[19 May 2010]
CHARLES AARON (editor—Spin)
Rule #1: Be a Lunatic
Despite the digital putsch against print publishing, writing about pop music is no more or less preposterous a career move than it was 20-plus years ago. Blogging or Tumblring is easier than producing a fanzine, and there are more websites now than there were magazines or alt weeklies then. But it’s still fairly impossible to make a passable living writing about stuff you actually like. You need to hustle, compromise, hold down a day job, whatever, just to keep breathing and functioning.
So, why do it? Because you have to, because you can’t stop yourself, because you can’t get to sleep unless you scribble out some random (or seemingly profound) thought that’s coursing through your brain like multiple lines of whatever powder your roommate nicked from so-and-so’s skeevy ex-boyfriend. It’s not a case of sticking with it because you don’t have a choice—you’re compelled to the edge of desperation because you’re so deeply immersed in, and inspired by, some artist or song or show.
Unless you feel like that, unless you’re consumed by an emotional frenzy to do this, then get the fuck out now. You’re just eating somebody else’s food. And you’re taking up limited space that’d be better used by somebody more passionately unhinged. Because this is no life for rational people. Or at least it shouldn’t be. They’re the enemy.
FRANK ALKYER (publisher—Downbeat)
Understand that saying an artist is playing your town—and that you have access for an interview—does not constitute a pitch that will get any consideration. Have a real, researched, and creative plan for the article. Present an idea that doesn’t sound like so many of the formulaic entertainment articles that flood music magazines, web sites, and blogs. Put some art into your arts journalism.
HARRY ALLEN (hip-hop activist & media assassin)
The only advice I can rightly offer young writers is counsel in those areas where I’ve had success myself.
One: Write with passion on subjects about which you’re passionate, and reject anything which corrupts your ardor.
Two: It’s been said the secret to all wealth is that you must completely own the rights to what you make. Thus, when you license your work:
a) Sell time-limited rights in your work, but only those 1) that the client can demonstrably and immediately exploit, and 2) for which they can pay you now.
b) Keep all other rights to your work for yourself.
BILLY ALTMAN (writer—New York Times, New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire; longtime senior editor—Creem; teacher—School Visual Arts)
There is no question that the Internet has, to a great and unfortunate extent, significantly devalued the art of writing. However, compared to the earliest days of music journalism in the late 1960s, when there were literally only a handful of legitimate outlets, and most newspapers and general interest magazines barely (if ever) covered the pop field, there are now nearly infinite opportunities to make one’s voice heard.
(I didn’t say opportunities to make a living, of course, but in my own experience spanning better than four decades now on the rockwrite front lines, I’ve never really known a single music journalist worth a damn who ever got into this sad racket for the money. It’s always been a love of music and a desire to share feelings pro and con about the music we hear that’s been the primary driving force and common bond for our specialized little clan.)
In any event, because there are so many places these days to simply speak your piece, the present landscape for any aspiring music writer is no different than any from the past in the one and only area that truly matters: talent. And it remains my firm belief that, regardless of the forum, good work will always stand out. So, if you’ve got the skills—and the perseverance to keep at it—you’ll always have a chance to make your mark.
STACEY ANDERSON (senior associate editor of music—Village Voice; contributing writer—Spin)
Simultaneously be starved for human contact and possess the horrendously inflated sense of self-worth that leads you directly to Charles Aaron’s office one afternoon with a terrifying, unbroken stream of stupid questions. Because I can attribute my entire career to one slow afternoon during my internship at Spin when I accosted my future mentor in his office, and he was just bored enough to be entertained by it.
But really, seek out writers you admire and ask for their honest advice about your work. There is only wisdom in admitting you don’t know everything; feigning expertise only robs you of the chance to receive it from someone else. And feeling like you’re connected to the writing community buoys you when the work is slow or nonexistent, and it becomes self-fulfilling quicker than you’d think.
