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Dickens Is The Area's Music Man

By Amber Ross
November 11, 2010

Tad Dickens is a music journalist and critic for The Roanoke Times. He was born in Colonial Heights Tenn., and he comes from a journalism background. His duties include the "Inside Out" section music coverage that appears in the Roanoke newspaper each Thursday, plus blogging and keeping up with social media on the music scene in Roanoke and the New River valleys.

He has had a tremendous amount of experience with the music business, and he has been on both sides of the industry. From playing and performing music, to writing about music, Dickens works to bring readers the latest information on the local music scene.

In an interview, Dickens went into more detail about the work he does with The Roanoke Times.

Q: First off, could you tell me a little about yourself?

Dickens: I guess as it relates to what I am doing now. I’ve played music for a living for about 10 years after high school and sort of got a real feel for the business. I played drums all over the place with a bunch of bands you’ve never heard of. I went to a musicians institute for a year—it was a year long program—I wish it had been longer, but I was there for a year, had a great time, learned a lot and then continued sort of playing around, you know, playing around the country. A lot of blues, a lot rock, stuff like that, some country that sort of got me out there in the music world, but I didn’t want to do that. After a while I sort of got sick of the business end of it, so at that point I decided to go back to school and I wanted to do journalism. I didn’t really think I would write about music. Since I have been here, for the past 11 years, I have covered Bedford County and its government, courts and police over there. Then I did Roanoke City courthouse (coverage) for about four years. Then I sort of wanted another change and I started doing the online stuff here. When we started up “Inside Out”, which at that time it was a weekly tabloid, I was the online editor for that publication and sort of learned on the job. Then they asked me to start writing about music. I’d sort of fooled around in the paper enough doing different things, and when we (the Roanoke Times) had our Timescast a few years ago I messed around playing some guitar on that. As part of my “Inside Out” duties I started doing the top tickets thing, which is sort of a blurb-heavy recap of what’s going to be happening on the weekends. I guess they thought those were good qualifications to do what I’m doing now.

Q: Was it when you went back to school that you decided you wanted to go into journalism or was it something that was always in the back of your mind as a career choice?

Dickens: I guess I have messed around with it a little bit as a kid when I was working in the school paper, middle school paper in my day. It was the junior high school paper back in Tennessee. I always kind of liked it, but never thought about journalism for real until 15-18 years back. I was still playing music then, and a few friends of mine I was rooming with, a bass player I worked with a lot and his girlfriend, started up a weekly sort of entertainment paper, short lived, in Johnson City, Tenn. They asked me to go to Knoxville and write a story about Colonel Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit. I was a huge fan of theirs and I was really kind of up for that. I went, did the story, did some interviews, wrote the piece and then I started thinking you know it kind of goes back to some old roots of mine.

My dad had been in journalism at the Tennessee Eastman Company, it’s a newspaper. He didn’t go the full route but he took care of our family with that job, and I sort of hung out around there when I was a little kid seeing them setting type and the whole nine yards of the old school. At that point I wasn’t horribly excited about it, you know, I was more like that looks like a lot of work. By the time I started to slide back into it they had the little Mac Classic computers, a sort of a glorified lunch box with a screen. By that time it was all being done on computers, and a whole lot of different things had changed but the basics were still the same. You go out, get interviews, write a story and by the time I decided for sure I was going to go back to college it was between that and teaching.

I thought maybe I can be an English teacher or maybe I can be a history teacher. Then I thought I don’t know if I have the patience for that, but of course I got into a job where patience is a premium. I loved it ever since I’ve started. I went to the student newspaper The East Tennessean, back then, and they gave me a job writing sports because they didn’t have anybody to write sports. I love sports, but I didn’t really think I’d be that guy. I wound up liking it a whole lot and wrote sports for a couple years there, and did internships and stuff like that. But when it came down to it I decided I was a hard news guy, and so I started pursuing every avenue I could to do that. It was at the last minute really when I decided between writing for newspaper and teaching high school kids, that was ultimately I think the better decision. Teaching is great. I wish that I had the patience, but I thought more along the lines of being a reporter. It felt right, it felt better.

Q: Have you always wanted to work for The Roanoke Times?

Dickens: When I was coming out of college and starting to go for internships and stuff, I actually applied here for an internship as a sports writer and got turned down. I still was interested in the paper, and frankly, I thought, 'Well if I wind up doing a major internship as a sports writer I’m very likely to get stuck in that anyway.' So it was probably for the best. So I stayed in touch with the paper because I grew up in the Tri-cities, pretty close to Roanoke and for a long time, I don’t know if this is still the case, but the big book stores down there carried the paper. So I would go in and pick up the Sunday paper just about every week for a while there. I always enjoyed reading it, and thought they did great reporting. It was one of many papers that I would have liked to work for, but I feel like for who I am what I like to do and the speed I like to go at, this is about as good as it could be. I really love the town, and there is a great growing music scene up here with good, young local bands. Plus some people who really are devoted, club owners and club managers, to bringing quality national and regional music here. It’s great. I’m really happy with it.

