KRIS EX (writer under different names in different places; editor — RESPECT)
The best advice I could give to anyone wanting to become a professional music critic can be summed up in one word: Don’t.
Barring your acceptance of that sage wisdom, I’ll share the most germane insight I ever received, which came from another music writer, Cheo H. Coker. Cheo told me that I should always write as if I were writing for my desired publication. Meaning, if you’re writing a blog, but desire to write for Vanity Fair, write that blog like you’re writing for Vanity Fair.
That should be enough. But if you weren’t smart enough to heed my initial warning, you’re going to need more help than that. In no particular order:
- Remember: You’re not writing reviews or profiles. You’re sharing thoughts and ideas.
- Don’t write to be recognized. Write to make a difference (and don’t be afraid to be different).
- Be very, very good. Or make your deadlines. If you can do both, please let me know how.
- You can’t change the game without playing it. Make peace with that.
- If you’re black, that thing about having to be twice as good as your white counterparts still applies. And even then, you’re going to have to go out of your way to not be threatening, which is a lot harder than you’d think.
- Say goodbye to your friends. If you’re serious about being a writer, you won’t have time for them at the outset. And by the time you can catch up with them, their views will seem maddeningly pedestrian. Be nice and say goodbye now.
- Know that your favorite writers are probably your favorite writers because they’re writing from their points of view. Don’t mimic. Write from your point of view, not theirs.
- Don’t worry about finding your voice. If you’re honest, it will always be changing.
- Be honest.
- Don’t get caught up in the hype of every new social networking advancement platform aggregator mobile syndication online resume destination portal everyone seems to be going crazy over. Seriously. Don’t worry about being late to the party. And don’t worry about not showing up at all. Chances are your editor has no idea what half of that crap is anyway.
- Still, if you’re not staying up on the major advances in technology, you’d better be crafting some damned good prose.
- If you want to be a serious journalist, go someplace else. The entertainment industry will not tolerate the truth.
- Remember: your first audience is your editor. And your real bosses are the advertisers and distributors. The players may change, but there is not a single form of media in this country where this doesn’t hold true.
- Conflicts of interest are all over the place in the music industry. It’s pretty disgusting and you won’t be able to deal with it if you don’t have a strong constitution. Spend 20 minutes a day imagining your best friend sleeping with your ex in your bed. When you can do it without getting emotional, you’re ready to see what’s behind the smoke and mirrors.
- If you want to be a music critic, be a music critic. Don’t try to be a manager or a promoter or an A&R while you’re a music critic. Have some respect for yourself.
- Find a genre of music you really like and don’t ever, ever write about it. Ever.
- Never forget why you came.
CHUCK EDDY (author — Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe and The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n’Roll; former music editor — Village Voice; former senior
editor — Billboard; contributor — lots and lots of other places.)
These are just suggestions. Some of them, I probably don’t even follow myself: http://ded5626.inmotionhosting.com/~popmat6/pm/post/126528-chuck-eddys-advice-to-writers
TOM EWING (writer — Freaky Trigger)
For music writers in the broader sense, there’s the stuff that applies to any writer: know what you’re worth, read widely, write all the time, and so on. Listen well, of course. But there’s a new opportunity, too — all the language and style of music writing come out of a time when a writer had to represent the music to people who might never hear it. A lot of that seems strident now as well as second-hand, but not many people have cracked how to write alongside the music. Giddy enthusiasm is a default but it’s not an answer. I think if you’re starting now the first question you’d want to ask is: what new conversations do you want to start? Celebrations, debates, fist-fights — up to you. And then you can work on being the best person to start them.
BANNING EYRE (senior editor — AfroPop)
Write about what you love (or hate). Genuine passion counts more than knowledge or trendy topics. That said, do your research. The music business is full of hype and misdirection. Sorting out the truth from all that is part of your job. Learn how to describe what music sounds like, and always include that in your pieces. Too many music writers shirk on this, talking about music only in terms of meta-topics, comparisons, genre minutia, etc. If you review a record and fail to tell readers what it sounds like, you have fallen short. And did I mention? Write about what you love (or hate).
