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

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.

Tim Riley to Amy Schroeder

TIM RILEY (writer — Slate, Washington Post, NPR; author of books on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and rock gender ideals; teacher — journalism at Emerson College)

This whole business of “giving advice” to “young writers” smacks of old-school authoritarianism and I won’t participate in that scam without some kind of “honorary degree.” Music writing’s a great racket — jump in, the water’s warm! ID’ing yourself as a “writer” reminds me of how Ringo Starr spoke about his son Zak taking up the drums. “It chooses you,” he said, proud father. That’s the best logic I can give for dumping a surefire career as an academic piano teacher and plunging into the glamorous world of non-stop typing.

My advice is: make sure and screw up big on your first few assignments — that will humble you into doing better next time and not being such a jerk to your editor. Then cling onto your weaknesses tight, they’ll define you even after you outgrow them, and come back to haunt you just as your first BIG BOOK gets reviewed. Read more than you ever can hope to absorb, then start re-reading. Type out your favorite essays on your own damn keyboard to force the kinetic rhythms of Lester Bangs, Robert Warshaw and Ellen Willis up into your fingers and out your nose. Read all the music critics from today and all of history up to now, especially G.B. Shaw (he RAWKS). Read everything. Rewrite everything. Follow your favorite bylines down every rabbit hole and back. Your digital fingers should stink of metaphorical ink.

Finally, comb Amazon’s music category for all the new releases, and read everything about culture in general, graduate to politics, history, philosophy (some of those blokes can THINK), and take time out to read. Be a snob, but secretly dress up all your favorite sports writer’s bon mots in “rock slang.” Eschew jargon, fashion, and the verb “to be.” Rehearse story ideas at random intervals to your CD racks so when your editor queries you about something, you can spit back five cover articles before you get accused of sloppy reporting.

Tie a string to your pinky to remind you to hound that clerk every Thursday at 4 to yammer about your check. Just start doing it whether you’ve turned anything or not, they’re shameless. But first, take all calls from PR flacks graciously, with great wit and generosity towards your fellow journalists, and tell them that product they sent/tweeted/uploaded for you is “next in your pile.” Write like your heroes in disguise. And don’t forget your fucking humanity.

 

IRA ROBBINS (editor/publisher/founder — Trouser Press)

As important as learning the mechanics of clear, entertaining, grammatical expression, a critic (if that is what one intends to be) needs to develop aesthetic standards, a consistent yardstick that guides the evaluation of art. Think about what moves you and then figure out why. Make connections, put art in context. You will discern contradictions in your emotional reactions, and you must figure out how to reconcile them. Figure out what elements of music you value the most — lyrics, melody, beat, sound, attitude, etc. — and then measure your reactions against that. Make adjustments. Think hard, question and doubt, but in the end, you must find something in yourself to believe. Then be confident in your values — they are the source of your art. Don’t review or be swayed by audience reaction, sales figures, or popular wisdom. In the consideration of creative effort, it is entirely possible to be a minority of one and still be right.

 

ALEX ROSS (music critic — The New Yorker; author — The Rest Is Noise, Listen to This)

Some quick pieces of advice:

1) Be a journalist — research your subject and offer fresh material. Check everything twice.

2) Find a particular niche and cover it more thoroughly than anyone else.

3) Write in quantity. Whether you’re based on a blog or at a small-circulation publication, you’ll learn best by establishing a track record and evaluating your work as you go.

4) Find an editor, or at least a writer friend who’s not afraid to be critical. He or she will pinpoint your bad tics and needless repetitions.

5) Revise and revise again.

6) Be obsessive and be lucky.

 

GREG SANDOW (critic, composer, consultant, specialist in the future of classical music)

1. Read. Novels, poetry, philosophy, biographies, classics, journalism, plays, history, comics, screenplays, noir thrillers, science fiction, criticism. Everything. Song lyrics. Tweets. See how writing works. Make your own judgments. Read things you never would have thought of reading. Read things you think you’ll hate. Read!

2. Write what you think. Write your own perceptions, your own ideas. Respect what other people think, but don’t assume you should agree. If you see many other critics writing in a certain way, don’t write like that. Be guided by your own thoughts. Be true to yourself.

