Music

What's the Write Word? Part 4: Ned Raggett to Bill Wyman

Over a 100 music scribes are 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?" The final installment of our advice to aspiring music writers from music writing professionals.

NED RAGGETT (writer -- All Music Guide; freelance gadabout)

'Advice' has always seemed to be a hard thing for me to pass on to anyone -- what makes perfect sense to me as a path may to another be utterly unworkable. Yet there are certainly standards to keep in mind -- don't be afraid to trash your own work and start fresh; remember that the best editors are rigorous with you because they know you can do better and learn from the experience; always keep your ears open to anything that's out there and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised instead of dismissively cynical. These are just three tips of many that have served me well.

But as an illustration of a key piece of advice, an anecdote will serve: In 1993, I had also fully embraced the Internet, discovering such things as Usenet discussion groups, and I was delighted to discover some posts there by the writer J. D. Considine, who I knew particularly for his vivid, descriptive short reviews in Musician magazine. Screwing up my courage a bit, I wrote him a brief note and asked him if he had any general thoughts. J.D.'s response was perhaps the most valuable thing I've ever read in that regard -- precisely because, instead of being a go-getter booster about it, he was firm and forthright while never being brusque, at once encouraging and clear-eyed. Drawing on his own experience as a freelancer, he noted that to be such a writer was to be constantly in motion, to never rest on one's laurels and to always be chasing a new commission or assignment. His experience was that of the adult who had to pay all his bills and deal with everything on his own, something I hadn't really gotten to grips with yet. It was a peek into a way of work and life that was new. As he put it, it wasn't a way of life for everyone -- which, having heard similarly from professors in my department regarding my own qualms of being in grad school, rang all the more true.

What J. D. was saying, in essence, was 'know thyself,' still one of the best and simplest pieces of advice one can learn. At heart, I knew I was not cut out to be a full-time freelance journalist, or perhaps even a full-time journalist -- some part of me needed a much more solid anchor. This has meant a tradeoff in many ways -- I may never break a big story, capture the biggest interview, get the lead review role in some big publication. And yet, looking back on my life from now to that time, I have balanced out work at the libraries at UC Irvine for over a decade now with numerous writing opportunities all over the world, many wonderful interviews and conversations, friendships that grow with each year, and the admitted ego boost that comes from people who have kind things to say about my work -- not to mention, of course, so much wonderful, captivating music to hear, enjoy, think about, talk about.

Above all else, I am a happy, satisfied person who enjoys what I do both in my writing and in my life in general -- and what's important is that this path of mine is not necessarily the path for someone else. Another person would thrive on the uncertainty, the rushed deadlines and more besides -- I know plenty of people like this, absolutely stellar writers who also have found their happiness because they are where they want to be at, who similarly have known themselves. I don't think you can plan for this, but I do think if you are aware enough, you will recognize the way forward.

 

BEN RATLIFF (music critic -- New York Times; author -- The Jazz Ear, Coltrane: Story of a Sound, The New York Times Essential Library: Jazz)

Read poetry for rhythm. Read history for facts. Read everything, and if you're not interested in the subject, read for the voice. You want to know a lot of voices. You want to have a lot of modes. Read as much decent music criticism as you can, but don't consider it reading. Because if you do then you might feel like you've earned the right not to read anything else. Good writers read. Bad writers do not.

Listen to music until you can listen no more, then go out and breathe decent air and taste decent food. Have friends. Don't hole yourself up. Don't stay who you were when you were 20. Get on a plane or a train and get out of your town at least twice a year. Report from different places. Wear some elegant pants to disguise your stubby legs.

Write about what interests you. And if you've ever had the thought "Why would anyone want to do anything else but write?", try to go back to that place in your mind and think it again.

 

MOSI REEVES (hip-hop editor -- Rhapsody; personal blog -- plugonemag.com)

Music journalism can be a depressingly familiar cycle. Maybe you get involved because it's the only position at your local newspaper, or you're so fanatical about music that you're willing to spend a few hours on a blog, praising and posting MP3s of your favorite artists. When you get established -- snaring a few freelance outlets, and maybe even a regular job -- it can appear loaded with perks, from high-profile interviews to lots of swag like free records and T-shirts (though there seems less of that nowadays). But as you get older and establish an adult lifestyle (or, god forbid, get married and have children) that requires a decent wage uninterrupted by layoffs, the whims of a Machiavellian editor, and an ever-changing scene, you'll probably end up doing something else. Maybe you'll become a film critic, or a food and wine guru. Or maybe you'll drift into publicity, advertising, or web design.

