One thing I’m good at–real good–is burning bridges. Sometimes before they’re even built.
I burned two great ones a few weeks ago, two writing opportunities of the kind that never come my way. One of them I actually went after–something I never do, not after being turned down every single time for years and years and years.
Don’t ask me why when the reason is obvious. I’m not now nor never was considered one of the big boys in music journalism, not with a trade paper background. Music journalism is the lowest of the low to begin with, and trade music journalism is on the bottom of the bottom.
Now I’m not saying I’m as good as the guys at Rolling Stone or the other outlets where every writer wants to be and every artist wants to be written about, but I’ve certainly been around at least as long as any of them and worked as hard and deserved better than seeing one top editor get up from the subway car I happened to coincidentally enter, leave and then go into the next one to avoid me. Or another top editor cut me off in the middle of a conversation with Elvis Costello like I was invisible and inaudible, which clearly, I was. Or another top editor see me at a club and instead of at least courteously acknowledging me, practically puke and walk away.
So I never ask anyone anymore when I know what the answer’s gonna be. But a gal pal sent me a notice from Craigslist and I looked at it and it looked so appealing that against my better judgement, I applied: “Content Writer for Blog & Social Media (Virtual, Part-Time) (Flatiron).”
It was listed by a company that provides digital marketing services for small businesses. “We’re rapidly growing and we need a smart, ambitious, and detail oriented Content Writer to help with blogging and social media content (both internally and for clients),” the listing read, offering compensation per article “based on experience.” Telecommuting was fine, it continued, noting that the position was “a perfect match” for someone looking for part-time work, the opportunity to “work virtually, on your own time,” and to write articles “on a wide variety of topics.”
Having blog/social media writing experience was required, they emphasized. “You want to work virtually, on your own time, [and] enjoy writing and editing articles on a wide variety of topics.” This is all too good, I thought, and then it got better: “We will also provide training to bring you up to speed on our content requirements.”
Do not apply, it directed, “UNLESS you can prove you possess the following: Excellent, professional communication skills via email and phone.” Great! They didn’t say in person!
“Ability to learn very quickly…” This I can wing.
“Friendly, upbeat personality and a desire to help people…” Pushing it, but not breaking.
“This position is part-time, and virtual….” And I’m part-time, and virtual!
The overview then stated that the primary role of the position was “to write blog articles and social media posts for our business and our clients’ businesses,” this requiring phone calls and emails with project managers.
Still good, so far. But now came the submission factor: To be considered, you had to email your resume with the subject line of “Content Writer for [the company name],” and provide the article title of the most recent blog post on the company’s website. The blog post article was easy enough, but I haven’t had a resume in, well, closer to 40 years than 30, so I sent my most recent bio and figured that would be fine. But after a few weeks of no response, I figured maybe it wasn’t fine. So I went to the company’s website and found a phone number and called it, but the automated answer didn’t provide any directives or messaging option I felt comfortable with.
So I sent an email to the general company mailbox explaining that I had answered the Craigslist notice but never heard back, and that I was so sure I was the perfect fit that I wanted to make sure they’d received it. Another couple weeks went by, yet I still wasn’t giving up—much to my own great surprise.
I had subscribed to the CEO/founder’s promotional tip emailing, and saw that on one of them, he’d left his email address. So I went ahead and emailed him directly, reiterating how I’d applied and wanted to make sure he was aware that I was his guy. Another couple weeks went by, and then all of a sudden I got a response, apparently to my original Craigslist application.
It was from a gal at the company, who wanted to call me and discuss the position. I gave her my number, set up a time, and she called on it. It was a fairly general conversation lightly covering my exerpience and why I was interested in the position. She then said that she’d be sending a list of formal questions later in the day for me to fill out and email back.
“Below are questions we would like you to answer via email. Please draft a brand new email (do not reply or forward this email) addressed to [the founder/CEO] and write in paragraph format. The subject of the email should be ‘[Content Writer] Interview Information.’”
The email then declared that the founder/CEO was “expecting an email [reply] no later than 12pm EST Friday,” two days later.
