What's the Write Word? Part 4

Ned Raggett to Bill Wyman

by Jason Gross

7 June 2010


Bud Scoppa to Jeff Tamarkin

BUD SCOPPA (writer—Hits, Uncut, Mix, Paste, iTunes)

Approach every subject with an open mind, but definitely bring your assumptions to the party, for the purposes of A/B-ing what you’d expected vs. what you’re picking up. Receive the work directly, as it’s presented, but react to it experientially—and if it wants to seduce you, by all means let it. That’s the best part—when you run into something great without warning. For me, as a reviewer, some prime examples: the Allman Brothers Band, Derek & the Dominos, Jackson Browne, Big Star, Crowded House, Spoon, Kings of Leon. There’s nothing better than hearing from a reader, thanking me for turning them on to their new favorite band.


PHILIP SHERBURNE (writer—Pitchfork, The Wire)

I was asked specifically for “advice,” but I’m afraid the only advice that I can give is not to go into music writing if you’re assuming you can make a living out of it.

That being said, if you simply want to write about music, by all means, what are you waiting for? The barriers to entry have never been lower than they are now, as long as you’re not worried about a paycheck. When I started out, I wrote a lot of short reviews about bands I might not really care about, for magazines I might not care for, simply because I wanted to get published, and where the hell else was I going to do it? These days, you can skip that step. Start your own blog, become active on forums and listservs (which you probably already are); hone your voice and your thinking. Learn from the writers you admire. For me, that means people like Luc Sante, Ben Ratliff, Sasha Frere Jones, Mark Richardson, Simon Reynolds, Chuck Eddy, Todd Burns, Andy Battaglia, Michelangelo Matos, Nitsuh Abebe, but that’s just me; I think my taste in music writers is probably as peculiar as my taste in music.

Above all, listen widely and listen deeply. Despite the “electronic niche” I seem to have fallen in, I’m a big believer in breadth. Know your shit, but be humble enough and honest enough to know where your knowledge ends (this is true in any number of contexts: historical movements, subgenre distinctions, recording techniques and technology). Think about how the music works and why that matters. Trust your gut and trust your ears—and don’t forget to doubt them, either.


HANK SHTEAMER (writer/editor—Time Out New York, blogger—Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches; writer—The Wire, Signal to Noise, Destination: OUT, etc.)

I think my primary piece of advice to the young music writer (I hate the term “critic”—I consider myself a music lover and a fan) would be to identify your passion and follow it. I’ve never really been very excited about the school of music writing that doggedly trails whatever happens to be garnering buzz at a given moment. Obviously everyone working in print and online media is obligated to stay current, but my most meaningful work as a writer has come about as a result of me uncovering esoteric, yet-untold stories and methodically researching them. You have to go after the stuff that excites you, even (and perhaps, especially) if no one else has heard of it. Your job is to make people care, and chances are, your work will stand out more if you’re not just riding the bandwagon.

For some excellent examples of this follow-your-passion school of music writing, check out Forces in Motion, Graham Lock’s outstanding book about Anthony Braxton, and Enter Naomi, Joe Carducci’s freeform remembrance of SST Records. These writers care; it’s unmistakable. No one asked them to write these books: they just knew they had to. Another great guidepost is Mark Moskowitz’s literary documentary Stone Reader. All these demonstrate that you have to be willing to stand alone and to go deep to find the best stories. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to narrate a few of these untold tales, including one for a certain webzine: http://www.furious.com/perfect/clevepozar.html.


DAN SINKER (editor/publisher—Punk Planet; writer—Huffington Post; teacher—journalism at Columbia College)

Don’t wait for someone to tell you to start—just start. Let your passion for the music always remain central. Write something awesome.


MARC SMIRNOFF (founder/editor—The Oxford American)

Qualifying as a music nerd or hipster isn’t enough to make you compelling to an intelligent audience. The best practitioners in your field understand that music only halfway defines their job. The best music writers obsess over great writing as much as they do great music. They know that being unfamiliar with the greatest writers is like being unfamiliar with the greatest musicians.


COURTNEY E. SMITH (writer—MTV Music Blog, Uncensored Interview, The Daily Swarm; finishing her first book, Record Collecting for Girls)

The hardest assignments you will ever be asked to take on are those you are apathetic about. The amount of music you will truly love or truly hate pales in comparison to the amount you simply won’t give a crap about. Finding your angle, your way inside these projects in order to spit out the 400 word review you were assigned might, at times, feel nearly impossible. So, keep a file about the things you’d rather be writing about before and after you dip into trying to make the world’s most bland album sound interesting. Working around other people’s mediocrity can help inspire you to create much better ideas of your own. Eventually, you’ll find yourself with a file full of pitches and the power to forever avoid a bullshit trip to douchetown.


KEVIN STEWART-PANKO (writer—Decibel, Terrorizer, Rock Sound, Metal Hammer, Outburn, Alternative Press, Sick Sounds, Cowbell, hellbound.ca)

The music industry model has changed drastically in the last ten years, but from the standpoint of someone who has always managed to exist outside of major-label-land, the scenario isn’t all doom and gloom. Leave that braying to those whose expense accounts have been scaled back and the peripheral outside commentators who barely know the difference between CD and vinyl, but ape the same bullet point bullshit in “populist” entertainment outlets. It’s an exciting time to be creative; this applies just as much to those who write the music as it does to those trying to sell it, as well as those writing about it.

