Six tips to get into music journalism
by Manu Ekanayake (Beats and Beyond)
Everyone thinks they could be a music journalist. They also assume that it’s one long excuse to hang out with their favourite artists and get into gigs for free… which it can be, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Here’s a few home truths about breaking into the business:
1) Anyone who likes music can be a music journalist, right?
Wrong. School and Uni teach you to write academically, but they don’t teach you to write in an entertaining way. Most people can write, but few can write well. This is where your own reading comes in – if you’re not a voracious reader, give up now. You learn by reading, as this allows you to develop (NOT steal) your own style. And as far as music goes, you’ll not go far without reading about the kind of music you want to write about…
2) Involve yourself in the discourse
Music doesn’t stand still, especially in the digital age where anyone can make music in their bedroom. Because of this, the traditional media that was once so powerful (never talk to music fans over 35 about the NME unless you have hours to spare) now shares its influence with blogs, web-zines, U-streams, messageboards and Facebook & Twitter too.
Somebody, somewhere, is writing about the music you love – so read it, follow it, Tweet about it, get on the forums and generally get involved in your scene. Also make sure you go to clubs and gigs regularly - which should go without saying.
You have to write from a position of knowledge, otherwise why would anyone listen to you?
3) Get loads of work experience
This is one of the dirty little secrets of all journalism – it’s a very middle-class business, for the most part because it runs on ‘internships’, i.e. free (or cheap) labour. A friend of a friend is now a heavy hitter on a national paper but he started out at the nationals by working for another, without pay. That’s an extreme example, but he is extremely successful.
Alexi Duggins has his own TV column in Time Out and more recently became their go-to guy for grime. But before that he was an intern at the Itchy City guides, eventually rising to the post of Features Editor in a young company that put a premium on talent over experience. However he had also been Editor of the London Student in 2004-5. So basically, writing a few articles in your student rag isn’t going to cut it (and neither is just having a degree or even the increasingly common journalism postgrads). Learn by doing, for anyone who will let you – try websites / magazines / blogs… which brings us on to…
4) Getting some clippings together
To get some work experience (and later to get jobs) you will need to have some ‘clippings’ to show people. That means links / print outs / screen captures or even photocopies of your work.
When I started out writing as an amateur the best part of 10 years ago, you sent something to one of the music mags and got some response if you were lucky. However now there’s umpteen websites that won’t offer to pay you (because they can’t afford to) but will publish your work. I even write for one, so if anyone wants to do club reviews in exchange for a couple of guestlists, e-mail me and we’ll chat. But before you write for others, you should:
5) Write for yourself (aka blog)
Literally everyone does it now. I briefly wrote for iDJ magazine, which recently went bust. So now Alex Gwilliam, former Assistant Editor of iDJ, has set up his own blog. Kate Hutchinson, the Clubbing Editor of the wonderful Time Out, also has one.
Why do they bother?
Well, because blogs allow them to publish full versions of interviews – people say a lot more than 1000 words in interviews, trust me – but also so they can talk about other things that they like, as well as their publication’s usual subject. And that can show a bit of breadth to prospective employers – e.g. you can show a film review you’ve done on your own blog when pitching a film article. But as a rookie, you need somewhere you can publish your stuff, to be able to bargain with Music PRs. These guys will send you stories, so you need their goodwill.
6) Don’t give up the day job
Most people in music journalism have a day job – often in music PR, but many just have a straight office gig (I’ve certainly done my time here). Staff jobs are increasingly hard to come by and freelancing for a living can be brutal – chasing money is not fun and doesn’t always lead to success, plus getting paid when so many people write for free is getting ever more difficult.
I’ve recently done bits of PR work and even branched out into doing some technology articles - so cultivate a list of interests, because the more things you can write about, the more employable you are. But for someone starting out, be prepared to write in your leisure time – if you love it enough, you’ll make the sacrifice.