How to write a concert review in
six eight nine easy steps!
Concert reviews can provide valuable experience to the beginning writer. Here are some steps and pro tips for reviews that will serve fans and non-fans alike.
Done right, the concert review provides a valuable service. Part reportage, part boosterism, a concert review can give both fans and non-fans a glimpse of what it’s like to see a musician or band in action. A review can also validate and/or illuminate (or not) the concert experience for those who were there.
For budding music journalists (or arts reporters in general), covering a show is fairly straightforward writing practice. Unlike an album review, say, a concert review requires no particular point-of-view, i.e. critical thinking. Nor is it necessary to talk to anyone, as one would have to for an interview/profile piece.
Using journalistic skills like research, observation, and note-taking, the writer can approach a show review as an exercise in straight reportage. (Of course, the writer chooses the facts and observations. So some perspective and context are involved.) Applying these skills to a form that attracts enthusiasm more than technique immediately elevates your review above 90 percent of the others on the internet.
Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer paying gigs for the prospective concert reviewer. Daily newspapers only cover the biggest arena- and stadium-filling shows. Weeklies, those that survive, devote less and less space to them. Blogs and online magazines have taken up the slack, somewhat, but most can offer only a concert ticket (with a plus-one if you’re lucky).
It’s a labour of love, concert reviewing. On the plus side: experience; a ticket to a show; and maybe a life-changing experience.
Step-by-step concert review writing guide
Choose a show by a musician or band that you know
A no-brainer, maybe. But it does help to have at least some knowledge/interest in the subject. And if you enjoy the artist’s work, you may be more inspired and energized when it comes time to sit down and write the damn thing. On the other hand, don’t let your prior knowledge lull you into thinking that the reader knows what you know. As an editor, I can’t count the number of times a reviewer has mentioned a song as though the reader should know something about it. Also, don’t get carried away by your enthusiasm. Save the poetry for your journal. Unless you’re an actual poet.
Do some research
You can do this after the show. But I recommend researching beforehand. You may or may not use what you learn but at least you have a few facts in your back pocket.
When researching, here are a few things to look for:
• The latest release. Is it an album, an EP, a song, a video, an art installation? Find out. The show/tour is probably in support of it. You’ll want to be familiar with the new product if only to be able to authoritatively drop song titles into the review. Pro tip: reach out to the band’s publicist (if they have one) for a digital copy. The publicist’s email can usually be found in the “about” section of the artist’s Facebook page.
• The tour. Did the artist just roll out of bed? Try to find out if the show that you are reviewing is at the beginning, middle or end. Usually, if it’s the beginning or end it will be relevant to the review. Even if it’s just a random date in the middle, it might account for a lack-lustre show. Dropping this kind of info into the review is just the kind of thing to give you credibility with the reader.
• Names. Try to find out the names of everyone in the band, if there’s a replacement musician for the tour etc. This is another detail that lends your review credibility. An artist’s homepage is usually less up-to-date in this regard than a Facebook page.
• The opener. It’s not necessary to see the opener, or to include in your review. However, I recommend catching at least a few minutes of their set. It’s worth writing about the opener if they’re a) local, b) extremely good or bad, and/or c) blowing up in some way (i.e. a YouTube video going viral). You don’t want to be the reviewer who missed the Next Big Thing because you were too lazy to get your ass down to the venue in time.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Nothing separates the amateur from the pro like a notepad. Do these ramblings have to be legible? No. Just the act of writing stuff down helps you remember.
For note-taking, I prefer the old-fashioned way, a lined notepad to a cellphone. Sure, it looks dorky, but it’s also empowering—like wearing a fedora with a “Press” card in the hatband. (Okay, maybe that’s not that empowering.) Whatever you decide, here are some things to note of:
• how many people were onstage? What did they play? Did they switch instruments? Was it one guy with a laptop?
• what were some of the songs played? If you’re not sure, write down some lyrics so you can Google them later. Or ask the nearest rabid fan who is mouthing the words.
• were there any guests? I.e., did Courtney Love show up and disrupt the set?
• were any cover songs included?
• what was the energy like on the part of the performer(s), on the part of the audience? Did it change?
• did anyone say anything memorable between songs? Of course not, they’re musicians. Still, including some between-song banter again scores credibility points (there’s no algorithm for this as yet, unfortunately). Incorporating quotes is also another handy journalism technique that requires practice before it becomes second nature. Plus, quotes breaks up the copy.
• how many people in the audience? Was the show packed, sold-out, half-full? Were they begging people to come in off the streets? How is this different from the last time the same act played in town?
• Was there anything interesting/unusual about the stage set-up?
Pro tip: never mind about the sound. No one cares.
Arrive early (but not too early). Stay until the end
Your ride is leaving, buses stop running soon, you can’t afford a cab, the bouncers have your boyfriend down on the ground and are kicking his ribs in. It doesn’t matter: stay until the end. You don’t want to find out later that the band had a fistfight onstage.
