So You Want To Be a Rock Music Journalist?

Once upon a time, I used to be a music journalist. While I never lost my puppy-like enthusiasm for writing in general, my fervor for writing about music fizzled. Oddly enough, this was the thing that brought me to the dance.

 

Now_Shit[1]Picture it: Late December back in ’63… Scratch that. It was late December 2006, four years since I had graduated from Temple University with Honors and a BA in Communications. At the time, I had been working in advertising, despite writing and music journalism/criticism being my passion. I’d written for my college newspaper and really wanted to get back into writing, even if it was just a side-gig.

A friend (and later, mentor) encouraged me to submit samples to a website he wrote for. After sending in a few sample album reviews, I became a staff writer and contributor to the music portion of one of the  most respected hubs of pop culture criticism on the web. It was a wonderful opportunity to have my work read by over 1 million readers and to work with (and occasionally be validated) by a team of top-notch writers and music journalists. It even landed me a few mentions on Wikipedia.

While I no longer write for the site, I was once one of the site’s most prolific music critics. Energized by the free albums I got to choose from a list of available new releases submitted by label and artist PR reps, I was banging out at least one long-form, 800+ word album review every other week.

I was a review-writing machine, churning out honest assessments of artists’ offerings ranging from rap to country to indie rock. I applied the principle that good music was good music regardless of my genre preference and found myself pleasantly surprised by a lot of artists I may not have otherwise chosen, given my druthers.

I kept up this pace for a few years and then my enthusiasm started to wane. For every gem of an album I’d come across, there were at least three duds I’d have to force myself to listen to. Repeatedly.

Your Duty As a Music Critic — And Why it Sometimes Sucks

The job of a music critic worth his or her salt is to separate the wheat from the chaff, to make readers trust them because they can wittily quantify why an album is good or bad.

It’s not just enough to explain. A good critic must also entertain.

Readers and respectable editors will not accept a simple “this iz awesum!” or “dis sucks” as a review, accompanied by a numerical value on a scale of 1 to 10 without the writer letting Dear Reader know precisely why something blows or blows them away.

Sometimes, I’d have to listen to an album three or four times to pinpoint what it was that I detested about it. Try listening to an album that possesses the artistic merit of farting in a hat ONCE, let alone FOUR times. Then try pinning down what it is about the album that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums with a spork while making it an interesting read. It’s not pretty.

Mediocre is Worse Than Bad

make-it-stopEven worse than the really bad albums were the slew of mediocre ones I had to review. I pondered whether middling, sound-alike bands were just as bad if not worse than downright terrible bands, just by virtue of the fact that they didn’t make me feel anything besides a mild shrug of my shoulders when I listened to them.

I started to loathe the thing I once loved.

Initially, I wanted to write about music because if there was a band or album I loved, I wanted to tell the world about it and get them to share in something new and different that might “speak” to them, as well.

However, music criticism isn’t just writing glowing praise like Ralphie waxing poetic about the virtues of a Red Ryder B.B. Gun. For every chance you get to introduce readers to an album you’ve fallen in love with, you have to break the bad news to them about a dozen other turds in the punchbowl and possibly turn them into a beast just as snarky and jaded as you.

This was the beginning of my battle with burnout.

Losing the Battle with Burnout

My zeal was temporarily renewed when a friend recruited me to write for a new online magazine she was starting geared exclusively towards hard rock and heavy metal. I wrote brief news articles, concert reviews, and a few album and book reviews for her site until she decided to step back to focus on more pressing professional engagements. I was slightly bummed considering I loved writing for the site and working with a very talented friend, writer and editor who took her work as seriously as I did.

Yet, when one door closes, another opens.

In 2010, I found myself writing (very) briefly for another rock music website. I was a month into writing for this site when I realized that the level of quality I had come to expect from sites I had previously worked with just wasn’t there. The bulk of its writing was so ham-fisted and rife with spelling and grammatical errors that it made Amazon.com reviews look like Lester Bangs masterpieces by comparison. Sure, I was writing about my preferred genre, but I was still writing about shitty rock bands and forcing myself to listen to their albums. (Quick tip: If a rock band name contains an “X” or a “Z,” brace yourself for garbage.)

Compared to the rest of the roster, I looked like Hemmingway. But who wants to be a big fish in a small pond? I’d rather challenge myself by keeping up with a staff of great writers than be the smartest window licker in the house. I enjoy friendly competition among talented colleagues who inspire one another to turn out even better work. I wasn’t getting that with this site.

Moreover, the level of output the site wanted from me just wasn’t worth what I was being compensated with: Oooh, wee! Nothing but a bunch of free CDs better used as beer coasters and a shitload of my time wasted that could be better spent on other creative pursuits? Yeah. I’ll pass, thanks.

