Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Death In The Family And (Maybe) Some Hope

Last year, the United States Postal Service, working with Warners and Murdoch and other media giants, pushed through new second-class postage rates. Hardly a sexy issue to protest, what with the war in Iraq, the collapse of the U.S. economy, the destruction of the Constitution, and the sabre-rattling against Iran, so it may have escaped your notice.

It sure didn't escape mine: as someone who's worked with magazines my whole life, second-class postage is a big, big deal. It's the mechanism which allows you to send your print-run to your subscribers for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to mail them first class, and it carries a bunch of restrictions: you've only got a couple of days to get your magazines out, for one thing, and missing a couple of those deadlines means you lose your second-class license.

The new rates, though, were bizarre: the more magazines you shipped, the less each unit cost, and smaller-circulation magazines were burdened with unreasonably higher per-unit costs, instead of everyone paying the same rate. But that's what happens when you allow big business to write the laws.

And on Tuesday, the fallout began. I don't know what Resonance was all about -- the avant-garde of the pop spectrum, I suspect from a cursory glance -- but its editor circulated a letter saying the current issue, which it couldn't even afford to print, would be its last.

But they weren't alone. On the same day, No Depression, a magazine I have read since its first issue and contributed to for years, also announced that it was calling it quits. Many of the same reasons Resonance mentioned were there: cost of paper, declining ad revenues, and, dammit, that second-class postage hike.

Now, I think this is a tragedy from a number of aspects, and not just because of the loss of income and ability to write stuff which pleases me. As No Depression co-editor Grant Alden notes on his blog, "it's important to provide homes for magazines which offer up ideas, for we need an informed democracy if we're to continue having anything which resembles a democracy." He's talking about Wal-Mart's decision to pare back the number of titles they sell, but the "homes" of which he speaks are also the homes of people who subscribe to magazines which espouse unpopular ideas or champion minority cultures, which both Resonance and No Depression did. It's simplistic and obvious to say it, but if print media becomes reduced to People and Rolling Stone, then America is doomed to unspeakable mediocrity.

Oh, but people are reading all kinds of stuff on the web! Yeah, well. I'm a paper guy (and it's worth noting that the price of paper, too, is helping run these magazines out of business). I just can't stare at a screen all day, and I can say that with some degree of certainty because I do stare at a screen all day these days, and have for a number of years. You can read on your laptop on the train, maybe, and if your battery holds out, you can read on it for some of a transatlantic or crosscountry flight, but...why? Why lug a thousand-dollar machine when you can spend a couple of bucks for something you can fold up, or throw out, or clip stuff out of? And I'm no eye doctor, but I suspect the way the eye handles light makes print a healthier alternative. I know that I had excellent eyesight until I started using a computer, and now I use glasses when I read or write. Some of that is aging, but I think some of it is staring at screens.

But beyond the medium -- although that's a crucial part of this story -- is the ability to disseminate ideas. Never have there been more ideas, and more need to spread them to receptive people. The current Bush presidency has resulted in most of the world becoming a counter-culture, a paradox only if you equate that term with being a minority. Most of these counter-cultures have nothing in common except their rejection of the way the world is going, and a lot of them -- radical Islam comes to mind -- are hardly constructive.

No Depression did its little bit. It started shortly after I moved here, and early on co-editor Peter Blackstock, whom I'd known in Austin, visited and stayed with me while on a story about the Walkabouts, an American band far more popular in Germany than at home. Its focus was clear, although back then it didn't have a name, really, but eventually (the music business must have labels!) someone (not on the ND side of things) decided it would be known as "Americana," which was a loaded term if there ever was one. But...there was an extent to which it made sense: if the musicians and performers (and writers and filmmakers) it covered had any commonality at all it was in their examination of the roots of American folk and folk-derived culture, which culture included country music, although in recent years the magazine took a salutary turn in beginning to investigate lesser-known African-American traditions (neglected soul singers, gospel) in its pages.

And, as those of us who lived through the great Folk Scare of the '60s realized, it's hard to dig into those traditions without uncovering some political content, some of which can come as a shock, especially to a generation that became conscious of the wider world during the Reagan years -- a generation which was ND's base. Learning that America had had a Left, that the labor unions once were opponents of, rather than collaborators with, their employers -- these were shocks, especially when an individual found the ideas resonating with half-formed suspicions of the way the world worked and not-quite-articulated ideas about why things weren't right. But making those connections, as a lot of the magazine's readers did, made these young people stronger once it dawned on them that they were part of a chain stretching back decades. Nobody likes to re-invent the wheel, after all.

During the dozen years of ND's existence, it helped give birth to a cultural change which I -- and lots of other people -- believe is just around the corner. Oh, George Bush helped, no doubt about that, and so did the Internet, and probably Paris Hilton did, too, pushing the culture of celebrity into such a caricature of itself that its seams became all too obvious. But for people who live in America, and are invested in its future (as all of us, Americans or not, are, by dint of the country's size and position in the world), and are aware of and in some cases participating in its culture, this continuity with the past, which is so easily forgotten in the onrush of the Now, has become precious. After all, the Constitution the current administration has savaged is no less a part of the cultural fabric as the odd banjo-playing musician Dock Boggs.

