We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the heavily taped packages that can't be opened without the aid of a utility knife and a blowtorch is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: an array of tips for anyone hoping to launch and sustain a career in music journalism.
Josh writes via email: "I know there is no normal way to get into music journalism, but I was wondering if you had any tips/advice. That's probably a really broad question, but it's something I've been meaning to do for a long time and I think it's time I do it. If that means going back to college to start a different degree program, I'm committed to that. I'm 28 and work a day job, and do freelance writing on the side; neither of those are something I want to do forever. I want a career doing something I love. That's not something that is always attainable, but I am willing to try."
First, with regard to going back to school for journalism, three words of advice that aren't nearly as cynical or defeatist as they sound: Save your money.
Look, I loved college and had a tremendous experience there; I would recommend the University of Wisconsin to anyone, and owe my career to the opportunities that presented themselves in Madison. If you were coming out of high school, I'd urge you to go to college and immerse yourself in the student radio station, the student newspaper and any events-programming board that will have you. My career traces neatly back to my student radio station (now called WSUM, represent!) and one of Madison's student papers (hello there, Daily Cardinal!), both of which helped me get my job at a then-tiny local concern called The Onion — and all three places were huge in supplementing the knowledge I picked up in class.
But you're 28, not 18, and your path will be different — no less likely to succeed, but different. First off, the workforce is overflowing with successful folks whose degrees don't sync up with their careers; as a full-time writer and editor with a journalism degree, I often feel like an outlier. Journalism isn't like medicine or law, where a specific degree is a stone-cold prerequisite, and there comes a point (very early) in every journalist's career when experience is far more important than what and whether he or she studied in school.
Of course, there are also tips I'd pass along to just about anyone and not just 28-year-olds pondering career changes. The absolute best advice I've ever given about professional pursuits, whether I'm talking to students or staring at my haggard face in the mirror, is: Don't wait to do the thing. Especially don't wait to be asked to do the thing. Do the thing.
None of the gatekeepers you're looking to impress are going to reach out to you and say, "Hey, I know you've never been published, but can I offer you a career?" Now more than ever, when you're starting out, you have to reach out and write, and to maintain an upbeat and entrepreneurial spirit. Start and maintain your own blog, contribute your writing to any place that'll have you, develop self-discipline, seize every opportunity to cultivate your own voice, and keep practicing. Be easy to work with, hit every deadline, and make as little work as possible for those around you; make editors' lives easier, and opportunities will follow. I strenuously cosign everything my pal Linda Holmes writes here — it's ostensibly written to kids, but it applies to all creative pursuits, and to people of all ages.
Finally, I detest the saying, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," which gets used almost entirely to explain away failures. (See also: "Nice guys finish last," a foul and nonsensical phrase concocted by an unsavory coalition of the not-nice and people who finish last.) It's a terrible saying that gets used for terrible reasons, often by terrible people — but there's also wisdom to be gleaned from it, provided you approach it the right way.
Friendships do come in incredibly handy when you're pursuing work, which is just one reason to make as many friends as you possibly can. This isn't just career advice, but life advice — and it's equally important as both. You can never have enough friends. Help people on their way up, be as nice as you can to everyone, be a resource for people, apologize when you screw up, do favors whenever possible, let go of your grudges and resentments, and be the best friend and colleague you can be. Opportunities tend to follow.