Almost every gainfully employed writer I’ve talked to says the same thing: there was a stretch when the work wasn’t coming and any logical person would have given up and chosen another career path. Mine lasted for years and meant day jobs in retail and telemarketing that I shall never speak of again. But if you’re really crazy about writing, enough to accept every assignment you can get, find avenues to strengthen your skills and knowledge in the slow times, and pound the pavement after every sane person gives up, you’re pursuing this for the most sincere reasons. Good things come to people with good intentions.
Oh, and cash your checks immediately.
TED BARRON (editor—Boogie Woogie Flu blog; photographer)
My advice to young writers is to be passionate. Writing about sounds is somewhat akin to describing a smell. It’s not easy.
Contextualize your writing. Have a life.
Read books, and not just books about music. Look at art. Watch films.
Avoid hero worshipping. Musicians, however much you may admire their works, are just people. Know them personally, be one, be something.
Don’t be afraid to be uncool, just don’t be ignorant.
Listen to music, lots of music, both old and new, and across multiple genres.
And above all, don’t be boring.
ANGUS BATEY (freelance writer)
If you’re a writer—indeed, as in any other walk of life—you never stop learning. All the advice you’ll find in this PopMatters series will be valid and important, and you’ll become a better writer if you follow as much of it as you’re able to cope with. But the one thing I’ve always felt was the crucial foundation to everything else is perhaps the most obvious—and therefore the most oft-overlooked—of all. And that is that if you want to become a better writer, you have to become a better reader.
You need to read all the time, and your reading needs to be wide-ranging and open-minded. Yes, you need to read in order to increase your knowledge of the subjects you’re writing about, and to discover what others have been saying about them; but reading to gain information is only a small part of it.
Reading great writing is the best way of discovering what great writing is made of. Reading books that tell you how to write will take you a long way down the road, but you need to read great writers, understand how they write so well, and come to some conclusions about what you yourself feel is great writing in the process. You can discover technical tips, learn tricks of the trade, and even use others’ work to cheat a little—seeing how someone before you has got around a structural or narrative-flow problem might give you the tools you need to accomplish the same in your own work.
But it’s also just as important to read bad writing. You can often learn just as much from seeing how not to do it as you can from studying how it should be done. Just as you need to make your own mind up about what constitutes good writing, you also need to decide what bad writing looks, sounds, and smells like—and once you know that, you can better avoid producing bad writing yourself.
Read fiction, even if you don’t write it: I learned more indelible lessons about planning a narrative structure from the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five than in any number of journalism- or feature-writing text books. Read about subjects you don’t have any interest in: it might be easier to concentrate on the style and technique the writer is employing if you’re not going to get distracted by the content. Read to learn, in the broadest sense; read because you need to find out, on every level; and absolutely make sure you read at least three editions of a publication from cover to cover before you pitch an idea, make contact with an editor, or start writing a story for them, because otherwise you won’t have a clue if what you’re doing is going to be usable. But above all, just read.
One more point, which is quite important—your own sense of style and individuality will only come when you know what you think is good and what you think is bad in terms of writing.
J. BENNETT (contributor—Decibel, Revolver, Alternative Press)
I’m not really sure I’m in a position to give advice to anyone about anything, but because you asked so politely, I’ll say this: If you’d like to be rich someday, stop freelancing before you even finish this sentence and hurl yourself at the mercy of the first drunken one-eyed slave-driver you can find in this booming economy of ours. If you’re really lucky, you’ll land at some alt-weekly where you can have the pleasure of quitting work two hours a day so you can talk about working with people who don’t know how to get their jobs done. If you’re unlucky… well, I’ll have mine with no onions. Or as we say in Los Angeles, No cebollas, por favor. The punch line is that you’ll still be making more money than me.
