GREG KOT (music critic — Chicago Tribune; author — Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music; co-host — Sound Opinions)
It helps to be slightly insane. Don’t do this unless you are absolutely crazy in love with writing and music, preferably both. It’s the same impulse that makes people want to join bands. The tangible rewards are usually negligible, especially at first and usually for a lot longer. It’s the intangibles that make it so rewarding, but you’d have to be nuts to want to do this for a living. I lucked out. I got a gig at a big-city daily. But I’d still be writing about music whether I got paid for it or not. I need it more than it needs me.
If you can’t imagine doing anything else, then get going. Just as Larry Bird learned to play basketball by shooting hundreds of baskets a day when no one was watching, a writer needs to work every day on digging out his voice when no one gives a shit. I define rock ‘n’ roll as “amplified personality.” Writing is much the same — a quest to find your true voice after you strip away all the influences and insecurities that mask it. Once you find that voice, amplify it. Make it imperative for people to hear, even if they disagree with much of what it says. Your value lies not in catering to your readers in hope that they will agree with you, but in engaging them in a spirited and frequently contentious dialogue about music. Music matters — it is one of the best reasons for living — and your readers take it very personally. You should feel the same way, and if you don’t, don’t bother.
You aren’t the last word on a subject, the great oracle who knows all, but a discussion-starter, a thought-instigator. You are a tour guide, an educated listener who steers your reader to a particular unseen back alley of music and says, “Here’s why you should pay attention to this.” Strive to educate, illuminate, and entertain. Put your subject in context, describe the music without resorting to jargon, strive to be nuanced rather than snarky, and never, ever use the word “seminal.”
JOHAN KUGELBERG (writer and curator of 20th century pop culture; author The Velvet Underground — New York Art and Born in the Bronx — A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop)
Our old pals Raoul Vaneigem and Guy Debord would often in mid-pontification, take a little break, slurp a bit of calvados, and state with a calm and clear voice that information and communication don’t necessarily correspond: that the nature of informing only goes in one direction, and that even as the attempt is to inform, one has to do that through the guise of communication.
So it that it? The snarky comments on your music blog is how your (no doubt) insightful text about the merits of “Psychotic Reaction” vis-a-vis “Carburator Dung” grows in scope and scale as the snark actually adds to the level of meaning of the original text? I think “Fuck No” is the correct response.
Music writing ultimately is about shared enthusiasm, one would hope. Fear in my heart has my nostrils flare (and my flares nostril!) as the current Heineken advertising campaign states “Don’t Listen to Critics: Be the Critic”, which as far as quality music writing goes makes me think of how blogging and snarking and waxidermying is the bane of enthusiasm, replacing it with the nasty solipsistic crapulence of connoisseurship. The idea that your choices, your taste adds meaning to your life, and that such imposition of will towards others will not only make you feel better about yourself, but also means that when you die, God and his pals are going to await you on the other side of the pearly gates holding up score cards “5.9, 6.1, 6.0”, Olympic ice skating-style, identifying just how goddamn cool and edgy and hep your cultural consumption-choices were, infusing the notion of preferring Television over Dire Straits and Burning Red Ivanhoe over Gasolin’ actually is significant in our smelly old world where what once was directly lived now has receded into a representation.
The holy troika goes as follows: you get down with a jam, you get infused with the holy spirit (Tiny Tim said that we are obliged to find out as much as possible about that which we love), and you decide that instead of being one of those creepy cultural keepers-of-the-flame, to become a raging enthusiastic pop-culture pyromaniac, attempting to set as many minds ablaze with your accumulated gnosis.
Share and spread enthusiasm; don’t player-hate, don’t snark — negative reviews are easy, and blasts of pure unfiltered happy-making are hard. Don’t succumb to the dark side. Stay away from snark. Don’t post shit-talk on forums.
All aspects of your life will be informed and infused with this. Your love life will improve, you’ll make more bucks, you’ll be a happier person and babies and babes and geriatrics will smile at you.