KATHY FENNESSY (writer — Amazon, Siffblog, Video Librarian)
I spend more time writing reviews than anything else. Since I can’t always predict which CDs and DVDs editors will send my way, it helps to have an open mind. Every genre has its merits; blanket dismissals serve no real purpose. If you can’t find anything nice to say about a metal record, you probably shouldn’t review metal. Try to find the good in everything that comes your way, but by all means, be honest. Be respectful. More than anything else: be empathetic. What you think is important, but it’s just as important to figure out what the artist was trying to do and why. Did they succeed? If so, you may still dislike it, but does that make it a failure? Snark tends to attract attention, but the world could always use more writers who seek to understand the world better and to engage readers with their discoveries.
ROB FIELDS (founder — Bold as Love blog)
What I’ve found is that writing is a struggle for clarity, both in terms of the writer being clear about what he or she is saying, and being able to clearly communicate and translate what’s in their head to the page. Having someone else look at your work before you send it out is invaluable, because it puts a fresh pair of eyes on your work. The second thing is that you should only write about the things that really matter to you. Readers can tell when its just another gig for you. But they definitely remember the enthusiasm that you have for a subject, because it’ll come leaping off the page.
BARBARA FLASKA (freelance writer — PopMatters)
So you want to write about music? Then WRITE, and keep on writing even if you feel you are the only person in the world who will ever read it or care at all. Don’t quit your day job. Jump heartfirst into the music that moves you and write like hell about it. If you decide on record reviews, interviews, show previews or reviews to make a little change, always reach out and at least send a thank you and a copy of your article to the artists/companies you’ve covered. Communicate with other music writers — you’ll be amazed at how generous many of them are with advice and help — and, there is strength in numbers.
If someone helps you on your way, then promise to do your share and help someone else along when the opportunity arises. Small kindnesses can mean the world to a writer just starting out.
And also, please be kind to animals.
CHET FLIPPO (editorial director, columnist — CMT/CMT.com)
I would say to first of all write about what you know about, and second of all to write about what you are truly passionate about. That can truly work — if you are serious. And devoted. If you are not, forget it…
Rebecca Franks to Gary Giddins
REBECCA FRANKS (online editor and staff writer — BBC Music Magazine)
Sit down and start writing — that’s my mantra. Even if 90% of what you write ends up in the bin, the other 10% could be worth the effort. Like any skill, writing takes practice. So start a blog, keep a diary, write CD and concert reviews, and always keep a notebook handy for those unexpected ideas and observations that will help fill the inevitable blank page. Develop an omnivorous appetite for listening and reading. Most important, though, is to find something you’re passionate about. When the deadline’s looming and the coffee has run out, what’ll keep you going is the fun, enjoyment and privilege of writing — and being paid to write — about what you love.
DEBORAH FROST (writer — Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Creem, The Boston Phoenix; musician; ‘goddess’)
If you want a popularity contest, enter a beauty pageant (and g-d knows, plastic surgery is cheap enough these days). That goes for boys and/or girls. If you want to be a writer, read all of the best you can. Work with the best you can. Find your voice. Speak your truth (or at least try to discover what it is). It may not be fun and/or easy. It will take at LEAST 20 years, no matter how smart or talented you actually are or however young you start, to even figure out what you are doing, even WITH genes, genius or the greatest coach and/or sugar daddy/mama on yr side. You may have to cut off an ear or the equivalent. Be prepared. If not, fuck you (see be prepared, above). And repeat if necessary.
KYLE GANN (composer; author — No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”; former music critic — The Village Voice)
Read a lot of philosophy, especially those thinkers who are major figures in aesthetics. I’d recommend Nelson Goodman, Benedetto Croce, Kant’s Critique of Judgement, Aristotle’s Poetics, Theodor Adorno, Rose Rosengard Subotnik, Matthew Arnold. They’ll teach you to consider a work of art from many different angles, and keep you from getting caught up in the two or three limited modalities offered by our cliche-ridden commercial culture. Read Virgil Thomson’s criticism, and George Bernard Shaw’s, and you’ll learn that objectivity is more a component of writing style than of alleged conflict of interest. Ignore almost all of the music criticism that appears in newspapers today — it can only teach you bad habits and invite you to get away with facile truisms. The world of art is huge, and there are many different, equally valid paths that lead through it. Our commercial music culture explores only a few such paths, and to get to the truth you need a much wider perspective than you’ll get from what you can run across in daily life without a thorough search into the history of artistic thought.
