Blogger Spotlight: Don Saas (Baeble Music)

We spent the first half of September sharing the journeys of people who were either returning to music writing after time away or those who had just launched their first website. We thought after two years of stories about people at various levels of success it would be nice to return to the very beginning and see what it’s like for those just starting today. Today’s spotlight, as well as those you will see later this month, highlights individuals who have found a way to become a staple of the current music writing community. Many are writers whose work we follow very closely, but others just came onto our radar.

Don Saas is the Managing Editor at Baeble Music. He’s also the Associate Editor at GameSpot. Unlike many writers who begin their journey in music writing with a site of their own, Don started when he joined the Baeble team as an intern in 2012. From there, Don worked his way through the ranks, learning everything he could every step of the way, and as his talent developed so did his online following. Now he helps keep the site alive day-to-day, in addition to his work at GameSpot, and he somehow finds time to also maintain a personal blog dedicated to his love of film. Don does a little bit of everything as far as entertainment writing is concerned, and he sets the bar for quality in each field.

I first learned of Don Saas’ existence after a close PR friend told me it was practically a sin that we had not yet featured him on this blog. I had been a longtime reader of Baeble Music, the site where he currently serves as Managing Editor, but for one reason or another our paths had never crossed. Now that I know him, or at least know him more than I did before, I feel like I need to make up for lost time. Don’s a great guy creating quality content on a regular basis, and he has one of the sharpest wits in music today.

Don and I connected through email last week, and I was able to ask him several questions about his career in writing. You can read highlights from our conversation below. If you want to learn even more about Don, I highly suggest you follow him on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget to bookmark Baeble Music.

H: Thanks for joining us, Don. We had a number of readers suggest we have you on the blog. Can you tell our audience a bit about your current efforts in writing, both for Baeble and beyond?

D: Well, at the moment, I’m the Managing Editor of Baeble Music and I’m an Associate Editor at GameSpot where I write about video games. I also have a personal blog where I write about movies but I’m pretty busy with my work with Baeble and GameSpot so I don’t have as much time to write about film as I’d like.

H: Let’s step back a bit further in your history. To who or what do you attribute your passion for writing?

D: When I was four, my dad read a page or two of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to me every night. It took nearly a year for us to finish the book. But the world that Tolkien crafted in that story (and, when I was older, Lord of the Rings) sparked my imagination. I was fascinated with the idea that you could just create worlds like that out of thin air, and I wanted to do that. And I read voraciously as a kid. We couldn’t keep enough books in the house to keep me occupied. We were regular visitors to the local library in my small town in West Virginia.

And so I read everything my parents would let me get my hands on. But when I was a little older, I discovered R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books. As a grown-up, you can look back and laugh at the books being simple or childish, but when you’re a kid, that was sort of the whole point. And I probably read 75% of the Goosebumps books that existed when I was little (plus almost all of the Choose Your Own Adventure style stories) and I started writing my own short fiction.

Public schooling made me fall out of love with writing in a pretty devastating way. It was all so formal, and my stories were always a little weird, and my voice was always a little conversational, and I didn’t really fit into what the teachers in Philippi were looking for from writing and so I didn’t do any creative writing for years and years. But, fortunately, I had some great English teachers in college who made me fall back in love with it and remember that creative pursuits were so important to who I was as a person.

H: You’ve made a name for yourself through writing about music, as well as video games. When did you first start writing about each, and what inspired you to do so?

D: I didn’t start writing about music for the first time in any serious way until I was hired to be an intern at Baeble for the Spring of 2012. And I didn’t start writing about video games in a serious way until the Fall of 2014 when I was hired by GameSpot.

My inspiration for pursuing writing as a career is kind of a long story but I’ll give you the short version. I went to West Virginia University where I studied political science. American politics nearly killed me and I almost failed out of college because the state of our country was so heartbreaking to me as a progressive that I could barely work up the motivation to go to class. I went several semesters in a row without finishing a single course because I just couldn’t make myself care about college.

But I’m not capable of just sitting around and doing nothing. But that’s what I was doing. For weeks at time, the most constructive thing I would do with my life was hang out in my apartment and watch movies and play video games. And I just couldn’t feel that worthless anymore, and I decided that if I was going to just watch movies all day, I might as well write about the films I’m watching. Movies are one of my great passions in life (possibly my greatest passion; I’ve written at least a first draft of six feature-length screenplays), and so I made a blog where I reviewed films (and it eventually grew to involve TV, music, books, and video games in a less intense way).

