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Five things on writing about music
Arusa Qureshi, writer, editor and author of Flip the Script, shares her five top tips for writing about music.
As a teenager, music was everything to me. Having grown up playing instruments and performing as much as I could, studying music seemed like the natural path. But when journalism – and more specifically, music journalism – entered my life, I quickly realised that writing about music surpassed everything. There was something so special about being able to express and share my love of a new artist I had just stumbled upon or a new release that deserved attention and all these years later, that passion is definitely still there. The world of music writing has changed a lot in the 10 years since I wrote my first peice, but there’s some advice that’s stuck with me the whole way.
Read as much criticism as you can
I’ve always loved reading biographies of musicians and particularly loved the way certain writers tell someone’s story so thoughtfully and delicately you feel as though you know them personally. But being able to pick out the interesting and unique parts of an artist’s story while also relating it back to their creative output is absolutely key. And one of the best ways to get better at this is by reading as much as possible, be it whole books, articles or blog pages of cultural criticism and music press. Music, like other artforms, can be a window into socio-political movements and world happenings. The best critics, in my opinion, are able to highlight how certain art responds to or even transcends the core issues of the moment, without taking away from the beauty of the artistic medium.
Listen to genres outside of your comfort zone
As well as reading as much music journalism as possible, it’s also important that you’re listening to and searching out music that may not naturally be on your playlists. Great journalists find and unpick stories but these stories can appear in the least expected places. If you’re keeping an eye on as many aspects of the industry and as many genres as you can, you’re bound to start noticing where the trends are or where the big, meaty stories are coming from. It can be intimidating if you feel as though you don’t know enough about a certain subject area to write about it but you definitely don’t have to be an expert in every genre to be a skilled music writer – just make sure you put in the research. You might even end up finding a new niche.
Do adequate research (on the music and the musician)
Say you do become the ‘go-to’ person for a topic, make sure you’re also not closing yourself off to other subject areas or other opportunities to learn. By giving yourself the space to keep experimenting with your writing and criticism, you’re training yourself to keep the act of researching at the forefront. And unfortunately, because we all have the internet and Google within easy reach, the temptation to be azy is always there. Don’t just use webpages, use books, archive footage, documentaries, radio programmes, podcasts and more. You may come across a piece of information that isn’t publicly well known and this could end up being the hook of whatever you’re writing. Also, if you’re interviewing someone, being able to show them that you’re interested in them as a person and that you’ve done your research will likely make it easier for them to open up to you.
Be bold in voicing your opinions
When you’re getting started in music journalism, it can be difficult to say what you really feel for fear of saying the wrong thing or being lambasted for an opinion. But excellent music critics are bold and brave in voicing their thoughts and ideas, and in a way that differs from what is already out there. You don’t need permission to have an opinion on a musician or their work; just write what you feel and use your skills and research to find new angles and to back-up your thoughts. If you’re writing something negative, be prepared to defend your arguments rather than being negative for the sake of clickbait or getting a reaction.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
It might not always be possible to get help and advice from your all-time favourite writers but sometimes it’s worth reaching out in case they do have time to offer up their wisdom. Everyone has to start somewhere and nine times out of 10, people with more experience in your area of interest will be up for lending a hand. If you’ve been commissioned by an editor or you’re hoping to pitch to a magazine, make the most of the opportunity to get detailed feedback, especially if you’re at the start of your career. Don’t take any criticism personally; welcome it, absorb it, make changes and move on. If you’re willing to improve and take advice in order to better your writing, you’ll find that next pitch or that next commission all the easier.