Being a music journalist doesn't always come with an access-all-areas pass. Getting your name out there and your foot in the door at a national magazine takes time and hard work.
Journalism.co.uk recently hosted a Live Q&A on breaking into music journalism, where three experts shared tips, advice and stories from their own experiences on what makes a good writer, how to get paid work, and how new media has changed the industry.
The journalists on our panel were:
- Al Horner, assistant editor, NME
- Sam Wolfson, executive editor, Noisey UK
- Bella Todd, freelance music journalist, Time Out, the Guardian
I graduated from university this summer and did a lot of reviews and features on the local music scene for my university paper, as well as some local blogs. How do I break into national magazines? What do you look for in a review or feature for your publications? lb009
That’s the big question. In the writing? I look for flair, honesty, knowledge, readability, individuality, a knowledge of my readership, hitting the right word count. In features – a new and timely angle or format. Pitch with fire in your belly. If you’re not buzzing with excitement about it, why should they be?
The worst pieces I’ve had to write are where I’ve pitched an artist who I knew was about to break big time, but just at a point where I felt they’d gone off the creative boil. Faking stale excitement is miserable. But getting past the email wall and into the office on work experience is often your best first step.
Also, secret gigs by big bands are a great way to cross over from regional to national reviewing, so make sure you’re on a whole bunch of band mailing lists. Secret gigs are one instance where ‘amateur’ reviewers have the one-up on ‘professionals’.
They’re usually closed to press, who’ll be invited along to a later official tour launch date usually in London, but the arts desks of the nationals will perk their ears up at the chance to run a review ahead of the pack. So for instance when Jarvis Cocker made his solo debut it was at Concorde 2 in Brighton with a secret gig that none of the nationals could get into. Bella Todd
What I’d say is that if an unknown writer pitched me a great story, that hadn’t been seen elsewhere, that focused on an interesting issue within music, that worked for our audience, and the write-up was funny and engaging, I’d definitely run it and pay them properly.The most important thing to do is find stories. Go out and do your own research and interviews, work on things for a few months.Sam Wolfson, Noisey UK
If they did that three times in a row, I’d try to get them a job. That’s not an exaggeration, when someone at Vice finds a decent writer there is all out war between departments on who gets to have them. The problem is that almost never happens. The majority of pitches we get are totally unsuitable or have been done 100s times before. The write-ups are also really bad, and miss the tone of the site by a mile.
So I would say the most important thing to do is find stories. Go out and do your own research and interviews, work on things for a few months. And at the same time, read loads of music journalism at the places you’d like to work for.
Then when you start pitching, you’ll have a bunch of great ideas and editors will want to work with you straight away. In the meantime, there are loads of magazines that will let you do reviews and interviews, probably won't pay you, but it's a good way to hone some skills. Sam Wolfson
Like Sam says, having a brave, bolshy idea helps. There's such a huge, huge sprawl of blogs and music websites cluttering up the internet. I want to read an opinion I won't have seen anywhere else, an interview angle that's different to all those other sites - something that tells a story. Pitch enough ideas like that, even if they're not commissioned, and you'll get on editors' radars. Al Horner
Hullo there, I already write for various popular, reputable sites and publications but hardly ever get paid for any of my excellent (if I do say so myself) work. How do I make the transition to go pro? JR Moores
You’re not alone. That’s often the case for very experienced journalists now too. There are some national newspapers who expect professional journalists to write for them for no money. Especially on blogs.
Firstly, be sure to ask what the fee is once you’ve agreed a commission. Editors rarely tell you off their own back, and it’s just possible you might be able to get some payment by simply asking for it. I’ve worked at places where, for live reviews, we couldn’t offer a fee, but would pay expenses for say taxi+burger+beer (which actually adds up to roughly what I get now for some theatre reviews hehe). Bella Todd
Great question. It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone got paid for their music journalism but the fact is most music magazines are being run at a loss or with government funding these days, and it’s just not going to happen.
Places like newspapers, NME and Vice always pay writers, but you’ve got to offer something that’s worth paying for. I would say reviews and interviews aren’t going to help you, because if a publication is going to pay for that they’re going to pay a writer they know and trust.
As Al said in his last answer, what really helps is stories - something on the Kanye West cryptocurrency, or how Afrobeats is changing clubbing in South London or you’ve interviewed some A&Rs about how pop music is changing. That’s the sort of thing time-short journalists in the office can’t really get involved with but is really valuable.