3. Find the words that say exactly what you mean. Don’t go halfway. Don’t write generalities. Don’t write things you know are only partly true. Find the words that say exactly what you think (this might take a while — be prepared to take whatever time you need).

4. It’s more important to describe something truthfully than to tell the world how much you love or hate it. If you describe exactly what you see (and hear, and feel), your opinion will come shining through your words.

 

JON SAVAGE (author — England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945; started writing for first magazine, the British weekly Sounds, in 1977)

You have to want to do it. For whatever reason. Otherwise you wouldn’t put up with lousy rates of pay, corporate bullying, etc. The reason that you will want to do it is probably because there isn’t a reason, just an overwhelming impulse. Music is a great form of communication and if you’ve heard the piper, you will follow him and her despite any privations. Always have a sense of your own worth and a keen nose for bullshit. Try to match the excitement of what you’re hearing somehow in your prose. Warning: if you’re thinking that this is a lifestyle option and that it’s a glamorous life, think again.

 

PATRICK SCHABE (music reviews editor — PopMatters)

Remember that the best music writers are just plain good writers. Having a passion for music is vitally important — because you’re translating a sensory experience into words, only that passion can make writing about music truly compelling — but it’s not enough to be enthusiastic. Good music writers understand that successful writing is as much about craft, style, and even basic mechanics as it is about sharing the glory of the latest band you’ve fallen in love with. Nothing about a pitch or writing sample irks more than sloppy copy. Take some care with your work.

Good music writing must be well written, interesting, insightful, and keep a constant eye on engaging the reader. It doesn’t matter who you think your audience is, so long as you focus on the fact that you aren’t writing to reify your own opinions, you’re writing to be read, and possibly even sway an opinion or two. Because in the end it’s not about what you think of the music, it’s what you can make the reader think about.

 

AMY SCHROEDER (founder — Venus Zine)

Do your research. Journalists are overly curious and want to know everything there is to know about everything. Apply your thirst for knowledge to all aspects of the journalistic experience — from researching your dream writing gig to pitching relevant and timely stories to preparing for interviews. Come interview time, make sure you’re not asking your subjects the same questions they’ve already answered 29 times. Your subjects will appreciate your creativity — engage and stimulate them.

Listen, really listen, and observe. You’re already armed with informed questions, but don’t feel like you’re on the offense or that you’re putting on a show. The art of interviewing is just as much about asking good questions as being a good listener. Sometimes, the best questions aren’t the ones you thought you were going to ask. They’re usually the ones that come to you, in the moment, after observing your subjects in their environment, picking up on their mood, meeting the people in their lives and seeing the world through their eyes.

Bud Scoppa to Jeff Tamarkin

BUD SCOPPA (writer — Hits, Uncut, Mix, Paste, iTunes)

Approach every subject with an open mind, but definitely bring your assumptions to the party, for the purposes of A/B-ing what you’d expected vs. what you’re picking up. Receive the work directly, as it’s presented, but react to it experientially — and if it wants to seduce you, by all means let it. That’s the best part — when you run into something great without warning. For me, as a reviewer, some prime examples: the Allman Brothers Band, Derek & the Dominos, Jackson Browne, Big Star, Crowded House, Spoon, Kings of Leon. There’s nothing better than hearing from a reader, thanking me for turning them on to their new favorite band.

 

PHILIP SHERBURNE (writer — Pitchfork, The Wire)

I was asked specifically for “advice,” but I’m afraid the only advice that I can give is not to go into music writing if you’re assuming you can make a living out of it.

That being said, if you simply want to write about music, by all means, what are you waiting for? The barriers to entry have never been lower than they are now, as long as you’re not worried about a paycheck. When I started out, I wrote a lot of short reviews about bands I might not really care about, for magazines I might not care for, simply because I wanted to get published, and where the hell else was I going to do it? These days, you can skip that step. Start your own blog, become active on forums and listservs (which you probably already are); hone your voice and your thinking. Learn from the writers you admire. For me, that means people like Luc Sante, Ben Ratliff, Sasha Frere Jones, Mark Richardson, Simon Reynolds, Chuck Eddy, Todd Burns, Andy Battaglia, Michelangelo Matos, Nitsuh Abebe, but that’s just me; I think my taste in music writers is probably as peculiar as my taste in music.

