Turning Words into Music: How to Become a Successful Music Writer

Over the past two decades, I have been lucky enough to combine my two great loves—music and writing.  I have been a music aficionado since babyhood when my parents used to blast The Supremes, The Stones and The Beatles’ White Album over and over again. When I decided I wanted to become a journalist during my sophomore year in high school, writing about music seemed to be my destiny.

I used to leaf through Rolling Stone and Spin and dream of interviewing bands like REM, U2 and The Cure.  When I moved to New York and went to college, I was captivated by the city’s live music scene. I headed to the Village several nights a week to check out shows at legendary clubs like Bowery Ballroom, Sine, and Nightingales and to hear artists like Jeff Buckley and Sinead O’Conner before they became wildly famous.

In the twenty years since I graduated, I’ve interviewed some amazing artists, from Bela Fleck to YACHT to The Polyphonic Spree and written for some incredible magazines, such as Eleven Magazine, LICNotes and Examiner.com. In many ways my progression to music writer was a natural one.

Since so many writers have asked me how I broke into the business, I wanted to share some hard-earned tips I learned along the way.

Work it

The best way to learn this business is to immerse yourself in it.  Before I wrote my first review, I began promoting music for a national company called Universal Buzz, where I was involved with everything from marketing festivals like Garage Fest and Vans Warped Tour to getting radio play for local rappers.  Working for a music promotions company is not only a great way to see and hear about new bands, it will teach you how to appreciate and talk about different genres of music. Smaller firms like Randolphe Entertainment Group are always looking for new talent to help market their artists.

The next step is to find a band you love and offer to promote them, develop a press kit, write a review, or create a press release. You will gain invaluable experience.  Most bands, especially new ones, are low on funds, time and they are looking for all the exposure they can get.  Most bands also have street teams that help them publicize their gigs and new releases. Working for one or two of these will help you make invaluable contacts.

Train your ears

One of the keys to writing about what you love is to know everything you can about it.  Take the time to stay current with the latest bands and find undiscovered ones.  Subscribing to websites like bandcamp and ReverbNation will help you stay abreast of the hottest musicians as well as the most obscure.  Also, finding hidden gems is crucial for a music writer.  If you discover and write about them first, you’ll also make a name for yourself. The most successful writers like Bill Holdship of Creem Magazine and Mark Brown of MSNBC.Com and The Rocky Mountain Times have always been on the cutting edge of finding the best musicians first and have built brilliant careers as a consequence.

Being in Austin gives you even more of an opportunity to discover the next big thing. Check out the next few bands at Antone’s, Mohawk, or The Beauty Ballroom, especially if you’ve never heard of them. You may just discover the next Spoon or Jimmie Vaughan.

Develop your taste and your credentials

Being a music lover is a lifelong process and of the most crucial parts is developing your reputation as tastemaker. Developing your own preference is essential but having an eclectic musical palette is even more critical. The best reviews and interviews always involve comparing musical styles and influences. Even if you’re writing a review of The Strokes’ latest CD, you will need to know about bands like The Velvet Underground and The Heartbreakers to fully understand and convey the feel of the songs you’re writing about.

One mistake some aspiring music writers make is getting overly technical or colorful. When writing about a song or an artist, you want to capture a feeling rather than analyze every note or make every band sound like it’s the greatest you’ve ever heard.  Be honest and detailed and your piece will be more effective.  Music is visceral and you need to capture your reaction to what you’re hearing in your writing.

Build your portfolio

With so many music blogs and websites out there, it has never been a more opportune time to become a music writer. Blogs and sites like BrooklynVegan, Vents Magazine and The Deli often advertise for writers to cover local shows and write reviews for national bands. The more varied your pieces are, the better, and the greater your chances for writing about the band you’ve always dreamed of interviewing.

Do you aspire to become a music journalist? Have any specific question about breaking in to the field? Sigillito is taking your questions in the comments below. If you have any juicy stories to share about your own music writing adventures, bring it on!

Gina Sigillito is a writer and experienced music promoter. She is also the author of “The Wisdom of the Celts” and “The Daughters of Maeve” and a member of The Authors Guild.  She is currently the owner of Ginaraq PR, a public relations company dedicated to promoting artists and musicians in Austin and around the world. You can contact Sigillito through her website at www.ginaraqpr.com.

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