Once you're on the NME reviews mailing list or whatever, you can get a fairly steady stream of paid work. It's just about making yourself noticed - in the copy, on Twitter, with your pitches. Never write a boring sentence, be insanely knowledgeable about a few things.
Also, it’s good to get into doing branded stuff - it pays well, you get strict briefs, and it can help you get into publications. Most places - certainly Vice, NME, Complex etc - run quite a lot of branded content these days. Often this is basically just like regular content but slightly safer and around some idea someone in advertising has come up with.Most publications will have one or two regular sections that are open to freelance pitches and need a constant stream of ideas...Bella Todd, freelance
These jobs are often paid much better than regular freelancing and sometimes easier to get because mostly what's required is a safe pair of hands who can turn around clean copy fast.
Lots of brands, Red Bull, Nike, Puma, G-Shock, also run music blogs and that's another good way in - in fact I know a lot of writers who feel they have more freedom at those sort of blogs than in mainstream publications. There are very few freelance journalists who aren't doing some kind of branded content/copywriting/artist biographies at the moment.
I think [getting branded work] is about searching out places where that kind of music-related copywriting is going on and maybe just dropping an email. Everyone wants to get a job at NME, not that many people are necessarily applying for the Sailor Jerry's blog or whatever. Sam Wolfson
It’s also worth finding out where the budgets are – what the pitchable sections are. Most publications will have one or two regular sections that are open to freelance pitches and need a constant stream of ideas, hence they have 'some' (as they will always tentatively say) freelance budget.
Find out what they are and don’t waste your time pitching stuff to sections that are always done in-house. Mag and website editors are often after playful new interview formats, as Sam says. Pitch a good one to the right editor with a string of suggested interviewees for the first month or so and you could have get yourself a regular gig, which is kind of the holy grail. Bella Todd
I was in exactly the same position as you not so long ago. Truth is, it’s all about dogged persistence – there’s no magic key. Target a couple of publications you know your style suits (and you know pay) and swamp them with ideas. Make them feel like you're a totally vital new voice for their audience.
You might not have success straight away, and it’s really easy for your confidence to get knocked when you don’t hear back from an editor, or you get a couple of pitches in a row knocked back.
Keep peppering editors with funny, innovative, high concept ideas for features that only you could possibly write, because you are THE expert on that subject. It also helps to be on Twitter, making a name for yourself with your copy.
Red Bull are great for [branded work]. Once you start getting a name for yourself, via social media etc., offers tend to start landing in your inbox - or at least that was my experience. No one ever talks about it, maybe because as a music journalist you're "supposed" to lead a glamorous life travelling the world chasing superstar DJs and drunken Gallagher brothers, but a huge portion of writers work boring copywriter jobs till quite far along in their careers. Al Horner
This might be more of a question for Bella, but how do you structure your time as a freelance? I mean, how much time a week do you spend pitching, researching or writing pieces? Should I be doing anything else as well? wannabehack
I have been freelancing for seven years and I still have no idea how you’re supposed to do it, how much you should pitch, how much you should take on, and hence I haven’t had a weekend in two years and often end up getting up at 5am to finish my freelancing before work. I would also really appreciate some advice on this Bella. Sam Wolfson
You have to find a work-work-work-life structure that suits you. But most freelancers will tell you that it's an insane juggling act. The dream is that your time is your own to allot and command.Something exciting always comes up if you're always switched on.Bella Todd, freelance
The reality is that you have to take the work when you are offered it, because there ain't so much to go round, and commissions tend to be like buses. If you say no to one commission you are probably saying no to a lot more – editors need quick yeses, and you want to stay current in their minds.
I pitch as soon as I feel that fire in my belly about something, whatever I'm supposed to be doing at the time. I write at 5am before my kids wake up, and I do phone interviews while my baby's napping. I guess I treat life in general as research – luckily if you love what you write about, you see, hear and read about it everywhere.
One piece of advice: whenever I feel I've dried up and don't have anything to pitch, I just get out, go see a band, talk to people. Something exciting always comes up if you're always switched on. I'd also advise to spend time building your relationships with PRs…
On the PR point… I need to take this advice myself. I'm rubbish at keeping on top of my emails, and responding to emails like 'I just wondered if you'd received such and such album' should be higher on my to-do list.