BEN LAZAR (writer — Deeper Shade of Soul Blog; manager, producer — Tenth Avenue Music)
Ladies and gentlemen, if you write, no matter your opinion of your own writing, make sure that you know yourself and continually create yourself to be a writer. That doesn’t mean you’re good or bad, professional or amateur, it just means you’re a writer — and it keeps you in the game of writing instead of taking yourself out for no good reason.
NORMAN LEBRECHT (author — The Maestro Myth, The Life and Death of Classical Music, Why Mahler?; international columnist and BBC broadcaster)
Write about things that matter to you and that no-one else is tackling. When I became smitten by classical music in my 20s, no one could tell me why I felt the way I did. The big-name reviewers worshipped cults of Great Composers and Great Conductors without explaining what was so great about them, and no-one dealt with the mechanics of the music business — how and why concerts and opera looked the way they did. Those were my starting points. I have never stopped.
Joe Levy to Dave Marsh
JOE LEVY (editor in chief — Maxim)
In the ’90s, music writing went pro — it seemed utterly reasonable to expect to earn a living at it, not just supplement your income. Magazines (those were the outlets back then — paper!) expected short, clean copy that could be published during the week of a record’s release.
Now, no one even knows when a record is being released, including the people putting it out, and music writing is… not pro, exactly (is it really something you expect to make a living at today?). It’s whatever you want it be, though the mash-up of fandom and expressionism that was a hallmark of the ’70s seems to rule the day.
Advice? Um… I always thought the relationship between a performer and her/his audience is at least as important as your opinion, usually more (it’s a way of understanding music you don’t like). I’m always dumbfounded at how much writing about music doesn’t attempt to describe the music in terms that are anything other than received (Sasha Fere-Jones makes describing the sound and effect of music seem so simple, I don’t know why more people don’t at least try). And maybe it’s worth asking who you’re writing for: an audience that already understands what you’re writing about, or one that’s outside your world? There’s value in both, for sure, but the second one’s harder. At least it’s harder to make the jokes work.
ALAN LIGHT (frequent contributor to The New York Times and Rolling Stone; former editor-in-chief of Vibe and Spin)
My favorite line about music writing, or any kind of arts, comes from Albert Murray’s great Stomping the Blues. “The most elementary obligation of criticism,” he wrote, “is to increase the accessibility of aesthetic presentation.” It’s easy to forget in a thumbs-up-thumbs-down, three-and-a-half-star world, but the best writing about the arts isn’t determined by how you rate things, but by helping the reader find new ways to think about the material, whether they agree with your taste or not.
So read and listen to everything you can. Learn the history of the music you love and the music it comes from and the culture it is rooted in. Your primary job is to provide context and make connections for the reader — not to show off your knowledge, but to inspire ideas they might not otherwise have.
Write wherever you can. You learn more from seeing your words in print (or on screen, or whatever) than from anything else. And never underestimate perseverance — everyone I know who is doing this for a living has a variation on the exact same story: interning somewhere, writing and scrapping, and then one day finding herself in a situation where she was the one and only person who could deliver a story (for me, it was a secret Bob Dylan club show). A “lucky break” will come sooner or later, but it’s really only lucky if you are prepared to make something out of it.
HOWARD MANDEL (freelancer; Jazz Journalists Association, Down Beat, ArtsJournal.com/JazzBeyondJazz)
Stick to the music. Help people hear it. Use the language you need, but don’t assume technical data gives any sense of the sound.
I advise writers keep journalistic principles in mind. Whose music is it, what does it sound like/what is it about, where is it made/where heard, when should this be heard, why should the reader and/or listener care?
Futhermore: verify what you think you’re saying. Be accurate. Ask questions. Fact-check. Don’t fake smarts. You may gain eyeballs by being a wiseass and ultra-critical, but as a career (or life) strategy, superciliousness sucks. Sure you’re a snob, but spend most of your energy writing lovingly about music that turns you on.
Don’t avoid speaking honestly about what you find disappointing — or worse. Just say why. Don’t attack a musician’s personality. Analysizing expressivity and creativity should do the job.
The more you like a work/style/genre of music, the more you should find to say about it. If you’re at a loss for words, maybe you didn’t like it that much or understand it, after all. Writing about music is, ultimately, a way to write about yourself; as you make musical discoveries, you’ll unearth things that reveal you to yourself (and your readers) too.
