PETER BLACKSTOCK (editor/co-founder—No Depression)
First and foremost, a music journalist in this day and age should greatly prioritize having another job that pays the bills. In the present media environment, essentially everyone with a blog is a music journalist, so that’s what you’re up against. Writing about music can be a fun thing to do on the side, and you might occasionally get some income from it, but the chances of being able to write about music full-time have become roughly akin to moving to L.A. to become an actor. Prepare yourself accordingly, especially in terms of college education.
Beyond that, it’s still just as worthwhile a pursuit to write about music (or take photographs, or do podcasts, or whatever your journalistic angle may be) as it continues to be to create and perform music. The fundamental values of music and journalism haven’t changed; it’s only the paycheck that has largely disappeared. I’d still encourage those who have the creative drive for this kind of thing to pursue it, because if it’s something you love, then it’s worth doing, period.
With that in mind, on to a few practical thoughts. I’m thinking not so much in terms of how to be a great writer—I tend to believe that’s either going to happen, or it’s not, and it’s also ultimately up to you to develop your own personal style (after learning from those writers whose work you admire). But rather, here are some basic tips for conducting yourself as a professional, if you’re going to try to write things for other people:
1) Be on time.
2) Turn in clean copy.
3) Be open to assignments.
4) Familiarize yourself as fully as possible with the publication to whom you’re pitching.
5) Don’t sell yourself short.
MYKEL BOARD (contrarian and columnist—Maximum RocknRoll)
Six Things Not To Write If You Write About Music
1. There was only one Lester Bangs. You are not him. You will not be him. Find your own voice/and style.
Don’t write: “And I was tweeking the buzz and felt that sound come over me like a giant meatball squish squishing through a mud track to nirvana or is it Nirvana?”
2. Don’t compare what you hear to anything common. I know it’s a stretch. It requires some creativity, some direct listening, but if you make an effort you can do it. If you say something ‘sounds like X,’ then we’ll think of ‘X’ first and not give the new band a chance on its own. Don’t tell us what it’s like. Tell us what it IS.
Don’t write: “It’s like an updated version of the Doors with Jello Biafra sitting in for Jim Morrison.”
3. Even worse than comparing a new band to a familiar band is comparing it to an obscure band. Yeah, we know you’ve listened to every MP that’s ever been MP3-ed and you’re wetting your pants to prove it. BFD. If you want to tell us about the obscure, just do it. Using an unknown band for comparison is worse than using a famous band. Comparing the obscure to the obscure doesn’t impress anyone. It just makes us turn the page.
Don’t write: “The Beard Boogers sound like the Pubic Unknowns with the horns mixed a bit more up-front and a rhythm section reminiscent of Naval Lint.”
4. If you love music, you should promote it. If you hate music, I suggest you try a different vocation. Of course you shouldn’t blindly love everything that comes your way, but you should realize everything that you hear takes time and effort and deserves some time and effort in return. Nothing except shit is pure shit. And even then, you can always find a kernel of corn in the offal. A purely negative review means you’re lazy—or squeamish. Your dainty little fingers didn’t want to get themselves dirty by sifting through the shit. Your verbal pooper-scooper packs away the whole kit and caboodle, weeks—maybe even months—of work, and just dumps it in the nearest litter bin (it should happen to your writing). Find something to like in everything.
Don’t write: “The Bigamists’ newest release is not worth the electrons it’s recorded on. It is a jumble of worthless crap…”
5. Be more of a con man than a whore. I know, you’re in the biz for the perks. You expect backstage passes and blowjobs. More likely you’ll get a free admission and comp CD… occasionally. You may even get a press kit or two. Take ‘em. If you like the band, keep ‘em. If you don’t like the band, sell the CDs on Amazon or GEMM.com. You’re entitled. But don’t write to get records to fill the empty slots in your collection. Write to inform (and maybe entertain) your readers.
Don’t write: “And the band’s promo-Goddess, Sylvia Goldstein, was a woman among women. She could have starred in her own band. What a gal! She blessed me with not one but TWO copies of the band’s latest CD—and I got the vinyl and an exclusive interview you’ll see next issue.”
6. Finally, don’t write to review yourself… unless you’ve got the personality to pull it off (Jim Hayes can do it. Otherwise, see rule number one). People don’t want to read about how you palled around with semi-famous people and how they fawned over your genius. Jerk off in private, please!
Don’t write: “So Billy Joe says to me, ‘Hey, you know I really have you to thank for putting the GREEN in GREEN DAY.’ I tell him, shucks it was nothing, but he insists on buying me a drink. So I’m sitting there getting drunk with B.J. and then Billy Joel comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Sammy, you know I really have you to thank for putting the WOMAN in “SHE’S ONLY A WOMAN TO ME.”’ And he’s right too. Did you know that song was originally going to be “She’s Only a Wombat to Me”? I am the one who suggested to B.J. (the other B.J.) that he change it to WOMAN.”
