Thursday, October 21, 2004


In the last post here I was complaining about editors not getting back to me, as well as the financial situation that's brought about, and while I honestly don't want to use this blog to whine about my problems, I had an interesting sequel to what I posted that, I think, brings up some larger issues, even if, in order to talk about them, I'm going to have to filter them through my own experience.

As I mentioned, Tracks Magazine was one of the ones I was waiting to hear about. Now, Tracks was launched with high hopes about a year ago, under a much-respected former editor of Spin, with some apparently good financing and a stated aim to become the American competition for Mojo, which was a good idea because although Mojo sells well in the U.S., filling a market niche no other music magazine does, it's also quite hostile to American writers.

Naturally, I pursued Tracks, because as someone who'd written a lot for Mojo before they'd become well-known (and hostile), I thought I'd be a natural, particularly because I was already getting a lot of the stuff they were going to write about. Or so I thought.

A first issue with a cover photo of Sting did nothing to increase my confidence, but what really made me scratch my head was when the editors showed up at SXSW in March. As far as I could tell, there was no promotion for this new magazine at an event that was almost custom-made for them to promote it. When I finally got to sit down with the editor, I pitched him an idea I had for a regular column, which I thought he'd go for because I'm already well-known thanks to the spots I do on Fresh Air. He blinked a couple of times and said "I really don't see where there'd be any place for that at the moment." Well, then, I said, at least put me in touch with your record-review editor; I could be of real service there. He gave me the guy's name, but no way to contact him. Interestingly, he didn't even have business cards himself.

Then it really got weird. I was standing talking to a couple of friends and another guy for about ten minutes when the editor came out of an interview he'd been leading with Joan Baez (in which, I was told, he'd agreed not to rehash her past once again but instead talk about the stuff she was doing now -- and then went ahead and spent the rest of the time rehashing her past, to her growing annoyance) and said "Oh, I see you've found our record review editor." It was the guy I didn't know. Curiously enough, he didn't have a card, either, although after I gave him mine, he promised to be in touch.

I went looking for the magazine. They made a great fuss out of the fact that they target record and book stores over newsstands for their distribution, and Borders was a big outlet for them. And yet not only did the mini-Borders in the SXSW trade show not have it (nor had they received a request to stock it, as they had other magazine titles and books by authors appearing at the conference), neither did any record store or book store I went to in Austin.

When I got back here, I wrote followup e-mails to both of them, and, although I tried a couple of times more, never heard a word. What was going on here, anyway?

A couple of months later, another editor, whom I'd never met, e-mailed me out of the blue. He was editing their travel section, he said, and wanted a story on Berlin. It took a couple of reminders, but he finally mailed me a package of the next few issues of the magazine, and I saw stories on a festival devoted to Django Reinhardt in France and the cool rock clubs of Boston.

I counter-suggested a couple of other stories from Europe, because I was afraid he had some image in his mind about Berlin that the city can't live up to, but no, he was only interested in Berlin.

Now, Berlin does not have much of a live rock scene at this point, for a number of reasons. Some of them are similar to any European city's (ie, the density of population makes it impossible to run a small club with electric music because there's always someone living upstairs) and some of them are less tangible (like, the pall of depression that hangs over this place). There's plenty of rock history, on the other hand, and I dutifully collected a series of addresses of where things used to be (David Bowie's old apartment on Hauptstr., the Amiga recording studio where all the DDR's approved bands recorded), because Berlin's big on the "where things used to be" tip.

I put it all together, told him I was aware this might not have been what he was looking for, but it was, alas, the truth, and I sent it off.

And that's where we were the other day when I posted. I was waiting, two months after the fact, for a reply. Yesterday, I got one:

Hi Ed,

Sorry it's taken some time. There was delay in getting a consensus. And that
is: The Berlin piece doesn't work for us, I'm afraid. So I'm going to send
you a kill fee of 25%. Thanks in any case for your interest in Tracks.


[name deleted]

Now, if you're not a professional journalist, this may not seem strange to you, but let me parse this a bit so you can see why it made me (and several people I forwarded it to) so mad.

To begin with, it was his idea originally. I didn't suggest it, so the responsibility for the idea is his. Second, I have no idea what the words "there was a delay in getting a consensus" mean, but saying "The Berlin piece doesn't work for us" tells me exactly nothing. In what way? Can it, perhaps, be fixed? After all, it's a common courtesy to the writer to try at least one rewrite to bring something up to snuff. And it's not like I put everything I knew into the piece. It's hard to write about a place from inside it, because you always make assumptions about what people do and don't know. Had I, perhaps, done that? Was there a format I failed to follow? Did he think he knew something about the subject that I didn't touch on?

But no, he didn't want it made better, he wanted it to go away. There's no room for maneuvering in this situation, because it would appear that this guy is one of the editors writers dread most: the "I don't know what I want, but I'll know when you give it to me" kind. Most often, they make you do rewrite after rewrite and return comments like "this isn't quite right yet" or the like. Actually, given that tendency I got off easy here: I might have gone through three or four rewrites of what was a bad idea to start with only to come to the same place.

And here's another interesting thing. Nobody I know in the U.S. who isn't a rock journalist has ever heard of this magazine. It has apparently had no impact whatever. Little wonder: would you think a magazine with a picture of Sting on the cover was aimed at you? The rock journalists, though, are aware of it because it pays a dollar a word. Just for comparison, most of the music magazines I'm currently working for pay 10% of that. And now, with the dollar at an all-time low against the Euro, that's really not good news.

What's really sad is that there's a market for an intelligently-written music magazine with a diverse spectrum of music, new and old, being covered, aimed at an audience of people over 30 years old, the "fifty-quid man," as the Guardian put it in an article way back in March. These are the people who are driving the market, who are buying Mojo at whatever exorbitant import price it commands, and buying it a month late, at that, in most parts of the country. They also buy other significant things, like cars and computers and booze and other high-dollar advertising targets. If the best attempt to serve them is Tracks, then Mojo is going to own the market until someone comes up with competition for them.

And that's probably not about to happen. Right at the moment, I sense a real fear running through the media. Some of this is, of course, due to the repression being rained down on broadcast media by the current administration. Some of it is also doubtless the result of people waiting to see if there'll be regime change in twelve days. It's my guess that if Kerry prevails, there will be a gigantic exhalation of held breath and things will loosen up considerably -- including purse-strings. But right now is not the time to start anything, as far as the overall mood is concerned. Hell, there are too many people applying for passports and investigating expatriation in Canada and New Zealand. The idea that America might have a future would do us all some good.

Anyway, my main disappointment is that this article would have bought me at least a month's rent, and now that's not going to happen. And I was wrong in my last post: I have five cents, not four. And I have enough food to last me through tomorrow evening. After that, though, if there isn't any money around, I'm going to be fasting this weekend. Involuntarily.

1 comment:

Cyn said...

Aw, hell, Ed, I hate when that happens. Perhaps Alan *can* write, but you wouldn't know it from the Slate diary he did for Slate at SXSW. My friends (who've now cancelled their subscriptions) say that the communication is just as bad on the buying end, for what it's worth.