Many aspiring music journalists have contacted me with inquiries as to how I got into the biz and how they too can enter this exciting world. To date, I haven’t seen any practical, comprehensive guides on how to become a music journalist or what it really means to be one. Hence, I have compiled this essay, in the hope that it will save future writers the trouble of discovering these basic concepts for themselves and set new writers on a proper path. Thanks go out to C.J. Chilvers at The Association of Music Writers and Photographers for suggesting that I expand upon my original FAQ.
Why This Essay Exists: The Uncut Version
Many of you are probably familiar with the film “Almost Famous,” the semi-autobiographical movie by Cameron Crowe about his entry into the world of music journalism. When Cameron was just a kid, he really did impress Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres enough that he was hired under the assumption that he was an adult. The actor who played Ben did an admirable job of filling his shoes.
After reading one of Ben’s books, I was inspired to send him a sampling of my writing. I highly recommend reading his stuff, especially his autobiography, “The Rice Room.” Another of his books, “Not Fade Away,” which is a compilation of his essays for the Stone, is also fabulous. You can learn more about Ben at his site, www.benfongtorres.com
I didn’t expect anything to come from sending Ben my clips, but he called me out of the blue, stating that he enjoyed my work, that I had passion and that I should keep writing. It goes without saying that Ben is on a much higher playing field than I. Ben has won awards, been a high-profile editor and knows dozens of Hollywood personalities. I’m just a moonlighter who’s chatted with some of his musical idols. There was no reason in the world that he should have felt obligated to take time out of his day to call a writer he had never met. But he obviously felt a sense of duty in passing along his wisdom and support.
I feel that part of what it means to be a music journalist is the practice of helping people who ask for advice. I am honored and privileged to be involved in the craft of music journalism. As such, I feel obligated to share some of the knowledge that I have acquired. My aim in writing this piece is to answer any potential questions that new writers may have. If I’ve failed to answer any questions that come to mind, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Questions and comments are very much appreciated.
My Murky Past
Allow me to take a self-indulgent moment or two and talk about how I got into this racket. The truth is that I pretty much fell into writing. I didn’t even listen to music when I was a child; what was played on the radio, for the most part, didn’t appeal to me, so I assumed that I just didn’t like music all that much. In high school, I got into a bit of classic rock and developed a serious passion for Living Colour. But it wasn’t until college that I got a real taste of the musical world. A number of friends introduced me to whole new musical realms and music quickly became an all-consuming passion.
By the time I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in ‘95, I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life. But I made the first step in the right direction when I became a street rep for a marketing firm called Asylm. Being a street rep entails “pushing” certain acts that pay to be promoted. I handed out flyers (simple pieces of colored paper with information regarding a new album or tour dates), hung up posters and flats (which are exactly like posters, except that they are made out of square-shaped cardboard), hand-delivered albums to local record stores and chatted up bands. I wasn’t getting paid, but I got real experience working in the industry.
It wasn’t until ‘97-‘98, that I started writing, at this point just for fun. I first wrote a couple pieces for a grassroots web ‘zine called Peelmag, which later changed its name to 360. Then I wrote a few pieces for a local music magazine called Boston Soundcheck. Again, I wasn’t getting paid, but I had my foot in the door.
Suddenly, I got my big break: a friend of mine, who had been writing music reviews for some time, suggested I send my clips to a guy from the Microsoft Network’s Rock Forum who was looking for writers. The next thing I knew, I was arranging my first official interview. I still wasn’t getting paid, but I got a serious taste of the big leagues.
As an interviewer for MSN, I had the chance to chat up stars such as Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic, Adrian Belew of King Crimson, bassist/producer Bill Laswell, Michael Virtue from UB40 and many more. It was a great experience and, more importantly, a way to build up my reputation and my portfolio.
I hadn’t even searched for new writing outlets before I stumbled upon a burgeoning site called www.Music.com. I sent them a few of my writing samples and, in a flash, I was getting paid to write! Now that I had some impressive writing clips, I beefed up my portfolio and sent it to dozens of publications. From there, things snowballed and I blossomed into the seasoned writer I am today.
The Reality Of Writing
Not long ago, I had the privilege of meeting jazz critic Bob Blumenthal. Bob started his career by doing a jazz radio program. Though he started his working life as a lawyer, he later made a name for himself by writing for The Boston Phoenix and then The Boston Globe.
But what really boosted his credentials was writing liner notes for the famous Blue Note record label, which ultimately led to his winning two Grammy awards. Needless to say, any music journalist who has a Grammy sitting on the shelf at home knows what he’s talking about.
It took Bob nearly twenty-five years before he was able to support himself through his writing.
I’m telling you this story not to scare you away from writing about music, but to give you a realistic idea of how long it can take to earn a living in this field. The bottom line is that very few music journalists are able to support themselves simply through their writing. I know I’m unable to. Most of us have day jobs and moonlight as writers.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try; even if you are unable to earn a living as a music journalist, being one can be a great stepping stone toward other jobs, both music- and writing-related.
Some people are able to combine their occupations; music journalists are often publicists, record store clerks/owners, editors and, yeah, musicians. It’s a good strategy to spread your talents among related areas. Each occupation supports the other and it maximizes your chances of getting that big break.
Furthermore, you don’t need to earn a lot of money, or any money for that matter, to be a legitimate music journalist. If you simply write for a local ‘zine, you’re still making a significant contribution to the world of music journalism.
If you are putting in serious research time and taking great care in crafting your stories, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t getting paid. Your work counts just as much as that in so-called “professional” publications. In fact, underground publications serve an important function; they act as a risk-free testing ground for major publishers, giving them the chance to see what new styles work and which don’t without needing to do anything themselves.
Consider the fate of Lester Bangs. Perhaps no music journalist is more beloved than Lester, but he was barely able to survive off of his writing. That doesn’t mean, though, that his work was unimportant. The reality is that Lester influenced an entire generation of music journalists and his work remains some of the greatest. Remember this: Van Gogh died penniless.
Part 2 – “The Fundaments of Being a Writer” will appear in the next edition of MusicDish.
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