Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Writing Tips for Musicians - 11 Bio-Writing Sins To Avoid

http://media.sawfnews.com/images/Hollywood/Justin_Bieber_Book_Cover.jpg
Rule 1: Don't follow this guy's example.


I wear many hats as a writer and communications professional. One of those hats is as the unofficial 'manager' of my wife Allison's band, The Last Calls. The Last Calls are an up-and-coming six-piece cover pop-rock band from Edmonton who made a fabulous debut last summer by way of a six-stop tour of southern Alberta - taking in Coleman, Medicine Hat, Nanton, Pincher Creek, Twin Butte and Waterton Park. (Yes, all the great capitals of southern Wild Rose country!) I've also done a great deal of promo material for Allison in her capacity as a solo artist and occasionally sat down at the piano stool myself as accompanist, although far less often than I would like!

As such, I've written a hell of a lot of band and soloist bios. And not just for my better half's work. The trouble with being a professional writer is that, once people find out you're a professional writer (or that your spouse is), you tend to get innundated with requests for bios, social media posts, proofreading etc. Being a writer and editor is rather like being a massage therapist. Show up at a party and tell people what you do for a living and before long you have people asking if you'd "just check this for spelling and punctuation" and "could you just write me a 100-word bio for my program?"

Not that I mind. I'm more often than not very happy to indulge my musician friends with wordsmithing. It's what I do and it comes easy to me. Moreover, many musicians - and I say this with the deepest respect - write terrible bios! Anyone who's ever been to a classical music recital or a jazz festival has had the experience of opening a program and confronting overwrought, cliché-riddled disasters of bios that inadvertently make the performer sound like the biggest prick that ever enrolled in music school. How many of us have read dreadful musician bios that read something like this?

"Violet Wienerbunker was born into a musical family of esteemed, supremely talented and musical musicians and was singing Verdi arias while still in her mother's uterus. Violet literally lives and breaths music, catching the attention of musicians and human beings alike with her dulcet tones and 13-octave collaratura range that some have compared to Maria Callas, Michael Bolton, Freddie Mercury and an ascending 737. Violet studied at the esteemed Kenny Loggins School of Music at the Unversity of Eastern West Virginia, where she was told that she had a "glowing future" but then artist-in-residence Kid Rock - a phrase he claims he only ever used once in his life, whereupon she set off for the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachussetts, the alma mater of such famous musicians as Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, John Mayer, Esperanza Spalding and Judas Priest alumnus Tim "Ripper" Owens, among many, many other great musicians. While at Berklee she also studied under the tutelage of legendary almost-Grammy-nominated Tuvan throat-singing virtuoso Sainkho Namtchylak and was shortlisted for a UNESCO tour of the Tuvan Autonomous Republic, although she was unable to participate due to a competing recording project with Boston-based early music-inspired heavy metal group Flagellatorium, which launched her career on the world stage and beyond. Today she is an early-to-advanced childhood musical educator for the Mercedes Woodcock-Nimrod School of Performing Arts in Lansing, Wyoming, where she imparts her lifelong love of music from Tallis to Tool and beyond to young children of all races, genders and nationality all across the fine state of Wyoming while continuing to excel in all facets as a professional performing musician, and today brings you a wide array of works by 19th century Paraguayan composers......"

If you actually read through to the end of that bio, you're a freak. Even I stopped paying attention to what I was typing about half way through. But this is not to be harsh on musicians. Musicians, after all, are trained to sing, play instruments and write music at a high level - not crank out accessible, reader-friendly prose for audience members. That's what people like me are trained to do. However, many musicians are indeed fantastic writers who do amazing things with words as song lyrics - but still manage to write terrible bios.

Writing a good bio is a tricky undertaking, requiring exactly the right balance between self-deprecation and self-confidence. However, by avoiding the following common bio-writing pratfalls and clichés, you can at least assure that your bio won't make your audience hate you before you even start to perform.

1) Don't tell us that you "could sing before you could crawl" or any other such nonsense.

Unless you're Groucho Marx, who famously began his autobiography with the words "I was born at a very young age," intros like this just sound silly. Nobody comes out of the womb wielding a Stradivarius or knowing all the words to 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. You may have a natural inclination towards music, but you still got to where you are today by studying and practicing. And that's just fine.

2) Nobody cares if you were "born into a musical family."

We're here to hear you, not your family. Unless your great-uncle is Mick Jagger or your brothers' names are Jackie, Jermaine, Marlon and Tito, you're better off leaving your family out of it.

3) Don't make vague claims with no substance.

Specifically, don't refer to yourself as a "gifted artist" or a "musician destined for stardom." Tell as who you are and what you do and let your music speak for itself.

4) Don't boast about your youth - and how young you were when you accomplished X, Y and Z.

There's no more surefire way of alienating your reader than rubbing it in their face that you had a record contract at 16 or that you were the youngest person ever accepted to the Eastman School of Music in the woodwinds department. All of us worry, on one level or another, that we haven't achieved as much as we should have achieved by whatever age we're at. And we don't fork out for concert tickets for the purpose of being reminded of that fact. And don't describe yourself as a "young, up-and-coming talent." If being young were a musical achievement in and of itself, we would all have Grammys sitting on our Ikea bookshelves.

