Christopher R. Weingarten to Bill Wyman
CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN (freelance writer—RollingStone.com, Village Voice, Spin, Revolver; author—the 33 1/3 series edition on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back)
Get to the damn point already.
If the band name isn’t in your first two sentences, you are probably fucking up somewhere. One of the biggest cancers in Internet-era writing is this tireless need to spread out and sprawl and opine just because you have the space. Pull people in with your lead. Did you ever notice that with most online reviews you can pretty much skip right to the second paragraph? That’s because the writer spent that entire first graf saying something completely unnecessary to understanding the record like “Usually when you think of Madison, Wisconsin…” or “The live album is a tricky thing…” or “The first time I saw Spoon…”
One thing that many writers don’t really understand is that the important thing is the band in question, not you, not your life, not why all the jocks made fun of you because you liked Pavement. If are an aspiring rock writer, you are an invariably boring person and I could care less about the completely mundane details of your life, and the completely typical, predictable emotions you feel when listening to the Hold Steady. If you were in the slightest bit interesting to me, you’d probably be in a band. And if you were any good at playing music you probably wouldn’t be writing about it.
JEFF WEISS (writer/journalist—Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Idolator, The Village Voice; blogging at Passion of the Weiss)
Be blessed with a healthy streak of delusion to fend off doubters and self-doubts. Be skeptical of the herd mentality, particularly when it comes to bands named after herds. Read as much about music as you can, read as few music writers as possible. Remember that it’s more important to be best than it is to be first. Start your own website or partner with like-minded souls—otherwise, they’ll fire you eventually. Don’t take this too seriously—you’re writing about music, not the safety instructions on a parachute. Whenever your brain is starting to combust from too many sounds and too few adequate words, smoke a joint, listen to Fela Kuti (or your personal pick), and remember why you did this in the first place.
DON WILCOCK (editor-in-chief—BluesWax)
You need to have an abiding curiosity and an obsession to write that’s strong enough that the pleasure of the process is stronger than the pain. If the traditional values of steady income and consistency are important, don’t do it! The whole paradigm of intellectual property and its value is in flux. You have to be an entreprenuer to figure out how to generate an income from writing. When you figure that out, call me!
CARL WILSON (author—Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3 series), blogger—Zoilus.com and upcoming group site BacktotheWorld.net; writer—The Globe and Mail, Slate and elsewhere)
Writers right now are like bands right now: You can’t rely on anyone else to make a reputation for you, and you can’t guess how you’re going to get paid. Make your own course. Get into a scene—seek out like-minded writers and other artists (of whatever generation or location) and communicate and collaborate with them. Develop a live show. (Literally: the non-fiction writers I know are called upon to deliver talks, interviews, and presentations at least as much as they are asked to write.) Experiment with other media. When you’ve got your own sound, your own rubric, your own identity as a writer, people will seek you out. This sounds like “be entrepeneurial,” but it’s not. It’s “be an artist.”
Participate in the discourse of your field. Don’t always fuss about getting credit and the social, cultural, or economic capital it represents. Make culture, swim in culture (many cultures), imbibe it, recycle it back into the ecosystem. Develop a sensibility though not necessarily a taste (read widely, listen widely, against the grain of your own habits). Yet don’t let the data smog confound you: Books are still the fittest, most finely considered, deeply developed, and sustainable form for our medium, language, and people still read and care about them. And that’s my final point: Write for people, not just for avatars, hit points, and trend aggregators. Write to contribute to the broader human experience, to expand our collective, ever-depleting stores of soulfulness, intelligence, and understanding. If those aren’t the stakes, don’t waste your life.
DOUGLAS WOLK (writer about pop music and comics for a whole bunch of places, see lacunae.com)
There is nothing even vaguely glamorous about music criticism, and it doesn’t pay particularly well even at its upper levels, so the only reason to do it is that you love it.
The best advice I would give to someone wanting to get into it in 2010 would be:
- Listen to music at every possible moment. The process of self-education never ends.
- Read the best arts criticism you can find, and read it out of books. Concentrate on reading first-rate criticism that isn’t about music. Read other non-fiction. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read it outside, in the sunshine, if you can. Absorb and transform whatever you can from people who aren’t doing exactly the same thing you’re doing.
- Start a blog, with a focus. Write at least 500 words about music in it every day. EVERY day. If you miss a day, that means you can’t meet deadlines. You need to be able to meet deadlines. If you can’t, forget about doing this professionally.
- Learn to play an instrument. Understanding how music works is very useful in demystifying it when it needs to be demystified. Also, making music is one of life’s great joys.
- If at any point you find that you no longer love music or writing about it, please get out of the business.
BILL WYMAN (former editor—Salon, NPR; occasional blogger at Hitsville)
No matter how much the ways people consume media are changing, a writer can always be successful by having something compelling and new to say and the chops to say it with. Now, there will always be places in which writers can be successful doing precisely the opposite, on both counts. Twas ever thus, and ever will be. But they’re not really writers and what they write isn’t really journalism.
So why not be original, and skillfully so? Imagine intelligent but disinterested readers that is, people who are looking for something to stimulate their minds, but don’t want to wade through hipster references or the received wisdom of the time (year, month, week) to get to it.
Think up something interesting and original to say. (If you don’t have something original and interesting to say, find something else to write about!) Then make a good argument for why you feel that way, in the process painting a picture of the band or concert or whatever that got you thinking in the first place.
Once that’s accomplished, try to imagine what a really smart person who disagreed with you would say, and then address and demolish those arguments.
Then restate your thesis, elegantly. That’s your last line.
After you’re done, go back and take out cliches, in-jokes, crap from press releases, any bright thoughts you had about the CD title, anything a buddy of yours said, and as many uses of the word “I” as possible. Check your facts, and it never hurts to be humble.