He was going to get my email response in less than two hours, but it was highly unlikely it was what he was expecting, that being: “For your previous 3 projects, please answer the following questions: 1) On a scale from 1-10, How would your previous client rate you on each of the following: resourcefulness, attention to detail, and ability to meet deadlines? Include examples to back up your expected ratings.”
I was stumped. But I gave it a try.
“I’m not sure I can answer this satisfactorily. Most of the writing I do is self-published by way of examiner.com and jimbessman.com–for which I have no deadlines, write what I want, and as such, am fully satisfied.”
So I gave myself a “10” and sent links to my three most recent pieces at examiner: coverage on a battery manufacturer product launch, “for which the subject was greatly pleased in email response,” I reported; an appreciation piece on the late rock ‘n’ roll singer Billy Joe Royal, “who was a friend. Again, the people I spoke with or helped in terms of contacts were greatly pleased via email response”; and my piece on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations, “which, predictably, received mixed responses on Twitter and Facebook, with some agreeing with me, others taking strong opposing views.”
I also mentioned that I’d just turned in a book proposal solicited by a literary agent regarding a proposed John Mellencamp art book, and offered that he had expressed complete approval with it, though he’d be making some revisions and formatting changes. I could and did say it was extremely well-written. I said, too, that two weeks earlier I’d turned in brief bio blurbs on all the Songwriters Hall of Fame nominees—being a member of the organization and its nominating committee. “No great writing there, but totally acceptable for what it was and on time. As they haven’t been published yet I cannot provide them.”
And I related how I’d been hired in July to write a press release for Billy Gibbons’ new solo album, and that while I didn’t have a copy of that, either, it was a rush job, and the company was so happy with it they’d just hired me to do another one.
Next question: “If we asked your previous client what is your biggest weakness, what would he/she say? Include example(s).”
I was already sensing a pattern, and one not particularly propitious.
“I’m sorry but I really have no idea how to answer this question. I most certainly do not have any examples.”
The third question showed that there was a pattern, indeed definitely not propitious.
“If we asked your previous client what is your biggest strength, what would he/she say? Include example(s).”
I was honest: “I’m afraid it’s looking more and more like I’m going to be striking out on this interview. I can only assume that any previous client would express approval with my work on all counts. If you read my bio, you’ll see I’ve been doing this for 40 years in all kinds of writing outlets.”
But I kept going—right into a brick wall.
“Please describe your biggest success and biggest failure since graduating college.”
This should pretty much have killed it. I tried to be as lighthearted as I could: “If this doesn’t finish me off, nothing will! I flunked out of high school. My biggest success is that I’ve built and maintained a solid reputation as a self-taught and self-made journalist. My biggest failure is having been stereotyped primarily as a music journalist, and worse a trade music journalist. Hence, I had a difficult time breaking into bigger and better paying consumer venues, though in all fairness, I could just as easily have been regarded, rightly or wrongly, as not up to par elsewhere. This is why I thought [company name] might be an excellent opportunity.”
Last question: “Will you be able to schedule personal reference calls with previous clients as a final step in the hiring process?”
“Of course,” I said. It seemed better than “Fuck you.” Either way, I didn’t expect to hear back.
On to the second opportunity, which somehow turned out even worse.
It started with a most unexpected—and much appreciated—solicitation.
“After checking out your work, the editors and I would love to invite you to start writing on [a new online media outlet].” So read an email from the site’s “editorial director.”
I was shocked, needless to say. I didn’t think anyone “checked out my work,” let alone knew who I was.
The rest of the email looked to be boilerplate, explaining how to log in to “our easy-to-use creator tool and begin writing.” What made it so attractive was that it also said you get paid 70% of the revenue from advertising—not that I have much idea what that means. I only know I get maybe 20 cents a story at examiner.com, nothing at jimbessman.com. And unlike examiner, they also promised to “share your story as widely as possible on social media and via email, and we help it get traction by featuring and promoting it on our site.”
“Happy to discuss further…,” I replied. She thanked me for the response, then wrote, “Do you have questions that I could answer over email? Otherwise, I’d be happy to jump on the phone to discuss further. If you want to grab a time when we’re both free using the tool in my email signature, we can connect as soon as possible. Looking forward to it….”