RICHARD GEHR (freelance writer — The Village Voice, eMusic, Spin, Columbia Journalism Review)
While nobody should expect to extract even a subsistence income from the music-writing field, at least outside of academia (and even that’s a big maybe), there remain few things more redemptive, in this miasma of suffering called life, than paying close attention to a work of art — pop or otherwise — and responding to it with honesty, insight, and panache. That’s true no matter whether you’re grading albums in a hundred words or less for the few surviving music magazines or unwinding thousands of words for The Believer.
Writing’s like a meditation in that sense, and they say meditation is good for you. But you probably want to avoid getting into the habit of committing torrents of first-thought verbiage to your blog, because this practice will not stand you in good stead when you need to submit clean copy to an actual editor. The good news is that this probably won’t pose a problem if you’ve adopted the writerly modality of prankster, encyclopedist, autobiographer, psychoanalyst, Marxist-Leninist, comedian, tragedian, or any of the nearly infinite brands of commercially unviable arts writing.
And while nearly everyone collecting a check from this endeavor remains ambivalent about the unpaid, democratized, devalued, but still potentially fulfilling amateur side of the digital coin, that probably isn’t a concern for you yet. So, learn a trade, continue to write if you have no other choice but to do so, collect those URLs, and hope some kindred editorial spirit digs your work enough to pay you for it.
ANDY GENSLER (writer — The New York Times Moment Blog, The Daily Swarm, freelance odds & sods everywhere)
To be considered in the same breath as these writerly peeps is an honor and truly underserved. These days I mostly scribe odds and sods about music for the New York Times Moment Blog and The Daily Swarm. I’ve never managed to make a living exclusively from writing about music, but having these outlets to write for over the last year or two and interviewing Gil Scott-Heron, Sergio Dias from Os Mutantes, Big Star’s Jody Stephens, Bob Mould, Karen O, Gonzalez, and others is an absolute privilege.
Quite unlike the pitching and politics of journalism and the music industry — especially before the Internet and digital age made a much needed end-run around its often smug clique-ish gatekeepers. It was, and still can be, a shitty ugly exercise in groupthink nonsense and petty politics. Try not to get discouraged by how crappy these industries can make you feel.
I think of music as something much bigger, more profound, even sacred — a sort of an ineffable guiding principle existing on a higher plane. Applying writing and journalism is just one of many ways to engage it. Dancing and/or losing your mind to it is another. So is creating a social-communal network around it (like the Mishpucha list serve we’re on that I helped found); turning others on to it; effecting positive socio-political change through it; learning about history, culture, geography, the universe etc. through it; participating in its rituals; or just creating it are all equally — if not more — valid ways to interact with music and get closer to its essence.
Advice to budding music writers, if I have any to give, is to let the music guide you. Music is first and foremost its own reward, and making a living from it shouldn’t be your priority. The web beast and its insatiable appetite for content is quite obviously a good place for aspiring writers and music freaks to start. Keep your ears and mind open. ¬Music I’ve wrongly dismissed in the past as unlistenable — techno, house, new wave, nu-romantic, noise music, minimalism, black metal, facile pop — over the years have become favorites and provided hugely rewarding experiences. Allow your ass, heart, and feet to follow the music and see the incredible places it takes you — it’s a love supreme.
GARY GIDDINS (author, Warning Shadows: Home Alone with Classic Cinema)
Listen to everything. Listen beyond your area of expertise. Write every day, even — especially — when you don’t have a gig. Read everything. Steal with impunity, as long as you make it new. Trust your instincts, question your prejudices. Be generous. Chronicle, don’t prescribe. Don’t be afraid to change your mind: welcome it. Cut down your adjectives and adverbs by half. Refrain from using the first person unless you absolutely must. Do it for love, but always get paid. No matter what music you prefer, listen to Louis Armstong’s 1956 recording of “When You’re Smiling” before the sun sets on another day.
