Anna Britten has spent many years working within the music industry, for record companies such as Warner Music and Naxos, as well as music publishing and journalism. She is now a freelance music journalist who has written for Time Out, Q Bang and Classic FM Magazine. Location: Anna is based in Bath.
In this chapter:
- What do music journalists do?
- Things you need to know
- Different areas of the music press
- Highs and lows
- Getting in the door
WHAT DO MUSIC JOURNALISTS DO?
Ah, music journalists. The luckiest people on earth. Or ‘scum’ to the legions of disgruntled artists out there who’ve been at the receiving end of their sharp tongues. The music press is the filter between you, the consumer, and the record company seeking to empty your wallet. The first impartial, critical view you’re going to hear about a new record is from a music journalist. They are therefore pretty influential.
Music journalism comprises, amongst other things:
- Features on bands/artists involving an interview and photos
- Features on musical trends or current news
- News items – who’s gone platinum, died, signed to a new label, been arrested for throwing peanuts at an air stewardess, etc.
- Album/single reviews
- Gig reviews
- Q&As- straightforward question and answer pieces
- ‘Think pieces’, in which a journalist expresses their opinion on a matter, personal experience or theory.
Music journalists can be full-time staff members but are usually freelancers - which is how you, as a newcomer, would start out.
At its best, music journalism will entertain and assist you in your musical purchases; at its worst it will infuriate and annoy and make you think ‘I could do better!’. Well, maybe you could - if you think so, read on.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Music hacks today refer fondly to the time immortalised in the film Almost Famous in which the journalists were as powerful as the bands they wrote about, when information, gossip and insight was passed freely from musician to writer without a stern, cautious PR person reining the artists in, as they do today, and when pretty groupies were as keen on the humble scribe as they were on the hunky bassist.
Lester Bangs was the most famous rock journalist of all time. In more recent years the likes of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray and Julie Burchill have enjoyed a high status, while broadcasters like Miranda Sawyer have risen from the ranks of music journo to TV celebrity. Ageing pop stars Chrissie Hynde and Neil Tennant were also once music journalists.
Yet, as the landscape of the consumer press has changed, so has the job. No longer is music journalism the exclusive domain of the specialist magazine (‘inkie’ was a word once used for the music mags printed cheaply on newspaper that used to leave ink all over your hands). Nowadays virtually every publication you can think of covers music in some form or another. Specialist mags were decimated in the 1990s as title after title was axed or saw its circulation dip dramatically. And yet surprisingly, the early years of the new millennium saw a flurry of new titles such as Bang, Word, Rip And Burn and X-Ray spring up against the odds (and no doubt the exasperated handwringing of their accountants). Sadly, three of these newcomers quickly folded, prompting renewed pessimism over the health of the music press.
With the rise in importance of the artist manager and press officer, music journalists are no longer as free as their 1960s–1980s predecessors were to tell readers the unexpur-gated truth about something. Interviews become political footballs; promotional albums are kept under lock and key for fear of piracy. Many feel the role of the music journalist is being whittled away as more and more people download advance copies of albums off the internet.
And yet there is still a noble purpose behind it all. Many music journalists assert that there is a need for them – otherwise consumers will believe everything the record company tells them, i.e. that an album is fantastic when it plainly isn’t. There’s also an evangelical element: if a journalist can introduce you to a piece of music that changes your life they’ll die happy.
DIFFERENT AREAS OF THE MUSIC PRESS
Here music coverage tends to be lumped in with general showbiz gossip, featuring bands either high in the charts or soon to be. Reviews tend to be brief one-liners telling you little you couldn’t have guessed for yourself already. The chances of writing for one of these are very slim unless you already happen to work in tabloids. Freelance possibilities: poor.
At the posher end of the spectrum, these often take a more highbrow approach to music, with fewer jokes, less swearing, and using well-established writers on a weekly basis (sometimes daily in the case of big concert reviews). It is the hardest of the areas to break into, as writers tend to have long experience on a well-established publication and be a ‘name’ readers will recognise. The same tends to go for the bands they cover. Famous faces are common; undiscovered newcomers are rarely first lauded in a broadsheet. Freelance possibilities: poor.
