Alternative Press, the independent, Cleveland-based music and youth-culture magazine, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer with an exclusive, all-star party at the House of Blues in Hollywood.
The heartiest of congrats are in order – it’s a remarkable achievement, although the location of the party brings to mind the recurring pain of the Cleveland-based Rock Hall’s annual NYC induction ceremonies.
Anyway, joining the magazine’s staff at the event will be acclaimed bands (and AP cover stars) Transplants and My Chemical Romance, as well as support act Say Anything and Special Guests To Be Announced. Lord Of The Rings star Elijah Wood will be on hand to DJ between acts, along with L.A.-based spinner Jason Z.
Groove on Frodo!
Each month, over 235,000 readers turn to AP for the type of coverage the mainstream music media just doesn’t provide. Like their readers, AP’s staff members are fans first and foremost, with unique insight on the culture they cover (even though some of them are almost as old as I am).
Through it all, AP has remained independently-owned and operated by Mike Shea, whose staff of 17 still operates out of an office on Cleveland’s west side.
To commemorate the celebration, I am including my October ’92 interviews with Shea and original editor Joe Banks, as excerpted from Networking In the Music Industry:
- Mike Shea: Publisher, Alternative Press. Cleveland. (October, 1992)
Why did you start Alternative Press?
There were two reasons why I started the magazine in 1985: 1) I was bored; 2) I felt, as a little new waver/ punk just getting into everything, that the coverage of the alternative scene was lax. This was especially true in Cleveland, where I am from. Scene magazine would list the local concerts, but that was it. They wouldn’t review the concerts, or do interviews with the bands that I was interested in. At that time, there was a good, strong scene happening in Cleveland. There was a strong scene in Kent, but the Akron scene had died by that time – although there were some resurrections going on from time-to-time like The Mice, The Attitude, Joy Circuit, and High Plains Drifters.
I felt that we needed to put together this all-purpose guide to, at least, Northeastern Ohio new music. If you wanted to know where the Drifters or The Dark were playing, then you could find it. At that point we were just trying to support the local scene. Unfortunately, we found out that there just wasn’t enough money in Northeast Ohio to support an alternative paper/fanzine. We found it necessary to expand out through Ohio, and then into the Midwest. We also had consumer demand, and that is always the best reason to expand. If there is an audience, then go for it. If there isn’t an audience, then you are being stupid.
We grew, and got even more response in Detroit and Chicago. Then one of my friends in NY, who works at Important distribution, said, “You should hook into our distribution network and we’ll get you to the East Coast.” At that point we started charging for the magazine, which had previosly been free. It sold very well, and we grew from there. But the reason for our existence has never changed: to produce an all-purpose guide to new music, and to combine the best of consumer magazines with the best of trade publications.
We now have a publication that takes care of, not only the major groups like Nine Inch Nails, Morrissey, Happy Mondays and so forth (which has helped the paper get to a circulation of over-50,000), but we also take a look at some of the smaller groups that are on Touch-and-Go, or C’est La Mort, or SST, or the other indies. We also take care of the almost completely unknown bands like Velocity Girl (whom we have had on our cover) that have had maybe just a couple of 7″s out.
We even go deeper than that with our “Demorandum” section; where we review bands that aren’t even signed. We have a lot of A&R reps at the majors, and at the mini-majors watching that section closely. We had Sony in Germany write to one of the bands that we reviewed in the “Demorandum” section requesting their tape for consideration.
When you have a guide out there, and you keep your editorial integrity, and you’re not doing the standard music-journalism routine like Spin and Pulse and Rolling Stone (where they have publicists call them up and spoon-feed them all of the new hit bands), and you just cover what you think is good, then you are respected a lot by the scene. We just did a Soup Dragons article, and the album sucked as far as we were concerned. We called them out on it. We said that they were following trends, and not trying to be their own musicians with their own style. The record company got all pissed-off because they couldn’t believe that we would print such a thing, but we got letters agreeing with us that the album sucked. Editorial integrity is the key to being respected. If you just end-up being a stroke magazine, then people will know it. That’s the problem with Creem, Reflex and all of those magazines.
Are their any other magazines that aren’t “strokers”?
Option maintains its editorial integrity, but the problem with them is that they’re too broad. If you are into blues, jazz, African flute players, and everything else but mainstream, then you are going to like Option. They do tons and tons of reviews, but their editorial and advertising intermix too much. It’s like there is no separation of church and state with them. It’s like, “If you don’t advertise, then maybe we won’t review your album.” We have heard that from advertisers. I’m not saying that that is their policy all of the time, and I’m sure it’s not in writing, but that’s what we’ve heard.
We decided that we weren’t going to do that. We reverse it and say, “If you do advertise, then the least we can do is try to get your album reviewed.” We never call up somebody and say, “Hey, advertise with us and we’ll review it.” We say, “If you want to advertise and you are going to send us a 7″ anyway, then we will try to review it.” We do not guarantee anyone a positive review. We have never changed a review for any record company: major or indie. It is vitally important to us to maintain our editorial integrity.
Several indie labels and artists have mentioned that AP is one of the most efficient methods to get the word out to the alternative crowd about their product. Do you have any special rates for musicians or labels?
