A bluffer’s guide to reviewing live shows
I got asked to contribute to “a guide on balanced, conclusive and comprehensive reviewing for shows and albums” by Brisbane website Music Industry Inside Out. (They describe themselves as “an educational resource that aims to educate/encapsulate on all aspects of the music business”.) Catch me in the right mood, I enjoy writing stuff like this. They also asked a local publicist and the editor of a music “reviewing” website, the sort of place that makes me embarrassed to refer to myself as a “music critic”, frankly. Nice bloke, but. Anyway, the results make for an interesting – and entertaining – contrast, so it’s worth a look at.
Here is my contribution.
1. Have an idea what you’re going to write. Don’t trust writers who don’t have an agenda.
2. Be direct. Say what you have to say, try to be interesting, move on.
3. Don’t slow yourself down. You can correct spelling or punctuation mistakes later. As Ernest Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober”.
4. Usual journalism rules apply. Start with the most interesting fact/anecdote/observation, and work backwards. You have been given a soapbox, an opportunity to put your views across. You have five seconds to make it count. Don’t waste them.
5. Include detail. Include factual detail if you want to assume authority. Can’t make authority? Fake it. List band-members and instruments played (but don’t go overboard). Reference song titles, lyrics, ad libs between songs, slightly odd occurences. Watch the audience, look at the audience’s shoes, look at the butt of the boy next to you. Debate atmosphere. Focus on feelings. Give the reader every chance to realise you were at the show.
6. Quote the press release by all means, but be aware press agents lie, like everyone else. Want to go a little further? Do some research that goes beyond the press release, Wikipedia and Pitchfork. Thirty other music critics are already doing that as we type – you want to stand out, don’t you?
7. Don’t be scared of your own opinion, but be prepared to argue it.
8. Take inspiration from wherever you can grab it. The weather, the splash of coffee on your computer screen, the music pumping through your veins. Don’t be too proud to admit you could always need help.
9. Identify the points of difference so the experience of reading your review feels unique. Identify what the show has in common with other bands and artists – no music exists in a vacuum. Mention a few other similar acts, but don’t go overboard. No Beatles, Nirvana, Joy Division, Prince, Madonna (et al) either.
10. Don’t be scared of background detail and context, but don’t begin your review with it unless (see point 1).
11. 800 words good, 300 words better.
12. Don’t be scared of getting another opinion. Read the review out to a friend or lover (if it makes no sense read aloud, it will make no sense printed). Sleep on it. Or, if you don’t have the time for that, make yourself a cup of tea and then read it again.
13. Save your words as you type. (This is the second version of this article.)
14. DESCRIBE DESCRIBE DESCRIBE – but don’t bother trying to describe the music, you won’t be able to. Describe everything around the music. If you find yourself in a position where describing the music is unavoidable, keep it succinct. Be direct, but not clichéd. Try a few sharp similes. Pull out a few quotes. Don’t panic. Far more successful writers than you have got by on far less vocabulary.
15. Remember the golden rule. People read your words to find out about the show. They want to be informed, they want to be entertained.
16. Don’t be cowed into thinking you have less worth than what you’re reviewing, or flattered into believing your worth is greater. Your writing compliments the music: it enhances it. One may exist without the other, but both should feel incomplete apart.
17. Make your reader feel special.
18. Don’t forget to throw in a few critical observations, if that is what’s called for. (Often, it isn’t.) And make sure they’re justified… or at least funny.
19. Have a mental – or physical – checklist that you can tick off as the review progresses. Band, venue, zingy introduction, song titles (four or five is normally all you need), lyrics, stage banter, audience, mention of music and instruments playing same, critical observation, musicians’ names, some contextual detail, points of difference, points of similarity, similar bands, the shape of the boy’s butt next to you… How many or few you use is entirely down to the situation. And…