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Advice to a Young Music Critic

EXCERPT FROM: “What’s the Write Word: 100 Music Writers offer advice to aspiring critics…”

To make it as a music critic, you need to consume music at a psychotic pace. Not forever, but definitely for now. Being a music writer isn’t the same as being a music fan. When I was starting out, I would get on AllMusic around 10 PM every night and cross-reference bands until about 2 AM (while downloading and listening to the ones that I hadn’t heard). When I got my first editor post, I took it up a notch and started listening to 20-30 new (to me) albums a week, minimum. With streaming services, it doesn’t even take that kind of heavy lifting to gain the same exposure. Listen to stuff you don’t like, listen to stuff you don’t understand. I may talk a lot of trash, but I always listen to bands I hate and try to understand what others see in them (sometimes, even after 10 times, I still can’t connect).

Consider what the reader (or listener) likes and learn to guide them to a place you can agree upon. Don’t assume your taste is inherently superior, and don’t be an asshole about it. It isn’t about what you like or what they should like, it’s about what they will like. You serve the reader and you’re here for their benefit; it’s not the other way around.

The key is listening. I can tell the difference between a writer that’s heard 2000 albums in their life and one that’s banked 20,000+ (so can readers, even if they don’t know why). The intangible is this: Once you’ve listened to every kind of music imaginable (even if you hated a lot of it), you understand where things fit in the larger sphere. You see associations. You have context. You have a relative sense of what an album or musician actually means. Even if that understanding isn’t made explicit in your writing, it is there, and it makes a difference.

Don’t overreact; you don’t fall prey to half-assed analysis or over-aggrandizing. You have to feed your (hopefully inherent) need to understand everything. The best writer in the world isn’t worth anything in this business if they’re not in search of that kind of understanding. There’s no faking it. We’re at war with algorithms and to win we have to understand music in ways that computers can’t. You have to sit down and obsessively, methodically listen, listen, listen, listen.


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