How to Write about Music: Letter to a Young Writer
Once again this summer, I’ll lead a workshop at the Northwestern University Summer Writer’s Institute called “How to Write about Music.” Last summer, there were five of us in the workshop. Each participant was interested in different music, from the teen pop sensation Five Seconds of Summer to contemporary country music, to Michael Jackson.
Last week, I heard from a young writer from last year’s workshop who asked me for advice about becoming a freelance music writer. She told me she’s always wanted to write about music, and she’d like to do it as full-time as possible. On the one hand, I wanted to encourage her, but on the other I wanted to let her know the challenges of such a choice. Here is what I wrote to her, my letter to a young writer:
I’m glad you’re thinking about freelance music writing. It’s now much more difficult than it used to be, although if you’re creative and energetic, you can fashion something like a career. Writing about music has its own rewards, not least of which is the opportunity to immerse yourself in various styles of music and hear the threads that run through these various styles. You may also have the opportunity to talk with musicians whose art you admire and who can help you understand the intricacies of songwriting or the challenges of mastering an instrument.
So, here are a few thoughts about freelance music writing.
1. Very, very few people make a career out of freelance music writing. Many, if not most, folks who do freelance often have a day job — sometimes in journalism, sometimes in teaching, sometimes in a bookstore or a record store, or maybe even as a publicist — and write their articles or reviews on the side. So, in order to establish yourself as a freelance music writer, you’ll have to pay some dues, writing for smaller magazines or websites, perhaps without pay. (I’d recommend trying to avoid writing for free. Many web sites will offer you a chance to build your portfolio without paying you for your work, but you may find yourself so consumed with assignments from these places that you’re spending more time than is helpful on them.) That said, it’s difficult to break into a paying gig, to build experience and contacts.
2. Build your experience. The more you write and the more you publish — to build your file of clips — you’ll be honing your craft as a writer, but you’ll also be getting your name and your voice out there in front of readers and listeners. You might have written for your college newspaper; you might have won awards for your writing at your college; but that’s a small world. You’ll want to gain a wider perspective by pushing your writing beyond the boundaries of your college newspaper or literary magazine. Is there a local alternative newspaper in your city? Submit some pieces to it. Inquire about the possibilities of writing short descriptions of forthcoming music shows; see if you can attend and write up shows by lesser-known acts at smaller clubs. You’ve shown potential, but it will become livelier as you gain more perspective and begin to write about a wider range of subjects and to dig deeper into music itself.
3. So, how do you get experience? Try to get an internship at a music magazine or an alternative weekly newspaper. Most preferable is to find an internship at a magazine. You have to be discerning, though. Very often these days, internships do not pay, and you’ll have to support yourself in a regular job. Apply for jobs with record companies or record stores or independent publicity firms. If you’re able to find a position with an independent publicity company, you will not only have an opportunity to meet a variety of musicians, but you’ll also have the chance to write, write, write, since you’ll be writing press releases or bios or press one-sheets. Many freelance music writers start out as publicists, honing their writing and making contacts within the music industry along the way. One advantage of writing press releases: you learn quickly how to bring the most important information to the top and to write in an economical style. Another way to gain experience is to write capsule record reviews for local magazines or alternative weeklies. Finally, you can broaden your search and look for internships with magazines or other publications that have a regional reach, such as the Oxford American — a high quality magazine that also has a website that covers music and has internship opportunities.
4. Location. These days it might sound strange to say that if you want to write about music you need to move where the action is; after all, the internet connects folks in so many ways, and there are legitimate ways in which you can be a successful freelance writer no matter where you live. (In fact, one of the attractions of the freelance life has always been that you can practice your craft anywhere you choose to live.) However, if you’re just starting out, it might be a good idea to live in a place that has a thriving music scene, a flourishing music publishing community, and a opportunities to connect with people in the industry on a regular basis. So, think about moving to Nashville, Austin, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Of course, there are other cities that have great music scenes, and writers eventually find other writers, but you’ll be at an advantage initially if you can live in a place where there’s a large community of writers and where there are numerous opportunities to connect with people in various corners of the music scene. Once you get established, you can live anywhere you want.
