Hello and welcome to a very special edition of our Industry Spotlight series. We usually reserve Friday afternoon for our company update, but we have been creating so much great content as of late that we could not resist the urge to share something extra special (and extra long) with you before the week let out. If you have any questions about the content in this article, or if you have an artist you would like to see featured on this blog, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts. We can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.
I have a confession to make: Dragging my feet when it comes to transcribing interviews running over thirty minutes in length is a skill I have essentially mastered over the last six years of my writing career. It’s not the kind of thing anyone should be proud of, and truth be told there is a small part of me that hates the rest of me for making this professional shortcoming public information. Still, it needed to be said before getting too deep into today’s feature because it’s an article that should have run several weeks ago.
Gary Suarez is one of the most entertaining and insightful music critics working today. He’s the kind of guy that knows a little bit about everything this business has to offer, which makes him the perfect person to highlight in our ongoing Industry Spotlight series. For more than a decade Gary has been writing about the best, worst, and most unique music the world has to offer. He’s also become a prominent figure in the world of social media, critiquing various aspects of the entertainment business in creative 140-character bursts. Today, in a rare interview, he tells us how it all came together.
I had the good fortune of speaking with Gary about his professional life a little over a month ago. My plan at the time was to run our conversation the following week, but as we began to chat the minutes quickly added up, and by the time I reached for the stop button I noticed that we were closer to hitting the hour mark than almost any interview I had done for this blog up to that point. I told myself the best way to get through the transcription challenge I had set for myself was to work on it right away, but that ultimately did not happen. Instead, I procrastinated like a fool and the amount of work I had to do continued to pile up until I had no choice except to dedicate a weekend to transcription. That occurred just a few days ago, and now I am finally able to share with you one of my favorite conversations to date.
If you would like to learn more about Gary and his ongoing efforts in entertainment, do yourself a favor and make it a point to follow him on Twitter. Additional questions and comments can be left at the end of this post.
H: Hey there! To help us get started, please introduce yourself to our readers:
GS: Sure. My name is Gary Suarez, and I am a freelance music journalist.
H: That’s a good answer.
GS: Do you need me to tell you about the publications I write for?
H: Don’t worry, we’ll probably get there.
GS: Ah, okay. I don’t meant to rush you or anything, I’m just used to being on the other side of this conversation.
H: Completely understandable. That’s kind of how these tend to go. No one knows what to do because they’re usually the person responsible for asking questions, not answering them.
GS: Yea, you’re one of the few people who have actually asked me to talk at length about what I do.
H: Well I feel fortunate that you said yes. We’re talking on Monday right now, so let’s start there. What are Mondays like for you?
GS: Mondays are good because I usually have something to do. I either have a deadline from the weekend, or something new that I was asked to do over the weekend, so by 10AM things are in full swing. I also spend a lot of time on Twitter, talking to people and learning what it is that people are talking about. I think that’s important because you’re not just part of a conversation, which is a big thing in itself, but by having those conversations you may be able to figure out a new story or a new angle for a story that you never considered before.
H: I couldn’t agree more. Before we get any further with your current situation, I want to get a feel for your history with this business. When you think of your earliest memories involving music, what comes to mind?
GS: For me, it’s very much home listening. It’s going through my parents’ record collections and discovering music through that. Going through vinyl and seeing a cover that looked interesting, or a band name that I recognized. It’s the kind of thing where I could go through time and time again, and different things would stick out. My mother’s side was a lot of folk records, like early Bob Dylan. My father’s side is a bit more classic rock, like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. And then there is a lot in the middle there, like Elton John records, just a lot of 60s and 70s rock and folk that was a big part of my youth.
The other part of my youth is radio listening, which is basically pop radio and whatever rap music made it through to the radio. That was the flip side to listening to my parents’ collection.
H: Can you pinpoint a moment in your youth when music became more than a hobby for you?
GS: I think for me there is a point where you can that a band is ‘yours.’ People talk about their ‘parent’s bands’ as bands they discovered through their parents, but there’s always a point in someone’s life where there is a band or artist that belongs to them. For me, that was Nirvana. They came along at a pretty critical point in my adolescents, it connects with me, it was the sound of right then, and it became my thing. I think that is one of those moments you cannot force on someone, it just has to happen, and everyone has that moment. Everyone has heard something for the first time and adopted it as their own, and for me that was absolutely Nirvana.
H: Was it Nevermind?
GS: It was Nevermind, and it quickly became Bleach too. Basically, when you find out something like this means something to you, and then you discover they made something before that thing that means so much, you get that other record as well. Listening to those two side by side was pretty important to me.
H: You know, Nirvana is one of a few bands I find a lot of writers referencing as a group who were influential on their lives.
GS: It’s strange because now, at this point in my life, Nirvana’s music does not mean a ton to me. It’s not what I care about now, and while I was happy to know the surviving member plays a show in Brooklyn it was one of those things where I later realized I did not really care all that much. There was a period of time, however, a very significant amount of time in my youth where it meant the world to me. I can imagine there is a 12 year old version of me who would be really annoyed to learn they were inducted into something as uncool as the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.
