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How to make it as a music journalist (by listening to 6 BBC broadcasts)

Towards the end of Radio 4's Yesterday's Papers: The End of the Music Press, which is included below, discussion turns to the difficulty in funding music journalism in the internet age. It's a risky career choice, and yet courses offering introductions to music writing are over-subscribed, and if you speak to those lucky enough to scrape a living as a music journalist you'll hear, almost without exception, that it's a fool's errand but one that brings huge rewards.

These programmes provide a wider view of what music journalism is in actuality, how it works, when it's good and when it goes off-course. And they provide a history lesson too, from the birth of pop writing in the 1960s all the way up to the modern day. Listen closely if you're considering rejecting everything your parents ever told you about pursuing a sensible career path.

1. Lennon: The Wenner Tapes

Jann Wenner is a good listener, and because of that John went on and on...
Yoko Ono

One of the great successes in American music journalism in the late 60s was Rolling Stone magazine, co-founded and published by Jann Wenner, a canny businessman (he still runs Rolling Stone, as well as Men's Journal and Us Weekly) and a good journalist.

This intriguing, award-winning Radio 4 documentary looks back at his legendary interview with John Lennon in 1970 - just after The Beatles had split and just before John was about to release his first official solo album, Plastic Ono Band. It's perhaps the most famous interview with a rock star in the history of music journalism - the moment when Lennon, free of having to protect the interests of The Beatles, allows himself to speak brutal truths.

But it's too easy to imagine that any old hack could have bagged the kind of verbal dynamite that Wenner got down on his reel-to-reel tape recorder that day. As Beatles biographer Hunter Davies wrote in a Guardian piece about the interview in 2007: "Wenner, of course, had to be there, to get it, to have teed it up, teased it out, be receptive and understanding, knowledgeable enough to prompt and encourage, and wicked enough, as all good interviewers are, cunningly to stir the pot."

Or, as Yoko Ono says in the documentary: "Jann is a very wise, and also clever, journalist in the sense that he's a good listener, and because of that John went on and on..."

Jann Wenner is a good listener, and because of that John went on and on...
Yoko Ono

2. The Women Who Wrote Rock

People started writing, 'I arrived...' Who cares!? We're just journalists
Dawn James

Kate Mossman's recent doc for Radio 4 about pop writing before the 1970s - the decade in which some writers, particularly Nick Kent in the UK and Lester Bangs in America, became almost as well-known as the stars they interviewed - destroys the idea that music journalism has always been an alpha-male world of men producing copy for other men to read.

"There is an alternative history - a time before the rules were set in stone," says Kate, "and it goes back further than you'd think - to the moment when pop itself exploded."

She speaks to Nancy Lewis (a writer for Fabulous and NME) June Harris (Disc, Rave), Maureen O'Grady (Boyfriend, Rave), Dawn James (Rave) and Maureen Cleave (Evening Standard), who scored the famous quote from Lennon about The Beatles being bigger than Jesus.

And there's much to learn from their discussions: how to draw people into writing by using colour and including seemingly throwaway detail; how "having the cheek of the devil" wins you good stories; how to 'read' popular culture to get to things that are important; and how musicians are "just ordinary people making lovely music".

That last point got lost in the 1970s, as rock journalists built myths around musicians, and themselves. Dawn James: "People started writing, 'I arrived...' Who cares!? We're just journalists. We're just like a photographer - we take the picture and go. People got egos, I suppose, and maybe you needed to do that to make a living."

People started writing, 'I arrived...' Who cares!? We're just journalists
Dawn James

3. Sylvie Simmons: The Rock Chick

One of the good sides about being a woman rock writer is that you don't often get knocked out
Sylvie Simmons

All the writers mentioned in The Women Who Wrote Rock helped pave the way for Sylvie Simmons, the London-born writer who moved to LA in 1977 and became the key West Coast correspondent for the British music inkies (NME, Sounds, Melody Maker), and subsequently wrote books on Neil Young, Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen.

"As far as I was concerned, she was absolutely fearless," says the then-editor of Sounds, Geoff Barton, at the beginning of this documentary. "I had no qualms about putting her up against Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, or whoever, because he would come out second best."

