the ramblings of a music journalist and nearly-published author.

Music Journalism 101

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Music and writing have been two of the biggest loves in my short life. I remember the first two compact discs I bought for myself like it was yesterday – Nickelodeon’s All That television show album, and the Macarena single. My first record was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and my first cassette tapes were an Elvis Presley collection and Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart. I grew up on country music from a childhood of spending time at local dirt race tracks, and learned all about 80’s metal thanks to my older sister. Writing has always come naturally – I received my first journal when I was in first grade, and was always drawn to writing down the story of my day. This turned into writing short stories and poetry, and I found myself excelling in language arts in school. When I was learning to read, I picked up a newspaper at age five. Journalism has always been something that I’ve been fascinated with, and I began writing for the teen section of the Green Bay Press-Gazette at age fifteen. At first, it was stories about myself, and then I began to do album reviews and stories on outside topics. I realized that I loved writing about music, and at age seventeen, thought that it would be awesome to interview my favorite band.

At the time, I had little more than my credibility with the local newspaper, and decided to go for it. I did a few searches on Google to try and figure out how one would get an interview with a band, but came up short. My favorite band at the time was AFI, and they were set to come through Green Bay in October 2003 on their tour for Sing The Sorrow. Without further information, here was no way for me to get this off the ground. I did the next thing I could think of: calling the local rock radio station in Green Bay, and picking the brain of a DJ I had spoken to several times before, Cutter. When I called, he didn’t know what I could do, but put me in touch with the station manager, who put me in contact with AFI’s management and nailed down my first interview for me. This was nothing that I would either suggest or do again at this point, but it got me from point A to point B in the unfamiliar territory of publicity and music journalism.

When I received the e-mail confirming my interview, I printed out a copy and carried it around with me, so happy that I’d taken some strange turns, but that I’d put my mind to doing something and actually done it. That, and I was the only high school senior in my graduating class who was taking an afternoon off from class to meet and interview a member of a popular band. Prior to the interview, I drove around the block at the venue several times, trying to get my bearings before going in and introducing myself to their tour manager. He was sweet in and of himself, and helped to calm my nerves even furtheafir before I was introduced to Adam Carson and we sat down under a tree behind the venue for the interview. Prior to the interview itself, I had painstakingly written a laundry list of questions, which I clutched as if it were a block of pure gold and very rarely diverted from. I asked some questions that weren’t necessarily well-received, and that interview was a launching pad as to how I would interview in the future. It was incredibly straightforward, and there wasn’t much room to truly get to know who I was interviewing. Many individuals have a much smaller scaled first interview, and I knew I was biting off something big with my choice. After the interview itself was finished, I breathed a sigh of relief and returned to my car, where I had my seventeen year old freak-out and proceeded to return home. Mentally, I went over everything I’d said and cursed myself for not being as professional as I could have been, but I was thankful. My first interview was a learning experience, but I was incredibly proud when it came out in the Press-Gazette after the show. Many people don’t get the opportunity to do what I did, and I was thankful for it and hungry for more.

In the years since that first interview, I have learned quite a bit through writing and photographing for publications such as AMP, Alternative Press, and Wonka Vision. I have also been contacted by several individuals interested in getting into music journalism, who still weren’t getting too far when Googling how to get into it. I have done my own ‘schooling’ in that respect, but have opted to put together a blog to both tell my story (as you can see above), as well as offering some information on how to get involved in music journalism. It isn’t an easy process, but once you know what you want, going for it is only the first step. This is not a full explanation, but my attempt at putting my own experiences to work for others.

Start small.
Is there a local newspaper looking for writers for an entertainment section or a website you like looking for writers? Do you like blogging about music or just reviewing albums because you enjoy it? Go with it. Any experience you can gain is good experience. If you buy a new album either via hard copy or iTunes, write a review and start a backlog. It never hurts to have writing done before you send your first pitch. And if you write for yourself, you can write about anything you want! And just because your work isn’t in print doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count. Every little bit helps.

Don’t expect to pay all your bills with writing alone.
Even with six years of experience in music journalism, I still consider the money that I make supplementary income. Unless you are writing for huge publications like Rolling Stone, you can expect to need a job to take care of most of your expenses. I personally use the money I make writing to further my career, such as purchasing business cards and space for my website.

Just because you don’t have a publication doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write.
Freelance is not a bad thing! With freelance work, you can write about anything you want to at any time, instead of what a publication might be focusing on for the time being. It’s a good way to hone your skills and sharpen your writing for publications. Freelancing is much easier for photographers; many bands just want their photos to be seen, and don’t mind freelance photographers one bit.

Mind your grammar and punctuation when introducing yourself to publications.
If you want to be taken seriously when pitching yourself to a prospective publication, whether web-based or print, you need to utilize spell-check and make sure everything you’re writing makes sense. Nobody is going to want you to write for them if you aren’t careful enough to check these couple of things before sending out that first e-mail. It’s all about the little things, and you want to make a great first impression.

Know what you’re pitching for.
Before offering to write for a magazine specifically, know what they cover. I went for magazines I knew and loved – if you don’t know the publication, you are going to have a hard time writing for them. Go to your local Barnes and Noble or Borders store and look through the magazines on the shelf or buy a handful if you’re interested enough. Take note of the parts in each that you like, and flip to the front portion to find the editor’s information to send an introductory e-mail. It’s that easy.

Don’t give up.
It’s hard to find that perfect fit just starting out. You are going to have to keep a level head and keep pushing to get to the level in writing that you want. There will not be publications flocking to you – you are going to have to do your homework and figure out what works best for you. Whether it be print or online, there is no shortage of places to put your work. Even if you’re just writing your own blogs, you’re doing something to further your craft, and that’s commendable.

Stick to deadlines.
Sometimes, things happen. For example, I had a grandparent die during deadline week at one of my former magazines. These things are unavoidable, and I wound up needing a deadline extension. Unless it is a life or death situation, always stick to your deadlines. If possible, send your copy in before the deadline date! This will not only make you shine in the eyes of your editors, this will help firm up your reputation as someone reliable who doesn’t flake. This is especially important just starting out.

Give a good impression.
Whether in e-mail, on the telephone, or in person, always leave a good impression. This includes being polite and not overbearing, no matter if you’re dealing with an editor or an interview subject. You won’t wind up with a good reputation if you speak negatively about who you’re writing for, or worse yet, who you’re writing about. Even if it isn’t your favorite subject, act like it is. Even if you don’t have the best grasp on it, learn what you can. This will only improve the view that others have of you. It’s almost like going to a job interview – you want to put your best foot forward and give the best impression that you can.

Have fun.
Remember, you’re doing this out of love for the music. If you aren’t having fun with what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it. Music journalism is work, but if you can’t have fun with it, it isn’t for you. You should always pursue what you love, and if you love music and love writing, music journalism is definitely a great outlet for that. Never forget why you started.

There are many other facets to becoming a music journalist, but these are the big ones. Once you’ve nailed down your first gig, others will be much easier. It’s all about learning what you’re good and bad at and what could use some work. You can feel free to be your own worst critic (most of us are), but never talk yourself down to the point that you quit. Sure, there isn’t a college program dedicated specifically to music journalism so there will be a lot of trial and error, but without it there is no learning. If you’re dedicated to your craft, great things will come out of it – and some of us just need a bit of help to get there.


Written by Liz Van Pay

August 24, 2009 at 10:15 pm

One Response

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  1. This is really a fantastic article. I will have to include you to my RSS list.


    February 19, 2010 at 12:27 am

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