Music journalists report on the latest music releases and public performances of all genres. Their work appears in print and online newspapers and magazines, or is used in radio or television broadcasts. They work on periodical staffs or as freelance writers.
Music Journalist Career History
As newspapers have grown in size and widened the scope of their coverage, it became necessary to increase the number of employees and to assign them specialized jobs. This includes assigning reporters to different “beats,” such as local and national news, sports, and entertainment. This latter category was soon subdivided into smaller groups, such as celebrity news, restaurant reviews, and music.
Today, the writings of music journalists are included in periodicals printed all over the country. These specialized reporters have become crucial parts of newspaper staffs and other news mediums, such as magazines, radio, and television. With the advent of the Internet, many periodicals are going online, bringing the work of many music journalists to the Web.
Most magazines and newspapers have sections that focus on entertainment; others, such as Rolling Stone and Blender, focus entirely on music reviews and reporting. In either case, music journalists will continue to be in demand to write knowledgeable and creative articles about artists, bands, record sales, and the music industry.
Music Journalist Job Description
Music journalists write about new releases and recent performances of all types of musicians. They research artists or bands, watch or listen to them perform, and then write a review or story. Some music journalists also write columns for newspaper or magazine publication or commentary for radio or television broadcast.
Music journalists conduct their research by attending musical shows or listening to compact discs or music in other formats. If they are reviewing a live performance, they have to take notes of the concert’s venue, crowd, atmosphere, and other factors that will make their review more interesting and thorough.
Though some music writers may simply report objectively on music news, most write criticism. To garner respect and credibility, their opinions on performances or recordings must be fair, but honest. To do this, music journalists compare the performance or album release with previous works of the artist or band in question and compare it with other similar music artists. For example, if a journalist is reviewing a young pop star’s latest CD, he or she would not compare it to work of a classical orchestra, but perhaps might hold it up to work of rock stars from previous eras, such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, or the Rolling Stones.
Music journalists write more than just reviews. They also write personal articles about artists and bands. These stories may originate as an assignment from a music editor or as the result of a lead or news tip. Good music journalists are always on the lookout for new story ideas.
To write a personal music article, music journalists gather and verify facts by interviewing the artist or band and also talk to people involved in the production or organization of a music show or recording. During interviews, journalists generally take notes or use a tape recorder to collect information and write the story once back in their office. When under tight deadline, music journalists might have little time between their last interview and publication, and may enlist the help of editors and other writers to review and help organize their material. Together, they will decide what emphasis, or angle, to give the story and make sure it is written to meet prescribed standards of editorial style and format.
Music journalists are employed either as in-house staff or as freelance writers. Pay varies according to experience and the position, but freelancers must provide their own office space and equipment such as computers, phones, and fax machines. Freelance writers also are responsible for attracting clients, keeping tax records, sending out invoices, negotiating contracts, and providing their own health insurance.
Music Journalist Career Requirements
High school courses that will provide you with a firm foundation for a music reporting career include English, journalism, music history, band, communications, typing, and computer science. Speech courses will help you hone your interviewing skills, which are necessary for success as a journalist. In addition, it will be helpful to take college prep courses, such as foreign language, history, math, and science.
Most newspapers, magazines, and other employers of music journalists want reporters with at least a bachelor’s degree, and a graduate degree will give you an advantage when applying for positions.
Many music writers have backgrounds in general journalism. More than 400 colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in journalism. In these schools, approximately three-fourths of a student’s time is devoted to a liberal arts education and one-fourth to the professional study of journalism, with required courses such as introductory mass media, basic reporting and copy editing, history of journalism, and press law and ethics. Students are encouraged to select other journalism courses according to their specific interests (in this case, music classes).
Other music journalists get their educational background in music. They may major in music theory, criticism, or performance and develop their writing skills by minoring in journalism or simply through reporting experience.
In addition to formal course work, most employers look for practical writing experience. If you have worked on high school or college newspapers, yearbooks, or literary magazines, you will make a better candidate, as well as if you have worked for small community newspapers or radio stations, even in unpaid positions. Many book publishers, magazines, newspapers, and radio and television stations have summer internship programs that provide valuable training if you want to learn about the publishing and broadcasting businesses. Interns do many simple tasks, such as running errands and answering phones, but some may be asked to perform research, conduct interviews, or even write some minor pieces.
In order to succeed as a music journalist, it is crucial that you have typing and computer skills to write up stories under tight deadlines. Although not essential, knowledge of shorthand or speedwriting makes note taking easier, and an acquaintance with photography is an asset.
You must also be inquisitive, aggressive, persistent, and detail-oriented. You should enjoy interaction with people of various races, cultures, religions, economic levels, and social statuses. For some jobs—on a newspaper, for example, where the activity is hectic and deadlines are short—the ability to concentrate and produce under pressure is essential.
