Help Me Break a Band in the NYC Press
August 25, 2006 11:04 PM   Subscribe

My question is pretty specific. I'm a freelance writer. I have zero clips. I'm trying like hell to get noticed, but it's tough. I like to write about a wide variety of things (which may be part of the problem), but one in particular is music. There's a small band coming through NYC soon, and I want nothing more than to break them in print or web. They're playing a well-known and respected venue next month.

Why do I think I'm worthy of doing this? I have good taste in music. I have listened to many of the small indie bands that have become big bands well before they were discovered. I am usually the one passing around CDs and MP3s to friends looking for the next new sound. The band I'm talking about is really great. They're never going to be Bloc Party, but they will have a big future, and from having met them, I know they are serious about succeeding. They actually played a biggish music fest on the east coast recently, and I can tell that word is seeping out.

To put it even more bluntly-- I'm sitting on a story here. I want to get it out, and I want to get some credit for it. Help.
posted by raconteur to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If they're playing at a well-known and respected venue, you're already out of luck. Mainstream press will already notice. Maybe you could try hyping it up on blogs/etc a bit, or writing a short background article (re the show) about them & sending it to papers/magazines/etc. I doubt they'd take it, but someone somewhere might.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:45 PM on August 25, 2006

Depending on how refined and stylized your writing style is, I'd say check out the show, look for your most personal experiences in it, and then write the best piece of your life for submittal to the Believer. I understand completely why MeFI tends to shun the McSweeney's brand, but they're always anxious for new contributers. And it could bring a lot of new people to the band if they print it.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:19 AM on August 26, 2006

Editors aren't interested in random people trying to hype their favourite band. You only get to do that when you've done some grunt work interviewing a million crappy indie bands.
posted by cillit bang at 4:35 AM on August 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try talking to online places -- it costs them pretty much zero to put your reviews up, unless they're so bad that it costs them their reputation. What that one everyone loves to hate? Hoe? Shovel? Pickaxe? Send a sample to them.
posted by pracowity at 5:28 AM on August 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

A freelance writer has clips. It seems like you WANT to be a freelance writer, which is a different thing. Totally possible, and it just takes work, persistence, and a little luck.

But what you're talking about doing has little to do with being a freelance writer except to the extent that a lot of freelance writers move in this direction later in their careers. What you seem to want to do is to work the band's media relations to get the press to write about them.

That's great, and doing it for free might be a good way to gain some experience. Or it might not - depends on how you do. Trouble is, this is usually a paid job (band pays), and if they have a manager or something this is THAT person's job. So he or she will get the credit for anything that appears.
posted by mikel at 5:29 AM on August 26, 2006

I agree with mikel. Without clips, you can't prove you're qualified to write the story (it's the "No, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night" gag). And It's unclear whether you want to hype a band, which is fine, or to tell a story, which is something entirely different.

A few points to bear in mind:

1. Your good taste in music doesn't necessarily mean that YOU are the one to tell the band's story.

2. The fact that the band is a good one isn't a story. The fact that they are emerging isn't a story in and of itself, either.

Step 1: get clips. Step 2: leverage clips to tell the stories you want to tell, to the markets you want.

The fact that the band is gathering ground is a plus, in that it may expand the markets you could sell to.

Why don't you have clips? Where are you pitching to? What stories are you pitching? Remember, you don't pitch a band. You pitch a particular story to a particular market with a well-crafted pitch letter detailing the story, why it's important to those specific readers, and why you should be the one to tell that story.

If you are serious about freelance writing, you need to jettison romantic notions of how your passion about the music will obviate the need for a businesslike attitude to pitching and getting paid. Also: writing isn't just a gift, it's a craft. Maybe you're gifted, but until you start working at the craft, you will never have clips. And you won't be a freelance writer.

I am lucky that I have never had to work for free, but music isn't my subject. You may need to work for pennies to get clips relevant to music/musicians/music industry/etc. Work at writing in other areas and work your way over to music as a topic, if you need to.

