1. Do not ever attempt to apologise for holding an opinion.
This is a fundamental. The clue is in your job title. You are a music critic. So criticise. People will disagree with you. That is their prerogative. They are also wrong. Others will be able to out-argue you, out-describe you, be more eloquent and informed and passionate in any way you can name. It does not matter. What matters is this: your opinion. The writing follows.
1a. There is no such thing as good and bad music, only good and bad listeners.
Ask yourself: why would other people want to read my words? Do you add another layer of understanding SLASH enjoyment SLASH interpretation SLASH context to the music? There is an assumption of authority through the act of writing music criticism that you should neither ignore nor be cowed by.
2. 400 words good. 800 words horrible.
Self-explanatory really. The extra 400 words will be flimflam discussing how you showed up to the concert late because the police pulled over the car in front of yours, or lengthy excerpts from the press release, or rewritings of the Pitchfork review. (You want to really push the boat out? Steal from a second source as well.) Don’t take it to Twitter lengths, though. Do not think that just because you can understand what the hell you are going on about in 280 characters, and you get all your references and context and shorthand and such, anyone else will. Music criticism should not be crossword compiling.
3. Most musicians are dicks. (Most people are dicks.)
So you should not feel sorry for having a go at them, if required. Occasionally, I am asked to lecture media students about music criticism. I used to tell them that what I do is a craft, an art, and a thousand times more creative than the music I write about. It must be, because I make that dullest of breeds – the musician – sound interesting. Now I just tell them to get out there and do the damn thing.
3a. Do not abbreviate.
Just one of those short cuts you need to be aware of. Do so, if you are good at it. If you have problems with apostrophes however, why not avoid them altogether?
4. The music industry is not your friend. Unless you choose to make it so.
Do not be fooled into thinking that just because folk are nice to you when you are starting off, and flood your mailbox with free CDs and offers of free concert-tickets, they are your friends. They are not. They are simply trying to figure out how much of a soft touch you are. Of course, this can cut both ways.
4a. Play to your strengths, not those of other people.
Make them a feature. Enjoy swearing? Then swear.
5. Do not forget to place value upon what you do. If you fail to do this, why should anyone else?
This is important. You cannot become a critic without establishing authority or determining identity. If you do not give a crap about what you are writing, find it boring – rest assured, your readers will also. Music criticism is a monstrous game of bluff, all smoke and mirrors, but do not feel downhearted about that. So is music.
6. Having the ability to turn an amp up really loud does not make you an interesting person.
It is incredible the number of people who believe otherwise.
7. The Rolling Stones ruined music for every generation. Discuss.
This is not a criticism levelled at The Rolling Stone per se – more at the canon of rock music that has developed because The Rolling Stones existed, and took drugs, and had beautiful girlfriends, and liked to piss against garage walls. Classic rock. Ugh. The same charge could be levelled – less accurately – at The Beatles. Less accurately, because at least The Beatles had some decent songs. That were their own. In other word (and fundamentally), question everything.
7a. How to Build an Argument, Part 1.
Start with a contentious statement which you then need to justify through use of point and counterpoint. Bring in previous research (articles, music, sound clips). Bring in some prior knowledge, often obtained through immersion in music culture. Look to outside context (social, political, cultural). Look to genre. Look to examples that you value. And so forth.
7b. Music criticism, not rock criticism. (Unless that is what you do.)
Words are your weapons and your lovers. Please treat them with appropriate care.
8. Do not overuse adjectives. One is usually more than enough.
This rule particularly applies in the days of Search Engine Optimisation. It used to be the place of music critics to describe the music they were talking about; part of the service, alongside giving your windows a once-over with a dirty rag and cleaning the spit off your loafers. No longer. We are in the days of the Internet, folk. Your readers are perfectly able to search out and hear the music for themselves: all they are mostly seeking from you is validation and, of course, a little direction. Fact: sales of thesauruses have dropped 1,200 per cent among music critics in the past five years.
9. Do not confuse research with the ability to parrot press releases from memory.
Not when there is the Facebook page and Wikipedia waiting to be pillaged.
10. No one gives a fuck what you think. Get over it.
This is true. This is not true. It is one of those central… damn, what is that word… crucial to the craft of the critic. I mean, it is obviously true and it is equally as obviously not true. (Why would they be reading you if it is not true? Why would they be reading for you if it was not for the music you are discussing?) Depending on which grimy rung of which grimy ladder you are currently grimly holding onto.
11. Your principles mean shit if you did not have any to start with.
12. 10 words good. 50 words pointless.
The single most important lesson I had in English at school was on the art of the précis. Those extra 40 words are only going to be filled with useless stuff like the full name of each band-member, reasons why you showed up to the concert 30 minutes after the main band started, adjectives, and shit you nicked off the Facebook page.
We all do it. Do not be ashamed.
12a. How to Build an Argument, Part 2.
Introduction (most commonly a hook that lures your potential readers into reading on). A paragraph or two follows the introduction, justifying it and fleshing it out and making it…ahem…readable. Only then do you start to provide the background context, the information, the detail. The trick with building an argument is to make it feel like you are not building an argument. Unless that is your intention. Synthesise all those way-important details. Pay attention to the details. This is what separates you from the herd, helps confer authority.