I must have felt a twinge of discomfort. I had plenty of questions, and she didn’t seem to want to talk to me so much as email. And the bit about “the tool” in her email signature only added to my queasiness.
“The tool in your email signature?” I wrote. I hadn’t noticed the “Book an appointment” link.
“Sorry. I’m stupid. Now you know,” I wrote back after she re-sent the link. I then clicked on it and booked an appointment for later in the day. That’s right: I “booked an appointment” and called her at the appointed time.
Now I had noticed in her previous email that once you submit an article, “your story gets professionally edited and packaged to succeed online by one of our top-tier digital editors.” I told her that I was a bit concerned by having an editor, since I haven’t really had one since my Billboard days 10 years ago now—-and most of the work I did there until the bitter end was as the music publishing editor, so I pretty much edited my own stuff even then. But I also told her that I was surprised that she knew who I was and grateful that she thought enough of me to want me to write for the new site–and that I was excited about the prospect of being paid more than 20 cents a story.
“I enjoyed talking with you and again, very much appreciate your interest,” I emailed her maybe two hours later. “I reworked a music piece I put up on my site earlier today and submitted it, mainly to get a quick idea of how it works.”
Not only would it be not quick at all, but not pleasant at all, either.
Now, the site said that re-submissions were okay. But my writing on jimbessman.com is generally more personal if not first-person, which would have been okay, too, but I didn’t feel like being so casual anywhere else–let alone just put up an exact same piece from my site as a first submission here.
I did add, “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions down the line,” not knowing that there would be only one question: “What the fuck happened to my copy?”
Now one other thing from the boilerplate that comes into play: “We’re on a special mission to put power back into the hands of those like you who create amazing content online. We believe that if your ideas are valuable, 1. you deserve a talented editor, and 2. you should never give them away for free.”
So I’d rewritten an okay concert story/review about a Terri Lyne Carrington show at B.B. King’s that I’d posted on my site, short but sweet. I made it even shorter, no more than five graphs, and went with the format of the site, including the asked-for hyperlinks and “visual media.”
“Thanks Jim, looking forward to seeing how it turns out!” she had closed. So did I, and I did the following day after receiving an “A Story needs your attention” email from the site’s “workinprogress” address gently telling me it needed more work: “Thank you for submitting the story ‘Terri Lyne Carrington brings “Love and Soul” to B.B. King’s, with help from Valerie Simpson.’ This is a great start, but we noticed a couple of elements in your piece that need work before we can publish it. Here are our comments and ideas on how you can make your story even better.”
Under “Editor Comments,” it said, “Would you mind adding an opening paragraph for more clarity please?”
I cringed. My first piece for a new outlet—one that solicited me! How could I have submitted something that needed “more clarity”?
I looked for the piece on the site. Failing, I replied, “First, I can’t find my article that needs work.”
No response. I kept looking and found it—though it wasn’t remotely what I had sent.
“I found the article and over half of it is missing.”
I had copied the piece from my site, pasted it into the new site’s template, edited and modified it and inserted all the links and artwork. Didn’t think of saving it anywhere—big mistake, since they appeared to have chopped off the opening graph (and accompanying video embed), and a couple other graphs in the body.
Didn’t hear back and sent another email, then advised the original editor who had approached me to begin with, who was “looking forward to seeing how it turns out.”
“They rejected it,” I emailed, “and when I went to see why I found two-thirds of it missing—arbitrarily cut up. Of course I didn’t save it.”
She responded: “Hi Jim, unfortunately this is a technical bug. We should be able to retrieve the story–apologies for the glitch in the system, we’ll have it fixed ASAP.”
I was reassured. “Thanks,” I emailed back. “They said they wanted a new opening graph, but I had no idea what they meant.” Then I added, in a following email, “And you should know that before contacting you, I sent three emails to “Don’t hesitate to contact us on ‘workinprogress’” and no response to any of them.”
Finally, I did hear back from them, with the dreaded, “Hey Jim, I hope all is well”–something people always say when they know full well it’s all for shit. I didn’t immediately respond with, “Hey, asshole. If all was well you wouldn’t be emailing me!”
