How To Become a Music Critic
What Exactly Does a Music Critic Do?
Music Critics are employed by newspapers and blogs to interview musicians, review performances and albums, and sometimes cover music news. Although most publications have a few full-time Music Critics on staff, due to the increasing importance of music blogs, more and more critics work freelance. Of a typical day on the job, Music Critic Nate Patrin says, “I freelance, so it’s a mix of things — listening to new albums as I get them, checking social media/blogs for info and leads on things people are talking about or just random stuff that seems interesting, pitching story ideas/reviews to editors, and doing the writing, research, and interview work itself. Even on the slowest days, I’m usually doing at least two or three of these things during working hours, which can be a few hours of the day or the majority of my waking hours depending on deadlines and workload.”
Since the job involves a lot of time behind the computer, day-to-day work can be solitary. As to people he works with, Patrin says, “I contact Publicists every so often, but the vast majority of my working relationships are with Editors.”
Advancement for a Music Critic would mean getting hired by more prestigious, well-known and better-paying publications. Freelance work could turn into a salaried position at a newspaper or blog. Patrin says, “Prospects for advancement seem to shift every few years as the music writing market expands and contracts and changes focus; starting out doing reviews and moving on to working on larger features, opinion pieces, interviews, profiles, etcetera still seems to be the order of the day.”
Education & Training
Many Music Critics major in Journalism or English in college, but a degree is not required for this position. The biggest training required is frequent writing practice and reading quality music criticism to see how the pros do it. Patrin says, “I didn’t go to journalism school or even have a significant college education, so the way I managed to get educated — and this seems even more applicable now with social media and easily accessible music — is to listen to a ton of music, read writing about that music, reach out to the people writing about that music, and basically do as much work as you can to find your voice and work out your ideas. Maybe that means blogging for free for a while, but whatever gets you in the spirit and mode of writing on a regular basis.”
What skills do you need to be a Music Critic?
The experience and skills needed to land a gig as a Music Critic are connected to the writing and researching skills that should be part of a Critic’s training. Patrin advises aspiring Music Critics to “network with folks, write honestly and for enthusiasm’s sake, listen, explore, fall into Discogs.com holes the way other people get lost inside Wikipedia for hours at a time. I got started at the end of the ’90s when the internet was still something of a secondary market for writing, but I imagine it’s not much difference now: reach out to people, and show you’re passionate about something. It helps if you’re coming at things from a perspective that isn’t always front-and-center in music criticism; we need more writers who have as little as possible in common with the Lester Bangs demographic.”
Working as a Music Critic can demand a lot of solitary hours, a thick skin, and late nights spent at shows. So, who’s right for this kind of work? Patrin says, “Someone who’s both very opinionated and very willing to question their own opinions. You might wind up interrogating yourself fairly often in the process of figuring out why you might like or dislike something, and you have to approach it in a way that keeps you out of an ‘I’m the center of the universe’ sort of headspace. You also have to be nonchalant about reader praise and twice as much about reader insults, though you should also be open to constructive criticism — grateful when it’s positive; reflective when it’s negative. It can be hard, and you can and will screw up in public, sometimes to a chorus of detractors. So long as you can figure out when detractors have a point and when they’re just being reactionaries, you can go from there.”
Although some Music Critics work in offices, the majority work from home, so it can be isolating. As Patrin mentioned above, a Critic’s daily schedule varies depending on the workload from a few hours of writing a busy day where deadlines must be met. He says, “It can be pretty indoorsy, though part of the job can and will involve going out to live shows (often for free!) so that’s an incentive in itself.”
Most Critics start from the bottom, often working for free to gain experience and build up their writing portfolio. This can mean starting your own blog or working for another blog that only uses volunteer writers. With enough of your own press clips, you apply for jobs at paying publications or pitch article ideas to editors. Patrin says, “It’s a cycle of working and pitching. Work for yourself, reach out to peers, work some more, pitch to an outlet, work for the outlet, pitch to additional outlets, build a portfolio. “
How Much Does a Music Critic make?
On average, Music Critics earn approximately $52,600 per year. The salary range for Music Critics runs from $10,000 to $221,000.
Although some staff Music Critics are salaried, most Critics are paid on an individual basis. “Most of the outlets I write for pay per article. When I started out in print it was more often on a per-word basis, but I think internet readership metrics have changed things enough that it’s a flat rate depending on the prominence and length of the article,” Patrin says.
Unions, Groups & Associations
As mentioned before, networking is important to get Music Critic jobs. Patrin says, “I subscribe to the Freelancers Union newsletter and keep tabs on what they’ve got to say as far as work/life advice. I also make it a point to try and hit the EMP Pop Conference as often as possible; it’s a great way to both network and learn.”
Because news never stops happening, it’s vital for Music Critics to stay informed. It’s also important to keep reading quality writing, not to mention that if you read a website regularly, you’ll be more likely to know when and if they’re hiring. Patrin says, “Most music websites have links and info on their writers’ social media pages, so follow a bunch of writers you like on Twitter for starters. What sites to follow depends on what your tastes and interests are, and fortunately it feels right now like there are enough distinct voices between Pitchfork, Stereogum, Fader, Complex, Spin, Rolling Stone, Metalsucks, Resident Advisor, Paste, Flavorwire, and whatever other sites there are that might aim towards a certain taste and sensibility.”
It’s important to expand your knowledge base and build your writing portfolio before you search for a paid job. Aspiring Music Critics should:
- Network with other Music Journalists.
- Listen to lots of music and read lots of music criticism.
- Start your own blog or become a volunteer writer at a blog so you can build your writing portfolio.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Listen. Listen to music, listen to your peers, listen to people you disagree with, listen to people talking about something you’ve never heard of. The more you listen to, the more you have to bounce ideas off when you’re getting your own thing going.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Burning bridges. Starting arguments with other writers can be fun or cathartic (or even necessary), but if you’re not careful they can also escalate into ridiculousness and/or genuine hostility pretty quick unless you’re diplomatic. And when it’s in (internet) public it might be easy to get a rep for being someone who’s hard to deal with, even if it’s just a thing that flared up because you’re having an unusually bad day. Choose your battles well — calling someone out for being culturally ignorant can be important; spitting venom because they said something snarky about your favorite artist should probably slide.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Any question about how useful ranked lists might be for music criticism. (Speaking for myself, I find playlists a lot more interesting.)”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?