The festival began for me this year with a workshop on a type of writing I deeply love: music journalism. Generally I don’t like to push myself too far into a niche by calling myself a music writer – I am a writer and a journalist who enjoys the act of mixing words and symbols to create meaning, atmosphere and stories. I adore the simultaneous pleasure and torture derived from the practice and the feeling of creating something that did not exist before.
However, when those words speak of music, which is the only thing that has even come close to matching or eclipsing my passion for writing, my twin loves merge and I am at my happiest. So it was a joy for me to spend six hours in a small room listening to one of Australia’s leading music writers, Iain Shedden.
Like myself and many of the workshop’s attendees, Shedden is a writer and a musician. Originally from Scotland, he began writing about music at the age of 17 before joining the legendary Australian band The Saints as their drummer. When they eventually disbanded he returned to journalism and has long held the position of Music Writer at The Australian. While these days writing devours most of Shedden’s energy, he still plays music out of desire and necessity, saying he gets a bit crazy if his drummer’s hands don’t get to bang on something once in a while.
The workshop, titled Rock On with Music Journalism, looked at what music writing is: the different types of writing involved including album and live reviews, interviews and books; how to do it well; the rise of online media and the new opportunities it brings and how the hell you can get a foot, or at least a finger, in the door.
The day started with a round the room introduction and a request for each of us to share our favourite album of all time, which is a difficult question for anyone to answer at 10 in the morning. If our group were a CD collection it would be an odd one: we had Crowded House next to Nico, Ben Harper next to the Grateful Dead and Keith Urban sitting next to Rage Against The Machine.
Shedden’s advice about how not to write, which he says he’s qualified to talk about because he, like most of us, used to do it, was invaluable and humorous. He explained why he has zero tolerance for clichés and why a piece of copy such as ‘this band’s new album is a unique and interesting roller-coaster ride that will have you toe-tapping in no time’ would guarantee that he’d never talk to you again. He also made pains to show that it’s not enough to simply say an album or band is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but that the role of a music writer is to explain why.
Shedden also shared some of his most memorable experiences including the time the notoriously horrific to interview Lou Reed gave him a scary private tai chi lesson and goosebump-inducing moments such as getting to interview his jovial hero Keith Richards, sans publicist, label or entourage, while he knocked back triple-shot vodkas. Which led to a respectable-looking participant sharing with the group tales of the time that he was given the task of stashing Lemmy from heavy metal band Motorhead’s speed. Rock ‘n’ roll, it seems, is alive and kicking at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival.