resume and reasons why they want to write for the site and what they can bring to the table is perfectly acceptable as well.

H: I’ve noticed that more and more blogs are beginning to abandon Blogspot in order to take advantage of platforms like Tumblr and their easy design/sharing capabilities. Do you see the site ever moving away from BlogSpot?

K: I’ve been thinking about making a change for the past few months actually. Tumblr makes it so easy for things to spread, and it has great layout options. But I don’t know if I want to go to that or WordPress, or something else if I find it. I haven’t had much time to research pros and cons of each platform since I’m still in school and all, but the thought is definitely there. The site looks very basic, and that was fine when I started. But it’s time for a change, especially if I’m going to have a real staff now.

H: I believe there is one ad space on your site. Maybe two. Do you have any plans to further monetize your efforts moving forward? If so, how?

K: The ads I have on there now aren’t really doing much to be honest. Again, I definitely want/need to look into this idea of having ads and monetizing the site in that way, but it’s all a matter of having the time to sit down and do it.

H: What are the biggest challenges facing The Music Obsession in terms of growth and promotion?

K: I would definitely say the fact that I’m still in school has been the biggest challenge. I have no regrets about being in college, and I’ve met so many people (including some of my contributors) at NYU. It’s been great for networking. But as can be expected, the coursework here is pretty heavy. With having internships, a part time job, school and the site all at once, there isn’t a day in the week where I have off – there’s always something. This site is like my baby so it’s been hard to come to terms with the fact that I need other people to help keep it afloat and help it grow, but I’m definitely at that point now. I’m finishing my junior year so there’s still more school left to go, but hopefully it’ll all be worth it in the end. Since I’m self taught with writing, interviewing, etc, I’ve taken courses that help me refine my skills, but those courses require big projects and time-consuming analysis, which helps and hurts my personal endeavors all at the same time. It could be worse, but it has made things much harder in the sense that I’ve had to turn down press opportunities to do my homework. Worst excuse, I know. I’m constantly learning how to better handle this schedule and how to make things work (or so I think).

H: Without going too in-depth, would you please run us through a typical day at TMO HQ?

K: Typically, my days involve going to class and doing readings for class. Then a lot of TMO emails get read, a slim few get responded to only because of time, and then I post what I can from press releases or cool band updates I’ve found through social media. It’s not exciting in any way, except for the days when I get to go somewhere and attend a show or do an interview / acoustic session. I love doing interviews and sessions, and I try to do them whenever time allows. Then that requires editing and what not before it’s posted to the site with an introduction on why you should care. I hope to one day be able to devote at least one full day a week to the site where I can just go through my inbox of 2,097+ unread messages and post the news I’ve wanted to, write the articles I care about, and just embrace all that this site can do – but for now, I get an hour between classes or some time when I get home from work.

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

K: I used to be down with just having a download link sent so that I could put the songs on my phone to listen while I’m on the bus, subway, etc. But then my iTunes library started to get out of control… I’m still good with download links, but I’ve started to use Soundcloud and Bandcamp more and more as the artists have been too, and it’s been great. It goes back to the whole debate of streaming vs. downloading, but I’m able to say there’s great things about both options. Like I said, with downloading I can have the tracks to listen to when I’m on the go, but streaming doesn’t take up space on my computer. Bandcamp and Soundcloud have embedding abilities as well, so that helps when certain tracks are cleared and ready to post along with a review because then readers can actually listen to what I’m writing about and can therefore form their own opinion, or immediately start their hunt for more music by this act. Downloading albums works best for me, but I think streaming sites like Soundcloud work best for readers. Bandcamp allows you to stream and/or purchase the album, so perhaps that’s the best way to go at the end of the day.

H: If you’re essentially not making any money for your efforts, what motivates you to continue creating content day in and day out?

K: It’s only happened a few times, but I’ve actually been recognized as “Kate from The Music Obsession” or “The Music Obsession girl,” and that shows me that there are at least two or three people reading what I write. I’ve also had people I know from school come up to me saying how they’ve been following my site ever since I mentioned it in ___ class and how they really support me, which is just an incredible feeling. This all goes to prove that there are people paying attention, and that there’s a market for my content. People want to hear about music they don’t know about yet, and some people apparently really trust my opinion on that. It’s not about making myself feel good, but the fact that people are genuinely interested in what I have to say, or now what my contributors have to say because I hired them, that in itself is enough to keep me going. I’ve also talked to bands who are super appreciative of the support I’ve given them, and that’s my whole goal – to give a voice to the bands that deserve to be heard. The fact that my efforts are acknowledged even in the smallest of ways is enough for me to keep pursuing this, and it’s also helped me make connections and form relationships that will definitely help me in the end run. It’s been a struggle at times, definitely, but I’ve never considered stopping because there’s no money in it right now. There will be a time for that (and hopefully that’s soon).

H: What are your current career goals?

K: First off, I am so excited to be starting my last year of college. Essentially, finishing school once and for all is my first career goal. I’ll continue with different internships to see what side of the industry my heart truly lies with, whether it’s PR, management, or something I haven’t experienced yet. Big picture, I’d love to either run a small label or a record store with a collectibles section. Between the site and working for small companies or family-owned businesses, I’ve grown so fond of the idea of running my own show. Being able to pick which artists I work with or which records I sell, that would be amazing. Plus I’d get to have a hand at marketing there with promoting my own store or the releases of the label, things like that. That’s by big picture dream for sure. But once I graduate, I’ll probably get a job somewhere I love and I’ll build a foundation of contacts and hopefully earn enough money to remain in Manhattan. That’s a big but fairly reasonable goal.

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

K: That’s so tough! I would love to see artists profit more from things like Spotify. I love that it’s free and that I can listen to whatever song whenever I want, don’t get me wrong. But I also feel that the artists should be benefitting more from those plays. There are a lot of issues, big and small that I’ve encountered in the industry but a lot of it stems from the way people share music. In a perfect world, I would love to see the “bad / worthless” acts ignored rather than written about over and over again, making their “awful” “music” go viral all in an attempt to share how “awful” it really is. I’d rather see that energy go into sharing music that people genuinely like and think is worth sharing, but to each their own. Some people need a laugh now and again I suppose, and I’m sure there are much bigger fish to fry out there in the biz.

H: What can we expect from TMO in months ahead?

K: Like I said before, I’m looking to take on more writers so be on the look out for more content and more voices! Also, I’ll continue looking into revamping the site to make it look better than something a 15 year old started by googling “free website maker.” During the summer I hope to cover some music festivals and do more sessions, so definitely look forward to that.

H: That is everything I have. Before I let you go, do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

K: Not to be cliche or anything but I’m about to be super cliche – Follow your dreams! If there’s something you want to pursue but you’re afraid or hesitant for any reason, pursue it. I was basically a baby who wanted to write about bands she liked, and I did, and here I am being interviewed on this wonderful site. It’s not always easy, but if it’s something you are truly passionate about, do what you can to get started. I just believe in pursuing aspirations and sharing what you believe in as long as it’s not harming anyone else. Music oriented or not, it’s your life – live it how you want, do what you need to in order to make your goals realities. You can do it. On a personal note, if any of you like custom vinyl figures I also do that somehow with my lack of free time. You can visit etsy.com/shop/thevinylobsession or facebook.com/TheVinylObsessionCustoms and request a custom figure and I’ll make it happen for you, for real. It’s just another way I’m pursuing my passions – I’m all about the arts and so why limit myself to one kind? The same goes for you guys! Do what makes you happy and run with it. To quote Patent Pending, “Find something that you love and spread it like wildfire.” Thanks for the soapbox, James! It’s been cool.

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.