Above all, listen widely and listen deeply. Despite the “electronic niche” I seem to have fallen in, I’m a big believer in breadth. Know your shit, but be humble enough and honest enough to know where your knowledge ends (this is true in any number of contexts: historical movements, subgenre distinctions, recording techniques and technology). Think about how the music works and why that matters. Trust your gut and trust your ears—and don’t forget to doubt them, either.

 

HANK SHTEAMER (writer/editor — Time Out New York, blogger — Dark Forces Swing Blind Punches; writer — The Wire, Signal to Noise, Destination: OUT, etc.)

I think my primary piece of advice to the young music writer (I hate the term “critic” — I consider myself a music lover and a fan) would be to identify your passion and follow it. I’ve never really been very excited about the school of music writing that doggedly trails whatever happens to be garnering buzz at a given moment. Obviously everyone working in print and online media is obligated to stay current, but my most meaningful work as a writer has come about as a result of me uncovering esoteric, yet-untold stories and methodically researching them. You have to go after the stuff that excites you, even (and perhaps, especially) if no one else has heard of it. Your job is to make people care, and chances are, your work will stand out more if you’re not just riding the bandwagon.

For some excellent examples of this follow-your-passion school of music writing, check out Forces in Motion, Graham Lock’s outstanding book about Anthony Braxton, and Enter Naomi, Joe Carducci’s freeform remembrance of SST Records. These writers care; it’s unmistakable. No one asked them to write these books: they just knew they had to. Another great guidepost is Mark Moskowitz’s literary documentary Stone Reader. All these demonstrate that you have to be willing to stand alone and to go deep to find the best stories. I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to narrate a few of these untold tales, including one for a certain webzine: http://www.furious.com/perfect/clevepozar.html.

 

DAN SINKER (editor/publisher — Punk Planet; writer — Huffington Post; teacher — journalism at Columbia College)

Don’t wait for someone to tell you to start — just start. Let your passion for the music always remain central. Write something awesome.

 

MARC SMIRNOFF (founder/editor — The Oxford American)

Qualifying as a music nerd or hipster isn’t enough to make you compelling to an intelligent audience. The best practitioners in your field understand that music only halfway defines their job. The best music writers obsess over great writing as much as they do great music. They know that being unfamiliar with the greatest writers is like being unfamiliar with the greatest musicians.

 

COURTNEY E. SMITH (writer — MTV Music Blog, Uncensored Interview, The Daily Swarm; finishing her first book, Record Collecting for Girls)

The hardest assignments you will ever be asked to take on are those you are apathetic about. The amount of music you will truly love or truly hate pales in comparison to the amount you simply won’t give a crap about. Finding your angle, your way inside these projects in order to spit out the 400 word review you were assigned might, at times, feel nearly impossible. So, keep a file about the things you’d rather be writing about before and after you dip into trying to make the world’s most bland album sound interesting. Working around other people’s mediocrity can help inspire you to create much better ideas of your own. Eventually, you’ll find yourself with a file full of pitches and the power to forever avoid a bullshit trip to douchetown.

 

KEVIN STEWART-PANKO (writer — Decibel, Terrorizer, Rock Sound, Metal Hammer, Outburn, Alternative Press, Sick Sounds, Cowbell, hellbound.ca)

The music industry model has changed drastically in the last ten years, but from the standpoint of someone who has always managed to exist outside of major-label-land, the scenario isn’t all doom and gloom. Leave that braying to those whose expense accounts have been scaled back and the peripheral outside commentators who barely know the difference between CD and vinyl, but ape the same bullet point bullshit in “populist” entertainment outlets. It’s an exciting time to be creative; this applies just as much to those who write the music as it does to those trying to sell it, as well as those writing about it.

Because nuts ‘n’ bolts information is readily available anywhere on the interhole, you’re afforded the opportunity as a hack to make better and more creative use of your word counts. No longer should you be required to mention where an album was recorded, who produced it, and how many songs are on said record and how long they are, unless you really want to or it’s integral to what you’re writing. If you feel like asking Buddy from Band X about how his interest in Tibetan Bikram Hot Stone Whateverthefuck Yoga applies to blast beats or 7/4 time signatures, go for it. If you’d rather ask a band about the process in pressing their latest release on white vinyl with a two-layered die-cut gatefold sleeve, instead of asking well-worn songwriting questions, there’s room for that. Want to have them do a Rorschach Test instead of a generic W5 interview? Fuck yeah! If you want to review an album by comparing it to the tempestuous history of the breakaway nation of Transnisitia, feel free (as long as there is a sensible end-point to what you’re going on about). Music journalism isn’t about providing information tidbits any more; you have the room to dig deeper, get silly, get philosophical, get to the point, or not. Basically, to have fun, go nuts and, like I said, be creative. Or something.

