How would you like to get paid to follow a band or get paid to hang out at Seattle or other hot music scenes to rub elbows with up and coming rock and roll talent? How would you like to get paid to explore the psychological depth and richness of music lyrics or get paid to spend lazy afternoons chasing mental and philosophical white rabbits with some of the biggest names in music? If you answered YES to any of the questions above, you might want to consider being a music journalist.
Sure, the pay doesn’t exactly rank up there with an entry level JP Morgan Chase investment banker, but the payoff you get is worth more than an overpriced Manhattan apartment and a BMW that will look old after a few years anyway. You get something much more precious than money. You get to witness music history unfold. You get to be in the thick of things as you track down up and coming artists and get into their world. You also get to see firsthand the often hectic world of touring and music production, the often volatile mix of creative personalities, and the clash between creators and the music industry. Here are just some of the key highlights of my career as a music journalist so far. It’s definitely been quite a wild ride. I haven’t yet reached the point where I want to get off the ride.
Every day is different
One of the best things about my job is that I have yet to feel a ‘Groundhog Day’ moment-the feeling that every day is exactly just like the previous day. My work as a music journalist enables me to enjoy each and every day. Each day is different. Each day has its own distinct set of challenges and surprises. Why? You get to meet many different and interesting personalities in the music industry. From pretentious clowns to real seekers with an intense love for their craft to business types to all points in between. With this job, you’re not just exploring musical genres or covering bands on tour or acts recording their stuff in the studio, you’re also chronicling people’s dreams, musical trends, and mapping ideas. Music is art and there’s something very exciting about covering artists turn something from idea or emotion or a hunch into something you can hear and drown in, whether they’re religious or not.
What I love about this job is that my employer covers my expenses when tracking down bands or acts. This means hotels, lunches, dinners, and, of course, plane fares. You don’t have to worry about paying for stuff related to your beat on your own dime. You basically get paid to explore. Take my latest long-term assignment in San Francicso. The magazine I did the piece for reimbursed me for my three-month apartment stay at the Haight as I hung out with local bands, ate cheap pizza at corner joints, went bar hopping with the bands every single night and capped off a hard day’s ‘work’ with an ‘after party’ hot cup of herbal tea at a small Chinese tea shop in Noe Valley. You get to drink in the excitement of the local music scene, follow bands around as they play gig after gig, and you get to be part of the scene. You get to drink in the electricity in the air. Of course, not every day is fun. Oftentimes, you have to deal with some flaky artists who can’t seem to show up on time even if you give them a few hours ‘slack.’ There are quite a number of acts that can’t seem to show up at all. Some of these people can’t show up on time-even if their very lives depended on it.
Another challenge I encounter in my career as a music journalist is when I have to deal with people who lie. I’m not talking about claims you might see on TV regarding products like forskolin fuel, which may or may not be effective. Believe it or not, it is not only the band or act’s manager who is full of hot air and promises. The sad reality is that so many musical acts get told how ‘great’ they are, day in day out, that they let it all get to their head. As a result, when you interview these people, you don’t know if they are reading their own press, believe their own press, are deluded, bending the truth, telling you their hopes and dreams instead of reality, or a combination of all of the above. It can be very tiring trying to tell the difference from the truth and a tall tale. This is all the more frustrating when you have a tight deadline hanging over your head.
Online music media challenge
As you can probably already tell, the golden age of music journalism was back in the days when newspapers (remember those?) and monthly music news publications like Rolling Stone were at their top form. Back in this period, there was enough money to fund the grittiest and most intensive music journalism. Well, after the Internet put many newspapers under and killed of all but the strongest music magazines, a new music media landscape has emerged and a lot of the advantages and perks of music journalism are the first victim of this sea change (read this ting review for an overview of the newest technology in 2014 for an example of what I’m talking about). Nowadays, music blogs hold their own, in terms of quality, against traditional music journals and magazines. These blogs also generate enough cash for their operators to make a decent income (given the circumstances). These blogs are also hyper local and hyper niche specific. They are faster, more nimble, and can drill down much deeper than traditional music media. And they do all of this on a shoestring budget that is just enough to cover the needs of the blog’s owner-and only writer. Depending on how you look at it-music blogs are the future of music journalism or they are the enemies of music journalism.
What sets traditional music journalism apart?
One of the biggest complaints traditional music journalists have against the huge swarm of music blogs that popped up out of nowhere-much like mushrooms after a hard spring rain-is the lack of journalistic standards. Journalism is all about cultivating and contacting credible sources. Journalism is all about backing up everything you write. Journalism is all about research-deep research at that. Well, with today’s music blogs, you can expect a wide range of difference in how the blog owners and writers subscribe to these traditional guarantors of journalistic quality. Sure, you don’t automatically get a Tom Wolfe-style article if you have these standards but, at the very least, you can rest assured that the stuff you are reading is truthful. This is not necessarily the case with blogs. In fact, there seems to be a feeding frenzy regarding who can be the most shocking or who can find the most eye-popping angle or twist. This one-upmanship is primarily a mad dash for online traffic. Whoever gets the most traffic gets a higher chance of living to the next month. The problem is the truth is often the first victim thrown under the bus as blogs scramble for the most buzz and viral appeal on the Internet. It is not surprising to see the same tired rumors rehashed for a few cheap ad clicks. It is not unusual to see otherwise routine or bland stories ‘spiced up’ by a provocative headline that could easily play fast and loose with the truth.
You have to remember, most of these blogs don’t have editors. Whenever the writer feels he or she has the right coverage, that’s going to the story. Period. There are no checks and balances. There are no grownups in the room. Given how fast stories blow up in social media, it can be downright confusing for the reader. Which blog can he or she trust? Which blog is all hype? Which blog delivers the truth on a consistent basis?
Narrative or news
While I do think that since music blogs are here to stay, the term ‘music journalist’ should be extended to the people responsible for these blogs. With that said, it would be nice to have a blog standard regarding the dividing line between narrative and news. While music news have always been quite liberal and soft on introducing narration into news pieces, there was still a fine line most music journals and magazines wouldn’t cross. It would be nice for news blogs to know where this line is and, for purely self-preservation purposes, hold back from crossing the line. Journalistic standards exist primarily to serve and protect the public from lies and exaggerations. However, being vigilant against hype and sensationalism also benefit blogs and other digital news outlets because it protects their bottom line. How? By maintaining readers’ trust, journalistic standards for blogs enable blogs to preserve their traffic volume. Let’s face it-you can’t maintain a hot blog solely on hype, exaggeration, or outright lying. Eventually, people will get sick and tired of the shtick. Eventually, all the lies will catch up to a publication. Also, solid journalistic brands are based on the brands’ ability to deliver value over the long haul-not hype.