Getting and Understanding Press

Getting and Understanding Press

This is a re-post of an interview from early 2010. The issues explored are still very relevant to artists in today’s music industry.

 

Mike Shea is the president and founder of Alternative Press, a magazine that he started as a fanzine in his hometown of Cleveland Ohio in 1985. I thought Mike would be an ideal interview as he knows first hand what developing artists need to do to get press and was likely to have an interesting world view about what it takes to migrate a business from an old media model to a new media model.

 

 

Mike discussed the origins of Alternative Press and how music publications have changed in the Digital Age. He also offered up some tips for artists about finding the right press outlets to promote their music.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

How did the Alternative Press start?

 

MS:

 

It started  as a fanzine here in town [Cleveland]. We used to cover a lot of the stuff that was here locally, and then we found there were kids in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Columbus and so forth that wanted to read us. They wanted to write scene reports for us. They started contributing, and it just started growing from there, but we didn’t know what we were doing as business people, so we were draining a lot of money. We started producing punk rock shows at a local old theater here, and that made money for us for a little bit to keep things going, but eventually the promoters in town saw us taking away some of their money, so they started cross-promoting against us to wipe out our night. That fell apart after a while, and we stopped printing for about a year. Then one of my writers came up out of the blue and said, “Hey, we should do an anniversary issue,” and he asked me how much it would take to produce it. I figured it out and said, “about $800 or so,” and he said, “I’ll donate the money.” He just really missed the paper and the writing. I got a hold of some record companies and said that we might be coming back for one issue, and during that time period that we were gone, we had built a reputation and it had spread nationally. A lot of the people in the underground music scene really liked us.

 

This was about 1987-88. I called up some record companies, and they said, “Oh, we’ll buy full page ads.” They were throwing the money down, and prior to that we were begging most of the time. So we had gotten our success and our profile had grown considerably while we were gone. We came back with a vengeance. We used to be a large newspaper, and we did that for about a year, and then we swapped down to the Rolling Stone size at the time, which was 10×12.  Then, that’s when alterative music and Alternation on MTV really picked up in the 90’s. We kind of got swept up with it, and our name was always about being an alternative to the papers and the media that was here in Cleveland. So it had nothing to do with alternative music. We were called Alternative Press before there was alternative music. We got tagged with that, and then we had a nice little FedEx thing going on, and kids were calling us “AP.” So, we decided to try and detach ourselves from getting stuck with a genre like alternative music, because we always knew that with the cycles of music, it comes and goes down, and comes and goes down. We started focusing on the letters “AP” and redesigned our logo, and it’s stuck ever since then, and we’ve just grown, and grown, and grown. We didn’t make any money until about 1996.

 

We finally got our act together by then, and we went through the new metal phase, and then in about 2001 we were all pretty miserable, and I was very miserable. The whole industry just turned into money and selling the most units, and especially even on the magazine end, it just got so silly with the way magazines are distributed. I really thought about just shutting it all down and going off and doing something else. I was in New York City at the Sony building, and I just had an epiphany. I said, “I can probably close this, and I’ll be fine.” Prior to that I was just very reluctant to. I didn’t know what to do because it was my identity as a person. So, I went down to Century 21 to get some underwear like I usually do when I’m in New York City, and I walked outside. It was about 5:30 or so, and I saw all the suits come out of the World Trade Center going home, and I said, “You know what? I can’t do that. I can’t go into Corporate World. I’m too damaged, in a way.”

 

So I came back to Cleveland, and I said, “Okay. We’re going to give this one more shot. But we’re going to do it our way, and if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down doing it the way we wanted to.” A couple of my editors and my marketing director were talking about having been on a “Warped” tour, and they noticed there was a new sound that was coming up, and the kids were really fanatical about it. They started throwing some band names out there like Save the Day and AFI, and they said, “We should maybe think about this.” So I said, “Okay. Find me the two bands that have a very, very dedicated fan base behind them. They don’t have to sell a lot of records, but they have to have really crazy fans.” Part of that was, we were always looking at who was Platinum and who’s the biggest artist. We picked Save the Day and AFI and put them on the cover, and it went through the roof. It sold triple what the Red Hot Chili Peppers or anyone else had been selling for us. So the first year we kind of tip-toed our way back into our roots with alternating covers, and the response from our fans and from our readers was just fantastic. The bands were just so much more appreciative than a lot of the alt rock bands we had been working with who couldn’t have cared less if we were writing about them. We shed our skin and went from there. We’ve found our punk rock roots again, and it’s worked out really great. Now we’re just getting ready for the new technology.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I was going to ask you that. I definitely want to get to your perspective on helping get artists to develop. But how are you switching to the digital switchover, as magazine subscriptions probably across the board have been kind of hurt?

