Do musicians make good music journalists?

There are two very well-known Scottish musicians whom few people realise are actually connected to one another so I figured a post on The Pop Cop would be the perfect place to share such wisdom. That was the inspiration behind the family tree of Scottish musicians and the great irony is that when I was sitting on my living room floor at 6am drawing increasingly groggy lines on the back of Christmas wrapping paper, I came to the conclusion that their association was not strong enough to merit a direct link.

However, all is not lost – the relationship between Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian and Fran Healy of Travis sits perfectly with the theme of this post: Do musicians make good music journalists?

Stuart Murdoch and Fran Healy were pals in the early Nineties. Stuart’s closest friend, Ciara MacLaverty, has a sister called Jude (now the head of BAFTA Scotland), who just so happened to be Fran’s best friend, and the four of them would often hang out together.

However, before Belle & Sebastian or Travis came into existence, Stuart went along on behalf of M8 magazine to review a gig Fran was doing with his band Glass Onion… and it almost destroyed their friendship.

Fran: “I was just starting out in a band and Stuart totally gave us a pasting. He was just so horrible about it. I sat down and confronted him on the stairs at the front of Jude’s house in Glasgow. I was like, ‘Stuart, what the fuck? Give us a chance, man’. He was like, ‘Oh, I just thought, um, I just didn’t really enjoy it’. I’m like, ‘Fuck you, come on! It was our second show’. I never forgave him.” (see here for more of this interview)

The episode acutely sums up the perils of music journalism – people don’t react well to being criticised in public. Add the sensitive egos of artists into the mix and it’s only a matter of time before the phrase ‘hate preacher’ comes up in conversation.

Ten years ago, PETER KELLY (long before he became Beerjacket) reviewed a Biffy Clyro gig (long before they became famous) at King Tut’s in Glasgow. To this day it still bothers him, so hopefully getting it off his chest on The Pop Cop will allow him to feel a sense of closure.

Peter: “Like many student music journalists, my critical angle came from a bitter and essentially sad standpoint. I’d been playing with little success in bands for years when I started writing reviews for the Glasgow University Guardian. So twisted were my feelings towards the music industry that local bands who were doing well somehow made me feel like a hopeless failure.

“At this point, welcome Biffy Clyro to my tragic little anecdote. I was reviewing a local three-band bill at King Tut’s in 2000 when I put together a nasty little hatemail-style hackjob on Biffy. Within it, I made childish comparisons (Limp Bizkit), meaningless muso jibes (‘heavy metal drumsticks’ – eh?) and, perhaps worst of all, catty fashion remarks about a baseball cap worn by one of the members.

“It was poisonous, spitefully written and transparently envious. Now their popularity is so widespread that their detractors have become much less significant, but at the time it was plainly snide and unnecessary and really did (they told me) hurt the band’s feelings. I still feel truly ashamed of what I wrote, not least because that review was much more a reflection on how little worth I felt I had than it was an honest appraisal of them.

“Soon after writing the review, I became a devoted, card-carrying fan of the band (as I have remained) and it should be noted that this conversion was not as a result of reading some sanctimonious critic’s opinions. It was entirely down to Biffy themselves: a great band I’d simply wanted to hate in light of their burgeoning success.”

There is a happy ending. Six years later, who should be in the crowd watching Beerjacket perform at Belladrum but the Biffy boys themselves. Since there were no reports of heckling, missile-throwing or backstage punch-ups, one would like to assume all is forgiven.

Such feelings of envy/jealousy/bitterness is a common side-effect when part-time musicians are tasked with writing about their peers, as our next contributor explains.

CAMPBELL MILLER is the deputy editor of music website Stereokill and has also had work published in The Skinny. He is perhaps better known by his on-stage acoustic singer-songwriter persona Shambles Miller.

Campbell: “Back when I was struggling to get gigs with bands and couldn’t get anyone to listen to my music, it was a bit soul-crushing writing reviews of other up-and-coming bands, especially if I felt like they were pretty awful. I suppose that’s one drawback of being a writer and a musician. But to be completely honest, nowadays if I was asked to review a local artist whose music I wasn’t fond of, I’d probably pass on it. Conflict of interests and all that.”

However, being a musician does have its benefits when it comes to reviewing and interviewing other musicians.

Campbell: “It definitely helps you with certain types of question, as you’ll always be looking at things from a musician’s perspective, at least to some extent. I’ll tend to focus more on songwriting and lyrics in an interview, for instance. In terms of review-writing, however, it can be a double-edged sword. I find it hard to separate being a musician from being a writer: on one hand it might help you think about the music you’re reviewing in a slightly different way to others, but you have to be careful not to let that blinker you and hinder your objectivity.”