Michael Goldberg to Kory Grow
MICHAEL GOLDBERG (editor-at-large — MOG (mog.com); founder- Addicted to Noise, Neumu; former senior writer and associate editor — Rolling Stone)
Write every day. Start a blog. Write about what you love, or what you hate. Maybe more to the point, write about the things you really truly care about. Write every day. Don’t worry about being “hip and cool.” Read like crazy, but read the great stuff: Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway, and all the rest. Never stop reading. Write every day. Don’t read rock reviews. If you’re gonna cop a style from someone, go for the giants of writing. Better yet, find your own voice. It’s in there, you just got to let it out. Write every day.
Break all the rules. If you’re dead set on being a “rock critic,” and why you’d want to do that rather than write novels or short stories or poetry or plays or songs, it’s hard to fathom… But anyway, if you’re hell-bent on the rock critic trip, learn everything you can about music. Listen to jazz, rock, soul, world, electronic, country, classical, folk, blues, and hip-hop. The more of the good stuff in every “genre” you’ve heard, the better informed you’ll be to write about a particular artist/album/song. And don’t just limit yourself to music. If you must become a critic, know all you can about art and film and history and philosophy and so on, and so on. Write every day.
And understand that everyone has an opinion, and who really cares if you think the new Spoon album is great or shit. But if you can help me hear things in a Spoon song that I missed before I read your words, or if you can somehow get the essence of Spoon on the page, well then, you’ll have done something that means a shit. Write every day. And keep the faith. Don’t let your ego get out of control. And never settle for ‘good enough.’ If you’re going to write, write like Godard directed, write like Picasso painted, write like Arbus photographed, write like Skip James played the blues. Write the truth. And one more thing. Oh yeah, write every day.
VIVIEN GOLDMAN (adjunct professor of Punk and Reggae at NYU; writer; broadcaster; author — The Book of Exodus; musician)
Rewind, Operator: Far, far away and long ago there was once an active youth music press in which an obsessive young scribe, frequently strung out on speed and cigs, could secure a modest living by writing about music. We got paid by the word and sometimes we wrote 3,000 words. Overnight. Oh dear young ones, I refer to Britain in the late 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s… and so on and on it kind of went until at some point, new semi-glossy mags sprang up, wheeling out the beloved writers of previous decades again to cater to the now-balding fans who still liked to put on their Doc Martens and go see the Specials. …and on and on until the Internet came along and gave and took away like it did. And does.
Fast Forward, please, Operator: …So, now… Although everyone is meant to do their own blog and get a following and find advertising, I still feel that unity is strength. Gathering like-minded scribes, visual artists, and programmers around you to create something ongoing with personality, in which a community can help carry the heavy schlepping of endlessly updating, etc., is a way forward that I would recommend.
As to the long articles I always loved to write; though right now long-forms are somewhat out of vogue, I believe there will always be a place for them and sometime maybe you, young reader, will help new platforms for them to emerge. I suggest that you get your more business-minded mates to focus on the monetizing aspect of said project. But that doesn’t mean you can abdicate financial responsibility. Read everything carefully.
Otherwise, you just keep on writing and getting your name out there by any means possible, even if it’s in local free giveaway rags. That’s what most people seem to look at on the subway, anyway. And persist, persist, persist at getting your name in one of the remaining outlets that pay. Originality and a voice still count for something. I still believe that, anyway.
MARCUS GRAY (occasional recent contributor — The Guardian and Classic Rock; author — It Crawled from the South, Last Gang in Town, Route 19 Revisted)
Who am I to give advice? If I had any worth reading, I’d have followed it myself and made a much better fist of my so-called career. But this is what it took me 20 years to learn: Put a lot of thought and work into your proposal/pitch — txt-ese, chaotic grammar, and misspellings are really, really bad ideas — and tailor it to the outlet. Keep it short. Offer to send more detail if the editor is interested, and have that detail ready to go on demand, whether it’s for a feature or a book. Don’t forget to say why you’re the person to do it: you’re not just selling the idea, you’re selling yourself.
