From Content Consumer to Producer: How I Turned Being a “Fangirl” Into a CareerFeatured

Standing on the field at Gillette Stadium with 70,000 other fans during a sold-out One Direction concert in 2014, I finally knew what I wanted to do for a career.

Figuring out my career path in that venue almost justified the exorbitant ticket fees. Sure, I’d been to concerts before, and sure, I thought I knew how popular One Direction was. But until that night, I had never witnessed such intense female fandom. The passion for the band went beyond anything I’d ever seen, and I was hooked.

I was eight months out from graduating with my bachelor’s degree, living at my parents’ house, working as a hair salon receptionist in my hometown, having not landed my first professional job yet, and I made a decision then and there: I was going to get into the music industry.

And I would return to that same football field to photograph Taylor Swift for my own blog nine years later.

In college, I studied graphic design and collected internships like Girl Scout badges to pad my resume — or so I believed. I didn’t understand at the time that the true power of internships wasn’t getting to add the company name to your LinkedIn but rather the professional connections you made along the way. I graduated with what I felt was an impressive lineup of professional experience for a 23-year-old. Still, every job application I submitted online with no personal recommendation or referral was swiftly rejected.

My confidence took a hit, and my passion for design dried up. Getting a job in any industry, let alone music, seemed impossible.

As I fell deeper into the One Direction fandom, though, fantasies of becoming a music journalist a la William Miller in Almost Famous started, stemming from a combination of my love of writing and a desperate desire to get closer to the artists. But it didn’t take long to discover that you could count on one hand the number of people earning a full-time living as a music journalist as major print titles folded and online writing steadily devalued. The $1,000 payment Miller received from Rolling Stone for his on-the-road coverage of the band Stillwater was as fictional as the movie itself.

I found that the music industry writing jobs that did exist were in content creation and social media, but they required experience I didn’t get in college: CMS platforms, data analysis, and social media management, plus an established digital footprint of published pieces.

So, with my parents still providing a roof over my head and food on my table (well, their table), I kept my receptionist job and started volunteering for a British pop culture blog that mainly covered — you guessed it — One Direction. I was following the members’ every move at this point, and the band really was big enough in 2014 and 2015 to write about every day.

While I did put my design degree to some use in creating social media graphics, it was my writing that rose to the surface. I began cranking out stories about pop music and entertainment, working with the publicists and managers of some of my favorite celebrities while teaching myself how to build articles in WordPress, craft headlines that got attention on social media, and optimize for search engines. The technical skills I gained in that short amount of time far outpaced four years of classroom learning in college, and I felt like I had achieved a tiny foothold in the industry.

I threw myself completely into this unpaid side project, driven by the community I’d found in fandom. The blog ran on pure fangirl energy, with an inspiring global team of young professionals driving its growth with passion alone. While nothing could replace actual money, and it was a privilege to be able to work for free, the positive response from other fans online felt like reward enough.

I also became fast friends with the blog’s British editor, Verity, as we bonded over our shared love of One Direction and dachshunds. Noticing our rare ability to work together and stay friends, we decided to take everything we’d learned on that blog and launch our own. In 2016, we unveiled United By Pop, our own media brand covering both the United States where I lived and the United Kingdom where she lived, based on the idea that pop culture “unites” us.

As it turned out, there was a lot more to learn about blogging. Buying a domain, building a site from the ground up, properly tracking analytics, incorporating a business, opening a business bank account, pitching paid campaigns, running display ads… The list was endless, and we had to teach ourselves everything. But even as One Direction’s hiatus began to look permanent, our fangirl energy and our friendship stayed strong.

Of course, we weren’t making more money than we were putting in at first. With my blogging experience, I was finally able to leave the hair salon behind when I landed my first full-time corporate job running influencer campaigns and building backlinks on an e-commerce company’s search engine optimization team. I used everything I learned at that job to help United By Pop’s initial organic growth. But after 18 months, the feeling that I was on the wrong side of the blogger relationship was too strong; I aspired to do the actual content creation, not pay an influencer to do it for me.

Enter the millennial urge to go to grad school. I wanted to improve my writing, but I also wanted the chance to fix the mistake I made in undergrad by actually taking an internship and turning it into a full-time job. This seemed like the only way into the music industry — from the very bottom. With my parents still providing that roof and food, I quit the job that had taken me so long to get and enrolled in a two-year writing and publishing master’s program within a commutable distance in Boston.

United By Pop became the perfect platform for me to try out everything I was learning in grad school. Propelled by a class assignment, I even expanded my portfolio (and got closer to my Almost Famous dream) to include a print piece in Billboard magazine that focused on the power of fandoms in music marketing. And, at 27 years old, I landed a summer internship on the digital content team at SiriusXM in New York City.

