Abbie Hoffman’s classic revolutionary how-to guide “Steal This Book” challenged authority and inspired social revolution in the ’70s, but in 2008 it inspired Michigan native James Shotwell in a very different way.
Shotwell, a wiry, outgoing, then-20-year-old, was working for an online music publication when he was disheartened to learn that the site was a major source of album leaks. (For the honest music buyer who’s never heard this term, leaks refer to any album that is released to the public before its scheduled release date, generally because some dishonest soul put it online.) “Having been an artist myself, as well as an active booking agent and promoter for years, I could not stand the idea of someone manipulating the system in such a way,” he says.
So Shotwell took matters into his own hands, founding his own website: Under the Gun Review. “I was a poor college student who loved music, hated piracy, and had very little cash to spend on albums,” Shotwell says, pushing back his dirty blonde hair. “I read Abbie Hoffman’s ‘Steal This Book,’ which outlined how to set up a publication to receive free music legally, and ran with it.”
In the four years since Shotwell founded the site, Under the Gun (UTG) has grown exponentially. What started as a site that published one album review a day has turned into a music news mecca with a staff of more than 20 people, sometimes publishing 15 or more pieces of original content a day. What’s more, the website now covers films and comedy in addition to music news.
“I never set out to develop a site like what UTG has become,” Shotwell says. “It’s the result of constant evolution that is as much – or probably more – attributed to the staff than me.”
That level of dedication from his staff is especially impressive considering that most of the writers at UTG don’t even get paid, and if they do, it’s a very modest sum. Even Shotwell hasn’t been able to find a way for UTG to pay his bills. Despite holding a second job at a website in Chelmsford and freelancing for a horror film blog, he’s still living in a small apartment in Boston with three roommates.
One of those moderately-paid UTG staffers is Jordan Munson, a bearded, Boston-based metal specialist who has also written for OurStage.com since 2009 under the killer pseudonym Munson the Destroyer. Shotwell and Munson first met when the two held day jobs at OurStage in the spring of 2011.
Munson says he continues to write for UTG because the environment is flexible. He describes the site as “transient” when it comes to content and deadlines, but adds that this can be a double-edged sword. “If you’re not motivated enough to keep up with your content or aren’t good at working on your own,” Munson says, “you’re probably not going to do a very good job in that environment.” This also holds true because UTG writers are located all over the country, and their main communication is through email or over the phone.
Shotwell confirms that, while the laid-back atmosphere of the site can cause problems for the less motivated, those loose boundaries are crucial to generating new, unique content. “Part of what makes UTG great is that we allow everyone to chase the areas of entertainment they are passionate about, serving more as a launch pad for ideas rather than a rigid institution of content sharing,” he says.
But while Munson loves working as a staff writer for Under the Gun Review and says he hopes to someday become a regular contributor at a publication like Decibel Magazine, it’s not all sunshine and happiness. He’s well aware that music journalism doesn’t always pay the bills. “For now I have no choice but to keep it as a side project,” he says, “getting the occasional freelance piece and such.”
And then, there are things that stress him out about music journalism in general.
“Easily the most frustrating part of music journalism for me is the lack of actual reporting.” Munson says. “Repurposing the same press release that every other blog in your circuit has without adding any real reporting is a waste of time and space and is a slap in the face of real journalism. Bloggers, man, what can you do?”
Because UTG strives to do original reporting about unique artists, the site draws readers like Sergio Pereira in from as far away as South Africa. A frequent visitor to the site, Pereira is a journalist for Music Review who came across UTG after seeing it on Twitter. He says that the site “has the whole e-zine thing down to a t.”
“The site is constantly up-to-date with the latest news, reviews and interviews featuring alternative artists,” Pereira says via email. “I’m quite old school in the sense that I still prefer reading interviews and articles as opposed to merely watching podcasts or video interviews, and the site has cool written content. And the writing isn’t pompous or self-serving, like a lot of other sites.”
Still, it can’t be easy for a relatively small website like UTG to compete with media behemoths like Rolling Stone, Spin, or Revolver. So how do Shotwell and the rest of his team set themselves apart while convincing readers to return to their site?
“I think we are more in touch with the hyper-connected entertainment junkies of today and are able to quickly adapt to changing trends and cultural interests,” Shotwell says. “We’re here as a filter, for now, as the slightly wider reaching source of news for the people who not only wants to know who is big now, but who will be big next, and who will probably never be big but deserves your attention because they’re talented.”