Always follow up emails, indicating that it’s a repeat approach in the subject box. Give a (polite) deadline for a response, and ‘promise’ to follow up by phone if you haven’t heard by then. Don’t go away until you get a ‘no,’ but don’t hang around on a ‘maybe.’ Be ready to offer whatever it is elsewhere, but also have another couple of ideas on the go.
Grow a really thick skin (you’ll need it). If you’re not doing it because you just have to, then you probably won’t be doing it for long.
You can give away your love, you can give away your money, but never give away your rights.
NICK GREEN (writer — Decibel, Washington City Paper, Rock Sound)
You will suffer for your art. It will take a toll on your health and your personal relationships. Because of this, freelance writing is the worst possible career choice for the risk-averse. Having the courage of your convictions means believing in your own critical opinion, but also trusting that what you are doing has value. You will need to remind yourself of this on a daily basis. If you’re not writing for personal enrichment, you deserve to be paid for the work that you do. Don’t waste your time laying the foundation for someone else’s empire. Don’t write about something you don’t care about just for a byline; do push yourself gently outside your comfort zone to stay fresh and invested. Don’t moon over missed opportunities — keep your eyes on what’s next and concentrate on making things happen for yourself.
LEAH GREENBLATT (music critic — Entertainment Weekly)
Making a living as a music journalist can seem like getting paid to drink beer or test-drive Vespas — it’s a fantastic, ridiculous privilege. But with great privilege comes responsibility, too — to the artists you’re writing about, to the readers investing their time and trust in what you have to say, and in general to the part you play in the clamoring, free-for-all media rodeo. The Internet’s democratization of arts journalism can be great, but it also rarely calls for any standards of knowledge, integrity, or authenticity, so you have to take that responsibility upon yourself (and develop a thick skin against the comment trolls who live to police it). Don’t be provocative or cruel or contrarian just because you can, and don’t sacrifice critical judgment or clarity for style. Read the writers you respect, and analyze what it is about their work that you admire; realize it took most of them a long time to get to where they’re at, and be prepared to do the same. Exercise the muscle every day if you can, and never, ever close your mind when you open your ears. Good luck!
KORY GROW (senior editor — Revolver)
Young writers sometimes allow themselves to get seduced the by creative process. Words are sexy. Thing is though, you gotta please somebody else with your words. Otherwise it’s just, uh… You get the picture. A lot of young music writers forget that they were readers (and, more important, fans) first, and there’s a fine line between gonzo journalism and purple prose.
If you hope to make anyone else happy with your writing (or, God forbid, make some money), take a minute and reread your work before you post it or turn it in to your editor. Ask yourself, ‘Would I enjoy reading this if my name wasn’t on it?’; ‘Would it fit in with features or reviews section in my favorite publication?’; ‘Would my friends understand what I’m talking about?’; ‘Do I feel like reading anything past the first few lines?’ If you answer ‘no!’ to any of those questions, it’s time to revise.
The first step to better writing is to focus your thoughts. Strengthen your argument if it’s a review, or heighten the suspense if it’s a feature. Good music writing is as entertaining as it is informative, but all your hard work will be lost if your points aren’t clear. Make sure each paragraph has a topic sentence and each following sentence connects thematically to the next. Spend some extra time to ensure that you have a solid ending that is relevant to your lede or ‘nut graf.’
When you’re done tightening the structure, read it again. If it’s a feature, the story’s natural humor and pathos should be evident, and not marred by clever asides or personal accounts. Readers care about bands, not journalists. It’s your duty to get the hell out of the way of the story. If it’s a review, you should have a clear sense of whether the record was good or bad. Remember you’re looking at this as a reader and not a rock critic, and readers are (supposedly) spending their hard-earned money on this music. You have an economic responsibility here, one that’s even greater if someone paid to read your writing.
Stylistically, it’s good to be funny and entertaining, but not in a condescending way that would exclude readers. Too many young critics forget that they are professional music fans first and foremost and, in turn, write arrogant, snarky, snobbish prose. As I alluded in the beginning, it quickly turns to masturbation.
Ultimately, you should feel like you’re a part of the story, a part of the music. You should want to listen to something, whether it’s the record in question or something else related to the article. When you feel this way, you know you’ve written something good and that you will be turning in something of quality. And here is the most important piece of advice I have: always make your deadlines. No, seriously.
