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A Scumbling Writer: The Process, Mistakes and Lessons

By Published: September 2, 2012
The answers to all my questions would be easy if we could remain professional, with no emotional input, but for music in particular this is impossible because the music itself has an impact on your soul. You connect with the people you are writing about, especially with jazz which reaches out to the audience in a spiritual way. If someone plays and it touches your heart and soul, of course you are involved—how can you not be? It may make you laugh out loud or take you to places sublime but whatever, you have an emotional price to pay for writing and, to some extent, you make yourself vulnerable to the vagaries of human nature because you may always treat people fairly but you cannot assume they will reciprocate. Some may be naive, ignorant or damn right rude. You are always writing disarmed because of the very subject you write about.

However, all this is far outweighed by the positives. Personally, I have a few policies which work. If I am using quotes from musicians I give them a preview of the part with their quote so they can see the context and comment. This ensures I get the quote and their message right. Some simply say it is OK to use their quotes in any way I like, but others insist on being quoted verbatim which is not always easy because spoken words do not always translate exactly into text and read how they want them to.

Most musicians love being written about—it is good PR, their name gets mentioned and an honest review, even a critical one, can help them to provide better gigs for audiences and increase numbers—an important part of free and improvised playing. One recent review I wrote was critical in terms of the sound the audience got and the level of communication and I admit, I was a little worried because I liked the guy, but he came back thanking me for being honest and agreeing that, if the audience were not getting much from the gigs, the problem needed sorting. I have an invite to another gig and an invitation to write again.

Musicians respect writers who are upfront and honest. One manager told me that it is unusual for a writer to let them see a piece before it is used (though I never promise to change it) but that he really appreciated it. I see it that I am writing about people's careers and few people have jobs where they are vetted and written about as they work. What writers write can have an impact, especially as their work is read more widely so we have a definite responsibility.

Musicians, like any other industry, consist of a range of people and characters. Some are very forthcoming, some take a long time and getting decent quotes is like getting blood out of a stone. Some want to control what you write and these can be the hardest to deal with because any writer worth their salt will always be their own person and never write opinions at the behest of another. Diplomacy and tact are vital tools.

Some musicians insist on direct conversations and are wary of emailing quotes or answers—after all, they do not know you are who you say you are; anyone might say they are "Sammy." This is understandable and it is often from a conversation or meeting that the best articles (and friendships) develop.

Then you get the musician who wants you to write about them and their music and you do not want to. This is tricky because you do not wish to discourage but at the same time, you have to be honest and write about people you can connect with or understand and if you cannot, then someone else should be writing.

Editors can be helpful or not as well. Some are really quick to pick up an idea and commission. Others may come back a few months later and ask you to write a piece for the next week. I ran an idea past an editor several months ago about a band's 35th anniversary and he said it was interesting but outside their remit. Then last month he came back to me and asked for the article and gave me one week to complete. What about his remit? It is paid, I wrote it.

I would say to would-be writers that when you write, whatever genre of jazz (or other music) this is for, you will have setbacks, but if you keep going, understand and respect not only the musicians but yourself and your work, you will find success. Take responsibility and see writing for what it is—the voice of the musicians away from the actual music —and then you will find it easier. Writing about music is a roller coaster. You will meet some fantastic people. I have been in contact with musicians I admired for a long time. I found them mostly warm and encouraging, some verbose, others succinct and to the point, others still frustratingly difficult to get a quote from as they go all round the houses, even with direct questions, before they give you something you can use.

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