I started that blog in February of 2011, and in November of that year, I realized that I enjoyed it more than anything I’d been doing in school the previous four years. And so I decided to try my hand at writing about culture professionally. And I had a friend from a summer camp I’d gone to in high school who had been in an acapella group at NYU with the then current Managing Editor of Baeble, Joe Puglisi (who is now a Creative Strategist for Buzzfeed), and he got me an interview and that got me the internship (and years of writing for the site after that til I took over this year) and writing for a living has been what I’ve tried to do ever since.

H: Did you have any experience writing for other sites before joining the Baeble team?

D: I had my blog, but that was the only cultural writing experience I had before this.

H: For those unfamiliar with the world of Baeble, could you give us a brief description of the content you offer, as well as what you specifically contribute to the site?

D: Baeble is primarily a platform for original video content based out of Brooklyn, NY. We curate exclusive sessions, concerts, and interviews with up-and-coming as well as established artists to feature on the site. Our metier are indie/alternative acts with crossover appeal, and some of our best content includes concerts with Mumford & Sons, Foster the People, Charli XCX, and Chvrches. We jokingly refer to it in the site as mall indie, but we find room on the site for smaller acts that we’re also passionate about as well as legitimate established mainstream stars including Third Eye Blind, AWOLNATION, and Carly Rae Jepsen.

However, we also have an editorial end where we provide concert coverage, review albums, share new music, interview artists, and provide op-ed content that we think is exciting and that would be of interest to our viewers and readers. And as the Managing Editor, it’s my job to write my own content for the site as well as manage our team of writers, including our freelance team and our intern team. I’m also an on-camera personality for the site in a video interview series we have called The Rock Geek. Think of it as Sex  & the City meets Narduwar. We have the third episode coming out soon and it features Carly Rae Jepsen and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.

H: How has your role at Baeble evolved since you joined the team?

D: I’ve been part of the Baeble family for over three and a half years now. I began as an editorial intern in the Spring of 2012. Once my internship ended, I stayed on with the site as a contributing writer, working from home in West Virginia. I reviewed albums and did artist interviews and provided an occasional op-ed. But my best work from that period was that I got to cover the Bonnaroo Music & Arts festival for the site for two years in a row, with both editorial and photos. Getting to be five feet away from Tom Petty and take his picture and listen to him play “Refugee” was easily one of the top 5 experiences of my whole life.

And then the Managing Editor position on the site opened up in February of this year, and I applied and I was hired. I actually found out I got the job the day before my 26th birthday which kept that particular milestone from being a low-grade existential crisis. I moved back to the city in the middle of March to take over the position, and I’ve been here and loving it ever since.

H: You also write for Gamespot. How did that come together?

D: I was awake at a time of day that I was usually asleep.

That joke aside, the former Reviews Editor of GameSpot, Kevin VanOrd, tweeted that he was looking for a good writer who also enjoyed professional wrestling and played the wrestling video games. I’ve been watching wrestling off & on my entire life and I played the games, and I happened to be awake when Kevin tweeted this (instead of asleep which was the norm because I was also a bartender at the time and worked nights and I so I was usually asleep in the morning/early afternoon). I sent him my piece on seeing Elton John on Sunday at Bonnaroo that year. He liked it. He offered me that review, and I wound up with the job title of Associate Editor which is a fancy way of saying I’m a freelancer that’s on the CBS Interactive payroll.

H: What are the differences in writing about music vs. writing about games?

D: I can play a video game and beat it once, and I’ll feel comfortable writing about it. Obviously, if I play it more than once, I’ll feel even more comfortable writing about it, but one go is more than enough for a thorough review. It’s the same with a film. If I watch a film multiple times, my writing will be even better, but my first pass will still get the job done that needs to be done. Music requires more familiarity.

There are so many moving parts of music: lyrics, melody, rhythm, production. You have to really let music – especially good music – percolate in your mind before you can even begin to attempt to write about it. You need to know all of the technical elements of the composition of music (which is admittedly my major shortcoming as a music writer) and you need to be able to talk about genre and you need to talk about what you think the artist was trying to accomplish with this piece. There’s so much to take in for any given record or song, and more than any other medium, music rewards that familiarity. Kid A is my favorite album of all time, but each time I listen to it – and I’ve heard it dozens and dozens of times – I find something I missed before.

Gaming is also, by nature, a more mechanical experience than music. Music – with the exception of studio produced and polished material – is an inherently aesthetic and experimental genre. We’re finally starting to get games that value real aesthetics and narratives as much as the typical gaming power fantasy, but that power fantasy is the norm. And too much games criticism boils down to “this game functions” versus engaging with it as a piece of art, but that’s sadly understandable when so many AAA video game releases (Call of Duty, Halo, Madden, etc.) are yearly releases that all fit into more or less the same formula you were given last year. If a band released a record as functionally similar to its predecessors as each Assassins Creed game is, they’d be laughed out of the room.