Presenter Nick Barraclough talks to Sylvie about how to deal with awkward interviewees (in her case, a tricky encounter with The Jackson 5); how you need to be obsessed with music to have any chance of making a career as a music journalist; and how she never felt intimidated being one of the few high-profile female rock and pop writers in the late 70s and 80s.

Tune in also for great tales about Stevie Nicks, Johnny Cash, Steely Dan and how she got caught in the middle of a bar-room fight with Ritchie Blackmore. "I'm a Londonder, I don't mind getting stuck into a battle," she says. "One of the good sides about being a woman rock writer is that you don't often get knocked out."

One of the good sides about being a woman rock writer is that you don't often get knocked out
Sylvie Simmons

4. Neil Tennant's Smash Hits Christmas

If you ask, 'Does your mother play golf?', you're finding out about their background
Miranda Sawyer

Neil Tennant's Smash Hits Christmas, about the pop magazine and his time there before he became a Pet Shop Boy (and ended up on the cover), is not currently available online, but there is a very useful nugget from journalist Miranda Sawyer in this clip from the programme.

"What we did is think very hard about the questions we'd ask people and make sure they were funny, but would also be revealing," she says about Smash Hits' modus operandi. "So if you say to somebody, 'When was the last time you were sick in your shoes?', you're actually asking them, 'When was the last time you had a brilliant night out and what kind of night out was it?' And if you ask them, 'Does your mother play golf?', you're actually finding out about parents and what kind of background they came from."

If you ask, 'Does your mother play golf?', you're finding out about their background
Miranda Sawyer

5. Yesterday's Papers: The End of the Music Press

The standard of criticism on message boards is phenomenal
John Doran

If there's one thing that's almost consistent about the music press it's that older writers think it was better in their day, when they were young and probably less jaded. This David Hepworth-presented documentary, which features interviews with music journos and editors who cut their teeth in the 20th century (Danny Kelly, Danny Baker, Richard Williams, Mark Ellen) makes for a fascinating potted history of printed music media and finds Hepworth suggesting that there was a "golden age of the music magazine" (late 50s to late 90s). A drastic decline in print circulation figures (and with them a savage drop in both cover-price sales and advertising revenues) support his argument, but it's too convenient to confine music journalism as a whole to the past because NME was only selling 14,000 copies a week before it went free.

In the 21st century, music journalism has fractured into a myriad of different forms online, and music in general is covered in detail now not just by specialist sites and mags, but broadsheets and tabloids alike. It's more democratic, possibly overwhelming, but just as passionate. It's as John Doran, editor of The Quietus, says in the programme: "There is really good, sharp, incisive, clever debate about music going on, but it's going on in chat-rooms and on blogs... It might be bewildering to us [older journalists], but the standard of criticism on message boards is phenomenal - fearsome - and also they cover things like RnB, soul music, pop music, with a reverence that was lacking in the 70s and 80s."

The issue with music journalism these days? Making it pay, and that's a serious problem across all of journalism.

The standard of criticism on message boards is phenomenal
John Doran

6. Steve Carlton: Celebrating Zines

The real magic of zines is that they can be about absolutely anything
Steve Carlton

What David Hepworth is referring to in Yesterday's Papers is the commercial music press and not Britain's vibrant zine scene, which began in the punk era. If the internet has taught us anything, it's that niche works and in this Three Minute Epiphany from Mary Anne Hobbs's 6 Music show, Steve Carlton from the Salford Zine Library details a boom in zine production, despite the supposed death of print.

Steve defines a zine as "anything that's printed in numbers of less than 100 or so and made on a not-for-profit basis" and says: "The real magic of zines is that they can be about absolutely anything - the editorial decisions are your own. So if you want to make a zine about Bruce Springsteen's bum, which we have a zine about in the collection, that's absolutely fine."

He adds that the current state of zines is "really strong", thanks, in fact, to the internet: "While it may seem that blogs and easy-to-build websites would replace zines as places to share opinions and thoughts about things, if anything the internet is supporting the zine community in that it makes it a lot easier for people to communicate and build networks."

And what at heart do zines do? "Carry the voices and opinions of marginalised people." They're perfect for anyone with a view and a story to tell to make a start as a journalist.

The real magic of zines is that they can be about absolutely anything
Steve Carlton

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