Notes On Writing Musical Bios

When I listen to new music on Spotify, I sometimes check out the artist’s bio to see what else they’ve done, and more importantly, to see how they, or someone writing on their behalf, represent their work. Writing about musical sound and musical experience is difficult, because the writer is tasked with translating listening to, and feeling sound into text. You might try it sometime: the trick of putting into words why you like a music, how a music is either great or merely competent, and how it captures some hard to pin down sensation. Then there’s the apparent incompatibility between making music and writing about it: precisely explaining is not the point of music, but is often the exact purpose of incisive writing. So it follows that if writing about music is difficult, then writing about one’s one music is even more fraught. 

In general, bios written by musicians about themselves are more problematic than bios written on their behalf. (A biography is, after all, an account of someone’s life written by someone else.) The main problem is that we lack objectivity and perspective about our work, and so we explain what we hope it means (to us, and therefore to others?) rather than simply explain what we have done / what we do. We also tend to exaggerate our work’s importance and conveniently fail to provide context through which to understand it (e.g. other similar musics). Of course, it’s not the job of an artist to also be their own PR person. But in the era of social media (sigh), everyone can promote themselves (double sigh), and you know what, everyone might be important enough to hype themselves on their own behalf (triple sigh). What is at stake is nothing less that our getting the attention of others. Here are a few examples I have come across.

Musician A describes his/her work as “unbounded by genre…consistently pushes the boundaries of possibility within music…” The music “transports you to a utopian world that’s as vibrant as it is monumental… If you’re looking to embark on a journey, come with me.” I took a listen, and well…not right now.

Musician B describes his “musical versatility is a natural gift that pushes him to explore music in all its facets.” His recording, he tells us, “has been described as ‘pure gold’”, but we have no way of knowing if this is true. Another release of his is a series of short pieces that “withdraw, explore, yet assert their laconic melodies all the more decisively.” The pieces, he notes, “struck an instant chord for their airy, meditative beauty.”

Musician C “specializes in emotive, melancholic music that feels isolated yet strangely relatable.” He explains how he took up music at an early age, and how “a lot of his sound is owed to the area he was brought up in, and where he spends most of his time.” 

Musician D describes his/her music as “taking influence” from various styles of music, and then lists several of these, including “shoegaze records as well as minimal techno.” Then s/he tells us that the compositions “are usually filled with nostalgia and romance.” The bio ends with a list of the record labels on which the music can be found. 

Unbounded by genre?

Musical versatility as a natural gift?

Striking an instant chord?

Music that feels isolated yet strangely relatable? 

Filled with nostalgia and romance?

Wow. These are somewhat reasonable things to say about one’s music. But the problem with the assertions is that they rather hard to prove; the listener will have to take the musicians’ word for it. We listeners might be better off just listening to the music and deciding for ourselves what it means. (Removing bios altogether can be interesting to pave this way.) 

Of these bio examples, Musician D tells us about what influenced his/her music. This is interesting because admitting your influences explains who you have learned from (so far). Knowing who influenced your sound helps us reconnect all the world’s musics back into the single interconnected tangle of impact and affect that it is. (Which reminds me of this astonishing chart of musical genre-space based on data from Spotify.)

In sum, it was the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (not Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol) who once said that “art is anything you can get away with.” So too with one’s musical biography. But perhaps consider a useful rule of thumb to remember when writing one: bio, not ego. 

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