He identified himself as “the editor who edited your piece. We apologize for the technical error. If you have your copy saved, would you mind resubmitting your work? We’ll get it up on site with speed.”
Thanks, pal, but “I don’t have it saved. No idea what you did to it.” I forwarded this exchange to the first editor along with “This guy edited it. Now asks me to resubmit and he’ll put it up with speed. No mention about changes. Makes absolutely no sense.”
He came back with, “My mistake. Here’s your restored text below that was saved prior to the glitch. Please resubmit and we apologize again for the technical error.”
What he had sent me was the shite that I’d already seen on the site–my mangled copy, that is, not the original. Essentially, it was three paragrapsh taken from somewhere in the middle of the piece, such that no one was identified by full name, let alone anything else. There was no beginning, though they might have kept the end. And there were two video clips, when I’d embedded at least three.
“This is not at all what I submitted and of course it makes no fucking sense. Neither does what I was originally sent by [you],” which was the bit about “the great start” but the need for “an opening paragraph for more clarity.”
“What I submitted,” I continued, “and what I did not save, was at least three times what you have sent me here, along with another video. I still have no idea what your problem was with the original piece that I submitted and did not save, never imagining this could happen.”
“If you do not have the original piece that I submitted, let me know and I will rewrite now, a week after the fact. But it would be great if you would let me know what was wrong with it to begin with, though I can’t imagine what that might have been.”
Now, am I out of line here? Am I not being clear? Apparently not.
“Jim. It appears we have a bug on our end. What I just sent was all the available text from your latest draft that you resubmitted. If you have the time to rewrite, we’d appreciate it and we’ll get it up.”
By now I was preparing to hang myself. This guy is not paying attention, and we’re going around in circles. If I wasn’t yet dizzy, I was still damn near throwing up.
I addressed him by his first name, then wrote: “This was NOT my latest draft. I only sent ONE finished piece [two days ago]. It was perfect as best I recall. Is this ALL that you have seen of the piece? Are you saying you did NOT receive the original piece with three videos and six or so paragraphs? Like I said, if all you got was what you just sent me, of course there was a problem. If you do in fact have my original submission, you will save me a lot of time other than that I’ve already wasted.”
This exchange I forwarded, too, to the original editor, who, by the way, had told me from the outset that she had come to this new gig from Huffington Post. So I told her how Arianna had once asked me to write for her, and how I’d submitted a great piece, only—you guessed it—to never hear back from anyone there. And so I never heard back from this person, either. No one thought to call me–perish the thought–nor did I want to “book an appointment” again. So I gave up.
Now in fairness I should say that a month or so later I saw an email from the guy that I never noticed after he sent it, probably the next morning.
“Hey good morning, Jim,” it read. “Yes this is all of what I’ve seen of your piece in any capacity. So there’s an error on our end with submissions that may have cut off your original text. Please let me know if you’d be willing to resubmit and we’ll take care of it ASAP.”
It was sent from his iPhone.
I’m not one to cut off my nose to spite my face. I’d just as soon slit my throat than scratch my neck. I didn’t respond. By then that ship had not only sailed, but sunk. I’d gone down with it.
About this time I received an unexpected email from the girl from that first gig, that I’d filled out that application for.
“After further review, we have decided to not move you forward in the interview process,” she wrote. “This was a tough decision and I want to thank you for your interest and for sending all of the requested information.”
I wrote her back saying I was surprised that she even let me know, and that I appreciated it. And there ends the good news.
For it was also around this time that I realized just how dead and buried I really am.
It started with an invite to cover the latest in a series of All for the Hall benefit concerts in New York for the Country Music Hall of Fame. When I was at Billboard, I was given a seat at a dinner table. Then when they had one three years ago I wasn’t even invited.
I did get invited this time. At least I thought so. It was an email with the particulars, and I responded, saying that I’d be there, in a return email to the publicist named at the bottom, whom I didn’t know, whereas I once knew everybody there. I never heard back, and as it got closer to the date, I started getting nervous.
I emailed the publicist again, then called her and left a voicemail. No response. Called her again, then the gal whose name was below her on the email. No response from either.