Dream Hampton to Will Hermes
DREAM HAMPTON (filmmaker/writer from Detroit)
When it comes to celebrities, especially those who’ve been the subject of more than 3 profiles, I’ve found I get the best results if I leave my recorder in my purse. Counter-intuitive, sure. But performers tend to perform when a microphone appears. They get into ‘interview’ mode and tell you the same shit they told the last mic. My best profiles — Snoop, Tupac, Jay-Z and J-Lo — were conducted Joan Didion-style: me taking notes as they waited for the interview to begin.
HOWARD HAMPTON (possibly writing a memoir of his life in and out of criticism, has written for more alternative weeklies and highbrow slicks that you can shake a stick at)
Educate yourself first: learn the craft of writing, particularly from demanding editors (if you’re lucky enough to find them). Push yourself: don’t settle for craft alone, either (sometimes you’ll have to, but even when you need to be a whore, you can at least be a creative one). Writing isn’t goddamn social networking: your opinions and favorites are ultimately the least interesting thing about your work. Your peer group — every peer group — sucks. Everyone has opinions coming out of his/her ass — expressiveness is a lot harder to achieve. Be interested in more than your particular demographic or musical specialty. Specialization is death: there’s a wider world beyond the space between Guided by Voices and your virginal ears. Devour the fullest spectrum of music — Herbie Nichols, Viennese 12-tone pieces, Vietnamese surf music, Son House, Ke$ha — and dig into movies, books, art, life, history, and any other sticky things you can lay your hands on. That’ll put music in a deeper context and raise the bar of expectations: Shoot the Piano Player isn’t about rock, but can teach you as much as Jerry Lee Lewis and the Mekons. As someone from Pittsburg once said: “have a good time but get out alive.”
ROB HARVILLA (music editor — The Village Voice)
Goes without saying by now, calamitous as this business has gotten, that you should only get into it now because you love it, because you are unhealthily obsessed with it, because you can’t walk/drive anywhere without knowing exactly what you will listen to en route, that you fall asleep thinking about what you listened to and what you’ll listen to tomorrow. Again, probably a given.
Just try to balance respect/cognizance of history with slavish devotion to/imitation of it. Don’t seek to merely ape your Christgaus, your Bangses, your Powerses, but do know them, read them, absorb them. In fact: robertchristgau.com. Click on “Pazz & Jop.” Read every essay, 1971 to present. Scan every annual list. Listen to 15-20 of those records for every year. Plug in the gaps. As complete a distillation as you’ll find of how popular music, and the art (yes!) of writing about it, evolved. Evolve with it.
JIM HAYES (columnist for Flipside, 1997-99; author — Jucifer Rising (2009); blogging at assemblyplantmarietta)
1. Please don’t be a rock critic. The world doesn’t need any more of ’em. Save your money and travel, learn a foreign language. Like Zappa said when he founded Bizarre Records: “just what the world needs, another record company.”
2. Read everything you can! Especially about criticism, remember that nothing is new under the sun, so it helps to find a historical lineage to connect with and link up to. I was initially fascinated by Thoreau and decided to make the world of underground rock my Concord.
3. Once you figure out who YOU are, then you can trace the bands. I always try to show where the band was/is coming from — then I’d ask them if I was right or wrong.
4. Write about what you see and experience, and always carry a notebook and a pen. Discover a lost tribe (say, crab-core) and rewrite their rituals.
5. Is crab-core really a lost tribe? I know the band’s name was doubled, like ‘attack attack’ or something, it was loud heavy metal and then there was a brief classical interlude and then more metal and then a section that sounded like ’70s disco all the while the band was engaged in these weird aerobic motions. I was getting tired watching them.
6. Find out if crab-core needs a philosopher. Remember all rock criticism goes back to Nietzsche being the court stooge to Wagner — you’ve read The Birth of Tragedy, right? What did Genet say: “How did some 26-year-old Kraut figure this out?”