But if you absolutely insist on being a hard-headed bastard and competing with me for the handful of paying freelance gigs still available to people who write about music (and who demand to be called “journalists”), my advice would be to unlearn everything you learned in journalism school. Except maybe that stuff about commas and semicolons and whatnot. I didn’t go to journalism school, and I remain convinced it’s the only reason I can get a job in this godforsaken racket. Last but not least, write every day. Even when you don’t have to. Until you hate it. Until it becomes a job. When you really, really hate it, you might discover it’s become your job. And then—again, if you’re lucky—you just might learn to love it again. Or at least to sort of enjoy it somewhat when the money is right.
PETER BLACKSTOCK (editor/co-founder—No Depression)
First and foremost, a music journalist in this day and age should greatly prioritize having another job that pays the bills. In the present media environment, essentially everyone with a blog is a music journalist, so that’s what you’re up against. Writing about music can be a fun thing to do on the side, and you might occasionally get some income from it, but the chances of being able to write about music full-time have become roughly akin to moving to L.A. to become an actor. Prepare yourself accordingly, especially in terms of college education.
Beyond that, it’s still just as worthwhile a pursuit to write about music (or take photographs, or do podcasts, or whatever your journalistic angle may be) as it continues to be to create and perform music. The fundamental values of music and journalism haven’t changed; it’s only the paycheck that has largely disappeared. I’d still encourage those who have the creative drive for this kind of thing to pursue it, because if it’s something you love, then it’s worth doing, period.
With that in mind, on to a few practical thoughts. I’m thinking not so much in terms of how to be a great writer—I tend to believe that’s either going to happen, or it’s not, and it’s also ultimately up to you to develop your own personal style (after learning from those writers whose work you admire). But rather, here are some basic tips for conducting yourself as a professional, if you’re going to try to write things for other people:
1) Be on time.
2) Turn in clean copy.
3) Be open to assignments.
4) Familiarize yourself as fully as possible with the publication to whom you’re pitching.
5) Don’t sell yourself short.
MYKEL BOARD (contrarian and columnist—Maximum RocknRoll)
Six Things Not To Write If You Write About Music
1. There was only one Lester Bangs. You are not him. You will not be him. Find your own voice/and style.
Don’t write: “And I was tweeking the buzz and felt that sound come over me like a giant meatball squish squishing through a mud track to nirvana or is it Nirvana?”
2. Don’t compare what you hear to anything common. I know it’s a stretch. It requires some creativity, some direct listening, but if you make an effort you can do it. If you say something ‘sounds like X,’ then we’ll think of ‘X’ first and not give the new band a chance on its own. Don’t tell us what it’s like. Tell us what it IS.
Don’t write: “It’s like an updated version of the Doors with Jello Biafra sitting in for Jim Morrison.”
3. Even worse than comparing a new band to a familiar band is comparing it to an obscure band. Yeah, we know you’ve listened to every MP that’s ever been MP3-ed and you’re wetting your pants to prove it. BFD. If you want to tell us about the obscure, just do it. Using an unknown band for comparison is worse than using a famous band. Comparing the obscure to the obscure doesn’t impress anyone. It just makes us turn the page.
Don’t write: “The Beard Boogers sound like the Pubic Unknowns with the horns mixed a bit more up-front and a rhythm section reminiscent of Naval Lint.”
4. If you love music, you should promote it. If you hate music, I suggest you try a different vocation. Of course you shouldn’t blindly love everything that comes your way, but you should realize everything that you hear takes time and effort and deserves some time and effort in return. Nothing except shit is pure shit. And even then, you can always find a kernel of corn in the offal. A purely negative review means you’re lazy—or squeamish. Your dainty little fingers didn’t want to get themselves dirty by sifting through the shit. Your verbal pooper-scooper packs away the whole kit and caboodle, weeks—maybe even months—of work, and just dumps it in the nearest litter bin (it should happen to your writing). Find something to like in everything.