Q: In your opinion, what do you think the current state of local music is in Roanoke and the surrounding areas?

Dickens: Well, I think it’s good. I’ve found being in a few different places in my life, that live music scenes are sort of ebbing and flowing. I think that in this town over the past two or three years, and in Blacksburg more and more, you are seeing a lot young local players who are coming up and doing things. The established guys that have been around for a long time are still doing it, and kind of shining a light for the people who are coming up. There are venues in Blacksburg, Floyd and Roanoke who support all of that, which is a great combination, and I hope it continues. I’ll be honest with you, four or five years ago when I started doing the sort of things I am doing now, I wasn’t following it very closely. People tell me that it was kind of dead at that point, but I don’t know for sure because I was working really hard at another beat here at the paper and not getting out as much as I would like to. So I sort of missed out on that, but this is a really good time to be writing about music in this area for sure.

Q: Was there a particular band or artist that influenced, or inspired, your decision in your career?

Dickens: There have been a ton of them from Rush to Miles Davis to Mike Stern. I could name a ton of them. I was heavily into jazz and progressive rock when I was growing up, and that really influenced my playing more than anything. As far as my writing I didn’t really think about it as much as musically influenced when I started writing. I didn’t really think I would cover music and I never really thought I’d return to that world. I’ve been doing this closing in on three years now, and by the time they offered me this I was like, let’s give it a shot and see how it feels. Returning to it after all that time was really sort of good. I felt it kind of kick in, where it was really a return to my roots; a way to combine it with what I’m doing now, and get the best information, and help people get a leg up on what they want to do for the weekend, what shows they want to see.

>Q: Do you believe that your articles help struggling artists with their careers, when you write about certain shows or cover certain events?

Dickens: I don’t know. I would hate to give myself that much credit; in fact I wouldn’t give myself that much credit. What I do is basically straight up reporting, for the most part. I mean when it involves music you color it up a little bit more than if you’re writing about a city council meeting, for instance. I try to really cover the “waterfront”, particularly with the top tickets page we have every Thursday in the paper. I really try to cover the “waterfront” with that, and give people as big a cross section as I’m able, of a big variety of music: both bands that are traveling into town and local acts that are playing here. Most every week since I’ve been doing it, it has been pretty well packed with options. That’s what I’m trying to do, give music fans options and shine a light on bands from here and elsewhere. If that helps somebody draw some more people, then that’s awesome. That’s icing on the cake. My first real responsibility is to readers, and to let them know what’s happening.

Q: What all does it entail covering an event as large as the Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper show that occurred at the Roanoke Civic Center recently?

Dickens: Basically the first thing you want to do is make sure you have enough room to write. For instance, a lot of the reviews I do are on one or two acts. Usually I will get 12 column inches, but I have been pushing more for 15 column inches on shows like that one because you have three bands, two of them are very substantial, with very substantial hits. Then you have your opening band and you don’t really know what that is a lot of the time, but you find out as you’re listening. You really need enough room to write about it without going too far. If you get into 18 to 20 inches for a review it starts to get a little wordy, maybe a little too much, and it’s just like any other news writing. It’s best when it’s tight. Usually 12 to 15 and sometimes if it’s a really big act I’ll try to push for 18. That’s the first thing, trying to figure out how much you’re going to be writing.

Then after that, you want to be as familiar as possible with the band’s music. For that particular one that you brought up, I knew pretty well about Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper. Alice Cooper has been around since I was a kid, and Zombie who’s been around for about 20 years now doing some cool stuff. So a lot of that stuff you’ve just sort of heard, it’s like osmosis, it seeps into your system and there is a recognition factor with a lot of those songs. With the newer bands you sort of have an idea of what the songs are. Then it’s not something that’s been in your head for your whole life, and you can take a fresh look at it. The classic bands that have had hits, try to perform them as close to the original as they can because of the fan recognition.

My favorite bands are the ones that improvise a lot, even improvise their compositions. You don’t hear those very much because it’s very hard to do, and you’re not necessarily going to draw in a lot of people. It’s tougher to be musically adventurous like that. A lot of times you just want to get out and hear music you know and like. If they are coming on, and they are playing some big, old song in a new way it might be frustrating to the average listener, but I love it. You have to, in some degree because you’re writing to a very wide audience, look at the show and try to be as objective as possible, and look at in a way that the fans would look at it. Would the fans like it? Would fans think it was a good show? It comes down to a relative comparison to what this band is about as opposed to what it’s doing on stage now. You have to look at who is coming, and what they are all about and that kind of thing. You have to look at the musical quality, the standard that the artist has already set and how they are living up to it these days.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of covering a music event?

