Martin Popoff’s Advice to Music Journalists

Image borrowed from Bravewords.com.
So, I often ask people who want to write, what are you an expert at? That’s the most important thing, because that’s the thing you’re going to have the most fun writing about.
 — Martin Popoff

Introduction

Every single day I feel grateful for having a paying side hustle in music journalism. Writing is never an easy dollar, and writing about music is an even harder dollar that most. So, after years of doing this, I still get a kick at every cent I earn. Martin Popoff, however, takes the whole thing to an entirely different level. He’s forged a path many would (and many probably do) envy. You wouldn’t know that from talking to him, though.

For nearly two decades, Toronto, Canada’s Martin Popoff hasn’t just made a full-time living with music journalism. He’s managed to do it almost entirely his way. He’s not out there scrapping for paid freelance gigs or staff jobs. Instead, he’s built a business foundation that allows him to make his daily bread writing about the music he wants to write about, in the way that he wants to write it.

Along the way, he’s met his heroes, seen his books in print, and collected a whole lot of autographs. He’s won those coveted publishing deals so many of us writers hear legends about, and he’s constructed a viable self-publishing platform that provides the majority of his earnings.

Millions of wage slaves would kill for a life writing about music, but Popoff doesn’t come across as arrogant or entitled whatsoever in conversation. He’s honest and straightforward about how hard he has to work to make it happen, and about how art often has to be sacrificed for efficiency. He doesn’t talk about his craft like some hoity toity artiste, as you might expect. He talks more like a mechanic — practical, no-nonsense, and humble.

I’m probably something of an anomaly in that I didn’t get into music journalism because of musicians or even music, necessarily. I got into music journalism because of music journalists. Namely, the great crawdaddy himself Paul Williams showed me the kind of quality writing that could be done in this field.

I’m a writer at heart, not a musician, so I’ve always looked up to writers first and foremost. That may be why I actually got a bit nervous for this interview. I stopped getting nervous talking to musicians a long time ago. This one, though, zapped me a little bit. It caught me off guard, and I felt like I flubbed a golden opportunity.

Luckily, Popoff was easy going and happy to share his wisdom. I actually interviewed him once before, for his release of Rush: Album by Album. That one was a written interview, though. This time, I scheduled our talk entirely too early in an attempt to accommodate the time difference (one more reason things didn’t go exactly as planned) and chatted with him one-on-one on the phone.

Luckily, Popoff picked up the slack and dropped some useful wisdom for all those looking to make their way with music journalism.

The interview for this book can be seen here.

Interview with Martin Popoff

The other reason I have so much stuff out, and I give people this advice all the time: don’t go into journalism unless you can write fast and write under pressure, and you don’t have too many writer’s blocks and you don’t sit there and stress and stress over every comma forever.
 — Martin Popoff

Suwak: How have the books in the Album by Album series gone?

Popoff: They’ve gone great. They all sold well, but because the publisher is closing down their music division, I don’t have any more in the pipeline.

I have a new Queen one, which is doing great, and they printed tons and tons of those. The Rush one did great, and it’s still in print.

Popoff’s latest. Check it out here.

I was shocked to find the AC/DC one was no longer available and was out of print. Clash is out of print. But the Pink Floyd is still in print and doing well. We did five in total.

Suwak: If the publisher’s closing up their division, do you plan on carrying this format to another publisher?

Popoff: Not particularly.

Even along the way I was thinking it would be cool to self-publish some of them on smaller, less marquee bands, because we had a lot of people who really enjoyed doing those interviews. It would be so cool to do one that just looks at David Gilmour and Roger Waters solo albums.

So, it’s possible that I may self-publish some, but as for taking it to another publisher, I don’t know because it’s a very costly full color photo hardcover format. I don’t have to follow that format, but it is kind of intriguing, and it was well received.

Some people have said what I thought a lot of people would say, which was “I don’t care what these people think, it’s just a people talking about their favorite Maiden albums,” but most people loved it and thought it was a fun-time read.