I leveraged everything I already knew about blogging while I was there, and, as always, brought back everything I learned on the job to United By Pop. Although I could blog about all the music genres SiriusXM covered, as well as sports and talk, I purposefully branded myself as “the pop person.” My passion for that music became my own unique value proposition, and as my confidence grew, I was finally able to forge the real professional connections I’d missed out on making when I was younger.

When that internship ended, I returned to my parents' house to finish my graduate degree and continue building my blog. I wanted to keep gaining industry experience while in school, and although no major music labels had offices in Massachusetts, Boston was a top-10 radio market. I joined the promotions team part-time at Audacy (then Entercom), working events for their local stations during the day and taking my classes at night.

A year later, with a master’s degree in hand, I moved up to a full-time position at Audacy supporting their sales team with the hope that a job in their digital department would one day open up. Before I had a chance to even settle into that role, though, the pandemic hit and I was laid off.

It felt like everything I’d worked for was gone in an instant. I had no job, not even school to distract me. Concerts were canceled. The music industry as a whole shrank overnight. Outlets published scary clickbait pieces about whether the human race would ever gather at live music events again. For the first time, United By Pop brought me no joy and no escape. I had never felt further from what I loved. The degrees and the experience I’d racked up meant nothing if the industry ceased to exist.

I spent the next eight months unemployed, sending hundreds of unanswered job applications and falling deeper and deeper into a depression as the pandemic raged on.

Then, my former internship manager at SiriusXM emailed me. The digital content team needed additional support for the holiday season, and since I already knew how things worked there, would I be interested in a two-month remote contract position? After so much uncertainty and fear — not only for my career but for the health and survival of my friends and family — this was an indescribable lifeline. And it all came back to the connections I’d worked so hard to make at that final internship.

The holiday season came and went, and I clung onto SiriusXM with everything I had, fighting to stay employed throughout the pandemic and extending my contract a month at a time until they made me permanent.

I’ve now been at the company for three years, continuing to not only help grow the blog but actually use editorial content to drive conversions. From that transformative One Direction concert to signing my new-hire paperwork, the journey to a full-time music industry job had been nothing short of a roller coaster ride — especially all the low-paid and unpaid work that I could only take because I lived with my parents, and the fact that a global pandemic almost set me back to zero.

The one constant through it all, though, was United By Pop. At over seven years old now, United By Pop has officially lasted longer than One Direction did as a band.

And we’re still growing, the blog and I. Today, United By Pop offers young professionals exactly what it offered me: a sense of community and a place to create a digital footprint. Countless fans have taken the opportunity to publish articles on United By Pop about their favorite music; some have even gotten the chance to interview their favorite artists. With social media, we’ve proven that legacy music outlets don’t have all the power anymore — the fans do.

We recently expanded United By Pop’s editorial coverage to include concert photography, helping up-and-coming photographers gain access to the shows of their dreams. In May, this new initiative even gave me the opportunity to get behind the lens when United By Pop was approved to cover Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert at Gillette Stadium, on the same field where I saw One Direction perform nine years earlier.

On the same field where I made that decision to follow my “fangirl” passion and get into the music industry, I now stood with professional photographers from outlets like The Boston Globe and even Audacy, my former employer.

But I was representing my own blog. I had gotten myself there.

It's great to see that someone's blog and passion got them so far :) I am a bit (only a bit) of an abrupt person, so I like to let my blog do the talking first.
I love that 1D was the start and how interesting your journey was. Your perseverance is inspiring!
YES YES YES Jackie! Way to go! I loved reading your spotlight :)
Great story of overcoming hurdles and setbacks! Truly inspiring! @jackiekolgraf how did you cultivate those relationship you say made the difference? Would love to hear some thoughts on that :)
Thank you! I used to think good work was all I had to do to get ahead, but I've learned that really isn't enough to be remembered, especially at the internship level when you leave after a few months. Getting to know people personally so they think of you when jobs open up down the road is so important (while still doing good work!). Ask questions about how they got their start, how they learned XYZ, how they got to where they are. Ask for advice. Be a good listener. Even something as simple as interacting with their LinkedIn posts through the years can help keep your name in their minds.
Thanks so much for the advice! I wasn't sure what I could bring to those people I wanted to keep in touch with and your tips are super helpful ❤️
How cool is this! Thanks for sharing Jackie. I love a full circle moment and it's clear your hard work and determination (plus love for One Direction!) got you there. What I wouldn't give to be on the field for the Eras Tour, gah!Sarah