Writing Tips from a Music Journalism Legend

“A group of people on a stage illuminated by floodlights” by Diego Sulivan on Unsplash

Think you go to a lot of concerts? You don’t. Steve Morse did. When Morse was senior pop critic for the Boston Globe beginning in the 1970s, he went to about 250 concerts per year for 30 years.

As a journalist—and fan—Morse witnessed some of rock history’s most transcendent moments, including the Rolling Stones at London’s Hyde Park in 1969, a young Tom Petty at Boston’s tiny Jazz Workshop in 1976, and Live Aid in Philadelphia in 1985.

He also interviewed many of the biggest names in modern music—several on multiple occasions, including Bob Marley, Bono, Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Jerry Garcia, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Madonna, and Eddie Vedder.

Morse invited me to his home a few weeks ago to talk about his career for my podcast, the Media Narrative, and, mixed among his memories of the great shows and interviews were some pieces of advice for aspiring music writers.

Get to know artists when they’re starting out.

Morse made it his goal to go to as many concerts by promising young musicians as possible. “(Later on) they appreciate it if you’re in there on the ground floor. When you finally get to do bigger interviews with them…you have a foundation.”

Don’t treat superstars like superstars.

“Most of them don’t want that. They want a legitimate conversation.”

“Expect the unexpected.”

When Morse arrived at Bob Marley’s New York hotel room for a 1979 interview, friends of the star were smoking five-inch joints and kicking a soccer ball around the room while Marley read aloud from the Book of Revelations. Morse witnessed the chaos for a while before interrupting and getting what turned out to be a tremendous interview.

Turn people on.

“Seek out new stuff. Write about new stuff as much as you can. Take pride in introducing a new act to your city, to your readers.”

Be brave and voice your opinion. Like an ump.

“I think I lasted so long at the Globe because I wrote what I felt….there’s a lot of writers that get caught on a bandwagon effect. I would always call it like I saw it. When you do it as much as I did—this sounds like a dumb analogy—but really, it’s like an umpire calling balls and strikes.”

U2’s Bono once said about Morse, “You were never afraid to kick our arse.”

“I don’t get a paycheck from the band. I get a paycheck from the Boston Globe. The better the musician, the more they respect that.”

Retain your love of music.

“You’re writing about something that is really important…Today you get a lot of doors slammed on you. You don’t make a whole lot of money…You have to have fortitude. I always looked at writing about music as a calling.”

Write about musicians you’re fascinated by.

“I try not to interview musicians that I dislike.”

Morse isn’t optimistic about the path ahead for aspiring music journalists; he says there are far fewer, if any, full-time staff newspaper jobs for popular music writers these days.

In response to my question about the “decentralizing” of music criticism due to the growing importance of blogs and other digital media, Morse did his ump thing, calling it like he sees it:

“Decentralize. That’s a kind word for going to hell…Everyone’s a blogger today — there’s a good and bad side to that — there’s some really good bloggers out there and there’s just some idiots out there that kind of corrupt and taint the whole business...I think that when it was more of a profession, it had a little more believability — it was a little less gossip oriented, little bit less attitude driven.”

Morse’s cynicism about the state of music criticism notwithstanding, there are intelligent and trustworthy sources in the music blogosphere, such as Pitchfork, Pigeons and Planes, Medium’s own Cuepoint, and many others.

And, just like Morse stayed on top of new music and new writing while soldiering through pop music chaos with a discerning ear and a willingness to voice his opinion, aspiring music journalists can succeed by doing the same.

You may not get rich right away, but helping spread knowledge about the music that helps so many of us survive our days is noble work.

Go forth, music critics of the future.