longform/investigative [music/art] journalism examples & best practices?
June 24, 2015 9:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm embarking on an overambitious personal writing project to profile the career of a pair of multidisciplinary artists who've been kicking around underground for 20+ years with next to no fanfare outside of their scene. Can you link me to some SUPER in-depth profiles of other working artists to give me an idea of what to aim for and what to avoid as I work on this? (Really long, career-spanning pieces would be best, but shorter stuff is OK. Bonus points if it's about someone you don't care for/about but the writing was so compelling that you loved reading it anyway, like this incredible profile of Carrot Top in Esquire.) What are some investigative profile best/worst practices when it comes to building something huge from scratch? What do readers love/hate to see in projects like this?

To get ahead of some questions I think might be asked...

Why? No one else has written about them like this before. I'm uniquely positioned to be able to do so, I think I can do a better job with it than just about anyone else, and I think it would be a lot of fun. I've been a fan of their work for most of my life so I have a long and storied history of picking up exactly what they're putting down. Now I want to write it all down.

What are you gonna do with it when it's done, what's the purpose? For my own edification/enjoyment/exploration, honestly, though I'd be happy to send it around to some fellow fans as well as the dudes themselves once it's done. If they read it and liked it, I'd probably try to pitch it out (with permission) or just give it to them to excerpt in EPKs and whatnot.

What's your angle? Same as any other nerd: I think they're doing something incredibly weird and special and I want to explore all the nooks and crannies of how everything coalesced and came to be as it is today. Extant interviews with them tend to be on the skimpy/superficial side ("who are your influences? when is your new album coming out?") for a number of reasons but I'm 99% sure I can get at least one lengthy sit-down with them that would shed light on a bunch of stuff they haven't really talked about yet.

Who cares? Not too many people, to be honest, but the people who do care will care A LOT. I really want to make something I would love to read even if I wasn't already a fan.

I've done a lot of writing, including a lot of writing for publication, but never anything like this -- any tips/suggestions on how to organize my research and topic deep dives would also be very much appreciated. Right now I have a GIANT rough outline and it looks a little daunting... I don't know how to narrow it down. I'm extremely lucky in that a few of my friends are brutally/gloriously honest professional editors, so they'll give me a heads-up if my finished product is garbage, but until I have enough of a narrative cobbled together to show them, how do I know where to tighten it up?

Thanks, AskMe!
posted by divined by radio to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I do not give two shits about Billy Joel but the New Yorker profile of his career entranced me.
posted by griphus at 9:12 AM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can you link me to some SUPER in-depth profiles of other working artists

I love Elizabeth Gilbert's profile on Hank-3.

What do readers love/hate to see in projects like this?

I think we're all pretty well over oral histories by this point.

I love the idea of The Secret History of Chicago Music but as someone who was born wearing glasses I have never, ever been able to read it.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:59 AM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think we're all pretty well over oral histories by this point.

posted by griphus at 10:02 AM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think the only questions that really matter in the above are in the "what's your angle" part. If in fact you only get one chance to sit down with them or interact with them, you'd better have your studying already done. If you're asking who their influences are during that opportunity, you simply aren't being serious about writing long-form. Don't waste their time, you should already have some idea about how their history and influences have been expressed in their work, and be asking (essentially) follow-up questions about your understanding, about information that can only be gotten that way.
posted by rhizome at 10:02 AM on June 24, 2015

In rock/pop journalism, short or long form, I can't stand breathless, lazy descriptions of songs or albums as "amazing", "incredible", "intense", etc. Have something insightful, precise, and evocative to say about the music itself, or say as little about it (vs. the artist's biography and working processes) as possible.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:44 AM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think we're all pretty well over oral histories by this point.

OK, I have to ask a really dumb question: What is an oral history, exactly? Like what makes it a different animal than any other piece of journalism?

F'rex I saw this Juliana Hatfield FPP the other day but I don't really grok what turned it from "some writing about this song" to "oral history of this song." Is it that they interview other people about it, instead of just the creator? (I don't intend on talking to anyone except the artists themselves, and we've long been acquainted enough for them to know our conversation/s will expressly exclude anything like influences and release dates, so I feel confident about clearing those hurdles.)
posted by divined by radio at 10:44 AM on June 24, 2015

What is an oral history, exactly? Like what makes it a different animal than any other piece of journalism?


Mark Etheridge, Producer: I remember getting a call in 1988 about producing the album.

Kyreisha Morris, singer: All I knew is that I really wanted Mark to produce the album.

Ethel Morris, Kyreisha’s mother: I was with her when she got the call from Mark about producing the album. They were holed up in that studio for months.


Morris contacted Mark Etheridge, an established Canadian producer, after falling in love with his work on Blue Mystic’s seminal Water Clues album. They spent several months together in the studio in late 1988.
posted by Juliet Banana at 11:02 AM on June 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc on Patrice O'Neal. She's an exhaustive researcher, and a terrific writer.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:41 AM on June 24, 2015

I think you'd enjoy reading Leon Neyfakh on Juiceboxxx.
posted by black_lizard at 12:02 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two things: it's not writing, but the movie Dig about the briansjonestown massacre and the dandy warhols is excellent and certainly fits what you are describing.

Secondly, I've read nearly every short form piece like this about the wrens. I know of no long form good story about the wrens. This should be it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:16 PM on June 24, 2015

Would the 33 and 1/3 books count as this sort of thing?
posted by drezdn at 1:46 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been interviewed in various contexts (most in-depth was about 5 hrs of interviewing that resulted in a 1600-word piece) and here's one tip from an artist's point of view:

You'll distinguish yourself from other reporters (and be much appreciated by your subjects) if you're scrupulously careful about getting quotations and their context right.

I totally accept the prospect of misquotation and quotation-out-of-context as the price for attention from usually very busy, underpaid/overworked writers. But since this is a passion project without a deadline, one way you can excel is by getting those quotations as close to perfect as you can. It really means a lot!
posted by kalapierson at 11:28 PM on June 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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