Music Journalism 101

If “music is the universal language” (Longfellow) then music journalism is a conversation that never ends. For the freelancer, it’s endlessly fascinating. To break into music journalism, begin with your passions. If you collect Australian hip hop – carve a reputation in that niche. You can always branch out as your profile grows. Non-musicians should consider taking a summer school in music theory, joining a community choir, or a percussion workshop. Experience music, so you won’t be writing from the outside. If you have a musical background, approach markets for music education, production, and performance.

Websites and street press are ideal for developing a folio and network, although they tend to pay freelancers poorly (if at all). Limit your freebies. Target paying markets first. You will run at a loss if you buy CDs and pay for gigs (you might anyway with petrol, taxis and a few drinks), so don’t feel weird about insisting on comp passes and promos. Stay organized with invoicing for the many small amounts – they add up. Print business cards. Consider taking a listing in the Australian Music Industry Directory. Build a database of bands and solo artists, record labels, tour promoters, venues, specialist retailers, music industry publicists, publishers and editors.

Artists promoting a new CD may take back-to-back interviews for days. This becomes boring for them; if you ask tired old questions, you will get a lackluster feature. Try to make it fun and a real conversation. Research previously published interviews. Prepare questions that are different. Get behind the marketing clichés. A teetotalling psytrance guru? A black metal stay-home dad? Real people are the real story. Always have a low tech backup device for recording interviews. If your line splitter or iphone fails, that daggy old dictaphone or minidisc might save your bacon.

Listen to CDs in the intended format. If you play a stereo mix through your 5.1 system, your player will arbitrarily create a fold-down 5.1 mix; you will lose the original stereo image and any panning effects. Labels have introduced watermarking of promo copies; if the promo is leaked onto bit-torrents, they can trace the source to the publication and individual writer responsible. To protect your reputation, don’t treat your promos as a personal library, and lend them to friends. Maintain a dedicated professional resource. DJ work, or a radio show, are value adding.

Tour promoters are notoriously uninterested in having reviewers at their events, as they have nothing to gain financially by a glowing review for a tour that is finished or moved on. If you’ve pitched a review of an event to an editor, go through a publicist, or contact the artists directly to ensure you score a press pass. Get a mobile phone number for your contact, as you might need to remind them when you’re literally at the front door. Your charms and business card will mean nothing to the bouncer and door bitch. Contact the tour promoter to confirm arrangements for press photography as a courtesy. Bring a good quality SLR, and a small backup camera, just in case.

Alcohol and drugs are a pitfall for the music industry – stay professional. The credibility of your review rests upon people being able to believe you can remember the gig! The other main OH&S consideration is hearing loss.  For amplified gigs, bring industrial earplugs labeled with a Noise Reduction Rating (usually 25dB to 32dB). Prolonged exposure to sounds above 85dB (heavy traffic) can cause damage. The average rock concert is anywhere between 90dB and 120dB (jet engine) depending on EPA rules for the venue. This does not mean you need to wear earplugs the entire gig, or every gig. Depending on the volume, at most gigs you can check the mix for a few songs, as damage usually only occurs cumulatively. (For more information, contact Australian Hearing.)

Always scope out the mix near the live sound console. Watch the technician leave the desk and check the mix from different vantages. Without stalking them, try listening in those same places, and you will start to learn what different rooms sound like. In time, you’ll discern mixing styles.

There is no shame in not being an expert in music. Owning your curiosity creates a sense of discovery. Most non-musicians can’t hear chord progressions – it’s why you can’t copyright them. This is an aural skill worth cultivating; it will help you make meaningful comparisons between artists. You really need to approach different genres on their own terms, and check your prejudices at the door. Don’t write about death metal if you think it’s meaningless noise, or the blues if you think all the songs sound the same. If an album sounds monotonous, find the evidence. Songs in the same key? All recorded to a click? Substantiate your opinion.

And finally – to write about music, you have to feel it. George Bernard Shaw, a noted music journalist of his day, wrote, “Pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic… becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances.”

Originally published in WQ Magazine: the Freelance Edition, the magazine of the Queensland Writers Centre.