Day of the event and I figured I could go and not be let in, or I could stay home and have to answer for not showing up. I went with the former, and sure enough, the gal at the gate didn’t see my name on the press list. I asked for the head publicist on the email notice, who hadn’t returned calls or emails. I was not happy and I let the first gal know it.
She called the head publicist on her cell, and she came up and explained that I was for sure not on the list, that the press allotment was full, and that she had responded to me by email. I told her if she had I hadn’t received it, then told her to give my regards to Kyle Young, the head of the Hall of Fame, whom I’ve known probably 30 years. I knew she wouldn’t, and I knew he wouldn’t have cared anyway.
I left, saying my final goodbye to the Country Music Hall of Fame. I felt like my career, which began in country music, had now ended in country music–and said goodbye to that, too.
Then again, within days I was confronted with something that both began and ended shortly after I was let go at Billboard some 10 years earlier.
After my friend and editor-in-chief Tim White died (he took me with him, I always say), they brought in Keith Girard, from nowhere in terms of the music business, but with reportorial experience at The Washington Post, as well as editorial roles at Washingtonian magazine and business publications. I liked Keith, but as in the case of Tim, I was the only one who did. He was out within the year, as I recall, settling for a lot of money, no doubt, in a settlement following a $29 million dollar suit, filed with his female senior editor, over “gender and race-based discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliatory firings, intra-office sabotage, and other wrongdoing.”
As I’d befriended Keith, he was nice enough to offer me a very good position at his next venture, a Long Island news and entertainment paper called The Improper. As usual, the position never materialized in the manner it was presented (weekly salary, health insurance), and I did maybe three or four pieces for it before realizing I’d been had.
The Improper still exists online, but I only know this because with everything else going on, I got an email “to bring your attention to [some-artist-I-never-heard-of’s] upcoming solo show in New York. I thought that a preview of review of this exhibition would be an excellent fit for The Improper Magazine. Please let me know if you’d be interested in featuring this exhibit.”
Now I still get calls and emails and social network messages asking me to cover things at Billboard, so I can’t be that surprised that The Improper popped up suddenly out of nowhere. But for this one, at least, I didn’t bother responding.
But here’s one where I did respond, much to my regret and humiliation. It was to interview Dave Stewart about his forthcoming “groundbreaking musician and producer shares never-before-told stories of his life in music” memoir—or review the book or otherwise feature Stewart.
No, the foreword “from longtime friend and collaborator Mick Jagger” didn’t hook me, and I wasn’t much of a Eurythmics fan—and didn’t really agree with the email subject claim that he was “Eurythmics Frontman.” But Stewart had worked with my dear friend Boris Grebenshikov, Russia’s hugely popular Soviet era answer to Bob Dylan, and I figured talking with him about Boris would be fun and different for both of us.
“Def interview,” I emailed the New York book company publicist who approached me. She came back with, “Just wanted to let you know that the Dave Stewart manuscript should be ready this Friday; I’ll send along a copy then. Do you want to nail down a date for the interview? All best….”
I must have missed this for my next response was, “Sorry didn’t get back earlier–had to knock off two book proposals myself this week and didn’t see until now. Any time is good…thanks!”
Which brings us to the fun part.
“Hi Jim, do you have time the afternoon of the 28th or the 29th?”
Innocent enough, but even then, I should have seen this next one coming, at least 10 years away.
“Does Billboard have a run date in mind? We’re asking that all interviews be run on or closely surrounding the publication date of 2/9/16.”
I went with the first part first.
“Either is good,” I said, then lowered the boom–onto my own head: “Wouldn’t know about Billboard. They fired me over 10 years ago.”
“Hi Jim,” she responded. “so sorry about that.” Maybe she was. “I’ll make sure our database is updated.” Maybe she did.
“Who are you writing for these days?”
I’m sure she loved this one: “examiner.com, jimbessman.com.”
Or maybe she didn’t.
I waited to hear back from her, and when there was no immediate reply, I thought, no way she won’t respond. And as soon as I thought that, I felt that twinge again, somewhere deep in the back of what’s left of my brain.
