So you want to write about jazz



Writing about jazz music is many things. It is difficult writing about what is still viewed as a niche genre, but it is also satisfying to know that people share experiences you have watching or listening to jazz. If you want to write, you can, if you are lucky, reach a wide audience. Many columns carry reviews, articles, and features on jazz music and the artists themselves. Don't expect to get paid by many of them - passionate jazz aficionados primarily run them. While they may make a little money from carrying adverts, this goes back into keeping the sites online, paying subscriptions to the service provider, and so on.

There are pitfalls, and I outline some of these below.


Promises, promises


I was a Senior Writer for a medium-sized European jazz site. They said on many occasions that they would start to pay contributors just as soon as the site made some money. The rapport between myself and the editor was fine until I asked when any money could come contributors' way, as I could see adverts on the site and the trips the founders were makiing. I was getting early morning and late-night calls, and they were demanding, so it was a lot of work writing for them. They said, 'soon.' Then I went and taught in Ecuador for a year. I had met a woman who said she would do anything to write for a column, so I suggested she write some pieces for the European column while I was away. She did, and the next thing I knew, I was out; she was a senior writer, and my emails to the editor eventually got a reply threatening legal action if I continued to ask.

For another magazine, I was told if I wrote three articles for their online magazine, I would be switched to their paper magazine and become a paid contributor. I wrote the first two articles, and they did well. However, the third article was rejected and sent back many times. I began to realise they would never transfer me to the paper magazine. Meantime, a pianist I knew was excited because she had been asked to write for them - same criteria as I had - hmmmmm. I realised this was how they get a rolling lineup of contributors for their online magazine.

Then there are the people whose behaviour is just odd, like the woman who put a massive post on social media saying I had used her advice on one of my books, she was responsible for 'improving my work' etc., and I had used her. I had not, but there was nothing I could do about it. Then there was the guy who accused me of only writing about women and only writing about free jazz - this was a PR guy whose music he sent me I politely turned down for review as it was not my kind of jazz.

Also, the people who put single-star reviews against every one of my books on the same day (fast readers or what!) and five-star reviews against the same musician - as if they want me to believe it is the musician putting the one-star reviews up. Or the person who asked the Jazz Journalist association why they appointed me International Editor without advertising the post (JJA is a charity, and the appointment came after discussions between myself and a founder), as she had a lot to offer. Or the nasty emails ( anonymous and untraceable) via my website. It happened, but I was warned that people did this kind of thing. Sad really.



The copycats.


Sadly, once you are published regularly, some see you as an easy stepping-stone for their creative outlet. I have had this myself. I have had a writer who copied almost every idea I had. She followed everyone I did on social media, flattering them and asking to review them. I had to take the extreme step of blocking her on every social media site, but she still managed to screenshot my posts and send them to someone else (who sent them on to me, as she was a little surprised). The reassuring thing is most musicians dislike her writing, which makes me feel slightly better, but the behaviour was a little odd. I wish her well, which brings me on to another thing.

Always remember it is about the music/artist, not the writer (you), so try not to ( unless relevant) bring in the fact that you are also a musician/writer/drummer/singer/whatever.


The users


Along the way, you will be offered 'exposure' for your work. As a jazz writer, I already understand most sites don't pay, and this is completely fine with me as I am an author and have other work, but many writers write for free, believing it will lead to paid work. I think the advice for a music writer is to accept that most sites don't pay. Some pay commissions as one-offs, but for that to happen, you need amazing ideas and to know the magazine well.

I try not to accept free tickets to gigs because I think this makes you biased, even subconsciously. It is different if the venue is offering press tickets or a PR company who is organizing an event provides a press package, but I think to take the money from musicians or take a ticket that they could otherwise sell is somehow wrong. Some musicians use you, cultivating friendship, inviting you to gigs, and so on with the sole purpose of asking you to review, which should be expected. After all, you are a reviewer.

I have also had people want an awful lot of work for free. One musician wanted me to write about 100 releases he had reached - a page per release - for the 'exposure.'

So there are pitfalls just as in every other industry. However, mostly, these are countered by the positivity your work can create, the people who enjoy what you do, and the musicians who contact you to tell you your work made a difference.

If on balance, you still want to write about jazz music, I offer the following advice.


Always write to high standards.


Whether you are asked to write five lines or an essay, and no matter how rushed you feel, write to the highest standard. Write a piece, sleeve notes, post and put it to one side, come back to it, read it aloud, and imagine you were reading it for the first time. What does it tell you? Can you imagine being at the event or hearing a musician play or sing if it is a review? Is all the information you need there to buy the music or find out when the artist is playing next?