H: I think every music writer has a younger version of themselves that is frustrated with things that are happening in music today.
GS: Haha, yea.
H: Did you go to school for journalism or music? When did journalism come into the picture?
GS: It’s really interesting because I have always identified – even at a young age – as a writer. Not necessarily about music, because I was really into creative writing as well, but I was always interested in writing. I went to school for marketing. If anyone out there is reading this and looking for career advice, don’t go to school for journalism if you want to be a music writer. Actually, don’t become a music writer at all, but if that is absolutely what you want to do then go to school for something like marketing because that provides you with a skill set that will allow you to be successful in this business. You will be able to not only find an audience, but also speak to them.
H: Did you actually write for any school papers, or did you somehow maneuver your way right into music writing?
GS: When I was in college I started writing for a number of zines and e-zines. They were all kind of short lived, but they provided me the opportunity to write about music I was really interested in and that was helpful. Then in 2000 or 2001 I started writing for a site called Brainwashed. That site, which is still around today, is one of the best music sites on the net. It’s basically what Pitchfork originally model itself on. That team was very much a fan of what Brainwashed were doing, and Pitchfork followed suit early on. I think it’s one of the reasons Pitchfork has endured, to be honest. They cover the popular pop records, but they also have people writing about really dense, experimental, avant garde records.
So, Brainwashed was my first real opportunity to write about music you wouldn’t see in the pages of Rolling Stone or Spin. These were bands who had niche audiences, and I considered myself one of those who was ‘cool enough’ to understand it. I hope my sarcasm comes through here, but it really was fun, and it’s around this time my focus in writing started to move away from fiction or poetry. I felt more empowered when writing about music, and over time that became my medium. I still write about other things, but the core of what I do is music and entertainment writing.
H: Do you recall the first piece you wrote for Brainwashed?
GS: It’s hard to say, but it was probably something on Warped Records because at the time I was writing for them I was also hosting a college radio show. I would split the two-hour show into two parts, and the first part was industrial music. The second part was more experimental and intended to cater to that crowd. It was one in the morning so I could play anything I wanted. So yea, the first things I wrote for Brainwashed were some of those odd, off-kilter records. You couldn’t really dance to it, you could maybe nod your head to it, but something about it was very appealing to me.
From there, I wrote for them for a number of year and went through a number of changes in my life. I wrote about everything from Japanese noise to Jamaican dance hall, 70s noise, and a bunch of things in between. I covered this gamut and I think it was that effort that made me something of a generalist, as opposed to a specialist, when it comes to music writing. A lot of people in this business focus on a specific area, so you have rock writers, rap writers, and so on. A generalist, however, is something I never expected to become. I was kind of a snob when I started, but over time I turned into someone who could appreciate music he thoughts was good regardless of whether or not other people thought it was good.
H: I think that is turning point every professional writer faces at some point. It’s kind of a weird thing though, because it forces you to realize and accept that you too have changed over time. You’re not the same person anymore.
GS: And the thing is that you’ll get criticism from those who have read you. People will complain that you’ve changed. I wrote for MetalSucks for quite a few years, and then in late 2012 I decided that I wanted to expand my writing and nurture that generalist sense that I had. When I stopped writing for it, however, I was lumped into this group of metal writers who had decided to start writing about rap. That was funny to me because rap had originally been such a big part of my life, but at that time I had no outlet for the things I had to say. Now that I did, people thought I was just another metal writer who jumped over to rap. It was surprising to me.
H: I get that. Any time we do advice columns for young writers I try to mention that learning to write many different genres is key.
GS: I think that’s true. What I will say to add on to that point is that I don’t believe there is any harm in specializing, especially at the start. If there is a genre or area of music you feel confident speaking about then that is great place to start. I wouldn’t say that those who have never listened to country should start a country site and start reviewing records right away. There is a value to being able to do that at one point, but specializing early on can really help you get a start in writing. It has real value.
H: How long were you writing before you started to make money as a writer?
GS: Let me preface that by saying that if you’re doing this for the money then you’re an idiot. This is not about money, it’s about passion. If you want to make money at this, you don’t write, you build one of these giant websites and recruit people to write for you. That’s where the money is, not in the writing. I won’t put any particular sites on blast for what they do and don’t pay, but I will say that doing this for the money is ridiculous. You need a day job, or a side job, or you really need to hustle. You need to really commit to the freelance lifestyle and accept the challenges that come with that, be it living with four people in a tiny apartment or moving back home for another decade while eating ramen to make it work. A life in writing is not a glamorous one, even if you’re writing about something as cool as music.
