KRIS EX (writer under different names in different places; editor—RESPECT)
The best advice I could give to anyone wanting to become a professional music critic can be summed up in one word: Don’t.
Barring your acceptance of that sage wisdom, I’ll share the most germane insight I ever received, which came from another music writer, Cheo H. Coker. Cheo told me that I should always write as if I were writing for my desired publication. Meaning, if you’re writing a blog, but desire to write for Vanity Fair, write that blog like you’re writing for Vanity Fair.
That should be enough. But if you weren’t smart enough to heed my initial warning, you’re going to need more help than that. In no particular order:
- Remember: You’re not writing reviews or profiles. You’re sharing thoughts and ideas.
- Don’t write to be recognized. Write to make a difference (and don’t be afraid to be different).
- Be very, very good. Or make your deadlines. If you can do both, please let me know how.
- You can’t change the game without playing it. Make peace with that.
- If you’re black, that thing about having to be twice as good as your white counterparts still applies. And even then, you’re going to have to go out of your way to not be threatening, which is a lot harder than you’d think.
- Say goodbye to your friends. If you’re serious about being a writer, you won’t have time for them at the outset. And by the time you can catch up with them, their views will seem maddeningly pedestrian. Be nice and say goodbye now.
- Know that your favorite writers are probably your favorite writers because they’re writing from their points of view. Don’t mimic. Write from your point of view, not theirs.
- Don’t worry about finding your voice. If you’re honest, it will always be changing.
- Be honest.
- Don’t get caught up in the hype of every new social networking advancement platform aggregator mobile syndication online resume destination portal everyone seems to be going crazy over. Seriously. Don’t worry about being late to the party. And don’t worry about not showing up at all. Chances are your editor has no idea what half of that crap is anyway.
- Still, if you’re not staying up on the major advances in technology, you’d better be crafting some damned good prose.
- If you want to be a serious journalist, go someplace else. The entertainment industry will not tolerate the truth.
- Remember: your first audience is your editor. And your real bosses are the advertisers and distributors. The players may change, but there is not a single form of media in this country where this doesn’t hold true.
- Conflicts of interest are all over the place in the music industry. It’s pretty disgusting and you won’t be able to deal with it if you don’t have a strong constitution. Spend 20 minutes a day imagining your best friend sleeping with your ex in your bed. When you can do it without getting emotional, you’re ready to see what’s behind the smoke and mirrors.
- If you want to be a music critic, be a music critic. Don’t try to be a manager or a promoter or an A&R while you’re a music critic. Have some respect for yourself.
- Find a genre of music you really like and don’t ever, ever write about it. Ever.
- Never forget why you came.
CHUCK EDDY (author—Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe and The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n'Roll; former music editor—Village Voice; former senior
editor—Billboard; contributor—lots and lots of other places.)
These are just suggestions. Some of them, I probably don’t even follow myself: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/126528-chuck-eddys-advice-to-writers
TOM EWING (writer—Freaky Trigger)
For music writers in the broader sense, there’s the stuff that applies to any writer: know what you’re worth, read widely, write all the time, and so on. Listen well, of course. But there’s a new opportunity, too—all the language and style of music writing come out of a time when a writer had to represent the music to people who might never hear it. A lot of that seems strident now as well as second-hand, but not many people have cracked how to write alongside the music. Giddy enthusiasm is a default but it’s not an answer. I think if you’re starting now the first question you’d want to ask is: what new conversations do you want to start? Celebrations, debates, fist-fights—up to you. And then you can work on being the best person to start them.
BANNING EYRE (senior editor—AfroPop)
Write about what you love (or hate). Genuine passion counts more than knowledge or trendy topics. That said, do your research. The music business is full of hype and misdirection. Sorting out the truth from all that is part of your job. Learn how to describe what music sounds like, and always include that in your pieces. Too many music writers shirk on this, talking about music only in terms of meta-topics, comparisons, genre minutia, etc. If you review a record and fail to tell readers what it sounds like, you have fallen short. And did I mention? Write about what you love (or hate).
KATHY FENNESSY (writer—Amazon, Siffblog, Video Librarian)
I spend more time writing reviews than anything else. Since I can’t always predict which CDs and DVDs editors will send my way, it helps to have an open mind. Every genre has its merits; blanket dismissals serve no real purpose. If you can’t find anything nice to say about a metal record, you probably shouldn’t review metal. Try to find the good in everything that comes your way, but by all means, be honest. Be respectful. More than anything else: be empathetic. What you think is important, but it’s just as important to figure out what the artist was trying to do and why. Did they succeed? If so, you may still dislike it, but does that make it a failure? Snark tends to attract attention, but the world could always use more writers who seek to understand the world better and to engage readers with their discoveries.
ROB FIELDS (founder—Bold as Love blog)
What I’ve found is that writing is a struggle for clarity, both in terms of the writer being clear about what he or she is saying, and being able to clearly communicate and translate what’s in their head to the page. Having someone else look at your work before you send it out is invaluable, because it puts a fresh pair of eyes on your work. The second thing is that you should only write about the things that really matter to you. Readers can tell when its just another gig for you. But they definitely remember the enthusiasm that you have for a subject, because it’ll come leaping off the page.
BARBARA FLASKA (freelance writer—PopMatters)
So you want to write about music? Then WRITE, and keep on writing even if you feel you are the only person in the world who will ever read it or care at all. Don’t quit your day job. Jump heartfirst into the music that moves you and write like hell about it. If you decide on record reviews, interviews, show previews or reviews to make a little change, always reach out and at least send a thank you and a copy of your article to the artists/companies you’ve covered. Communicate with other music writers—you’ll be amazed at how generous many of them are with advice and help—and, there is strength in numbers.
If someone helps you on your way, then promise to do your share and help someone else along when the opportunity arises. Small kindnesses can mean the world to a writer just starting out.
And also, please be kind to animals.
CHET FLIPPO (editorial director, columnist—CMT/CMT.com)
I would say to first of all write about what you know about, and second of all to write about what you are truly passionate about. That can truly work—if you are serious. And devoted. If you are not, forget it…
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