Over a hundred music scribes were confronted with this not-so-simple question: “If an eager young writer cornered you and asked ‘What’s the best advice you could give me?’ what would you have to say?” Most of the responders were nicely earnest with some humor thrown in, though considering the dismal state of the biz today, there was also some nail-biting panic thrown in there too.
Some scribes, especially off the record, were blunt about the field and its prospects. “Music journalism has devolved so completely into celebrity-coverage wank-speak that it should be taken out back and put out of its misery for good,” said one. Another writer, who thought the whole premise of this series was stupid, insisted: “Listen to your mom and get a real job.” But with two other exceptions, everyone else did have at least a little bit of hopeful advice about how to stick it out through these turbulent times. With circulations plummeting and staff being cut everywhere, it’s a tough time to be any kind of scribe. That doesn’t mean that your mom was right, though.
You’ll notice that some writers refer to other names here who inspired them, while some advice contradicts other pieces of advice. The responses also range from hilariously crude to pretty scholarly, but you’ll likely agree that the tone doesn’t detract from the content. Maybe you won’t agree with all that’s said here, and to be honest, I don’t necessarily agree with every single thing said here either (come to think of it, the writing in this intro probably broke a lot of the rules laid out by other writers here). Maybe the best way to think of this series is to treat it like a mash-up, or a smorgasbord where you can pick and chose what’s useful for you and your own consumption (just don’t pig out too much).
Even if you’re not a newbie writer, this series has other uses too. Attention veteran scribes: there’s a lot of wisdom to be found here in this variety of voices that can still be useful for your own work. Also, the responses provide a window into the thinking and experience of each of the writers themselves for anyone who’s curious about what their mindset is and how they each approach their own work. As one writer pointed out after insisting that work needs to be sent out on time and then sent their own advice back here late, everyone’s response is a really list of ideals. We all find out the hard way that we can’t always live up to them.
One thing you might find interesting, or distressing, is that a number of responders bristled at being called a ‘writer.’ Some of that can be chalked up to the self-deprecating feeling of “I’m not worthy!” even though all of them are. Other times, this disconnect might be semantics — being a ‘writer’ isn’t necessarily the same thing as being a ‘journalist’ or ‘author’ or ‘reviewer,’ per se. But maybe the field has just become so rotten and disrespected that for some, it’s simply not cool to be considered a ‘writer’ anymore. Whatever the reason, and despite what some of them say and whether they like it or not, everyone who responded here is a ‘writer’ of some stripe.
If you’re wondering why some responses are haiku-length while others are article-length, there’s a reason. Off the bat, the responders were asked for answers of about 150-250 words, just a few sentences. The thinking was that it wouldn’t eat up too much of their busy schedules. A number of scribes decided that they had more to say than that, and since the answers were intriguing, why stop ’em?
You also have to wonder how different these responses would have been five years ago, or five years from now. In 2005, there would have still been some level of panic — even then, the field was going through a seismic change. But in 2015, what is the media landscape going to look like? In a high-tech age like this, no one has an answer because it keeps changing so rapidly, which is frightening to some and exciting to others. But even in, say, 2025 or 2050 (when we might communicate with brain-implanted chips), a lot of the advice here will still make sense and be worth heeding.
Even after interrogating a large group like this, this listing isn’t definitive. This series was one month’s work, but truth be known, even if it was done over the course of a year, it still would have been impossible to get everyone to respond. As such, some writers, demographics, and publications aren’t represented here, but it wasn’t necessarily from a lack of trying, sometimes more than once. Some writers were busy (understandable with a short deadline like this), while dozens of other scribes didn’t respond. Some initially responded, but didn’t have time to send anything back, and a few of them frankly said that they wouldn’t have any advice to give that eager young writer.
For my own advice, I gathered some thoughts here that didn’t seem to be covered elsewhere, but there’s one really important piece of wisdom to share otherwise. Listen to the writers here — they’ve got lots of worthwhile things to say. Sometimes they have even better advice than your mama.