Joe Levy to Dave Marsh
JOE LEVY (editor in chief—Maxim)
In the ‘90s, music writing went pro—it seemed utterly reasonable to expect to earn a living at it, not just supplement your income. Magazines (those were the outlets back then—paper!) expected short, clean copy that could be published during the week of a record’s release.
Now, no one even knows when a record is being released, including the people putting it out, and music writing is… not pro, exactly (is it really something you expect to make a living at today?). It’s whatever you want it be, though the mash-up of fandom and expressionism that was a hallmark of the ‘70s seems to rule the day.
Advice? Um… I always thought the relationship between a performer and her/his audience is at least as important as your opinion, usually more (it’s a way of understanding music you don’t like). I’m always dumbfounded at how much writing about music doesn’t attempt to describe the music in terms that are anything other than received (Sasha Fere-Jones makes describing the sound and effect of music seem so simple, I don’t know why more people don’t at least try). And maybe it’s worth asking who you’re writing for: an audience that already understands what you’re writing about, or one that’s outside your world? There’s value in both, for sure, but the second one’s harder. At least it’s harder to make the jokes work.
ALAN LIGHT (frequent contributor to The New York Times and Rolling Stone; former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin)
My favorite line about music writing, or any kind of arts, comes from Albert Murray’s great Stomping the Blues. “The most elementary obligation of criticism,” he wrote, “is to increase the accessibility of aesthetic presentation.” It’s easy to forget in a thumbs-up-thumbs-down, three-and-a-half-star world, but the best writing about the arts isn’t determined by how you rate things, but by helping the reader find new ways to think about the material, whether they agree with your taste or not.
So read and listen to everything you can. Learn the history of the music you love and the music it comes from and the culture it is rooted in. Your primary job is to provide context and make connections for the reader—not to show off your knowledge, but to inspire ideas they might not otherwise have.
Write wherever you can. You learn more from seeing your words in print (or on screen, or whatever) than from anything else. And never underestimate perseverance—everyone I know who is doing this for a living has a variation on the exact same story: interning somewhere, writing and scrapping, and then one day finding herself in a situation where she was the one and only person who could deliver a story (for me, it was a secret Bob Dylan club show). A “lucky break” will come sooner or later, but it’s really only lucky if you are prepared to make something out of it.
HOWARD MANDEL (freelancer; Jazz Journalists Association, Down Beat, ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz)
Stick to the music. Help people hear it. Use the language you need, but don’t assume technical data gives any sense of the sound.
I advise writers keep journalistic principles in mind. Whose music is it, what does it sound like/what is it about, where is it made/where heard, when should this be heard, why should the reader and/or listener care?
Futhermore: verify what you think you’re saying. Be accurate. Ask questions. Fact-check. Don’t fake smarts. You may gain eyeballs by being a wiseass and ultra-critical, but as a career (or life) strategy, superciliousness sucks. Sure you’re a snob, but spend most of your energy writing lovingly about music that turns you on.
Don’t avoid speaking honestly about what you find disappointing—or worse. Just say why. Don’t attack a musician’s personality. Analysizing expressivity and creativity should do the job.
The more you like a work/style/genre of music, the more you should find to say about it. If you’re at a loss for words, maybe you didn’t like it that much or understand it, after all. Writing about music is, ultimately, a way to write about yourself; as you make musical discoveries, you’ll unearth things that reveal you to yourself (and your readers) too.
Music is a safe adventure. Exposure to strange sounds isn’t dangerous and won’t harm you. You may need to develop patience, but while you’re waiting, hone your insights. Think! Enjoy. Look for meaning. Perspective is everything. Ask for contracts. Get paid. Listen.
GREIL MARCUS (co-editor of A New Literary History of America; author of When That Rough God Goes Riding—Listening to Van Morrison)
Learn to trust your own voice, to say what you really want to say. It’s harder than it looks.
NICK MARINO (managing editor—Paste; teacher—University of Mississippi and the University of Georgia)
On a practical level, everything we need to know is in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, a stupendous book that makes Elements of Style beg for mercy.
On more cosmic level, there’s James Agee’s monumental Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which expands every boundary of the non-fiction universe. Clark shows us how to write. Agee reminds us why we write.
And why is just as important as how—especially today, when we can hardly count on making a living through our craft. If it’s not about the money, then why do it? The question isn’t rhetorical. All of us should have an answer.
Maybe we write to satisfy our own curiosities. But then again, reading takes care of that. Writing is a form of communication, which means someone is on the receiving end, which means we’re pretty much obligated to serve that special someone, to satisfy their curiosities. Writing, then, becomes an act of philanthropy.
Young writers, I’ve noticed, often want to write about themselves. Blogs and Twitter facilitate this, as do Chuck Klosterman and David Sedaris and various other memoirists who’ve made enviable coin mining their lives for material. Agee, by contrast, explored other people’s lives. He aspired to illuminate the human condition. And while he was as obsessed with inner dialogue in 1941 as any blogger is today, he knew enough to tackle material that was outside his own experience, that forced him beyond his comfort zone, which is why the Harvard graduate wrote his magnum opus about Alabama sharecroppers. He wasn’t slumming; he was trying to understand a people and a place—and to extend that understanding to any reader whose patience and empathy matched his own.
This kind of writing deserves a renaissance. Young writers, so trained in the ways of self-expression, would do well to remember just how powerful their work can be when it reaches out to make a real human connection.
DAVE MARSH (writer—Rock and Rap Confidential, Creem, Rolling Stone, Village Voice; author—The Beatles’ Second Album, Bruce Springsteen on Tour, Forever Young—Photographs of Bob Dylan; broadcaster—Sirius XM)
This gig isn’t about music. It’s about writing. If you have it the other way ‘round, save yourself the grief. There are lots of better ways to get a foothold for making music, and there are lots and lots of better ways to meet musicians. After that, it can be whatever you say it is or find an editor who’ll let you claim it. Over the long haul, it tends to work out better if you’re able to judge now against then, because that’s the only way you’re going to hear the trains that are (and aren’t) coming down the tracks. Lester Bangs didn’t start with Count Five and the Stooges, he started with Charles Mingus and Ray Charles. Mostly, it’s less fun than you imagine and more work. So is everything, including dope.
It’s worth it for some, because we have a relationship to music that makes us want to share our passion, or even try to explain some of it (to ourselves, even). We see lost things that must be found. We hear mysteries that need to be pursued (we may imagine we can solve them—once in a while, but not often, in my experience). In some ways, it might be that we hear stories crying to be told. Bear in mind that those may or may not be your own stories. It’s hard to figure out whether it’s worse to mistake your own for someone else’s or someone else’s for your own. But you’ll get the chance.