Writing About Music Sucks (But You Should Do It Anyway)
I'm seated in first class on a train from Paris to Zurich. The slight anxiety of navigating a new and strange place has faded, replaced instead by smaller embarrassments as the day went on and attempted interactions in another language were necessary; Was I rude for not saying s'il vous plaît? Did I pronounce bonsoir correctly? I've read thirty pages into Joan Didion’s "The White Album" and her neurosis have convinced me of two things; one, I'm quite strange but not alone in my delusions and illusions, and two, I should write this very piece you’re reading that I've been sitting on for three months. Blame the delay on life, procrastination, acute imposter syndrome, etc., but the thought of writing this had, until this very moment on this high-speed train, rendered me catatonic. More than likely because, as my pitch had outlined: music writing sucks.
I had been warned about this drawback before I started. My friend, a freelance culture writer, shared with me her anxieties of waiting for pitch responses and paid invoices that would never come. She warned me of pangs of relief of being responded to by an editor, even if it was a rejection. But, naively, I jumped in, dealing with negative comments from internet trolls under articles I was proud of, chasing money I’d worked hard to earn, spending hours of research culminating in interviews where artists couldn’t be bothered to answer me with more than one word phrases, but those issues have paled in comparison to the ones being dealt with industry wide.
Glossy mags have folded in favor of online editorials, online editorials have vanished from their virtual homes in favor of a “pivot to video”, while zines and alt-weeklies become artifacts of a not so distant past.
Even the great city upon a hill Rolling Stone magazine has been sold. I’ve watched as mainstays like LAWeekly have unceremoniously dropped their staff, and talented journalists I could only hope to one day match in prose lose their positions and struggle to get paid. So what’s the point of even trying especially, and most notably, if like me you’ve only been writing about music for a little less than two years?
I am not an expert in writing about music. I'm not on the staff of a prestigious magazine, nor am I Twitter verified or Wikipedia validated. I haven’t made a thirty under thirty list, nor will I ever.
However, I do know the boredom and restlessness caused by doing things you don’t care about. I also know the euphoric laced elation that comes in doing what lights you up.
Before boarding the train, yesterday, there was a symbolic moment that stood out in my mind. At a wine tasting in a tiny pastel brick building near the Notre Dame a sommelier named Thiery, recalled the work of Moët Chandon, the monk who first stumbled upon the recipe for champagne. Wine making was his one task, and he was very good at this endeavor - as you may also be if your to-do list included only a few bullet points. I realize there is something to be said about being monastic about music writing, forsaking all other occupations and distractions despite the risk might just be worth it. Shit, you may just make champagne. However, there are still other decent paths to good wine.
Two weeks ago, I left my job of four years. I left for space and growth, and all the other reasons you give in an exit interview when you want to leave on good terms and avoid the confusing and often tangled truth of any thing you’ve done for longer than a year. This is the part where I tell you I've taken the leap to full-time freelance music writer, right? Wrong. I've taken on a full-time remote head of content role, one where I can still freelance while enjoying the perks of a regular paycheck. It may not be champagne, but it’s damn good wine.
I chose a full time job over freelance because I did not want to burden my writing with the added task of having to pay my rent, student loans, a car payment and the expenses that comes with living. My writing has already been delegated the task of lighting me up, giving me purpose, and of course, stressing me the fuck out by way of recordings that needed to be transcribed, a pile of emails I can’t seem to get to the bottom of, and even when I’ve hit my stride, there’s the looming presence of never-ending deadlines. Because, like I've said, music writing sucks.
There have been times when I questioned if I can even call myself a music writer while not doing it full time (see: imposter syndrome). And, if I'm not doing it full time, am I any good? How can you know if you're truly good at something as strange as sharing your translation of something as intangible as music, because as Martin Mull not so eloquently put it, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” How do you know if you’re succeeding? Maybe if you're paid well. Maybe if you receive an award. Maybe if your parents see it as a successful and viable career path.
Or, and this is what I'm starting to think is most likely, maybe you will never know if you are good, but maybe that doesn’t matter.
Instead, you work to get better. You collaborate with editors who give you actionable feedback. You sincerely connect with your peers, confidants and mentors. You ask questions. You get your feelings hurt. You kill your darlings. You applaud the successes and laugh off the failures. You try not to fall into vices or crippling anxiety that won’t let you write until you’re on a train to Switzerland.
Maybe you work in marketing or get paid to write a listicle on something that isn’t music. You confidently ask for the money you deserve. You get anxious and take a break. You get manic and write too much. You get nervous and write too little. You wonder why you even write. You do it anyway. You realize that music writing sucks, but you do it anyway.
I don't care how you do it. I don't care if you risk it all and move to New York to live in a flat that cost every penny you make, while working a sex hotline at night for money to spend on avocado toast. It doesn’t matter if you decide to move west and nanny for a billionaire while continuing to send your work to an online publication. I don't care if you feel like a sellout.
I do care that you pursue what you want out of life, and that you get to determine what you’re willing to exchange for it.
Poet Jack Gilbert once said, “we must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world,” and if you feel even slightly like I do, music writing is that gladness. So, let’s be stubborn about it because maybe this isn’t just about occupation, but what you choose to do with the little time you have on this chaotic sphere we call earth. As Lester Bangs once said, “The real question is what to live for. And I can't answer it. Except another one of your records. And another chance for me to write. Art for art's sake, corny as that sounds.”
Writing about music sucks, but you should do it anyway.
By Erica Hawkins, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.
Image by Albert, distributed under the CC-BY-NC creative commons license.
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