If you do have to leave, make a note of it in the review. However, be aware that your credibility score is at risk in the mind of the reader.
Likewise, arrive early. I mentioned catching the opening band(s). But an early arrival also lets you stake out a decent spot. It also gives you a chance to take stock of your fellow-concertgoers, the venue, the stage set-up, etc.
Work on the review ASAP
As soon as you can, take ten minutes to write about the show—general impressions, what stood out, general description as though you were describing it to a friend, anything that comes to mind. Try not to consult your notes. Then, sleep on it. You’ll be amazed to find, when you sit down to writing the actual review, how much of the work has been done. Not to mention, you may wake up with some additional thoughts. The notes you make directly after the event is usually the stuff that stays (and slays).
Write a second (and third) draft
As above, this is more of a general writing rule. For many writers, the first draft is only a starting-point. Get it all down, then see what can be cut. See what can be moved around. See what’s necessary and what can go. Work on a through-line; does the end flow naturally from the beginning?
Pro tip: write the first draft in a rush. Then cut the first three or four paragraphs and let the review begin at this new starting point. If there was any important info in those first three paras, you can include later in the review. Often, in a first draft the first three paras are full of either factual (“The band is on its third album”) or personal (“I arrived at the venue but had to stand in line for an hour”) info that can (and should) be excised.
Assume the reader knows nothing
Just because you know that the singer’s new song went viral on Snapchat doesn’t mean your reader does. Write so that both fan and the uninformed can get something out of the review. Include enough detail for the former and enough general info for the latter.
Write in third-person
First-person reviews are okay for a blog. But writing in third-person guards against the review becoming too much about the reviewer. (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. This Butthole Surfers in Vancouver concert review is written in first person and sort of works.) And a review written in the third-person reads more professionally—the writer comes across not just as some gushing fan but as someone who’s done his/her homework.
Pro tip: If I’m writing a review and find it absolutely necessary to bring in my personal bias, I will instead refer to myself as “this reviewer.” I.e.: “The fans loved it, but for this reviewer, the addition of a 20-minute version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ sung by children in angels’ costumes was over-the-top.”
When stuck, follow this simple, easy-to-use template
Stuck? Here is how I would break down a review.
1st (and maybe 2nd para)—A grabby opener. Something dramatic or interesting/unusual. This could be something about the artist, or the tour, or the show. Or it could be a moment during the evening. It could be a particularly telling bit of audience interaction (“Without warning, Chris Martin jumped into the audience”) or dramatic/humourous incident in the performance (“Midway through the set, Martin broke down and told us about his mom”).
2nd, 3rd and/or 4th paras—Actual info/context. This is where your research comes into play. I.e.: “With their viral video, Mouthbastard is the hottest band out of Salt Lake City since the Trepanning Satanists”), context of the show (part of a tour for a new album), even lineup (“This was Groper’s first show since the loss of their founding tympani player, Hiram Phinbottom”).
4th and 5th paragraphs—Songs played, atmosphere of show, individual musicianship, highlights, low-lights (this is where, if you have one, you can express your opinion), onstage banter, crowd interaction. Remember those notes?
6th para—Wrap-up. Sometimes the hardest para. It’s easy to slip into cliché here: “Hopefully, they’ll be back again soon” is a standard and deathly dull way to wrap things up. In a well-constructed review, the end will tie-in (perhaps answering a question) with the opening paragraph, and conclude the arc of the review.
Genres—Most of my experience is writing rock/pop concert reviews. Most of the same rules apply, however. Exceptions are hip-hop and EDM shows, which as younger genres come with a different set of expectations. I.e., it’s perfectly acceptable for artists in either genre to rely on pre-recorded music, something that is (or would have been) anathema at a rock show.
Photos—You can try taking your own, if you can get close enough (or if you have a good enough camera). You can also make friends with a photog at the show—identifiable by his or her large camera—and ask if you can use a photo. Most will say yes, as long as you credit them. I wouldn’t recommend downloading random live shots from Google images as these are the property of the photographer and/or artist. You can also request publicity images from the band’s publicist or reach out to the concert promoter to see if they have any images you can use.
Style guides—If you’re writing for a publication, make sure you know their style guidelines, especially when it comes to things like song titles (in quotations?) and album titles (italicized)?
Check in with yourself—During the performance, periodically ask yourself what you are experiencing. Are you mesmerized, or are you thinking about that load of laundry you forgot to take out of the dryer?
Fact-check EVERYTHING. But this really goes for any piece of writing. Also, proofread, and look for clichés.
Run everything through the Hemingway app. This will help you avoid passive sentences, unnecessary adverbs and lengthy sentences (something or which many of us, including me, have a tendency towards).
Next: how to write a press release