13. Do not ever try to describe the music.
See above. Unnecessary. Impossible, mostly. What you should be attempting to do is trying to describe how the music makes you feel. The way musicians look and act is usually way more interesting than the music. The way audiences behave and feel is usually way more interesting than the music.
13a. Of course you have to try and describe the music.
14. if you have to resort to lists to make your point, you probably should not be writing.
This blog entry is not a review. Or an interview. It is a list. Do not confuse the three. It does not stop it being any the less disheartening to realise that, 99 times out a hundred, the idiots who click on stuff to read on the Internet (or watch on television, etc) will favour a list over a non-list.
14a. Pay great attention to your headings.
This is all most people will see of your words. FACT! Eighty per cent of people who share links on Facebook do not read the articles attached first before sharing. FACT! Just writing the word FACT! before a sentence does not mean the sentence is true.
15. You should not care. Not in public, anyway.
If you show that you care you open yourself up to attack from all those master-trolls like Toby Young and Donald Trump and Katie RefuseToTypeHerName. Do not open yourself up to attack. You are a God. You only have power if people believe in you.
15a. How to Build an Argument, Part 3.
Hook. Introduction. Context. Background. Information. Point. Counterpoint. Description. More description. Analysis. Comparison. And so forth.
Order as you will.
16. Record companies and press agents do not always tell the truth.
Surprising how few writers realise this. Next week’s shocker: newspapers and TV channels are not always honest.
17. Do not write for magazines/websites you do not read.
Everyone does. Even me. Especially me. Fucking hacks. Do not worry about it. It is the editors who suffer.
18. Write because you have to, not because of your career plan.
Do not ask if you can submit. Write. Permission is not necessary.
19. If you do not have a clue why you are doing it, do not do it.
Have a clue before you sit down to write an article or a review: have a clue before you spend 10 minutes on the phone with the former drummer of Oasis: have a clue before you start accessing Pitchfork and NME looking for other reviews to rip off. Trust me. It will make your life way easier. And if you do not have a clue? Get lost. Trust me, it will make life of everyone else way easier.
20. It is not sexy. It is not glamorous. And it certainly will not get you laid.
I was once featured in three different items in Spin Magazine’s cover story, the Top 100 Rock And Roll Roll Moments Of All Time – twice as the main focus of the story. Each one centred around some alleged moment of debauchery: mostly sexual. My favourite was the one at Number 89 which stated that, in return for writing the story that broke grunge to the world, Sub Pop Records supplied me with a variety of press agents who orally pleasured me on flights to and from Seattle. I think I was also involved in a threesome with Evan Dando and Courtney Love. (That one made the Top 10.) What matters here is not the truth. What matters is what has been written.
21. It is not over. It is never over.
There is a rumour going round town that Pitchfork had a clause inserted into their writers’ contracts a couple of years ago stating that under no circumstances should a review be more interesting than the music it is discussing. Which, given the quality of most of the music Pitchfork likes to promote, is quite some task.
22. Fuck hyphens.
And fuck apostrophes too, while we are here. Keep it direct, entertaining, informative.
23. Think a band sounds like another band? You are probably right but so what?
See also the point about not making lists. Just because you can do it, it does not mean you should. This is a lesson you wish you could teach a six-year-old.
23a. The platform is way more important than the critic.
Obviously. (Unless it is not.)
24. Never trust a writer without an agenda.
A writer without an agenda is like Tom without Jerry, Donald Trump without any Russian friends and kinky sex life, an umbrella without rain. They can exist but you ask yourself: why?
25. Your editor will always value your ability to time-keep way over your ability to wield flowery prose.
This was the single most re-Tweeted line when I originally posted this series up on Twitter.
26. It is nice that folk want to send you free stuff. Get over it RIGHT NOW.
See also #4 above. Has it ever occurred to you that the free stuff might not be the most interesting?
27. A 10-minute rehash of the press release on the telephone does not constitute an interview.
Above all else: preparation. Research. Background knowledge. Or… failing all that, get trashed on your mum’s secret Jagermeister stash and spend the 10 minutes insulting the musician in question. And then make the whole thing up anyway. Seriously, who is going to care?
28. No one gives a fuck you once made out to an Ed Sheeran B-side.
Not unless it is for embarrassment value. What were you doing listening to Ed Sheeran past the age of eight anyway?
29. Having the ability to use a keyboard does not automatically make you a writer. See also #6.
Ah, for fuck’s sake. How many times do I have to say this? Everyone is NOT a critic – unless you are also of the opinion that if you have ever bashed a table-top a few times, sung along to Katy Perry in the shower or blown down one of those cute little nose-tickler things that come in Christmas stockings, you are a musician; if you have ever drawn a line across a piece of paper, you are an artist; or if you have ever taken a drunken snap of your mates covered in vomit, you are a photographer. It is true, technically. True, but a pointless and useless way to define the words in any sort of social or cultural or professional context.
30. Be candid. Be yourself. Be aware. Be yourself. Be entertaining. Be yourself.
Where is the clause in your contract that states all music criticism has to be dull?
30a. It’s not a career choice. Trust me.
Heard about the music critic who lived happily ever after? Me neither.