For example: Smash Hits, Top Of The Pops Magazine, Just Seventeen, Marie Claire. Lumped together because the coverage tends to be of very mainstream, commercial acts and household names. Freelance possibilities: reasonable.
Specialist music magazines
The weekly magazines Kerrang! and NME, and the monthly glossies Q, Mojo, Uncut, Gramophone (classical), Echoes (urban) and others come into this category. Each has a slightly different focus – some are more conservative or mainstream than others, some specialise in a single genre – but they all like to think they ‘create’ trends as well as follow them, ‘discover’ bands as well as react to them, and they carry large review sections and plentiful ‘new’ acts. These are where you’ll find such purple prose as ‘the strangely joyous sound of unbearable heartache morphing into light-headed relief’. Freelance possibilities: reasonable.
A great way in. Is there a local listings magazine for your region? Bristol and Bath’s Venue and Manchester’s City Life are two of the best. Alternatively, does the local paper run a weekly music page? Check out their music and listings pages and offer your services to the music/arts editor. Chances are a time will come when nobody fancies a trip to the Dog and Turnip to see the local skiffle band who have been promised a review – and, hey, is that your telephone we hear ringing? Another point worth mentioning: they’re almost always exceptionally people who, unlike their London counterparts, might actually answer their phone once in a while and speak to you like a fellow human. Freelance possibilities: good.
Obviously the BBC or MTV websites are out of the question if you’re starting out, but do a spot of surfing and you’ll be staggered at the amount of dotcoms floating around – some more respectable than others – offering music coverage. Check out www.drownedinsound.com,uk.launch.yahoo.comwww.soundgenerator.com and www.contactmusic.comfor starters. Maybe you’ll be writing for free for an editor who works from his bedroom and being read by about 12 people. It doesn’t matter. If you’re just starting out, small websites can be excellent experience and will prove to a future employer or commissioning editor that you are committed. Freelance possibilities: good.
These are the home-made-looking A5-sized rags sold at gigs and second-hand record shops. They tend to be anarchic, nutty and very leftfield. You’ll be expected to write for free and to fit in with the tone, but the artistic licence tends to be whopping, and there are cred points to be had if the fanzine has a notorious reputation. A contact number or address of the person behind it ought to be tucked away on the pages somewhere, or ask the person who sold it to you. Alternatively, set up your own. Freelance possibilities: good.
THE HIGHS AND LOWS OF WORKING IN MUSIC JOURNALISM
- Free CDs, gig tickets, merchandise.
- Lots of parties, showcases and after-show parties where drink flows freely (go to too many of these, however, and it’s called ‘ligging’ and the perpetrator a sad ‘ligger’).
- A lot of fun. This is one of the most wonderful jobs in the world.
- A certain degree of reflected glory and glamour.
The lows are worse for a freelancer than a staff member.
- There are many more music journalists than work available so competition is fierce and work can be threadbare.
- Awful money, as little as 8p a word in some cases.
- Hate-filled emails and letters from affronted readers, PR companies and even bands .. .
GETTING IN THE DOOR
Conventional wisdom has it that you can’t get anywhere in journalism without a journalism degree. Nonsense. While this may be true in the world of hard news (interviewing politicians about inflation rates, say), the music press is bursting with people who’ll tell you they made it there by having:
- a passion for music
- a nerd-like knowledge
- the ability to write
- gritty determination to get something, anything, published.
A journalism degree might help but won’t be enough on its own: if you’re up against another candidate’s two well-written reviews in a small local listings magazine your journalism certificate won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. Also, if you’re over-qualified, your would-be employer would have good cause to worry you’ll end up leaving to pursue a career interviewing politicians about inflation rates . . .
The long way round would be to follow the traditional journalism route (journalism qualification, job on a local paper, and gradually work your way around to music) but if you are only interested in writing about music this would be daft. But you won’t get a full-time job at a magazine or newspaper without having experience under your belt. So you need to freelance first, or at the very least write for free for a school/college newspaper (start your own if there isn’t one), fanzine or website.
Practise writing. Describing music is like describing the indescribable. Try writing a 200-word review of your favourite album and see. If you can do it, and enjoy it, you’ll do OK. If you find it too hard, give up now.
Read. Get hold of all the music journalism you can, from the pop section of the Telegraph to the college newspaper. What’s good; what’s bad? Why?
