Some Thoughts On Volume

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.

30 Comments

  1. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Great piece, Duncan. I loved this line: “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.” This has been key to my argument for advertising support of various failed ventures over the years – it’s the QUALITY of the reading experience that matters, and it’s tragic that advertisers can’t see the point of being an environment that isn’t entirely superficial. You’re also right on the ball about those “successful” magazines that nobody actually readers. I’m not exactly Volume’s target market, but I thought it had real chutzpah, a real point of difference in its approach to pop culture, and it is a loss.

  2. Stephen says:

    “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.”

    cf. popular music.
    cf. mainstream film.
    cf. successful tv shows

    I have some bad news for you :(

    • Duncan says:

      Agree re mainstream film, for the most part. But successful TV shows and popular music? They bring it way more often than they have any right to. Esp TV.

    • stephen says:

      I was thinking of like, Justin Bieber and reality tv. But ymmv ;)

    • matthew says:

      that new bieber is HOT

  3. Chris Walker says:

    Volume was the first magazine NZ music magazine for decades that I have looked forward to reading each week. In tone and quality it reminded of Rip It Up back in the days when it was a free weekly. Sometimes I take a look at the two monthly music mags but it never comes to anything more than a disappointing flick through the pages.

  4. Sorry to be a pain, Duncan, but Volume was a mess. I insisted on picking up a copy every week because, as a music journalist, it’s important to support your ilk. But I found myself discarding the rag immediately after reading, for two reasons. 1) really, really poor Editorial decisions: interviews with bands that nobody had heard of, consistently disappearing in to its own format and comfortable normality (read: journos with their heads so far up each others’ arses), and minuscule coverage of artists and groups that stride the line between independent and popular. And 2) a fundamental misunderstanding of their market. APN is a massive publisher, and they ought to have understood better where the audience was (within that ‘popular indie’ category). This idea of blaming the Sales team is pants because the advertisers are only as good as the content, and vice versa. Look at something like Monocle, for example. That magazine strikes a chord between fantastic content and fantastic ads (yes they do exist), and there is zero reason why this cannot happen in a market as small as NZ, aside from editorial and advertorial laziness.

  5. Duncan says:

    You’re not being a pain, James, this was intended to elicit comment, so I appreciate that. But as far as ‘bands nobody had heard of goes’ – firstly I had heard of most of them, and I’m not all that plugged in any more, and secondly, are you only curious about things you’ve already heard of? Shouldn’t music magazines introduce you to new things you might have missed?
    I wish there were more groups that ‘stride the line between independent and popular’, but I’m permanently scratching to think of more than a handful, and it’s a weekly.
    And as far as ‘blaming the sales team’ goes, is that what I did? Really?
    Lastly, every issue of Monocle I’ve read has been a disappointment – to me it’s a highbrow version of the un-named magazines above. So in love with its lifestyle and design that it forgot to pack any content of consequence. Some good stuff, but so much drivel. It’s like The Economist for Cunts, you know?

  6. Hussein Moses says:

    Are you still writing for Groove Guide, James?

  7. What a well written and accurate piece. I definitely picked up Volume religiously, and am sad to see it go. With all the CPM/measurable response blah blah it seems way too easy to forget how rad it is to have a stack of magazines tucked under the coffee table ten years down the track. Ah well.

  8. monocle invented that cool trend of taking photos of shoes and folded clothes next to a suitcase says:

    omg you read monocle? what an Upmarket Gentleman

  9. I dunno, sometimes the co-existence of non-shitty media and non-shitty ads can happen. bFM, I guess?

  10. I liked a lot of what I saw in Volume. I thought the local focus was excellent -back to the good old days when every main centre had ‘music news’ that actually talked about local bands, how novel! The Photography and design was eye-catching a colourful, really giving the mag some real visual oomph.

    Wasn’t so sure about the focus on old school bands / reliving old gigs (The Clash, New Order, The Damned, Sonics etc), but that had its place and helped to connect some older readers…

    I did feel at times the reviews lacked substance and some of the bite the mag was supposed to be pushing – Volume didn’t really dedicate a lot of copy to new music… I still remember Brother Love and Duane Zarakov’s reviews back in the 90s, and see Mark Prindle and Lester Bangs’ approaches as the high-water mark for entertaining music criticism…

  11. Does anybody know what Andrew Palmer did after Real Groove?

    • Yes he went into adult magazines and currently works NZX.
      You might argue that adult mags are suffering from the same fate as music mags but I guess no one really notices advertorial in an adult mag right?

