A rising reporter offers newcomers practical advice based on his own experience of the long, hard road into the music press.
My first tip is not to consider music journalism as a full-time career.
The whole industry is in recession right now and job opportunities are few and far between, even for people who have been in print for several years.
Also, it is very competitive and you will be lucky even to get freelance work. A lot of editorial staff are either hostile to newcomers or too lazy or overworked to bother with them.
You may find that a lot of career journos are either bastards, mentally unstable or both. Also, every Tom, Dick and Harriet wants to be a hack right now, so be prepared to fight against some stiff competition.
Either get a mainstream job now or get enrolled on a vocational postgrad course, and do the music writing in your spare time – for now, anyway.
If you are serious about writing, do a Journalism or Creative Writing PGDip or MA, as that will teach you the skills you need to be a good writer.
Even now, a lot of writers are self-taught, but as formal training becomes more widespread, the days of the talented amateur hack are in slow decline, as are their job prospects.
My next tip is to practice. Try to write a review every day, even if it is not on an album or a gig or even a genre you are into. Review TV shows or DVDs that you hire out or even plays you go to see. The important thing is to keep on practising.
What you have to practice is the basic reviews format. This is made up of three paragraphs. The first is a description of what it is you are reviewing. This should tell the reader whether it is a film, album, book, etc. that you’re reviewing, what the plot or theme is about, what genre it fits into and a brief history of the band, director or author. Basically, give enough information to inform the total novice, but write it in a way that does not patronise the expert either.
One of the other two paragraphs should list all the good parts of what it is you are reviewing. The other, of course, should describe all that is wrong with the subject.
In what order they are written is up to you, but bear in mind that the last paragraph will also be the conclusion. Therefore, it is best to put the ‘good’ paragraph in last if the album is a good one, or the ‘bad’ paragraph if it is rubbish or lukewarm. Make sure, too, that the paragraphs follow on from each other, so there is a natural flow to the piece.
Now you have got that, do it as much as you can. Do it until you are bloody sick of it. Then start to experiment with different styles of your own devising. But you have got to master the basics of writing in a structured way before you can make up your own style.
As for how you write, bear the following in mind. Do not write in the passive voice (you should write ‘Dan hits Gary’ not ‘Gary gets hit by Dan’). Make sure the ‘show readability’ function on Word is on, and aim for a Flesch Reading Ease of at least 75.0.
You can check this by doing a ‘Spelling and Grammar test’, once the ‘Show Readability’ function is on. Master syntax and grammar (buy and read Wynford Hicks’ "English for Journalists", published by Routledge. Then read it again).
Now do this for a few months. Once you have got enough reviews of a standard you think is good enough to publish, draw up a list of music magazines.
Send them your sample reviews, and explain that they are not in their house style, but are general examples of your skill as a reviewer. Follow that up. In fact, keep contacting them until they either tell you to piss off (at which point, you either forget it or wait until they have simmered down and then try again) or they offer you some work.
I got my gig at Kerrang! by harassing a deputy editor for several months, back when she worked for Terrorizer. After she flipped out around Christmas (due to Yuletide stress made worse by some annoying reporter demanding that she read his reviews), I waited for about two months until she chilled out. Then I e-mailed her again. This time she said there were no openings but gave me the e-mail address of the reviews editor at Kerrang!, who was on the hunt for a new writer.
A month later I had written ten reviews for the magazine. It pays to persist.
Once you are in print, keep your clippings. If they want to get rid of you (new reviews editors having a thing for Stalinist purges), you can then send samples of your paid and published work to other magazines and use that as a springboard for more work. Or, with luck, you will keep writing for the same magazine and slowly progress from writing small reviews to main reviews and then maybe even features. They could even offer you a job.
As for pay – do not get your hopes up in the early stages. During my days at Kerrang! I would earn about £100 a month. At Record Collector it was only £10-30. Right now, the magazine I write for is so small; it cannot pay its writers. I stick with the mag because a/. It’s steady work, b/. I like the job and c/. It provides those all-important clippings.
Get a day job or university course and moonlight until you can get a staff job. That is what I’m doing now.
It is also how the likes of James Brown (ex-NME hack and founder of Loaded, et al.), Malcolm Dome and Julie Burchill got started, and if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for you.
And be sure to diversify when you can. Write about more than one genre whenever you can, so you do not get pigeonholed. Much of what I have written is based around extreme metal (Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, etc.), which puts me out on the fringe as far as magazines like the NME and Time Out. Unfair but true.
To sum up: work hard, practice hard and enjoy yourself. And never miss a deadline.