What Music Taught Me About Political Journalism

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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There’s nothing more emotionally exhausting, but also rewarding, than wading through old keepsakes. A few weeks ago, I wrote about rummaging through some old boxes and finding the first “book” I ever authored.

Along with my “book,” I also uncovered some video and cassette tapes that I’ve long had every intention of digitizing. Some of the music was my dad and his family performing gospel songs, and some of it was from a band I played in back in the mid-90s called The Backyard Apples. (That’s me playing the faux-pedal steel guitar licks on this song, written by my bandmate George Spiegel.)

And just as my first “book” helped predict my future career in journalism, much of what I learned as a musician in a band has helped me as a journalist. I know it sounds crazy, so here are a few relevant lessons:

1. Having an audience of “followers” is vital.

This wasn’t obvious to me when I started out as a musician. I figured things would work chronologically: (A) Write good songs and practice them, (B) record a “demo” tape or cd, (C) book gigs at a popular clubs or taverns based on the quality of your music, and (D) accumulate fans who would see you at said gigs, buy your music, and obsessively follow you to future gigs.

But you see, I had it all backwards. You didn’t gain fans by playing at the popular bars. Instead, a Catch-22 existed. The way you got booked at the best clubs was by virtue of having a huge fan base. So your selling point was your band’s ability to turn out a fan base (who would, presumably, purchase drinks). There may have been a corollary between having good songs and having a fan base, but there was not a direct relationship.

How does this translate to journalism? Bands used to have mailing lists; journalists now have Twitter feeds. To some extent, you are a brand, and your ability to generate buzz or clicks—not just your ability to write or report well—can help you get hired at a given outlet.

2. Music, like TV commentary, involves performing.

Getting on stage in front of friends and strangers can be nerve wracking; so can going on TV. My way of coping was to adopt what might be described as a “zen” or jazz philosophy, which basically said that the bad notes were the good news. In other words, perfection wasn’t the goal; authenticity was. This mental switch helped me overcome stage fright, and it continues to be my guiding philosophy for performing.

3. Playing music (and being a political commentator) isn’t nearly as glamorous as people think.

People see you on stage (the end product), but they don’t see you practicing, loading up the van, showing up hours early, and unpacking equipment. (We didn’t have “groupies,” let alone “roadies.”) And half the time, you’d have an arduous time squeezing your paycheck out of the bar owner. (Trust me, negotiating and collecting was a lot harder in that line of work.) Whether it’s music or political journalism, anyone who suffers from delusions of grandeur will likely quit as soon as they recognize the required sacrifices.

4. Not every song (or blog post or column) is a hit.

Dealing with rejection and failure is a crucial skill learned by both musicians and journalists. Sometimes you don’t get the gig. Sometimes nobody shows up (or reads your blog posts) but your family. Sometimes nobody likes your new song. Like any other endeavor, you are a work in progress. This is an obvious point, but I think it’s important for people to endure failure on a small stage—where the stakes aren’t quite so big.

5. Collaboration is key.

Songwriting and performing required a sort of teamwork that is similar to what I needed while writing my book (where I had several people intimately involved in helping me). You’re always learning and improving, accumulating and pruning. Honestly, I think being a musician was probably a better training ground for what I do now than, say, playing a team sport.

I guess we never really know what experiences are going to teach us. I’m sure my parents thought that all that time I spent playing guitar was a waste of time that would only result in broken dreams and debt. It turns out, my band experience was actually preparing me for my current career. If you’ve had an orthodox background, don’t dismiss it as wasted time. Something you learned way back when might have taught you some valuable lessons you can use tomorrow.

Matt K. Lewis