Music is a safe adventure. Exposure to strange sounds isn’t dangerous and won’t harm you. You may need to develop patience, but while you’re waiting, hone your insights. Think! Enjoy. Look for meaning. Perspective is everything. Ask for contracts. Get paid. Listen.
GREIL MARCUS (co-editor of A New Literary History of America; author of When That Rough God Goes Riding–Listening to Van Morrison)
Learn to trust your own voice, to say what you really want to say. It’s harder than it looks.
NICK MARINO (managing editor — Paste; teacher — University of Mississippi and the University of Georgia)
On a practical level, everything we need to know is in Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, a stupendous book that makes Elements of Style beg for mercy.
On more cosmic level, there’s James Agee’s monumental Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which expands every boundary of the non-fiction universe. Clark shows us how to write. Agee reminds us why we write.
And why is just as important as how — especially today, when we can hardly count on making a living through our craft. If it’s not about the money, then why do it? The question isn’t rhetorical. All of us should have an answer.
Maybe we write to satisfy our own curiosities. But then again, reading takes care of that. Writing is a form of communication, which means someone is on the receiving end, which means we’re pretty much obligated to serve that special someone, to satisfy their curiosities. Writing, then, becomes an act of philanthropy.
Young writers, I’ve noticed, often want to write about themselves. Blogs and Twitter facilitate this, as do Chuck Klosterman and David Sedaris and various other memoirists who’ve made enviable coin mining their lives for material. Agee, by contrast, explored other people’s lives. He aspired to illuminate the human condition. And while he was as obsessed with inner dialogue in 1941 as any blogger is today, he knew enough to tackle material that was outside his own experience, that forced him beyond his comfort zone, which is why the Harvard graduate wrote his magnum opus about Alabama sharecroppers. He wasn’t slumming; he was trying to understand a people and a place — and to extend that understanding to any reader whose patience and empathy matched his own.
This kind of writing deserves a renaissance. Young writers, so trained in the ways of self-expression, would do well to remember just how powerful their work can be when it reaches out to make a real human connection.
DAVE MARSH (writer — Rock and Rap Confidential, Creem, Rolling Stone, Village Voice; author — The Beatles’ Second Album, Bruce Springsteen on Tour, Forever Young — Photographs of Bob Dylan; broadcaster — Sirius XM)
This gig isn’t about music. It’s about writing. If you have it the other way ’round, save yourself the grief. There are lots of better ways to get a foothold for making music, and there are lots and lots of better ways to meet musicians. After that, it can be whatever you say it is or find an editor who’ll let you claim it. Over the long haul, it tends to work out better if you’re able to judge now against then, because that’s the only way you’re going to hear the trains that are (and aren’t) coming down the tracks. Lester Bangs didn’t start with Count Five and the Stooges, he started with Charles Mingus and Ray Charles. Mostly, it’s less fun than you imagine and more work. So is everything, including dope.
It’s worth it for some, because we have a relationship to music that makes us want to share our passion, or even try to explain some of it (to ourselves, even). We see lost things that must be found. We hear mysteries that need to be pursued (we may imagine we can solve them — once in a while, but not often, in my experience). In some ways, it might be that we hear stories crying to be told. Bear in mind that those may or may not be your own stories. It’s hard to figure out whether it’s worse to mistake your own for someone else’s or someone else’s for your own. But you’ll get the chance.
Evelyn McDonnell to Richard Meltzer
EVELYN MCDONNELL (writer; author or coeditor of five books, including Mamarama and Rock She Wrote; assistant professor of new media and journalism at Loyola Marymount University)
Your greatest asset will be an original voice. Everything else is fungible in a rapidly changing world. You’ll accrue expertise, you’ll grab opportunities, you’ll make contacts. The marketability of specific skills will change during a lifetime: now it’s brevity and immediacy, in a decade, it may be depth and pensiveness. But your voice will always be your calling card. Hear it, hone it, stay true to it.