 

JEFF TAMARKIN (freelance music writer; former editor-in-chief — Relix, Goldmine, CMJ, Global Rhythm; associate editor — JazzTimes)

The Four Rules of Music Journalists

1. You must love music. You’re not going to get rich writing about music — the music industry is basically a thing of the past and the heyday of music journalism is long gone. The days when music journalists got flown all over the world to interview rock stars and got invited to lavish, decadent parties are over (for 99% of us, anyway). So the only reason to even start writing about music is because you love music so much you can’t imagine doing anything else.

2. You must love writing. Regardless of what I said in rule #1, it doesn’t matter how much you love music if you find writing a chore. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t savor the challenge and don’t want to keep getting better at it, then stick to listening to it for pleasure and chatting about it with your friends, but don’t consider becoming a music journalist. You won’t be doing anyone (especially yourself) a favor if you get into this gig but don’t like to write. That is what we do, and we try to do it as well as we can — always. It can be a lonely, solitary, even maddening existence, spending hours alone at the computer evaluating and informing about other people’s art. It’s rarely exciting, but it is rewarding, and it defines who we are. The bottom line is, that’s the gig — writing — and even if you are churning out reviews for a pittance, you must be prepared to give each piece your best effort. Don’t take the attitude that an editor will “fix” it later. When you put your name on a piece of writing, you should only do so with pride. If you don’t “get” that, music journalism is not how you want to spend your life.

3. You must have something to say. Going back to rule #1 again, everyone says they love music, but most people — you may find this hard to believe if you are even considering becoming a music journalist — don’t give music much thought. It’s there, maybe even several hours a day, but it’s not something that occupies their brains. They listen to it, dance to it, and honestly do enjoy it, but they don’t much care what goes into the creation of it, what inspires it, who writes, plays, or produces it, what the artist is trying to convey, etc. They don’t pay attention to lyrics, have no idea who is making the music, and might not even know what genre a given piece falls into. If you are thinking about writing about music, you probably think about music. A lot. You probably have strong opinions and deeper than average knowledge about the music and artists you listen to. You have a hunger for it. You want to know everything about it. But if you honestly want to write about music, the most important part of your job will be getting people to read what you write, and if you have nothing interesting to say about the music, regardless of how much you might like it, they’re not going to read you. Learning how to transfer your thoughts, knowledge, and opinions into compelling writing that holds a reader’s attention is the key to becoming a successful music journalist.

4. Never stop discovering. Learn about music. Do your homework before you write a review or conduct an interview. Learn everything you can about an artist and/or the specific work you are assigned to write about. Find out about other kinds of music — even music you don’t especially care for. Constantly seek out artists you are unfamiliar with. Take assignments writing about music you know nothing about, then find out as much as you can before you even start writing the piece. You may think the only music that matters is what’s happening right now. It isn’t, so find out what’s come before. You might think that all of the good music was made in the past. Also untrue — there’s plenty of great music being made today; go looking for it and you’ll be surprised. I always have piles and piles of music that I have never heard and can’t wait to hear. It spans several decades and dozens of genres. I’ve been writing about music for nearly 35 years and every week I still find something new (or old) to love. Quite often it’s something I passed over before or never understood or never gave much of a chance before. Entire genres that I dismissed in the past have since moved into regular rotation for me — because I finally opened up to them. The day that you think you’ve heard everything you’re ever going to like, or the day you think you know everything there is to know, is the day you should quit writing about music. If you have no interest in expanding your relationship with music on a scale much grander than that you currently embrace, best not to bother writing about music at all, because you’ll be bringing a limited scope to your work. You can’t write an informed piece unless you know where a given artist or musical creation fits into the general scheme of things. If you can’t imagine not wanting to devour everything that comes your way — accepting some and rejecting the rest — and you really want the world to know what you know or what you think, then welcome to our world.

