Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

What can the next generation of journalists learn from the Eels?

Posted in Adam, Freelance, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on January 18, 2010

My current bit of non-journalism reading is the autobiography of one of my favourite musicians, the dark, eccentric Mark Oliver Everett, better known as E or The Eels.

It’s a classic coming of age story: before he landed the big time with Beautiful Freak in1996, he spent years and years scratching by as a nobody, making music in his cupboard.

So it is for most artists, musicians, authors….and now journalists. The digital revolution has all but ended the guarantee of a good job after college and a long career ascending gently from cub reporter to editor.

Instead: an unpredictable length of time trying to make it. Making stuff you like as often (and as cheaply) as possible, and showing it to whoever will listen. Then rejection, after rejection after rejection from an industry which d0esn’t really give a fuck about you, no matter how much you spent on J-school.

In the spirit of Les Paul’s lessons for journalists last year, and on the release of The Eel’s latest album End Times today, here’s some snippets from the Eels journey, starting just after Mark was dropped by his first ever record label in the early 90s. It starts on a downer:

I finally had a purpose in life and it was being taken away from me. I could still make my tapes like always, but I wasn’t going to be able to have people hear them now and I wasn’t going to be able to devote all my time to them…I had to keep fighting the urge to take a left off the cliff and into the ocean.

We all know the road to making it as a journalist is full of potholes, as are the roads for many worthwhile jobs. Chances are you’ll have a ‘cliff’ moment; they are inevitable, but it’s how you deal with them which counts. Drive off, or keep going?

I pressed on writing and recording songs in my cold tiny basement. I didn’t know what else to do…I just kept going, blindly.

This is really important. Despite having no audience, no money and little hope, Everett kept on producing. Don’t let unemployment end your productivity. Don’t even let a part-time, or temp job do that either. Sure it means late nights, early mornings and lost weekends, but the important thing is you’re always telling stories, doing interviews, writing blogs. Next:

Then one day during this bleak period in my life, I was driving down the road and heard the English group Portishead on the radio for the first time and it stopped me cold…I was immediately inspired to get back into my old sound-collage world – but apply it to my new songwriting world. The new technology had given the world of sound collage so many new possiblities.

You’ve had this moment right? For me, it was when I realised there were these things called audio slideshows about a year ago. And maybe even again when I learn some more web/data visualisation skills. Create something different by combining two completely different crafts.

I called friends and asked if they had any friends who did music on computers and got a few phone numbers…meanwhile I did about seventy more songs on my own in my basement.

The word is collaboration. Don’t go it alone. Hunt down talented, passionate people. Meet them for a beer, and see if you can work together. Every time I meet a great photographer, VJ, journalist, web jedi, or presenter I jot down a mental note to hook up with them on a project in the future.

Meanwhile,  E is still making more music than he’ll ever need on his own. 68 of those 70 songs were probably crap, but all worth it for the 2 nuggets of awesomeness. Then:

It was an exciting new world world that meant all sorts of limitless possibilities…I started to learn more and develop ideas about production. I stopped using cheesy reverb so much.

With his eyes open for new possibilities, E is finally excited about his work again. When you hit this lovely zone, you can hardly be kept from working. Make sure you make time in your schedule to make the most of this – even if it means taking a day or two off from your boring day job.

Secondly, he’s mastering the technical skills he needs to learn. There’s this principle, which states that things must become complex before they become profound. In other words, you’ve got to get lots of stuff wrong before you get amazing at it. Malcolm Gladwell calls it the ‘10,000 hours rule’. Constantly learning new skills and hacking away at them, without fear of failure, is the only way to get good. Next:

…my friend Jon Brion came over to my house one night…he suggested, as an exercise, that he would go upstairs for thirty minutes to write a song while I went downstairs for thirty minutes to write a song. He was always coming up with ideas like this. “Write a song about something on this table…” and so forth.

This is an amazing example of the power of giving yourself productivity challenges – see my weekend audio slideshow challenge for a journalistic one. Create games and challenges which force you to make something in a limited time frame. That way you focus on getting it done, rather than getting it perfect. Not everything will be great, but you’ll be making a lot more stuff.

And after that, you just got to keep going.

It’s easy to give up, and it was easy for Mark Oliver Everett to give up. The only reason we have such great albums as Beautiful Freak, Daisies of the Galaxy and Blinking Lights and Other Revelations is he didn’t.

Thanks to Holly for the book.