(Full disclosure: I am a freelance writer with lots of clips.)
posted by mdiskin at 6:26 AM on August 26, 2006

Don't they have streetpress and zines in your corner of the world? They're always very hungry for new work, especially music, and especially local music. Writing for street press is a great way to get your work published. Go loiter in record shops and there may be a pile of 'em near the counter, or you can ask the salesperson.

Be aware that with no clips, you are not going to get paid for your first articles. It's an occurence so rare it's not even worth counting on.

If you're planning on making a career of freelancing I strongly recommend getting your paws on a copy of Writer's Marketplace. I don't know where you're from, but most countries have local editions. These are basically a summary of all the publications that take freelance work, what they pay, how they like their submissions formatted, etc. It's invaluable to have if you're serious about writing.

As for this band you're following, get cracking! Start hassling them for an interview. Go to every single gig. Stalk them in a way the most loving fan would. I'm not saying invade their privacy, just document their rise to fame. Collect clippings and video footage. Try and find new angles to present them from. If they're a rock band with women in it, play the feminist rock-chick angle and sell it to teen fashion mags. If one of them has a weird hobby, write about that and submit it to a hobbyist's mag. There are so many unconventional ways of getting your work into print. Even men's mags publish music, if it's blokey enough. Think laterally.

Failing that, there's always the 'Net.
posted by Jilder at 6:34 AM on August 26, 2006

So, how can raconteur get clips, if not this way? What are the entry-level gigs freelancers have used?

I have one friend who's a successful freelancer. She worked as a regular employee for a university "news service" (close to just being the PR department), where she was assigned stories about professors and their latest book, or the visiting bigwig, etc. She did this for a couple of years, also pitching and writing articles for online special-interest news sites. Then she moved to a city and started working for a free paper and three different podunk local weekly papers (in outlying areas) simultaneously. Now she has clips, but it has taken her several years of writing on stuff that isn't get main interest to get to this point.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:44 AM on August 26, 2006

I'd go the blog route to start. I might be able to suggest a couple other ideas too, depending upon the type of music - feel free to email me raconteur.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:50 AM on August 26, 2006

Get clips. Write for anyone that will print/publish your work. Use those clips to leverage yourself some writing for something better known/more respectable/paying more. Repeat this cycle until you have a column in a major national paper.

(It worked for me.)
posted by Hogshead at 7:07 AM on August 26, 2006

to follow your example and be blunt: this is not "a story" in any sense that you imply, ie, you're not going to "break" it or get credit for having introduced the world to this band. If they're good, someone will write about them at some point; they're presumably already sending their CD off to publications in hopes of getting a review, etc. You don't "break" stories that are being promoted.

What you can do is start your work as a freelance writer by writing a good article about the band and finding a place to publish it. If you're into music in general, find out about the zines/blogs/small press papers that cover the kind of music you like, and offer to write them pieces. A friend of mine who was into music journalism got an internship with her favorite record company (4AD) for a summer, which helped her establish contacts with the bands, which was useful when she launched her own print zine (this was 10+ years ago) and went on to write for small papers like the boston phoenix. So make connections, and then you could start a blog, or just send out lots of work.

But concentrate on writing well about music, not about 'breaking a story', because in music journalism the important thing is explaining to readers why they want to check the band out. It does no good at all to be able to say, dude, check it out, trust me- you have to write a review of their current album and show the reader why it is interesting. Pitch it to the press, the voice, the onion AV, mcsweeney's, time out, pitchfork, or any other venues you can think of where you might read something about indie music, and when they reject it, pitch it somewhere else, or start your own blog.
posted by mdn at 7:19 AM on August 26, 2006

I want nothing more than to break them in print or web.

This is a problem.

From your post, your goals appear to be 1) self promotion, 2) promoting the band, and 3) telling a story, if possible -- in that order of importance. That's a very wrong order of priorities for a journalist, and this is makes you come across as a flack or a groupie.

