– Emilee Booher
“[Theory-based knowledge] is not essential, especially when you’re writing about rock and roll. The music itself is generally simpler…and what’s most interesting is the passion and energy in it,” Fine says.
Attention aspiring music writers: it is possible to become a successful music writer without actually knowing how to play music. Do not be intimidated. Look at Jason Fine, executive editor of Rolling Stone, the pivotal magazine that has been gracing the music world with its presence since 1967. Fine doesn’t play any instruments, he doesn’t consider himself a musician, but he is an avid music lover. It’s easy to see that his love for music has carried him miles from where he started, about three thousand miles. Beginning his writing career in the Bay Area, he now rests comfortably in his New York City office.
Growing up, Fine always had an interest in what magazines were writing about music. “I would read Rolling Stone and a lot of times it would make me really mad because I felt like they were covering the same old people without covering the music that I thought was the most important at the time,” he says. During his high school and college years, he thought the music world was particularly ignoring the ever-important punk rock scene. So what did he do? He started writing about bands like Nirvana and kicked off his career.
Of course, writing about music without much knowledge in musical theory means that it takes an overflowing heap of dedication to listening, researching, and maintaining curiosity. Readers don’t need a mountain of musical terminology thrown in their faces to get a good sense of an artist or piece of music. But they do need to feel that the writers are passionate about what they do and understand the monumental influence that music has on people. This feeling comesacross with writers like Fine who’ve compiled a full musical background and appreciation through decades of simply listening.
There are many challenges, however, for music writers with little experience playing music or studying theory. It can make analyzing different genres of music more difficult. Even now, Fine has a hard time writing about jazz or describing the sounds of eclectic artists. “I still try and do it,” he says. “I ask a lot of questions, talk to people a lot and listen to things over and over again trying to understand.” These are the kinds of things non-musician music writers must be willing to do in order to be successful, especially if they want to compete with writers like John Pareles, who reportedly takes his notes in musical notation.
But do not get discouraged, future writers. There is something important and beautiful about listening to music with fresh ears; ears that haven’t been saturated by hundreds of listening exercises and pages of sheet music. For Fine, and writers like him, interpreting and analyzing music becomes more about the feelings and emotions behind a piece, as opposed to the specific chords, key changes, and time signatures that make it up. Sometimes, being a musician can even taint the writing process. Often, experienced musicians find it difficult to avoid automatically reciting the technical composition of a piece of music when writing about it. The energy, passion and even spirituality of a song can get lost in all of the theory.
This idea of emotion versus theory can vary between different genres of music and publications. Some types of music require higher degrees of technical knowledge than others. According to Fine, writing about rock and roll in particular becomes largely about how the music makes the listeners feel and where each artist sits on the arc of musical history. “[Theory-based knowledge] is not essential, especially when you’re writing about rock and roll. The music itself is generally simpler…and what’s most interesting is the passion and energy in it,” he says.
People like Fine, who show a genuine interest in the art and expression of music, have just as much potential to climb to the top of the music-writing chain as anyone else, though they may have to climb harder. “It’s not easy out there!” he warns half-laughing at his obvious statement. But, what is clear when looking at Fine’s career is the importance of hard work, persistence and humility. Good music writers can’t be afraid to ask naive questions about musical techniques and references, as apparent as the answer may seem to the artist. Writers must always stay thirsty for knowledge and listen to everything with open ears and an open mind. That’s what helped push Fine into his highly esteemed position.
What started for him as a teenage irritation over the music that was being covered in Rolling Stone, ended with an executive editing position at the magazine; all stemming from his love for music. For all of those who want to follow in Fine’s footsteps, understand that it’s not a necessity to pick up an instrument. Instead, simply try picking up a pen and turning on the radio.