Music Criticism in a Changing Music Industry The Buzz


Changes in technology have affected many professionals, even some that might not seem to rely on technology very much. Music critics are a good example. Also known as music journalists, music critics are the people who review the latest music releases, interview musicians and let you know about upcoming concerts.

The Internet has opened up new markets for music journalists, making it easier than ever for them to share information and opinions about music. But the Internet has also made the field more competitive, so would-be music critics have to stand out from the pack to succeed.

These days, anyone can start an online blog and review music. Finding and contacting magazines and record labels has never been easier. Established music writers can even get advance music (music that isn't yet released to the public) e-mailed to them to review.

"[The Internet] has allowed you to easily get stuff to review, so there are no excuses for not writing dozens of reviews every week," says music critic Martin Popoff. Popoff is an editor, freelance writer and the author of 25 books about music. "Plus, everybody is an entrepreneur with power. You can start your own site, gain power and become someone others want to read."

Music critic Kevin Stewart-Panko says the Internet has changed the way recording companies promote their musicians. Not so long ago, they relied more on traditional print media stories to get the word out.

"You would have to have somebody writing fairly in-depth stories because there was no MySpace page for you to check out. There was no PureVolume for you to go and hear the band. You had to take those peoples' word for it."

So, it's easier to share your opinions with the world. But that doesn't necessarily mean other people will want to read them -- and pay money to read them.

Stewart-Panko says that with so many free websites out there filled with writing about music, magazines have to have really strong writing in order to attract customers.

"The magazines that stand out stand out for a reason," says Stewart-Panko. "And that has to do not with how pretty it looks, but the content. In that sense, it makes you a better writer, because you know you have to do something that's going to entertain the paying public."

There are many more opportunities these days for budding music critics because of the growth in the number of music criticism websites. Kim Kelly is a freelance music critic who got her start online.

"The massive number of music-focused webzines and blogs that have cropped up in the past decade or so have created a much higher demand for writers," she says. "And they also provide an easier way to break in to the industry. That's how I finally got in to print -- by writing for literally every webzine I could find, building up my resume and sharpening my writing skills, so when I did have an opportunity to start writing for print magazines, I felt comfortable taking it."

Kelly's persistence is a good example of the hard work it can take to make it. In fact, music journalism may not be quite what people think it is. It's not all glitz and glamour, and it's not always about hanging with the stars. It's often about sitting at home in front of the computer trying not to be distracted while working to get a sentence just right.

"Well, it's not a big party, that's for sure," says Popoff. "One thing people don't realize is that most of the interviews are on the phone. If you like knowledge and writing and free CDs and free concerts, sure, it's quite satisfying. And, let's face it, you're doing it because you are a fan, so it's like turning a hobby you would do for free into your job -- if you can make it your full-time job.

"That's the other misconception," he adds. "[The reality is that for] most people doing this, it's just something they squeeze in -- in and around their full-time, non-music work.

"It's mostly hulking over a computer," he continues, "typing, cutting and pasting, transcribing interviews, thinking pretty hard, saving files in proper formats, deadlines, invoicing people.... But it is cool that people on the outside see it as glamorous, and, yes, you do get to meet your heroes in person quite often and get begged by publicists to go to shows. So there is a social aspect, but it's mostly a white-collar, computery job."

"You have to love music," says Stewart-Panko. "You can't do this and not love music. There's a difference between loving music, and loving music when you get 50 records a week," he says with a laugh.

A love of music definitely needs to come first and foremost. For most music critics, it's about the passion, not the money.

"I'm still in school and run my own PR company on the side, which keeps me fed," says Kelly. "From what I've observed from friends and colleagues, though, it's possible, but very difficult, to live solely on your earnings from music journalism. Most writers I know have a side job to provide the steady source of income that writing seldom manages to generate. In other words, unless you're writing for Rolling Stone -- or 16 smaller mags -- don't quit your day job."

Popoff says that being a music critic isn't necessarily a goal to set for a career, but he says it is possible to make a career of it.

"If you work very hard at it, you can definitely land good jobs that can add up pretty quickly," he says. "I'm doing it full time, using books, bios, liner notes, magazine work and site work to all add up to an income. I know a few other guys who do that as well, and then there are writers for the big New York mags who draw a full-time salary and go in to an office every day so, yes, it can be done."

How can you be one of those people? Having an obsessive knowledge about music in general -- and in one or two genres specifically -- is a good start.

And no matter how much the Internet has changed some aspects of music criticism, one big aspect remains the same -- you still have to be able to write.

"Know how to write English properly," says Stewart-Panko with a laugh, when asked how people can get started as music critics. "Simple grammatical things are just murder to certain editors' eyes. You want to stand out, but stand out for the right reasons. You want to stand out for having a sharp wit, incisive stories and producing an entertaining read. You don't want to stand out to an editor for being the guy who doesn't know the difference between 'its' and 'it's.'"

Links

Martin Popoff
A full-time music critic's website; look at all those books!

Rock Critics
A site devoted to "rock critics talking to, about and with each other"

Music Critic
Reviews written "by the people, for the people"

Rolling Stone
It may be a different beast than it was 30 years ago, but it's still the biggie of music criticism