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June 3, 2008
So you want to be a pop music critic...

The school year's almost up, and that means the hammer is coming down for final papers and class projects. That also means it's the time of year when I get hit up by budding high school and college journalists to answer questions for one of their final assignments. Just for kicks, here's some answers to a questionnaire sent by a local high school student. But students, please don't plagiarize these answers or else you'll get docked three grades and sent to detention for the rest of the year. Or something ... anyway, here goes:

1. What are your responsibilities? I cover music for the Sacramento Bee, which means I'm the guy who wears headphones all day and goes to record stores in the name of "field research." Interviews, reviews, profiles and trend stories are all part of my beat.

2. Have you ever been threatened over anything you have printed? Yes. A local musician (who shall remain nameless) once wanted to throw down because I printed the sales figures for his band's major-label album that flopped. We've since hugged it out, and all is good. I've also been called a variety of mean names by Clay Aiken fans.

3. Have you ever not printed anything because of a possible lawsuit? Can't think of a time where that's the case. It's not like I'm tracking down the "Pentagon Papers" on the pop music beat.

4. How much experience is necessary for your job? Let's just say that you should have a formidable portfolio of clips if you're going to apply for a music critic job, and for most journalism jobs in general. A big music collection and ability to talk about many different genres helps, too. If none of the above apply, you need to come correct with lots of enthusiasm and a willingness for trial-by-fire learning. Offering to wash cars/mow lawns for upper management wouldn't hurt, either.

5. What are the advantages/disadvantages of your job? Advantages: The chance to talk to your favorite musicians; free CDs and concert tickets; being read by a sizeable audience. If you equally love music and writing, it's a dream job.

Disadvantages: Writing at 3 a.m. after a concert when you're tired and ears are ringing; being the one dork at a concert who's taking notes when everyone else is having fun; nasty Clay Aiken fans.

6. How did you get started? I started freelancing for small magazines and Web sites in the mid-1990s, mostly writing for fun. I then got hired at, and then the newsroom's pop music critic gig became available. I tried out for the job (first assignment: reviewed Depeche Mode at Arco Arena), and just about jumped through the roof when the position was offered to me.

7. What was the most uncomfortable interview you have done? Why? One time I was driving around a certain section of South Sacramento with a rapper who's also a 24th St. Crip. He was showing me around his old neighborhood and the places where he used to sell drugs. He also pointed out a couple of places where he claimed to have stumbled across dead bodies. It was night when we were driving around, and the light wasn't so good. Yeah, it felt kind of sketchy.

8. Who is the most famous person you have interviewed? Here are a few: Carlos Santana, Gwen Stefani, Roger Daltrey of the Who, Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Dave Matthews, D.M.C. of Run-D.M.C., Ozzy Osbourne, one of the Pussycat Dolls (not Nicole, darnit), Carrie Underwood, and Lars Ulrich of Metallica.

9. Name your favorite print/broadcasting journalist? My favorite print journalist is Mike Sager (writer-at-large for Esquire); my favorite broadcast journalist is Julissa Ortiz from KMAX, I mean, the late great Ed Bradley.

10. What is the salary range of different positions on a paper? Ha! Well, I'm not sure since we don't have a serachable salary database like the one for state employees. But let's just say that nobody's going to earn a bling-bling lifestyle at a newspaper (unless you own that whole mug), but many of us can still provide fine for our families and have fun on the side. But if you really have a burn to write and report, it's good work if you can get it.

11. If you weren't writing, what would be your other occupation?
"Would you like fries with that?"
Well actually, I'm not sure exactly what I'd be doing, but I know I'd be writing on the side. Or I'd still be wearing earbuds all day, but just not getting paid for it.

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