Ethics and Music

For the last couple of years I’ve been working as a Music Journalist.

Now, there are some (my mother included perhaps), who will maintain that this is not a statement of fact – simply because neither my income has been generated nor my working time wholly consumed by this profession. So, when it comes to paid Journalism, that is a completely different thing. It would not be true to say that I have spent the last couple of years working as a professional music Journalist, however, considering that I have – by my own reckoning – attended something in the region of 250 separate concerts and seen upwards of 600 bands (when you consider festivals and support acts) virtually exclusively for the purpose of writing reports, reviews, previews, interviews and comments about their performance (and in some cases the conversations I’ve also had with them) there has been a considerable amount of Journalism undertaken.

A few years ago I was at the Sonisphere Festival in Knebworth interviewing Europe on the Gibson Tour Bus before their Friday afternoon performance on the Main Stage. I was backstage interviewing one of my all time favourite bands of all time and artists like Gary Numan and Alice Cooper were casually walking past and uttering the usual pleasantries. If I’d had an ego, it would have taken my massive head outside the courtyard and floated me high above the thousands of “serfs” in attendance like a hot air balloon or that helicopter taking Noel Edmonds and Phil Collins to Live Aid. But I digress. To counterbalance this, I once interviewed a (not yet named for legal reasons) artist in a Newcastle Upon Tyne venue called ‘Trillians’ – a popular Rock bar not two minutes walk from Northumberland St.

I really can’t remember who this band were supporting, just that they were the support, recognising me from a previous performance at the same venue where they’d also been supporting a more considerably recognisable band. I can’t mention those guys either but there is a really good reason for that coming up so bear with me. The lead vocalist of this group – the group I was interviewing – turned around and commented about the ‘physical and mental state’ of their previous touring companions – saying that they were ‘lovely guys, just off their heads on cocaine’. Since cocaine is a drug viewed with suspicion in the United Kingdom – not least because of it’s Class A status – this comment could have been considered quite slanderous. Whether or not the musicians in question – no, no reveal I’m afraid – were using cocaine is essentially pointless, the real problem is what I will do with my recording device.

Normally when conducting an interview of any description I will record the audio and transcribe the notes – this is a process I’ve become comfortable with – and allows me not to either practice shorthand or keep jotting down bullet points and taking random quotes from mouths before building the story around these. Regardless of when the interview officially begins the device will often be turned on a few moments beforehand in order to test sound and make sure I don’t miss anything. This is especially true if the audio is being used for broadcast – so that my introduction can be included, in full, and slot seamlessly into the rest of the broadcast. In this situation – as with many others – the artist had made some offhanded comments during which there was a sort of “unwritten rule” that I was assumed to ignore.

Ethical behaviour and Music Journalism are very interesting bedfellows, considering how the two don’t always go hand in hand, and (unlike perhaps a political office or national newspaper) you aren’t bound by any particular code of conduct, employee law or suchlike. In fact, since most of my time spent with these artists has been voluntary, their slanderous comments have no higher power – good Journalists should hand the copy to their editor or superior before it’s published – but when you’re talking about a blog, website or electronic magazine it remains to be seen just how many fact checks (if any) a piece will go through before it’s published online and the words are being transcribed to several hundread languages via Google. When I conduct an interview I’m not an employee but I am bound to the publication or final display – for that reason I’m often mindful that I am representative of other individuals who will expect me to make a judgement call that reflects what they would want. Towing the company line.

A promoter will either contact me, or my immediate supervisor, and a story or proposition will be put forward and – if interest is shown – I’ll head along. But it will ultimately be the name of the magazine who gets me into the situation of either free tickets and an interview or either of those and not the other. I’d be very foolish to think that I play anything but an extremely minor part in the role of persuasion. Anyone else could easily be in my place and – just like those playing a video game – the game will still play out exactly the same when somebody else plays it, more or less, allowing for the occasional variation.

As I head along to any gig I remain curious as to what I’ll hear from the questions I ask, what follow up’s I’ll be tempted to sneak in and what shape the interview will normally take. While anyone else could be in this position it’s me who will retain that sense of excitement and wonder because I will be. And there is no taking that away and something quite special about the entire experience every time it happens. For those artists who mention what was better left unsaid, it’s just a curious predicament as to what revisions and edits I’ll be making…