I love the self-publishing route, because you don’t have to beg someone to publish your book and you can write on whatever you want.
 — Martin Popoff

Suwak: How did you get into music journalism?

Popoff: Well, I was just a real crazy fan expert from 10, 11 years old, and certainly by 20. It’s almost like you’re destined to fall into something because you love becoming an expert in it. So, I often ask people who want to write, what are you an expert at? That’s the most important thing, because that’s the thing you’re going to have the most fun writing about. Even if there was no pay in it, you just enjoy becoming an expert in it.

Later on, we had a desktop publishing business, and I was comfortable with the process. I published a book in ‘93, that was reissued in ‘97, and then I was off to the races and started getting a few deals here and there.

So, now, 80 books in, trying to balance is the same as it’s always been. Half my books have been through publishers and half have been self-published. I love the self-publishing route, because you don’t have to beg someone to publish your book and you can write on whatever you want.

And then, people say it’s crazy to have many books out, but what I tell them is when it’s your full time job, I’m one of the few guys doing this as his full time job, and even more so than the old days because magazine and net writing and all that stuff, nothing pays anymore.
 — Martin Popoff
Original painting by Martin Popoff. Yes, he paints, too. You can find his visual work here.

As long as you can sell enough copies, the business model is such that it almost works out roughly the same. Self-publishing and selling it mail order versus going through a publisher and getting that piddly royalty piece, or an advance, usually end up evening out.

I’ve had advances ranging from 0 to 10,000 dollars U.S. Basically, I’ve had advances of every single size. So, it really almost makes no difference if it’s self-published or goes through a publisher.

You have that satisfaction that you can conceive of a project and you can actually have it happen. That’s the nice thing about self-publishing, too. Any crazy idea you have you can make happen, because it’s all in your court.

So, over time, I got involved with a good buddy of mine, Tim Henderson, and we started Brave Words & Blood Knuckles magazine, which went from 1994 to 2008 in print, 14 years in print, and was an early web presence.

Tim runs an awesome site at Bravewords.com. It’s been his life’s work, in some ways even more so than the magazine, because literally the internet started for real in ‘97, ‘98, we had a very good site full of original material, news and reviews, and it’s one of the longest running.

So, he’s still going at that, and I still contribute to that. So, because of working for the magazine all that time, plus other magazines, plus writing record bios and liner notes and thing like, in the year 2000 I quit regular work and went full time in this.

So, while I’m doing all that, I’m getting lots and lots of interviews with rock stars, and when you get lots and lots of interviews with the same rock stars, you’ve got enough to contribute something to the world in terms of doing a book. So, that’s how the books on bands more or less got started.

And then, people say it’s crazy to have many books out, but what I tell them is when it’s your full time job, I’m one of the few guys doing this as his full time job, and even more so than the old days because magazine and net writing and all that stuff, nothing pays anymore.

Also, I’m too lazy to really pursue and beg for pay. I have friends who do go that model and make a living at it, but that’s because they’ve been laser focused on making sure they’re writing for places that pay and pay well and doing it and enjoying it.

But I never enjoyed it all that much because I didn’t like the fleeting nature of it. It’s like, you put a magazine out and two months later you got to do it again, or on the net you write something and it flies by and it’s out of the public consciousness.

Martin Popoff. Image borrowed from www.bravewords.com.

I like the evergreen quality of books, the permanence of books, so that always made me more motivated in terms of AP writing format. It’s just cooler having a book out. You can sell it forever, while a magazine comes and goes and what the heck, right? You just got to do it all over again.

The other reason I have so much stuff out, and I give people this advice all the time: don’t go into journalism unless you can write fast and write under pressure, and you don’t have too many writer’s blocks and you don’t sit there and stress and stress over every comma forever. There’s a certain kind of journalist who gets paid enough to do that for the top flight magazines like the New Yorker or whatever, and they get paid well enough to write something short, but that's not my business model. My model means, “if you’re going to get 80 books out you gotta write fast.”

