Journalism Tips: ‘Almost Famous’ Is A Lie

Hello, everyone! Welcome to the first full week of 2015. We have a lot of great content planned for the days ahead, and we’ve decided to kick things off with a healthy dose of reality. We promise things won’t be this heavy all year long, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded that there is a lot more to music writing than simply having fun.

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In the fall of 2000, a film was released into theaters that offered a new vision of life in the music industry that has since inspired hundreds, if not thousands of young people to dream of one day becoming a professional music writer. That film is called Almost Famous, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a complete work of fiction. You should already know that because it’s not the kind of film that opens with the words ‘Based On a True Story,’ but fifteen years after its initial release this movie still makes people believe rock journalism is a wild and crazy place. It is, but not at all in the way depicted in this film.

Let me be as clear as possible: The idea that a fifteen-year-old boy could not only launch a career in writing in the days before the internet based on nothing more than passion, let alone stumble onto a story so big it allows him to embark on a life-changing road trip with his favorite band (all on Rolling Stone magazine’s dime) is total bullshit. There are elements to the story that could be recreated today, but before your young mind goes dreaming of your favorite Hopeless Records artist bringing you on their bus for nothing more than laughs and a solid editorial you need to realize this movie is nothing more than a piece of make believe crafted for the sole purpose of entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. Also, your favorite band probably doesn’t have the money for a bus, and if they do you can bet having a so-called music writer with next to no experience join them is not high on their band bucket list.

The truth about getting started in music journalism is that, just like in any other career path, all beginners more or less start at the bottom and work their way up. Where that upwards trajectory leads may very greatly from person to person, but most successful writers follow this path on their rise to notoriety. To climb even a single rung on the ladder of success takes long hours, hard work, dedication to your craft, and an unyielding drive to be the best. There are no short cuts, or at least none that provide long term benefits, and there are absolutely are no bands on the verge of super stardom waiting on pins and needles for an unknown teen to show up at their green room door. To be perfectly honest, those artists probably won’t even know your name until your reciting it with your sweaty hand extended for a handshake. Their manager may tell them about you and your publication beforehand, but do they really have a reason to commit that information to memory? After your fifteen minutes are up you will both move on, and more often than not that artist will have another anxious writers waiting to ask them questions that are eerily similar to whatever you just asked.

Almost Famous also makes it seem like one story can change your entire life, and while there may have been a time decades ago when that would be true for young journalists, the age of blogging and social media has made it so one hit wonders are celebrated and forgotten within a week’s time, if not less. Today’s successful writer must be constantly thinking about their next article, and they also need to be consistently sharing new content with whatever readership they can gather. It’s not about writing one great story, but as many as possible, and the trick is finding a way to accomplish that task without sacrificing timeliness or quality. I can’t tell you how to do that, but over time we can provide you with plenty of tips and advice on how you can condition yourself create content in this manner. It’s not easy, and it likely cannot be done while simultaneously riding around the country with a band who more or may not make it, but for those truly driven to work in this field it’s a commitment worth making.

The one redeeming quality of Almost Famous, though it may seem somewhat pessimistic to some, is the advice given by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Lester Bangs. His role in the film is to serve as a mentor for our protagonist, but as time carries on the lead follows his advice less and less, which slowing our young hero into a lot of trouble with his editor. His most infamous bit of advice is this:

“You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”

While I do not feel the above paragraph is entirely true, I do believe writers need to keep a certain amount of separation between themselves and the people and things they are attempting to write about. Also, it’s true that no one in this game makes a lot of money, and that it’s incredibly easy to get all the free music you could ever ask for without feeling the need to pirate or otherwise steal a thing. You will meet girls (or guys), you will be offered alcohol, and yes, sometimes drugs come up as well. You’ll be invited on busses, asked to hang out back stage, and may even be invited to cover a video or photo shoot, which almost always ends in an after party. Yes, all of this will one day happen to you…IF you reach a point in your career where people want you present for such things. You must first prove yourself to be more than a fan disguised as a bad writer, which is really what most of us are when we begin pursuing this career. Once you get away from that mindset you can begin to explore the many strange and awesome opportunities writing about music can provide, but if you begin to fall victim to being more of a fan than a critical thinker everything will disappear once more.

The saying people always associate with Spider-Man is “With great power comes great responsibility.” Writing is the similar, but I would change the phrasing to “With great opportunities to do really cool things that others only dream about comes the need to act like a professional and keep your cool.” The original is catchier, but I think mine is more fitting for this particular discussion. Almost Famous showcases a life no amateur writer could ever life, but everything that happens to the main character COULD occur to a season professional who knows how to handle themselves in even the most absurd scenarios.

If you’re young and just starting out in this industry, please do not get dismayed when your life does not reflect your favorite moments from Almost Famous. The wild side of rock and roll is not dead or all that elusive, but it does take time and hard work to reach a point where that side of the business is accessible to you. For now, just keep your head down and write until your fingers bleed. Once the scabs appear, keep writing. Write until you cannot write anymore and then go see a concert. If you’re broke, stream a new album online. Submerge yourself in the music and activities available to you, create the best content you can based on your experiences, and over time you will see new doors open. Continue pushing yourself and more opportunities will present themselves from there. Just keep writing.

OH, and one final piece of advice from our pal Lester:

“Music, you now, true music – not just rock n roll – it chooses you. It live in your car, or alone listening to your headphones, you know, with the cast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. It’s a place apart from the vast, benign lap of America.”

James Shotwell is the blog editor and social media coordinator for Haulix. He’s also the founder of Under The Gun Review and the host of the Inside Music podcast. His work has appeared on numerous websites and in several major publications, including Alternative Press, AbsolutePunk, and Rolling Stone. He tweets a lot, and would love it if you followed him on Twitter.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.