February 12, 2020 (Updated )
Perhaps you’ve seen Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, in which a 15-year-old boy goes on the road with rising band Stillwater for Rolling Stone magazine. Yes, it’s realistic, we know.
While based on Crowe’s own experience of being a teenage music journalist in the 1970s, for those of us trying to break into music reporting today it can feel a world away from reality. So where can you turn for advice on how to break into music journalism? And is it even worth bothering in these days of streaming and free content?
‘It’s Evolving Into Something Very Different To What It Was’
For decades, music journalism was perceived as fluffy and frivolous, for hedonists rather than hard-nosed hacks. But in contrast to the early 1970s rock world portrayed by Almost Famous, a more sombre mood has overtaken music journalism in the past five years. A debate rages as to whether music journalism as a profession is dead, dying or evolving.
When asked about this internal debate, Dr Simon Morrison, Senior Lecturer & Programme Leader on the University of Chester’s Music Journalism BA, says “I think it’s actually quite a vibrant time to be a music journalist.”
Music journalists will be needed for as long as music exists, he says, but the nature of the job has definitely changed. “I think that notion that a music journalist can make or break someone’s career is gone, and probably that’s no bad thing.”
Luke Turner, Co-Editor at The Quietus agrees: “It’s evolving into something very different to what it was in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, where you had the big monolithic weekly papers, [such as NME, Melody Maker and Sounds], that sold hundreds of thousands of copies.”
But this isn’t the only reason music journalism is changing.“I think it’s also evolving because music has a different place in people’s lives than it did,” he continues.
“I think music used to be the driving impulse of a lot of younger people and now there’s a lot of other things people are into.”
He mentions the rise of gaming, explaining: “There’s more choice, culturally, in what you can be into.” The collapse in sales of music is also a massive factor.
‘I think the notion that a music journalist can make or break someone’s career is gone.’
Dr Simon Morrison, University of Chester
At Mixmag, Digital Editor Seb Wheeler works across social media, video, print and online. “I’m writing but I’m also producing video, and commissioning writers and everything else that comes with it,” he tells Journo Resources.
In short, the job has changed, something he sums up by saying that music journalism these days is “way more than just writing reviews”. However, for the digitally focused among us, this is perhaps more of an opportunity than a death knell.
And, just as the nature of journalism has changed, the relationship journalists have with artists have also changed, and this has impacted not only how music is written about but who publications can gain access to. “You don’t get the access to the big stars,” confirms Luke, “so you don’t get those big star interviews.”
The internet, and especially social media, have allowed the big names to bypass the media entirely, should they so wish. Luke cites Nick Cave as an example. “I kind of admire how he’s handled not having to deal with the press anymore whatsoever, with his Red Hand Files, and just doing everything in a very canny way to not have to talk to the press.”
While you’re much less likely to see long, indepth interviews with Beyoncé, Adele or Ed Sheeran, the demise of these kind of profile pieces isn’t mourned by Luke, especially as their absence has created room for longer pieces on newer artists. “At The Quietus, we can do very long reads on extremely new bands.”
The example he gives is Black Country, New Road, who had only released one single when The Quietus featured them. “I guess that’s what the music monthlies used to do a bit, but I think you can do it with weirder music now, and that’s really exciting.” Similarly, he adds that “the writer pool is far more broad in its make-up than it used to; it used to be middle class white blokes and it isn’t anymore”.
Kate Crudgington, who co-founded Get In Her Ears in 2017 with Mari Lane & Tash Walker, also feels that the internet has allowed greater diversity of writers. “I love that the internet has given people like myself the opportunity to branch out into music journalism. My entire career started with a tweet to Gigslutz, asking if they wanted someone to cover The Great Escape Festival in 2015. Now, I co-run an independent music platform that I
founded with two other women in 2017.”
She does recognise that not everyone is happy with the current state of affairs. “Some people will argue that we’re saturated with voices and opinions online now, but each of us has the choice to read, or not to read something. I enjoy the differences in opinions, and the freedom to choose what I want to read or write as a journalist online.”