5) Self-deprecation is good - but only to a point.

Just as nobody wants to hear you boast about how much better than everyone else you are, nobody wants to read a bio that will leave them questioning what they're doing listening to you. If your bio reads something like "We started a band 'cause we were stoned on Tyler's couch and listening to Radiohead one night and figured 'Well, we could never be as good as these guys but we don't completely suck, so why not?'" Because nobody wants to see a band that fits that description - unless they're giving out free weed at the intermission.

6) Don't make unsourced comparisons between yourself and other artists.

If a reviewer in a newspaper or magazine likened your voice to Amy Winehouse or your piano technique to Oscar Peterson, then you can include it in your bio. (In fact you'd be an idiot if you didn't.) If some drunk guy at a bar once said you reminded him of Rihanna, don't think that gives you licence to claim you've been "likened to artists such as Rihanna, among others." Furthermore, don't use the words "among others." That's just a cheap aggrandizing bio trick that won't fool anyone who's actually reading your words.

7) Keep the list of performance credits, diplomas and awards to a minimum.

It's a bio, not a CV. Provide perhaps three career highlights and leave it at that. Nobody wants to wade through a Tolstoy-esque biography covering every single place you've played. Your audience is there to hear music, not read a novel. Moreover, if they're sitting in the audience, having already paid the ticket price, you've already sold them on the idea of coming to hear your perform; you don't need to further impart them with the merits of coming to see your gig. Any excess information is just going to get on people's nerves and lessen their likelihood of coming to see you again.

8) If you're performing alongside other musicians, don't write a bio that's way longer than those of your fellow performers.

In an ideal situation, a bio that's three times as long as all the others in a program will get nipped and tucked into line with the others. But realistically most music festivals are strapped for money and people and the person putting the program together doesn't have time to edit the bios because they're too busy filling in grants and learning the viola part to the Benjamin Britten ensemble piece that follows your solo number. Ask whoever is putting together the program what an appropriate word limit it. Otherwise you might just look like a pompous jerk - or an insecure person.

9) Don't include complicated URLs in a print bio.

This rule is only applicable to print bios. If you have a band website with a simple, easily typed URL like www.flamingtostitos.net or a Facebook page like www.facebook.com/flamingtostitos, you can include it. However, if your sound clips are buried someplace and accessible only by way of a long URL like http://www.bandfart.com/weenieroast/fullofcrap&35308221597351?4/meeeee!2, you're wasting time and space by including this because nobody is ever going to manually type it out. If you do have a page like this, provide the root URL together with instructions on how to access the specific page.

10) For the love of God, proofread!

This should go without saying, but I've seen enough bios with glaring errors in them that it seems to bear mentioning. Check your work before you submit it. And if possible, reread the program in hardcopy form before it gets printed and distributed. Keep in mind that, as in Rule 5, the person doing the programs probably doesn't have enough time to proofread everything. Nor are they likely to be trained copy editor. Proofing is your job.

11) If you're writing a bio for a website or social media page, don't forget to include contact information.

The old Field of Dreams adage of "If you build it, they will come" notably does not apply to digital media. Particularly if you omit the crucial part where you let visitors to your site know how to reach you. You could be the most amazing band on the face of the earth, with a beautiful web presence and a superbly crafted band bio, but unless you provide people with easy-to-find phone and email contact info, you're not going to get any work. Trust me, I've seen numerous band websites and Facebook pages with no contact information.

In sum, keep it short and pleasant, injecting some humour wherever possible, and remember the purpose of what you're doing. For more on how to write a great musical bio, here is an excellent article on the site MusicianCoaching.com by musician and Bitch magazine contributor Julia Rogers. It covers some of the same tips outlined here along with some more in-depth advice on marketing yourself as a musician.

In the meantime, to my musician friends, I hope you find this post entertaining and helpful. And if you do have any questions on bio-writing matters, feel free to give me a shout.

8 comments:

  1. Greatly entertaining and informative read. As a multimedia producer I share your pain with the free consultation issue. Everyone, it seems, has a great film they want to make - except they want me to make it.

    I can't help but point out Ben, that you added a stray "s" somewhere in your piece. Now that should drive a writer/editor crazy. Enjoy the hunt.

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  2. Hello, thank you very much. I found this really helpful. Just a quick question though. Does it make any difference if we write in the third or first person? I've seen a lot of band bios written in the third person. It somehow makes me feel "disconnected" when referring to myself as "he". Is that the professional standard? Thanks again.

    Cheers.

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  3. Thanks for your comment - that's a really good question. I can't say I've ever seen a bio written in the first person. Not to say that you can't do it that way, but it's certainly industry standard. I think there are other places for first-person writing about yourself, in your acknowledgement section as well as on your social media platforms. I know it feels weird to write about yourself in the third person, but in a way you have to take a step away from yourself to write about yourself in that context. I personally would find it a bit confusing to read a bio written in the first person, if for no other reason because when you pick up a program at a concert you don't generally assume the musician has written their own.

    Thanks for reading and for the comment. Glad you found it useful, and hope my thoughts on this help.

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  4. We have read your post. It really is obviously informative. Good biography means the higher opportunity to get looked at. So everyone should give attention to writing a professional bio and make an effort to write a perfect resource.

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