JIMMY MCDONOUGH (author — Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, as well as biographies on Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan)
1. Convey the excitement you feel about your subject, even to the point of embarrassment. Imagine you’ve just met a Martian, you feel a burning desire to express the greatness of Charlie Feathers, and they know nothing. What do you tell little Remulac?
2. Interview your subject until one of you just can’t stand it anymore. Repeatedly ask yourself why you are probing/poking/dissecting this flesh-and-blood being. You’ll never get to the bottom of it, but question yourself.
3. Phrase your questions so they require more than an affirmative grunt for an answer. Listen. Ostensibly, you are there to learn something, and one way to do that is to shut the fuck up. Respect the person you’re interrogating. Usually there’s nothing in it for them, so be grateful they’re spilling their guts. They may come to regret it.
4. Transcribe all your interviews yourself. It forces you to relive and catalog the experience, not to mention wince at all your pointless interruptions and unasked questions.
5. Do what the story tells you to do and listen to nothing/nobody else. Even if it disgusts/embarrasses/kills you.
6. Regard the words ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ with the same feelings you reserve for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and unicorns.
7. Ten minutes after your article/book is published, you’ll hear from Wally, the Missing Witness — the one you spent two years looking high and low for but just couldn’t find — and now Wally’s screaming at you that Chapter 5 is all wrong, total bullshit. You’ll never get the whole story. Nobody ever does.
8. Want to find out about an artist? Talk to their maniac fans. They’ll educate you ’til blood runs from your ears. Avoid the ‘rock critic.’ These near-extinct creatures frequently have the worst taste in music, tend to be the laziest researchers, and would rather rap your knuckles like an old schoolmarm over some trivial point than express an iota of actual emotion about anything. In order to avoid one of these froggy sadsacks cornering you in their dusty, companionless apartment, droning on about some crybaby like Gram Parsons, I suggest carrying a bazooka. Just blast your way out, no one will ever notice they’re even missing.
9. If you have to write about the music, deprive yourself the pleasure of listening to it until the moment you are actually writing about it.
10. If your gut tells you to stop researching and get writing, do it. If you don’t, chances are you might never finish.
11. Read books about subjects other than what you write about — and you might want to avoid ones on the subjects that you do want to write about.
12. Trap a hapless loved one or relative in a small room, lock the door, and read what you’ve written aloud. You’ll probably change something during the process.
13. As a group of great philosophers once sang, “It’s your thing / Do what you want to do.” There are plenty of so-called experts out there, just chomping at the bit to tell you what an untalented ape you are. Hopefully you’ll stick around long enough to spit in their drink. You have to live with the mess you make, so make sure you stink up the joint in that special way only you can do. But be open. If somebody gives you a good idea — be it an editor, a paramour, or that wacky little voice in your head — don’t be too proud to steal it.
14. Expect to feel suicidal once you have finished a big project. There is now a big, black void where your obsession used to be. Throw yourself right off the cliff into something else, preferably another unhealthy obsession.
15. Change everything right up until the last minute, but learn to cut the story loose and move on. It’ll never be as good as it is in your head. Nor will you ever in your entire life write anything half as sublime as the lyrics to “Hello, Josephine.”
16. This one’s obvious, except to a naive chump such as myself: never trust a rock star.
MIKE MCGONIGAL (editor/publisher — Yeti; freelance arts writer/editor; producer — Fire in My Bones: Raw, Rare & Otherworldly African-American Gospel, 1944-2007)
Well, this is a weird time to be getting into music writing but you probably know that already. I think that, more than ever, the reason to do this is because you absolutely have to.
Read books! Read a lot of music writing, but also read other kinds of cultural and arts criticism. Start with Ruskin (seriously).
One thing that’s a bit harder to come by these days is the chance to work with and learn from an editor. If you do have the opportunity to be line-edited early on, that really is wonderful. I myself came from a fanzine situation (similar in many ways to today’s blogs). I did my own writing and editing and never studied journalism in college, so I was not able to grow as a writer until way later than I wish I had.