Especially if you have a specialism, the PRs you work with are going to be as, if not more, passionate than you. And the unofficial conversations you have with them often turn up some fascinating titbits about artists that don't make it onto press releases but give you those unique stories Sam and Al have talked about.
Another thing about scheduling time. The work doesn't end with you filing the piece. You have to somehow allow time for edits, which could come through at any point, right up to print deadline.If you have too much on your plate, don't be afraid to say so. Editors won't hold it against you.Al Horner, NME
Newspapers and mags tend to work right up to deadline, so you may suddenly get an urgent query at 6am on Friday that you can't afford to ignore. Important to factor that in and always be on call. Bella Todd
I was freelance for ages, and it's weird – in my experience, only about 40 per cent of your time is spent actually writing. Scheduling yourself time to come up with ideas, pitch and chase invoices is a huge part of organising your day.
It's pretty easy to go all Howard Hughes, stuck alone in your flat battling copy deadlines with no human contact for hours on end. Try not to do that.
Also, and this is really important, know what you can and can't do. As a freelance, especially when you're getting going, the inclination when an editor you want to impress gets in touch to ask if you know anything about Flying Lotus is to say "yeah, course I do, I'm the Fly Lo expert" even when you're not, because you want that commission.
That's fine - every freelancer I know is a bluffing master. But if you really don't have a clue about the subject and don't have time to bone up on it before your deadline, or if you have too much on your plate, don't be afraid to say so. Editors won't hold it against you. Al Horner
What skills or qualities do you think are important in a music journalist? Beyond writing, good taste and being able to handle your drink. Stef H
What makes a talented music journalist? Courtneyx1D
In answer to Stef's question, honestly I think a massive thing is attitude. You can be a shit writer with no good ideas and still go a long way if everyone likes you.
This I think has become a bigger issue in the past few years, when there are a lot of outstanding writers online, who have their own blogs and start doing some freelancing, but when they come into an office they’re just not good with people, or overly precious about their work, or slag off the publication they’re writing for on Twitter etc.
So definitely don’t suck up to people and don’t be a pushover - but just be fun and willing and up for stuff. You can write the best copy in the world but no one's going to want to take you to Glastonbury if you only want to talk about World Of Warcraft on the bus there (unless you are writing for World Of Warcraft magazine). Sam Wolfson
Completely agree, Sam. It's also a super basic point, but if you don't have passion for what you're doing, you won't be able to feign it - the hours are too long and too intense for that. Glastonbury at NME for example means 17 hours days, creating a magazine from scratch on a bus in a field in just 72 hours. Al Horner
There are people I admire as journalists and people I admire as writers. Sometimes they're different things. It sounds a bit whack, but I think empathy and perceptiveness are undervalued in music writing.
As Sam says, you kind of have to be human, and not everyone's good at that. Of my lovely ex Time Out colleagues, Kate Hutchinson, who’s now The Guide’s contributing editor, is an unflagging ideas machine, and generous with them too.
Sharon O'Connell's writing is funny, elegant and brave, and manages to keep it muso in an industry where real knowledge is undervalued.
Eddy Lawrence is the funniest and, when he wants to be, most soulful writer I know, and he has an insane intellect that never switches off. All very different and all insanely talented. Bella Todd
Actually Bella, now you mention her, Kate Hutchinson's written an amazing guide to freelancing [accompanying image just SFW]. Al Horner
What has new media changed in music journalism? As it has allowed more people to enter in it, is it for good or bad? MusicFulcrum
There are a million things you can say in favour of new media. Here's something I will say against it, because it relates particularly to emerging writers: I did my first ever published writing for music fanzines (do they even still exist?).Anyone can make a name for themselves. I knew no one in the industry when I set up a Tumblr in 2011 and started writing.Al Horner, NME
They were a great place to work out pretentious bad habits and try stuff out. I used to write a lot of shit about Suede, for example.
I went to the same school that Brett Anderson and Matt Osman had, so I used to ask teachers surreptitious questions about what they’d been like in class or whatever or what they liked to wear (apparently Brett Anderson wore a gleaming white suit for non-school uniform day) and feed this fascinating and important info to fanzines.
