Now that I look back, I was quite busy during my university years.
To be honest, it hasn’t changed much since then, but what did change was the amount of activities one can give a f**k about. School lectures at the University of Economics were immovable roadblocks in my calendar (not that I attended that many), so the whole schedule was built around them and I was lucky that my work at Prague Philharmonic Orchestra was really flexible and my office hours were subject to negotiation with Mr. Riehle on a weekly basis – and was ever-changing thanks to the somewhat chaotic nature of both involved parties. Therefore, when something interesting (or fun) happened, I was usually ready at a moment’s notice, never minding daytime or day of the week. I might even have skipped the lecture block if it had worth my time (which was fairly cheap and insignificant back then). And because there were many interesting things happening around me at that time, I also developed this unhealthy habit of storing sleep deficit over the week and paying it off at the end of the week with a proper koala sleep.
I had just joined the university when I found an open music journalist position from Topzine.cz. I knew a thing or two about writing and I thought I knew a lot about heavy metal. I wrote a mock article, sent it to the newsroom, not forgetting to not-so-humbly mention that I’m also a musician, festival planner and a former roadie. So much for modesty. Obviously, they had no choice but to accept me. My new editor-in-chief quickly became my mentor and partner in mischief and it felt like Ozzy’s Crazy Train from the very beginning.
I ended up backstage the very first night and soon found out that Mastercard is nothing compared to a press card. It opens a magical world of free concert tickets, music business contacts and great music, as well as parties and free booze. Priceless. The job wasn’t paid at all, but I still felt rich compared to my fellow students when I was attending five arena shows a week. Of course you always need to get back home sober enough to finish the article, so that it may get published the very next morning, but working late slightly drunk with ear fatigue is something one can get used to. Nevertheless, it requires a tremendous amount of determination, endurance and general sense of responsibility to finish the task when all you want is to doze off. I had it easier than others due to the fact that I was still living in Kladno, so it was either catching the 1AM train or sleeping on someone’s couch, waking up all wrecked with the carefully thought-out sleep deprivation model completely f****d up, which inevitably led to switching into forced koala sleep mode the very next night, plan or no plan. And missed deadlines, which is a big no-go.
The Topzine management quickly found out that I was up to no good, so they gave me the liberty of attending approximately five events a week of my own choosing on, provided I gave them a significant portion of verbal diarrhoea. Since people were actually reading it and I was not a bad pageviews hunter, it seemed like a good bargain. Being on good terms with my editor-in-chief granted me priority access to promoters and press accreditations and over time I built my little private network of backstage passes.
I enjoyed this kind of life so much that when there was a tiff between my fellow scribblers and the greedy website owner, I decided to join their rebellion and found a new shelter under the wings of Musicweb.cz. What little experience I head determined me to get more involved in the day-to-day business and rudimentary management. I quickly found out that I do more good out in the field than in the office and that all these responsibilities that come with babysitting writers with serious drinking problems is really just something that distracts me from my true goals. My industry contact network expansion slowed considerably, I was suddenly correcting and planning articles more than writing them, and, worst of all, there were less and less parties.
Therefore, I quickly stepped back from the leading position (I use this tactic quite often, since it’s virtually impossible to be the supreme leader of everything and I already have a band and myself to manage), otherwise, I would’ve had quit much sooner. So I was back to writing, but the original enthusiasm was slowly fading away.
The inevitable: Burnout
In time, your live show perception changes and the magical arena atmosphere is not as appealing as it used to be. You still ultimately fight to death with others over the big satisfaction-guaranteed acts, because you’d suffered so much disappointment while hunting for an interesting fresh blood act in some of the worst piles of the outer rim. On the lowest local level, your friends are constantly inviting you with high hopes of positive press mentions and exposure, and you’re slowly running out of excuses. In addition, you evolve to an overly-critical listener. Your bar is set higher than the sky, because you visit only the best of the best and you put in your mouth even some untouchable rock legends. I still feel bad that I slept through most of Steve Vai’s performance with the G3, while most of the crowd was staring in pure awe. Perhaps the dosage of virtuosity was simply too much to bear after 50 minutes of Satriani or perhaps the whole guitar solo act idea starts to sound really hollow after visiting wild shows like Sabaton couple of times a month.