Because nuts ‘n’ bolts information is readily available anywhere on the interhole, you’re afforded the opportunity as a hack to make better and more creative use of your word counts. No longer should you be required to mention where an album was recorded, who produced it, and how many songs are on said record and how long they are, unless you really want to or it’s integral to what you’re writing. If you feel like asking Buddy from Band X about how his interest in Tibetan Bikram Hot Stone Whateverthefuck Yoga applies to blast beats or 7/4 time signatures, go for it. If you’d rather ask a band about the process in pressing their latest release on white vinyl with a two-layered die-cut gatefold sleeve, instead of asking well-worn songwriting questions, there’s room for that. Want to have them do a Rorschach Test instead of a generic W5 interview? Fuck yeah! If you want to review an album by comparing it to the tempestuous history of the breakaway nation of Transnisitia, feel free (as long as there is a sensible end-point to what you’re going on about). Music journalism isn’t about providing information tidbits any more; you have the room to dig deeper, get silly, get philosophical, get to the point, or not. Basically, to have fun, go nuts and, like I said, be creative. Or something.


JEFF TAMARKIN (freelance music writer; former editor-in-chief—Relix, Goldmine, CMJ, Global Rhythm; associate editor—JazzTimes)

The Four Rules of Music Journalists

1. You must love music. You’re not going to get rich writing about music—the music industry is basically a thing of the past and the heyday of music journalism is long gone. The days when music journalists got flown all over the world to interview rock stars and got invited to lavish, decadent parties are over (for 99% of us, anyway). So the only reason to even start writing about music is because you love music so much you can’t imagine doing anything else.

2. You must love writing. Regardless of what I said in rule #1, it doesn’t matter how much you love music if you find writing a chore. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t savor the challenge and don’t want to keep getting better at it, then stick to listening to it for pleasure and chatting about it with your friends, but don’t consider becoming a music journalist. You won’t be doing anyone (especially yourself) a favor if you get into this gig but don’t like to write. That is what we do, and we try to do it as well as we can—always. It can be a lonely, solitary, even maddening existence, spending hours alone at the computer evaluating and informing about other people’s art. It’s rarely exciting, but it is rewarding, and it defines who we are. The bottom line is, that’s the gig—writing—and even if you are churning out reviews for a pittance, you must be prepared to give each piece your best effort. Don’t take the attitude that an editor will “fix” it later. When you put your name on a piece of writing, you should only do so with pride. If you don’t “get” that, music journalism is not how you want to spend your life.

3. You must have something to say. Going back to rule #1 again, everyone says they love music, but most people—you may find this hard to believe if you are even considering becoming a music journalist—don’t give music much thought. It’s there, maybe even several hours a day, but it’s not something that occupies their brains. They listen to it, dance to it, and honestly do enjoy it, but they don’t much care what goes into the creation of it, what inspires it, who writes, plays, or produces it, what the artist is trying to convey, etc. They don’t pay attention to lyrics, have no idea who is making the music, and might not even know what genre a given piece falls into. If you are thinking about writing about music, you probably think about music. A lot. You probably have strong opinions and deeper than average knowledge about the music and artists you listen to. You have a hunger for it. You want to know everything about it. But if you honestly want to write about music, the most important part of your job will be getting people to read what you write, and if you have nothing interesting to say about the music, regardless of how much you might like it, they’re not going to read you. Learning how to transfer your thoughts, knowledge, and opinions into compelling writing that holds a reader’s attention is the key to becoming a successful music journalist.

4. Never stop discovering. Learn about music. Do your homework before you write a review or conduct an interview. Learn everything you can about an artist and/or the specific work you are assigned to write about. Find out about other kinds of music—even music you don’t especially care for. Constantly seek out artists you are unfamiliar with. Take assignments writing about music you know nothing about, then find out as much as you can before you even start writing the piece. You may think the only music that matters is what’s happening right now. It isn’t, so find out what’s come before. You might think that all of the good music was made in the past. Also untrue—there’s plenty of great music being made today; go looking for it and you’ll be surprised. I always have piles and piles of music that I have never heard and can’t wait to hear. It spans several decades and dozens of genres. I’ve been writing about music for nearly 35 years and every week I still find something new (or old) to love. Quite often it’s something I passed over before or never understood or never gave much of a chance before. Entire genres that I dismissed in the past have since moved into regular rotation for me—because I finally opened up to them. The day that you think you’ve heard everything you’re ever going to like, or the day you think you know everything there is to know, is the day you should quit writing about music. If you have no interest in expanding your relationship with music on a scale much grander than that you currently embrace, best not to bother writing about music at all, because you’ll be bringing a limited scope to your work. You can’t write an informed piece unless you know where a given artist or musical creation fits into the general scheme of things. If you can’t imagine not wanting to devour everything that comes your way—accepting some and rejecting the rest—and you really want the world to know what you know or what you think, then welcome to our world.

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