As far as ad rates go, yes, we do have different rates. We have to. If you look at Spin, you will see a section called “Spin Indies” where you will see small label ads. They sell those little 3×3 ads for $500, $600, $700 because their circulation is at about 350,000. They do it just to keep the magazine looking cool so that the alternative kids will buy it. That’s ok, but you are still missing out on the tons of small, one-man, or one-woman labels that put out three or four 7″s a year. You’re alienating the entire alternative market from the dinkies. So we have a scale. It’s an advertising scale based upon the size of the label and some other things. It’s a standard within the industry that your advertising agencies that handle TDK and Marlboro are going to get slapped with the highest rates because they have the most money. The record companies, based upon size and frequency of advertising, are going to get slapped less. The smaller the record company, the less they have to pay. You do have to put a floor on it; there is a minimum below which you just can’t go.
What you get out of the policy: from your readers, at the newstand, and also from the record company point of view (where A&R execs check-out the ads to see what is out on 7″), is just tremendous. This is an unbeatable marketing tool. Option does it well, too. Spin doesn’t do it well. Their ad rates are so high that the little indies couldn’t even think about doing it. Project Records, for example: they take out the same sized ad with us as they do in Spin. The one in Spin costs him several-hundred dollars while the one with us costs him $50. He gets good response from the Spin ad, but he gets an even better ad-cost-to-response-rate ratio with us. But there are much smaller companies that can’t do the Spin ad at all. The ad would cost almost as much as the record!
The real little guy has to go to the place that is going to get him directly to his audience as cheaply as possible. That would be us, and that would be Option as well. Don’t get me wrong, Option is well respected, and rightly so.
How is your readership different from Option’s?
Alternative Press has more of a street level, younger crowd. Our median reader is 22 years old. We have a lot of kids between the ages of 16 and 25. Option’s age range is more like 23-35. They are a lot older, better educated, and more eclectic in their tastes. We get the real fans who have to have everything within the type of music that they like. Their range is narrower, but their intensity is greater. They want to be exposed to all of the alternative rock. Of course, there are always readers who read two articles and then drop the paper because that’s all they are interested in, but you can’t please everyone.
So, back to the beginning: our whole goal was to make the magazine a networking and marketing tool for the independent scene, and to support it that way. If you support the independent scene through ad breaks, the “Demo-random” section, the singles section, then they are going to support you back. The readers and the labels are going to talk to their friends, who may have other little labels, and say that AP is cool. If you are a band from Kansas or somewhere, and all you have been able to get is a little ad in a fanzine, and you get a cheap ad, and a review, and maybe even a photo in an international magazine, then you are going to be happy. And so are we. Support the scene and it will support you back.
You said that you had a circulation increase?
Yes, we were at 20,000 in September (1992), and we went to 53,000 this month (October 1992). We will stay at that size for awhile, or at least until we see more European orders come in. We are strongest in the college towns, especially the ones out in the middle of nowhere. They see us as their tether to civilization. We are also very strong on both coasts, and of course, in our original base of the Midwest. We have subscribers in Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong, all over the world.
Our subscription total is about 2,000, or about 10% of our previos total of 20,000 copies. Now that we’ve gone to 53,000 copies, we hope that the subscription rate will rise to 10% of that. We’re not into a direct-mailing drive at this point because we are putting a lot of the money back into the magazine to produce more color, and also we are increasing the amount of money that we pay to our writers and photographers.
We are doing quite well. Eventually, we want to add a video section, an underground film section, a commentary section, and lots of other things. But it will take time. We are not in a hurry. Slow growth is the way for us to go. We don’t have a major investor behind us. We aren’t owned by Billboard, like Musician is. Our main goal right now is to get out of the apartment complex that we have been stuck-in: with our three rooms, a few desks, and some pencils.
Joe Banks: Editor, Alternative Press magazine. Cleveland. (October, 1992)
Any thoughts on networking?
Bands need to get as many people talking about them as possible. Duh, no kidding. That’s pretty obvious, but bands really need to function as their own publicity companies. Many bands get more attention than the really good bands. Why? Because key people decide that a certain band is worthy of the hype machine, and that’s how it works. A band needs to be its own hype machine. Our publication, and others like us that focus on the alternative, or independent world, are pretty open to new bands. That’s why we exist. Get your record to as many of the open-minded zines as possible. They are going to give you a fair shake. We are more concerned with good music than with spotting the next big thing.
You would not believe it, but the decision makers at some big magazines don’t even listen to the music. I could get by with not listening to all of the music. I could just look at the press kit, see what the response has been, and make a judgement from there. But our magazine is for people who actually listen to a lot of music, and we have to do the same. It’s amazing how many editors and decision makers will say things like, “I haven’t listened to them, but I heard that they are really good.”
Do you educate your readers, or do they dictate who you cover?
We have a mixture between bands that our readers want us to cover, and bands that we tell the readers about. Our picks are what make us different because everyone writes about Morrissey and The Cure.
What are you looking for in a package from an independent band or label?
Please be as direct and brief as possible. I open so many packages that I just throw away anything more than a one-page bio and a photo. Tell who you are, give your phone number, and let the music speak for itself.