Don’t write: “The Bigamists’ newest release is not worth the electrons it’s recorded on. It is a jumble of worthless crap…”
5. Be more of a con man than a whore. I know, you’re in the biz for the perks. You expect backstage passes and blowjobs. More likely you’ll get a free admission and comp CD… occasionally. You may even get a press kit or two. Take ‘em. If you like the band, keep ‘em. If you don’t like the band, sell the CDs on Amazon or GEMM.com. You’re entitled. But don’t write to get records to fill the empty slots in your collection. Write to inform (and maybe entertain) your readers.
Don’t write: “And the band’s promo-Goddess, Sylvia Goldstein, was a woman among women. She could have starred in her own band. What a gal! She blessed me with not one but TWO copies of the band’s latest CD—and I got the vinyl and an exclusive interview you’ll see next issue.”
6. Finally, don’t write to review yourself… unless you’ve got the personality to pull it off (Jim Hayes can do it. Otherwise, see rule number one). People don’t want to read about how you palled around with semi-famous people and how they fawned over your genius. Jerk off in private, please!
Don’t write: “So Billy Joe says to me, ‘Hey, you know I really have you to thank for putting the GREEN in GREEN DAY.’ I tell him, shucks it was nothing, but he insists on buying me a drink. So I’m sitting there getting drunk with B.J. and then Billy Joel comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, Sammy, you know I really have you to thank for putting the WOMAN in “SHE’S ONLY A WOMAN TO ME.”’ And he’s right too. Did you know that song was originally going to be “She’s Only a Wombat to Me”? I am the one who suggested to B.J. (the other B.J.) that he change it to WOMAN.”
Okay, that’s it. You’re free to violate any of these rules if you think you can get away with it. You probably can’t, but that’s how you learn. Send me copies of any extra CDs or vinyl you score. I’ll take tickets too, to anything in New York. As for the blowjobs… good luck! If you get one, send me the video. See you in Hell… or your local weekly, whichever comes first.
BRENT BONNER (editor—Living Blues)
I would advise young music writers to do their research. Don’t assume what you read, and re-read, on the Internet is correct. Mistakes breed like flies on the web, and many young writers fail to check sources beyond the Internet. There have been countless times when I have read mistakes copied verbatim from “factual” websites. Get to know your subject matter enough to sense when something is wrong. In addition, take the time to get to know who you are trying to write for. Look at the publication enough to know if your pitch is appropriate for the publication.
NATHAN BRACKETT (deputy managing editor—Rolling Stone)
Some practical things worth repeating: meet your deadlines, be rigorous. If you’re reporting a story, interview more people than you have to. If you want to write for a magazine or website, study it—figure out what they’re looking for. Story ideas are your currency; make yourself come up with a couple of them every day. And never say out loud that you want to be the next Hunter S. Thompson or Lester Bangs.
GORDON BULCOCK (editor—Blues Festival E-Guide)
I don’t believe I can advise anyone on how to write—that is something that should come from the heart. But I will tell you what I look for in a story. Anybody can write an article with numbers and facts, but it’s the writer’s ability to make you care about the subject which grabs a reader. Being able to capture the fine line between telling a story and making someone become part of the story is the difference.
JON CARAMANICA (writer, music—New York Times)
As a critic, you yourself are an artist, not merely a respondent. Every word counts. Sometimes you can say more in 100 words than in 1,000. Have an opinion. Believe in it. It might be wrong—that’s OK. Don’t thumb your nose at whole genres or sounds or fan bases. Banish preconception. Listen to music that vexes you and try to understand if it’s the music’s fault or your own (it’s probably yours). Ask someone what they’re listening so intently to, and why. Take edits with a smile, but know that all editors aren’t great. Study your old pieces to learn which of your own tics you can’t stand, then figure out ways around them. Discuss your ideas with others, especially with people who disagree: it will only make your position stronger, or show how weak it is. Read other sorts of critics, even ones you find distasteful. Know the answers to these questions: where are you writing? Who are you writing for (besides yourself, of course)? How would you express your opinion to a friend in a conversation? Do research, then respond from your gut anyway. Make sure to write words and sentences that you mean, not just ones that look good on the page. You were probably a critic before you decided to start being one on paper, and you’ll probably be one after you decide to stop. The act of writing shouldn’t hold you back from being what you naturally are.
