Music Journalism Is a Messy Business
Music journalism is a messy business — it’s dirty, glamless, mostly thankless, and at times will make you tear your hair out. It’s a struggle every day, just like writing a novel or painting a masterwork. Only this novel forces you to deal with real people in real time in dingy little clubs for (most times) no money and little attention thereafter. Many times those people remember your name just long enough to ask you to write up a review of them, or to ask you to promote their newest EP. Sometimes, if you’re extremely lucky, you’ll find yourself crossing paths with people who you truly connect with — people who remember your name because they recognize that, like them, you’re an artist too. The deeper you get into this crazy world, the better you get at discerning these people from the ones who will only break your heart.
If you want to be “the enemy journalist” like the boy you saw in Almost Famous, go work for Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair and write about intra-band politics or drug problems. That’s not real music journalism — that’s pretentious drivel the mainstream sucks down with a straw when they want to feel raw and grungy for a moment on the subway. Real music journalism takes place in the dark hours after show-sets as you sip a warm, flat beer waiting for the band to finish loading their gear into the van and hoping they remember to come chat with you before taking off for the next gig. The artists who remember are the golden ones to keep close to your vest.
Being a music journalist is not the same as being a music critic. A critic is inherently critical, and most times that’s in a negative, non-constructive way. There isn’t a desire to see an artist rise above the noise and reach their greatest heights — most times it’s just about tearing apart their latest release. Journalists, however, are freer. They retain the criticism-arrow in their quiver, but use it to augment an argument for why the artist deserves some amount of attention. It’s not about the power trip — it’s about expressing the same artistic voice as the artist, simply in journalism form. Sometimes that voice even connects with other writers, and you find yourself on the other end of the interview!
I’ve never been seated in a cushy booth with a comped drink, and I’ve only been guest-listed once (and even that was for a minor $10 ticket). I’ve been plagiarized and at times conveniently “forgotten” once an artist feels they’ve reached an “adequate level” of popularity. You learn to shake it off and focus on the real mission: get that next piece written and out to the world.
You Better Have a Late-Night Preference and a Pair of Comfortable Shoes
If you want to be a music journalist — a real music journalist — you better have a late-night preference and a pair of comfortable shoes. Most times, the most intriguing things happen at the end of the night, when the show is over, and the other fans stream out to go home and sleep. And you’re still there with that warm beer in your hand, the bottle empty except for the little bit at the bottom, waiting to catch the merch person as they pack up the table. “I’m a music journalist/radio DJ, and I’d love to grab the band for a quick minute if that’s cool,” you say, hoping that the extra hour of waiting in the dive bar wasn’t for nothing.
In fact, the most rewarding, productive nights are when the band is real enough where their merch person isn’t an employee, but just a friend who agreed to do a favor for a night. Those are usually the bands (artists) who you can catch as they move offstage and then sit behind their tables, happily selling $10 shirts and $1 stickers. Those are the singers, guitarists, drummers who you can grab. “Hey, I loved your set. I’d love to do a quick interview for my music blog if you’re down with that.” Hold your breath, but on the outside act nonchalant, like it’s whatever to you anyway. Then that awesome sentence: “Sure, let me grab the members and we’ll meet you outside in a minute.” Success!
Twenty minutes later you’re on your way home, your iPhone camera roll richer for the funny, quirky little interview that it now holds. You’re already thinking about when you can upload it to your blog and YouTube channel, and have promised to tag the band on Twitter and Facebook so they can promote it on their end.
Those are the nights you feel badass, the nights you let your creative self breathe.
As the Relationships Grow, So Does a Mutual Loyalty
The upshot of it all is that many of the artists you have brushes with move in and out of your life without much of a blip. But there are also those who seem to latch onto your attention, and as your fascination with them grows, so does your loyalty to them, and so does their loyalty to you. You’re not “the enemy” who they want to stay away from; you’re the valued source who they tap for advice about their new direction, the recipient of unmastered mixes and singles before they’re ready for anyone else, and of the album’s first copies when it finally drops. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you might find yourself mentioned in the liner notes (one of the biggest rushes of my life to this day).
If you want to write unbiased pieces, write about politics, economics, or world affairs, not music and not art. The very bias they tell you to do away with in journalism school and college writing classes is the very thing you should never lose. It’s your unique, creative voice that separates you from the professional critic whose “unbiased” approach is so cold and metallic it lacks any sense of joy in the music. It’s critical for the sake of mere criticism; real music journalists know this is a cop-out. Real music journalists are biased little punks who live and die by the artists they swear loyalty to. Their fealty is palpable and brusque, and immune to irrelevant blurbs written for soundbite effect and nothing else.
If you want to be lauded, go write a bestseller. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s for the fans who are so fanatical that music consumption for them is an addiction to be nurtured and enabled. It’s for the artists, the creatives, the music die-hards who simply strum better with a pen than with a guitar pick.
Originally published at adammarxsmind.wordpress.com on October 23, 2015.