The single person I most wish I’d had a chance to interview but didn’t is the late Dennis Potter, best known for his work on Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. His use of music in his screenplays really registered with me, about the way music shapes people’s emotions, their interactions, their sense of the world, about how music works in people’s minds, how it becomes part of their thought processes. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t interview him when he was alive, because I would have mucked it up. I wasn’t ready.
That statement is the answer to an inquiry I received from the editors of a new book about writing about music. The book is titled How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers. It’s co-edited by Ally-Jane Grossan of 33 1/3, which published my book about Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II, and by Marc Woodworth, a lecturer in the English department at Skidmore College and associate editor at Salmagundi Magazine.
My comments about Dennis Potter, and other subjects, appear in their book. The two other questions to which my answers appear in the book involve “the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your career” and whether you can drink while reviewing a concert.
I thought I’d share some of the other things I wrote in response to Grossan and Woodworth’s inquiry, all on the subject of writing about music:
Q: Describe in detail the process of writing your most recent piece (whether profile, review, etc.). Do you have a specific workflow for your music writing?
A: I interviewed a musician. The editor at a publication for which I write on occasion emailed me with the pitch — well, reverse pitch — saying he guessed I’d find this musician’s work of interest, and the editor was right. The interviewee was someone I’d long intended to speak with, and I had just never got around to it. I re-listened to all his music, and took notes on key tracks, not just the recent releases, but early material that had really resonated with me. I read up on recent interviews, and spent time observing the musician’s various social networks. The conversation, a phone call, went very well. I quickly and cursorily transcribed the whole thing and found the pertinent material, stuff that I thought would be most of interest. Those sections I went back and transcribed in detail, trying to capture the nuances of his speech patterns. While doing this, I formulated an opening and closing to the article, and from there I pieced together an outline, a structure. Then I connected the portions, threading in the interview segments, and then I reworked the text for several successive drafts so that the whole thing read smoothly. This article had to be turned around very quickly, because it was a late-in-the-game assignment, and it was timed to coincide with a preview of an upcoming local concert performance. One thing I kept in mind was that the publication was a general-interest one, so I made sure that the opening was not too insidery, and that there were easy ways for the reader to extrapolate ideas and experiences from what was covered, even if the subject was unfamiliar to them. That’s pretty much how I handle all my freelance writing — if it isn’t interview-based, then replace the interview part with research. If I’d had more time I would have done secondary interviews, with the musician’s associates. Also, I do a lot of writing on my own website, which I’ve had since 1996, and that writing is a little less structured. The pieces are generally written more linearly, with less immediate concern for structure.
Q: Do you need to know how to make music to write about it?
A: Certainly not. It doesn’t hurt, and there’s lots of great writing about music by people who make it, but there’s also lots of writing about music by people who make it that, well, isn’t so engaging or informative. That said, ignorance is not a useful perspective. If you don’t know how to make music, you still have to have something to say.
Q: If there was one thing you could change (besides the money thing) about music writing, what would it be?
A: This response may not be useful, but it’s the best I could do: I’m not clear that there is a specific thing called “music writing” that one could change. To the extent that I understand what we mean by “music writing,” I guess the main thing I’d suggest is people write outside of what is considered “music writing.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with “music writing” but there’s a big world out there, much larger than “music writing.”
Q: Once you are assigned an interview subject, how do you go about formulating questions to ask them?
A: Fortunately, it usually works the other way around for me. There’s a musician I’m interested in, and questions already exist that I want to ask them. No matter the subject, I’m cautious about asking questions they’ve been asked before, and I read up on recent interviews. If I need to cover well-trodden ground, I acknowledge that, and rather than re-ask a previously asked question, I’ll bring up the previous answer and make a question of that — for example, “When you said [X] in 2003, what did you mean by [some specific detail]?” I pretty much never ask anything personal, unless it relates directly to the musicians’ work, and even then it’s not really my beat, as it were. The whole cult of personality, the gossip, the intrigue of feuds and dalliances — that holds no interest for me. I think my disinterest has served me well in having musicians open up to me about their creative endeavors. I probably over-prepare when interviewing musicians. Questions aren’t difficult for me, because I’m always full of questions. You know how little kids as lots of questions? I never outgrew that. The hard part is formulating the questions so they’re easily communicated, and sequencing them so the conversation flows well.
