NOTE: This is based on some dumb hate mail I’ve gotten for my music writing, along with my perception of the cynicism and the crisis of faith that are choking off a lot of the passion in contemporary music writing. Take it as you will.
You love music. But you have no talent for it. If you had talent for it, you’d be in a band. But here you are, bereft of skill and ambition, yet still living a life that revolves around the catchy tunes in your head.
Zines and blogs exist to keep uninspired loudmouths like you from polluting the workforce. But before you start your pro bono career as a music critic, make sure you know what you’re doing. Pick a few of these tips and then go ahead and write about music for free, so long as you don’t have the grapes to cop a feel on the third rail. Do not follow all this advice at once! If you do, you will cause Jim DeRogatis to explode, and he’ll take all of Chicago with him.
1. BE A FAN
Whatever happens, remember that you’re only pursuing this avocation out of your abiding worship for musicians, their work and their culture. Practicing, recording and touring call for more brains and courage than you’ll ever know. The best way to look at amateur music writing is as an excuse to interview and befriend your heroes. Of course, you'll be lucky to get an interview, and a lot of penguins will have to fall off a lot of icebergs before anyone who owns an amp will pass you the bowl. But if you say nice things about musicians in public, you might very well get to hang with the fans, post to their message boards and possibly crash on their sofas. Fans are the good ones, the people who enjoy life and the music it has to offer. Fandom is a safe haven from the meanness of the world, and is not to be disturbed. Say things that aren't nice, and the fans will grind you to cat chow.
2. BE GENTLE
It bears repeating that musicians are made of higher quality clay than you, and you must treat their creative endeavors with respect. They’re out there doing it, and they need your encouragement. Record stores are full of noble efforts from new faces to watch who really deliver the goods this time out, and your criticism should reflect this pleasant state of affairs. Try it: Walk into a record store and buy an album at random. Take it home. Slap it on. Unless you really crapped out, the album will be better than you. If you don’t like a successful band, you're jealous of success. If you don't like an unsuccessful band, you’re jealous of pluck. Say things that aren’t nice, and hardworking bands will henceforth avoid your shitty little town and, in extreme cases, give up their life’s work altogether. (Remember, they’re sensitive.) Be nice. Always. Save that honesty for your buddies. If you don’t lie to strangers, how do you expect to befriend them?
3. BE AN ELITIST
It’s your job to promote the most obscure, out-there shit you can find, the stuff that no one else has heard. Keep looking until you find something that defies all conventional appreciation and praise it to the smoggy skies. While doing this, be as smug as you like – so long as you’re a piece of shit engaged in a silly, masturbatory hobby, you might as well wallow in it. If you’re set on befriending musicians and fans, this is a good way to go – people who produce and consume abrasive, experimental soundz could often use a spare pal.
4. BE AN ANTI-ELITIST
You can’t trust your tastes. Believe that. Unless you’re set on being an elitist (which takes a bit of endurance), you may as well enjoy the same mass-produced shit soup that the average American enjoys. If you define yourself by your similarities to the average person, it may take average people longer to notice that you are in fact below average. Look, as long as you’re a tool, you may as well be a barometer of popular tastes – at least that’s a useful tool. As you heap praise upon the sentimentally charged throwaway fads of yesteryear and the most insipid trends of the present, be as far-fetched and philosophical and pretentious as you can. You’re lowbrow, but you can’t have people thinking you’re stupid. If only you were stupid, that might take some of the pain away.
5. IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE CULTURE OF MUSIC ANALYSIS
Your only interest is music. Read about music all the time. Even bad music magazines are rich with material for parody and put-downs. Your online friends should be fans, critics and b-list musicians. You should pick up their quirky obsessions and weird slang no one has ever used in spoken conversation. Your only acceptable side-interest, for reasons to complicated to get into here, is baseball.
6. BE AN ACADEMIC
A post-grad education is worth as much as you’re willing to put into it. Usually, that means a lot of huffing and puffing and time and no substance. But it’ll give you invaluable practice in comparing things that have nothing to do with one another. With punishing verbosity. Like medicine, the strength of an academic record review can be determined by how quickly it induces deep, cleansing slumber.
7. KEEP THE FREEBIE TRAIN ROLLING
Provided you haven’t already ruined your career on purpose, you can still get lots of free records if you play the industry game. Return calls from promoters and write at least 19 good reviews for every bad one. (95% of records you get should be pretty damn good; otherwise, you aren’t listening right.) The CMJ Music Marathon and South By Southwest are essentially massive swag orgies – if you aren’t attending both, you haven’t made it yet. As long as you can’t secure regular employment, the money you’ll make selling back those promo discs might actually mean something.
8. BE A SELF-INVOLVED ASSHOLE
Don’t shoot the moon until other avenues have been exhausted. After you’ve failed to get a gig with Pitchfork or the Village Voice… after you’ve alienated musicians and fans without even trying… After you’ve pounded out hundreds of thousands of words and you’re still living off Minute Rice in Blue Island… After you’ve grown sick of the music you once loved… Go down easy. Start writing about yourself. Start swearing more and abusing grammar and syntax. Where most critics would plug in a filler word like “heartfelt,” describe your excretory functions or booze intake. Create an outsized persona. Lie. Throw all that invented slang and all those contrived stylistic tics into a rickshaw and ride that jimmer-jammer. Bangs and Meltzer made it look easy. You know what? It is easy. Make things easy on yourself. It’s not like you’re getting paid for this. In this age of well-vetted consumer-guide journalism, this approach is career suicide unless you’re a well-connected muckety-muck like Nick Sylvester (and look where it eventually got that smug little prick), but you may get some righteous hate mail. And ain’t that worth all the hassle?
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