Music journalism is a highly competitive field. Gone are the days when, like Lester Bangs, an aspiring journalist could post a review to the offices of Rolling Stone and demand, or even expect, a response. The internet has revolutionised how people consume music and with it how people read about music, to the point where it can feel like everyone is a critic and it is harder than ever to stand out in the crowd.
We have spoken to some leading and experienced music journalists to get their take on what makes the difference.
- Be creative, entertain
The education of your readership is not your concern (although Shakespearean homilies on the latest electronica artist are a no-no) and you do not really have a choice in the matter if the subject of your latest feature has been up for three days straight by the time you get to them. Your writing, however, is fully in your control.
"I think more than any other journalism, music journalism has got a really powerful creative writing quotient to it," says Stevie Chick, an author and music journalist who has written for a wealth of national titles and teaches music journalism at City University.
"There's a lot of leeway to write in an imaginative and creative fashion and I want to really embrace that and chase it." Much like music itself, being original and creative in your writing is what is going to get you noticed.
In conversation with Journalism.co.uk, Chick pointed out that people do not just read album reviews because they want some advice on what to buy. It is more than just "that's good, that's not".
"The writing has to be entertaining," continued Chick, "it's got to be vivid and exciting and thoughtful and funny and have all these different qualities."I always look for people who think a bit differently, who have more lateral ideas and think outside of the box and come up with things that are unpredictable and weird and leftfieldLucy Jones, NME
Lucy Jones, as deputy editor of NME.com, agrees. "I always look for people who think a bit differently, who have more lateral ideas and think outside of the box and come up with things that are unpredictable and weird and leftfield.
"For me as a blog or feature commissioning editor it's about the writing. If the first paragraph has a personality or has a voice or someone is saying something really original or someone has a unique or beautiful way with words, that would get my attention."
When anyone and everyone can set up a blog and waffle on for pages about their favourite band it is the quality of writing that makes the difference.
This is especially true in the digital age, as Lulu Le Vay, an experienced journalist, industry insider and tutor at the London Journalism Centre, explains: "I really do think that the quality of writing is really important at the moment. I do think there has been a bit of a demise in the rise of online independence when it comes to writing and I think we do need a bit of a back to basics approach, particularly with music journalism."
If you treat your writing in the same way as everyone else who can flood the internet with reviews then that is exactly where you will stay. So…
- Be professional
"I always stress that just because it's music journalism doesn't mean you can wake up in the morning, do loads of drugs, be rock n roll and all that, it requires a lot of professional rigour," says Chick.
"You need to work really, really quite hard at establishing a reliability and a professional outlook on stuff. You need to be shit hot and not make stupid mistakes as well. It's not just being massively creative, you need to have pretty serious journalistic chops in there as well I think. "
Stevie Chick found this out the hard way when, early in his journalistic career, he went to interview a band and one of his first questions was how the members he was interviewing had met. They were non-identical twins.
Luckily, the interviewees took the blunder in good humour but such a mistake could cost you a job, especially if it means the end of an interview before it has barely begun. So, unsurprisingly, Chick always stresses the importance of research to his students.
Le Vay emphasised that research needs to go beyond the recent history of the next potential one-hit wonder and deep into the history of modern music.
"I think generally it's about research skills. You become knowledgeable very quickly," she said. "I encourage my students to read as much as possible. Going through biographies, reading about people's stories. Looking at different eras of music. Otherwise why would someone want to commission you to be a music journalist or offer you a job if you're not thorough enough?"
That also means being open-minded. It is an oft-repeated phrase that all the best music has already been written, but if that is true then how do new genres explode into the collective consciousness every decade? Music is built out of assimilating old styles and techniques knowing that history is integral to being adaptable as a writer. You may be an avid shoegazer or hardcore fan, but if that is the extent of your knowledge then your options are limited.
"You have to be open-minded because what one doesn't want is to become pigeon-holed," said Le Vay. "So 'so and so is an expert on dustup', you can't just be the go to person on that. It does help to have the expertise but it's also really important to show that you are versatile and open-minded to potentially be commissioned."
- Know the industry
That next issue was a hit with music industry insiders and before long Chick was writing for Melody Maker. Now, 15 years later, he still puts his career down to writing about the industry and having some insider knowledge.You're not going to get very far if you're just sitting in your room listening to recordsLulu Le Vay
"I think it helps if you show that you're savvy to the state of the discourse and the state of the industry. If you're just writing stuff that's really passionate and saying this is why I love this band or this is why I love that band, that's got a lot of function and a certain amount of appeal, but if you can show an editor from the off that you understand how the industry works and you're not so easily taken in."
Of course not everyone can land an interview with an established editor for their fanzine or blog, although recognising them at a gig is an important first step and knowing how the industry works is a paramount.
A possible alternative is to get involved yourself – or at least be an active cog in the machine – as Le Vay argues.
"Being out on the scene is really important," she said, "so making sure you're going to gigs, you're networking, becoming visible. Because it's quite a social thing with music and lifestyle, it's really important to be out and about.
"You're not going to get very far if you're just sitting in your room listening to records. It's not just about that. It's a broader social networking process which is involved."
That does not necessarily mean starting a band yourself; putting on shows or DJing between bands or getting to know the local promoters are all ways to get on the inside track and find out about the local scene. If you know about developments in your area before the national magazines do or can offer an insight into a new artist's history then you're one step ahead of the game.
Focus on these key skills and qualities and when you turn up on your first day of work experience, as all aspiring journalists must these days, you will be able to start without missing a beat.
- You can hear more from Stevie Chick, Lulu Le Vay and Lucy Jones on advice about getting into music journalism in the recent journalism.co.uk podcast.
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