Any editor worth his salt will sense this, and won't trust you. You've got to reverse your priorities and concentrate on finding great stories (and this probably isn't one!) if you wish to break into the business.
posted by cgs06 at 7:32 AM on August 26, 2006

Seconding all who emphasize that you've got to start small -- write for publications that don't pay, or pay peanuts, and are looking for writers, then leverage those clips into more high-profile jobs. I first wrote for the (now-defunct) Boston Book Review, which would basically assign pieces to anyone who came in off the street with a decent academic credential. Then used those reviews to get book review jobs at the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix -- used those to get work at national pubs.

This was all 10 years ago -- I have no idea whether, nowadays, you are allowed to print out 10 posts from your blog to show editors what a great writer you are. Certainly lots of blogs have a bigger readership than the Boston Book Review!

Also: don't be shy about using any personal connections you have.
posted by escabeche at 7:57 AM on August 26, 2006

If you're looking to get clips, the new-ish Useless Magazine (and here on Myspace) is often posting bulletins for writers and story pitches.
posted by xo at 8:19 AM on August 26, 2006

Not to be a downer or anything, but one of the phrases I remember just about every one of my instructors in j-school saying is "Everyone wants to write about travel and everyone wants to write about music." This could be more of an uphill battle than if you wanted to write about other topics.

If you really want to get clips, I recommend writing a query letter to a small magazine and offer to write one of their regular pieces -- not a 2500-word feature, but one of the 400-word articles in the front of the book. Offer to write it on spec (for free). Until you get something published and are able to demonstrate your worth as a writer, it's going to be tough.
posted by awegz at 8:35 AM on August 26, 2006

Raconteur, ignore much of the negativity here, as freelance writers are notoriously pompous and stingy with their encouragement for the competition. It sounds like your best bet is to write it for free at some Web zine where you could get hits, attention, feedback, etc.
posted by Kirklander at 9:19 AM on August 26, 2006

Why not publish your own work for free?
Start a raconteur blog and post away.
Writing for free and waiting for someone to notice can't be any worse than begging these williamsburg hipster doofuses for a shot.
and always bring a camera with you....whether you write for your own site/blog or someone else's, it's great to have images from the show/interview you're covering.
Don't be shy. Self-publish. Good luck!
posted by BillBishop at 10:06 AM on August 26, 2006

"I'm a freelance writer. I have zero clips."

Then you're not a freelance writer. Sorry.

Writers write, as Throw Momma From the Train reminds us.

Here's my advice, from someone just a few wrungs above you (struggling, but published)— start a 'zine. Write write write. Use those CLIPS to pitch to a small entertainment magazine. Write write write. Go see the show. Write about it. Use that as an unpublished clip.

"Raconteur, ignore much of the negativity here, as freelance writers are notoriously pompous and stingy with their encouragement for the competition. "

Ah, Kirklander, you've called our bluff. It's not that every mook with a blog thinks he's a writer and wants to horn in on coveted paying gigs without a clue ("I'm a doctor but I've never practiced medicine or gone to school for it. How do I get specialist referals?"), it's that we're bitter and pompous. It's not that once you realize how much work for how little pay is required to become a freelance journalist, you feel an obligation to dissuade folks who seem incredibly naive ("I'm a touring musician that's never had a gig. How do I get booked at Carnegie?"). No, we're stingy mean people who eat babies.

The advice that Raconteur has gotten HAS been encouragement. Encouragement to work hard and to work smart and to understand the system by which freelance journalism is a career. And how to get to the point where he (she?) can write about music. How do I know? Well, I get paid to write about music. And I did it by starting a 'zine, getting clips, working at the school paper, getting clips, freelancing for other magazines, getting clips, and eventually getting a long-running column that generally results in hate mail.
posted by klangklangston at 10:50 AM on August 26, 2006

Do you have any connections? If you've worked as a writer before (which I'm guessing maybe you haven't, as you have no clips?), then you do. If you're a member of a journalism association, then you do. Use your journalist friends. "NAME DROP suggested I contact you about ... (insert pitch)"

Write pitch letters, plain and simple. If your pitch is good enough, you can get in the door. As a freelance writer myself, I am also stingy with the advice. (Why are we all so cruel?) So I won't tell you which editors to write, but chances are if you can think of a few medium-sized mags with web presences, you'll get somewhere.

