Everett True’s advice for aspiring music critics (revised and expanded)
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I’m reposting this from Something Awful, as preparation for a lecture I’m giving in a few hours time to a class of KWB107 (creative non-fiction) students at QUT. If everything goes according to plan, this will comprise the second half of the talk.
The actual lecture notes can be found here.
1. Don’t 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.
2. 400 words good. 800 words fucking 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. Don’t take it to Chris Weingarten excess, though. Don’t start believing that just because you can understand what the hell you’re going on about in 140 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 cunts.
So you shouldn’t feel sorry for having a go at them, if required. Occasionally, I’m asked to lecture media students about music criticism. I 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.
4. The music industry is not your friend. Unless you choose to make it so.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because folk are nice to you when you’re starting off, and flood your mailbox with free CDs and offers of free concert-tickets, they are your friends. They’re not. They’re simply trying to figure out how much of a soft touch you are. Of course, this can cut both ways.
5. Don’t forget to place value upon what you do. If you don’t, why should anyone else?
This is important. You cannot become a critic without establishing authority or determining identity. If you don’t give a crap about what you’re writing, find it boring – rest assured, your readers will also. Music criticism is a monstrous game of bluff, all smoke and mirrors, but don’t feel downhearted about that. So is music.
6. Having the ability to turn an amp up really loud does not automatically make you an interesting person.
It’s incredible the number of people who believe otherwise.
7. The Rolling Stones ruined music for every generation. Discuss.
This isn’t 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. 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.
8. Do not overuse adjectives. One is usually more than enough.
This rule particularly applies in the days of Search Engine Optimization. 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’re mostly seeking from you is validation and, of course, a little direction. Fact: sales of thesauruses have dropped 1,200 per cent among rock critics in the past five years.
9. Do not confuse research with the ability to parrot press releases from memory.
Not when there’s the band’s MySpace page and Wikipedia waiting to be pillaged.
10. No one gives a fuck what you think. Get over it.
This is true. This isn’t true. It’s one of those central… damn, what is that word… crucial to the critic’s craft. I mean, it’s obviously true and it’s equally as obviously not true. Depending on which grimy rung of which grimy ladder you’re currently grimly holding onto.
11. Your principles mean shit if you didn’t have any to start with.
Ask Billy Corgan.
12. 10 words good. 50 words fucking 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 (see below), adjectives and shit you nicked off the band’s MySpace.
13. Don’t 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. Also, the way musicians look and act is usually way more interesting than the music.
14. if you have to resort to lists to make your point, you probably shouldn’t be writing.
This isn’t a review. Or an interview. It’s a list. Don’t confuse the three. It doesn’t 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.
15. You shouldn’t care. Not in public, anyway.
If you show that you care you open yourself up to attack. Do not open yourself up to attack. You are a God. You only have power if people believe in you.
16. Record companies and PRs don’t always tell the truth.
Surprising how few writers realise this. Next week’s shocker: newspapers and TV channels aren’t always honest.
17. Don’t write for magazines/websites you don’t read.
Everyone does. Even me. Especially me. Fucking hacks. Don’t worry about it. It’s the editors who suffer.
18. No one GIVES A SHIT why you didn’t get to the concert until 30 minutes after the support act started.
19. No one GIVES A SHIT as to the full names of every single band-member.
20. (from Sean DIS) Write because you have to, not because of your career plan. Don’t ask if you can submit. Write. Permission’s not necessary.
I blame the American college system, myself.
21. If you don’t have a fucking clue why you’re doing it, don’t 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 Razorlight: have a clue before you start accessing Pitchfork and NME looking for other reviews to rip off. Trust me. It’ll make your life way easier. And if you don’t have a fucking clue? Fuck off. Trust me, it’ll make everyone else’s life way easier.
22. It’s not sexy. It’s not glamorous. And it certainly won’t get you laid.
I was once featured in five different items in Spin Magazine’s Top 100 Rock’N’Roll Moments Of All Time – on three occasions 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 that baldly stated that, in return for writing the story that broke grunge to the world, Sub Pop Records supplied me with female press agents who would orally pleasure 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 isn’t the truth here. What matters is who’s writing it.
23. Words to avoid. “Really”. “Totally”. “Seminal”. “Unbelievable”. “Transcendent”. “I think”. “It seems”.
(from Mof Glimmers): “Add to this – ‘stunning’, ‘life affirming’ and the phrase ‘if you don’t like this, then you’re probably dead inside’. I’ll forgive a writer for using ‘really’ and ‘totally’ though.”
24. It’s not over. It’s never over.
There’s 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’s discussing. Which, given the quality of most of the music Pitchfork likes to promote, is quite some task.
25. Fuck hyphens. And fuck apostrophes too, while we’re here. Keep it direct, entertaining, informative.
(from Reinspired) “My colleague used to have a post-it note pinned to his cube wall: ‘James is not authorised to sign for this amount. Please resign below.’”
Very few people can be trusted around hyphens or apostrophes. Best to avoid, if possible.
26. Think a band sounds like another band? You’re probably right. So what?
(from Reinspired) “A fair number of the bands I like are acts I’ve investigated because someone said they sounded like someone else I like. It’s the easiest way to perform that magic trick to turn words into memories of sounds. You do it all the time – because it works.”
See also the point about not making lists. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. It’s a lesson you wish you could teach a two-year-old.
27. The platform is way more important than the critic.
(from Mof Glimmers): “You’re a walking billboard. You’re empty advertising space.”
I used to refer to myself as a blank canvas, a chameleon, a cipher.
28. Never trust a writer without an agenda.
A writer without an agenda is like Tom without Jerry, the Pope without any Nazi affiliations and priest/child abuse allegations, an umbrella without rain. They can exist but you ask yourself: why?
29. 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. I had no idea I had so many editors following me. So why aren’t they commissioning me?
30. It’s nice that folk want to send you free stuff, isn’t it? 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?
31. 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 the fuck is going to care?
32. Not all quiet bands sound like Young Marble Giants.
Advice for hipsters mainly.
33. Not all noisy bands sound like Sonic Youth.
Advice for wannabe hipsters mainly. It’s become as gauche these days to namedrop Sonic Youth as it is to admit to a passing fondness for The Beatles.
34. No one gives a fuck you once made out to a Smashing Pumpkins B-side.
Not unless it’s for embarrassment value. What were you doing listening to Smashing Pumpkins past the age of 11 anyway?
35. 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’re also of the opinion that if you’ve ever bashed a table-top a few times, sung along to Bono in the shower or blown down one of those cute little nose-tickler things that come in Christmas stockings, you’re a musician; and if you’ve ever drawn a line across a piece of paper, you’re an artist; or if you’ve ever taken a drunken out-of-focus snap of your mates covered in vomit, you’re a photographer. It’s true, technically. True, but a completely pointless and useless way to define the words in any sort of social or cultural or professional context.
36. Do not mistake alcoholic intoxication for a good night out.
(from Mof Glimmers): ” If you’re reviewing, don’t get drunk. Music wants to intoxicate you in the same way a lecherous old man wants to get you hammered so he can try and get in your knickers.”
37. Be candid. Be yourself. Be aware. Be yourself. Be entertaining. Be yourself.
Where’s the clause in your contract that states all music criticism has to be dull?
38. It’s not a career choice. Trust me.
Heard about the music critic who lived happily ever after? Me neither.