by Michael Goldberg
Monday, September 30, 2002
How Does One Become A Rock Critic?
Thoughts on a career choice that, really, can't be a choice at all.
The other day, I got an email from a college student interested in the "rock critic" profession (these emails arrive with some regularity; I generally advise that becoming a rock critic is not a smart move). "How does one become a music critic?" he asked. "Is this usually done on a part-time/full-time basis? What are the benefits of becoming a music critic?"
That same day, I happened to visit rockcritics.com, a Web site devoted to what else? rock critics. The site has covered such veteran and still high-profile critics as Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus (full disclosure: they ran an interview with me there too, earlier this year), but their latest was with a writer I'd forgotten all about. His name: Rick Johnson. For a while, in the early-to-mid-'70s, he seemed to be in pretty much every issue of Creem, the Detroit-based gonzo rock mag that was edited, during its heyday, by Dave Marsh and then Lester Bangs.
According to Andrew LaPointe, the writer who tracked Johnson down and eventually interviewed him, Johnson currently lives "quietly in Macomb, Illinois, where he manages a newspaper and cigar shop...."
Johnson, who once also contributed to Phonograph Record Magazine, Fusion and Oui, has been compared to the masters of gonzo rock journalism. Onetime Creem writer Richard Riegel, in a separate interview on rockcritics.com, described Johnson as [Lester] Bangs' and [Richard] Meltzer's "equal as a rock writer, even though his style was very different (more 'postmodern,' for whatever that's worth)."
But Johnson, a Creem "star" when he was in his 20s, is no longer a rock critic; it's been decades since he's written for publication. After Creem folded, Johnson told LaPointe, he didn't find a market for his idiosyncratic style: "...the way I wrote boy! It was not commercial and believe me, nobody wanted it."
While there are plenty of rock critics who first made their mark in the '60s and early '70s who still make a living as writers Ed Ward, John Morthland and of course Marsh, Marcus and Christgau, to name but a few there are many more who, like Johnson, ultimately couldn't make a go of it.
These days, there are thousands of music critics. The review sections of Blender and Q and Mojo and Entertainment Weekly and even Rolling Stone (since the makeover) are filled with micro-reviews by an endless stream of critics. It would seem that as the length of the average record review has shrunk, the number of critics has multiplied. According to Lee Ballinger, who edits Rock & Rap Confidential, the music newsletter that runs a yearly international music-writers poll, they've currently got over 4,000 music writers, located around the globe, in their database. "I'm sure there's a lot more out there," Ballinger said in an email.
Can you imagine? And I don't believe that list includes writers contributing to the hundreds of college newspapers, where, every year, a new batch of would-be Lester Bangses are spawned.
Most people who write reviews of music (or books or films) don't make a living doing it. Even some of the legends of rock criticism have had a hard time turning a passion for music into a career. In 1976, after five years working at Creem in Detroit, Lester Bangs was earning just $175 a week as the magazine's editor. He quit that summer, and quickly found it difficult to make a decent living as a freelance writer. "Review copies of new albums continued to arrive on Lester's doorstep daily, but the paychecks gracing his mailbox came to be fewer and further in between...," wrote Jim DeRogatis in his Bangs bio, "Let It Blurt." "Right now I have no assignments outstanding, a condition which will have to be remedied this week or I'll be eating Twinkies in November," Bangs wrote to his agent, James Grauerholz in September 1977. Historically, to get by, rock critics sold many of the free albums the record companies sent and dined at record-company press functions.
The irony of becoming a professional rock critic is that I believe many of us who write about music began doing it in our teens or early 20s because of a passion for both writing and music. We weren't thinking about "making a living," especially if we were still in school. Plus, it just didn't cost that much to survive in the late '60s and early '70s. In those days, you could get a pretty nice two-bedroom apartment that you could share with a friend for less than $200 a month in San Francisco (I know, I did just that). Food was cheap; as a rock critic you got more free albums than you could possibly listen to, you could get into shows for free seven days a week if you wanted, and if you hustled, there seemed to be plenty of outlets that paid OK (for the early-to-mid-'70s, anyway).
These days, that's just not the case. Unless you happen to be published by the New Yorker, or are on staff somewhere, surviving on freelance writing gigs is a trying (for most impossible) enterprise. Writers who started writing professionally because they had something to say have found themselves in the role of hired guns, pounding out stories because it's something an editor wants, not something they really want to write about.
Or, like Rick Johnson, they've sought out other ways to support themselves, and write more as a hobby, or not at all.
Which leads me back to the questions that opened this column: How does one become a music critic? Is this usually done on a part-time/full-time basis? What are the benefits of becoming a music critic?
To that first question, I could be cute and respond: If you have to ask, it's not the career for you. But I'll elaborate: Rock critics, to generalize, are people obsessed with music, who think and talk about it compulsively, and who feel compelled to articulate, in writing, their opinions and ideas about the music that in some way (good or bad) touches them. For most, at least at the beginning, there's not a whole lot of choice involved. You feel like it's your "calling."
To the second question, I would say: Whatever you can pull off. There's no "right way" to be a rock critic. If you can do it full time and make a living, more power to you. But if you hold down some kind of job to pay the bills, and use your free time for writing, well, nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest rock writers in the world have done it that way.
But to the last question, I can only respond in the narrowest of ways. I can't speak for all "rock critics." I can guess at the "benefits" that others get from seeing their work published, but I only know for sure what I get (and have gotten) from an adult life (certainly since I was 18) spent listening to, thinking about and writing about music.
It feels as natural for me as breathing. New music is sustenance, and figuring out what it is about a song, or an album, or a band that has excited me, working it out and turning it into prose is something I have to do. Of course it's not just that I "have" to do it, I want to do it, and feel a great satisfaction when I've completed a piece that strikes me as up to my personal standards.
But writing about music is really something I have to do. "Benefits" is not the right word at all. It reminds me of things like "health plans" and 401K plans and the like. Nothing wrong with those things (everyone deserves a health plan), it's just that when it comes to being a rock critic, if you're wondering if you're going to have medical coverage or have a secure retirement, I suggest you pursue a different career.