The media landscape has changed dramatically over the last decade, and it is now entirely possible to build up a large online following as a Music Critic by reviewing music without any specific education or training. Many people have taken the plunge, jumping in to reviewing the latest albums, bands, singles and video releases and have managed to find some level of success. Building up their audience and followers as they go, they may even be able to turn this into a way to supplement their income, with sponsorships or shares of advertising revenue from sites like YouTube.
This guerrilla approach to entering the field is terrific, and adds new voices and variety to the field of music criticism - especially when it comes to acts who are small, independent, ethnic, international or outside the areas covered by the mainstream music industry.
The internet and rise of social media and online publishing has led to multiple ways to get involved in reviewing and criticizing music, and even to change it from a simple hobby to something that can help pay the bills.
In this article we are going to be focusing on what is involved in becoming a professional, paid Music Critic as a career.
Why become a music critic?
If you care about music, have opinions you'd like to share and a sense that you would like to help people find and explore the best of the art form, then this could well be the path for you. As long as you’re willing to forge your way and overcome the hurdles, then go ahead without question.
With the steady stream of new music being poured into the universe daily, there’s no shortage of material for you to sink your teeth into. Everyone has a different emotional and intellectual response to music, so everyone has a valid and unique voice, if they choose to use it. And if you can craft your voice into a unique written form, all the better for your future as a music critic.
Just like all performative art forms, music is reflective of the societal climate of the time to some extent (sometimes to a great extent). This is seen through the music itself and how it’s received and reacted to by the greater audience. Music critics can add to the conversation and articulate different viewpoints in a constructive way to enrich and feed the way we view music, and the wider world.
How to become a Music Critic
The great thing about the internet age is that you can make your own start before your “big break” comes along. If you’re thinking “but I don’t have any experience, who will hire me?”, change that mindset. These days, experience doesn’t simply equate to a regular job and a hand-written reference from your former boss. If you can show that you are a dedicated music critic with a self-starting attitude, even unpublished work can prove impressive to future employers.
So, first things first…just start! Find a place to post your work later. Practise crafting your own voice and tone by writing every day. Keep up with new music in all genres and hone your skills by writing for a wide range of markets. Look for new, emerging and obscure artists to really sharpen your teeth on, as they can provide some in-depth and challenging material to review. Once you find your voice you can start to shape a distinct style that sets you apart from the rest.
This is the time to use the freedom of the internet to your advantage. Start a blog, create unique and regular content, and spread the word as much as possible. Link your blog to everyone you know, and send the word out to your peers in the music world. Get your name out there enough and people will start to recognize it and know that you’re serious.
So. Practise? Check. Blog? Check. What next? Start reaching out even more, and show what you’ve got to offer. You’ve got the evidence of your talent, skills and determination right there in your blog. Make a list of the publications and websites you’d like to write for and put together a cover letter with a link to your work. Even if you’re yet to land your first paid contract, your talent will speak for itself. If a publication likes your work and can see that you have the chops, they won’t care if you’re a “beginner”. Fresh voices and new perspectives are always desired, use that to your advantage.
Music Critic Career Information
|Degree Level||There is no formal education requirement for a Music Critic. Over two-thirds of the metropolitan music critics were music majors in college. Many have a Bachelor's degree. Some Critics have a Master's degree.|
|Degree Field||Music, Journalism, Music Theory|
|Experience||Some experience is typically required|
|Key Skills||Knowledge of music. Writing abilities|
|Median Salary (2017)*||$40,910 per year : Reporters & correspondents Most reporters and correspondents work for newspaper, website, or periodical publishers|
|Median Salary (2017)*||$61,820 per year : Writers and Authors Writers and authors develop written content for various types of media, books, magazines and blogs.|
According to statistics released by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, over two thirds of the metropolitan music critics in the US were music majors in college. Higher education is more common among critics covering Classical Music, with the UNC reporting that almost half of these critics have a master's degree in music.
Students in master's degree programs may take additional coursework in such areas as music theory, music history, music librarianship, composition and performance. Music critics must have strong writing skills, so coursework in creative writing or other English classes may help develop knowledge of writing structure, style, and grammar.
As you can see from the table above, salaries commanded by Music Critics vary. Some critics fit into the category of reporters and correspondents, working for newspaper, website, or periodical publishers. Others will be more comfortably designated as writers and authors, creating written content for various types of media, books, magazines and blogs.
Behind the median figures, there are critics reporting incomes of over $100,000, while for many others their work is a part time or paid at hourly rate starting at around $14. Your own salary expectations as a music critic will depend on the popularity and reach of the publishers you work for, your own education level, your ability to develop a personal following and your own audience, and the genres of music you cover.<
Education: what do I need?
The long answer? It depends on what kind of music you want to write about. If classical music is your chosen genre, then relevant training is necessary. Deep knowledge of the historical and technical aspects of classical music is required for quality critiques.
As mentioned in the paragraphs above, the level of education varies widely, and as a rule experience, talent and knowledge trumps formal education when it comes to being a music critic for most genres. If you can prove your worth as a critic, no one is going to bat an eyelid if you don’t have a relevant qualification (and if they do? Too bad, move on). However, most music critics do have some kind of tertiary education, often a degree in English, journalism or media studies.
Correct grammar, spelling and flow is essential for successful, readable work. This is not to say that your work must be rigid or essay-like, but it must be concise and engaging to the average reader. This is where a Bachelor’s degree comes in handy. However, if you’re a natural at stringing together a great sentence without a degree, great! Let your work speak for itself. Become expert at editing and proofing your own work, or nominate an eagle-eyed friend to do it for you when you first start out.
