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