Making The Music Pay The Bills
Amidst all this positivity, it is worth noting the strongest downside when it comes to music journalism – the pay, which often ranges from terrible to non-existent. As Derek Robertson, formerly of Drowned In Sound, put it: “Quite a few [publications] do pay, but pay a pathetic amount – £20 for a review or something like that. Also, at some of these publications there is precious little feedback – the editors are not invested in you becoming better or whatever, they just need endless cheap (or free) content.” Drowned In Sound ceased commissioning new content in April 2019.
It is harder for online publications to survive, agrees Luke, and not just because of the expensive nature of website hosting and maintenance. “There used to be quite good money around in banner advertising but it’s just gone. Facebook and Google have taken 90 per cent of all that revenue that used to go to independent publications.”
As a result, he urges writers to kill their Facebook accounts. “It is a pernicious, horrible organisation that’s destroying everything good in the world,” he tells Journo Resources, “including the career you want to be part of.”
Want to know more about where you can pitch your ideas and how much you’ll be paid? Take a look at our freelance rates list here, as well as our list of publications with pitching guidelines publicly posted.
“I’ve been a music journalist for four years, and in that time I’ve been paid for only one article,” says Kate. “I write for free, and I can only afford to do so because I have other full-time employment.”
However, she does understand the wider “don’t write for free” debate around music journalism, and journalism in general. “Perhaps some blogs could be labelled as exploitative for not paying their writers. I write
for other blogs who don’t pay me, and I run a blog that also doesn’t pay its writers.
“I understand both sides of the story. I love writing about music, and money isn’t something I focus on when I write. I understand why it might put other people off though. I recognise that working my nine to five day job, which pays my rent and bills, provides me with a certain level of privilege here.”
For Luke, the don’t-write-for-free debate is also not clear cut. He secured a book deal after writing for free for a nature website, Caught By The River. If writers choose to write for free for exposure, it should be their choice, he says.
But, he adds, “If anybody comes to you and says, ‘We haven’t got any money but this is good for exposure’, don’t work for them.
“It’s your decision as a writer as to what constitutes good exposure, and that should be done on your terms.”
“It’s your decision as a writer as to what constitutes good exposure and that should be done on your terms.”
“I don’t want to talk about [the] golden age,” says Simon, “because that leaves young people thinking, ‘What’s my age?’ But there was a period in the seventies where you could get flown around the world to follow the bands, and all that kind of stuff. So you would be paid, you’d earn a living off it.”
There was a definite downside to this though: “If you didn’t have a job for the holy trinity of NME, Sounds, and Melody Maker, you weren’t writing about music, and that was the end of that. So, for some people it was really good, for others… well, that was it.”
The opportunity to be a music journalist is greater now, he believes, but this comes with its own set of problems. The devaluation of music journalism has coincided with the devaluation of music itself.
“We don’t really pay for music anymore, so why are they going to pay to read about people’s opinions of it? That’s what we’re fighting against,” says Simon.
At The Quietus, only about 50 per cent of content across the site is paid. “Pretty much all the big features get paid for now, and some reviews,” says Luke, “which is a lot more than most independent publishers do.”
“I don’t think getting your byline is the problem,” adds Simon. “It’s having the time to do it all and getting paid.”
A two-rung model springs to mind: “It’s never been easier to get your foot on the first rung of the ladder; it’s never been harder to get it on the second. If you want to write about music, you can write about music, fine. If you want to get paid to write about music, that’s a whole other ball game.”
While Luke is positive about the culture around music journalism, and feels that it is a more open, diverse, friendly world than it use to be, Derek has found it to be clique-ridden and insular. He feels that this culture prevents new writers from getting to the second rung of the ladder.
“In many ways – and especially at outlets that pay decently – editors commission their mates or people who used to be staff writers; if you’re not in with the right people, it can be all but impossible to get prominent commissions. Other areas of journalism are, I have found, far more open and welcoming.”
A Grounding In Journalism Skills – Or A Specialist Course?
Some of you reading might be wondering whether your chances of breaking into music journalism would be enhanced by a Journalism BA or MA, preferably an NCTJ accredited one.
This is certainly how Seb found his way to Mixmag, and in terms of a grounding in journalism skills, it has its plus points. There is also the option of completing one of the small number of Music Journalism BA courses offered by universities in the UK.
The University of Chester set up its BA in Music Journalism in 2013. “Sometimes I do open days and the parents are… perturbed,” says Simon. “[They ask] ‘Well, what, are you going to be listening to Lady Gaga for three years?!’ Obviously, it’s not that.”