Whatever you do, don't phrase your pitch as "This band is really good and I really like them and they deserve to be famous." You're a journalist first here, so figure out what makes the band unique and interesting right now. Lots of bands are about to break out, lots of bands play big venues. Not interesting in the least.

Your process:
1) Think up your pitch.
2) Send it out to a few editors -- think small, write the pitch with as much verve as if it was a story itself.
3) Anyone who sees you've got style and talent will take you on, perhaps asking for a resume or references. You only get paid if they publish, and it's a low-risk environment for editors. If they don't like you or your work, they don't use you again. If they do, you can pitch them more stories on other topics.

And yes, it is perfectly fine to write about bands you like, to pitch about what you know and love. One of my friends recently told me she thought it was terrific that I was making a living writing about my obsessions.

You can do it, but it's hard. And you're going to start out making crap money. Just keep in mind that you're a journalist, not a promoter.
posted by brina at 12:16 PM on August 26, 2006

Hi guys,

The responses have been overwhelming. I've been trying to keep a a running log to respond in kind, but I'll have to go with these categories:

Snarks (you know who you are): you decided that I was a fanboy sitting in my basement who thought writing sounded kewl. I work on this every day. Pitching, writing, emailing, making contacts, developing ideas, writing fiction, writing in my blog. I have had success in getting my blog entries picked up by other pubs. I haven't had as much success working strictly as a freelancer, but I've gotten things looked at, I've gotten warm rejections, I've gotten invitations to pitch again. I'm making progress, and although it might be my fault that the question was phrased poorly, I don't need to be told that I don't have any chance in hell. That's actually not a valid answer.

Helpful people (you know who you are): Thank you. Alot of the ideas and tactics you presented me are things I know, but at this point, they're not innate, and I need them hammered home. Thank you for taking the time to reassure me my goals are achievable if I work my ass off for them. I know this is incredibly difficult, but I also know that I am willing to work on this for a long time. Yes, I want to write about this band, but if their concert passes and all I can do is post it on my blog, I have alot of other ideas I want to pitch. So thank you for taking my post and claims about myself at face value, and giving me feedback and advice that will help no matter what I'm writing about.

Mixed (half snark, half help): Is there such a thing as backhanded advice? Anyway, some of this was helpful too. If you are a writer, you'll remember, chances are publication didn't happen overnight. I've made some incremental steps in my own right (blogs, college paper, trade mags), that have given me the confidence to pursue breaking out into the mainstream press. I am not looking to get paid millions or steal your job-- I just want to know the most effective way to get editors to look seriously at my work, and if anyone had specific tips about this particular idea.

Alot of people honed in that my idea was not a story. Trust me, there's a story. Besides, I said I wanted to write a concert notice, not a long form feature. Concert notices go like this: so and so's coming to town, here's why you should check them out. So in this case, the band is the idea is the story.

Thanks to all for taking the time to respond. Please feel free to keep the thread going--I'm still interested in reading other suggestions.
posted by raconteur at 12:56 PM on August 26, 2006

Raconteur, I hope my reply wasn't snarky, although on review it probably sounded condescending. Didn't mean it that way. Your response helps clear up a lot. And if you have clips in your college paper and trade mags, those count! We all started there.

Some trades are more loose in what they publish, in that the editor will give you free rein to write on a general topic but in whatever style you want. If you write a story for them in the style of your eventual goal magazine (or other market), you can leverage that clip a bit more strongly -- you'll "sound" like them. I'm doing this now -- dropping down from one consumer area to write for a trade that will help me make contacts and add another vertical completely different from my main focus now.