Suwak: I was actually going to ask how your career has changed since the internet grew and evolved, but it kind of sounds like you’ve been doing the same thing. You've self-published all the way back in ‘93.

Popoff: It’s changed a lot in that I’m not editing a magazine, and I’m not writing tons and tons of stories for magazines. So, the way it’s changed is all those categories fell away, leaving only the books. So, my output is way more now than it used to because all of that temporary stuff has fallen away. That’s how it’s changed for me.

Any time you enrich the intellectual approach to the piece of art for the listener, it’s going to make them appreciate the music more and connect with it more and spend more time with it.
 — Martin Popoff

Suwak: How do you see the role, musically and culturally, of music journalists?

Popoff: I think it’s as important as ever, but for totally different reasons. I mean now, basically everybody's music is free and available. If you don’t have Spotify for 10 bucks a month, you can just go on Youtube and find everything under the sun, all the craziest rarities you could ever imagine.

So, right now the listener is inundated with infinite choice, and the role of the music journalist is a gatekeeper, a filter, to turn you on to certain things you might like.

So, you find journalists you like to turn you on to certain things you may like. In the ‘70s, it was a buyer’s guide. It was like, “I’ve only got my allowance money or my work money, and I’m going to buy a record, and I want to make sure I’m going to like it, so I’m going to spend my 4.99 or my 6.99 on one record this week, and I better read some reviews to figure out which one to buy.”

That was different than today. Now, it’s like, “I have infinite choice, God somebody help me out. Somebody enhance my understanding of this record or talk me into why I’m going to like it, or enhance my enjoyment of it by telling me some cool things about it.”

So, it’s a little bit like when you’re in university and you read poetry and you go “what the heck is this,” and then the prof tells you what it’s about and you go “whoa, that’s awesome.” It’s a little bit like that, where a journalist is helping you enjoy the art you purchased or the art you spent time listening to and, in the case of the modern day, also acting as a filter to keep out all that noise.

The music journalist helps you decide which out of a thousand records that come out this week to listen to is the one that you’re going to spend that valuable time listening to so you’re not going to be frustrated looking for music on your own and not liking it and wasting all your time.

Suwak: So, you sound like you’re positively oriented, directing people towards good music. Do you do many negative reviews?

Popoff: I don’t do practically do any reviews anymore, because there’s no one paying it.

Again, the thing that helps me get 80 books out is because nearly everything I write I’m thinking, “I can use this for a book in some form.”

So, what I’m doing recently is just interviewing people, and not even too many baby bands, because I’m thinking even though I love this band, I’ll never use this for a book because I’m getting too old, so I’m almost just interviewing people I’ve written books on so I can update the book.

See, that’s the other thing I’m doing a lot lately. I’m re-purposing a lot of older material that goes out of print, expanding it, updating it. So, I don’t write positive or negative reviews anymore. What’s the point? I’m not ever going to have enough to do a compilation book of reviews like those big collector’s guide books I did, because way too much stuff comes out. You just can’t keep up.

Even when I did the Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal Volume 4, for the 2000s, I had to write that with a buddy, so we split up what we were doing, and the book was 600,000 words, so it’s literally as long as about nine books. It’s over half a million words. Even then, I used to say, in my ‘70s review book, there’s 100 things missing. In my ‘80s review book, there’s 1,000 things missing. In the ‘90s review book, there’s 10,000 things missing. In the 2000s review book there’s 100,000 things missing.

So, there’s no point ever doing a compilation book of reviews anymore unless you break things up by genre, which I’m sure people are going to start doing. It may not be me, but I can see in the future there being big books of reviews of all the power metal albums, of all the black metal albums, the grunge albums. Somebody will do that. Somebody will take that torch, but it won’t be me, because I have five book ideas all the time, and that’s kind of at the bottom of my list.

The value (in music journalism) is still getting people interested in a new album. It’s cool to read a piece on a new album by a young band, Omnium Gatherum or something, and the value of that for the reader is still getting them excited for the band and humanizing the band.

Any time you enrich the intellectual approach to the piece of art for the listener, it’s going to make them appreciate the music more and connect with it more and spend more time with it.