Okay, that’s it. You’re free to violate any of these rules if you think you can get away with it. You probably can’t, but that’s how you learn. Send me copies of any extra CDs or vinyl you score. I’ll take tickets too, to anything in New York. As for the blowjobs… good luck! If you get one, send me the video. See you in Hell… or your local weekly, whichever comes first.
BRENT BONNER (editor—Living Blues)
I would advise young music writers to do their research. Don’t assume what you read, and re-read, on the Internet is correct. Mistakes breed like flies on the web, and many young writers fail to check sources beyond the Internet. There have been countless times when I have read mistakes copied verbatim from “factual” websites. Get to know your subject matter enough to sense when something is wrong. In addition, take the time to get to know who you are trying to write for. Look at the publication enough to know if your pitch is appropriate for the publication.
NATHAN BRACKETT (deputy managing editor—Rolling Stone)
Some practical things worth repeating: meet your deadlines, be rigorous. If you’re reporting a story, interview more people than you have to. If you want to write for a magazine or website, study it—figure out what they’re looking for. Story ideas are your currency; make yourself come up with a couple of them every day. And never say out loud that you want to be the next Hunter S. Thompson or Lester Bangs.
GORDON BULCOCK (editor—Blues Festival E-Guide)
I don’t believe I can advise anyone on how to write—that is something that should come from the heart. But I will tell you what I look for in a story. Anybody can write an article with numbers and facts, but it’s the writer’s ability to make you care about the subject which grabs a reader. Being able to capture the fine line between telling a story and making someone become part of the story is the difference.
JON CARAMANICA (writer, music—New York Times)
As a critic, you yourself are an artist, not merely a respondent. Every word counts. Sometimes you can say more in 100 words than in 1,000. Have an opinion. Believe in it. It might be wrong—that’s OK. Don’t thumb your nose at whole genres or sounds or fan bases. Banish preconception. Listen to music that vexes you and try to understand if it’s the music’s fault or your own (it’s probably yours). Ask someone what they’re listening so intently to, and why. Take edits with a smile, but know that all editors aren’t great. Study your old pieces to learn which of your own tics you can’t stand, then figure out ways around them. Discuss your ideas with others, especially with people who disagree: it will only make your position stronger, or show how weak it is. Read other sorts of critics, even ones you find distasteful. Know the answers to these questions: where are you writing? Who are you writing for (besides yourself, of course)? How would you express your opinion to a friend in a conversation? Do research, then respond from your gut anyway. Make sure to write words and sentences that you mean, not just ones that look good on the page. You were probably a critic before you decided to start being one on paper, and you’ll probably be one after you decide to stop. The act of writing shouldn’t hold you back from being what you naturally are.
JOE CARDUCCI (author—Stone Male, Life Against Dementia, Enter Naomi, Rock & the Pop Narcotic)
I wasn’t interested in writing until probably sophmore year in high school. School didn’t interest me, so I started reading novels that looked interesting and I got interested in movies. This was the early ‘70s and you could see interesting films in theaters, on television, and the public library offered 8mm prints of silent era comedies that you could play on your home movie projector. I started reading about film history to figure out what was worth looking for and began to try to write in a screenplay format. In retrospect, I’m glad there wasn’t much for me in college, so I quit the University of Denver in my second year and moved to Hollywood in 1976 without much of a plan. College is an arts killer, especially in America.
Punk rock on the West Coast was on a more visible human scale, so it drew a lot of people who had other plans for themselves. I wasn’t writing very good fiction yet, so I went with music for about ten years at Systematic, Thermidor, and SST Records, writing on the side when I could. I left SST when I thought I was ready to write for films. I didn’t want to leave the music business without writing the bands of that era into the history of rock and roll, so I wrote my book, Rock & the Pop Narcotic. I didn’t know it would take four years, but books are worth the effort, as they stay relevant if good. I was never interested in magazine writing or journalism; those aren’t worked out at a length that forces you to find out what you think about your subject. After R&TPN, I wrote what I think is my best script, The Winter Hand. I’m not sure Hollywood needs scripts anymore, so it’s probably all for naught, but it matters most to be good.
None of this earned me a living, but working with Black Flag at SST and experiencing those years on the West Coast generally helped me keep to what’s important. It seems today that there’s a lot of writing to be done to make sense of this country and the world, but there are so many distraction-traps for a young writer that the first job is to locate what’s worthy of your attention and drop certain things entirely, at least for awhile. It strikes me now that during the most intense years of punk’s beginning, nobody seemed to be watching television or following sports.