If you can, interact with a group of people you respect to bounce your ideas and opinions off of; that’s crucial. Start a blog, write very regularly. Tell your friends about it. After you’ve done this for awhile, then post on the blogs of writers whose blogs you respect. If you have some back and forth, even just a bit where, like, they are thanking you for a comment you posted on their blog, it’s cool to ask them to look at and perhaps link to your own site (where you will undoubtedly have already linked their site and all others you like). You might not want to do this too quickly, but no sense in taking years either.
KEMBREW MCLEOD (music columnist — Little Village; freelancer; book author; also see roboprof.org/)
Without sounding too obvious or condescending, if you want to learn to write about music, you have to write. A lot. Start a blog, or paper ‘zine, or any other kind of outlet where you can stretch out, try new things, and, most importantly, get in the habit of pumping out prose every day. The flip side of learning-to-write-by-writing is reading those examples of criticism that compel you. Find models to aspire to — whether it’s Greil Marcus, Chuck Eddy, Ann Powers, or DJ /rupture — and soak them in. Imitate if necessary, but more importantly find that quality in their writing that is unique, dissect it, alter it, and make it work for you. Then keep writing.
RICHARD MELTZER (‘father of rock criticism,’ writer — Crawdaddy!, Creem, L.A. Reader; author — Autumn Rhythm, A Whore Like the Rest, The Aesthetics of Rock)
Here is my advice: don’t. Don’t be a music journalist. All you will become in doing so is a shill. On the other hand, if you wish to be a genuwine actual WRITER, whatever the hell that might entail anymore in a functional “real world” sense (now that nobody reads; now that writing as a full-time “occupation” no longer exists), be prepared to eat shit for the rest of your life. Period. Better to change the grease, or mop floors, at Burger King.
Anne Midgette to Henry H. Owings
ANNE MIDGETTE (chief classical music critic — The Washington Post; co-author, with Leon Fleisher, of Fleisher’s memoir My Nine Lives, due out in November)
Don’t write the way you think you’re supposed to write. Write what’s true, in your own voice, without striking some “music critic” pose or falling into formulas. Dare to have your own opinions; learn from other people you admire, but try not to be swayed by the voice of the majority. But don’t be contrarian for its own sake, or have too much fun writing a nasty review to show off your cleverness. Make sure your opinion is based on real information rather than glib assumption; if you don’t have the information yourself, go find it. Brace yourself for all kinds of pushback, and learn not to defend yourself against every attack.
Be open to new things. Push your comfort zone. Say yes to everything that comes your way. You may find out you’re good at something you didn’t know you could do — as long as you try to do it to the best of your ability.
Know how to present yourself. Write introductory letters that are snappy and vivid without being gimmicky. If your story pitch or letter of introduction takes more than a typed page, it’s too long. Learn to be edited gracefully; swallow the initial instinct to defend every one of the words you’ve written. If the editor is having trouble with a passage, a reader often will too; and it’s wise to learn to be a good colleague.
And be a generous colleague. You never know who’s going to end up where down the line.
FRED MILLS (managing editor — Blurt magazine)
For a lot of music journalists who started out when I did — during the mid ’70s to mid ’80s rock fanzine goldrush, at a time when pay was low-to-nonexistent but enthusiasm was unquestionably high — the current landscape looks and feels strangely familiar. Substitute a laptop and a Word Press program for a portable Smith-Corona typewriter and access to a Xerox machine, and given how in 2010 budding journos are crawling out of the woodwork at a frenetic clip, all championing their favorite bands while (hopefully) staking out a small piece of creative turf for themselves (and almost none earning enough money at it to justify labeling it a “career”), it’s fair to say that everything old is new again. Only the technology and means of distribution have changed.
I know of what I speak: after over three decades of music writing, I find myself struggling once more to earn a living at it, and have recently begun exploring fallback positions that don’t involve writing, but do involve health benefits. But it’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. Back around ’78 or ’79, legendary Bomp! ‘zine publisher Greg Shaw advised me, in a reply to my own inquiry about what advice he might tender to an aspiring scribe, to always write from a position of love and passion for the subject. “People will know if you’re faking it,” he told me, “and besides, there already are enough hacks in this business.” He was also suggesting that you will know when you’re faking it, too, and there’s no worse feeling than waking up in the morning and feeling like a fraud.
