I've done a little bit of freelance music writing over the years (in Vibe, The Source and XXL), and this column gives some idea why I never did more than a little bit. I think JR Taylor's tone is a little unfair to the subject, who is just being real about the world she works in, but the picture painted here isn't far from the truth. If anything, the reality is even worse than this, in the world of "Hip-Hop journalism" at least.
It doesn’t take much for a professional music journalist to tell the truth. About $65, in fact.
I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n roll, and it is Brooklyn’s Mink Lungs...
Caitlin Cary’s second album makes a perfect soundtrack for the sorts of days evoked on the languid, unhurried "Sleepin’ In on Sunday"...
Mix a half-cup of Jeremy Enigk’s Return of the Frog Queen, two tablespoons Ron Sexsmith and one quart Neutral Milk Hotel. Stir counterclockwise, and you have a serviceable description of Castaways and Cutouts...
Such is the state of modern music journalism. Such is the lack of inspiration and opinion. Even in the service of minor bands, writers desperately churn out meaningless hype, sad cliches and vapid non-opinion toward two goals: pleasing the publicists and allowing the writer to blather on about more useless acts in the future.
Though I offer this statement as fact, you needn’t accept my humble, free opinion. For $65, a successful music journalist named Shirley Halperin was willing to help aspiring hacks at her May 15 MediaBistro seminar, "Almost Famous: Breaking Into Freelance Music Journalism."
What's more, Halperin takes pride in knowing the truth about her profession...
..."Seventy to 80 percent of the time, you’ll be writing about artists you don’t like."
This could actually be construed as good news. Somebody, after all, has to note that N.E.R.D. is getting critical acclaim for ripping off bands like Styx and Slipknot. And why is Aimee Mann only now discovering that moths can get burned by a flame?
Sadly, Halperin doesn’t seem to understand that writers—even those with a "passion for music"—can express negative thoughts. We will find ourselves writing positive things about artists we don’t like, she informs us. For all intents and purposes, Halperin is warning that 70 to 80 percent of the time, we will be expected to tell lies...
..."How many of you," she then asks, "if you hated the band ethically and morally, wouldn’t write about the band?"
Two people raise their hands.
"You have to learn how to temper your reaction," she explains. "They don’t want to hear [deep sigh]. They want to hear ‘Cool!’ ‘Great!’ ‘Awesome!’"
Besides, Halperin adds, you can always express your disdain for the band "after the article’s been edited and published."
Halperin also warns us about all the trouble that comes with having an opinion. She cites Spin’s hard lesson after they put Creed on their cover, accompanied by an article that mainly goofed on the popular band. She wants us to consider the long months spent trying to placate the publicists afterwards: "Half of your year has been spent thinking and analyzing about how to get out of this mess with this band… It just becomes a mess that takes up half your life. So, that’s that."
As noted, Halperin’s seminar does some good. There’s some occasional useful advice, like her suggestion not to ask predictable questions. Halperin even suggests that it’s okay to sometimes print controversial news about a popular band—that is, once you’re sure that the band’s publicist represents so many bands that he or she "has to work with you."
Most importantly, Halperin does an excellent job of representing the banality of modern music journalism. She is the true face of pandering, and is completely honest about how well this serves her. It would take a lot less than three hours for her to convince anyone with integrity to walk away from the business, and I would’ve paid a lot more than $65 to be talked out of this business back when I was younger.