    • Stephen says:

      Haha god that’s right, he started Brass or something awful…

  12. matthew says:

    uh. monocle is pretty much what duncan said, with a hearty dose of advertorial content. advertorial for really expensive shit, but advertorial no less.
    judgements of quality aside though, they’re really not comparable at all.volume is (or was) free weekly music street press, monocle is a 300~ page magazine that comes out 10x a year and costs around fifteen buck. smh if u think they have access to the same resources. finally, volume’s advertising was predominantly music-related,which made sense, as it’s a music magazine. monocle has ads for louis bags and rolexes because it’s a magazine for pseudo-bougie clowns

  13. Benjamin says:

    I agree it had some shortcomings, but I will miss Volume as a weekly, what I’m really amping for is a good reviews mag, volume never did it justice, all i want is album reviews, gig reviews, and people I can trust as reviewers, not reprints of press releases. guess I’ll have to venture into this internet thing all the kids are talking about…sigh

  14. Kelly says:

    I adore this magazine and look forward to it each week, every part of it is gold. Craccum’s turned to crap this past year and to be down another free street press magazine is a real bummer to me. I can’t justify spending money on magazines and there seems to be just as many ads in something you pay for.
    So farewell, little bundle of joy, I’ve been with you since the second issue finding you in the back of Sals. I’ve kept every copy since then, including that first grease covered copy.

  15. Rachel says:

    I can’t believe monocle has entered this discussion. What a boring magazine.

    RIP Volume. I will miss you.

  16. sigrid says:

    magazines suck

  17. Benjii says:

    “[...]really, really poor Editorial decisions: interviews with bands that nobody had heard of, consistently disappearing in to its own format and comfortable normality (read: journos with their heads so far up each others’ arses), and minuscule coverage of artists and groups that stride the line between independent and popular”
    __

    You had Time Out, a NZ Herald supplement for that. You’ve had that for a while. It was an alternative street press for a reason – it was left of center to help those bands “nobody had heard of” into bands that, as you mentioned, stride the line between independent and popular… that in time would be picked up by the likes of Messrs Steel, Smithies and Bollinger.

    Given there has been this argument for a while now also of a media outlet that acts as a platform between “underground” (however you would perceive that) and “mainstream”, such is the argument of having a “yoof” based radio station in New Zealand, Volume was becoming just that; a haunt for lesser-established bands to step up to the plate.

  18. I also thought Volume was great and will miss it. As a reader I also prefer great content to advertorial.

    However, I think your analysis Duncan is over simplified.

    A magazine like Volume is obviously most attractive to music industry advertisers – especially of the ‘indie’ variety (ie like me). But the fact is there is very little or no money in the music business to afford to actually spend much (or anything) on advertising. If you are a record label no-one buys music now – they download it for free. If you are a promoter touring artists is not cheap – especially as artists charge higher fees now because need to make all their money from touring (because they aren’t selling any records) and because everyone wants to tour bands now (because no-one buys records) so there are more bands touring than ever before. I know this because I do all these things.

    I’m not saying illegal downloading etc is the cause of the demise of Volume. But there there are multiple factors and saying it is the sales team or advertisers is too simple.

    As someone who would have LIKED to advertise in Volume more than I did I would rather not have the finger pointed my way – especially as I also thought Volume was a great read.

    • Duncan says:

      Sorry Ben, I should have made it clear – this was never, ever about music industry advertisers. Truly, it’s about ‘lifestyle’ brands which the internet hasn’t touched. Beer, and shoes, and clothes, and ISPs, and cellphone companies, and fast food outlets, and anyone who wants to touch the engaged under-35 market. Volume were really good to deal with, had creative ideas, were open to collaborating. But media buyers (who are probably a large chunk of the real problem) on the whole just like it easy, and like big numbers. I once DJed an Axis Media Buying Awards (yes, they actually exist), and I’ve never seen a more obnoxious group of people gathered in one place in my life. The proportion of ego to talent/worth was at a greater disproportion than you’d ever want to see.
      Sorry if that wasn’t clear from the piece. I’m shiocked whenever anyone in the music industry has money to be honest, you guys never crossed my mind as the absentee advertisers.

  19. Ben Howe says:

    Cheers Duncan, all good and I actually thought you may have meant that – but just said the above to make sure!

    • Duncan says:

      I should also clarify – the internet has touched every industry, so all of those guys I mentioned are heavily impacted by it. But they remain, for the most part robust and profitable, and remain big print advertisers – not something you could say for much of the music industry.

  20. James Donaldson says:

    I will truly miss this street press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>