MICHAEL GOLDBERG (editor-at-large—MOG (mog.com); founder- Addicted to Noise, Neumu; former senior writer and associate editor—Rolling Stone)
Write every day. Start a blog. Write about what you love, or what you hate. Maybe more to the point, write about the things you really truly care about. Write every day. Don’t worry about being “hip and cool.” Read like crazy, but read the great stuff: Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway, and all the rest. Never stop reading. Write every day. Don’t read rock reviews. If you’re gonna cop a style from someone, go for the giants of writing. Better yet, find your own voice. It’s in there, you just got to let it out. Write every day.
Break all the rules. If you’re dead set on being a “rock critic,” and why you’d want to do that rather than write novels or short stories or poetry or plays or songs, it’s hard to fathom… But anyway, if you’re hell-bent on the rock critic trip, learn everything you can about music. Listen to jazz, rock, soul, world, electronic, country, classical, folk, blues, and hip-hop. The more of the good stuff in every “genre” you’ve heard, the better informed you’ll be to write about a particular artist/album/song. And don’t just limit yourself to music. If you must become a critic, know all you can about art and film and history and philosophy and so on, and so on. Write every day.
And understand that everyone has an opinion, and who really cares if you think the new Spoon album is great or shit. But if you can help me hear things in a Spoon song that I missed before I read your words, or if you can somehow get the essence of Spoon on the page, well then, you’ll have done something that means a shit. Write every day. And keep the faith. Don’t let your ego get out of control. And never settle for ‘good enough.’ If you’re going to write, write like Godard directed, write like Picasso painted, write like Arbus photographed, write like Skip James played the blues. Write the truth. And one more thing. Oh yeah, write every day.
VIVIEN GOLDMAN (adjunct professor of Punk and Reggae at NYU; writer; broadcaster; author—The Book of Exodus; musician)
Rewind, Operator: Far, far away and long ago there was once an active youth music press in which an obsessive young scribe, frequently strung out on speed and cigs, could secure a modest living by writing about music. We got paid by the word and sometimes we wrote 3,000 words. Overnight. Oh dear young ones, I refer to Britain in the late 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s… and so on and on it kind of went until at some point, new semi-glossy mags sprang up, wheeling out the beloved writers of previous decades again to cater to the now-balding fans who still liked to put on their Doc Martens and go see the Specials. ...and on and on until the Internet came along and gave and took away like it did. And does.
Fast Forward, please, Operator: ...So, now… Although everyone is meant to do their own blog and get a following and find advertising, I still feel that unity is strength. Gathering like-minded scribes, visual artists, and programmers around you to create something ongoing with personality, in which a community can help carry the heavy schlepping of endlessly updating, etc., is a way forward that I would recommend.
As to the long articles I always loved to write; though right now long-forms are somewhat out of vogue, I believe there will always be a place for them and sometime maybe you, young reader, will help new platforms for them to emerge. I suggest that you get your more business-minded mates to focus on the monetizing aspect of said project. But that doesn’t mean you can abdicate financial responsibility. Read everything carefully.
Otherwise, you just keep on writing and getting your name out there by any means possible, even if it’s in local free giveaway rags. That’s what most people seem to look at on the subway, anyway. And persist, persist, persist at getting your name in one of the remaining outlets that pay. Originality and a voice still count for something. I still believe that, anyway.
MARCUS GRAY (occasional recent contributor—The Guardian and Classic Rock; author—It Crawled from the South, Last Gang in Town, Route 19 Revisted)
Who am I to give advice? If I had any worth reading, I’d have followed it myself and made a much better fist of my so-called career. But this is what it took me 20 years to learn: Put a lot of thought and work into your proposal/pitch—txt-ese, chaotic grammar, and misspellings are really, really bad ideas—and tailor it to the outlet. Keep it short. Offer to send more detail if the editor is interested, and have that detail ready to go on demand, whether it’s for a feature or a book. Don’t forget to say why you’re the person to do it: you’re not just selling the idea, you’re selling yourself.