To get back to your original question, I think that when you first you should be less concerned with what site is going to pay as you are with what site is going to offer you the best exposure. I don’t mean that in the abstract sense either, if you choose to invest your time in a site that has good reach and no budget that’s a good way to build up your clips while refining your writing. I think that those who are actively seeking paid gigs right out the gate you’re attempting to compete with those who have been doing this for a while and have built up reputations in the business.
Anyways…So I’ve been writing for about fifteen years at this point, and I think I started getting paid about 2/3 of the way through that. It felt good, and it was good for the ego, but again you need to have a day job or side job so that you’re not constantly stressing about paying the bills and/or filling the fridge.
H: What are some of the side jobs you have had while pursuing writing?
GS: For me, I think the best thing you can do is get into office work. Find a job that is a salaried position ideally, and something that is tied into your degree or your interests. Something that can give you health coverage is best. Freelancers are responsible for their own health care coverage, and it can be expensive.
Otherwise, I know a lot of people who work in bars or do aggressive temp work. I think there is a lot of reliability to office work. It’s something you can fall back on if things dry up, or if the rates your being paid begin to change and no longer cover bills. It can carry you until you’re able to do those things you’re passionate about.
H: What career goals do you have at this point? Is there a book in your future? Do you want to keep writing articles? What do you see on the horizon?
GS: It’s interesting because I had a really great 2013 in terms of writing. I got into outlets that I had been reading for years, but never got into. I also got into a few places I read when I was younger, but had never been published in. It was a very encouraging experience. My definition for success now has less to do with outlets, though I definitely want to keep writing for these publications, but I want to focus on what I’m writing. I want to make sure I’m writing about things that are interesting, and that the reviews I write have more to say then whether or not something is good. So for me, it’s a lot more about personal goals and what I hope to achieve as a writer. A book is not something I’m particularly interested in, though people have told me I should consider it. To be honest, I like the instant gratification that comes with publishing content online. You can write an article and boom – it’s out in the world. It triggers that part of the brain that recognizes satisfaction far faster than a book would.
H: I get that instant gratification thing, and I think it is something that has spoiled many young writers.
GS: The problem, for me, is that I think that rush of dopamine we get from posting content is in many ways a cheap high. Many people are writing carelessly, or falling into traps like ‘listicles’ that encourage bad habits and don’t necessarily make for good reading, but do provide instant gratification for the content creator.
H: I think you’re making a great point. I’ve been working on piecing together my own portfolio and I’ve noticed how drastically the number of listicles have increased in my own output over the last few years. It kind of comes across as lazy, at least to me.
GS: There are legitimate reasons for it, as well as business reasons. If you’re running a place like Buzzfeed then you’re writing for an audience and that is what you’re going to provide. What I find discouraging is when you see people with talent, or people who have shown promise as writers funnel themselves into that kind of content because it’s where the $25 is. I don’t hate anyone for going after that $25, but if you’re trying to make it as a professional writer you’re selling yourself short and dumbing down your content.
H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
GS: I would probably burn it all down, but I guess that is more than one thing. If I could do one thing it would be…I’ll liken it to this: If you want to buy a gun in this country there is a waiting period. If there was a way to do it I would impose a waiting period on writers for reviews. Make ‘em wait a few days or even a week before releasing their snap judgments. It’s never going to happen and it’s completely impossible to implement, but imagine what would happen to reviews if writers were forced to sit with a record for a week before publishing a single thing. I think we would get a lot more thoughtful responses, and we would do the music and the artists behind them more of a service than we do. Snap judgments and rushing to be first for a dopamine fix is not only bad for us, but also for the artists who spend countless hours and money to produce their work. We’re not being good partners in these scenarios. I’m not saying we have to be positive, in fact I think we should be more critical, but we should spend more time with music before creating content.
H: I only have two questions left for you. First off, what is the biggest challenge you face as a professional in music right now?
GS: I think it’s coming up with workable ideas. There are so many outlets that exist, and as a freelancer I am compelled to write for as many as possible on a regular basis, which means generating ideas. There are some editors who are good about saying they have something that would work for you, and that definitely happens, but pitching is still an important part of the process. You basically have to convince someone a subject is worth writing about, and some days I honestly don’t have a clue. Other times, like this past weekend, I was behind the wheel of a car talking to my fiancé when I started working out a pitch idea that randomly popped into my head.
H: We always end these conversations the same way. before we let you go, do you have any final thoughts or observations to share with our readers?
GS: One thing I wanted to stress that I talked about earlier is engagement on social media.
Social media, especially Twitter, is where your peers are. It’s where the editors you want to pitch are. It’s where the artists you want to write about are. And in many cases it’s where you can find the fans of the artists you want to write about. It’s all happening on social media, and even if you’re not the kind of person who likes tweeting or sharing images it’s important that you be on platforms like Twitter. Observe the industry and learn from it. That’s where the market is right now. By observing and participating in conversations on social media you can discover new opportunities that may have never come your way otherwise. Some of the best opportunities I have had in the past 18 months have come from interacting with writers, editors, and musicians though Twitter.