 

MS:

 

I think it’s early still. This morning Interview magazine just released their little promo of what Interview would look like with the iPad. It’s a very basic, stripped-down version. I think what we’re trying to see and do some research on is where websites are going to play into this, because we’re absolutely convinced that Pay Walls on websites won’t work. So then you start to get into, if you have a digital subscription, and you put it up on iTunes and Amazon, people, including kids, are used to going to those sites and paying for things. So we feel really confident that that will be the model. What we saw with Interview and those sorts of things were just the elementary school of digital magazines. The digital versions will be multi-media and will have video, interactive advertising, etc. They will be the future, and you’ll get paid for it. Will there be piracy with digital magazines just like some of the publishers are having to deal with, with their books? Yeah, there will be. But by and large, as the next generation starts to go from being eight-years old to 18-years old, they’ll start naturally buying magazines and subscribing to publications and that sort of thing via iTunes and so forth as these digital readers – whether it’s an iPad, or whatever the hell it is – become more affordable, and become standard things that are sitting on your coffee table at home. And you’re sick with the flu, and you’re just on there dorking around on the Internet. Because that will be the future. For us, that’s interesting, because you’re taking the paid model of somebody buying a $4.99 magazine, and now you’re going to surpass the websites and transfer that, but make it a lot cooler, and put it in as a digital magazine. And your magazine – your printed version – will have less copies, and will be better looking and better produced. So it will be thicker and better-quality paper, but it won’t be $4.99, it will be $7.99 – $9.99, depending, and going to be a keepsake thing. It’s going to be very Web proof. There will be a lot of photographs, a lot of long stories that don’t work very well, even on an e-Reader at this point. For us, that’s what we’re kind of seeing is going to happen. Of course, Steve Jobs could sneeze tomorrow, and a whole new system and something else could happen.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It’s so funny how that can happen so quickly. But I wish you luck with the transition. It doesn’t sound like you are off to a smooth start.

 

MS:

 

It’s a transition in our heads. I’m dealing with people here that are in their 40s and people in their early 20s. The older you get, the more resistant you get, so there are people here that say, “No way! Print’s not going to die! There’s no way!” And I’m telling them, “Look, anybody who was born in the year 2000 and forward don’t have a romantic attachment to print like we do.” To them, a book, a newspaper or a magazine doesn’t mean anything. Once they hit 18-years old, it’s over, at least as much as new product. Once Generation X drops dead, print will be pretty much dead. You’ll still have it being produced in a very small quantity, but by and large things will be in a digital format. You’re looking at the last generation of a mass-produced print. You’ll have boutique print, but in terms of mass publication, you won’t have that after the next 25-30 years, tops. It all depends on how the Generation X-ers want to get rid of print. If they want to just go straight to digital and make it convenient, it will accelerate even faster. We’re going to have lots of trees left on this planet.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I guess that’s something to look forward to. Transitioning awkwardly … You’re a guy who is and has been in the position to take a band from complete and total obscurity and really expose them to a nationwide if not worldwide platform.  What would your advice be to somebody who just can’t get arrested in the blogosphere.  What are the common mistakes you see with artists trying to get the attention of journalists?

 

MS:

 

Don’t send your demo CD to our home address. I just had that happen to me about a week ago. That was fun. The kid had balls. Unfortunately they were horrible. If they were good, it makes a great story, doesn’t it? Unfortunately there’s a fine line. We’re starting to see that there’s a difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness when you’re promoting. A lot of these bands that we’ve been writing about now for ten years are getting dropped, their labels are going under, they’re choosing not to renew. They want to start over and do it on their own and do the Band Camp or TuneCore etc. I think what they need to do for those bands is that they’ve made friends in the industry that work in publicity, marketing and A&R, and they need to have a conversation and learn publicity and marketing and A&R 101, 102 and 103. We’ve had some bands that approach us with their own stuff, and are very cool about it and know how to do it. And we’ve had other bands that every other day I’ll get an e-mail or a tweet or something on my Facebook saying, “Hey, did you check out our record? Can we get a feature now, can we get into ‘Most Anticipated?’ Can we stop by your office?” And it’s as if they haven’t learned how to balance that out, and when you start to pester too much. I think bands, on their own, have to learn that fine line between being assertive and making sure your product gets in front of somebody vs. being aggressive.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Is that a frequency thing, or is that just having something new to say or the way they’re asking?

 

MS:

 

I think it’s the way they’re approaching it. We have a few bands over the past couple months that have new records coming out. Sadly, one of them is on a label, who fired their publicist and never rehired. So the label has no publicist and the band is more or less doing it on their own. So, they’re approaching us. The record is okay, and we already gave it a review, and it got a decent review. But one of the members is just constantly hitting us up. It’s getting to the point now where we’re starting to not like it. I think it’s just a matter of learning curves. I think this was naturally about to happen, and it’s what you were talking about earlier with having to adjust. I think bands need to learn how to adjust to having to promote themselves in that way. It’s one thing to be assertive and somewhat aggressive sitting outside the House of Blues handing out fliers for one of your shows. But you have to learn how to approach different types of situations differently with that assertiveness. I think that’s one aspect of it.

