Breaking Barriers

So let’s assume that Collapse Board is right, and that there are a slew of people out there who want to write about music but just aren’t getting the breaks. Maybe the Australian music press really is incredibly sexist – but in a country famed for its, uh, less progressive views, that’s not so incredible. It still doesn’t excuse people who want to write about music from doing so.

In the Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz pretty much defines success as reaching a level of proficiency where you are able to achieve a goal. As Peter Bregman explains, “in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses star violinists, the good performers, and the ones who would become teachers but not performers […] Those who were categorized as stars? Every single one of them had practiced at least 10,000 hours. And here’s the compelling part: There wasn’t a single violinist who had practiced 10,000 hours who wasn’t a star.”

What’s 10,000 hours? It’s the equivalent of doing a full time job for five years, or practising four hours a day for a decade. I never became a “star”, but I got a job in my desired field and a few freelance jobs on the side. Before I got paid a penny by anyone, I’d already spent five years making it happen.

I just deleted a bunch of posts from Facebook because I was oversharing, and worse: perhaps I was misleading. You might have ended up with the impression that I grew up in a progressive city (I did), had supportive parents (I did), good teachers (I did) and walked straight out of sixth form and into a full-time music job while writing freelance on the side (again, broadly true).

I might have missed out a few steps along the way:

  1. From the age of 14, I met every band that I saw if I could get backstage. Most gigs were small with no security – many with no actual backstage area at all. I just got into the habit of chatting with the band afterwards, getting contact numbers and making friends. I didn’t know what “networking” was, but that’s exactly what I did. Before I’d started writing the fanzine, I was already well known by most of the local bands and promoters.
  2. Most of my contact with record companies (after starting the fanzine) was on the phone, and I knew I’d never be taken seriously as a 16 year-old, so I practiced deepening the pitch and upping the register of my voice. It’s lapsed a little, but at the time I could perfectly impersonate the automated switchboard voice. The effect was transformative and immediate. If you sound professional – more even than looking professional – you convey a natural authority.
  3. I developed tenacity. Yes, my teacher taught me the chords to a Pink Floyd song in registration, but that evening I practiced it until I shed tears of frustration. Inevitably my grades slipped because of the late nights, but I reacted to that by resubmitting essays over and over until I got the grade I wanted. Sometimes I still couldn’t “win” – I wrote one piece three times and I still got a B, but then I could accept that I’d done my very best.
  4. I learnt how to write in a way people like to read. Not many people give much of a s*** about my opinion. They just want to glean the information and apply it to their own situation. Who cares if I like a song? If I write about it in a way that makes you think you’ll like it, then you care. If you’re writing for money you need to produce saleable copy.
  5. I relocated to where I was most likely to get the job I wanted, rather than waiting for one to appear where I lived.

I didn’t really “get” fanzines, and rarely read them – instead, I aped the style of the commercial press (particularly Melody Maker) both in layout and content. My ‘zine found its niche in people who ought to read fanzines but didn’t – industry types, mostly, who wanted a digest of up-and-coming support acts. Some of those people started offering me money to write. I was never going to be a “star player”, but I could be the “good performer”. In a composite piece of corporate copy, even I can’t distinguish my words. It doesn’t mean you can’t be witty or interesting if that’s appropriate for the piece – it’s about setting aside your ego for the common goal.

Think You’re Different?

If you’re reading this you probably have an abnormal interest in music.

Most people don’t really pay much attention to what they listen to – music is something they use to fill a silence. It’s like wine. You know that cheap wine is bad so you spot a line in the Guardian about a more expensive bottle and buy it because it’s well-reviewed enough to make you look sophisticated. Arcade Fire are classier than the cheap plonk of Ke$ha. It’s not that the nine-quid bottle doesn’t taste better, but I’ll still forget it as soon as I empty the glass.

Music fans are different – it’s an all-consuming, desperate passion. Reading a review is not about picking something out to dance to, but digging in the dirt for something that could potentially change your life. Music is the subject, not the soundtrack.

Music fans are rare. There were 100 kids in our year at school, and I hung out in a group of maybe a dozen who were into “alternative” music. Three of us were girls; a minority of a minority of the minority who are interested in music at all. Yes, I knew fans of boy bands, but they weren’t the people buying both Smash Hits and Number One every issue. I was the only one who got my letters printed. I was one of only four in our school who wrote for a fanzine, and one of only two who ran one. You have to be really, really weird to want to write about music.

Women in Rock, and The Groupie Tag

Meg Lee Chin by Anna Goodman

Is there a common factor in the women I knew who wrote for magazines and played in bands? Were we all tomboys as children? Perhaps, though most of the women I knew were more feminine than I was. We might have sought catharsis in rock, but the women who wrote for my ‘zine or I was in bands with tended to be socially outgoing and friendly. In fact, so pronounced was this trait – a mixture of extroversion and wilful self-belief – that it is this rather than any other factor that we had in common. You need to be brazen.

So, I knew female writers and managers, PR agents and promoters, singers and guitarists, and lawyers and researchers. I only met one (self-professed) groupie. Ever. She was a pretty 17 year-old with wild red hair, and she had a thing for old punks. She only ever “serviced” one band, and I think she only ever serviced one member of that band. She ended up as their manager.

Maybe it was the era – mid-to-late 90s – or maybe it was the bands I was seeing. Generally, everybody behaved themselves – the bands and the interviewers. I only ever seriously lusted after two rather gorgeous interviewees, one of whom helpfully put me off by giving me a detailed description of his poo when he caught Hepatitis A, and the other I really did suspect of “groupie activity”, and eww cooties – but in the event, neither actually made a pass at me, which brings the total of interview subjects I was at any risk of sleeping with to … zero.

Then again, there was time when I was in a club and ran into someone I’d always fancied from a band. We chatted by the side of the room, and I silently thought: this is ridiculous. We’d known each other seven years by that point. Is he a human being or isn’t he? I could treat him differently, as though he’s some kind of mythic being – and thereby condemn him to a life where everyone’s weird around him – or just behave like I would with anyone else. Anyone who sits in judgement or wants to be an asshole – that’s their problem. Those people don’t like you anyway. Even if people think you’re “important”, most of them don’t like you much – they’re too busy working out how you can be useful to them. They’ll vanish the minute you can no longer further their career, so is it really worth panicking about their tiny narrow-minded opinions of you? Are they worth your fear, your obedience and your submission?

At that moment, he kissed me. A kiss between two people who happened to like each other. A single moment, never repeated. Nobody cared.

You know what you get when you don’t give too much of a s*** about “the done thing”?

Anything you like.


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