Sharona Lin on how to break into music journalism, get paid and why the internet is your friend.
As a teenager, being a music journalist was the dream. Getting paid to write about music? Going to gigs for free? Talking to famous people? I couldn’t think of anything better.
Of course, the reality of the music journalism is a little different – it’s actually really hard to make a living writing about music. It’s not impossible, but it can be tricky and you probably won’t make a lot of money doing it.
That being said, music writing can be fun and rewarding. I was an unpublished 15-year-old when I went to a Getaway Plan gig and decided to write a review. Since then, I’ve had the chance to interview everyone from Mallrat to Rick Astley, and improve my writing immeasurably too. I now work for a street press in my spare time. If you’re prepared to do some hard yards, here’s some advice to get started.
The music writing space in Australia is absolutely saturated right now, and there’s a whole different discussion on that. Arts writing is a tough business, particularly if you don’t have the time or money to write for free or for a pittance.
As a writer, I always advocate for all writers to turn down working for free (and “exposure”), but the vast bulk of music journalists I’ve spoken to cut their teeth writing for free. There are a lot of casual music writers out there who are content with free tickets to a gig here and there, and perhaps the chance to chat with someone famous. And look, I can’t judge them because I’ve done my share of free music writing. But the proliferation of music websites pumping out writing means that it’s easy to get started but hard to get paid.
On the bright side, this means it’s not too hard to get started. There are a lot of websites out there who would love to have someone who can really write because often the aforementioned casual writers aren’t particularly good writers – they just produce content. Again, that’s a whole different discussion, but it means that if you work at it, you can pretty quickly distinguish yourself from the pack.
I’d start with gig and album reviews (if you don’t have prior work to show a publication, good news – you can just go to a show and write about it) and build up to interviews. If you’re in uni, uni publications are a great place to start. Otherwise, street presses and local websites are also good. Importantly, make sure you let your editor know you’re open to feedback.
Another important note: read other music journalists’ work to get a sense of how a review or feature is put together, and to inform your writing.
It’s good to step outside your comfort zone and try new things, but music journalism needs to be more than free PR for a band or a generic Q&A segment.
I see a lot of subpar content getting churned out by writers today. This happens more often with smaller publications – contributors aren’t necessarily writers by trade and so aren’t particularly concerned with honing their craft, and editors don’t get paid enough to be able to take the time to actually edit and help writers get better.
If there’s one way to stand out from the rest of the music writing out there, it’s to actually know your stuff. That doesn’t mean you need a degree in music history or an intimate knowledge of a band’s entire discography, but you should always go into a gig or an interview having thoroughly researched what they do.
There’s nothing that makes me check out of a review faster than: “Walking into this gig, I didn’t know much about post-punk…” or in an interview: “I asked the lead singer how they came up with the band name”. If you don’t know much about post-punk, you learn. The internet is an amazing thing. And unless this band has formed in the last ten minutes, they have spoken about their name, and they’re tired of being asked about it.
Research. Read past interviews, listen to their music, look at their social media. Find something different and interesting to talk about.
Meet your deadlines
Like other forms of journalism, there are deadlines to be met. You generally have more leeway with features but less time with online reviews – writing for a website, I routinely turned gig reviews around in 24-48 hours.
This can really hone your ability to write quickly and well, but is not something that everyone can, or wants to, do. Street press usually gives you a little more leeway as they’ll publish weekly or monthly, but there are print deadlines to consider.
If you want to be a music journalist (or indeed, any journalist), deadlines are inevitable. You have to schedule your time wisely.
You always want to write nice things, especially about local bands who need support to thrive. But this can lead to a culture where no one is criticising anything for fear of disrupting the status quo. I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t been to many terrible gigs, but I remember one solo musician who had clearly been in the game too long with no success. I could see why, and my first instinct was to try to work out a way to focus on the less bad elements of the show. While I didn’t tear into him, I also resisted the urge to spin the review so it sounded positive.
I’ve heard many anecdotes of pressure from publications to rework negative reviews, and it’s probably something you’ll have to push back on if you want to maintain the integrity of your work.
As with most other writing, the internet has been both amazing and terrible for music journalism. Passionate people have been able to make their voices heard, but it has also flooded the scene, making it harder for writers to make a living. If you’re passionate and prepared to work, start working up that first gig review – and make sure to research the band first.
Ready to start writing? Check out our opportunities board or sign up for Bloc Boost to stay up to date with publication call outs and job openings.
Sharona Lin is a writer by day and writer by night. She watches too much TV and tweets nonsense at @sforsharona.