5. Money. There’s not much money in freelance music writing. In order to make any money, you need to be writing for the top magazines or newspapers or websites, or maybe working as a ghost writer on a musician’s memoir. An annual “salary” for a freelancer is from $25,000-$40,000 (this is a charitable estimate, and this is only if you snag some major assignments on a fairly regular basis) and out of that “salary” you must pay for food, rent, utilities, mortgage, gas — if you have a car — student loans, and health insurance. Also, there is no steady pay if you are a freelance writer. You only receive payment for the jobs you complete, and sometimes the payment comes weeks after you’ve turned in your assignment. This means that some months your income might be lower than in other months. You’ll also have to be intentional in saving money to pay taxes at year’s end; Uncle Sam doesn’t take taxes out of your check when you freelance — you do. The biggest untold secret of freelance writing is that you sometimes have to nag the publications for which you write to pay you. The good news is that you can live on a freelancer’s income if you live simply and frugally (which might mean giving up that $4 latte from Starbucks).
6. You must be disciplined. You do have to sit in your chair and write, and that’s hard work. Rodney Crowell once told me that he didn’t know whether he wanted to write a second memoir because he’d have to sit still to do it. You also must be able to work on several assignments at once. Not only do you need to be writing your present assignment, but you’ll need at the same time to be looking for the next gig and the gig after that. Your next check is only as close as your next completed assignment. This is one of the most important lessons freelance writers learn: you’re the one who has to look out for yourself, and if you have no assignments, you have no money. You’re only as good as your next gig, as every touring musician knows.
7. What do you write about? Find topics about which you’re passionate, and find those on which you feel you have some expertise. If you’ve never been passionate about jazz and haven’t developed a working knowledge of it, then for goodness sakes don’t send a blind pitch to Downbeat. Passion for a subject is really the key, though; readers can hear the authenticity and truthfulness in your voice when you’re writing a piece on a topic with which you’re very deeply engaged. On the other hand, you may need to find ways to expand your interests and the ways that you’re able to connect with various styles of music, at least initially, in order to open more doors for your writing. However, if you identify those areas about which you’re passionate and identify the sources that cover them, pitch to them, write for them, and develop your own singular voice within that field. Once you become known in those areas, folks will start to think of asking you to write about them. Look around for magazines that focus on your areas and pitch ideas to them.
8. Where to write? Well, the opportunities for writing — except for established writers — are shrinking every day. Magazines are folding (no pun intended), newspapers are cutting back on pages and staff, so you need to be creative in finding outlets. Writing for sites on the web is a way to start. You might want to cruise the web for sites in your area of expertise and offer to write for them. Some folks will ask you to do this for free at the beginning, with the promise that they’ll pay as you become more established with them. Be careful, though, for once they have you writing for free, there’s no incentive for them to pay you. You might write one piece for these sites but write others for sites that pay for your work. Folks might ask you to write on spec, which means you’ll be writing to their specifications until they see that you’re a good writer. It takes persistence and passion, and it’s not at all easy. But if you keep writing, editors will recognize your talent and seek you out. Once you’ve established yourself and demonstrated that you’re a good writer, you’ll get more assignments.
9. Keep reading and keep listening. The more you read, as the old adage goes, the better a writer you become. Read as much as you can so you can hear different voices and see how different writers create their own way of telling a story or making a point. Your fund of ideas comes from reading, so read anything and everything — from magazines and newspapers to books and websites. Find those writers and critics you admire and read them over and over to see how they approach their craft. If you’re going to write about music, be sure that you have listened deeply to all kinds of music so you can write about the influence of older music on the music under review.
Writing about music is fun. It’s rewarding. It can also be a drudge, and you can feel like a hack, cranking out review after review. Making a living as a freelance music writer is probably harder than it’s ever been, and it was never exactly easy. Yet, there’s great joy in celebrating an artist’s work, in finding a community of writers with whom you can discuss various types of music, and in expressing yourself authentically and finding your own voice. I wish you the very best as you set off on this new journey.