As I mentioned earlier, album reviews are ultimately bound to become the kind of necessary evil you want to avoid at all costs. There’s no place for fun under jester’s mask and definitely no place for criticism if you want to survive in the music industry long-term. A lot of times, you end up re-playing an album for the tenth time, desperately looking for anything unique and worth mentioning. And, of course, there’s always that CD your friend gave you to make him rich and famous and you bite your teeth over it for more than six months now, still hesitant (and frightened) to write the first paragraph.
Note to bands: Two months is a good period to keep asking about the mighty review of
your epic masterpiece. After that, quit nagging. Your friend doesn’t want to hurt you, but if you push him hard enough, he most definitely will. Better losing a promo CD (he would’t have bought it anyway) than getting bad press. Or just lame mixed-up-feelings press in case the guy has no spine, is in deep, hopeless love with your singer, or just loves having you around and is secretly hoping that you’ll one day come see his show in return. You have been warned.
Back to the miserable burnout-journalist arockalypse: Both live and studio has lost its vibe by now and you feel that this is the end of the line; you’ve seen everything, heard everything and you feel like there’s more music in the world than you originally bargained for. Yes, I’m talking about you, mindless female fronted Nightwish clone mk. 666, I mean, how many of you can exist on the same plane of existence, before the world collapses from your collective lack of songwriting skills?
See? You’re sitting in front of your stereo, listening to the Number of the Beast, tears barely in check, babbling like an old man whose musical taste stopped evolving somewhere in mid-eighties. You’re finished.
Fortunately, if you’re a compulsive talker like me, there’s still a third option, that keeps the wheels rolling and to my taste, it’s also the most rewarding one.
A trip to the stars
The only part of the music journalism that is both ever-changing and ever-challenging is the sacred ritual of doing interviews. For a little dreamy-eyed boy with his very own little band, there is an additional dimension to it; you can ask about live on the road, gear, songwriting process, music business – the list goes on. There’s that magical window of opportunity once all questions on the list have been asked and you can discuss just about anything. Most of the guys are amazing personalities and their opinions and stories always left me deeply touched. Even though my diploma thesis has the keyword “music marketing” in its very title, I learned way more from artists than I could possibly have ever read in all the books in the world. With great rock heroes, you feel the bond between the stage and the crowd, the shared love for music and the naked artist’s soul shimmering somewhere in the haze. In the end, the connection is all that matters.
Of course there are pricks and those fueled by pure greed and/or an unending lust for fame, but it’s a lot less common than I originally expected. Some of the guys just play the heavy as part of their role and are actually very pleasant-to-be-with personalities once the curtain is down. No one is exactly devoid of extravagancies, but the passion for music is there, deep in their very souls. On a local level, the dickhead’o’meter beeps a lot more. I seldom wonder if being a freaking diva makes you unsuccessful or if your frustration from underachievements manifests in this kind of behaviour. Anyway, I developed a habit of jumping at every opportunity to get a big name in the press room (no serious danger) and with smaller ones, I was usually the one offering the interview after a trust-building beer or few.
Once again, I was very lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Interviews weren’t that much popular amongst my fellow scribes and I can’t really blame them. It takes a lot of time to listen to the recording (unless you’re Rita Skeeter and have the Quick-Quotes Quill at hand) and there’s less space for creativity when the deed has already been commited. Moreover, some feel plain intimidated by the prospect of talking to these godly entities in a foreign language. I mean; “what would they think if I used incorrect tense or didn’t understand them, right? I would look like a savage and I’d be a complete and utter embarassment.”
They wouldn’t obviously give a damn, but the fright is quite common nontheless. Howevet, if you’re able to climb up the stage and make a fool of yourself, you totally have what it takes to embarass yourself in front of genuine rockstars.