Q: How would you suggest that a young writer meet and contact editors or industry figures?
A: If you can’t reach them, find someone else to talk to. Life’s short. No one is that important. Just write, and publish your own stuff if you have to. If you have something to say, people will find you.
Q: Describe your first successful pitch in the music writing world. What about it got you the gig, do you think?
A: I wanted to work for two magazines in particular when I got out of college: Pulse!, the magazine published by Tower Records, and Down Beat. I eventually wrote for both, and got a job at the former. I pitched a bunch of stuff to Tower Pulse!, but I think the first thing I wrote for them, in 1989, was something they pitched to me, an interview with the African-American funk-metal group named 24-7 Spyz, who were based in New York, which is where I lived. It was either 24-7 Spyz or a Souled American interview that was the first thing I wrote for Pulse! I wrote both those pieces in quick succession. I guess the first successful pitch I had, where the subject originated from me, was Hank Roberts, the electronically mediated cellist, who was a Knitting Factory regular. The pitch’s acceptance probably hinged on two things: I made a clear case for why he was important, and I balanced that with how his music was accessible.
Q: How has the field of writing about music changed since you became a music writer? Is it better or worse? What opportunities have disappeared? What opportunities are brand new?
A: For context, I wrote my first paid freelance article in either 1988 or 1989, and I was writing about music for the high school newspaper by 1981 or 1982, and wrote continuously about music in a college publication, from 1985 through 1988. There are, these days, fewer steady gigs at print publications, and fewer music-critic roles at newspaper organizations, but there are tons of online outlets, not just in the media, per se, but at organizations like orchestras, and music venues, and cultural institutions, and non-profits, and record labels — everything and everyone is potentially a “magazine” these days. One of the most knowledgeable music publications in the United States is the weekly newsletter of a record store in San Francisco called Aquarius. The pay these days is worse on average, not even adjusted for inflation, but there are far more places to publish. Thanks to things like WordPress and Tumblr and Quora, there are far more voices, which is wonderful, and the rise of comments has brought non-professional, but often quite informed, perspectives into the conversation. Music that was once under-represented, like hip-hop and contemporary classical, has come to dominate parts of the communal dialogue. Tools like Twitter, Facebook, and SoundCloud have probably done more to break down the wall between audience and performer than punk rock accomplished.
Q: What personal qualities do you posses that have kept you employed as a music writer? What qualities do you wish you had?
A: I guess the main thing is I’ve developed a point of view, maybe a reputation of some sorts for a point of view — that and a focus, an area or set of related areas in which I have some particular knowledge. That’s an interesting question about a quality I wish I had. There’s lots of stuff I’m working on doing better, but there’s no one thing in particular.
Q: Do you have a fulltime music writing job? How did you get it? Please describe some of your daily tasks.
A: No. I have in the past, but I don’t any longer. I applied to a music magazine when I got out of college, and then wrote freelance for them. I got to be a known entity to them, and when a position opened up they offered it to me. I was an editor there for seven years, and I edited everything from the letters page to columns to cover stories to comic strips. After I left I wrote freelance for them, including a column.
Q: Do you use different methods and tactics for writing a short form piece (review, sidebar) versus a long form piece (profile, longer cultural piece)?
A: Different forms require different approaches, certainly, but beyond that the assigning publication’s own sensibility and audience shapes the work.
Q: Aside from other music writing, where else do you find inspiration for your work?
