The Writing Life

Young people often ask me, “You have such a cool job -- how can I, too, break into the exciting and rewarding field of hi-fi journalism?”

Well, I’ll tell you how I did it. However, before I point you down this difficult-to-retrace road know that, to paraphrase Al Kooper (himself paraphrasing Hunter S. Thompson), it is a pathway lined with pimps, whores, and dealers@mdash;and there’s downsides, too.

Oh@mdash;and can you live on 1200 calories a day? Because that’s all you’ll be able to afford, except during CES if you’re lucky enough to snag a dinner invite from an editor or PR flack. Speaking of which, do you like shrimp? There are usually shrimp at CES press events. Can you hold twenty-two 14-count shrimp? Congratulations, you’re a day ahead.

Unfortunately, you’re also at CES, where everything is a half-mile apart and the schedulers connive to distribute press events to the furthest venues, sequentially. So you walk 4.7 miles each morning, before breakfast, just to get to the damned press breakfast@mdash;which turns out to be warm cans of Coke. There go your surplus calories.

Do you like old cars? Particularly the undersides? Good, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of them.

But enough of the allure of “the life,” as we insiders call it. I promised to tell you how to pursue a career in the high-powered world of consumer electronics criticism.

First, have the good fortune to be born next door to an eccentric, music-loving (classical) electronics engineer who leaves his successful career in missile electronics to start a synthesizer company. Go to work for him afternoons after school, sweeping up, building shelves, QC-ing capacitors, and so on. Stick around a few years, eventually graduating to R&D-tech and occasional line work. Help build (among others) Stevie Wonder’s synthesizer, sign its main-cabinet interior with the rest of the crew, and shake his hand when he visits the factory.

The author’s screen, with inspiration.

Parlay this experience, a modest ability actually to read and write, and the fact that you play, sort of, the bassoon into admission at a college well above your pay grade. Work as electronic-music teaching assistant, the local symphony’s third-chair/contrabassoon, and@mdash;by far the most remunerative@mdash;in succession of bar-bands (guitar, not bassoon!) to try to pay the bills. Major in music composition, because otherwise, you know, you might acquire some actual job skills, making the career path to audio-video journalism far less probable.

Follow soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend to Big City conservatory. Become regular in Thursday-night poker game with obscure composer friend of said girlfriend, among whose other regulars are Famous Composer, Famous Mathematician, and (when in town) Famous Violinist. Get talked into studying with F.C. at ivory-tower grad school. (Which turns out to be a Really Bad Idea, but that’s a story for another day.) T.A. for undergrad section of Harmony I, and work part time at hi-fi store to try to pay bills. More bar bands. (A university Teaching Assistantship turns out to be excellent prep for a life in hi-fi journalism. At least mine did: I was only slightly faster at correcting harmony exercises than the students were at completing them. And there were many more of them than of me, which left me zero time to do any actual composing and worked my hourly net down to about one-sixth minimum wage@mdash;precisely what hi-fi journalists make.)

While working at hi-fi store, meet interesting engineer guy starting an audio company; get talked into terminating miserable grad-school experience to do sales and marketing for start-up. Which succeeds very nicely, in every sense except the most important one. More bar bands.

Follow current girlfriend up country (job). More bar bands. Manage local hi-fi store when g.f. decides to go to law school. Quit hi-fi store during L3 year, when lurid fantasies of strangling customers (and store-owners) become disturbingly frequent. Hunker down for winter.

With me so far? Good, because now comes the tricky part. One day, while crumpling up newspaper to make a fire in the wood-stove, notice an upside-down classified: “Technical Editor.” Uncrumple paper; answer ad. Become, you guessed it, Technical Editor at short-lived magazine founded and nominally run by a raving lunatic (Digital Audio/CD Review). The rest, as they say, is history.

And that’s how you do it. I can’t promise it’ll will work for you, but it did for me.

trynberg's picture

An entertaining read... if you're ever in the East Bay, I'll buy you a beer.