9th September 2015
Writing about music:
Choices and consequences.
This is not the first time that I have written about the perils of music journalism. Writing about bands and the performances they give can be a dangerous thing. If you get it wrong, it backfires on your reputation as a writer. On more than one occasion I have been criticised for writing only about the bands I like. Such criticisms have come from people whose opinions are respected. My stock reply is along the lines of ‘well if I think a band is not very good, then there is no pointing writing about them.’ Bear in mind, that (at Music in Leicester magazine) we are not paid to do this work; it is a voluntary commitment – we do it because we are passionate about music.
It has been suggested that this magazine should write honestly about all bands, whether they are good, bad or indifferent. Sorry. But no. We just don’t have the time to provide a service of that kind; we are not a Wikipedia-type website for general knowledge about everything musical (even within the confines of Leicester.) I write about bands that I like, whose music I think I understand and whose performances tick the various boxes that I use to describe what I think is good in terms of live music. [What makes a good band?]
All those who write about gigs and bands choose which ones they want to devote their free time to. I cannot direct people to attend certain events; if I am asked which events I would suggest, I do so, but this is not a paid job with a chain of command. Volunteer reviewers are more likely to go to a gig and write about it if it is one they like. Apart from me, all the other writers have full-time jobs and have to fit their music interests around these.
Doing justice to a band
Having thought about it, I am of the opinion that, if I see a band and their music fails to excite me (either because I do not understand it or because I am just not in the right frame of mind for it) then I should not write anything. It is a disservice both to the readers and to the bands if I write something half-hearted, just to give them a mention. In other words, it would be better to say nothing than write a review that fails to justice to act or set. I have a habit of turning up at a gig without having researched the bands beforehand; life is very busy and time is short, so it is easy to skip the pre-gig stuff and hope you can wing it.
How long does it take to write a review? Well, very roughly speaking, it takes
Prep – up to 30 minutes for pre-gig research
Attend – Two to three hours to get there, see the bands and get back
Write – varies a lot but say 30 minutes on average, per band
Photos – allow 30 minutes to process photos and upload them
So, we are talking about a time commitment of between 3½ and 4½ hours. That’s just single gigs, and then are festivals… Writing time can be extended if you want to listen to a band again after you have seen them or watch any YouTube videos they have of their performances (often helps to check if you got it right.)
This calls into question what music journalism is about. I have sometimes Googled ‘gig reviews’ and gone through some of the stuff that has come up. This can be a useful exercise because any editor should want to compare the standards of his own work with that of others. One thing that stands out for me is that the best reviews (that I have read) are those that have clearly been written by people who know and understand the acts they are writing about. They have seen these acts before; they have listened to their music; they have taken some time to become thoroughly acquainted with the artists they are writing about. This makes them able to provide a justifiable and credible account of the work of that artist or band. Keith Jobey said: “I know of a band who had a bad review (unjustified and not from MIL) about an early gig they’d played. They changed their name partly because it was being used against them. Happily, they are now getting decent slots after positive MIL mentions.”
Standards are important
Looking back over my own experience of going to gigs and writing about them, one thing stands out – I have often not researched a band before seeing it for the first time. This results, in some cases, in a review of a poor standard.
Now, none of this would matter much, except that (a) Music in Leicester is one of the few places where people can read about bands and artists from our local area. We no longer have publications like The Monograph or From Dusk to Dawn and most of the websites that used to publish stuff about the local music scene have vanished. (b) I know for a fact that many promoters, venue managers and festival organisers check what we write here to get a feel for which bands are worth booking.
If there was a website that was a ‘wiki’ for all things musical in Leicester, then probably people would prefer to use that. All that music organisers have is Facebook as a source of intelligence about bands and artists – and that provides information but rarely allows for a more critical appraisal, and if they want to listen to a sample of tracks then Soundcloud and YouTube is also there. Good thought such sources can be, they provide only a partial picture. In most reviews we also try to describe how the audience reacted to what they were hearing; that is often a very important element of our reports.
There is also the issue of genre. Some bands play music that I call ‘niche’; to do it justice, you have to understand what that music is about and that can be difficult for generalist writers. I often see hardcore ‘screamo’ bands; I like some of them and others I do not. I have a general appreciation of this style of music but I do not specialise in it. A review of a post-hardcore gig would be much better done by someone who is really into that kind of music and knows the scene well (such as one of the musicians that play in bands of this kind.)