What I'm trying to say is, I’m so frigging glad I did that in print, in fanzines, with print runs of about ten photo copies, for forgiving and indulgent fans, rather than online, where anyone could be your reader and there’s no sell-by-date.
On the plus side for writers – new media means there's so much more music out there to access than when I started out. Which means editors, theoretically, need a bigger pool of writers to survey it all. Bella Todd
I definitely think it's a good thing. Anyone can make a name for themselves. I knew no one in the industry when I set up a Tumblr in 2011 and started writing. If your copy's good enough, if you're prepared to have an opinion and stir a bit of debate, then you've got all the tools at your disposal to get noticed. Al Horner
I guess the good news for new writers is that it’s never been easy . Places like NME are still a bit cliquey in print, writers have to really prove their worth before they’re allowed to do features etc.
But online, there’s just too much stuff to do, the pool of writers has to be massive and that means anyone with a good idea or a strong writing style can get published. You can be writing articles for Comment Is Free that go on the homepage of the Guardian with no experience (if you happen to be great). Sam Wolfson
Thanks for the insights, all very helpful. Can I ask what the ratio of London-based and regional writers you all work with or commission is please? I'd also be interested to know which media outlets or platforms and journalists or writers you all rate/recommend/enjoy reading. lylebignon
This is probably one for Sam and Al, but what I will say on the London/regional split is – people are always in a rush to hit London, but that makes it a crowded field. There aren’t regional stringers in the same way there used to be, but most editors do like to have a few regional specialists on tap. Especially for anywhere further north than Watford.
Regional papers are a great place to start. Most will have a carousel of voluntary reviewers and a set number of review slots to fill each day or week with bugger all budget. Often a strong image can swing it too, especially if the band is relatively unknown and don’t have good publicity shots.
So one good way to increase your likelihood of getting a live review in print is to pal up with someone local who likes the same music and is good with a camera. Regional editors will love you if you file an accompanying image with every review. They might not love you quite so much if it’s not a 300dpi jpeg.
My favourite piece of music journalism I read this week was on a little card next to a CD on a rack at Resident Records in Brighton. Great music journalism is happening everywhere (and even the best writers have off days, often when asked to review Muse). Bella Todd
Can I just hijack your question to make a wider point? Almost every music journalist is white, middle-class, from London with a vague interest in “a bit of everything” musically. It is terrible, and it makes for much poorer publications which focus on the same bands and scenes and ignore huge swathes of what is going on in the country.
Don’t have much advice to follow on for that, except to say if you don’t fit into that stereotype then please work especially hard because otherwise music writing is going to become unbearable.
As far as journalists to check out - I would recommend Filipa Jodelka (she actually writes about TV, but I think she’s the best young writer in the country), Tim Jonze, Dan Hancox (read his e-book on Dizzee Rascal especially) and I would also read a new book by Mark Fisher called Ghosts Of My Life. And obviously Al and Bella. Sam WolfsonStart by writing the kind of reviews you like to read. It's crazy how many people don't do that.Bella Todd, freelance
I'm not going to lie - it's horrible, but as a young writer, it helps to be based in London, because face time can really help establish relationships with your editors, with PRs and so on. That said, generally speaking, at NME, we look to have as broad a base of writers possible, in terms of geography.
One of our chief feature writers, Barry Nicholson, is based in Glasgow. I've met him maybe twice the entire time I've been here. I'd second all those writers Sam mentioned. Phil Hebblethwaite is also fantastic - his work for the Quietus is proof there's real room for investigative journalism in music writing. Al Horner
I was a radio Dj before I became a freelance music Journalist and now I am a Sub Editor for the biggest Newspaper in Zambia. I will tell you the only thing you need to succeed a a freelancer. Bring something new to whatever magazine you want to write for. Pitch an idea in line with their style and leave them with no option but to say yes.
Of course you have to write well, beat deadlines and make the editor's life easy. I have a full time job now but I am still freelancing because the magazine I write for asked me to keep writing for them. All the best. DJ Wolf
Good luck all. Final piece of advice? Start by writing the kind of reviews you like to read. It's crazy how many people don't do that. If you don't like reading lists of obscure bands you've never heard of, don't write them. If you like reading a long preamble about the trip someone took to the venue, fine, do that. Later, editors will have their own ideas about what makes good writing and what their readers want. Start by pleasing yourself. Bella Todd
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