7. Become the philosopher, the apologist for a band, send a band you’re in love with strange letters, call their record label late at night and leave cryptic messages for the publicity people. Oh Christ — about ten years ago this writer for Flipside said the most horrible slanders about me, so I wrote and printed a ten-page pamphlet denouncing her. She quit the magazine, then I quit.
8. Review their records in 25,000 words or less. What did Lester Bangs say: “Is writing Allman Brothers reviews proper training for a Spengler?”
9. Ask specific questions: How often do you sit down to write music or lyrics? Do you use a rhyming dictionary? How do you feel about folks taping your gigs and putting them on the web? What instruments would you like to use but haven’t yet?
10. A rock star once told me that rock criticism doesn’t do anything, and that made me sad. My goal (if I ever had one) was to turn folks on to some good music that they might not hear. Nick Tosches turned me on to Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies. His story of his legendary search for Emmet Miller was a double-edged sword. It stressed the mystery of the ’20s minstrel performer, and it described how Tosches’s quest mirrored a traumatic part of his own life. His search became a story that paralleled the secret of Miller’s strange, strange voice. Once I heard Emmet Miller, who did the original version of “Lovesick Blues” in 1922, I understood why someone would try and figure out, ‘Who the hell was this guy?’
WILL HERMES (freelancer — NPR, Rolling Stone, New York Times; occasional professor of journalism at the State University of New York in New Paltz and Albany)
Hell, I never expected to make a living at this. But I still did it obsessively, through my undergrad years and between the cracks of every half-assed real job and grad-school stint that followed. It was fun when I didn’t get paid; still is. My advice: do what you love. Then the requisite obsessive-ness will come naturally.
Don’t have blinders; listen to everything. But having a specialty helps. In the ’90s, I loved Sonic Youth and R.E.M. — still do, mostly — but I also loved African pop and techno, and I got more early assignments writing on the latter; less competition, and more satisfaction (for me, anyhow) in preaching to the unconverted. Find an outlet that will let you write at some length about your many passions, or write for a number of outlets that let you do different things (in my case, the latter has turned out to work best).
Also, and this is key: read good writing. Not just music books and websites and magazines, but fiction and poetry and political rants and whatever else starts yr engine.
Watch great films, old and new. Eat art daily. Gorge yourself.
And finally, assuming it’s ever officially launched in the US, get Spotify and hole up with it for a year or two. Your social life will suffer, but your mind and ears will be happy.
Robert Hull to Chuck Klosterman
ROBERT HULL (writer, sharing his musings regularly at POPKRAZY, an online hangout for brain-damaged popcult fanatics)
When I was 18, I was getting published by Creem because Lester Bangs liked the fact that I was so prolific (I had sent him about 50 record reviews, each one single-spaced on a letter-sized page). These days, the best way to appear prolific is to blog yourself to death on your own site.
I honestly don’t know what music journalism is anymore. There is so much content available that to try to break through the mess seems daunting.
Nevertheless, I would attach myself to several blogs/sites, then write in a unique style, be serious but funny (and genuine), and try not to imitate anybody.
[Any young (or old) up-and-coming neer-do-well is welcome to blog at my site called POPKRAZY. Just as Creem and Lester gave me a chance, I’d be honored to do the same. (POPKRAZY is a nonprofit zine/site focused on all aspects of pop culture from the days of yore.)]
But whatever you do, WRITE. Don’t just talk about writing. Let it loose!
MATTY KARAS (writer — VH1, Fuse)
Invest in a good pair of earplugs. Use them. Listen to as much music as possible. Listen to music by people who don’t look like you. Listen to music you don’t understand. Ask questions. Be persistent but don’t be annoying. Return phone calls and emails, in that order. Hit your deadlines. Spell every name and every title correctly. Double-check that spelling. Delete all adverbs. Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Be honest with yourself. Understand your prejudices. Treat everyone with respect: artists, publicists, managers, administrative assistants, your editor, your readers. There is no such thing as bad music. There is only music that you don’t like. Somebody else likes it, though. Treat that person with respect, too. Check your spelling again.
JEFF JACKSON & JEFF GOLICK (writers — destination: OUT)
In the immortal words of Werner Heisenberg:
- Be authentic in your passions (the only authenticity to worry about).