JOE CARDUCCI (author—Stone Male, Life Against Dementia, Enter Naomi, Rock & the Pop Narcotic)
I wasn’t interested in writing until probably sophmore year in high school. School didn’t interest me, so I started reading novels that looked interesting and I got interested in movies. This was the early ‘70s and you could see interesting films in theaters, on television, and the public library offered 8mm prints of silent era comedies that you could play on your home movie projector. I started reading about film history to figure out what was worth looking for and began to try to write in a screenplay format. In retrospect, I’m glad there wasn’t much for me in college, so I quit the University of Denver in my second year and moved to Hollywood in 1976 without much of a plan. College is an arts killer, especially in America.
Punk rock on the West Coast was on a more visible human scale, so it drew a lot of people who had other plans for themselves. I wasn’t writing very good fiction yet, so I went with music for about ten years at Systematic, Thermidor, and SST Records, writing on the side when I could. I left SST when I thought I was ready to write for films. I didn’t want to leave the music business without writing the bands of that era into the history of rock and roll, so I wrote my book, Rock & the Pop Narcotic. I didn’t know it would take four years, but books are worth the effort, as they stay relevant if good. I was never interested in magazine writing or journalism; those aren’t worked out at a length that forces you to find out what you think about your subject. After R&TPN, I wrote what I think is my best script, The Winter Hand. I’m not sure Hollywood needs scripts anymore, so it’s probably all for naught, but it matters most to be good.
None of this earned me a living, but working with Black Flag at SST and experiencing those years on the West Coast generally helped me keep to what’s important. It seems today that there’s a lot of writing to be done to make sense of this country and the world, but there are so many distraction-traps for a young writer that the first job is to locate what’s worthy of your attention and drop certain things entirely, at least for awhile. It strikes me now that during the most intense years of punk’s beginning, nobody seemed to be watching television or following sports.
I’ve been asked the best way to write a record review for decades, and I always say the same thing. First, figure out what you really like—not what you’re supposed to like, not what you wish you liked, and please please please not what your editor wants you to like. Second, figure out the actual reason you like it, as distinguished from a cool argument for why it’s good. Third, use your writing skill, your emotional investment, and your sense of humor to transform that actual reason into a smart and/or funny and/or compelling and/or intrinsically interesting argument for why it’s good. Maybe even a cool one.
This process takes time. First of all, listening time—I’ve found it all but impossible to complete an album review I’m proud of until at least 48 hours after I’ve first heard the music (72 to 96 is the preferred minimum), and would strongly advise against reviewing a single without giving it multiple plays over the better part of a day (hahahahaha). And then there’s writing time. This has only taken me half an hour or so, but I’ve been thinking about these matters for 40 years and have translated my conclusions into language many times before (and I bet I’ll start having word-choice and omission regrets within minutes after I hit send). Sometimes you get lucky, and plenty of good writers are faster than I am. Most of them, however, are not. Good writing takes time. Good writing takes time. Good writing takes time.
IRWIN CHUSID (WFMU radio personality, author, historian, and ex-journalist)
Write about music because you’re passionate about it. If you don’t love music, write about something else.
Remove yourself from the story. The story is about the artist, not about you, where you discovered their music, or that they vomited on your sneakers. Delete all first person refs about the girl who dumped you, how little sleep you got the night before, your loathing for major labels, or your Catholic hangups. Write like a focused journalist, not like an adolescent craving attention.
Don’t expect to get paid for your writing. Doesn’t mean you never will, but it can’t be your primary objective. Write because you feel compelled to express an opinion, but keep your day job. If you don’t have a day job, get one.
Don’t dismiss major artists or knock what’s popular. Some hipsters need something to sneer at. It’s an obnoxious bottom-feeder pose.
