Advice For Aspiring Music Writers: Don't Quit, Just Don't Suck
The funny thing about Luke O'Neil's article earlier this week (titled "Advice For Aspiring Music Writers: Quit Now") is that "quit now" was the exact answer I gave when someone asked me last year what I would tell to a high school class of aspiring writers. My "quit now" was borne from a frustration that stemmed equally from both my own occasional tendency toward extreme negativity and my burning desire to be able to afford to eat something more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich once a day. It was borne from the fact that I was watching peers get $80k/year jobs at banks while I kept a mental tally of how much money was in my bank account so that I knew whether I would overdraw at the ATM trying to line my pocket with twenty bucks. It was borne from the idea that, if somebody told me to quit what I wanted to do at that age, I would tell them to politely go fuck themselves and keep working at it, and file it away for a big "fuck you" after I got there.
Which is partially why I disagree with O'Neil's article, which largely picked apart the Kickstarter campaign of Boston-based music blogger Max Nagel, who is currently trying to raise $12,500 in order to get more people to read his blog, or something. I don't totally disagree with O'Neil, who makes a series of valid points about the state of music "writing" on the internet today. I agree that this Kickstarter project is largely delusional and insane (did you know that if you give Nagel $125 he'll let you write a story on his blog that nobody reads? You even get the added bonus of not putting it on your own blog that nobody reads for free! I know a deal when I see one). I agree with his assessment of the music "writing" community -- that the majority of it is just DJs pointing at songs and then moving on. I agree that there is an overabundance of music blogs out there, most largely flogging their own friends' bands. I also know, way too well and along with most of my fellow freelance friends, about how shitty it is to not get paid on time (or at all) for something you spent way too much time doing.
But here's what I don't agree with: the value of stepping on the kid's dream just because you stumbled across it. The world and life in general will do that for him after a while anyway. But there is a lot worth discussing here.
Let's get this out of the way first: being largely delusional and insane is part of being young. If you're not screwing up at least sometimes, you're probably not putting yourself out there very much. I'm not trying to sound like a Thought Catalog post here, but asking people for money to help fund a dream I had would probably not be the most cringe-worthy thing I have done in my past half-decade writing about music. I personally don't think this particular Kickstarter campaign will work, mainly because it is misguided and a touch hubristic, which is generally the reason most of them fail. But that doesn't mean everyone's gotta pack it up for good.
One of O'Neil's early points in his piece centers on the idea that writing about music takes the fun out of the subject matter, and will wind up making you hate music in the end due to all the shitty bands out there. But regardless of your opinion on the approximate percentage of shitty versus non-shitty music that exists in the world, this is a more universal complaint than just in the "music writing world": if you write about any one thing for long enough, you're gonna get fed up with it after a while and have to alter your approach. Hell, if you do ANYthing for long enough, it gets boring, infuriating, soul-crushing, etc. Radiohead's not still writing about being creepy. Pete Townshend stopped writing about dying young (after he didn't). Lil Wayne... okay, he still raps about the same thing every time, but that's probably because he's Not A Human Being (II). There are plenty of reasons to not become a writer, or to stop writing after a while.
As to the idea that there are too many blogs out there -- I mean, based on what? Honestly, of these 100,000 music blogs, which one is particularly bothering you just because it exists to post the music it comes across? The great thing about having 100,000 options and the Internet at your disposal is that you CAN ignore the bullshit -- it didn't get harder to ignore these things, it got easier. When the pool is large enough, you get the option to swim in whatever part you like. And if you don't like the part of the pool someone else is occupying, who cares? Instead of Killing All Blogs, I actually see them as a good thing. When you're telling all aspiring music writers to pack it up and kill your blog, you're helping to perpetuate this society of keyboards and computers screens that are "allowed" to write about the same thing that you write about because they are somehow not shitty in your opinion. It's fucking difficult to get anywhere writing -- blogs are the training grounds that filter out who gets to make it and who doesn't. This is overly simplistic, but still -- if you suck at writing about music, no one is going to hire you at Spin or Rolling Stone or Pitchfork or wherever else you might actually get your stuff read. If you suck at making music, you won't get there either. I'm not Derek Jeter but I swung a baseball bat in my backyard a few times growing up, so if I thought I could write about music, what's the harm in taking a stab at actually running a blog for a little while to try it out?
But I think O'Neil raises a very good point about the nature of what we accept in "music writing" these days, or how we define it anyway. There is music blogging, and there is music journalism, and they should not be confused with each other. He spends time decrying the positivity that Nagel seems to be attempting to spread, taking time to embrace negativity as an art form, and rolls his eyes at the idea of a blog "championing" a band. The thing to remember though, is that most of these blogs are not dedicated to music "writing," but are essentially acting as promotional or PR organizations for artists that they like or work with, whether they realize it or not. Look at Nagel's Kickstarter page again for a minute -- he's trying to book shows and record bands that he likes. "Getting the word out is our most important task," he writes. Not telling stories, not creating narratives, not diving deep into a band to figure out what or why or how. Rather than serving as a "champion" of music writing or journalism, blogs like these are filling the roles abandoned by a creaking and reeling music industry. It's essentially like going to a website and reading a bunch of press releases and band-sanctioned bios. Who cares? I get that, but it's not difficult to sniff that out and avoid it.
I think the disconnect here is not whether you have something nice to say, or something hateful. It's not whether you "champion" a band or write a piece to get "hate clicks." It is not whether you think something sucks or something is the greatest thing in the world. It's that most people who do the type of blogging that O'Neil is railing against don't have anything to say at all -- and I think he'd agree with me on that point. They are promotional organizations masquerading as journalistic endeavors. I don't call most Buzzfeed listicles journalism or writing, I call them pages with many great photos of cats. I respect Buzzfeed's cat curation abilities, so I visit their website. It's the same thing with the music writing world. There are many more 2DopeBoyz-type sites than there are Jon Caramanica's. They should be recognized differently and appreciated differently. But to tell all aspiring music "writers" to quit based on the fact that there are too many blogs? What is that? If there is actually something behind a piece of writing -- a narrative, a story to tell, an argument with some substance and reasoning -- then we can't lump it in with every whitewashed blog out there posting music and claiming they love it all. Have something to say, something to add, and say it well, and people will pay attention.
Here's the thing -- if you suck at something, you won't be successful with it. This is the world we live in in any field, especially in the Internet age. If you tell me in a blog post that an indie band sucks, great job! You pressed the correct keys in the correct order. If you can give me a reasoned analysis that you've thought about and defended as to why they suck, then you're actually on to something -- a "dialogue." And regardless of whether you want to have it, a dialogue IS important. That's the biggest change the Internet has brought -- whether a writer, blogger, artist, or band, we all get to have our say. How well you can say it determines whether or not anyone will actually give a shit. Not even $12,500 can make the world care.
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