Select your targets. Be realistic – you’re not going to get a commission from The Times unless Daddy’s the editor. The Sun won’t be interested in you unless you’ve got an exclusive interview on tape in which J-Lo confesses she’s in love with Prince Charles. Start low and humble. Local press is a good start, or fanzines, or at a push a magazine whose album reviews run into the hundreds and gig reviews are spread across the country (this is one area in which being outside London can help).
Find out who is likely to commission work from freelancers: reviews editors on a specialist music magazine, for example, or a music editor on a lifestyle mag. Ring them maybe once, if you simply must, but leave it at that. Don’t hassle them, as they get hassled all day long by PR companies as it is. The preferred method of communication tends to be post or email.
Write reviews of live gigs and albums in the style of one of the publications you’d like to write for and send them off with a polite introductory letter.
The best music journalism is honest, knowledgeable, well-informed and streetwise. Ideally it’s also funny. Don’t mention yourself in the review at all: no ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘my’. Readers don’t want to hear about you, they want to know if they will like the music or not. Hang on, I hear you cry, all my favourite music journalists talk about
themselves, and often to funny or entertaining effect. But these are established writers, on certain magazines and they are allowed to. Budding newcomers aren’t.
If you honestly think you can write (and others back this up) and you really want to write, keep trying. Don’t be put off because the first batch of reviews you send is ignored. Were they in the magazine’s ‘house style’? Did you send them to the right person? Probably they just don’t need any more contributors at the moment. Try elsewhere. Then try your first choice again. Staff change all the time, and one reviews editor might be more accommodating to you than their predecessor.
Eventually you’ll be given some work to do. That’s when you can start to build up your work and all-important clippings file and call yourself a music writer.
Case study: Chris Salmon, Time Outmagazine
‘I’ve loved music since I was really little and I’d say that’s the most important thing if you’re looking to work in the music industry. If you’re getting into the industry for the glamour or the parties or the associated cool, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and it’ll probably show.
‘So, for me, it was more a case of just loving music and gigs and then eventually falling into writing about it. I was talking to someone at a student party who turned out to be music editor for the college magazine and he said I should try writing some stuff for them. So I did reviews and interviews for them for about a year. Then, after I graduated I wrote about music for some regional listings magazines, as much for a hobby as anything else, while also working for a charity full-time.
‘After I’d got a fair bit of experience with regional magazines, I wrote to a few bigger places to see if I could write some stuff for them. Time Out asked me to come in for a day to help compile the listings and write a couple of reviews and I must’ve done okay, because they me back and I built it up until I started full-time. I realise now that people are always on the look out for someone who is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, hard-working and humble enough to do the dreary things without complaining – so I must’ve fit that bill.
‘I built up the number of days I was coming in as freelance cover – I still had my full-time office job at this point so I had to come in on my holiday time. Eventually I was getting so much work that I gave up the office job and came into the magazine full-time, first as a freelancer, then on a temporary contract and then eventually as full-time staff. After being listings assistant for a couple of years I applied for the job of deputy music editor and got it. Two years later I became music editor.
‘My current job entails writing album reviews, live previews and interviews – anything from a short listing about a band’s first gig in some toilet venue to a 1,800 word cover feature on Kylie, Oasis or Madonna. Aside from writing I have to plan feature ideas, commission pieces from other writers and liaise with press officers to find out what’s coming up. I also do guest spots on TV and radio as a music expert, which is usually a good laugh.
‘The best bit of the job is actually the same as the worst bit – you get hundreds of free records sent to you every week. In many ways it’s a dream come true to get all the releases ages before they come out, but then you start to get so many that you actually don’t have time to listen to them all! The other thing is that you’re doing something you love as a job and it can sometimes be hard to just switch off and listen to a record without thinking what you’d write about it. These are small quibbles though, I’ve flown all over the world to interview most of my heroes, so I’m really not complaining!
‘The most important advice I could give any aspiring music hack is just to get practice as a writer with a student mag, a regional magazine or a website. There’s so many places out there that if you’re keen, you should be able to get something. Also, be confident in your opinion and learn how to justify it. If you like something that everyone else hates (or vice versa) then you’re going to need to be able to explain why!’