Jim Testa to Ed Ward

JIM TESTA (editor, publisher- Jersey Beat)

Very simply, I will echo some advice that Little Richard gave to aspiring musicians at his SXSW keynote a few years ago:

1) Never let anyone else tell you that you can’t do something if you feel in your heart that it’s what you want to do;

2) Always sign your own checks

 

DAVID TOOP (author — Sinister Resonance, Haunted Weather, Ocean of Sound; musician, composer)

You are now in competition with volume rather than quality. A lot of people are out there, venting their opinions. Though they may have knowledge and access to information, the majority lack critical faculties and any kind of originality or even competence in the art of writing. That is where the potentiality lies. Music journalism has always had a grounding in prejudice, in forceful rhetoric raised to the level of truth through shouting. It also carries the stigma of being a form of consumer guide; one of its roles in the past has been to browbeat readers into mirroring the tastes and lifestyle of the writer. We may feel nostalgia for the loss of this approach, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t contemptible. You’re not an academic, but one of the fundamental principles of scholarly writing can be instructive in this sense: is this simply my opinion or can I support it with research and persuasive argument?

From my point of view, music writers are interesting not because they shout louder than anybody else, or conversely, because they are so bland that they upset nobody, but because they have a personal mythology that can be made credible through the fascination of language. One of the aspects of music history that attracts me is the web of connections that can be traced within history. The connections uncovered through diligent research, through talking to musicians, and through careful, open-minded listening do not correspond to the official history, the established canon. If you can write another history, convincingly and with style, then there is an opening for you. This may be considered quaint, but I also believe it is important to read texts of all kinds.

 

JAAN UHELSZKI (editor at large — Relix)

Every rock journalist gets into the business because they were an obsessive fan of someone. Hell, we’d spend hours deconstructing a covert lyric, trying to understand the symbolism of album art — Led Zeppelin IV, anyone? — or searching for any scrap of information on said artist, even stooping to stalk them if the occasion arose. My sister and I once followed Lou Reed in my Ford Galaxie 500 at a snail’s pace as he walked the dark streets of Detroit. Lucky for us, it was during the Transformer tour when he was sporting a platinum crew cut. The point is, we’d do this for free. In the lean years, it’s always good to remember that, since we all, at one-time or another, must subsist on the so-called intrinsic rewards. It’s a conspiracy for paying you nothing close to what you’re worth. I think the common phrase is “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” Surprisingly, it can and will. But you have to treat rock criticism like a job and not a hobby.

It also helps if you sell yourself expensively. Or at least try to. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for,” Herbie Herbert, the former manager of Journey, used to say. Look how good it worked for Journey. It’ll work for you, too. The second thing to remember is rock stars are not our friends. A good interview feels like an utterly brilliant blind date. But no matter how deep you feel the connection was, you are never going to hear from them again (Okay there are a few exceptions, but very few). If you do interview them again, they probably won’t remember you. And under no circumstances should you remind them — it’s beneath you, and it will make the subsequent interview get off to an awkward start. Why am I telling you this? Just so you’re not tempted to approach an interview like you’re charming a potential suitor — no matter how smitten you are by them or their art, ¬you’re there in service to the truth, not to throw bouquets of pink roses. So no soft-ball questions, no gushing praise, no telling them about the first time you ever saw them perform. It makes them squirm, and puts you in a subservient position.

In fact, the less you talk about yourself, the better. Instead, ask well-considered and well-researched questions. In fact, I think a good rule is three hours of research for every half-hour interview. Read every recent interview that you can get your hands on to see how they react to certain questions, and to see what gets their hackles up. Ask that, but in a different way. This may be the only time you’re ever going to get those burning questions answered, not because there’s a high mortality rate among rock stars — although there is — but the first time is oddly always the best time. There’s an innocence and a freshness and an unjaundiced eye that you bring to that very first interview, and it’s almost always reflected in the writing.

 

RICHIE UNTERBERGER (author and rock historian; latest book: White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day)

My strongest advice to writers starting off is to write about what you love. That passion will motivate you to write as much as you can. The more you write, the better you’ll be as a writer. And the better you are as a writer and the more your passion shows in what you write, the more you’ll entertain and educate your readers.

