ANDREW PARKS (editor/publisher—self-titled)
Don’t listen to the dinosaurs and know-it-all cynics that walk among us. They’re all wrong. The art of criticism, and good writing in general, isn’t dead. It’s just… different, not to mention much harder to find in a playing field that’s more level than a two-lane highway in the Midwest. Some people find that maddening; I find it refreshing. After all, there’s no better time than now for a young writer to break into the ink and dagger business. Not to make money, mind you. That’ll come with time, as you carve out your own niche—your very own notch on our collective Long Tail—and help us establish filters that reach well beyond one’s Facebook friends and whatever got “Best New Music” on Pitchfork this week.
A couple other bits of advice:
1. Take whatever work you can get at first. This has never been a business for impatient people, and you’re gonna need some good editors and bad stories to establish your editorial voice.
2. Chances are, less people care about your blog than you think. Change that.
3. If you love the lost art of print journalism, try publishing your own magazine digitally or raising money for the first issue at a small business site like Kickstarter.
4. If you don’t have the money for it, or are unsure of what you want to do with your life, don’t rush into 10 years of debt and poor decisions, a.k.a. college. Nothing beats the kind of life experiences you’ll get from freelancing your ass off or maintaining a blog that’s cleaner and clearer than the big boys.
5. On a similar note: you don’t need me, a professor, or a fellow journalist—online or otherwise—to tell you the future of writing. We need you to tell us.
AMY PHILLIPS (news editor—Pitchfork)
Don’t be a hater. Don’t be negative just for the sake of being negative, just because you think it makes you seem cool. It doesn’t. If you genuinely don’t like something, back it up with well-thought-out, well-reasoned arguments. Pithy one-liners and jokes just make you sound like an asshole. And nobody wants to work with an asshole.
At the same time, don’t be a breathless, gushing fangirl/fanboy. Be prepared to back up your love with good writing. If you only write about things you love, your opinion becomes less and less valid. Who’s going to trust you if you like everything?
Oh yeah, and don’t expect to make any money from this. Ever. If you do, it’s a nice surprise. But don’t plan on it.
ANDREW PHILLIPS (editor in chief—MOG; former events editor—PopMatters)
You need to consume music at a psychotic pace. Not forever, but definitely for now. Being a music writer isn’t the same as being a music fan. When I was starting out, I would get on AllMusic around 10 PM every night and cross-reference bands until about 2 AM (while downloading and listening to the ones that I hadn’t heard). When I got my first editor post, I took it up a notch and started listening to 20-30 new (to me) albums a week, minimum. With streaming services, it doesn’t even take that kind of heavy lifting to gain the same exposure. Listen to stuff you don’t like, listen to stuff you don’t understand. I may talk a lot of trash, but I always listen to bands I hate and try to understand what others see in them (sometimes, even after 10 times, I still can’t connect).
Consider what the reader (or listener) likes and learn to guide them to a place you can agree upon. Don’t assume your taste is inherently superior, and don’t be an asshole about it. It isn’t about what you like or what they should like, it’s about what they will like. You serve the reader and you’re here for their benefit; it’s not the other way around.
The key is listening. I can tell the difference between a writer that’s heard 2000 albums in their life and one that’s banked 20,000+ (so can readers, even if they don’t know why). The intangible is this: Once you’ve listened to every kind of music imaginable (even if you hated a lot of it), you understand where things fit in the larger sphere. You see associations. You have context. You have a relative sense of what an album or musician actually means. Even if that understanding isn’t made explicit in your writing, it is there, and it makes a difference. You don’t overreact; you don’t fall prey to half-assed analysis or over-aggrandizing. You have to feed your (hopefully inherent) need to understand everything. The best writer in the world isn’t worth anything in this business if they’re not in search of that kind of understanding. There’s no faking it. We’re at war with algorithms and to win we have to understand music in ways that computers can’t. You have to sit down and obsessively, methodically listen, listen, listen, listen.
ANN POWERS (chief pop music critic—Los Angeles Times; author—Tori Amos: Piece By Piece and Weird Like Us)
My number one suggestion is: cultivate interest in a wide variety of subjects. Expertise in your chosen field will come naturally, as you fulfill your lust for information about and experiences of whatever fascinates you. What’s key, though, is that you keep expanding your range of interests. Culture is a big spider web and each strand eventually connects with the others. So you’re really into electronic music; you’re gonna check out all the hot variations from grime to glitch to circuit bending. But how does electronica relate to the blues? To bebop? Maybe you want to spend a couple of weeks listening to Dizzy Gillespie. And hey, read some Gary Giddins while you’re at it.
Be knowledgeable in areas that may seem completely unrelated to your specialty, too. For me, the essence of writing is making connections, whether they go deep (uncovering hidden histories within the more familiar ones) or broad (shedding light on how music relates to science, or economics, or psychology, or myth). Specialists matter a lot: they do the intricate groundwork that clarifies what’s really happening in a scene or a sound. But equally important, and perhaps underrated, are those generalists who are not dilettantes, but deep and dedicated thinkers on a wider path.
Related to the matter of making your mind well-rounded is the practice of cultivating a deep understanding of the language you use. Be imaginative with your word choices, and precise. I’m a big fan of the thesaurus. Not that I think randomly picking five-dollar words makes your work more impressive; more that by reading thesaurus entries, and seeing how “synonyms” are actually variations on meaning that can show you how particular uses of language have developed, you’ll break your lazy word-choice habits and expand your sense of what you’re writing about.
At the same time, be readable. Many writers will advise you of this—write to a specific person. Maybe it’s your brother, or your neighbor, or a classmate. Maybe it’s the artist, or a peer with whom you’re trying to engage. Different writing venues are read by different kinds of people. Be aware of that. When I went to the New York Times from The Village Voice, I had to teach myself how to write all over again. You can retain the core of your voice and your vision while being adaptable.
Every musical story is a human story—a story of people making something, and other people receiving that thing and making it into something else (merely by listening, or by responding more actively). There are a million ways to approach this fundamental truth. But don’t forget about it. It may seem kind of touchy-feely, but I really think that as long as you remember the hearts and souls of those involved in every step of the story you’re telling, and pay attention to your words, you’ll do okay.