Jim Testa to Ed Ward
JIM TESTA (editor, publisher- Jersey Beat)
Very simply, I will echo some advice that Little Richard gave to aspiring musicians at his SXSW keynote a few years ago:
1) Never let anyone else tell you that you can’t do something if you feel in your heart that it’s what you want to do;
2) Always sign your own checks
DAVID TOOP (author—Sinister Resonance, Haunted Weather, Ocean of Sound; musician, composer)
You are now in competition with volume rather than quality. A lot of people are out there, venting their opinions. Though they may have knowledge and access to information, the majority lack critical faculties and any kind of originality or even competence in the art of writing. That is where the potentiality lies. Music journalism has always had a grounding in prejudice, in forceful rhetoric raised to the level of truth through shouting. It also carries the stigma of being a form of consumer guide; one of its roles in the past has been to browbeat readers into mirroring the tastes and lifestyle of the writer. We may feel nostalgia for the loss of this approach, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contemptible. You’re not an academic, but one of the fundamental principles of scholarly writing can be instructive in this sense: is this simply my opinion or can I support it with research and persuasive argument?
From my point of view, music writers are interesting not because they shout louder than anybody else, or conversely, because they are so bland that they upset nobody, but because they have a personal mythology that can be made credible through the fascination of language. One of the aspects of music history that attracts me is the web of connections that can be traced within history. The connections uncovered through diligent research, through talking to musicians, and through careful, open-minded listening do not correspond to the official history, the established canon. If you can write another history, convincingly and with style, then there is an opening for you. This may be considered quaint, but I also believe it is important to read texts of all kinds.
JAAN UHELSZKI (editor at large—Relix)
Every rock journalist gets into the business because they were an obsessive fan of someone. Hell, we’d spend hours deconstructing a covert lyric, trying to understand the symbolism of album art—Led Zeppelin IV, anyone?—or searching for any scrap of information on said artist, even stooping to stalk them if the occasion arose. My sister and I once followed Lou Reed in my Ford Galaxie 500 at a snail’s pace as he walked the dark streets of Detroit. Lucky for us, it was during the Transformer tour when he was sporting a platinum crew cut. The point is, we’d do this for free. In the lean years, it’s always good to remember that, since we all, at one-time or another, must subsist on the so-called intrinsic rewards. It’s a conspiracy for paying you nothing close to what you’re worth. I think the common phrase is “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” Surprisingly, it can and will. But you have to treat rock criticism like a job and not a hobby.
It also helps if you sell yourself expensively. Or at least try to. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” Herbie Herbert, the former manager of Journey, used to say. Look how good it worked for Journey. It’ll work for you, too. The second thing to remember is rock stars are not our friends. A good interview feels like an utterly brilliant blind date. But no matter how deep you feel the connection was, you are never going to hear from them again (Okay there are a few exceptions, but very few). If you do interview them again, they probably won’t remember you. And under no circumstances should you remind them—it’s beneath you, and it will make the subsequent interview get off to an awkward start. Why am I telling you this? Just so you’re not tempted to approach an interview like you’re charming a potential suitor—no matter how smitten you are by them or their art, ¬you’re there in service to the truth, not to throw bouquets of pink roses. So no soft-ball questions, no gushing praise, no telling them about the first time you ever saw them perform. It makes them squirm, and puts you in a subservient position.
In fact, the less you talk about yourself, the better. Instead, ask well-considered and well-researched questions. In fact, I think a good rule is three hours of research for every half-hour interview. Read every recent interview that you can get your hands on to see how they react to certain questions, and to see what gets their hackles up. Ask that, but in a different way. This may be the only time you’re ever going to get those burning questions answered, not because there’s a high mortality rate among rock stars—although there is—but the first time is oddly always the best time. There’s an innocence and a freshness and an unjaundiced eye that you bring to that very first interview, and it’s almost always reflected in the writing.
RICHIE UNTERBERGER (author and rock historian; latest book: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day)
My strongest advice to writers starting off is to write about what you love. That passion will motivate you to write as much as you can. The more you write, the better you’ll be as a writer. And the better you are as a writer and the more your passion shows in what you write, the more you’ll entertain and educate your readers.
Along the same lines, develop expertise in the areas of music you love the most, or expertise in specific areas of whatever you’re writing about, whether it’s film, politics, or something else. There are a lot of writers who cover a lot and don’t say anything especially noteworthy about any one topic. The more you’re known for expertise in certain fields, the more opportunities you’ll get as someone who’s better equipped than anyone else to write specific pieces or books.
Also, thank people in the profession and colleagues who take the time to help you, whether they did so for financial reward or not; return emails and calls from readers and colleagues asking for information; pay writers promptly, if you’re in the appropriate professional position to do so; and do things you’ve promised. These sound like common courtesies, but they’re not observed that often. They should be done because they’re the right thing to do, but also because as a writer, you’ll need to ask favors of others often; you’ve got to be at least as willing to do them for others.
ED WARD (rock and roll historian; broadcaster—Fresh Air with Terry Gross)
My answer is: Why would you want to do this? Who are you thinking of writing for? Are you aware that you can’t make a living doing this, and that you’ll be held in very low regard by every other kind of journalist, writer, and critic in the field? Do you realize that once you get stuck with the label “music journalist” or “rock critic” that it’s almost impossible to shake? Aren’t you aware that we’re in the middle of a bogus “citizen journalist” revolution where everyone’s opinion is supposedly equal to everyone else’s opinion? That you’re supposed to give your content away and sell t-shirts on tour or something?
I would do everything in my power to talk someone out of doing this. It was fun once, but it irreparably damaged my ability to move away from it and I basically feel like I’ve wasted my life so far. It’s taken nearly all the enjoyment out of listening to music to the point where if I play an album every couple of days that’s plenty. I almost never go see live music anymore unless I’m familiar with the act; making a new discovery brings me no pleasure, and the chances of doing so approaches zero. Someone starting out today is wandering into a field overpopulated by mediocrity writing about performers who have no idea what they’re doing or why. If you have writing talent, for heaven’s sakes, use it for something worthwhile. Not that you’ll make a lot of money that way either, but you stand a far greater chance of contributing something to the world.
And learn to cook, so that if you find yourself, as I do today, with 70 cents, a can of chickpeas, and some frozen spinach, with no money on the horizon and no work, you can at least feed yourself.
But basically, don’t do it.
If some kid were to ask for advice about this, I’d also ask him to look at what he’s feeling and ask himself if maybe he wouldn’t be better off taking a more active role in the music business. If he’s looking to become a writer, rock writing is a very bad idea, but if his passion’s really for music… shit, there are loads of things he can do that will help out, even a little bit—even becoming a publicist.