Rock and Roll Historian: “I’ve Wasted My Life”

06/08/2010 12:28 PM |

I never know what image to use when I post about music critic crap.
  • I never know what image to use when I post about music critic crap.

This morning, Pop Matters published the fourth and final installment in their “What’s the Write Word?” series, where over 100 music journalists were asked to give advice to young writers looking to get started in the field. Like the first three installments, it contains a mix of the practical (“Listen to music until you can listen no more, then go out and breathe decent air and taste decent food. Have friends. Don’t hole yourself up.” — Ben Rateliff) and the useless (“Write something awesome.” — Dan Sinker). Weingarten chimed in with one of his trademark harsh overstatements (“If are an aspiring rock writer, you are an invariably boring person…”) while making a larger point about the dangers of hyper-personalized writing, and Richie Unterberger, god bless him, just thinks it’s important to not be a dick (“Thank people in the profession and colleagues who take the time to help you”).

Throughout the series, there’s also been a fair amount of people warning against getting involved at all, because the future of the form is more uncertain than ever, and it doesn’t pay well and all the other stuff we’ve been hearing, literally, since Lester Bangs said it all 40 years ago. The most outrageous example of this comes from Ed Ward, one of the founders of SXSW, a “rock and roll historian” and contributor to NPR’s Fresh Air program:

My answer is: Why would you want to do this? Who are you thinking of writing for? Are you aware that you can’t make a living doing this, and that you’ll be held in very low regard by every other kind of journalist, writer, and critic in the field? Do you realize that once you get stuck with the label “music journalist” or “rock critic” that it’s almost impossible to shake? Aren’t you aware that we’re in the middle of a bogus “citizen journalist” revolution where everyone’s opinion is supposedly equal to everyone else’s opinion? That you’re supposed to give your content away and sell t-shirts on tour or something?

I would do everything in my power to talk someone out of doing this. It was fun once, but it irreparably damaged my ability to move away from it and I basically feel like I’ve wasted my life so far. It’s taken nearly all the enjoyment out of listening to music to the point where if I play an album every couple of days that’s plenty. I almost never go see live music anymore unless I’m familiar with the act; making a new discovery brings me no pleasure, and the chances of doing so approaches zero. Someone starting out today is wandering into a field overpopulated by mediocrity writing about performers who have no idea what they’re doing or why. If you have writing talent, for heaven’s sakes, use it for something worthwhile. Not that you’ll make a lot of money that way either, but you stand a far greater chance of contributing something to the world.

And learn to cook, so that if you find yourself, as I do today, with 70 cents, a can of chickpeas, and some frozen spinach, with no money on the horizon and no work, you can at least feed yourself.

But basically, don’t do it.

This is incredibly sad for about a million reasons, obviously, and it’s hard not to feel bad for the dude. But it’s infuriating, too: I don’t mean to be an asshole here—god knows I’ve complained about the money, and even about the ways in which my job has affected by favorite hobby—but if it’s really so bad that you only have 70 cents to your name, and you take zero pleasure in the work that’s put you in that position, why not just get the fuck out? Drive a cab, become a toll booth operator, work in a super market—the money would probably be better, and it seems you’d be a lot happier. Maybe you could even go back to liking records again.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Carl Wilson’s sage advice here:

Writers right now are like bands right now: You can’t rely on anyone else to make a reputation for you, and you can’t guess how you’re going to get paid. Make your own course. Get into a scene—seek out like-minded writers and other artists (of whatever generation or location) and communicate and collaborate with them. Develop a live show. (Literally: the non-fiction writers I know are called upon to deliver talks, interviews, and presentations at least as much as they are asked to write.) Experiment with other media. When you’ve got your own sound, your own rubric, your own identity as a writer, people will seek you out. This sounds like “be entrepeneurial,” but it’s not. It’s “be an artist.”

Participate in the discourse of your field. Don’t always fuss about getting credit and the social, cultural, or economic capital it represents. Make culture, swim in culture (many cultures), imbibe it, recycle it back into the ecosystem. Develop a sensibility though not necessarily a taste (read widely, listen widely, against the grain of your own habits). Yet don’t let the data smog confound you: Books are still the fittest, most finely considered, deeply developed, and sustainable form for our medium, language, and people still read and care about them. And that’s my final point: Write for people, not just for avatars, hit points, and trend aggregators. Write to contribute to the broader human experience, to expand our collective, ever-depleting stores of soulfulness, intelligence, and understanding. If those aren’t the stakes, don’t waste your life.