Keep your politics out of the story. If you’re writing about music, your political views are irrelevant, intrusive, gratuitous and probably banal.
Read other writers and note what you like and what you don’t. Celebrity writers often commit egregious sins; obscure writers can exhibit immense talent and ingenuity. Learn from both.
Drop the words “virtually,” “literally,” and “basically” from your vocabulary. Sean Hannity owns them.
If you are assigned a word limit, try not to exceed it. If you do, don’t complain when an editor makes cuts to your Pulitzer-grade prose. That’s what editors are trained to do.
Revise, rewrite, refine. Good writing rarely occurs in one draft. And for your dignity’s sake, use spell check.
JOSHUA CLOVER (former senior writer—Spin, The Village Voice; current professor of English Literature)
In the ‘90s, when I was a music journalist, I wrote for several venues, from ‘zines to free weeklies to glossy nationals. The amount of self-determination one had—which words, to say what things—was inversely correlated to the amount paid. This was absolutely the case. One job of editors was to enforce this, while making it seem like it wasn’t a rule at all—that it was natural, or that it wasn’t actually the case. Because this is an invariant rule, one makes decisions within this context.
I don’t imagine this industrial rigor could have vanished. But clearly music journalism has changed. I figure going into music journalism now is a bit like going into shoemaking; it’s not something that individuals make a living at anymore, so you better fucking love it and you better make insanely beautiful shoes. If you’re just going to compete with factory-made shoes for a tiny slice of the affordable shoe market: ugh.
BYRON COLEY (columnist—Arthur, The Wire, Bathyscaphe, etc.)
It’s unclear to me why anyone would—given the extant models—want to become a music writer these days, but aberrant behavior is nothing new, so I’ll assume that when Jason says it is true, it is true.
When I started doing this crap, in the mid-‘70s, I was well aware that rock scribe was the bottom rung of all cultural ladders, but there were heroic weirdos who made it seem like it’d be fun to do (R. Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Robot Hull, Metal Mike Saunders, Andy Shernoff, Nick Tosches, Nick Kent, Mick Farren, etc.) and that was enough of an impetus. I was happy enough to get free records, a few bucks, and be able to write about musicians I genuinely dug.
As time when on, however, I found that the vast majority of paying gigs had to do with stuff I wouldn’t walk across the street to wipe my ass with. But for whatever reason, I managed to resist the lure of the lucre (although I did take ad copy gigs and write crappy bio paperbacks about utter turds), and although I never made much money from the writing while it was happening (apart from a few brief years where I was the Underground Editor at Spin), I actually feel pretty good about what I did. My juvenalia can be styistically labored and somewhat questionable aesthetically, but it was all written from a position of caring deeply about music, and trying to express that as well as my poor skills would allow.
I could have made a bit of money at it if I’d been willing to kneel before popular altars, but my long-suffering wife of 30 years has managed to keep herself employed in a manner that I have never had to. So my real advice is this—if you really and truly want to write about only those things that move you, marry above your station. Unless your taste is so populist you actually wanna ponder the hits of the day, there’s just no other way to do it.
DEENA DASEIN (freelance writer—Illinois Entertainer, etc.)
Want to write about rock in order to earn a living, hang with your favorite musicians, and get tons of swag? If so, I’ve got just the thing for you, the sign on the entrance to Dante’s version of hell: “Abandon all hope…” You’re too late for the party—that ship sailed decades ago. The few rockcrits still enjoying such bounty are on the endangered species list as magazines and newspapers go belly up.
But if you wish to write rock criticism because you love to do it, this is your time. The Internet and the current cult of the amateur will allow you to hone your craft without having to don the straight-jacket strapped on those who went pro. You won’t be required to genuflect to the rockcrit worldview—with its canon of saints (Bangs, Cobain, ad nauseum), party line of acceptable artists, and required verbal tropes like “visceral.” Nor will you have to kowtow and hype the newest corporate crud.