H: I noticed on your personal site that there is a podcast you’re involved with as well. Can you tell us about it?

D: My cousin and I had a podcast called The Saas Perspective (cause we lazy and terrible with names) where I, the cinephile, made him, the casual film-goer, watch films that I thought were underappreciated or underseen as well as a section where we discussed newer, more culturally relevant releases. We had to put the podcast on hold after over a year of more or less uninterrupted releases because I moved to NYC and between the GameSpot work and the Baeble work, I just didn’t have time to keep my end of the bargain of consuming whatever bit of culture we were talking about that week.

H: As someone who has managed to make a career out of writing, what advice do you offer to those who seek to follow in your footsteps?

D: Be realistic about what a career in writing means. Understand that when you’re first getting your feet in the door, you’re probably going to have to do unpaid internships or write for exposure. This isn’t Almost Famous. You’re not Cameron Crowe. You’re not going to be traveling the world with Led Zeppelin right out of the game. Being paid in “exposure” is bullshit, and I hate it as a raging socialist who gets that it’s just taking advantage of folks who want to be published, but that’s a reality of working as a writer – particularly working as a culture writer.

The other big advice I can give is to remember that writing’s a craft, and you have to work at it. Even if nobody is publishing you, write for yourself. Start a blog. Update it regularly. If you want to be a writer, write at least 1000 words every day about the topic you’re passionate about. You’re going to suck at first. I was terrible at first. Sometimes, I go back and read my first reviews on my blog and laugh at how little of a handle I had on my voice, but that’s the point of the early days. You’re supposed to suck. Don’t be afraid to be bad. Eventually, if you work at it hard enough, you’ll be less bad and folks will want to publish you. And after you work your way through the “exposure” years – and it will probably be years; I worked at the mall and at a bar for years to support myself as a writer – folks will finally give you paid freelance work. And, one day – if robots from Google don’t replace all of us with AI clickbait generators (I’m joking but only half) – you can find a staff job somewhere. And at each step in this process, you have to push yourself to be better. Nobody else will, and there are hundreds of people out there hungrier than you are for the job and the paycheck. I can promise you that.

H: Do you feel as if you’ve ‘made it’ in the world of writing? Is that a point that can even be reached?

D: I can pay my bills with my writing. In February of this year, I was working at a slots lounge in West Virginia making minimum wage and scraping by with tips and the money I was making with GameSpot. The fact that I don’t have to worry about defaulting on my student loans because my customers decided not to tip me that week is the best anti-anxiety medicine on the planet. If you can pay your bills as a writer, you’ve made it. Writing for writing’s sake is great, but it’s even better when it puts food on your table.

H: At this point in your career, what are you aspiring to? Are there any goals you’ve set for the years, or years in the immediate future?

D: Right now, my only goal is maximize the potential of Baeble’s editorial. We’ve got an incredible platform for video. I’d argue we easily have one of the best platforms for concerts and session videos on the net. And I want Baeble’s editorial to be as polished and memorable as our video content. I didn’t have any management experience in terms of journalism before I took over as Baeble’s Managing Editor, and so, these last six months have been a major learning experience for me, and I think I’m finally starting to hit my groove. And I want my legacy at Baeble to be that I’m the best Managing Editor we’ve had so far and that I did the most I could to transform what folks think of when they think of editorial content on the site.

H: What do you believe is the key to longterm success in the ever-turbulent world of writing?

D: Be flexible. I write about music for my day job, and I make extra money on the side writing about games. And if I really needed to, I could get work writing about film fairly quickly (I know more about film than I do about music or games at the end of the day). And being able to adapt to whatever market has the most need for your services is very important. My preference as a writer is for longer-form critical pieces that dig a little deeper than just being a “review” but I also know that the money on the internet today is in shareable, shortform content, and I had to push myself to be better at those sorts of pieces. You won’t get a staff position on a site if your skillset is very limited. You absolutely need to be able to wear many hats as a writer. That might be more important than any notion of “raw” talent as a writer.

H: If we could talk to Don Saas five years from now, what is he probably doing?

D: My bosses will probably be mad if I say anything besides “leading Baeble Music forward as the premiere music site on the net” so I’ll say that. Hopefully though, we can also add “published screenwriter” or “published novelist” to that list as well. I love my cultural writing, but fiction also has my heart, and I hope I can find more time to devote to it in the future. It’s a little tough at the moment since I have two gigs that are so demanding.

H: I think that is all I have right now. Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to mention?

D: I just wanted to say thanks for talking to me. And for folks that are looking to do this for a living, know that it’s absolutely doable. You just have to work at it whenever you have a free moment, and you need to forge connections in the industry that you want to be a part of. Networking helped me out at the end of the day as much as honing my craft, and that’s the way this industry works for better and for worse.

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.