November 4, 2007

It's real journalism, dammit

An interview with…

music writer


Ask Sean Piccoli how he became a music writer, and he modestly replies, “I backed into this job.”

After graduating with a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1985, his first job was writing copy for a small ad agency in Manhattan. “Several months later, I got a clerk-typist job at The Washington Times in D.C., stayed there 10 years in a variety of assignments, and came to the Sun-Sentinel as pop music writer in June 1996.”

About the only hint he’d end up a music writer: “I admit to being a failed musician, except that I never aspired to a music career,” he says. “I played guitar in bands in high school, college, and afterwards, and I was happy doing it as a hobby.”

Now he’s got a job many of his peers don’t understand.

Biggest misconception average folks have about what you do?

That I became a critic in order to party with rock stars and get free stuff. The reason to do this is because you love music and you love writing about it, and you can write in a way that fits the needs of a newspaper.

So you don’t party with rock stars and get free stuff?

Access to famous people is a perk, but the value of it is – or should be – how it helps you do the job. My direct contact with entertainers is mostly limited to telephone interviews, although I once had a drink with Jimmy Buffett in a hotel in Havana. That was pretty interesting.

As for swag and freebies, my employer has a strict no-comps policy on ticketing. The paper pays for my seat at the event by reimbursing me after I've purchased it. The cost of any tickets beyond that first one – i.e. if I'm bringing a friend to the show – have to come out of my own pocket.

It's mainly a symbolic policy, especially if you believe that a critic's opinion can't be bought for the price of a concert ticket. But even so, it's a sensible way of enforcing some distance between the critic and industry he or she covers.

What about free CDs and DVDs?

I’ll sometimes ask a publicist to send me an advance copy of a particular CD if I have to review it, or if the band in question is coming to town and I'm planning to write a preview. But 99 percent of the CDs, DVDs, and books that arrive in the mail come to me unsolicited. I can't possibly listen to, watch, or read them all, much less keep them. Most are given away or donated.

Selling the stuff to a used-goods store is a no-no, since that would constitute taking money from the industry I cover.
Even with all the culling, I still have a bloated collection. Maybe when I retire, it’ll seem more like a library and less like a storage problem.

Biggest misconception other journalists have about what you do?

One coworker said I don't have a real job, but I think he was joking.

If there's one thing that ever needs clarifying – usually to editors wondering why I blew a deadline – it has to do with accommodations. Criticism is not like beat reporting in sports. If, for example, I'm filing a concert or festival review from a club, theater, arena, or a rented lawn, I don't generally have use of anything resembling a press box, and I don't get many pre- or post-show interviews with the performers. There are exceptions to this, but on balance, there’s very little in the way of permanent infrastructure or facilities for the music critic in the field.

I have good relationships with some local publicists and venue managers, people who I deal with year-round. They do what they can to set me up with a phone line or a wireless signal if I need one, so that I can sit down, write a review, and send the copy to an editor. But depending on the setting, I have to improvise when it comes to filing a story or a review outside the office.

I spend more time than I want to explaining to tour publicists, venue operators, parking lot attendants, security guards, and road managers who I am, what I'm doing here this evening, and why I'm carrying around a laptop.

Did you always want to be a music writer? Or did that come after you decided you wanted to be a writer?

The writing came first. My early encounters with criticism were mixed, probably because I liked Rush at the time and critics were really good at eviscerating Rush. I'd read some takedown of them in Creem or Rolling Stone and just fume. For whatever reason, I took movie reviews a lot less personally.

What's the biggest frustration of your job?

How clerical and administrative it can be. Setting up interviews, getting a ticket, making sure a staff photographer is available, getting everybody their press credentials – this can be like standing in line at the DMV. There are calls to make, forms to fill out, and it's very tedious.

Biggest pleasure?

Any live show or CD that catches me off guard.

It's easy for me to overlook good music because there's so much, good and bad, to listen to. I have to resist the tendency to generalize, to mentally toss everything I hear into the "heard it before" bin, because I think that's what people do as they get older. It's a way of managing information overload. (Compare that to being a kid, when every experience is singular.) So when I hear something that just blows through all of that fog and bowls me over, I'm very happy.

The only catch is, I find it harder to praise than to criticize – to say in writing why a piece of music or a performance is truly, exceptionally great. But one of the rewards of the job is finally getting the words down. Most writing for me is a struggle to keep from writing badly. So when I can finally push through all the second-guessing, stop-starts, and do-overs and say what I'm trying to say, that's a pleasure, too.

A career highlight that sticks in your mind?

Covering a service at the House of God church in Pompano Beach a few years ago. They had a live band with a pedal-steel guitar player, and so-called "sacred steel" is how they do gospel in House of God churches all over the United States. It was one of the most electrifying things I’ve ever witnessed, anywhere. I'm not a spiritual person, but I was moved.

Any amusing professional gaffes?

Not realizing that Bruce Springsteen had written “Because the Night” when I praised him for playing it in a concert review. I wrote something along the lines of, “He really made that Patti Smith song his own!” You can imagine the response.
Song ownership and song titles have caused me trouble before. Once, I started an interview with Herb Alpert by telling him that a friend of mine loved his song “Java.” Herb said, “That's Al Hirt, not me.”

If you could surgically implant one piece of career advice into the skulls of college students and young professionals, what would it be?

Even if you're convinced that all you want to do is be a pure critic and just write, write, write, it cannot hurt to diversify. Learn how to report, to search public records, and to get people to talk to you.

Having these skills will inform the work you do as a critic, because those skills take you out of your own head and force you to deal with the world around you, and they require critical thinking. Reporters and reviewers both have to make decisions every day about what information matters, what to discard, and what to keep in your back pocket for later.

So what does a music writer listen to when he's not working?

That's a great question, because there's an argument to be made that I'm never not working, at least when it comes to music. There's always some part of me that's grading what I hear.

But I think the best answer is what I put on a jukebox when I'm sitting at the neighborhood bar, where my only obligation is to socialize, hang out, and not clear the room. This activity has become more fun now that jukeboxes come with "super-search" databases.
So this could be my typical jukebox playlist – which certain bartenders may already be sick of – assuming I can monopolize it for this long in one sitting…

“Hippy Dippy Do” by Rocket from the Crypt, “Jesus Built My Hotrod” by Ministry, “Electric Relaxation” by A Tribe Called Quest, “Big Fun” by Bad Brains, “Debra” by Beck, “Going Down Slow” by Howlin’ Wolf, “Fireplace” by Fastball, “Cadillac on 22s” by David Banner, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Connection” by Elastica, “Rifle Range” by Blondie, and “Orange Ballpeen Hammer” by Mudhoney.