If you are working on a longer piece, create a synopsis - a plan of the article. Use Introduction, main body, and conclusion. The Introduction sets the scene and introduces the piece and tone - serious, tongue in cheek, whatever your style and choice ( so long as you can get it published). The main body contains the facts, descriptions, quotes, and experiences. The conclusion sums up, draws it together, and completes the piece.


Do your research.


Before you write for a column or magazine — check them out. It is too easy to read a couple of pieces and think your work will fit in with their style. Make sure it fits their ethos and subjects. When you start, it can be tempting to try and get a publisher to use a new idea, but this comes later once you have built up a relationship and trust. Initially, you must be respectful enough to have checked their magazine or site. Once you have got one piece published and more on the way, discussions about new ideas can be held, and often editors prove more than willing to consider ideas from a writer so long as they understand the magazine and how they work. Many jazz magazines, online ones included, rely on advertisers. So, your work might be rejected because the label of the artist you are writing about does not advertise on that site or in that magazine. You can either ask the label if they would consider advertising so they can get their artists reviewed or decide you do not want to get involved in this side and move on.


Value relationships with editors and musicians


It should go without saying but the value of connections, introductions, and working out who's who is paramount for getting your work published. It takes a while to work things out, but most writers write for just a few solid outlets, where they know the editor will understand their ideas and, while they may not always take them, there will be discussion and mutual respect.

I would say, once you have editors willing to work with you because they know you produce quality work, there are also things a writer needs from the publishers. Think about your progress and career as a writer. If a publication does not pay you and does nothing to bring your work to attention, move on and work with those who show they value and respect it. These include sharing articles on social media and other outlets, replying to your queries, and remaining positive and not too pushy. Editors have writers they want to encourage and those they rarely respond to. They are looking for writers whose work gets read, which means they get greater clicks on the site, making them more attractive to advertisers, and they can keep the sites going. Never forget that editors and publishers are often as passionate about the music as the writers.

I usually work directly with musicians, and if I work via a PR company, I ask for a direct quote ( and think of a decent question or two) from the artist so my review stands out from the others as they will all have received the same EPK.

Other tips - write with passion, be honest, and make it about sharing the music.

I have dared to approach musicians I never thought would reply, let alone want to work with me, and got a positive response. I also have supportive and far-seeing editors who offer an outlet for my creative ideas, but there was a journey to this place, and I hope this article shares the pitfalls and offers, I hope, encouragement.


Approaching a site


First, check out their reviews, articles, and ideas. Check out the writers too. If you like what you see, and feel your work fits, approach them. If not, don't because it can be demoralising to get an email from an annoyed editor because you have not checked out the site first.

Next, check their list to see who to connect with. Go as high up as you can. If you are approaching a magazine, you might email the admin first, checking you are following their standard, published method of approach. Follow this because if you do not, it shows you did not check out the site, and you are maybe a bit arrogant - editors like compliancy (at least at first). Always be polite, don't argue if they say no, and move on.

Then connect - send them your idea. I would start like this. Say you went to a Stella Efron gig and managed to get a chat and quote as well. title of email - Stella Efron gig review

Hello ( name of the editor),

I am ( your name),

I am a writer with a novel behind me ( or whatever experience you have). I am a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association and an accredited writer on their site ( or other professional criteria. If you have none yet, leave this). I wondered if you might take a review of the Peter Brotmann concert at Bremnan on 21st May ( once you get your first review up, you can do this before you go to a gig, so you know you are writing for the magazine - this also helps because you can tell people you are writing for ( name of magazine). You might get closer to the players to get unique quotes and insights).

The piece goes like this:

Introduction - briefly about Stella, the venue, date, time (always remember who, what, where, when should go in the opening) the concert series

Gig - atmosphere, band members - how long since Ella played with her current band.

Numbers played, playing, solos, etc quality of music. How it made you feel.

Conclusion - overall sense of gig,

The review also includes a quote from Stelle Efron, Mick Uppie and Jo Smythe of the band and a comment from the venue. The piece is ready to go ( 500 words)

I look forward to hearing from you

regards ( your name).


Conclusion


When you get negative feed back, don't dwell on it. If you get a bit of bullying, move on, the problem is not yours. See copying your work as flattery and if someone puts up incorrect facts, leave it, again, the problem is not yours and people forget. Just keep doing what you do best.

One final thing - you will feel highs and lows. Sometimes, it will feel like you are working very hard and noone notices or cares but there are also times when you feel deep inside, you did a good job and are changing how people see music. ALways hang on to the good things. I have kept on with the writing - even publishing my last book when the publisher split at the top, leaving me without an editor. I found an amazing team and we eventually got 'The Wonder of Jazz' onshelves and it is selling OK. So don't give up if you want to write. Good luck.