Dickens: Listening to music! Especially if it’s really good music, played by great musicians. My predecessor Ralph Berrier said, ‘There’s an up-side and a down-side to writing music reviews, and the advantage is that you get to go and listen to music. And the disadvantage is you have to go listen to music and you have to write about it too.’ I probably am not quoting him exactly but the point is that it can feel like a job, but most of the time it doesn’t. I think most of the venues here try to bring in quality stuff, and I’ve been lucky enough to catch a lot of shows. I’ve always been a fan of live music, in fact I guess the thing that’s most different for me in this other incarnation of being involved in the music business is that, when I was playing music I didn’t really get to hear a lot of live music. I was playing it most nights. I was out there doing it. Unless I was opening for somebody or somebody was opening for a band I was in, then those were the only bands I was hearing. I didn’t really get out of the club or venue in time to go out and see anybody else play. So now I’m getting to do that, and it’s been a real blast.

Q: I also found in my research that you write and post the cutNscratch blog for Roanoke.com. Has blogging helped you as a journalist?

Dickens: I don’t know that it has necessarily helped me as a journalist, but as a reporter it probably helps me because the more information you can get out to people the better the chances you’re going to hear about stuff you didn’t know. Somebody will write in and let you know about something that’s happening. Right off the bat I can’t think of a major thing in which that was the case, but certain comments will include information that you didn’t know, and it helps you with follow-ups. I think probably the most important point of the way it’s helpful is that it’s a multimedia avenue. I try, not always successfully, but I try as hard as I can to have some sort of multimedia happening in most of the blog entries, for instance the pod casts. With the podcasts, here is sort of the straight-live file of an interview, you know there might be some editing that goes on in it, but here people can go and listen to what the artist actually says, and compare and contrast that with what wound up in the paper.

If they are interested in it enough to listen to the interview, then it’s helpful to credibility to note when you’ve listened to that thing that it wasn’t something that was completely different, that the story in the paper wasn’t written in an unfair way. It really characterizes what went on in the interview plus gives you a chance to hear the artist, and this is almost always the case, they will approve the streaming audio of their original music. That helps people get a better idea of what the band is all about. Plus you can post video, use an embed code from YouTube and sites like that, and give people an even better example of what the band is about because you posted video. Or help them catch up with an artist who’s no longer in town, and see what they’re up to.

Mostly it’s podcasting, I’ve gotten to where I do that on almost every interview that I do. Unless the sound quality was really, really poor I try to post those on the blog. It gives people more of a personal idea of who this performer is. You’re hearing their speaking voice answering questions and talking about what’s going on with them musically and personally, mostly musically. I try not to delve too much into the personal unless it’s something very recently news-worthy that you sort of just can’t avoid. I think it’s the way to, as other people here at the paper have said as they started pushing blogs out into the newsroom, really help you create community interest. Which sounds like a buzz-phrase, but for the people who really love music around here you hope that they’re paying attention to that blogging and getting something interesting out of it.

Q: Have you ever received any advice that you’ve held on to throughout your career that’s helped you along the way?

Dickens: The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. You have to cover the waterfront with those questions. If you have a follow-up question don’t be afraid to call and ask. Try to make sure you’ve answered all of the questions before you turn the story in. The other thing, this has applied as much to my work previously, try to be fair to the subjects you cover. Those are like the two things. It’s great if you can live by those. Tons of little pieces of advice along the way, but those are the two, I think, that probably you can apply to any kind of writing, any kind of reporting, that you are doing.

Q: Finally, if you could offer some words of wisdom to upcoming music journalists, what would you say?

Dickens: The reason you should do something like this is to do it because you want to impart knowledge to people, not just because you love it, but when you have a beat like this you need to know about music. You try to learn. If you’re not a musician then take up an instrument; if you are a musician then keep working at it. I’ve played drums and guitar and sang over the years, and it kind of gives you a first-hand understanding, but if you can’t play music that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a bad music writer. In fact I’ve found that some more passionate musical opinions that I know of, and that I actually trust, come from friends of mine from here in town who don’t know how to play the first instrument. They could probably barely play a scale, and they’re not interested in it, but they have an idea of good music. But, you know, the secret is converting the sounds that happen onstage to something that is engaging in print. It does help to understand something about music at least terminology, and some idea of context: where a band is coming from and what its history is.

There are other ways to do it too if you can’t play music, but I will just say though if you don’t play music and you like writing about music, go take beginners guitar lessons. If you only learn four or five chords that’s about all they use anyway for the most part. In pop music, there aren’t that many chords going on, and it will give you a basic understanding of what’s happening. You don’t have to go to theory, I don’t know about music theory, for instance, but I have enough of an idea of what’s happening on stage. Try to be the newspaper audience’s eyes and ears. It’s interesting because we’ve published stories, reviews, in the paper that were read more online, had more page views than people who went to see the show. So that tells you that not everyone who is reading the review is somebody who went to the show. Some people want to know what happened. They couldn’t make the show so you have to be a visual writer as well as a writer who’s influenced, and able to write well about how something sounds.