Written by Jenessa Williams - as part of Commission Mission.
So you want to be a music journalist? Good on you – it’s an exciting time. While social media might make it feel like it’s hard to cut through the noise, a well-timed, cleverly-considered piece can go viral in moments, reaching far more people than a traditional printed music magazine ever could. Creative industries benefit from new, unique voices, and if you’re reading this, chances are you already have plenty of good ideas waiting to be moulded into something great.
Interviewing artists for features is my absolute favourite part of the job, but I keenly remember the early career struggle of trying to convince PRs and editors that I had established my voice well enough to be trusted with a musician’s time. A lack of interview access can feel like a bit of a roadblock, but there are still plenty of features that can be pitched to expand your portfolio and command those higher-paid commissions. If you’re looking to get your name out there, here are five ways to write creatively and authoritatively about music, no fancy dictaphone necessary.
Everything we currently know about X”/ “What X might sound like
Put your detective hat on and get stuck into some old-school investigative journalism. This style of deep-dive is great when an artist isn’t quite in full promo mode, or if there’s been a big news break for a global star who is tricky to get hold of.
As stan culture thrives, the internet is rich with insightful spaces of fan discussion - reddit, Twitter or even dedicated Facebook groups can help you piece together a solid analysis of a current event. Just be accurate with your referencing, and where possible, ask permission from the original poster if you are to quote them in your piece.
This style of piece benefits from having its tongue wedged somewhat in its cheek - it’s okay to dip into conjecture, but be clear when you are basing your argument on facts and where you are using wishful thinking. In a recent piece for The Forty Five, I made use of Lorde’s fan newsletters to imagine the headspace of her upcoming record, without making it sound like we’re best pals (I wish).
Similarly, Adelle Platon’s 2016 blues-cluesing in advance of Beyonce’s ‘lemonade’ ended up proving itself pretty accurate, with solid referencing throughout. Should you fancy trying out this approach, start with an artist you’re already pretty invested in - you’ll find it much easier to sort the genuine clues from the forum bobbins.
The Personal Fan Essay
All music journalists are fundamentally fans - or at least you’d hope so. In absence of an artist's comment, the fan perspective can often offer quite a lot of insight into an artist’s resonance and position. Should you want other people's voices in a piece, fellow fans are normally quite easy to seek out, and happy to speak enthusiastically..
If fantalk doesn’t hit the spot, tell your own story. Is there a particular reason that an album resonates with you, or a lesser-told perspective that you connect with an artist on?
Marianne Eloise is a writer who is particularly brilliant with personal pieces, and her Vice article about Motion City Soundtrack and OCD was so powerful, hitting close to home with a great span of readers. If this style of writing can be tagged to an anniversary, or a resurgence of the artist or genre, it’ll be all the more likely to be commissioned.
When the emo revival was stirring up, I wrote about my teenage experiences of being a mixed-race emo fan for Gal-Dem, reflecting on the internalized racism I experienced in my pursuit of the perfect ‘scene’ look.
Writing so personally about music can dredge up experiences that are painful to share. Be honest with yourself before you start writing – will you be okay with somebody editing your words? How will you feel if the article becomes widely read, or reaches people you know? A sympathetic editor will help you with these concerns, but don’t feel pressured into trading personal trauma for cash – there are plenty of other ways to be a great music writer.
The Scene Guide
In short, this style of feature is one that explores an emerging scene or common ideal between a group of new artists. Maybe they’re reviving a certain instrument, or come from a similar geography. Perhaps they’re experiencing success on a particular platform - tiktok, for instance, has been instrumental in a lot of young artists' success, and there have been a slew of great features recently exploring what it takes to do well on the platform. As Coronavirus confined us all to our homes, I took stock of the Bedroom Pop movement for The Forty-Five, considering how at-home music making might become ‘the new normal’.
This type of feature works especially well if you’re privy to a scene that hasn’t quite reached mainstream fruition yet; writers outside of London, this is your time to shine! As a Yorkshire-based lass, I really enjoyed Sophie Church’s dive into the Leeds Jazz scene for Clash magazine, which managed to paint an accurate and exciting picture with minimal use of quotes. Pay attention to local promoters, or artists that are tagging each other in projects on instagram. Age can also be a great insight - while established writers scrabble around to figure out what the ‘kids’ are into, you might be much better placed to speak from experience.
