Jason Gross is a social media maven, freelance writer/editor and founder of Perfect Sound Forever online music magazine.
Two years ago, I asked over 100 music journalists what kind of advice they would give a young writer about the biz for a series at PopMatters. Immediately forgetting what a hassle it was to get responses, I wondered what would happen if I did the same thing with a diverse group of musicians, asking them what kind of advice they would give out to a musician just starting out in the biz. Little did I know what I was in for, but hopefully this odyssey will prove instructional for other writers and music fans in general about our craft, not to mention the musicians' world.
I regularly interviewed musicians for articles as it is so in the summer of 2010, I decided to start tacking on this question at the end of the interrogations I did- if an eager, young musician approached you and asked 'what's the best advice you can give me,' what would you say to them? I pitched the idea of a series based on these responses to a national magazine and the editor said that he might be interested, saying that I could start this on 'spec,' meaning that I'd need to come up with some material to show him and he would see if it was worth going forward with it. Armed with that directive, I started approaching labels, managers and PR companies with this information to see if I could get a few minutes of time from each of the artists on my wish list, to ask them this one pertinent question.
Even with the prospect of getting some space in a national magazine, these gate-keepers have their own agenda and understandably so. They work for the artists so they want press for them but if this artist happens to be pushing a new album or tour or project, they want you to do a story about that first and foremost. As such, some of them insisted that I had to do a bigger story on their artists if I also wanted time with them to ask my advice question. In some cases, if I thought there was a good story to tell about their latest work, I did parlay that into a separate story that I wrote, though it wasn't for the same magazine who wanted to see the advice piece on spec. And as a bonus, I got to ask these artists the advice question too.
Other times, I was able to speak to some of the artists without having to also do another story about them thanks to the name-power behind the magazine I was anticipating writing this for and because by then, I had a pretty good list of artists already who were participating. Sometimes the responses were a sentence or two long but poignant (McCoy Tyner, Ian Hunter, Bob Mould) and other times, the artists obviously put a LOT of thought into their responses, delivering thesis-length answers (Corin Tucker, Dave Alvin, Glenn Branca, Steve Cropper, Patterson Hood, Mike Watt). Also, the type of responses varied a lot, ranging from 'get a real job!' to 'trust your heart' to 'find a good lawyer' to 'don't trust anyone else.' Just as with the responses that I got from the other music journalists, I believed that the lists of answers would not only be helpful to other people starting out in the field, but it would also shed some light on the responders themselves to show what they thought was most important about their work and what matters to them in the music biz.
(Needless to say, even with the backing of a big mag, I was realistic about my prospects, knowing that I wouldn't get phone time with the likes of Dylan, Jay-Z, etc..)
A few months later, I was ready to follow-up with the editor and send him edited versions of the best responses I'd gotten so far from the 20 or so musicians I'd interviewed so far, ranging from blues to country to rock to punk to techno to classical. There was just one problem. The editor was no longer at the magazine by then. I was a little discouraged but then I approached his replacement- I knew him and worked with before so I thought that might be helpful. Initially, he seemed interested so I sent him some details about the project and waited for an answer. And waited and waited. I followed up a few times but never heard anything back. At that point, I assumed that he wasn't interested and I would have to look elsewhere for a place to publish the advice series. Curiously, not long after that, the same magazine published its own series where it asked a diverse group of musicians about a different topic. Coincidence? Writer's paranoia perhaps? It didn't matter- I didn't want the work to go to waste so I had to move on. Plus, you can't copyright the idea of asking a group of musicians the same question.
Eventually, I came to another national outlet and found a sympathetic editor. The third editor thought this was an interesting idea and might make for a good series but had to figure out the right timing for it. This seemed like a great prospect but then I made a huge blunder. I started approaching more artists on my list under the auspices of doing this series for this national outlet but WITHOUT CLEARING THIS WITH THE EDITOR FIRST. Big mistake. It was something that I should have known better. When the editor got wind of this, they were understandably angry and told me not to do this anymore. The timing was terrible (I had five great artists lined up for interviews the next day) but it was my own fault. I had thought or hoped that I could follow-up with the editor after apologizing profusely but I blew it. If anything good can come from this, please at least learn from my mistake- clear everything with your editor beforehand.