- Don’t always listen to music in the same way; seek different contexts to see what might open it up (or shut it down) shuffle it, repeat it, drive with it, walk with it, commute with it, eat along with it.
- Try to be understood, but don’t expect it.
- Consider the fact that you might be mistaken about something.
JOHN KELMAN (managing editor — Allaboutjazz.com)
Your credibility is everything. Probably the most important — and humbling — lesson writers learn (from painful experience) is that readers don’t give a rat’s behind about them. They want to know about the music, so always keep that your primary focus. And while it’s one thing to provide a balanced critique, one that weighs the good with the bad, it’s another to simply score points off the artist; that speaks little about the music and everything about the writer.
Try to avoid blow-by-blow descriptions of the music, and instead aim for a bigger picture, where greater detail is used to support that larger view. Contextualize the music and the artist; your audience will be a mixture of readers intimately familiar with the artist and those for whom this will be a first encounter.
Last, avoid telling readers what they will experience when they hear the music; you can only speak to what you hear. It’s a drop-dead certainty that if you assume everyone will hear what you do, there will be folks out there who absolutely will not. Not only will your credibility be lost with the current review, but trust in your opinions in the future will also be compromised. It’s all about building an audience, one reader at a time.
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN (author)
1.) Listen to other writers’ advice, but don’t unconditionally accept what they tell you. People tend to retrospectively view their own personal experience as normative, particularly if they’ve had any degree of success. If someone says, “You must do _____, you always need to _______,” they’re merely telling you what they did (while ignoring the fact that every other writer they’ve ever met has inevitably done things differently).
2.) When writing a feature or a profile, don’t get paralyzed by what you assume the story should be about. Don’t immediately decide, “This is my thesis, and whatever I learn is just going to have to support it.” Be flexible. Immediately after you finish an interview, imagine the conversation that would happen if you randomly ran into your smartest, funniest friend on the sidewalk — if he or she casually asked you how the interview went, what would you tell them? That answer is probably the most interesting thing about whomever you’re writing about.
3.) Clarity is extremely important, unless you honestly don’t care how people interpret your ideas.
4.) It’s impossible to anticipate what audiences want or what audiences will like. Don’t even pretend to try. It will only make things worse.
5.) In essay writing, people will instruct you to never use qualifiers like “to a certain degree” or “almost” or “arguably.” They will say this erodes your authoritative voice. But sometimes ideas need to be qualified. Accurately reflecting how you feel is more important than expressing an authoritative view that isn’t genuine. People can see right through that.
6.) In journalistic ventures, it’s always tempting to interview your primary subject first and the secondary subjects later. It seems logical. However, it generally works better if you do it the other way around.
7.) If an interview subject isn’t responding to your questions, ask them specific queries about their craft (i.e., “How did you tune your guitar to get that specific sound?,” “What is the initial step when writing a pop song?,” etc.). Every artist enjoys explaining the technical minutia of what they do, because those details are usually overlooked. If that still doesn’t work, directly ask them. “Why are you refusing to answer my questions?” You have nothing to lose by doing this.
8.) Be hyper-aware of your own pre-existing biases. If you’re inclined to be a left-leaning person, don’t assume every album you love must be politically progressive and every album you hate is therefore reactionary. If you’re prone to conservatism, don’t create an adversarial relationship with everything that’s different and don’t immediately gravitate toward sounds that feel familiar and comfortable. Aggressively question your own feelings. Anytime you feel like you’ve come to a critical conclusion, ask yourself, “But why do I really feel this way?” Continue asking yourself that question until there’s nothing left to ask.
9.) There are exceptions to everything, but it’s generally a bad idea to a) respond to those who criticize your writing, and/or b) take any compliment about your work seriously.
10.) In 30 years, unless you’re a genius (and probably not even then), no one is going to care about the quality of your work, and no one will accurately remember anything you published… except you. You will care, and you will remember. So if you can’t satisfy yourself, you ultimately can’t satisfy anyone. That said, nobody believes their own writing is brilliant; only crazy people think like that. So if you’re insecure about your work and you lack confidence in your ability, it might just mean you’re reasonable and talented.