Music criticism is a highly specialized field, one that blends music knowledge and expressive writing skills. The glamour of attending concerts and meeting musicians is an undeniable benefit. However, the journalist’s job also includes possible stress and irregular hours. To succeed as a journalist, you have to have passion about the subject in which you write. You should be able to appreciate (if not like) all forms of music and have in-depth knowledge of the evolution of music trends, scenes, and sounds to place artists in their historical context.
Exploring Music Journalist Career
You can explore a career as a music journalist in a number of ways. Talk to reporters and editors at local newspapers and radio and TV stations. Interview the admissions counselor at the school of journalism closest to your home to get a sense of the type of students who apply and are accepted into journalism programs.
You should also read the work of music journalists to get a sense of how they organize and structure their reviews and articles. Take note of when a music reporter writes a particularly positive or negative review and how he or she handles writing it honestly but tactfully.
In addition to taking courses in English, journalism, music, speech, computer science, and typing, high school students can acquire practical experience by working on school newspapers or a community organization’s newsletter. Part-time and summer jobs with newspapers or radio stations provide invaluable experience to the aspiring music reporter.
Music journalists write for newspapers, magazines, wire services, and radio and television broadcasts. They may write for general news periodicals that have entertainment sections or for specialty music magazines, such as Rolling Stone. Some work as staff writers, but many are freelancers and write for several publications.
A fair amount of experience is required before you can call yourself a music journalist. Most people start out in entry-level positions, such as junior writer, copy editor, or researcher. These jobs may be listed with college career services offices or they can be obtained by applying directly to individual publishers or broadcasting companies. Graduates who previously held internships at newspapers, radio stations or related employers often have the advantage of knowing someone who can give them a personal recommendation and leads on jobs. Want ads in newspapers and trade journals are another source for jobs. Because of the competition for staff writer positions, however, few vacancies are listed with public or private employment agencies.
Once you schedule an interview, the employer will want to see samples of your published writing. These should be assembled in an organized portfolio or scrap-book. By-lined or signed articles are more credible (and, as a result, more useful) than stories from unidentified sources.
One helpful source when applying for jobs is the Editor & Publisher International Year Book: The Encyclopedia of the Newspaper Industry (New York: Editor & Publisher, 2005). This publication lists names and addresses of newspapers and other publishers and is available for reference in most public libraries.
Music journalists can advance in many ways. As they gain recognition and respect as music experts, they may be assigned to cover more highly anticipated concerts or music releases. They can also advance by working for larger newspapers, magazines, or other media outlets. They may choose to move into other reporting jobs, such as general entertainment reporter or editorial writer. Music journalists can also move into higher paying jobs such as head entertainment editor or even editor in chief of a music publication.
Freelance or self-employed writers earn advancement in the form of larger fees as they gain exposure and establish their reputations as music critics and writers.
There are great variations in the earnings of music journalists. Salaries are related to experience, the type and size of media outlet for which the writer works, and geographic location.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median salary for reporters was $31,320 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent of these workers earned $18,470 or less per year, while the highest paid 10 percent made $68,250 or more annually. In the same year, reporters who worked in radio and television broadcasting had average annual earnings of $37,840.
Music journalists have sometimes glamorous jobs, getting tickets to sold-out shows, hearing new albums before they are released to the public, or interviewing popular rock stars, bands, and other musicians. However, these reporters work under a great deal of pressure in settings that differ from the typical business office. Their physical surroundings range from private offices to noisy, crowded newsrooms filled with other workers typing and talking on the telephone. Music journalists also have to travel to music venues or studios to hear performances or conduct interviews. These work environments can be loud and/or dark—generally not the best settings in which to write.
Though the work can be hectic and stressful, music journalists are seldom bored. People who are the most content as music writers have a passion for music and enjoy and work well with deadline pressure.
Music Journalist Career Outlook
The Occupational Outlook Handbook projects that the employment of reporters (in general) will grow more slowly than the average through 2014. However, specialty writers, such as music journalists, may experience greater employment opportunities due to their expertise and knowledge.
The demand for music journalists will be higher in large cities such as New York, Chicago, or Seattle because of their large and busy music scenes. But those just breaking into journalism might find better luck starting at smaller community newspapers and other publications. In general, opportunities will be best for writers who are willing to relocate and accept relatively low starting salaries. With experience, music writers at small papers can move up to editing positions or may choose to transfer to reporting jobs at larger newspapers or magazines.
A significant number of jobs will be provided by magazines. In addition, strong employment growth is expected for music journalists who write for online newspapers and magazines.