 

For bands in general, I don’t think there’s really anything new as compared to the way it used to be back in the day because it isn’t going to mean anything unless you have some talent, or you can write good songs or anything. We get sent mp3’s and CD’s all the time, and you can tell that one of the band members just was doing his part of the job in the band, and just sending them out to everybody. There was no follow up whatsoever. So, half the time we stumble upon it buried amongst all these other things that we got as well, and we love it. We reach out to the band, and then we start covering them. Other times, you get people that haven’t really clicked yet. They don’t have good songwriting abilities or something like that, and they’re just constantly all over you. Unfortunately, I don’t really think anything’s changed in that respect. It just comes down to whether or not you have a good product. That’s what you need. If you have that, that’s more than half your battle, as far as I’m concerned.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

As a major press outlet, is it a selling point for you if bands came to you with a bunch of lesser publications having covered their story? Is that relevant? Is that part of the story when they can point to a dozen blogs?

 

MS:

 

You’re definitely right. They’ll come to us with some music specific person’s blog or something that was off Absolute Punk or Punk News or Buzznet or something like that. It definitely does help. Sometimes an editor will have that kind of bias. You’re trying to hire somebody, and you say, “You better have some job experience first.” I try to keep my ears open regardless, because you just never know who you’re going to stumble across. But, does it help if a band comes with some material? Sure. I think it’s sad, but it does help, even if it was just some postings that were on a blog site and you have the comments from the other kids saying, “I love this band” or something like that. In this day and age, it’s not really what the press has said about something; it’s what the fans have said about it. My editors were recently just all about, “We should put Muse on the cover,” and I took a look at Spin magazine’s sales for when they had Muse on the cover last year, and I compared them to when we had some smaller bands on our cover, and we actually out sold them. Sometimes editors can be wrong.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

That’s surprising.

 

MS:

 

They’re one of my favorite bands, and they were the critics’ darlings. Sometimes music critics tend to get into a school of fish and they all start going on something, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people want to read about it or watch it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Do you have any final words of advice? You’ve had a really interesting career and have a really unique vantage point. Is there anything you would suggest artists focus on besides developing great product?

 

MS:

 

I had a young musician approach me on Facebook the other day, and he said, “I’m getting depressed.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I don’t know how I’m going to make it. I can’t make any money. I want to try to do something revolutionary and do it on my own, because I know the labels aren’t going to sign me, but every time I start focusing on a particular business model, the business changes and I don’t know what to do. Should I just try to stick with one business model for a little bit, or should I just keep dropping everything every time everything changes?”  I think the point is to just grab a fundamental business core method that is true all the way through. If people really like your product, they’ll buy it, especially if they feel an intimate connection to you. That’s the fundamental belief with music or anything artistic.

 

I said, “You start there, and then you allow yourself to be adaptable, because you’re right. Everything is going to change. You could go run off and have fans raise money for you and you can make a record, and you build a website where there’s a PayPal account and all this other stuff; but that all could be changed in a year. You’re definitely right about that.” I said, “You have to be flexible. Maybe you need to play it safe for a while. Maybe you need to go through Band Camp or TuneCore and sit back for a while and let the industry figure itself out. Focus on what you know is the core, fundamental truth, and that is, fans will buy from you if they feel an intimate connection to you, and if they think it’s going to benefit you personally. Maybe you need to play it that way. But to get depressed and throw your hands in the air because there isn’t one business model that’s working for everybody, that’s tried and true, you can’t let that happen.” It’s definitely a wild west out there right now. Everything is wild west. The movie studios are going through wild west, print, music, radio. The only thing that’s not wild west is concert promotion, because it is basically just one company. You just have to hold on tight and persevere. Stick to the basics on that, and let the business models figure themselves out. I said, “Somebody that has a lot more power than you or I will figure out some system and spend millions on it and blow it and work out all the kinks, and everybody will be able to benefit from that.” We’ll see. That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re sticking with the core beliefs and remain adaptable to it and play a little big safe. For us, we think websites are going to become network TV. They’re doing to be basics. The cable television will be the digital editions for pay. All the cool stuff will not be on websites anymore. It will be in the digital editions. The websites will just have breaking news and basic stuff, and how-to-get-through-your-morning stuff. To us, that’s exciting because it shows there is a way to transfer the money we were making from the print edition to the digital edition. Because there was no money in a website. You have to remain adaptable. The core belief that people want good-quality information is still there; and they will pay for it. You just have to find the way.