Along the same lines, develop expertise in the areas of music you love the most, or expertise in specific areas of whatever you’re writing about, whether it’s film, politics, or something else. There are a lot of writers who cover a lot and don’t say anything especially noteworthy about any one topic. The more you’re known for expertise in certain fields, the more opportunities you’ll get as someone who’s better equipped than anyone else to write specific pieces or books.

Also, thank people in the profession and colleagues who take the time to help you, whether they did so for financial reward or not; return emails and calls from readers and colleagues asking for information; pay writers promptly, if you’re in the appropriate professional position to do so; and do things you’ve promised. These sound like common courtesies, but they’re not observed that often. They should be done because they’re the right thing to do, but also because as a writer, you’ll need to ask favors of others often; you’ve got to be at least as willing to do them for others.

 

ED WARD (rock and roll historian; broadcaster — Fresh Air with Terry Gross)

My answer is: Why would you want to do this? Who are you thinking of writing for? Are you aware that you can’t make a living doing this, and that you’ll be held in very low regard by every other kind of journalist, writer, and critic in the field? Do you realize that once you get stuck with the label “music journalist” or “rock critic” that it’s almost impossible to shake? Aren’t you aware that we’re in the middle of a bogus “citizen journalist” revolution where everyone’s opinion is supposedly equal to everyone else’s opinion? That you’re supposed to give your content away and sell t-shirts on tour or something?

I would do everything in my power to talk someone out of doing this. It was fun once, but it irreparably damaged my ability to move away from it and I basically feel like I’ve wasted my life so far. It’s taken nearly all the enjoyment out of listening to music to the point where if I play an album every couple of days that’s plenty. I almost never go see live music anymore unless I’m familiar with the act; making a new discovery brings me no pleasure, and the chances of doing so approaches zero. Someone starting out today is wandering into a field overpopulated by mediocrity writing about performers who have no idea what they’re doing or why. If you have writing talent, for heaven’s sakes, use it for something worthwhile. Not that you’ll make a lot of money that way either, but you stand a far greater chance of contributing something to the world.

And learn to cook, so that if you find yourself, as I do today, with 70 cents, a can of chickpeas, and some frozen spinach, with no money on the horizon and no work, you can at least feed yourself.

But basically, don’t do it.

If some kid were to ask for advice about this, I’d also ask him to look at what he’s feeling and ask himself if maybe he wouldn’t be better off taking a more active role in the music business. If he’s looking to become a writer, rock writing is a very bad idea, but if his passion’s really for music… shit, there are loads of things he can do that will help out, even a little bit — even becoming a publicist.

Christopher R. Weingarten to Bill Wyman

CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN (freelance writer — RollingStone.com, Village Voice, Spin, Revolver; author — the 33 1/3 series edition on Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back)

Get to the damn point already.

If the band name isn’t in your first two sentences, you are probably fucking up somewhere. One of the biggest cancers in Internet-era writing is this tireless need to spread out and sprawl and opine just because you have the space. Pull people in with your lead. Did you ever notice that with most online reviews you can pretty much skip right to the second paragraph? That’s because the writer spent that entire first graf saying something completely unnecessary to understanding the record like “Usually when you think of Madison, Wisconsin…” or “The live album is a tricky thing…” or “The first time I saw Spoon…”

One thing that many writers don’t really understand is that the important thing is the band in question, not you, not your life, not why all the jocks made fun of you because you liked Pavement. If are an aspiring rock writer, you are an invariably boring person and I could care less about the completely mundane details of your life, and the completely typical, predictable emotions you feel when listening to the Hold Steady. If you were in the slightest bit interesting to me, you’d probably be in a band. And if you were any good at playing music you probably wouldn’t be writing about it.

 

JEFF WEISS (writer/journalist — Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Idolator, The Village Voice; blogging at Passion of the Weiss)

Be blessed with a healthy streak of delusion to fend off doubters and self-doubts. Be skeptical of the herd mentality, particularly when it comes to bands named after herds. Read as much about music as you can, read as few music writers as possible. Remember that it’s more important to be best than it is to be first. Start your own website or partner with like-minded souls — otherwise, they’ll fire you eventually. Don’t take this too seriously — you’re writing about music, not the safety instructions on a parachute. Whenever your brain is starting to combust from too many sounds and too few adequate words, smoke a joint, listen to Fela Kuti (or your personal pick), and remember why you did this in the first place.