Suwak: Has the audience for metal been growing or diminishing?

Popoff: It seems the same size. Rap, dance, and pop are huge. Things are way more fragmented. It’s easy to put records out and make records and make them sound good. But, it seems like when metal bands come to town they get the same sized crowds. Nothing seems particularly diminished.

Obviously, on their end, they seem to be selling less music, but they seem to be selling more merchandise and having people buy tickets to the shows. I think it’s just better on the ground for everybody, because as population grows and everything becomes more fragmented and everything is free, including the journalism for this stuff, of course, anybody can go online and find five reviews, ten of any record, within a week or even before it comes out, so it’s all kind of free, maybe that’s the reason I’m into books and why when I self-publish I don’t give them to Amazon. There’s one place to get them. It’s mail order through me. Maybe subconsciously the reason I’m doing this is because I have something I can still sell and control, while most journalism is essentially free.

Tim Henderson and I got to go down to a plush hotel here in Toronto and interview all four members of Black Sabbath in pairs.
 — Martin Popoff

Jeff: What are the highlights of your career?

Popoff: The highlights that always come to mind are meeting my heroes, in person, and spending good time with them and hopefully having a good interview, and getting some stuff signed. I’m a bit of an autograph collector. I’m not the guy who takes a lot of pictures. I’m not the guy who collects the great rarities that are now ten times in value — I regret that, but what I don’t regret is always getting autographs from these guys.

So, in my office I’ve got 3,200 autographs. So, that’s cool. Getting a lot of free music, that’s been cool, but really the highlights are meeting great musicians and having great interviews, but also the highlights are getting all these books out.

I’ll give you one top answer, the one that always comes to mind.

Tim Henderson and I got to go down to a plush hotel here in Toronto and interview all four members of Black Sabbath in pairs. Ozzy and Bill, Tony and Geezer together…I remember coming out of that one and Tim and I looking at each other and Tim goes, “Did that just happen?”

It was just so cool.

Getting in the elevator and going downstairs, and I couldn’t believe we got to do that.

That’s the number one highlight. All four members of Black Sabbath within an hour.

Suwak: Were they cool guys?

Popoff: Oh yea, they were all totally nice and signed stuff. They were joking around. Yea, they were great.

Suwak: What are you working on now? What’s coming up?

From Zunior.

Popoff: The Queen book came out…I’ve got Martinpopoff.com. I’d say more than half of my annual income comes from just the mail order of my own books. I just had a Black Sabbath book come out called Sabotaged: Black Sabbath and the ‘70s. Then, a month or two ago, Judas Priest: A Decade of Domination.

In the layout stage I have Black Sabbath: Born Again in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and also at the layout stage I have the Top 250 Heavy Metal Songs of the 70s, which is an update of an old book I did called The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time, and that’s where I take a big poll, find out what the answer is, review each song, and I’ve got a quote from the artist for each song.

Then, I’m going to do The Top 250 Heavy Metal Songs of the ‘80s and then The Top 250 Heavy Metal Songs of the ‘90s, and I’m going to do a follow-up to the earlier Judas Priest book, and next year I’ve got through a UK publisher I’ve got an update or second half of the Paul Chapman years of the UFO book that I did ages ago.

So, a lot of re-purposing, but when I re-purpose them I almost double them in size. Like, there’s a lot that gets added. It’s not a straight reissue.

I just had an Alice Cooper book come out from my publisher, Wymer, real nice full color throughout, large format, called Welcome to My Nightmare: 50 Years of Alice Cooper.

So, lots always in the pipeline. I’m dealing with tennis elbow still, four years going now. My output feels like it’s gone down because I’m dealing with a little bit of arm pain. It’s not going away, but if I can sit there certain ways, I’m a little happier. I’m not crazy happy with getting all this stuff out.

I also want to do more art, so I’ve been doing a lot of drawing and getting back into painting, possibly do some prints of some things I’ve done. I’m still working with Bangor Films.

So, lots always in the pipeline.