And -- funny I should think of him. Because he's been in my thoughts recently, too.

Last week, I got a phone call from a friend in Philadelphia I hadn't heard from in far too long. She was alerting me that a guy named Sam Amidon, whom I'd last seen years ago when he was a teenager on a ramble though Europe, and is the son of friends of hers in Vermont, was going to be playing a gig in Berlin last Sunday. Sam as a teenager was frighteningly smart, a fiddler who was also studying with Leroy Jenkins, the free-jazz violinist whose work I loved, and a kid with a lot of exciting potential. Now he was performing, had a MySpace page and a website, and was going to do a show at a place I'd never heard of in Kreuzberg. I had to go.

Oh, and did I mention that Sam's parents are folksingers?

So off I went, through the mobs of excited Albanians (and who knew there were so many of them in Berlin?) celebrating Kosovo's independence, and rang a doorbell on a nondescript apartment building. Buzzed in, I found a freestanding house in the Hinterhof, in which the downstairs was filled with 20-somethings talking and listening to a copy of The Lily Brothers With Don Stover, a fairly crucial document of the aforementioned Folk Scare. Sam found me, we caught up briefly, and pretty soon, everyone filed upstairs, where there were some chairs and stools.

When Sam finally was ready, he said something memorable: "I don't write songs. I don't know how to write songs. So these are some traditional songs I know." Already I was impressed: if there's anything that the masses of CDs I'd gotten over the years thanks to being listed as a contributor on No Depression's website had taught me, it's that there are way too many people writing way too many songs that don't matter at all.

Not that he performed them traditionally. No, his show would have given most old folkies hives; I watched one older couple, one of whom has an Americana-oriented show on local radio, stalk out halfway through. But since I knew about his connection to American avant-garde music as well as his connection to folk music, I was entranced. So were the young people, his peers, who were watching. Many of them, I suspect, were Americans attracted by hip! edgy! Berlin. Others were Germans attracted to American culture. It was great.

After the show, I hung around some, talking to the woman who'd organized the show, which was part of a series of "house concerts" (she and her husband live in this house) she'd been putting on each Sunday for a few months. Hmm, I thought, this is an article for No Depression. Or maybe Sam is. I'll have to contact Peter and Grant once I'm through with this guidebook-writing project that's eaten up all my time (and is the reason I haven't been able to blog for most of this month).

But before I could do that, I got the bad news.

It's not at total tragedy. I think there's more where Sam came from. Not a lot of them are like him, except in their commitment to exploring American traditions. And, I think, the rise in support for Barack Obama is not unrelated to this, the feeling, which I perceive in a wide spectrum of Americans, that not only political change, but cultural change, is in the air. In speaking of this, I feel like I'm in the presence of a baby: fragile, easily damaged, at risk of infection. But babies grow up quickly, and small rockslides sometimes turn into avalanches. Sometimes.

And I think that, in its not-so-modest way, No Depression has played its part in this. I'm honored to have brought my old-guy, Folk Scare-era perceptions to its pages over the years of its existence, and happy they thought them worth seeking out and encouraging. I'm sorry that the institution won't survive to see this if it happens, but I scarcely think Peter and Grant are going to just slink away. Grant wrote me this week that he's going to keep blogging, because "it may be my only writing outlet for a while." I know the feeling.

Sam gave me a copy of his new record at the gig. It's dedicated to Dock Boggs. A tiny thing to hang on to, maybe, but in times when I have so very little else to be optimistic about, I'd like to ask you to allow me this possibly impossible shard of optimism.


Anonymous said...

Just so say this in his sandbox, I have been honored to have Ed write for me. For us.

I love the essay (as form), the thinking it takes, and the writing that goes into it once the thinking is half-done.

And I hate the idea that we're now meant to communicate in text message-sound bites.

What Ed wrote is one more reminder to me that piles of words add up to something.

If only we could eat them.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for this beautiful piece. I can't say how much ND meant for me in the past 10 years, most of my musical discoveries are directly related to pieces I read there. Hell, you can even see me out wearing a ND basecap at times (BTW, in all these years I'm wearing at here in Berlin, only two people seemd to recognize the mag...)

I pray that this transition we're all in is for the better, but it's bitter to see that it won't come for free.

Ben said...

Great, poetic obituary for a magazine that was probably more important to me than any other I can think of. It gave me serious heartache to hear of its demise this week. OK, so I've drifted from my fandom since coming to Berlin in 2000, but in the late 90s Gen Xers like me were discovering and perpetuating that strange beautiful subcultural America that Greil Marcus is always on about. I discovered so much fantastic music from ND: Handsome Family, Jayhawks, Lucinda, Son Volt, BR549, Wilco, Palace, Old 97s, Whiskeytown (pre solo Ryan Adams), Richard Buckner, etc, to say nothing of Cash, Carter, Owens, Nelson, Haggard and Rogers. On and on. So-called Americana makes me appreciate and understand (love?) my damn country even (especially?) when it looks like it's gone to the dogs long ago.