It was, “the curse.” My best friend in high school who beat me to the rope a few years ago always got on me whenever I said something like “This can’t possibly happen,” or any statement prefaced by “never” and any variation thereof. It’s the curse, he said, effectively guaranteeing that whatever can’t possibly happen will indeed come to pass, usually with no wait.
And so it did here, though I did have to wait a few days for verification.
For the Dave Stewart book that was being sent to me that Friday never arrived. The book publicist never followed up on setting a time that 28th or 29th for my interview. No explanation given, no “sorry, we just don’t care about examiner.com or jimbessman.com.”
I wasn’t even worth the absolute most minimal professional courtesy. Still, it would only get worse.
The first missile came from LinkedIn, of all places.
“Hi Jim! Thanks for accepting my invite!” acknowledged another publicist, this one from L.A..
“Would love to further network with you. Are you currently writing for any magazines? Either way though, always a pleasure to meet!”
Either way, I wondered, just how much of a pleasure?
“No magazines,” I answered. “Just websites that don’t pay, including my own. I’m afraid I’m about the most anti-social networker in the world.”
Somehow this only encouraged her.
“You replied to my message–that’s far from being anti-social :).”
Social networking graces over, time for the kicker.
“May I share something with you? We’re hoping to get an exclusive at Billboard –do you still write columns for their site? We are working with a new and innovative record label (with a partnership with INgrooves/UMGD for distribution) that’s releasing a track on the 23rd of October (and video being released Nov 6th)–showcasing two popular social media artists (with a combine reach of over 2 millions followers). Ideally, we’d love to discuss a feature on Oct 23rd highlighting the new song and artists, connecting it to the new record label, and then another feature for the video release on the 6th of November–but obviously, whatever would make sense. May I send additional information–including the track link for you to take a listen?”
Of course, I’d stopped reading after “an exclusive at Billboard.” I came back with my stock answer: “Fired over 10 years ago.”
“Oh wow. Thats a while ago. My apologies.” The she Linked me Out. This was followed in very short order by a pitch I actually caught.
“On Saturday December 5th, the public television series MY MUSIC will present Close To You: Remembering The Carpenters, airing on PBS and Public Television stations nationwide,” the pitch began, and being a huge Carpenters fan forever, I was hooked right away. And besides the PBS special, there was a companion DVD and three-CD box set with all the Carps’ U.S. singles and B-sides.
“Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams is available for a limited number of interviews,” the pitch continued. Now Paulie, whose Carpenters catalog includes “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” is an old pal, as I quickly informed: “Def want to talk to Paul! He’s an old pal! Shouldn’t be a problem….”
And I’m sure it wouldn’t have been, nor would fulfilling my desire for the CDs.
I should have said “never” out loud.
“Hey Jim, do you think there’s a chance of getting a feature on the front page of Examiner or the A&E section? Since this is a nationwide broadcast event about a group beloved by so many, I’m wondering if what kind of placement I can tell Paul to expect. I don’t mean to create an obstacle here, I just know that that’s a question that will come up.”
Oh, I see. You don’t mean “to create an obstacle.” Funny, you didn’t mention any of this in your pitch, asshole. Ye olde bait-and-switch.
But wait! There was more!
“CD’s are unfortunately in short supply. Since our goal is to raise awareness about the 12/5 broadcast, would you be open to reviewing the documentary instead? I can see about DVD availability, but can for sure send you a digital link.”
Short supply, you say? I only want one! I really am out of the business!
“No longer interested,” I wrote back on my Samsung. It was either that or “Fuck off.”
But it was kind of a good one, this dip-shit trying to negotiate “front page of Examiner” with a measly independent contractor who would have nothing to do with placement. Then again, rare is the PR person I deal with who has any understanding that examiner.com is merely a template for any writer who can arrange words into a sentence.
So now, I figured, it’s impossible to be insulted any worse, let alone any more, at least until 2016.
But I had invoked the curse.
“We haven’t had the opportunity to touch base,” began the pitch, “but I wanted to extend an invite to attend an exclusive Sony Hi-Res Audio event in New York City on November 12 at 4:00 pm at the Columbus Circle Best Buy.”
I might well have gone, except that this was addressed, “Hi Alyssa.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “My name is Jim.”