Rebecca Franks to Gary Giddins
REBECCA FRANKS (online editor and staff writer—BBC Music Magazine)
Sit down and start writing—that’s my mantra. Even if 90% of what you write ends up in the bin, the other 10% could be worth the effort. Like any skill, writing takes practice. So start a blog, keep a diary, write CD and concert reviews, and always keep a notebook handy for those unexpected ideas and observations that will help fill the inevitable blank page. Develop an omnivorous appetite for listening and reading. Most important, though, is to find something you’re passionate about. When the deadline’s looming and the coffee has run out, what’ll keep you going is the fun, enjoyment and privilege of writing—and being paid to write—about what you love.
DEBORAH FROST (writer—Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Creem, The Boston Phoenix; musician; ‘goddess’)
If you want a popularity contest, enter a beauty pageant (and g-d knows, plastic surgery is cheap enough these days). That goes for boys and/or girls. If you want to be a writer, read all of the best you can. Work with the best you can. Find your voice. Speak your truth (or at least try to discover what it is). It may not be fun and/or easy. It will take at LEAST 20 years, no matter how smart or talented you actually are or however young you start, to even figure out what you are doing, even WITH genes, genius or the greatest coach and/or sugar daddy/mama on yr side. You may have to cut off an ear or the equivalent. Be prepared. If not, fuck you (see be prepared, above). And repeat if necessary.
KYLE GANN (composer; author—No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”; former music critic—The Village Voice)
Read a lot of philosophy, especially those thinkers who are major figures in aesthetics. I’d recommend Nelson Goodman, Benedetto Croce, Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Aristotle’s Poetics, Theodor Adorno, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Matthew Arnold. They’ll teach you to consider a work of art from many different angles, and keep you from getting caught up in the two or three limited modalities offered by our cliche-ridden commercial culture. Read Virgil Thomson’s criticism, and George Bernard Shaw’s, and you’ll learn that objectivity is more a component of writing style than of alleged conflict of interest. Ignore almost all of the music criticism that appears in newspapers today—it can only teach you bad habits and invite you to get away with facile truisms. The world of art is huge, and there are many different, equally valid paths that lead through it. Our commercial music culture explores only a few such paths, and to get to the truth you need a much wider perspective than you’ll get from what you can run across in daily life without a thorough search into the history of artistic thought.
RICHARD GEHR (freelance writer—The Village Voice, eMusic, Spin, Columbia Journalism Review)
While nobody should expect to extract even a subsistence income from the music-writing field, at least outside of academia (and even that’s a big maybe), there remain few things more redemptive, in this miasma of suffering called life, than paying close attention to a work of art—pop or otherwise—and responding to it with honesty, insight, and panache. That’s true no matter whether you’re grading albums in a hundred words or less for the few surviving music magazines or unwinding thousands of words for The Believer.
Writing’s like a meditation in that sense, and they say meditation is good for you. But you probably want to avoid getting into the habit of committing torrents of first-thought verbiage to your blog, because this practice will not stand you in good stead when you need to submit clean copy to an actual editor. The good news is that this probably won’t pose a problem if you’ve adopted the writerly modality of prankster, encyclopedist, autobiographer, psychoanalyst, Marxist-Leninist, comedian, tragedian, or any of the nearly infinite brands of commercially unviable arts writing.
And while nearly everyone collecting a check from this endeavor remains ambivalent about the unpaid, democratized, devalued, but still potentially fulfilling amateur side of the digital coin, that probably isn’t a concern for you yet. So, learn a trade, continue to write if you have no other choice but to do so, collect those URLs, and hope some kindred editorial spirit digs your work enough to pay you for it.
ANDY GENSLER (writer—The New York Times Moment Blog, The Daily Swarm, freelance odds & sods everywhere)
To be considered in the same breath as these writerly peeps is an honor and truly underserved. These days I mostly scribe odds and sods about music for the New York Times Moment Blog and The Daily Swarm. I’ve never managed to make a living exclusively from writing about music, but having these outlets to write for over the last year or two and interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, Sergio Dias from Os Mutantes, Big Star’s Jody Stephens, Bob Mould, Karen O, Gonzalez, and others is an absolute privilege.
Quite unlike the pitching and politics of journalism and the music industry—especially before the Internet and digital age made a much needed end-run around its often smug clique-ish gatekeepers. It was, and still can be, a shitty ugly exercise in groupthink nonsense and petty politics. Try not to get discouraged by how crappy these industries can make you feel.
I think of music as something much bigger, more profound, even sacred—a sort of an ineffable guiding principle existing on a higher plane. Applying writing and journalism is just one of many ways to engage it. Dancing and/or losing your mind to it is another. So is creating a social-communal network around it (like the Mishpucha list serve we’re on that I helped found); turning others on to it; effecting positive socio-political change through it; learning about history, culture, geography, the universe etc. through it; participating in its rituals; or just creating it are all equally—if not more—valid ways to interact with music and get closer to its essence.
Advice to budding music writers, if I have any to give, is to let the music guide you. Music is first and foremost its own reward, and making a living from it shouldn’t be your priority. The web beast and its insatiable appetite for content is quite obviously a good place for aspiring writers and music freaks to start. Keep your ears and mind open. ¬Music I’ve wrongly dismissed in the past as unlistenable—techno, house, new wave, nu-romantic, noise music, minimalism, black metal, facile pop—over the years have become favorites and provided hugely rewarding experiences. Allow your ass, heart, and feet to follow the music and see the incredible places it takes you—it’s a love supreme.
GARY GIDDINS (author, Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema)
Listen to everything. Listen beyond your area of expertise. Write every day, even—especially—when you don’t have a gig. Read everything. Steal with impunity, as long as you make it new. Trust your instincts, question your prejudices. Be generous. Chronicle, don’t prescribe. Don’t be afraid to change your mind: welcome it. Cut down your adjectives and adverbs by half. Refrain from using the first person unless you absolutely must. Do it for love, but always get paid. No matter what music you prefer, listen to Louis Armstong’s 1956 recording of “When You’re Smiling” before the sun sets on another day.