Anyway, thanks for this. Paragraph 8 was the best thing I read all day, posssibly all week. I realise now that I bought a lot of records in 1996-99 thanks to your reviews. May the circle be unbroken, or something.

Anonymous said...

I was a big ND fan as well but there is change in the publishing industry and even those of us who had their eyesight ruined by computers need to admit it and adapt. Were we 20 years younger today, we would get all our music info from Pitchfork, certain blogs and band websites.

I have trouble bemoaning the Internet, it's made my job as a journalist infinitely easier and my contracts today come from around the world, almost exclusively from people I will never meet personally (which, admittedly, I hate).

But I will miss ND too.

Peter Blackstock said...

I have trouble bemoaning the Internet, it's made my job as a journalist infinitely easier

There is certainly an irony here, because it must be noted that ND almost certainly would not have been launched in the first place if not for the internet.

It was actually sort of proto-internet at the time -- specifically, a discussion-board on AOL (which had what might be described as "intranet" communities back then, ones in which you had to be on AOL to participate). The magazine launched in 1995 in part because of the galvanization that took part on one of those AOL message-boards in 1994.

And also -- this is worth remembering -- because it had become far easier to collect articles from dozens for writers simply via the advent of e-mail. I guess The Bob and Option and other cool indie music publications in the '80s (and others before them) were able to make everything work via mailed and faxed copy, but I sure wouldn't have wanted to deal with the pain of all that, and frankly I'm not sure I would have. E-mail was really the trigger-point, as I see it; but there's certainly a big jump between what's viable with e-mail and what's viable with a website. And the full extensions of the latter are ultimately prone to cancel out those of the former, it would seem. Or that has been my experience, anyway.

As for "we would get all our music info from Pitchfork" -- you have a point in terms of form, but that's also a significant alarm-bell in terms of substance. Which is to say, Pitchfork has the technology quite right (thus their overwhelming success in terms of readership), but they have the content all wrong (thus the overwhelmingly poor quality of their journalism).

What remains to be seen is just how possible it is to do GOOD journalism on the web. And, of course the heart of the matter, whether you can actually make enough money on it to SUSTAIN doing it. Good journalism takes time, and if you have to work 40 hours a week doing something else just to support your ability to do that "good journalism" website you envisioned, it won't really end up being what you had in mind, I'm afraid.

We managed that balance for about a decade with ND's print edition, though it's worth remembering that it took two or three years to get there in the first place. Perhaps we can do the same with the web, and perhaps it'll be a similar incubation period. Or, perhaps it's simply not possible to draw a parallel between print-journalism and web-journalism; surfing the net (and especially the blogosphere), the conclusion I seem to come to is that there are actually more differences than similarities between print-journalism and web-journalism. Whatever we may be trying to do with ND on the web feels significant less like a transition or adaptation than it does a full-scale reinvention. We're trying to pull the same community along, but it's a far different matter than just putting a different skin on the same body.

Just thinking aloud here, folks. Thanks for providing a forum for doing so, Ed....

Katchita said...

In 1999, living in Nicaragua, was the first time I tried (and nearly) succeeded in ridding my life of paper. It's not that I don't like curling up with a book or newspaper as much as the next addicted reader. But it's a necessary decision to protect limited resources and the environment, and even one that I actively try to engender in the younger generation. For now, when I curl up with my laptop in bed, if I prop myself up right, at least it keeps my legs warm during cold Berlin winters.

Anonymous said...

In the case of a niche magazine like this with a dedicated following, I am puzzled as to why simply raising the sale price was not an option: at $20 /year there would seem to be ample room! Likewise being carried by WalMart was probably neither here nor there, as a success factor. And, last but not least, I am sure a lot of people would not mind buying a PDF edition, or even for access to a paying website.

In other words I may be insensitive but I don't see this as the end of the world. You can probably soldier on just fine, albeit in a different form.

Ed Ward said...

Olivier, I think the PDF idea is great, but you need to check the reasons for the magazine's demise again. It wasn't WalMart at all (and I think Grant even said so, while bemoaning the lack of exposure for all minority-viewpoint magazines, not just his), but, rather, the decline of ad dollars.

And it's not my decision to soldier on, it's theirs, and they're trying to figure out how to do it as I type these words. Unfortunately, their days as a place to write for pay look to be over.

Anonymous said...

Ed, Actually when I wrote "you" I was replying to Peter and yes I understand it was an ad revenue shortfall that caused them to keel over but I am still surprised. Junk mags that nobody would pay for if they weren't so cheap need advertisement but quality publications? To name but a few, the TLS, the LRB, the NYRB, CounterPunch, The American Conservative, The Nation, Mother Jones and many, many more have fee-paying digital editions and carry very little advertisement, so it has to be possible.

I am not a publishing industry insider, so I wouldn't want to put my foot in my mouth, but I do get the impression that many publications used the ad financing model just because it was there and (until recently) it worked. That doesn't make it the only possible model.