You still need to know as much about music as before—the various histories of styles, artists, scenes, labels, and fan-bases. And beyond music, you should have a grasp on the world, allowing you to provide value-added contexts to your reviews.
Obviously you need to distinguish your work from the cybertrash of those who don’t know the difference between venting opinion and making informed judgments that appreciate an artist’s work on its own terms.
What you get out of this is a wider and deeper taste and, maybe, Pitchfork might pay you enough for your morning coffee, if you take it black.
JUSTIN DAVIDSON (architecture and classical music critic—New York)
Dear Young Music Journalist,
Let’s start by agreeing that: 1) there are easier and more lucrative ways to pay the rent than writing; 2) there are easier and more lucrative writing careers than focusing on music; 3) you are trying to storm a crumbling castle; and 4) the businesses of music and journalism are both changing so quickly that any advice we fogies have to offer is probably already obsolete.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten the bummers out of the way, listening to and thinking about music is still a pretty appealing way to make a living, and if you do it well enough, you have the chance to give cultural and artistic life a verbal dimension it wouldn’t otherwise have. Everybody has opinions, but not everybody takes the time to work them out, articulate them, and express them in vivid prose, and many readers are grateful for the effort. Here are a few principles that work for me.
1) Do everything. Journalism, and arts journalism in particular, requires versatility.
2) Your first draft is not good enough; rewrite.
3) You’re never the most expert person in the room. Accept that you’re responsible only for your own opinions, even if you suspect they might be wrong.
4) When appropriate, make an argument, strongly. Disconnected critical observations do not add up to nuance—they represent an incomplete thought process.
5) Don’t hedge. Well, maybe sometimes.
6) It’s still not good enough; rewrite again.
7) Demand of yourself the same decisiveness, passion, and technical control that you demand from artists.
8) Feel free to ignore all of the above, except #‘s 2) and 6).
I write about music & culture, not because I am a writer—I suppose that I do so because I am passionate about music & culture. But mostly it’s because I think that I have something that is worth saying. Today, there are far too many people with nothing to say, who are writing just to write, and I am quite sure that you don’t want to be one of those people.
If I have any advice that is worth even a moment of your time, it’s to make absolutely certain that you have something that is worth saying. If you do, there is a chance that someone else will want to read the things that you write. And if that happens, it makes all of the hard work and destruction of brain matter involved in writing as a means of expression worthwhile. That’s because it means that your ideas will have connected with another person.
While you may never have the opportunity to meet and have a dialogue with that person, you will have created a bond with that person that will last a lifetime. And when that happens, it’s one hell of a reward.
JIM DEROGATIS (author; co-host—Sound Opinions; PopNStuff blog)
The two pieces of advice I give my courses in “Reviewing the Arts” at Columbia College Chicago—indeed, the advice I give any writer, in any field, whenever I am asked—are deceptively simple (though both are easier said than done).
1.) Read. Read everything, inside and outside your chosen field. There is no such thing as a good writer who is not also a voracious reader. Read the greats, and read the clueless; read the old stuff, read the new stuff, and read everything in between. When you see something that works for another writer, steal it. By this I do not mean plagiarize; I mean examine what that writer did—the technique, not the specific adjectives or sentence structure—and then try it out yourself. If it works for you, once you’ve put your own spin on it, put it in your tool box, along with all of the other stuff you’ve acquired. This will be the basis of your own style.
2.) Write. Write, write, write, write, write. And then write some more. Don’t worry if it sucks. Don’t worry if anyone is reading it. The great Nick Tosches once told me that an aspiring writer cannot be afraid to make a mess on the page. So just stop whining about it or over-thinking it or wondering if you’ve got it or not. Just do it.
Repeat, obsessively, for the rest of your life. If that seems daunting, find another hobby or career. If you want to be a writer, you’ll just as soon be able to give up breathing or eating than writing. Such is the curse of this racket/passion.
