For all you aspiring writers, journalists, critics, or utility-player freelancers, let a jaded, (semi) old hand offer some advice as to what you can expect along your own journey. You may be expecting fame, fortune, glamour, free CDs, and press passes.
Temper those expectations.
I don’t want to scare you or deter you from your path… Just prepare you for what may lie ahead if you choose to become a music critic and/or journalist. Here are a few lessons learned I’d like to pass along to prepare you for the pratfalls that may lie ahead.
1. Be willing to work for peanuts.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the next Chuck Klosterman, you gotta start somewhere. Start with your school newspaper or a smaller online website looking for a few good writers. You won’t get paid much — if anything — but you’ll get albums, exposure, and some clips for your portfolio to show to a bigger publication.
2. Have a day job.
Have one job that pays the bills and another to give you some level of creative and artistic expression. You may not love your day job, but it will keep you fed and a put a roof over your head while you’re writing all those free album reviews and artist profiles on the side. Give yourself an outlet and something to strive for, even when you’re on the 9-to-5 grind.
3. You can’t always write what you want…But if you try sometimes, you write what you need.
Unless you run your own website or have the World’s Most Understanding Editor, you won’t always get your pick of assignments. Work with what you’ve got and parlay that into something closer to what you really want to write. When you’re starting out, be prepared to write about the lackluster debut of some shit-ass band from Jerkwater, Florida. It’s part of earning your stripes. Find the fun in it — even if it’s just mastering your Art of the Inner Snicker. Whether you wind up reviewing your next favorite album or your next favorite beer coaster, you’re still building that portfolio!
4. Music journalism is highly competitive — so, be original!
Find a niche and make yourself a respected authority on a certain area of expertise. Print journalism is a rapidly shrinking industry and the internet has given anyone with a hole in their ass license to write for a blog or website. (Present company included.) As a music journalist, you’ll be one of many writing about the same albums and the same bands. Figure out how you’ll make your review stand apart from others. Are you funny? Do you have a love for music history? Are you good at picking out technical nuances? Find your niche and run with it! Skills can be acquired or fine-tuned — but if the creativity, passion, or talent isn’t there, it’s not worth reading.
5. Even if you hold yourself to a high level of quality, you can’t always count on your editors or publication to uphold those same standards.
Just because a site is small or lesser-known doesn’t mean it’s not quality. There are some fantastic sites that have a smaller readership. However, you’ll know in your gut when a site is rampant with bad writing, dishonest reviews that shove a tongue in the bung of every band they cover, and an overall lack of integrity. The second your Spidey Sense tells you something isn’t quite right… Get out of Dodge! Don’t associate yourself with crap.
6. It’s better to say “no” to a project than to say “yes” to anything.
More damage can be done to your credibility by agreeing to do something of questionable quality rather than passing up a project. If you say “yes” to every little thing that comes your way, you’re going to shoot your wad faster than Two-Stroke Timmy after finding Dad’s stash of porno mags. When the time comes when you have the chance to work on something you’re actually interested in, you’ll be too fried from all of the other shit that’s bogging you down to really dig in on that dream project.
7. Fact-check, get the story from all angles, and be careful of your sources.
Journalistic tenets apply even if you write for your own blog. If you print something and claim it as fact because so-and-so says it’s true, you neglect to include the word “alleged,” or don’t offer a chance for the other party or their representatives to offer a rebuttal or their side of the story, you could be in for a world of shit. Some sources may want to feed you a story because it puts their name out there. Especially local bands, promoters, or club owners who want to make a name for themselves. There may be a lot of truth to their story, but don’t be too eager to print something as fact if your source can’t provide you with hard evidence. You could wind up breaking yourself instead of breaking a story.
8. Write with integrity.
It doesn’t matter how hard you suck the giggleberries of any given band you love, you will never become BFFs with them — or even their roadies, for that matter. There are a million other sycophants willing to dole out literal and/or figurative rim jobs to bands. Set yourself apart from the pack of drooling “yes men” by being honest with your writing. Phillip Seymour Hoffman said it best as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous:
My advice to you… I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest and unmerciful… You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much… They’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.
Don’t be afraid to offer glowing praise if it’s merited, but don’t say something is great when you think it stinks on ice, either. Talent should be rewarded — not mediocrity.
9. Take pride in your work.
Your time and your skills as a writer are just as valuable as those of the performer you’re interviewing or whose work you are critiquing. If your name is going on the byline, be sure it’s something you would want your favorite magazine to see as representative of your work.
Good luck out there, kids! Being a music journalist can be rough, but it can also be really rewarding, too.
And if you ever want any solicited advice or pointers, don’t hesitate to hit me up at: lanacooper417 at gmail dot com (I mean it!)