I don’t personally recommend doing written interviews. True, they’re easier to publish, but you also put all the unexpected out of the equation. You get rehearsed answers, sometimes with the unpleasant PR department stench and, unless the artist is really excellent at writing, you often fail in your side mission to capture the personality. That means less experience points upon quest completion and I’m sure you want to play 100 % synchro to collect all the achievements.
Visual contact works best. If you’re unable to meet face to face, Skype or Facetime works nearly just as well.
Worst case scenario – you have to pick up a phone and talk your way through it. It’s a bit of a challenge to focus on just the voice, the sound quality is mediocre at best and if your wide gesticulation is of no use.
Most of the time, you give your number to the label and they call you back at their convenience. I guess that’s fair, for you probably wouldn’t like to answer calls from some drunk scribblers in the middle of the night either. I remember I had a call with Kai Hansen, who was supposed to call me around 2 p.m. I carefully planned that I’d arrive at the university, find myself a cozy little classroom and have a great listening experience. Well, Kai is not called “Master of Confusion” for nothing. It wasn’t even 1 p.m. when I received a call from an unknown german number. You can’t simply hang up when you have Kai Hansen himself on the phone. So I picked the phone up, got off the train at the next station, trying to communicate over the wall of engine rattle through my shitty phone with barely functioning speakers. Kai was patient and didn’t mind tracing back every once in a while when the sound quality was poor. And after the initial embarassment, I was having the time of my life with one of my legends.
Note: If you can have a say in it, do the interview after the performance rather than before. The guys are relaxed and exhilarated, so it’s a perfect time to fire your question. Also, do consider grilling the support band while the main act is on stage. You can thank me for this free party ticket later.
The show takes a lot of preparations, and loads of things can screw up, so it’s not unusual that the interview gets changed or is cancelled entirely. Most often due to a logistic problem; tourbus didn’t arrive on time, guys haven’t been yet picked up at the hotel, et cetera. You also risk that the guys will be tired, suffering mild stagefright and generally less responsive, which doesn’t usually happen after a victorious act. The life of the touring musician is hard, so you have to respect that and play the hand you’re dealt.
I once had an appointment with the magnificent Tobias Sammet himself before an Edguy show. I was waiting in gleeful expectation at the backstage entrance, when the promoter told me that Tobias is sick as hell, lying in his tourbus deathbed, mustering all the strength to pull out the evening performance. I was given Eggi Exxel to the questioning ring istead. After some mandatories, we started chatting about different kinds of beer and it was in the end a very pleasant interview, just not the one I was expecting to have with the jovial frontman, whom I’ve been anxious to meet for a very long time.
I watched the gig a moment later and I carefully observed Tobi. He must have felt like a total piece of crap but he was somehow able to recover a bit and he gave an amazing performance despite his illness. True, he wasn’t running all over the place, that would be a suicide. He was more like a panther – making just the necessary movements with utmost precision, conserving whatever power he had left to last until the big finish. He probably wasn’t able to make his way back to tourbus on his own, but he made another stand the very next day. Then the sickness eventually took its toll and Edguy had to cancel two gigs. I tell this tale to show how demanding being a touring professional is. So, if the artist does not seem to be sparkling with raw energy, be considerate and cheer them up.
I never felt that being the chronicler and loremaster of metal hitstory was my destiny, I wanted to live by the artist’s creed instead of just writing about it. But I considered this path as a good entry point to the big game. Had I played it better, it might have evolved differently. There were various opportunities to get my foot in the door indeed, still, I had no music of my own making, at least not anything of decent quality, so the timing was definitely wrong. I got back to the rehearsal room, quit the music journalism altogether and started working more on my playing and songwriting. There was much to learn, my time was running short and getting all the experience and equipment was a costly endeavour. So I conceded to doing my daily paid job and I started preparing to make some shaped noise with my signature on it.
To sum it up, here’s the list of articles I wrote during my brief career in music journalism.
Some of them have been slightly changed by the editorial staff over the years (and some of them even republished, to my great surprise).
However, the majority of them is still intact.