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  • Ariane Todes

How to write musicians’ biographies


Biographies are an essential and powerful part of musicians' careers, but too often they read like a long jumble of lists. Here are some tips from one who has read and edited many


I've been editing artists’s biographies this week. This is one of the most frustrating and infuriating parts of my editorial work, but in a masochistic, geeky way, I've come to enjoy getting stuck in. The challenge as an editor is to condense two pages or so of hyperbolic detail and lists provided by an agent into 250 words that capture the essence of an artist – in a form that can sit alongside those of other artists on the same programme.


It's not an easy task, though, so to help guide you, here are the notes from a workshop I gave at HarrisonParrott last year:


Know your audience

  • Who are they?

  • What do they need, feel, want?

  • What is interesting and useful for them?

Selling vs story-telling

  • Biographies have a wide audience with diverse needs – they are necessarily a compromise

  • Readers fall into two groups – wanting to buy something (promoters, agents) or to hear a story (audiences)

  • Programme editors want the story, not the sell

  • These are not mutually exclusive, though – a good story sells

No hyperbole

  • 'World-class', 'most versatile x of today', 'in international demand', 'universally-acclaimed', 'hard to match' etc etc etc – just don't!

  • It’s usually meaningless, undermines trust and will probably be deleted by programme editors anyway

  • Does it even sell?

  • Exception: where you can back up the statement with empirical evidence

Be specific, not generic

  • Could your description apply to most other artists?

  • eg 'x has made a unique impact on audiences worldwide with his intense musicality, charismatic stage presence and artistic curiosity'

  • Include specific projects, roles, work and details that define the artist better and tell the story as you want it

Spend time on the first line

  • It's the most important part. Take time and care to craft it perfectly

  • The ‘elevator pitch’ – it should encapsulate the essence of the artist

  • This is your chance to control the narrative

  • Its form and content will be different for each artist

News story structure

  • Most important information goes in the first line and paragraph

  • Then the useful background

  • Save least important information to the end – can be cut easily


Use short paragraphs

  • Easier to read

  • They force discipline in telling the story concisely


Beware lists

  • Hard to read and process

  • They don’t tell stories

  • Pick the most important orchestras/conductors – if you don’t, an editor will

  • Maximum of four things in a list


Detail

  • There are many types of detail to include and most are valid

  • Pick the detail that supports your narrative

  • Don't overdo it


Check your subtext

  • Is the overall message as you mean it?

  • eg competitions/teachers = young; debuts = on the way up; less-famous regional orchestras = not well-known yet; awards in 1990 = no recent successes

  • Have you got the right balance between projects/repertoire/styles?


Don’t use quotes within the main biography

  • They will probably be deleted

  • List them at the end


Accuracy

  • Every name and orchestra title must be correct (including accents)

  • Check

  • Check again


Chronology

  • Be logical

  • Don't cut and paste new information each year

  • Update season information – including future/past tenses

  • 'Recent' is relative but no more than a year ago


Written style

  • Be concise

  • Use short sentences

  • No cliché or unusual phrases

  • Use active rather than passive voice

  • Check the logic (chronology, subject)

  • Be objective – avoid adjectives and adverbs

  • Try reading it out aloud

  • Be literal – eg while, elsewhere, unique, recent, seasons don’t ‘see’

  • No dangling participles

  • Avoid repetition

  • If you are translating into English, check with a native English speaker


What have I missed?


My question to agents and artists is this: wouldn't you rather take control and do it as well as you can, instead of leaving choices to me or some other hapless editor?


My suggestion to the business: it's time for a consistent approach that saves all our time and provides the best outcome for artists and promoters alike. I propose a 250-word 'essential' biography followed by bullet pointed lists of orchestras, prizes, venues, past projects, educational work, philanthropy and kitchen sinks.