Publishing a magazine about music in Leicester is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. This website is not a fanzine; it might appear to be but it is not our intention to publish something that only promotes the acts we happen to like. My fear is, however, that it appears to be just that. If this is the case, then I have not been doing my job properly. One solution to this problem is to get more people to write about more acts – to spread the net more widely. We have gone to some lengths to encourage contributions from people but the results have been less than good. Photographers are two a penny these days; but what is the point in seeing photos if there is nothing that puts them in context? Writing is not something that a lot of people go in for these days; either because of a lack of self-confidence or just a consequence of the post-literate society.
As an editor, I am delighted with the contributions made by our regular writers, Keith Jobey for example, to name but one and previously Kevin Gaughan. The problem I have is that there are just not enough people willing to go out to gigs and write them up, and in Leicester, there are just so many gigs, that we can hope only to scratch the surface. As I have often said “so many bands, so little time.”
Where do we go from here?
What does this mean for the future of our editorial policy? Well, I think it means that we have to raise our standards, make what we publish more credible and do a better job of writing about live music. The consequence will be that less will be published. Unless we can recruit more writers, that will be the result, given our current resources. Perhaps it is better to publish good quality reviews, even if they are fewer in number than to make a half-baked attempt to cover a broad field. Bear in mind that anything that gets published on this website (magazine) stays there for all time; it is not ephemeral, it does not evaporate, it is a permanent record that stays on the Internet for as long as the site exists.
My conclusion is that we should write about a band or artist only when we have taken some time and trouble to understand and appreciate their work. Given the pressures I am under, that means I will write much less – especially about the acts I have not seen before or do not know well. If a band is on tour and plays in Leicester (and the chances are they have not been here before) then they might have left behind them comments or write-ups about their previous performances. That gives an indication of what people think about them. Rather than watch a band cold (without any previous knowledge or experience) it is better to spend some time trying to get one’s head around what they do and then (when you do see them) you are more likely to write with credibility about their set.
The end of gig reviews?
As of today, I have cleared all the notes in my workbook. I have more or less finished my review of Simon Says… festival. I have cleared the decks. It is time to make a fresh start. That fresh start should, I think, include doing the right amount of research before going to a gig. It might also include writing about ‘bands’ rather than ‘gigs.’ If you go to a show and see four bands but like only two of them, it would be better to write about those bands and say nothing about the others. (Notice I am talking to myself now.) That is not a gig review.
Recently I have been to certain gigs only because there were one or two bands that I wanted to see. I sat through the rest of the night and wrote about the others because I thought that justified my presence (on a free ticket.) I should stop doing this. The bands I do not write about may well be good bands and worthy of a positive review but that can be a hit-and-miss thing. I might not be the best person to write about them.
I think it would be better if we concentrated more on writing about bands and their music and took a more imaginative approach, including asking for comments from musicians and their fans, adding links to online sources so readers can make up their own minds and profiling bands to give the reader a better idea about what they do and have done.
Like many people, my musical tastes are changing. I know what I like. I know what fails to excite me. The range of live music that I feel impresses me is narrowing. Personally, I tend to like rock music that is popular and melodic. I do not dislike metal, punk, hardcore, etc. but I do not feel the same way about it and know less what makes some bands better than others within this context. I should defer to others who are impressed by that other kind of music. I should not write about performances that are less than exciting (for me.) Others can do that job far better. The problem is getting others to write or even to comment.
This magazine was launched in June 2013; two years on, it is time to weigh-up its results. So, as of now, my gut feeling is that there will not be ‘gig reviews’ in any number and that what will get published are more articles about bands and singers and about the nature of our local music scene. If this provides readers with more solid and credible coverage of music, then I might be doing my job properly.
When reporters are sent to a gig, we ask the promoter of the show to give us free ‘tickets.’ This assumes that we are writing about the gig as a whole. If, however, to go to see one or two bands in a line-up, then we should ask the bands to provide us with tickets. If they want us to review their performances then they should provide us with access to get in to see them. Having said that, some of our reviewers prefer to pay to get into gigs; that is their choice.