A staff writer at a daily newspaper covers country and hip-hop; a public radio reporter curates an artist-discovery series; an alt-weekly freelancer follows the town's local rock scene; and a heavy metal blogger scours the underground for new talent. There is no one-size-fits-all description of a music journalist's job, but there is one thing all music journalists spend a great deal of time doing: listening. Whatever their angle, all music journalists aim to absorb, analyze, and evaluate an artist's work and its place in the culture. At one point that meant a desk overflowing with CDs, but now it means a good Wi-Fi connection and a burning desire to listen to, talk about, and write about music.
Aspirants should immerse themselves in the local scene, write up shows, and send their work to the arts editor at the local paper or alternative weekly.
Most of the workday is spent at the computer—listening to new releases, researching, reporting, emailing publicists, and writing. And speaking of publicists, they are vital players in a music journalist's life: gatekeepers who can green light an interview, send an advance link to a hotly anticipated album, confirm a juicy story, and approve media credentials for a show—or not. For a music journalist, cultivating good relationships is almost as important as good writing habits; both are vital to meeting deadlines, which are often tight and arrive at all hours.
Music journalists are frequently out at night seeing bands, and they sometimes travel for work; those who land a job or an assignment writing for a prestigious outlet such as Rolling Stone or the New York Times often have access to prominent artists and major events—conducting interviews with stars, attending the Grammys, or scoring a wristband for the VIP lounge at Coachella. The vast majority, however, work for smaller publications, translating their passion for music into words—which is no small task! As the famous saying goes, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.
At a Glance
There's no hard-and-fast career path for a music journalist. Some journalists have advanced degrees but just as many do not. The truth is that making it in this career is about working hard, putting oneself out there, and getting lucky in equal measure—and today more so than ever before.
Many traditional music journalism outlets have gone under or shifted to online-only platforms, such as Spin magazine. Add to that the contraction of the journalism industry as a whole, and full-time employment prospects at print newspapers and magazines have shrunk dramatically. However, opportunities abound online and for freelancers who choose to work as digital content producers—albeit without as much job security and for lower pay.
The best way to break into music journalism is to do music journalism. Aspirants should immerse themselves in the local scene, write up shows, and send their work to the arts editor at the local paper or alternative weekly. Reviews of newly released music should be emailed "on spec"—meaning without knowing if the work will be published or paid for—to music websites and blogs like Pitchfork, Stereogum, and Consequence of Sound. Alternatively, one can also start a blog as a way to self-publish, create a portfolio, and boost visibility.
- Verbal communication
- General knowledge of music
- Time management
Writing is in itself a challenging, solitary task, and writing on a deadline is doubly so. Music journalists must possess exceptional focus, discipline, and time management skills in order to craft quality prose while the clock is ticking. Those who conduct interviews as part of their job should cultivate a personable demeanor, as success often hinges on putting the subject at ease.
Contrary to popular belief, most music journalists don't spend their waking hours going to free shows and hanging out with Jay Z. It's true that journalists may be assigned to cover a live show or spend an afternoon with a high-profile artist—needless to say, this usually means working nights and weekends—but the majority of a music journalist's assignments typically involve responding to recorded music, which can be done from the comfort of an armchair. Even journalists who take on long-term assignments such as following a tour from city to city eventually return home and do what they're paid to do—write—in an office, local cafe, or their own home.