Guest post by Killian Young
Killian is a recent grad of Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. For the past several years, he’s reported on and photographed concerts, interviewed well-known musicians, and wrote song and album reviews. He interned with SPIN and Rolling Stone, and his articles have been published on both websites.
My career as a music journalist has taken me to some pretty interesting places, from the top floor of the Sony Tower (where I interviewed LL Cool J) to the front row of Jay Z’s Made in America festival (where I photographed Kanye West). While my time writing about music has been a tiny bit like Almost Famous (I often get asked about Cameron Crowe’s film when I tell people I worked at Rolling Stone), I’ve done just as much nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes preparation in comparison to the more glamorous side of taking pictures of a famous band in concert or landing a major interview. Here are five things I’ve learned as a music reporter:
Always Be Prepared
For a young reporter, there’s a first time for everything – even mistakes. For example, I learned to carry extra batteries and memory cards in case there’s some sort of catastrophic failure among my many devices (audio recorders, cameras, microphones, etc.). The first time I learned this lesson the hard way was when my audio recorder’s battery gave out mid-interview, causing me to put my questions on hold as I ran out of the venue to find a convenience store to pick up more batteries. Thankfully the members of the band were patient and let me resume my interview when I got back. And I learned to always carry extra supplies and plan ahead for Murphy’s Law.
Some critics are well-known as experts in specific genres or even artists, but for the rank and file of the music journalism community, it’s worthwhile to be open-minded about new music or artists. It’s not cool to be snobby about certain bands simply because they’re popular or different. And you never know if you’ll like something until you try it. I’ve heard artists that have been critically lauded that weren’t for me; I’ve enjoyed albums that were panned in the media. I listen to just about everything, from metal to garage to hip-hop to jazz. With the vast amount of music out there, it’s entirely possible you’ll never find your next favorite artist if you close yourself off to what you’re already comfortable with.
Research, Research, Research (And Then Research Some More)
When I schedule an interview with anyone, I try to read every article and watch every video interview about the band. While this isn’t necessarily practical if you’re writing about an artist that’s been around for decades, the sentiment still remains true. This is the basic way that the foundations of feature stories are built at Rolling Stone. When a writer takes on a new story, staffers will cull every possible previous source on the subject for the writer to formulate questions and a general idea of where the story might go.
Since your interviewees are doing you a solid by giving you their time, you owe it to them to not waste it by asking inane questions. There’s nothing more cringeworthy than a bumbling interview. By researching past stories you can identify questions that have been asked ad nauseam (e.g. What is the significance of your band’s name? Who are your influences?), as well as questions that previously elicited negative responses so that you know you’ll need to tread carefully around them or wait till the end. Which brings leads to…
I’m a firm believer in the “play softball” approach when it comes to interviews. In “Interviewing: Accelerated Intimacy,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson describes an interview as a Bell Curve of sorts with this general structure:
-When you start the interview, it’s unlikely that your source will be vulnerable and open from the outset. So you need to establish your footing and “play softball.” This includes lobbing some easy questions that the interviewee can knock out of the park to make them feel more comfortable.
-When you reach the peak of your interview, the interviewee will be most open to answering your toughest requests. This line of questioning should be saved for the latter half of the interview, with your most difficult question saved for the end in case you get stonewalled. If you do, you already have everything else you need. A good interview will slowly wind down to a natural end. Finally…
Give Your Sources The Last Word
Despite your best effort in researching, you might not have thought of everything. I always close an interview with some form of the open-ended question, “Is there anything else you’d like to say?” or “Is there anything you wish I’d asked?” Often, sources hesitate briefly and then proceed to drop the best quote of the day at the end.