Writing about music, dancing about architecture

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recordsThis morning, on Facebook, an old friend of mine asked me this question:

“Why are you not a full-time music journalist???”

He’s no journalist himself, you should know, so we’ll forgive him the over-enthusiastic punctuation.

There are a few answers to this question and, the longer I delayed sending a facebook-sized response, the more they enumerated. I thought I would write them down. Here’s where I got to.

1. I’m not good enough

Really. That’s not false modesty, or dismal compliment fishing, it’s a plain fact. Writing about music is everywhere now. Lots and lots and lots of people do it. I don’t read a huge amount of it, but what I do leaves me reeling. Whether it’s a 140 character tweet or a 2000-word essay, the wit, insight and sheer depth of thought that goes into much of the writing out there these days is something to behold. Take into account how quickly some of this stuff appears, thought constructions which would take me weeks to arrange and complete even if I could, and there’s only one conclusion to draw. I’m not good enough.

Actually, there’s a second possible conclusion: that the Universe is governed by an omnipotent robot god with a degree in cultural studies, and the big metal arsehole is dicking me around.

2. I don’t know enough

From the late 1980s to the mid 1990s, I felt like I pretty much knew what was happening in contemporary pop, rock and alternative music, and had a decent grip on hip-hop and emerging electronic music too. Nowadays i’m nowhere. In fact i’m so far from being anywhere that I stopped even trying to swim for shore many years ago. Treading water can be nice. It’s fun and satisfying to write again about records I loved years ago (and really great on the rare occasions when these bits strike chords with other fans, or even the creators, of the music – hello Dart and Dumb) but ask me to tie these records in to a topography of the current musical landscape and, well, nope. You might as well ask an etchasketch artist to draw a map of the fourth dimension.

3. I don’t even know what I think about music any more.

The more I think, the less I know. In some circles, realising this is a sign of enlightenment, of self-realisation. For me it’s a sign of weakness of opinion, of muddiness of thought, paucity of reference, lack of critical imagination or, in some cases, just plain failure of memory (“Oh hey guys, this sounds just like…! Oh damn, I had it there for a second…”)

4. I’m not sure I want to know.

When I tell my wife that I love her, she sometimes asks me “why”. I tell her I don’t know and I don’t want to know. If I knew why, I’d have it figured out for good, and I could stop. I don’t want to stop.

5. I was, once.

For ten years or so I wrote for The Big Issue in the North and for more than half that time I was Music Editor. I enjoyed it, most of the time. I got to hear a load of music I would never have come across otherwise, and that turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. For years, I had to produce three album reviews each week. That’s no chore but, once you start to factor in real life, including a full-time job, then the available time begins to slip through your fingers. From time to time I would spend a lot of time getting to know a record, developing my thoughts and finding the perfect formulation to allow me to squeeze these, along with some of the facts and also, ideally, some entertaining turns of phrase, into 150 or 300 words. Occasionally.

By the time I finished, if necessary, I could complete a perfectly acceptable 150 word review before i’d finished my first listen to almost any record. When I began writing about music for my university Student Newspaper I did so not because I wanted personal exposure but because I wanted to try to work out what made me love the music that was, by then, so central to my life and sense of self. By the time I finished, I seemed to be farther away from reaching my initial goal than ever.

The sheer volume of stuff I was sent and had to listen to shaped my tastes and listening habits in ways i’m only just starting to appreciate. When I came out of that period, I was relieved. For years, the music I had spent time with had almost entirely been dictated by whatever was in the envelopes which came through my door each week. My tastes were being developed by PR people. By the time I was done, I wanted control back again and, along the way, I chucked away dustbin loads of CDs.

Now, years later, my taste ranges across a wider spectrum than it did before those piles of records passed through my hands. I love lots of music a great deal, but I no longer know the names of tracks, players, producers. Instead i’m flighty, skittering from place to place, craving those moments when something comes along which is totally beyond my frame of reference. Without the enforced catholicism of those listening years I might know the name of every Pavement song, but I dare say I might have just stopped there.

6. I’m not driven enough.

When I used to write a lot about music I was happiest when I was doing it for my own satisfaction, as an exercise. Those few pieces I wrote which I can still remember being most happy with are those that, whilst writing them, brought me to an epiphany about some aspect of the record, artist, genre or myself.

I never felt like I wanted to spend any time persuading other people to publish or read my writing. Most jobbing music writers do have this feeling, I think.

7. I’m not even sure such things exist any more.

I guess they do, but full-time? I wonder how many people can count themselves full-time professional music writers in the UK? A few dozen? I refer you to my previous points 1 and 6.

8. I’m a full-time something else.

So, you know, now I have even less time than I have inclination.

9. I am. And so is everyone else.

To the extent that I want to be, I am. I started writing about music fully 8 years before the word ‘blog’ was first coined. Now everyone who wants to can write about music and share their writing with the world. Sure, sure, that’s good and bad, but for someone like me who just wants to figure stuff out once in a while, and doesn’t want or expect to set the world on fire, that’s just fine.

So, thanks for asking the question Simon. Hope this covers it. I wish I had more time to do something about points 1, 2 and 3, but for now, i’m pretty happy with my ability to write when I want, even if not with what I tend to produce.

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