It would be very boring if every music critic had the same educational background and the same pathway toward their career. The work of people who have cut their own tracks and approached the subject from new and more humble backgrounds is often the most interesting work.
Just remember that to write confidently and assertively about anything, you must be sure of your knowledge on the subject. Soak up as much music as you can. Read as many books and resources about music history and the background of your chosen genre as you can. Your knowledge will show in your work, regardless of whether it came from a recognized qualification or some heavy self-conducted study.
Experience and skills
“Experience” is a wide term. It does not refer only to paid jobs and regular gigs. Experience can mean your own blog, time spent learning from other music critics, or simply hours of deep research.
If you spend most of your time listening to music, attending gigs, talking to musicians and critics, that counts as experience.
Now we turn to the question of skills. We’ve been through the matter of education and training, but what in-built or learned skills will make you stand out as a great music critic? A creative mind and imaginative way with words can take your work from plain-yet-decent, to fantastic.
Part of your job is to bring the experience of the music to readers who may not have heard the music in question, or may not have attended the gig you refer to. Before you offer your thoughts and opinions, you must craft the atmosphere, tone, feel and overall experience of the music you are critiquing. A penchant for the poetic and a spirited imagination will be marvelous tools up your sleeve.
Full time or part time?
If you can manage to bag enough work to write full time, then you’re very lucky. But most music critics work part time, supplementing their income with additional employment. If you market yourself right and use your critic work to show your musical knowledge, you could score another job in the music industry.
You may find your stride as a freelancer for a range of different publications, getting bits and pieces of work when the need arises. Or, you may secure a long-term gig with a publication or online resource.
Getting Started: what kind of pay can I expect?
Don’t embark on your music critic path thinking it will immediately become your sole job and source of income, as you’ll have to have a primary source of income when you begin.
Depending on how often you work, and the amount of work you submit, your pay will likely fluctuate until you reach an established position as a respected music critic. Starting out, you may even write for free, or for admission to gigs and shows.
Once the paid work starts coming in, you are likely to get paid by the word (for example, $1 a word is a good rate). Many publications offer a general set-rate per article or single review. You can expect somewhere between $50-$200 for a review, and up to $500 for a feature-length article or featured review.
If and when you land a full-time job as a Music Critic the prospects improve, with median salaries of $40,910 per year for reporters & correspondents and $61,820 per year for people classified as writers and authors, but the challenge may be making the most of the opportunities that come along for part time paid work until you can break through to that full-time position.
What are the qualities of a good music critic?
Aside from a strong work ethic, a good attitude and the willingness to learn, a good music critic is free-thinking and brave. To attract and hold a readership, your work must provide something different from what’s already out there. This could be a controversial opinion (if it’s genuine), a surprising descriptive style, or the bravery to challenge popular thought.
As well as having a strong opinion of your own, you must also have an open mind toward the opinions and tastes of others. People generally don’t want to read something that slanders them for their opinion, but they do like to read something that offers a different side of the coin.
If you can offer your opinion and back it up with knowledge and honest insights to your gut reaction to the music in question, your work will ring true.
Here is a quick-fire checklist of the qualities of a good music critic:
- A sharp and engaging tone
- Thorough knowledge of the artist, genre and context of the music in question
- Drive and passion: make it happen for yourself
- The confidence to reach out to other critics, musicians and potential employers
- Interviewing skills and the ability to think quickly
- A fair approach without compromising on honesty
- Great writing skills (tidy grammar and a flair for evocative language)
- A constant finger on the pulse of new and emerging artists
- A friendly approach and the ability to accept differing opinions
If being a music critic is your dream, chances are you have pretty great musical knowledge already. However, there’s always room to learn more. Narrow down your chosen genres and become as expert on the history and current climate of those genres as you can.
If you’re a musician yourself, that’s an awesome bonus. However, if you’re just not cut out for making music yourself, it’s no biggie. Talking to musicians and spending time around live music and jam sessions can help to feel both the mechanics and spontaneous creativity of making music. This will influence your writing and bring you closer to truthful, transcendent work.
Constantly upping your game and deepening your musical knowledge will ensure your work stays relevant and reputable. Don’t forget that the internet is a free-for-all of opinions and keyboard warriors. This isn’t to say that you should fear criticism or backlash toward your work (there’s always a hater ready to post a snarky comment). But, you don’t want to get caught out and exposed as someone who doesn’t have the background knowledge to justify their place.
A piece of insider advice
The best people to turn to for quality advice are the people who have made their way to the top of their game as a music critic. They’ve experienced the trials, the setbacks, the joys and all of the lessons that come along for the ride.
Nate Patrin is a prolific music writer and critic. You will have come across his work in Pitchfork, Stereogum and The Vinyl Factory (to name a few). When asked by careersinmusic.com what his biggest piece of advice for aspiring music critics is, Patrin answered:
“Listen. Listen to music, listen to your peers, listen to people you disagree with, listen to people talking about something you’ve never heard of. The more you listen to, the more you have to bounce ideas off when you’re getting your own thing going.”
Patrin’s words are full of wisdom as they acknowledge the importance of other people’s opinions and discussions. Learning from the passions and viewpoints of others, no matter how contrasting to your own, will enrich your voice.
If you’re ready and willing to navigate the online world and impress your name onto the music landscape, you can. Be proactive in your approach and never believe that you’ve learnt all you can. Keep listening, keep reading, keep reaching out to others in the know. Start a blog, write every day, be open to any opportunities which come your way. Don’t expect to earn a lush living purely by your position as a music critic alone, but think outside the box and find ways to make your interest in music into the type of career that can add a sense of purpose to your life.
Stay honest, be as creative as you can, and don’t be afraid to show your passion and enthusiasm in every way possible, it’s what will get you noticed and respected.