A: Inspiration comes from lots of places — novelists, cookbooks, political writing, arts writing, writing by musicians. If you’re a brain surgeon, it may be best if you dedicate your study time to brain surgery. If you write about music, a broader range of reading and other input is highly recommended.
Q: Let’s play Desert Island Discs! If you were stranded on a desert island for 1 year (assuming you have food and shelter) and could only bring 3 songs, 2 objects, and 1 novel, what would they be?
A: I worked for seven years, and wrote for 15, for a magazine that featured Desert Island Discs every issue — Pulse! magazine, published by Tower Records. I’d bring Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon, which I guess counts as one song, since the album has just one track. I’d bring Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, for cello. I have so many versions of Bach’s solo cello suites that it’s hard to say which specific recording I’d bring, but I’d hope for one slightly slower than average. And I’d bring “Shhh / Peaceful” by Miles Davis. That’s the first half of his album In a Silent Way. Two objects? I’d bring a laptop and a solar charger. Just one novel? That’s very tough. I’d probably bring Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I promise if you ask me this question in a month I’ll have different answers, though the Brian Eno record would probably still be on there.
Q: Did you ever have a writing mentor? How did you find this person, and how did your relationship change/develop over time?
A: My mentors, to the extent I’ve had them, have been writers I’ve employed to write articles, writers far more advanced than myself. As an editor, I’ve had the opportunity to hire freelance writers whose work inspired me, among them Edith Eisler, Michael Jarrett, Linda Kohanov, Art Lange, Joseph Lanza, and Robert Levine. I learned by having long-running conversations with them. By editing their work I learned something about how it functioned, how they accomplished what they set out to do.
Q: What song title best describes your music writing career?
A: “In a Silent Way” (by Miles Davis).
Q: If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what would you say?
A: Stop trying to be interested in things other people are listening to that you don’t find interesting, and start paying more attention to what you do find interesting.
Q: Has an unexpected or out-of-the-box professional opportunity arisen from your work (ie: being in a documentary)? If so, what was it and how did it come about?
A: Lots of stuff. I’ve done a lot of public speaking to schools and organizations. I teach a course about sound at an art school. I’ve done music supervision for a documentary. Lots of stuff. Most of this was the result of someone appreciating something I did and then contacting me. In some cases, a conversation with another professional led to a collaboration, though that wasn’t the intention for the conversation.
Q: What’s the most unique angle for a music writing piece you’ve had? How did you arrive at it?
A: A lot of “angle” writing comes across as gimmick to me. Sometimes the result is that the subject of, say, a profile responds well, but that’s arguably not because the angle itself was of interest, but because the subject was just glad to have someone do something different for once, rather than ask variations on “the influence question.” One thing I’m proud of as an editor is “conversation” interviews I’ve arranged, like having Randy Weston and La Monte Young meet in person to talk about playing the blues. I suppose that was a sort of angle, since neither of them was in each other’s immediate cultural orbit, and they definitely enjoyed the experience, and I think readers did, too. I’d say the best “angle” work I’ve done is as an editor: assigning the right person to do a story, often someone who is not a professional music critic, like getting Richard Kadrey, then best known as a cyberpunk novelist, to interview the band Ministry, or getting Geoff Nicholson, also a novelist, to interview a band we’d determined to put on the cover but whom I had no passion for, Bush. In the latter case, I saw it as a commercial situation — it made sense to put the band on the cover — and Nicholson had just written a book that took place in a British department store, so he seemed appropriate for the task. I also assigned for a full decade a wide variety of comics about music, and the exploration of music through visuals was a tremendous learning experience for me. I guess that format counts as an “angle,” too.
There were, in addition, some questions I wasn’t sure I had productive responses to, among them: What are the 5 things (objects? rules?) every music writer needs? How can a new generation of music writers combat the challenges that music writing currently faces? And: In your opinion, what differentiates music writing from other types of writing (straight journalism, literary nonfiction) if anything?
More on the book at 333sound.com/howtowriteaboutmusic.