DAVE DIMARTINO (executive editor of Yahoo! Music; former editor—Creem, 1979-1986)
I’m not sure my advice to younger music writers—or those interested in following that pursuit—has changed much in the past 25 years, though everything else certainly has.
The basics are, and always have been, know a lot about music, have personality as a writer, and never promise something you don’t plan on delivering. If you can do it part-time, as a hobby, because you like it—which in 2010 seems an inevitability—you’ll probably end up a happier human.
Knowing a lot about music: Access to music is easier than ever, of course, and that’s fantastic—not a mixed blessing, no matter what anyone says. When I was growing up in the late ‘60s, knowing about music—really interesting music that wasn’t played on the radio—often meant having enough money to purchase it. In practical application, this meant holding the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun album in one hand and HP Lovecraft’s second in the other, having heard neither, and choosing the one with the cooler cover. Lather, rinse, and repeat. Regular readings of early Hit Parader, Rolling Stone and Creem supplied apparently informed reviews of music by people who’d actually heard it, and this was good—but you’d be surprised what they missed. And how often they were wrong. To oversimplify: one of the reasons I grew up buying albums by Can and Soft Machine was because I was curious and there really wasn’t much being written about them. I could afford it, and I had the time to seek them out—because back then I couldn’t go to Rhapsody or Lala and immerse myself in the complete works of Elvis Presley, Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash or Terry Riley. Young music writers: you can.
Have personality as a writer: I’m fortunate that I spent my earliest professional years working at Creem, as there has never been another music magazine with such a distinct personality. Yet each of the writers there was nothing like the other; some knew much more about music than others, others were expressive, hilarious writers, whose work would be enjoyable whether it was about the Blue Oyster Cult or collecting bottlecaps. The best writers there knew music, didn’t bore readers by flaunting their knowledge, and could consistently connect on some level with each individual reader. It is not an easy balance, and the number of writers today who actually can successfully convey their personalities via their writing, and appear to be jerks, is frightening.
Never promise something you don’t plan on delivering: Speaking as someone who’s been an editor as opposed to a freelance writer since the ‘70s, this last point seems obvious. Unfortunately, it had more meaning when deadlines were not self-imposed by people writing content for the own blogs. But regardless of whether you’ve promised a paragraph on the new Christina Aguilera album in exchange for a copy of her new album or 10,000 words on Tim Hardin’s army years for $2,000, if you told someone who wanted it you’d supply it, and you don’t, you blew it.
With all that said, the future of music writing looks very strange. The number of websites out there offering comprehensive and informed perspectives on Can, Soft Machine, the Grateful Dead, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash—as well as every garage band in the world that recorded a single track in the late ‘60s—is just as staggering as an afternoon spent trolling the long-tailish reaches of Rhapsody. And as anyone who’s trolled the infinite number of fantastic MP3 blogs out there at the moment knows, Rhapsody offers only a fraction of what’s actually available. For free.
So, at Yahoo, where I now work, here is what happens with music writers at this very moment. They can write excellent and thought-provoking pieces that are read by only 3,000 people. They can increase that readership by displaying an appealing personality that will draw fans regardless of their subject matter, and maybe draw 30,000. Or they can write a similarly great—or not so great, sadly—piece that, because it is linked to Yahoo’s highly-trafficked front page, will be easily read by more than 3 million people. But—and here’s the important part—they never really know who will be reading them. Which means they have to write for both audiences, large and small, without turning off either. It means not spending too much time writing about Holger Czukay, but at the same time, never allowing your more musically sophisticated readers to presume you wouldn’t write about Holger Czukay if it were called for.
In the same way that today’s imploding record industry has put everyone on equal ground—indies and majors that is, and the majors are losing—the incredible number of outlets for music writers today means that there are more opportunities than ever for the best ones to surface, and, ostensibly, be successful. They will likely know a lot about music, have conspicuous but agreeable personality in their writing, meet deadlines whenever they arrive, and have difficulty paying their utility bills.
So how exactly have things changed?