(Also note that I'm purposely leaving out the names and publications above- there's no point or reason to call them out, not to mention me being careful not to burn any bridges as a writer)
I was further discouraged by my bone-headed, rookie mistake but eventually picked myself up and decided that the advice series should still find a home. All the while I was doing this, I followed up with the artists/managements/labels, letting them know that it hadn't worked out at the first or second place but that I was still determined to find a good home for this material. For the next several months, I got a real education about the magazine/newspaper industry as I pitched the story all over the place, using numerous connections. Here's what I came up against:
- The non-response response. I had seen this plenty of times before so unfortunately, I was used to it. You keep pitching to an editor and never hear anything back. But because you hope to work with that publication someday, you have to finish off with a graceful 'sorry we can't work together this time' and move on.
- No local angle. One editor at a large city newspaper was interested in the idea but wanted to know if the musicians involved were based in his particular city. As it turns out, most of them weren't (that was the point- I wanted to get a wide range). He said thanks but no thanks. I actually admired this though. After all, a city paper should be covering its own city, though in the Net age, anything that's online goes global.
- Sorry, no room for freelancers. A writer recommended me to his editors who liked the idea and thought it was really interesting but didn't think they'd have room for a large series like that from a freelancer. The writer later said to me that in his eyes, they really meant to say 'sorry but we can't pay freelancers now.' Especially in the Net age, that's understandable with many publications feeling the squeeze with lost ad revenue.
- Really, we don't want freelancers! On top of that, there were some editors who just came out and frankly admitted that they didn't have a freelance budget at all, even though some of them also admitted that the advice series was a good idea (which provided some cold comfort).
- What's this all about anyway? Another sympathetic editor initially liked the idea when I pitched it to them but when I sent some samples of the responses (the first time I'd actually done that with the article so far), they didn't seem to understand what the artists were saying. I pleaded that they were giving the best advice they could about the biz but the editor wasn't convinced. They said that if they couldn't figure out it, their readers wouldn't be able to either. In theory, I agreed but (with my obvious bias) I thought that all of the advice should have spoken for itself.
So I had answers from fifty noted artists, sitting on my computer with no home for all of the material. By then, some of the artists had actually passed away as this this two year ordeal went on (including Hubert Sumlin, Charles Louvin and Bert Jansch) and partly because of that, I was determined to see this through. I had my own online zine, Perfect Sound Forever, which I'd run since 1993 (even longer than Pitchfork) but I really thought this was a big story, worthy of bigger coverage than I could provide it.
And then an answer came to me which should have been obvious all along. I actually knew a really good, thoughtful editor (a rarity for sure) that was not only responsive but also reliable. At this year's SXSW, I met up face-to-face with BLURT magazine editor Fred Mills, who I'd known for years, going back to when he was helping to run HARP magazine. I felt kind of stupid, thinking that I should have gone to him a long time ago. I told him the whole sad story above just to be up front about everything and also said that after all of these ordeals, all this great material still didn't have a home. Mills was immediately on board- he liked the idea and wanted to run it in BLURT. I was so relieved but I also felt a little bad that I hadn't approached him first. Still, the story finally had a home!
I learned from my mistake with the third editor and planned out everything that I could with Mills beforehand, trying to make this work in a print and Net fashion. Here's the plan we came up with:
- The article was kind of huge and since space was at a premium for the print publication, it would run in two parts.
- For the print version, we'd run shorter versions of the responses (for the same reason of space) and then the full-length versions online where that wasn't as much of an issue.
- To boost the print version though, it would run first there for a few weeks before the online version. On the website, users would know that the material was in print already and would later appear there on the site.
- To also involve and draw in fans, we would ask them which other artists they would like to hear answers from. If it was possible, we'd approach these artists too and see if they could also give their own advice.
- To also involve the readership, we'd also ask other musicians out there if they'd like to add in the comments section to the article their own advice that they'd like to share.
Mills gave his blessing to all of this and I was thrilled. I packaged up all of the material, both the shortened versions and the full-length versions and sent the whole thing off for the first time to someone else. I was so relieved but at the same time, I was also feeling kind of nervous and vulnerable to have all of it out there in someone else's hands, even if it was someone I knew and trusted.
I'm incredibly grateful to Mills and to BLURT for making this a reality after two years of work and hope that some of the mishaps I've mentioned about are informative. At the same time, I don't know if I'd recommend to anyone to try an article or series that was so ambitious, especially in an age where editors are becoming notably more cautious. I have to admit though that I would like to see other articles like this so I also hope there's other fool-hearty writers out there who'll submit themselves to this kind of punishment regardless. I tip my hat to you and wish you good luck.
BLURT EDITOR FRED MILLS ASKED TO ADD THIS AT THE END: "I have been familiar with Jason and his work for ages and ages and trust him, both in his musical tastes and his instincts for what makes a good story. Plus, I've always loved getting the straight dope from the artists, unfiltered."