This month brings an excellent compilation, Change the Beat: The Celluloid Records Story 1980-1987. Celluloid Records was founded in Paris, France in 1979 by Jean “Karakos” Georgakarakos, who had previously helped create the much-admired BYG label and issued classic free jazz such as Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Message to Our Folks and Sun-Ra’s The Solar-Myth Approach. Just as BYG was a key imprint of the avant-garde revolt of the early 1970s, the label became an influential player in the New Wave culture-clash of 1980s New York.
Before Karakos sold Celluloid in 1988, the label traversed the underground music spectrum: funk improvisations assembled by prolific musician Bill Laswell, imported Afrobeat by Fela Kuti and others, and electro-rap joints from the likes of Grandmixer D.st and Afrika Bambaataa. This appreciation covers some of the major themes of the label’s output, much of which is covered by Change the Beat, and some of which is not.
Most music journalists become successful by identifying a niche. They present themselves as knowledgeable about music culture — specific genre(s), aspects of the business (venues, major label operations, marketing), themes (mainstream vs. underground, chart action) — with hopes that outlets will call on them to write about their expertise.
But that process of accumulating knowledge has to begin somewhere. For some, it’s an outgrowth of fandom. You saw Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on Friday Night Videos and suddenly want to hear Off the Wall; then you spent hours at the record store looking for Jackson 5 LPs; and then you dove into the Motown catalog. Or perhaps you watched Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on 120 Minutes; then you dove into Sub Pop’s catalog, and rented a copy of 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Today, younger critics are just as likely to cite the first time they heard Aaliyah, Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” Radiohead’s Kid A, Lil Wayne’s Da Drought 3…
These are generalized examples. The point is that while we are surrounded by music throughout our lives, there is usually a spark that inspires us to consume music actively instead of passively. The act of turning that passion into a career calling often arrives after that moment.
But can that spark be reduced to a singular moment? No, not for me.
Rest in peace, Mac Miller.
In recent months, I’ve heard a frequent question: “How can I get started in writing about music?”
This question is usually a red herring. Often, the person who asks it really wants to know: how can I achieve the same level of success as you (seem to) have?
There are many reasons why some writers become successful, and others don’t. Not all of those reason have to do with good writing. Many writers achieve infamy through hot-take social media posts, gathering followers and then prominent assignments based on that following. One could charitably argue that these social media antics are merely a form of workshopping. Indeed, by the time those prestige gigs roll in, some of them grow into very fine writers. Others, unfortunately, remain better at spewing eye-catching social media rants than actual stories.
Then there are writers who are good at networking. They hang out at the right concerts, go to the right house parties, befriend the right people…etc. Both strategies are necessary to gathering an audience for your work.
I admit that I entered the industry during the early stages of Web 2.0, when Internet-focused magazines had just begun. Discussion surrounding the issues of the day centered on chat rooms, message boards, and comment sections in published stories. Landing cover bylines in print magazines were the prize, not a byline on a heavily-trafficked website. By the time social media emerged as a dominant force, my career was somewhat established, so I didn’t have to hustle for retweets. Even now, my low follower count indicates that Twitter isn’t a focus for me; my Facebook account is private, and my Instagram account is dormant. Or maybe people just don’t consider my thoughts that important. Who knows?
I believe it’s important to discuss ways to bring your work to a wider audience. However, I also believe that having a successful career is the end result, not the starting point.
At times, music journalism and criticism can be one of the lowest forms of writing in the profession — for many reasons that I may cite at a later date. But at its best, it can be as thought-provoking, informative, and inspiring as any other type of non-fiction prose. These qualities are achieved through practice, not gamesmanship.
During the next several months, I will share my experience, opinions, and expertise on the craft of writing about music. Please keep in mind that I am hardly a brand name. Yes, I have supported myself from writing for nearly 20 years. But I haven’t won any major awards, and I haven’t published books at major publishing houses. I’m not someone an editor at a major magazine calls for a hot cover story. I’m not what I like to call an “ivory tower critic,” an author whose name carries a kind of institutional significance. I just like to write, and I sometimes get paid to do it.
Hopefully my thoughts on this subject will be of some use.
“Negro Americans are not predisposed to follow people. They really aren’t. That’s why there’s always a certain element of chaos in the Negro world, because, see I think from slavery forward we just didn’t like to listen…No! So, somebody telling you over and over you gotta do this? You know, ‘I’m not doing that! Just cause you said that?’
You say, ‘Yes, but it’s right.’
‘I don’t care. So what if it’s right? I ain’t doing it anyway. Why I am I not doing it? For the same reason that Dostoyevsky said I’m not going to do it: so I can tell you that I exist. So I’m just gonna mess your stuff up, right?'”
— Stanley Crouch on Duke Ellington’s big band, Jazz ep. 7, “Dedicated to Chaos”