I was first drawn to music journalism via the underground rap scene of the late '90s. I remember the first time I interviewed Stones Throw owner Peanut Butter Wolf. He drove me to the local Safeway because I forgot to bring batteries for my cassette recorder. Over ten years later, that scene is a shell of its former self. My friends and I used to argue over Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus; now we hold our nose and download Lil Wayne's No Ceilings. In fact, most of my contemporaries from those days have moved on to teaching, writing books, and traditional news reporting. As I write this, I'm wondering why I haven't done the same thing.

Sometimes I feel like I got stuck. I barely make enough freelance money to support myself, and I often have to play "bill collector," hounding editors for months just to get a measly $100 check. Many of the magazines I once admired have disappeared, from Option and Musician to Raygun and URB (although it barely survives online). And I find little common ground with the rap glossies and their slick, condescending approach to hip-hop culture, or the rap blogs, and their hype-oriented coverage of flavor-of-the-month battle MCs and beat makers.

When I work on an assignment, I often sleep for hours, trying to find the perfect opening graph in my dreams. I can go on like this for days. Then, all of a sudden, I settle on an introduction. It appears like the stem of a string, and I unravel the ball of thread until the story is finished. Sometimes it's just hack work, an easy way to present the latest star to a publication's readers. Occasionally, it offers brilliant analysis, deconstructing that star and the cultural trends that buoyed her to fame. When that happens, I feel proud of the work I've done.

I live for those moments. It keeps me at my desk sifting through email press releases, doing Google searches, and looking for the next artist that will inspire me to write a new story. I love to write, and the world of music is just a muse for my words. So I guess the only piece of advice I can offer is a question: why do you want to do this?

 

HOWARD REICH (jazz critic and arts critic -- Chicago Tribune; author of several books)

Five key tips for the emerging music journalist:

1) Immerse Yourself. Read everything, hear everything. The more you know about your area of music, the better. Chances are you're already somewhat of an expert in the field, but the journey is just beginning -- and it never loses its thrill.

2) Study Music. You can tell in an instant whether a writer is musically literate or not, simply by his use of terminology. The ones who don't know the notes of a G minor chord embarrass themselves and the profession. Don't be one of them.

3) Get Published. Young writers (and old ones) need to test their ideas before colleagues and general audiences. Whether it's via blog, website, newsletter, broadcast, or print publication, get your writing out there to draw criticism, praise, feedback, whatever. This is easier to do today than ever, thanks to the Web. The pay will be terrible or non-existent at first (it always is), but the opportunities are vast.

4) Converse, Constantly. Listening to records in your garret probably will not make you a successful music journalist. You've got to talk to musicians, presenters, managers, roadies, administrators, audiences, professors, students -- everyone -- to understand the context of the music you're hearing.

5) Don't Be Seduced. Musicians, publicists, managers, and the like want to be your friends -- or appear to be. They are not. They should not be. Yes, you can schmooze with them over lunch, but make sure you pay for yourself. They want to buy your support, which should not be for sale.

 

A.C. RHODES (editor/publisher -- rockcritics.com; former arts editor -- The Shepherd; contributing editor -- The Express, The Press)

After 25 years in a relationship, often unrequited, with underground journalism (so much so that barely anyone's heard of me outside the regional alternative news and college music networks), I've arrived at some different and some not-so-different conclusions that my high school teacher shared. I'll start first with what she shared since it's still relevant, if you want to be like the writers I admire: don't major in journalism. Whether you go to a two-year tech school, junior college, or four year university, major in something that interests you outside of journalism. That way, you will have an expertise in something other than music or pop culture that you can write about and hopefully, another fruitful career in store if you decide to not pursue or abandon writing altogether -- almost. Start with something that interests you, a genre or sub-genre of music, film, performance art, what have you, and find a short list of e-zines or regional alternative newspapers or magazines to submit some tear-sheets, links, or spec pieces to.

Make these publications or sites that you really want to write for and would read yourself. Seek out a few like-minded friends who share your passion, but keep them to an even shorter list since they can often be jealous, resentful, mirthless little fucks. You'll see and have to deal with them enough at shows and conventions. Instead maintain a varied inner circle of supportive friends who will give you good, objective feedback, not only about your work from an outside point of view, but for yourself. That can ground you if the thicket of publicists, promoters, artists' influences becomes confusing. While the advent of the Net has fueled more interaction, it's hit out at quality control. Newspapers, depending on which ones, of course, are still are the gatekeepers in terms of corralling editorial content and letters to the editor. There will always be people who cry censorship whenever their missives and manifestos aren't printed or posted, when really it's editing. Lastly, find one or two vet writers you looked up to or were inspired by and make contact. They can be valuable resources for feedback and perhaps even friends.

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