The course includes core journalism modules such as Law, Ethics, and News Reporting as well as incorporating cultural studies and discourses around gender and ethnicity. It also provides a thorough history of music journalism and the pivot to online. Despite not being an NCTJ-accredited course, it’s about putting theory into practice.
“They ask if you are going to be listening to Lady Gaga for three years. Obviously it’s not that.”
Dr Simon Morrison
The students create content and are encouraged to be immersive journalists. “[You’ll need] to go out and get a story, make video documentaries, YouTube-style presentations and podcasting, and all that stuff, explains Simon. “The best way you’re gonna learn how to do this is to go out and do it.”
As part of their course, the students have access to a well-stocked library and free access to the Rocks Back Pages database. They also get round-the-clock access to MacSuite and Adobe suite, and there is a campus radio station, TV studio and full camera kit. They learn InDesign, WordPress, and video and audio editing, amongst other things.
Work placements are arranged in their second year, and past placements have included Mixmag, NME, Mojo, The Big Issue and Clash.
“By the time they’ve finished and graduated they’ve got some skills, they’ve got some expertise, they’ve got some experience,” says Simon. “And, hopefully, I’ll have done everything I can to set them up as music journalists.”
There are other advantages to learning music journalism in a university environment too. “We’ve just moved departments and we’re now in the department of music, media and performing arts. So we’re connected to all the people setting up bands, that’s really nice as well. They’re setting up bands, we’re writing about bands.
“We need bands to write about, they need the experience of being interviewed. So we all move on together.”
WordPress, Coding & Audio
Even if you aren’t planning to take a university course, there are a number of skills you can learn that will help when it comes to music journalism. Luke strongly advises that you learn WordPress and how to code. He’d also recommend learning to use audio software such as Garageband or Audacity. Seb suggests learning how to take and edit photos and create and edit video, and that being good at social media is also an advantage.
“Music journalism is just one part of the music industry,” says Seb, “so if you’re not having luck with music writing, or music journalism, you can keep that going but then still get a job, say, at a music PR company or maybe doing marketing for a label or a venue.”
For students, he recommends that you use your uni time to build up your skills set. “You’ll never have as much free creative time as when you’re at uni. And also the kind of tools to have it.”
He recommends getting familiar with Premier Pro, Lightroom, and video and photo editing tools. You should also get involved with the local music scene, start a blog, or an Instagram, and generally just start writing.
“Ideas are your currency, whether you’ve done an MA, a BA, or not.”
For those not studying a journalism course at university, he adds: “It might be worth taking a course in how to edit, or getting some editing software and taking videos on your phone and mucking about with it basically.”
As with all writing, practice helps. Seb also firmly believes that “ideas are your currency”, and that if you have good ideas, editors will want to commission you, “whether you’ve done an MA, a BA, or not”.
For Luke, following and keeping an eye on editors and publications on social media is also invaluable. “I’m starting to build a Twitter list of commissioners, and you keep an eye on those people, and you know what they’re into.”
This can help when it comes to pitching, and he recommends that you keep your pitches short, to the point, and spellchecked. Similarly, when you are commissioned, always keep to your deadline: “People who hit deadlines are the people who, particularly in the print world, get commissioned again,” he adds.
From Derek, the advice is: “Be patient, and have multiple revenue sources. One piece of advice commonly given is to have a niche, to be so expert in one particular thing that you become the ‘go to’ person for that topic. That’s fine, but it also helps if you can write about a wide range of topics and music genres. And styles too – biographies, profiles, reviews, opinion pieces, essays, etc. The more you can do, the more work is out there.”
“If someone’s come to me on an open cay and said, ‘Can you guarantee I will get a job as a music journalist at the end of this degree?’ I will say, ‘No, I can’t’,” concludes Simon. “But, if you are asymmetrical in your thinking, and you don’t mind moving with the territory, and also being adaptable [there will be opportunities for you].”
Echoing Seb’s earlier observations about the music industry, and the opportunities it offers, he says that a portfolio career is also an option. “Maybe your music writing will be one part of things, but maybe you might be doing PR for a band, or you might be managing a band. If you think like that, it could be part of what you do.”