When I was about 14 years old, one of my friends introduced me to the concept of online music magazines. He started working as a music journalist and soon introduced me to the editor in chief. To me it seemed like a dream deal. Get free promos delivered to your home address before release date, write some personal insight about them. Let’s clear out all the misunderstandings of the industry, most small magazines out there, they do this completely and 100% on a voluntary basis. So did I. In the era before downloading music and mp3-sticks and Spotify, it was a very promising deal, something worth writing for. It all made sense back then. While in the past music journalists and critiques were so very important you could name the most prominent one by names, I couldn’t even come up with one name nowadays. Music journalism has changed a lot.
During my time at that magazine, I realized that writing about music, for me at least, comes from the heart. It comes from trying to imagine yourself in someone else’s place. Because when you don’t like that particular soundtrack, someone else might. Music journalism is a very subjective matter, it’s hard to grasp and opinions seem to swivel around like a hurricane that has picked up leaves from the ground. Opinions go just about everywhere. A perfectly fine album can receive ratings of as much as 90% and then one guy decides he doesn’t like it and rates 15%. Like in arts and culture you understand that music follows the trend of de gustibus et de coloribus non disputandem est. When the editor in chief decided he didn’t like an album, he told me to write a negative review. Nope. Not doing that. I thus left the magazine with a weird feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t help but wondering if there were others out there who don’t share the same values. Of course, I’m talking about more than 10 years ago, but this always stuck by me, especially while founding my own magazine.
Here are some of my personal guidelines in terms of writing my own music reviews. I use this as a basis towards both album, single and live reviews.
1. Construct rather than deconstruct
I come from a background in arts. I have spent almost 10 years in art school and I can tell you that it hasn’t always been the most pleasant journey to obtaining that mostly useless degree certificate. In art school you learn how to hide your emotions about your work. If you take things personally, it will completely break you down and tear your personality apart. I remember once a critique attacking me on a very personal level, telling me he doesn’t get why a certain school accepted me as their student, because my work is so shitty. Let me tell you, when someone trashed your work, the one that you have put your heart and soul into, that’s not really a nice read.
It’s therefore important to realize that behind every artwork or composition there is a person who made it. A person with as much feelings as you have. In his or her eyes it sounds the way it should be. You can argue with that, point out the mistakes. But rather than to deconstruct someone’s work and tear it all down, it’s good to write your criticisms under the form of constructive feedback. Why not list all the positive things first about the album? Perhaps it has a good consistency of songs, or a refreshing sound? Remember that artists only want to improve their skills. In that sense, providing them some feedback in form of what could improve for the next release, is more valuable then stating your opinion about what is crappy about their album.
2. Shift your focus
Let’s keep it real. You can give your most honest and humble opinion, it’s still not about you. It’s important to shift your focus from ‘me’ to ‘we’. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who frequently listens to the band and who identifies himself or herself as a fan of the band you’re reviewing. Not all fans support their idol’s work. Sometimes a new album, is just a weaker version of the last release. Keep that in mind when you are writing about albums and music.
I personally find it very important to read other people’s opinions about the album or show I’m reviewing. You don’t always have to share their views or perspectives, yes it’s important to have your own. But don’t be afraid to ask a fan what they thought about the new single or the new album. After all, they know the music best.
By putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, the reviews are not only useful for the musicians it’s about, it’s also useful for the reader, because it serves basically as a guideline as to what they can expect of the album and if they should invest or not. Okay, your reviews are not going to help super bands like Iron Maiden. But they will help the small, local bands that really need the exposure and publicity. It’s those bands that take your advice very serious.
3. Understanding your own role
One of the essentials into music journalism is also understanding your own role. It really isn’t all that about what is good or bad, but it is to provide context and insight, offering translations of how the music is reflected in the society. How can you help the listener in their journey in understanding the music they are listening to and how does the music fit into the big picture.
When you start understanding what your own role is inside of the spectrum of music business, you start understanding that music journalism also has its values. For me personally, it’s important not to rate the albums, because in the end who am I to put a grade on a number, especially when it’s not based on facts and figures.
It’s clear that music journalism isn’t exactly what you would call the most objective or righteous method of researching or reviewing. But when done right it can become a valuable asset to especially local bands, who then can improve their skillset.