If it helps: my first paid piece was a short on how home games at my university increased traffic violations -- possibly the most boring subject EVER. I did make 50 bucks, but the best part was that that particular clip (with others) helped me get a job as a freelancer for CNN. Evidently the last line of that piece was a sparkler that made someone think I could turn a phrase. So don't forget to focus on each piece as it comes.

And what everyone else said -- leverage your personal connections. And use your blog to make more connections. Put as many of your traditionally-published clips as possible online for review, and send editors there if they want to see your stuff.

Good luck, and hang in there.
posted by mdiskin at 1:27 PM on August 26, 2006

mdiskin-- you were in the mixed category, but I'm not here to keep score, and your mixed was pretty helpful (and I appreciate the follow-up. now decidedly in the helpful category, with some details and the story of your break)

I really am at the point where I need to be reminded that the little things count. I've impressed other people who know that I've gotten good responses and encouragement from editors at the national level in my other areas of writing-- but ultimately, rejections. This is completely over the transom-- no connections at all, no clips worth showing. While that made me feel good for a while, it did sap my courage a bit. (ie, what's the point if i'm going to get a nice try, but no thanks every time.)

I want to start small. I'm happy to start small. It's great to hear your traffic article had one sentence that made someone take notice. That reaffirms that I need to keep plugging away until someone notices.

On another note, my personal connections are actually ending up to be more helpful than I ever thought (I should've asked them for help sooner). Thing is, they are in a slightly different field (travel) and I while I don't forsee myself as a music critic, it sometimes intersects with other interests I have and wish to write about, as it does with this band.

Follow up question if anyone's paying attention. I alluded to this in my original statement. It is possible to be omniverous as a freelancer? Or should I really just be narrowing my focus down to one topic?
posted by raconteur at 2:15 PM on August 26, 2006

Unless you're angling for some sort of specialized gig in the future, I don't see why you'd want to restrict yourself to one narrow topic. That's the best part of being a freelancer -- getting to immerse yourself in diverse subjects and adventures. You often have no idea where your next paycheck is coming from and flexibility in subject matter can be crucial there.
posted by awegz at 2:54 PM on August 26, 2006

I'm working in a few categories: fashion, hospitality, and travel, which are so fun (to me) -- you can always get something (a short review at the very least) out of just about any trip. For example, a hospitality trade clip may enable you to boost yourself into roundups in travel mags. Travel could mean your own backyard, if you become an expert in getting around your region/city/local landmarks. And travel and hospitality reviews can result in creative clips that can put you into more creative categories (such as music). I'm focusing on travel and food clips that I hope will help me get into parenting mags at the moment.

It is possible to be wide-ranging, but at some point you will probably want to become a subject-matter expert in a couple of things -- you'll get better gigs and higher pay. Scouting for a good story takes time, and it's the part of freelancing that doesn't directly pay, Focusing on 2-3 markets or specialities also helps keep the time/money costs of scouting down somewhat, since your sources get both broader and deeper and sometimes people come looking for you to fill you in on new developments or (as I had this week) asking you to tell their stories.

Another bit of advice: when you interview someone, look for at least 3 stories, spins, markets, or angles. If someone has a hobby, a connection, a favorite charity, etc... you can pitch and write a few pieces to as many markets for not much more research than you would have spent on a single story.
posted by mdiskin at 3:23 PM on August 26, 2006

Raconteur, I've been writing freelance for about 15 years. I do recommend taking on more than one subject-- I write real estate, medical, automotive, health and beauty, fashion, and straight-up B2B collateral. A fair number of my jobs have come through my postings on various web sites, and to my own web pages. With that in mind (since you mention wanting to know about "the little things"), I'd strongly urge you to spell check your postings online. You never know who might be reading.
posted by astruc at 9:28 PM on August 26, 2006

Blogs, zines, print: none of that single-handly breaks a band. I get pitched bands dozens of times a week, and I ignore almost all of them. There's just too much crap to sift through. When I do find a band I can get behind, sometimes it takes months to get fellow journalists and bloggers out to shows [yes, even if it is the most amazing thing I've ever heard].