The most important element of a scene guide is that there is a real, tangible link that just doesn’t just resort to grouping minority artists as a novelty. ‘Here are cool women in music’ or ‘5 black artists doing X’, while well-meaning, can be quite offensive in their reduction, so tread carefully. Be prepared to justify exactly why you feel these artists are similar, but also leave space to discuss their individual strengths.
Making Album Reviews Interesting
As a new writer, you’ll likely be asked to show your chops on a few album or live reviews. As a general rule, and unless an album review is due to be published in serious advance of the album actually being out, articles that focus strictly on what the music sounds like are often quite dull. Instead, a great album review should try and capture the emotions of a record, and what it says about the artist.
This doesn’t necessarily mean getting high on your ‘I’s and ‘My’s – all opinion is obviously subjective. But do spend time conjuring an image of the feeling of the record, how it sits in the pantheon of the artists work, and what it reveals lyrically and thematically.
Pick out that awkward lyric that people might have misheard; find out where that sample comes from. Be prepared to spend serious time with an album, as your thoughts will likely change and solidify the more times you have to listen. Sports Team are a perfect recent example - the music is great, but the story of their band and how they’ve been received leading up to this point is probably more juicy in terms of how the album does (or doesn’t, in your eyes), settle those criticisms.
I waxed lyrical about it myself for DIY, but other insightful examples (with conflicting opinions) can be found by Ellie Desborough at The Line Of Best Fit, Robin Murray at Clash, and Ross Jones at So Young. For wider reading, I believe Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic is the absolute master of the thinkpiece review - I regularly go back to his piece on Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo as a prime example of how to skillfully incorporate wider context into an album review.
Bringing Live To Life
Live reviews can similarly benefit from context. While you’re obviously there to comment on the band and their performance prowess, it’s important to remember that you are trying to immortalise what is, in essence, a one-time event. Look to the crowd for a feel of things - was there a particular song that got people especially hyped, or one that didn’t land so well?
Where possible, consider moving around the crowd to get a different insight from different vantage points. What does the audience demographic say about the bands appeal - has this changed between records? In 2019, I reviewed my faves Little Mix for the Yorkshire Post, and think the copy is vastly improved by the fun little crowd observation I got to include at the end.
Similarly, did something happen that night that didn’t on the rest of the tour? Setlist.FM can be helpful here, but also make use of your phone for notes – it’s much easier than squinting in the dark with a notepad and pen. If it’s appropriate to do so, take videos to log parts of the set that feel especially visceral – a watch back later will likely jog your memory better than an awkwardly scribbled note.
You might be reading this thinking “good one Jenessa, what gigs have you been going to lately?” Think again – while IRL events might be currently off the table, Will Richards at the NME did a cracking job of capturing Laura Marling’s live streamed show, and Rhian Daly did similarly well with her observations taken from BTS’s online Bang Bang Con. Keep an eye on those instagram lives.
A final piece of advice (or two)…
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to take every pitch I was about to send and ask myself - is this a full feature idea, or is it just a sassy tweet? Sometimes, it’s just the latter, which is totally fine – some people make whole careers out of excellent single thoughts, and a particularly patient editor might be willing to help you flesh your idea out.
But if you’re looking to get a feature pitch accepted swiftly, you’ll need to turn your hot take into something more three-dimensional. Perhaps you’ve noticed that a new song particularly sounds like it’s pinched the melody from another song - this thought could turn into an investigation of musical lawsuits, or of the popularity of sampling throughout history.
Maybe a knee-jerk reaction to a musician’s indiscretion has got you enraged – is there a wider conversation to be had about musical cancel culture, or about industry double standards? Sometimes, by this point your interest will have waned, and that’s fine - post your short witticism, watch the likes roll in, and keep it moving.
The second question to ask yourself is – why me? Journalism is a competitive industry, and the best features are always the ones that feel like they couldn’t have been written by anybody else. Bring your experiences, demographics and individualism to the table – tell the editor in your pitch why you are uniquely placed to tell the story, and be willing to back yourself.
The lines between fandom and criticism are ever-blurring – you can be objective without having to dampen your passion, and with time and experience, you can only get better at bringing the personal to your pitch. Best of luck out there – where there is talent, there is opportunity.
Commission Mission was created by Young Guns Network and London In Stereo to commission 20 new and experienced freelance writers to create articles to inspire, inform and entertain young people in the music industry who are struggling during Covid-19.
The supporters who made this project possible were Association of Independent Music, London In Stereo, Musicians Union, Motive Unknown, PPL, Remi Harris Consulting, Small Green Shoots, Young Guns Network, Youth Music.