Music Writer Exercise (MWE) is a month-long event created by journalist Gary Suarez designed to grow music knowledge and help build writing skills. Held every February, the challenge entails listening to one full album you have never heard, each day of the month, and writing a tweet about it.
This year, I participated in MWE for the first time, and in turn, spent much of last month listening to a large range of records previously foreign to my ears. Though the challenge has been over for a few weeks now, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the 28 days I spent immersing myself in these albums and how thinking about them in a critical and concise manner impacted me as a listener and writer. This post will explore my expectations ahead of the exercise, how it went on a daily basis, the biggest challenges and rewards of hearing and writing about several different albums for the first time, and some general takeaways from the whole thing.
One of the coolest things about MWE is the wide variety of people who participate. Many are music writers, some are actual musicians, all are music fans. In my case, I’ve been blogging about music for about four years and probably listen to more music than the average person but not to the point where it is an abnormally large quantity. Similarly, I probably write more than the average person but a majority of my blog posts are on the shorter side and my other writing endeavors are fairly sporadic. Essentially, I write often but not always every day, so participating in MWE was more than enough to push me in a creative sense.
Coming into MWE, I was excited to take on the challenge of trying to formulate strong and coherent written opinions on the albums I was listening to. I knew there would be days where words would be hard to come by, as there always is when you are writing frequently. But in that struggle, there is always opportunity for growth. More challenging I presumed would be condensing my thoughts down to a single tweet (this ended up being true). As someone who frequently falls victim to the trappings of being too wordy and overly describing what I am writing about, I knew this would be a beneficial parameter.
When it came to choosing the albums on my list, that was the easiest part of the process. I typically keep a running queue of records I need to hear or revisit, and several of my choices were pulled from such places. Though I tried to keep my list varied, the first pass was naturally skewed toward genres and musical eras I already spend a lot of time listening to (Hello, ’60s and ’70s outsider folk and Americana!). After some revisions, I arrived at the following selections, which were culled out of everywhere from my “Old” and “New” queue on Spotify, Pitchfork’s Sunday Review, and random album recs within the Twittersphere.
While some MWE participants predetermine their listening schedule, I decided to choose each day’s album based on my mood in order to keep things loose and varied. I feared that penciling albums in for specific dates could potentially make me want to listen to them less, depending on what else I had going on that day, and thus affect my desire to complete the challenge.
The first few days of the exercise were exciting. I was eager to dive into new albums and seeing the waves of people partaking in the challenge over Twitter was inspiring. As I was greatly anticipating the start of MWE, I think I was most present and locked into my albums during that first week. As the month went on, listening to and tweeting about the albums came to feel more like a task than a leisure activity. Due to work and other unavoidable plans, there were days in which I didn’t get to MWE until late at night. I did my best to absorb each album thoughtfully and with care, and ultimately, some of those end-of-day listening and writing sessions ended up being the most fun and revealing.
In terms of how I digested each album, I primarily listened in either my headphones at home or on long drives in the car. Both the headphone and the car test are important parts of the listening experience to me, so when possible, I tried to listen to each record more than once in different settings. This wasn’t always feasible, but for the albums I revisited or spent more time with through various listening methods, my feelings about them certainly deepended or even changed. Normally, I listen to music at varying points of the day. Late morning, early afternoon, and nighttime are common sweet spots but generally, it has a lot to do with what my overall schedule looks like. Such was the case for MWE. My listening slots varied greatly, though I really enjoyed the times when I was able to listen freely and without disruption at earlier points in the day.
Perhaps the biggest dilemma in my MWE experience, aside from finding an ideal daily listening time, was that, throughout the course of the month, I became less interested in listening to certain albums on my list. This was either because I was preoccupied with other albums I was writing about for this blog or because the curiosity that had initially inspired me to put certain records on my list had simply faded. Rather than write about albums I wasn’t interested in at the moment, I made amendments to my list on two occasions, adding in The Strange Boys’ The Strange Boys and Girls Club and Kris Kristofferson’s eponymous debut, strictly based off a sudden urge to indulge in those respective records. Instead of removing two albums from my list, I took the rest of the challenge day by day as originally intended, and chose each day’s record based on how I was feeling. Ultimately, I left out Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti and Open Mike Eagle & Paul White’s Hella Personal Film Festival for no reason other than I never felt compelled to listen to them throughout the final stretch of the challenge.
The easiest albums to write about were those by artists whose work I was already highly familiar with, such as Charles Bradley, Kevin Morby, and Emmylou Harris. Albums by artists I had little to no acquaintance with (Avalanches, Fishmans), other than the knowledge that their work is unique or significant, required more thought and on many occasions, additional listens. There were also occasions in which albums by artists I knew little to nothing about were extremely captivating and easy to write about right off the bat. Jimmy Buffett’s A-1-A and Milton Nascimento’s Clube Da Esquina both garnered many spins after I first heard them and songs from each project have remained in steady rotation since completing the challenge.
The nature of the writing for MWE forced me to think about each record concisely and as clearly as possible. This can be challenging when listening to an album the first few times, especially if it is something out of your typical wheelhouse genre-wise. As much as I’d like to think I can quickly spitball an articulate tweet about an album I’ve just heard for the first time, I know myself to write better when I scribble down some notes and think through what I want to say.
Throughout the duration of MWE, I had a running document on the Notes app of my phone, in which I would jot down a few bullets for each record I consumed. Sometimes the tweet came naturally, before I could even finish listening to the album. Other times, saying anything of substance was hard. For the albums I struggled to elaborate on by writing on my phone, I would say out loud how they sounded and what they made me feel, without the pretension of trying to be overly journalistic. This tactic helped me arrive at some form of coherent thought, which I could then polish off and post on Twitter as a solidified written statement.
As far as the impact listening to a new album on a daily basis had on my writing, I’m a firm believer that exposing yourself to new artists and new styles is always a good thing. Add onto that the act of having to write about those new sounds, and you’ve got a wonderful exercise for your creative process. If listening to the albums was like working at a mining camp (grinding away, getting lost in the process, searching and hoping to run into some gold), the tweeting portion was the dispatch of the day’s work – a journal entry detailing the experience and documenting the jewels I found. Given the large range of albums you can consume in 28 days, each day really was a new adventure, and the wide spectrum of sounds flowing through my ears ended up making the writing feel the same way.
If only for fun, MWE is an online spectacle every music obsessive should try at least once. Want to find new tunes? Or finally listen to that classic record you’ve been wanting to hear forever? 28 albums in 28 days. There’s your answer. As a music writer, you are always chasing that spark – that burning excitement that comes with finding a new song or album you can’t get enough of. For that reason alone, MWE is an awesome event. Beyond that, it is also provides a terrific opportunity to practice your craft and hone in your voice, all in the space of a measly 280 characters. It’s practical, indulgent, and a little nutty, and for each of those reasons, I enjoyed it a lot.