To that sobering bit of advice I’d add these more prosaic tips:
(1) You’re young, so be willing to stay mobile; you can write anywhere there’s a ‘net connection, but the most lucrative markets for journalists of all stripes tend to be media centers like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, etc.
(2) Remain single for as long as you can hold out, because the moment you start thinking of settling down and having a family, you’ll find yourself being torn between the dictates of domesticity and the realities of journalism, which include long days, late nights, and lots of travel (besides, for the time being you don’t even need a significant other tending the homefires; rock writers actually get laid a lot out on the road, just like band members).
(3) Network like a motherfucker, and be as nice as you can to everyone, even the most numbingly annoying publicists (here I mean “nice” on a personal level and not necessarily as a critic; writers who are unflaggingly positive about every artist they cover generally don’t have much credibility), because you’re in a profession where there is zero job security and as a result anybody you run into today just might be in a position to hire you or help you out tomorrow.
Just keep the “passion” part of the equation foremost, okay? There’s a reason we use the term “calling” instead of career.
GREG MILNER (former editor — Spin; author Perfecting Sound Forever — An Aural History of Recorded Music (coming out in paperback now))
A music editor once told me that one of the most common requests he makes when sending a first draft of a story back to the writer is make it more like the pitch you emailed me. Ive seen this happen in my own writing a lot over the years. It’s similar to a band that blows the lid off live, letting the qualities that make the band unique naturally assert themselves, and then tenses up in the studio. Which isn’t to say a writer should just write everything off the cuff (a lot of first-takes suck, of course). But there’s something to be said for writers trusting their first impulse. Too much self-consciousness can strip out what makes a piece of writing fun to read.
JOHN MORTHLAND (lifetime freelancer)
I concluded long ago that basically, two kinds of people become music writers: those who want to write and those who want to be in the music biz. If you are among the latter, I’m afraid I’m not the person you should go to for advice; besides, it shouldn’t take much to figure out, even amidst the current economic blight, how a writer can be useful to a music corporation. If you are the former, write all you can; that’s pretty much the only way you get better. If you can also get most of it published, great. If you can’t get most of it published at first, do whatever you have to in order to make a living and keep writing as much as you can in the rest of your time. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Being critical will keep you out of more publications than ever these days, especially those which rely heavily on record companies and venues for advertising, if such publications still exist, but the best way to gain longevity is to write stuff that readers trust whether they agree with you or not (and you don’t need to go out of your way to provoke people, by the way; if you just call things the way you see ’em, you’re going to upset at least half the readers every time, that’s one of the main ways you know you’re doing something right). This means you also need to know what you’re talking about, so don’t write about stuff which doesn’t interest you and which you haven’t explored extensively — unless you have a really great editor, in which case you can probably get away with it if you’re willing to listen to him/her.
Finally, don’t use your middle initial on your byline. It looks dorky.
EVIE NAGY (associate editor — Billboard)
I’m not sure if the way I broke into music journalism is what new writers want to hear, but it worked for me, so it’s the best advice I can give. I switched gears entirely from a career in higher education when I was almost 30, and decided I could only do it the structured, old fashioned way — after some freelancing for zines, I applied to grad school (NYU’s program in Cultural Reporting and Criticism, founded by late critic Ellen Willis), used the resources there to improve my writing, got an internship at Billboard for credit, and have never left (they do give me some money now). Being a grown-up with work experience undoubtedly helped me be especially useful as an intern, and also taken seriously as a job candidate. But I think a key is that I didn’t have any particular expectations, just productively channeled desire — paying your dues can certainly help, but in this climate it is absolutely no guarantee, especially if you’re looking for a staff job (and there are obviously plenty of ways to write about music without affiliating right out like I did). Music writing is a labor of love, and the patience and perseverance needed should be in service of that, not with the idea that at some point, someone will owe you something.
My other bit of advice is about music writing itself. There are a lot of insanely smart, passionate, borderline obsessive (or some combination thereof) people in this business. There was a point that I felt like even though I deeply loved music and writing about it, I was perhaps too broadly knowledgeable and not enough of a submerged historian to do well. But good reporters, thoughtful critics, and clear-eyed editors are always assets. The astounding expertise of others can be an educator and a motivator, but if you love music and have something to say about it, then be true to your own voice and skills.
