It seems like only months ago that we were gathered at the Lucha Lounge to celebrate the launch of Volume, ‘Street Press With Teeth’, as it was correctly billed. It seems like only months ago, because it was. 33 issues will be all that ever made it out into the world, before APN killed the project. I’m bummed out, partly because I wrote for every one of those issues and enjoyed doing so, but mainly because another good, ambitious magazine has fallen, instead of one of the more numerous appalling examples which still hang around this corner of the world.
I just freelanced for the magazine, so what I’m about to say is pure speculation, but having worked at music magazines in the past I feel like I have a reasonable understanding of the economics which underpin them. Which is to say that Volume fell because it didn’t make enough money. Well, duh. The cost of design and editorial staff, contributors, distribution and printing were not matched by the money coming in from advertisers.
That happens, and I don’t begrudge any business shutting down an arm which is losing money. I feel that a different sales team might have brought about a different result, and I think given the amount already invested in the publication to this point, you could have made a solid case for a couple of extra months with a different, properly engaged sales team. They didn’t, so we’ll never know if it could’ve broken even, or made a little money.
Sam Wicks has now had three magazines go down on his watch, none of which you could remotely say were his fault, but all of them are now pinned to his CV. Because he has this inhuman energy and drive I have no doubt he’ll get through this and build something great again – and credit to APN for holding on to him even as they shutter his magazine – but it’s a helluva thing to have to absorb mentally. All the worse because this was by far his best work yet. The design was perfect for the medium, the stock just the right kind of shitty, and the team of writers and photographers he put together for the most part really delivered.
If we’re apportioning blame, I wouldn’t lay it at the feet of the sales team, or APN, though I’m sure some will, and they maybe deserve a share. It’s advertisers, plain and simple, who need to own this, just as they do the sickly state of magazine publishing in New Zealand. I have to eat, write, and sometimes place ads in this town, so I’ll not name the magazines which persist despite sucking on every conceivable level, but you and I both know who I’m talking about.
One of them emailed me a link to story about Volume closing, with this accompanying commentary “Didnt even know why they started that!”. I responded – somewhat childishly I’ll allow – that I was saddened, loved the magazine and wrote for it every week. I was confident that would be the end of the correspondence, but received this further pearl of wisdom: “But still in the same as Real Groove in which the market cant pull advertising enough to pay for the printing?”
So I’m being an asshole here. People often write sloppily in emails. The problem is the magazine in question is generally full of similar glib ESL text, with pretty supplied pictures, pleasant design, and nothing of any substance to scare away an advertiser – no ‘teeth’, if you will.
And those are the magazines which are winning. I could reel off ten examples across a bunch of different markets. They get the prime spots at supermarkets. They are overflowing with advertisements for everything, and appear to be profitable from the outside – at the very least they are still publishing, and often expanding, which is more than can be said for many others.
The thing I find most depressing about the sentiment expressed above is that it confirms exactly the impression I get from these publications. That they were borne of a group of people sitting in a room, and saying ‘what do advertisers want?’, rather than ‘what do readers want?’. On a purely business level, good on them. But on a cultural level? That’s not how it should be done, surely. But increasingly that’s all we have left – great looking publications that advertisers feel safe in, that when they’re thumbed through give you all the right sensations. Just don’t read any of the copy. That’s not what they’re about.
As an aside – and it would be good if this gave advertisers pause – if you look at their numbers, their readership, they’re always weirdly low by comparison to other major publications, given how ubiquitous they appear to be. Readership was always a ludicrous statistic – more accurately it might be called ‘brand awareness’, because a magazine with a print run of 4,000 or so, of which maybe a quarter were actually sold, could regularly be in the 60,000 range. You do the math on that one.
I’m not saying I think that advertising in magazines is a bad idea – just that advertisers should think less about whether they ‘want to be in that space’ whatever the fuck that means, and more about whether the magazine is likely to be actually read, and enjoyed, rather than just thumbed through, leaving whoever held it utterly unchanged at the end of the experience.
Think about the magazines you love, or have loved. When they’re really good, it feels like the publisher, the editor, the designer, the contributors and the readers are all in sync, and the advertising which supports that great conversation is dragged along in the slipstream. Too often with New Zealand magazines it feels like they’re starting life as a collection of pages sold, and the editor just fills in some content in between those pages, often-times heavily influenced by them too. Which is to say that the hierarchy is entirely inverted.
I can understand how someone would want to do it that way – it has the potential to be lucrative, and money is fun to have around – I just can’t for the life of me figure out how any advertiser or reader would want to support a sickly enterprise of that nature.
Ultimately I might be wrong on all this. Maybe the research says that being in tacky, bland, empty magazines is actually really great and everyone wins and people enjoy reading mushy bullshit of no consequence*. But I hope not.
I hope that there’s a difference between a reader who just holds something, and one who actually looks forward to the experience. And that the reader who spends more time with a publication, and feels something for it beyond ‘magazine shaped object’ – those readers are more likely to pay attention to what is advertised in said publication than they do for what’s advertised in a publication they hold only fleetingly, and don’t care for at all.
People cared for Volume. You could see that from watching the response to its passing echo around social media, and the thoughtful responses which started to percolate out almost immediately. Russell Brown correctly noted that its web presence was a mess, and that certainly didn’t help matters. And you could argue that print media is basically done anyway, though I think we’re still a few years away from that being true. I personally feel like Volume could have found a niche if given the right time and support from its parent, given the tiny budget it required to stay afloat. But now we’ll never know.
Instead from next week there will be one fewer magazine with teeth around, and the proportion of pretty empty husks will be that little bit higher. Hopefully APN will give Sam a shot at something else – I feel like there’s a happy ending for that guy, for some reason, probably because he responds to the knocks so impressively. In the meantime, please stop touching those shitty magazines, and try something real. It won’t change anything, but the world will be a slightly less horrid place.
* I’ve written, and continue to write, my share of mushy bullshit of no consequence – like I said, I’ve got to eat – but I try and keep the proportion as low as possible, whereas those magazines have literally nothing else in them.