 

DON WILCOCK (editor-in-chief — BluesWax)

You need to have an abiding curiosity and an obsession to write that’s strong enough that the pleasure of the process is stronger than the pain. If the traditional values of steady income and consistency are important, don’t do it! The whole paradigm of intellectual property and its value is in flux. You have to be an entreprenuer to figure out how to generate an income from writing. When you figure that out, call me!

 

CARL WILSON (author — Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste (33 1/3 series), blogger — Zoilus.com and upcoming group site BacktotheWorld.net; writer — The Globe and Mail, Slate and elsewhere)

Writers right now are like bands right now: You can’t rely on anyone else to make a reputation for you, and you can’t guess how you’re going to get paid. Make your own course. Get into a scene — seek out like-minded writers and other artists (of whatever generation or location) and communicate and collaborate with them. Develop a live show. (Literally: the non-fiction writers I know are called upon to deliver talks, interviews, and presentations at least as much as they are asked to write.) Experiment with other media. When you’ve got your own sound, your own rubric, your own identity as a writer, people will seek you out. This sounds like “be entrepeneurial,” but it’s not. It’s “be an artist.”

Participate in the discourse of your field. Don’t always fuss about getting credit and the social, cultural, or economic capital it represents. Make culture, swim in culture (many cultures), imbibe it, recycle it back into the ecosystem. Develop a sensibility though not necessarily a taste (read widely, listen widely, against the grain of your own habits). Yet don’t let the data smog confound you: Books are still the fittest, most finely considered, deeply developed, and sustainable form for our medium, language, and people still read and care about them. And that’s my final point: Write for people, not just for avatars, hit points, and trend aggregators. Write to contribute to the broader human experience, to expand our collective, ever-depleting stores of soulfulness, intelligence, and understanding. If those aren’t the stakes, don’t waste your life.

 

DOUGLAS WOLK (writer about pop music and comics for a whole bunch of places, see lacunae.com)

There is nothing even vaguely glamorous about music criticism, and it doesn’t pay particularly well even at its upper levels, so the only reason to do it is that you love it.

The best advice I would give to someone wanting to get into it in 2010 would be:

  • Listen to music at every possible moment. The process of self-education never ends.

  • Read the best arts criticism you can find, and read it out of books. Concentrate on reading first-rate criticism that isn’t about music. Read other non-fiction. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read it outside, in the sunshine, if you can. Absorb and transform whatever you can from people who aren’t doing exactly the same thing you’re doing.

  • Start a blog, with a focus. Write at least 500 words about music in it every day. EVERY day. If you miss a day, that means you can’t meet deadlines. You need to be able to meet deadlines. If you can’t, forget about doing this professionally.

  • Learn to play an instrument. Understanding how music works is very useful in demystifying it when it needs to be demystified. Also, making music is one of life’s great joys.

  • If at any point you find that you no longer love music or writing about it, please get out of the business.
 

BILL WYMAN (former editor — Salon, NPR; occasional blogger at Hitsville)

No matter how much the ways people consume media are changing, a writer can always be successful by having something compelling and new to say and the chops to say it with. Now, there will always be places in which writers can be successful doing precisely the opposite, on both counts. Twas ever thus, and ever will be. But they’re not really writers and what they write isn’t really journalism.

So why not be original, and skillfully so? Imagine intelligent but disinterested readers that is, people who are looking for something to stimulate their minds, but don’t want to wade through hipster references or the received wisdom of the time (year, month, week) to get to it.

Think up something interesting and original to say. (If you don’t have something original and interesting to say, find something else to write about!) Then make a good argument for why you feel that way, in the process painting a picture of the band or concert or whatever that got you thinking in the first place.

Once that’s accomplished, try to imagine what a really smart person who disagreed with you would say, and then address and demolish those arguments.

Then restate your thesis, elegantly. That’s your last line.

After you’re done, go back and take out cliches, in-jokes, crap from press releases, any bright thoughts you had about the CD title, anything a buddy of yours said, and as many uses of the word “I” as possible. Check your facts, and it never hurts to be humble.

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