PIOTR ORLOV (writer, editor and music curator living in Brooklyn)
What You Should Think About Before You Write About Music
Figure it out: are you a critic, a journalist, or a writer? If you are a critic, have you defined the position from which you are approaching the work? If you are a journalist, do you have all (fine, most of) the facts? If you are writer, is what you have to say unique and/or of deep interest? (or, is the manner in which you are saying it?) Once you know how to distinguish the purpose and/or approximate the skill-set of all three of these jobs, you can, of course and should, in fact mix and match. But without context,¬ whether your own or that of the piece you’re writing, your output is simply more white noise in the ether.
Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note carefully just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like, then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.
If something is proving difficult, say ‘yes’ and explore before you say ‘no’ and move on. You can always drop it later.
Don’t forget your empathy, and always use the old sense of the words.
Of all that might be omitted in thinking, the worst is to omit your own being.
HENRY H. OWINGS (publisher — Chunklet magazine; editor — The Rock Bible)
So here’s the sitch.
If you enjoy what you’re writing about, don’t think about the paycheck. Money is just gravy.
Sell every crap record that comes addressed to you so you can blow it on records that you’re genuinely interested in covering.
Writing for a local alt-weekly doesn’t mean you got a sweet job, it just means you’ve got a visible one.
Unless you want to cover the same dreck that every other schmuck is writing about, ignore publicists as much as possible.
Let your own ear dictate what turns you on.
Unless it’s a band playing at your local neighborhood arena, never ask for a plus one. It’s plain rude. You’re a writer, not one of their friends.
Doing your job well will guarantee that you will be loathed and ignored in equal doses.
Oh, and after all of this? You better have good taste in music.
And ten point rating systems are made for the weak.
Yeah, I know, welcome to the bummer.
Andrew Parks to Ann Powers
ANDREW PARKS (editor/publisher — self-titled)
Don’t listen to the dinosaurs and know-it-all cynics that walk among us. They’re all wrong. The art of criticism, and good writing in general, isn’t dead. It’s just… different, not to mention much harder to find in a playing field that’s more level than a two-lane highway in the Midwest. Some people find that maddening; I find it refreshing. After all, there’s no better time than now for a young writer to break into the ink and dagger business. Not to make money, mind you. That’ll come with time, as you carve out your own niche — your very own notch on our collective Long Tail — and help us establish filters that reach well beyond one’s Facebook friends and whatever got “Best New Music” on Pitchfork this week.
A couple other bits of advice:
1. Take whatever work you can get at first. This has never been a business for impatient people, and you’re gonna need some good editors and bad stories to establish your editorial voice.
2. Chances are, less people care about your blog than you think. Change that.
3. If you love the lost art of print journalism, try publishing your own magazine digitally or raising money for the first issue at a small business site like Kickstarter.
4. If you don’t have the money for it, or are unsure of what you want to do with your life, don’t rush into 10 years of debt and poor decisions, a.k.a. college. Nothing beats the kind of life experiences you’ll get from freelancing your ass off or maintaining a blog that’s cleaner and clearer than the big boys.
5. On a similar note: you don’t need me, a professor, or a fellow journalist — online or otherwise — to tell you the future of writing. We need you to tell us.
AMY PHILLIPS (news editor — Pitchfork)
Don’t be a hater. Don’t be negative just for the sake of being negative, just because you think it makes you seem cool. It doesn’t. If you genuinely don’t like something, back it up with well-thought-out, well-reasoned arguments. Pithy one-liners and jokes just make you sound like an asshole. And nobody wants to work with an asshole.
At the same time, don’t be a breathless, gushing fangirl/fanboy. Be prepared to back up your love with good writing. If you only write about things you love, your opinion becomes less and less valid. Who’s going to trust you if you like everything?
Oh yeah, and don’t expect to make any money from this. Ever. If you do, it’s a nice surprise. But don’t plan on it.