The reward isn't having the band blow up; that really doesn't happen very often, and when it does it's the result of a chorus of media and blogs and zines. The reward is sharing good music and turning at least one person onto something new and wonderful.
posted by yeti at 10:58 PM on August 26, 2006

mdiskin-- great tips. I really appreciate the level of thought. I'm writing them down in my little place to write important things down. I'm serious.

yeti-- i agree, it's not so much that i want the band to blow up and for it to be all because of me. it's more like, i want to share my opinion in a forum where others can read it and take it or leave it. i'm disabusing myself of the notion that i can waltz in somewhere and do that. most likely, this will end up on my blog, and anywhere I can post or link to it for free. as i said, music is not my main focus, and i have to spend the time and effort in the areas where i'm likely to have a little more success.

astruc-- good tip. there is that little abc button near this window, isn't there? Do people find you, or do you point to your own stuff online when you find people?
posted by raconteur at 11:56 PM on August 26, 2006

It is possible to be omniverous as a freelancer? Or should I really just be narrowing my focus down to one topic?

If you're freelance, you absolutely need to be able to write authoritatively on as many subjects as possible at first (even if you don't care/don't know much about the topic), and narrow your focus later, if you want to. And once you've got a specialism, it makes sense to keep your hand in in other areas too. Plus, the whole point of being freelance is that you get to write about all the stuff you're interested in, as well as being able to shift your focus when circumstances change (I got bored of writing about music, and wasn't trapped because I'd been writing about visual art to a lesser extent all along, and could switch to mainly writing about that.)

college paper, trade mags

Then you do have clippings, and you should be showing them to the people you're pitching to. It doesn't matter if they're about a completely different topic, as long as you're satisfied that they represent your writing well - the first time I wrote about technology/gadgets/web stuff it was on the basis of the editor seeing my music reviews (and scanning my weblog at a time when even having a weblog implied I was a bit of a geek).

i'm disabusing myself of the notion that i can waltz in somewhere and do that.

Don't! You can just waltz into places and write about something new - I started writing for the now-defunct Jockey Slut (a UK dance music monthly) after persuading them that a nightclub where I was a passionate regular deserved national recognition. You just need to be able to pitch stuff quickly and concisely over the 'phone/via email and back it up with examples of your writing. (I do wonder if that's still the case, though - anecdotally, it did seem to be a lot easier to break into freelancing ten years ago than it is now, in the UK at least.)

A 'little things' thing: do be conscientious about your clippings, and keep your best stuff to one side. Believe me, looking through every page of a box of newspapers and magazines from three years ago to find that one piece you need to show an editor/get accreditation at an event/&c. is no fun...
posted by jack_mo at 8:41 AM on August 27, 2006

Another useful source of writing advice for me is the articles archive at -- lots of short articles and success stories from folks who write for markets that are often light-years away from mine... but there's a tip or trick to their writing that triggers something that will work for my markets. (Just remember that there are all sizes and shapes of professional writer out there.)

I also check out the Renegade Writer blog and the MediaBistro Toolbox a lot -- partly because I like them, partly because when you are procrastinating over finishing an article, you read other writer's blogs and hang out on Metafilter.
posted by mdiskin at 9:27 AM on August 27, 2006

Do people find you, or do you point to your own stuff online when you find people?

Anything I've been paid for appears on my resume (well, within reason, 15 years of clips is too much to fit on one resume), so in that sense I am pointing it out myself.

But what I specifically meant was jobs that came my way solely because someone read my work online, without my prompting. It doesn't hurt that I've been active online since 1995 or so.
posted by astruc at 7:23 PM on August 27, 2006

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