After wrapping up what work I had committed to do for the site, I politely said I had other projects on my plate and was stepping down.

New Adventures in an Old Game

It wasn’t entirely untrue. Since I didn’t like the existing opportunities to write about the type of music I wanted to, I decided to create my own website. With the encouragement of a good friend who wanted a chance to show off her own ear for talent and music writing/photography chops, I decided to start my own online music magazine devoted to metal bands. Starting my own website gifted me with a chance to ramp up my public relations skills in addition to those as a writer and editor.

With my friend along for the ride, I felt like I could finally do what I originally set out to do as a freelance rock critic and journalist: Give back and help mentor someone in the way that I had been given guidance; to write about the bands I loved; and to scout and give some press to young, up-and-coming bands worth checking out.

I began reaching out to record companies and band managers to secure materials for review. Even better, I was granted access to interview a few really interesting people in bands of varying levels of popularity. I came up with new ideas and features to try to drive traffic to the site and promoted them in press releases I wrote and distributed myself.

Roughly a year after it began, the site had begun developing a decent enough following before it was hacked. It was actually a blessing in disguise.

It was through writing about what I had once loved and taking a first-person, hands-on approach to the editorial content of a site of my own that I realized just how “over” writing about music and musicians I really was.

Interviews & Egos: The Good, The Bad, & the Destined to Fail

I was still running into a buttload of uninteresting albums and had to make writing about them interesting for readers. Then there was the added burden of dealing with the egos of potential interview subjects.

I can honestly say that every person I was fortunate enough to speak with and whose interview made it onto the site was extremely gracious and cool. Some were more enthusiastic than others about the interview from the outset, but all were really great sports.

It was attempting to wrangle interviews with some bands or artists that didn’t make it onto the site that was a real pain in the ass. (And it’s not the type of bands you think would be a pain in the ass that were hell to work with.)

I won’t name names, but I noticed a trend when it came to interviewing bands at different tiers on the fame scale. The bands and artists I spoke with (which included comedians and documentary filmmakers) who were either just starting out or who already were at the top of their game, were a pleasure to interview.

Some of the younger bands I spoke with were so positive and focused on making music. These kids – some barely in their 20s — really had their shit together and came across as extremely poised individuals with a strong sense of self.

As for the more seasoned individuals I interviewed, these folks were punctual and engaging, demonstrating just why they had risen to the top of their chosen profession.

On the flipside, it was some bands who had a modicum (and I do mean modicum) of success that were a nightmare to work with. In one case, I had a band approach my site for an interview only to reschedule three times before I eventually decided to pass. It wasn’t like anyone was clamoring for an interview with a band that, at their most popular, was still obscure.

Another negative experience involved a band I had approached for an interview twice. When they didn’t respond, I took the hint that they weren’t interested.

At the time I contacted this band, they were starting to gain a small following, making appearances on national summer rock tours. When the popularity promised by this tour didn’t pan out, the band in question eventually reached out to me again, wanting to set up an interview that would have marked them as an up-and-coming band featured on the site for a given month. A time for an interview had been set up, but then, the band failed to make themselves available at the agreed upon time. Even better, I had set up the interview with the band themselves, not one of their handlers or managers.

I offered to reschedule but heard nothing from the band for a solid two weeks. Not even a courtesy brush-off.

It was no coincidence that when backlash against the band for being a bunch of insufferable douchebags started cropping up on their own Facebook page, they began contacting me again in the hopes of setting up an interview. They left me several email and voicemail messages. In turn, I afforded them the same “professional” courtesy they showed me several times before and ignored them.

The lesson learned: Your time is valuable…but so is mine.

Lessons Learned

Once my site got hacked, I felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was the sign – and opportunity – I needed to step away from something that had grown stale for me. I just wanted to be able to enjoy music again without having to plow through garbage to get to the good stuff. I wanted to be able to discover new bands I loved organically without having to sift through and suffer the dung heap of mediocrity out there.

Operating my own music website for a year made me realize that I had it in me to create something fairly successful. However, I decided that I could better apply that formula to promoting and profiting from my own creative pursuits rather than writing about the creative pursuits of others. For every rewarding experience I had, there were twice as many douche nozzles with guitars out there that I didn’t feel like dealing with.

Life is short. There are only so many free hours in the day and I chose to use those free hours to write about things that interest me or to exorcise my own creative demons.

That’s not to say I’ve abandoned writing about music. I still do, but just on a more selective basis. Currently, I’m the website administrator and public relations officer for a thrash-metal band based out of New England. I love working with these guys. They’re talented, original, and extremely down-to-earth — big on talent and little on the ego.

Plus, they pay me to say nice things about them.

Not bad for a kid who started out wanting to be a rock music journalist.

Note: This article was originally written on 12/13/2011 and was updated on 4/12/2016.

 

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