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Music Mag Anniversaries: The Stone and the Fork

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Friday, May 5, 2006

This year marks an anniversary for two important, dominant music publications, including a spate of articles to help commemorate this. 1000 issues ago, Jann Werner parlayed a loan from his then-girlfriend into a small San Fran publication which could barely sell any copies of its first print run but since then, even your parents have probably heard of Rolling Stone, even if you’re not particularly enamored of music. Ten years ago, Ryan Schreiber began Pitchfork Media with little more than scant free time and a need to tell the online world what he thought about music—your family probably hasn’t heard of him or Fork but anyone with any interest or inkling in indie rock knows exactly what it is. And needless to say, Stone and Fork are quite familiar with each other, both of them having a grudging respect for the other.
  
Articles covering the Fork anniversary include a Columbia Journalism Review story (Listen To This) and a Washington Post piece (Giving Indie Acts A Plug, or Pulling It). Both articles tell Schreiber’s story, the background of Fork and its/his rise to power and influence. I was interviewed for the CJR article but initially, it wasn’t about Pitchfork. The topic originally was music publications and their quality or lack thereof. A quote about Fork that I had made it into the final article but I was curious that instead of talking about this broader issue, it was narrowed down just to a Fork article. I definitely understand that publications insist that articles have ‘hooks’ or a timely piece of news to justify its existence (hence the Fork anniversary), but I was also impressed that the influence and reputation of Fork made it the final marker for what was worth discussing in terms of music journalism today.


Like the CJR article, the Washington Post article also follows Schreiber around to get an idea of what makes him tick. The reasoning is that once you know the honcho, you know the publication. I actually applaud this kind of thinking as too many times, writers for a paper/pub get hailed or more often damned for a piece without any thought about the fact that an editor approved or assigned a piece and then edited it.


What’s interesting about the Post piece is that it examines not only the type of writing found in Fork but also its immediate impact. For the writing itself, it’s over-the-top sometimes (many times if you like) but that’s the template/style and like it or not, it gets attention. A former editor insisted “reviews are written specifically to be quoted.” True or not, they’ve accomplished their mission. In ads as well as plastic labels slapped on CDs, you’re more and more likely to see a hyperbolic nod from Fork on any number of indie releases.


I found it kind of curious that no mention was made of the Beastie Boys incident though since that was quite a big deal and pretty recent. In June 2004, Brent DiCrescenzo’s review of their latest record was mostly a long complaint about how the band and the label blew him off. Their management flipped out and demanded a retraction and a printed response, which Fork agreed to, also using a different review for the album.


Another curious/regrettable thing about the Fork articles is that little/no mention is made of their news editor. Amy Phillips (a former staple at the Village Voice) took over recently and has done a great job with that section, which now gets quoted and linked to more than ever. For her trouble, she only gets a one-line quote in the CJR article, complaining about the new Coup album.


As for Stone articles, just like the Fork pieces, it’s all about the editor: The voice of America (The Guardian) and How Does It Feel? (again from the Washington Post).


Wenner’s heart-warming story of going from a kid with big dreams into a publishing jaugernaut is your archetypal, irrestible All-American story. Unlike Fork (so far at least), he also had the vision of turning RS into an empire. This means not only a slew of publications but savvy marketing and branding- for instance, getting serviced from Ticketmaster nowadays means not just access to shows and overpriced extras you have to pay for (handling fees?) but also a year-long subscription to RS.


The Stone articles makes light of Wenner recent coming-out and the fact that he’s turned 60 and STILL, he’s at the top of a media empire. A few quotes from former editors hint at his micro-micro-management approach which would topple writers and editors on a whim, not to mention his infamous ‘clean desk’ policy for his staff (which he’s proud of).


And then of course, there’s the ups and downs of the music industry which Stone did or didn’t catch. In its original San Fran base, it was well-equiped to write about the emerging West Coast scene and later the dominace of Cali rock in the ‘70s (chronicled in a recent Barney Hoskyns book). But though it did have reports of the London and New York punk scenes, they came a little late and seemed kind of begrudingly. Ditto with rap’s emergence in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And then there was the (in)famous 1985 “perception/reality” ad that was used to convince potential backers that Stone readers were upright yuppies instead of hopeless hippies. The mag took a hit for cred points but the ad bucks rolled in. Wenner figured out that the ‘60s were long gone and it was time to cultivate a different audience in Reagan’s new world.


And then there was the celeb factor. Even before buying up Us magazine, Wenner understood the power of celebrity, including profiles of not just pop stars but also movie and TV stars as part of the whole entertainment world coverage. But in 1993, a line seemed to be crossed when a “music special” came out with intereviews with PJ Harvey and Henry Rollins buried inside of the mag with Cindy Crawford featured on the cover. “What the hell does that have to do with music?” my then-roommate fumed. Evidently, a lot…


As the articles note, Stone has righted itself to some extent though don’t be too surprised if the next wave of boy bands that hit it big make it to the cover (after all, Stone is supposed to be chronicling pop culture). They’ve been giving better lip service to rap, which was inevitable since it became big business in the last decade and a half. Also, they’re listening to CDR’s/demos and picking “hot new bands” (getting into Fork territory). And as the Observer article notes, Stone’s still ahead of its competitors in terms of sales plus it’s left its old competitors in the dust, many of whom dried up and disappeared. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Wenner a smart guy who knows who to ride whatever current is blowing around the pop stratsophere at the moment.


Still, you can’t help but wonder if Wenner and Schreiber could or should learn something from each other. Stone sometimes tries too hard to cover the whole music spectrum and stumbles with its limitations—if you really want to know about rap or country, there’s obviously publications solely devoted to these styles where you’d wanna go first. Schreiber knows his audience and gives them what they want—indie, indie and more indie. What he’s slowly learning (and what Wenner has mastered) is the art of branding. While Fork reviews are used by labels as stamps of approval, these in turn strengthen Fork’s name and brand. Also, their recent annual concert series has an impressive line-up and just like last year, will likely steal some thunder from the Village Voice’s Siren Festival held around the same time. But where will (or can) Schreiber take Fork next? Will he build a media empire like Wenner? As one of the Stone articles notes, Wenner obviously can’t take his mag back to its scrappy roots as it remains the biggest dog in the music mag world. The question is that now that he’s at the top of the pile, where does he go? His other problem is that in that position, he’ll have to keep fighting to maintain it. Stone has slipped before and it will slip again but what would it look like in a post-Wenner world?

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