ANDREW PHILLIPS (editor in chief — MOG; former events editor — PopMatters)
You need to consume music at a psychotic pace. Not forever, but definitely for now. Being a music writer isn’t the same as being a music fan. When I was starting out, I would get on AllMusic around 10 PM every night and cross-reference bands until about 2 AM (while downloading and listening to the ones that I hadn’t heard). When I got my first editor post, I took it up a notch and started listening to 20-30 new (to me) albums a week, minimum. With streaming services, it doesn’t even take that kind of heavy lifting to gain the same exposure. Listen to stuff you don’t like, listen to stuff you don’t understand. I may talk a lot of trash, but I always listen to bands I hate and try to understand what others see in them (sometimes, even after 10 times, I still can’t connect).
Consider what the reader (or listener) likes and learn to guide them to a place you can agree upon. Don’t assume your taste is inherently superior, and don’t be an asshole about it. It isn’t about what you like or what they should like, it’s about what they will like. You serve the reader and you’re here for their benefit; it’s not the other way around.
The key is listening. I can tell the difference between a writer that’s heard 2000 albums in their life and one that’s banked 20,000+ (so can readers, even if they don’t know why). The intangible is this: Once you’ve listened to every kind of music imaginable (even if you hated a lot of it), you understand where things fit in the larger sphere. You see associations. You have context. You have a relative sense of what an album or musician actually means. Even if that understanding isn’t made explicit in your writing, it is there, and it makes a difference. You don’t overreact; you don’t fall prey to half-assed analysis or over-aggrandizing. You have to feed your (hopefully inherent) need to understand everything. The best writer in the world isn’t worth anything in this business if they’re not in search of that kind of understanding. There’s no faking it. We’re at war with algorithms and to win we have to understand music in ways that computers can’t. You have to sit down and obsessively, methodically listen, listen, listen, listen.
ANN POWERS (chief pop music critic — Los Angeles Times; author — Tori Amos: Piece By Piece and Weird Like Us)
My number one suggestion is: cultivate interest in a wide variety of subjects. Expertise in your chosen field will come naturally, as you fulfill your lust for information about and experiences of whatever fascinates you. What’s key, though, is that you keep expanding your range of interests. Culture is a big spider web and each strand eventually connects with the others. So you’re really into electronic music; you’re gonna check out all the hot variations from grime to glitch to circuit bending. But how does electronica relate to the blues? To bebop? Maybe you want to spend a couple of weeks listening to Dizzy Gillespie. And hey, read some Gary Giddins while you’re at it.
Be knowledgeable in areas that may seem completely unrelated to your specialty, too. For me, the essence of writing is making connections, whether they go deep (uncovering hidden histories within the more familiar ones) or broad (shedding light on how music relates to science, or economics, or psychology, or myth). Specialists matter a lot: they do the intricate groundwork that clarifies what’s really happening in a scene or a sound. But equally important, and perhaps underrated, are those generalists who are not dilettantes, but deep and dedicated thinkers on a wider path.
Related to the matter of making your mind well-rounded is the practice of cultivating a deep understanding of the language you use. Be imaginative with your word choices, and precise. I’m a big fan of the thesaurus. Not that I think randomly picking five-dollar words makes your work more impressive; more that by reading thesaurus entries, and seeing how “synonyms” are actually variations on meaning that can show you how particular uses of language have developed, you’ll break your lazy word-choice habits and expand your sense of what you’re writing about.
At the same time, be readable. Many writers will advise you of this — write to a specific person. Maybe it’s your brother, or your neighbor, or a classmate. Maybe it’s the artist, or a peer with whom you’re trying to engage. Different writing venues are read by different kinds of people. Be aware of that. When I went to the New York Times from The Village Voice, I had to teach myself how to write all over again. You can retain the core of your voice and your vision while being adaptable.
Every musical story is a human story — a story of people making something, and other people receiving that thing and making it into something else (merely by listening, or by responding more actively). There are a million ways to approach this fundamental truth. But don’t forget about it. It may seem kind of touchy-feely, but I really think that as long as you remember the hearts and souls of those involved in every step of the story you’re telling, and pay attention to your words, you’ll do okay.