Last year, in what could only be described as an exercise in masochism, a Stereokill newbie was handed Shambles Miller’s Shambles vs The Dragon Wizard EP and told to review it as his first assignment. It must be bad enough seeing your music described as “this isn’t world-changingly original” and “the mix is a little weak”… but on the website you work for? That’s gotta hurt.

Campbell: “It’s probably quite telling that I’d completely omitted that quote from my memory of the article. I had to go read it again to check where it appeared. To be honest, I have no problems with it and in fact, I’m glad Andrew included that description. He could easily have left it out for the sake of avoiding any hassle, whereas its inclusion justifies his positive comments in the rest of the review. Had he praised the record’s good elements and glossed over its flaws, the piece might have seemed insincere. It was the first CD I’d ever recorded after all, and for almost no money – I prefer to see that as “rough around the edges”. You can’t tell but that’s said with a cartoon-esque wink.”

Journalist RACHEL DEVINE, who has enjoyed critical acclaim in groups such as Telstar Ponies and, now, The Porch Song Anthology, is also not unfamiliar with the feeling of having her own music reviewed.

Rachel: “I hate and fear it. Unless it’s a good review, of course, in which case I fall temporarily in love with the reviewer regardless of height, gender or star sign.

“I’ve been in bands since I was 17 and to my eternal embarrassment I remember being a bit of a tit to journalists when I was younger – worse still I had very little of interest to say. When the tables were turned I discovered a whole new respect for them because, as rewarding as it is, it can also be quite frustrating. I suppose being a musician helps because you can put yourself in their shoes…you can understand what it’s like to potentially open yourself up to a kind of savage criticism that’s unique to music journalism.

“I’m not really sure it’s necessary to be really horrible about any band unless they’re really taking the piss with their atrociousness. You have to remember that one man’s Coldplay is another man’s Rolling Stones. A really brilliant music writer will outline their reasons for disliking something in such a way that allows somebody to come along and say, ‘Well, actually, I think for those very reasons I’m going to like this record’. Having said that, nothing beats a really funny, scathing review.”

Rachel worked at the Sunday Times until June of this year and has most recently been writing for The List and Irish folk alt-country website Whisperin And Hollerin, so what would she rather be: a professional music journalist or a professional musician? “Professional musician every time – it’s the only one that still legitimises daily drinking.”

Beerjacket – VCR (The xx cover)

Telstar Ponies – Farewell, Farewell

(*check out The Porch Song Anthology’s new Christmas song here)

6 Responses to “Do musicians make good music journalists?”

  1. chris Says:

    November 12th, 2010 at 02:11

    Great piece! has gotta have taken a lot digging to find that!
    I think it’s only hard being a reviewer and a musician if you are a negative writer. I understand that working for a magazine/website (as I do) you will be asked to review a show/CD and have to give your honest opinion,and you should give it.
    If it is an established band then they have fans who are looking to find out about their record/live show and should be given an honest critical response.
    Unsigned/grassroots music is different though, as you are basically introducing them to an audience, and what is the point of bringing something you think is shit to peoples attention?
    I have no problem giving a bad review to a well established band that I don’t like – generally because it is on assignment for somewhere – but if it’s an unsigned, new band I will just not mention it, as there is no point.
    It is rare that an unsigned outfit will see themselves reviewed in a popular publication, but there seems to be a trend of writers getting published who just want to slate something and are given an assignment of an unsigned scottis band, and pan it because their musical taste is founded on the amazon top ten.
    bit of a long rant!

  2. The Pop Cop Says:

    November 12th, 2010 at 10:53

    Further reading – The man who… inspired Travis

  3. klaher Says:

    November 12th, 2010 at 12:37

    Robert Forster (Go-Betweens) writes with good insight for The Monthly http://www.themonthly.com.au/

  4. peenko Says:

    November 12th, 2010 at 13:22

    how fecking old are those magazines?!

  5. John D. Says:

    November 18th, 2010 at 11:08

    Very interesting stuff, as always. I had no idea Mr Healy and Muscly Murdoch knew each other. It’s hard to imagine. I thought the first Travis album was brutal, but I enjoyed harmless tuneful stuff like “Driftwood”, genuinely catchy. I applaud Beerjacket for overcoming his Biffy prejudices. I have never made the effort to go backj and listen harder and overcome my own…I have to admit in my head I have them filed under Nirvana pastiche – am I really missing out??

  6. Louise Woodhouse-Black Says:

    November 19th, 2010 at 22:58

    Beautiful remix of a timeless track………

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