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Dear Writer... Some Tips on the Music Scribe Biz

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Jason Gross previews his upcoming feature for PopMatters that offers advice to aspiring music writers from some of music criticism's leading lights.

Pretty soon, PopMatters is going to post a survey I did of over a hundred music journalists who are all answering this question—“what’s the best advice you can give someone who’s new to the field?”  As you’d imagine, some of the answers are pretty funny—the phrase ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ came up more than once. But seriously folks, there’s a lot of good advice there.


After compiling all the answers, I wondered if I had anything to add, especially some things that didn’t seem to be covered otherwise. So, here’s a few tips that I hope might be helpful.
  
GET A TRANSCRIBING MACHINE (lesson learned from Jim DeRogatis). If you’re going to be doing interviews regularly, this can save you lots and lots of time, plus you won’t wear out your stereo playing and replaying the tape so you can catch up with your typing. Transcribers have foot pedals that let you easily control the playback (when you start and stop a tape)  so you can type at your own speed. You can buy them online at most electronic stores. And as a bonus, it’s a work related expense (even if you’re a part-time freelancer like me) so you can write it off on your taxes, which leads me to…


KEEP YOUR RECEIPTS FOR ANYTHING MUSIC RELATED. CD or MP3 purchases are ‘research.’ Ditto for movie ticket stubs. Even if you’re writing about concerts, for some reason, it’s trickier to write off your taxes for any tickets you buy. Also related to this are dinners where you take out an editor or writer or an artist for a story, cab rides to and from shows, travel and hotel expenses for any music-related convention, any supplies or hardware for the computer you use to work on, etc.. Mind you, you’re not gonna get all the money back but you could get a decent refund as part of this. One caution is that if you keep claiming deductions that are greater than your income every year, eventually the IRS is going to consider your work to be a ‘hobby’ and not a job that you can keep deducting, so watch your expenses. Most important of all, speak to your account about this and get the best advice from them.


MAKE THE START AND END OF YOUR ARTICLE PARTICULARLY MEMORABLE (lesson learned from Robert Christgau). That way the reader is automatically sucked into your work and leaves there with something satisfying too.


BEFORE YOU GO TO DO AN INTERVIEW, ALWAYS MAKE SURE YOUR RECORDER IS WORKING (lesson learned from John Storm Roberts). Back in the 70’s, JSR interviewed Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire) while in Africa. They had a great interview but unfortunately, JSR found out later that his tape machine didn’t work. He was pretty sad about this, not only because the material was so good but the setting was poignant too. The upside is that you can now learn from his mistake and never let it happen to you. Take extra batteries with you for the recording machine, just in case.


SAVE THE HARDEST AND MOST EMBARRASSING QUESTIONS UNTIL THE END OF THE INTERVIEW. That way the subject won’t end things abruptly before you’ve had a chance to ask all your other questions. In fact, if you’re crafty enough, you can word these touchy questions carefully enough not to piss off your subject too much. For instance, instead of saying ‘so when are you gonna have a reunion of your old band?’ ask them ‘What do you say to the people who ask you when you’re going to have a reunion?’  It might not work but it’s worth a try. It worked pretty well with Joe Strummer.


ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT YOUR READER UNDERSTANDS WHAT YOUR PRONOUNS REFER TO (lesson learned from Chuck Eddy). Just try writing a story without using ‘it’ or ‘he’ or ‘they’ or some other pronoun. Hard, ain’t it?  The trick is that it has to be crystal clear as to what exactly you’re referring to each time. This is especially true if you use a lot of pronouns in your story (like I do).


REMEMBER THAT THERE’S A WORLD OUT THERE OUTSIDE OF MUSIC (lesson learned from Ed Ward). For all of us music nuts, it’s easy to get obsessive not just about bands and songs we love but also about music itself. It’s healthy to step away from it now and then, just to clear your mind of it and get some other perspectives. As some writers pointed out in the survey, indulging in other arts can also give you some interesting perspectives about how you approach your work.


DON’T GET TOO WORKED UP ABOUT POOR MANNERS IN ROCK CLUBS (lesson learned from Greg Kot). This can be a tough one. Look, there’s probably plenty of drunken people there and some that are just stupid and have no manners. You have to accept that sometimes as part of the experience. If someone throws a punch though, you should definitely duck or find the bouncer to escort your non-friend out.


CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME IS SERIOUS BUSINESS. Except for your note taking at shows, you’re doing a hell of a lot of typing otherwise. Eventually, that takes a toll on you as it has for millions of secretaries out there. I recommend having stress balls or squeeze balls handy to keep your fingers supple. Also do a web search for ‘carpal tunnel exercises.’  They’re pretty quick and easy to do and can save you a lot of pain and suffering later.


IT’S OK TO NOT LIKE EVERY BAND OUT THERE BUT YOU SHOULD AT LEAST BE CURIOUS ABOUT WHAT THEIR APPEAL IS (lesson learned from Ann Powers). That’s true for any genre, really. There are always pop stars as well as hyped up artists in indie rock, jazz, classical, world or any other style where you wonder ‘what the hell are people thinking when they enjoy this?’  That’s fine but rather than being totally dismissive of these artists, you should also try to understand how they got to where they are. This could help you understand not just the artist but also the fans and the genre you’re covering.


POLITELY FOLLOW-UP ON QUERIES AND PITCHES TO EDITORS WITHOUT BEING A PEST. Another tough one and something that it’s hard to find the right balance for. The best rule of thumb I’ve heard is to give someone a week to follow-up with you after you’ve pitched a story. If they don’t respond to your follow-up after that, it’s time to pitch it elsewhere.


ADMIT MISTAKES- YOU LOOK BETTER FOR IT WHEN IT HAPPENS. Hey, we all have flubs and to just come out and say it is the best way to handle things. Otherwise, you keep looking bad and stubborn too (again, this is personal experience talking here, especially with spellin’).


IF SOMEONE TELLS YOU SOMETHING OFF THE RECORD, RESPECT THAT. It’s a small biz and word will get around about you, plus you won’t be trusted again.


WHEN YOU’VE FINISHED YOUR FIRST DRAFT, PUT IT AWAY FOR A WHILE AND THEN LOOK IT OVER AGAIN. If you come back to your copy later, you’ll have some distance and perspective from your work and you can think about it more critically as you wonder ‘is that the best way to say my point?’ or ‘what did I leave out?’ or ‘do I really need that there?’


GET SOME TECH SKILLS. You don’t have to become a geek but at least be familiar with all the Net and technical stuff that’s hot now so you can evaluate it for your own use. Some of it won’t help you and some of it is flash-in-the-pan crap but nowadays, you’re a fool if you don’t have a Facebook and Twitter profile for your work. And keep evaluating these tech things ‘cause at some point, Twitter and Facebook are going to look as old and useless as MySpace does now.


AVOID FLAME WARS. This is probably the hardest thing of all. ‘Flame wars’ happen when you get into virtual shouting matches with someone else online. In these cases, nobody wins. Both of you just type your fingers raw in anger and you get nowhere with it and both of you look stupid. Even if you have the best argument and your opponent has nothing useful to say, just avoid it. Next time you’re tempted, just remember the words of my granddad: “only an idiot argues with an idiot!”


DON’T FORGET TO QUOTE YOUR SOURCES AND THANK ‘EM TOO. You know, like I’ve been doing in parenthesis above…

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