Always follow up emails, indicating that it’s a repeat approach in the subject box. Give a (polite) deadline for a response, and ‘promise’ to follow up by phone if you haven’t heard by then. Don’t go away until you get a ‘no,’ but don’t hang around on a ‘maybe.’ Be ready to offer whatever it is elsewhere, but also have another couple of ideas on the go.
Grow a really thick skin (you’ll need it). If you’re not doing it because you just have to, then you probably won’t be doing it for long.
You can give away your love, you can give away your money, but never give away your rights.
NICK GREEN (writer—Decibel, Washington City Paper, Rock Sound)
You will suffer for your art. It will take a toll on your health and your personal relationships. Because of this, freelance writing is the worst possible career choice for the risk-averse. Having the courage of your convictions means believing in your own critical opinion, but also trusting that what you are doing has value. You will need to remind yourself of this on a daily basis. If you’re not writing for personal enrichment, you deserve to be paid for the work that you do. Don’t waste your time laying the foundation for someone else’s empire. Don’t write about something you don’t care about just for a byline; do push yourself gently outside your comfort zone to stay fresh and invested. Don’t moon over missed opportunities—keep your eyes on what’s next and concentrate on making things happen for yourself.
LEAH GREENBLATT (music critic—Entertainment Weekly)
Making a living as a music journalist can seem like getting paid to drink beer or test-drive Vespas—it’s a fantastic, ridiculous privilege. But with great privilege comes responsibility, too—to the artists you’re writing about, to the readers investing their time and trust in what you have to say, and in general to the part you play in the clamoring, free-for-all media rodeo. The Internet’s democratization of arts journalism can be great, but it also rarely calls for any standards of knowledge, integrity, or authenticity, so you have to take that responsibility upon yourself (and develop a thick skin against the comment trolls who live to police it). Don’t be provocative or cruel or contrarian just because you can, and don’t sacrifice critical judgment or clarity for style. Read the writers you respect, and analyze what it is about their work that you admire; realize it took most of them a long time to get to where they’re at, and be prepared to do the same. Exercise the muscle every day if you can, and never, ever close your mind when you open your ears. Good luck!
KORY GROW (senior editor—Revolver)
Young writers sometimes allow themselves to get seduced the by creative process. Words are sexy. Thing is though, you gotta please somebody else with your words. Otherwise it’s just, uh… You get the picture. A lot of young music writers forget that they were readers (and, more important, fans) first, and there’s a fine line between gonzo journalism and purple prose.
If you hope to make anyone else happy with your writing (or, God forbid, make some money), take a minute and reread your work before you post it or turn it in to your editor. Ask yourself, ‘Would I enjoy reading this if my name wasn’t on it?’; ‘Would it fit in with features or reviews section in my favorite publication?’; ‘Would my friends understand what I’m talking about?’; ‘Do I feel like reading anything past the first few lines?’ If you answer ‘no!’ to any of those questions, it’s time to revise.
The first step to better writing is to focus your thoughts. Strengthen your argument if it’s a review, or heighten the suspense if it’s a feature. Good music writing is as entertaining as it is informative, but all your hard work will be lost if your points aren’t clear. Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and each following sentence connects thematically to the next. Spend some extra time to ensure that you have a solid ending that is relevant to your lede or ‘nut graf.’
When you’re done tightening the structure, read it again. If it’s a feature, the story’s natural humor and pathos should be evident, and not marred by clever asides or personal accounts. Readers care about bands, not journalists. It’s your duty to get the hell out of the way of the story. If it’s a review, you should have a clear sense of whether the record was good or bad. Remember you’re looking at this as a reader and not a rock critic, and readers are (supposedly) spending their hard-earned money on this music. You have an economic responsibility here, one that’s even greater if someone paid to read your writing.
Stylistically, it’s good to be funny and entertaining, but not in a condescending way that would exclude readers. Too many young critics forget that they are professional music fans first and foremost and, in turn, write arrogant, snarky, snobbish prose. As I alluded in the beginning, it quickly turns to masturbation.
Ultimately, you should feel like you’re a part of the story, a part of the music. You should want to listen to something, whether it’s the record in question or something else related to the article. When you feel this way, you know you’ve written something good and that you will be turning in something of quality. And here is the most important piece of advice I have: always make your deadlines. No, seriously.