Probably the best independent music magazine when it came to championing alternative rock and punk music, Skyscraper Magazine ceased print publication in 2009 to focus instead on a digital online strategy. And whilst its website may have gone down since, to commemorate the passing of one of the last great independent music magazines, here is an interview which I conducted with one of the magazine’s founders 10 years ago. Enjoy!
Why only publish 4 issues a year?
The reason for not publishing more frequently was a pretty organic decision. Skyscraper was never a full-time occupation and so the combination of publishing a magazine as an unpaid, part-time “hobby” but also keeping the magazine at the size it was pretty much demanded we publish at that frequency.
Aside from publishing / advertising revenue, what other factors influenced your decision to stop publication?
The financial factors have always existed, to some extent, because the majority of our advertisers were independent labels and there was always a high turnover of advertisers each issue, meaning we didn’t have too many labels that consistently advertised in the magazine each issue. There was always a large number of new advertisers each issue, and so as the music business and then the general economy suffered the number of new advertisers decreased tremendously. The magazine never made much money from newsstand sales, once you factor in the costs associated with distribution there isn’t much profit margin there. But there were also personal decisions to stop publishing the print magazine at this time. This goes back to the fact that the magazine was an unpaid, part-time “hobby”. Everything has always been run by my brother Andrew and myself, so as our personal lives and careers have grown its been more difficult to keep up the day-to-day schedule of a print publication.
Have you ever envisaged getting extra help by taking on extra staff (such as interns etc)?
There are certainly tasks that we could’ve used extra help with, including interns (for the more menial office work) and an accountant/bookkeeper. But the magazine never made enough money to pay employees, including any kind of salary for Andrew or myself. That was a large reason for why all of the daily tasks got divided between Andrew and myself. We also work from our respective homes, with him in New York and me in Colorado, so without a true office it never made much sense to have interns. There were certainly people interested in such a position and they could’ve come in useful, but it only seemed logical to have interns if we had a work space they could operate out of.
How did you formulate ideas for your publication?
Andrew and I weren’t musicians and there was only so much we could do with a record label and no money, so our best contribution to the cause, if you will, was a zine. Starting up a zine gave us a way to get more involved in the community as well as simply keep our passion for hardcore/punk alive. We were never really satisfied just being passive consumers of entertainment, and we definitely came out of that DIY ethic where, if you’re not happy with how something’s done or if something’s missing, then you make it happen yourself. We didn’t have any grand ambitions for Skyscraper early on. Our focus was pretty narrow, mainly just on the hardcore punk scene (our first few issues had features on the likes of Avail, Botch, Converge, Still Life, Frodus, though we took some excursions with bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Dirty Three). We never saw Skyscraper as a job and we certainly never had a business plan or anything like that. We were just doing it for the love of it, for fun. The writing was done almost entirely by Andrew and I, but after a few issues our writing matured and we began to develop a signature style. We also expanded on the types of music we covered and started to pick up more outside contributors. Everything grew pretty naturally and we never had any master plan for the zine, it just slowly developed over those first couple years and after about Issue 6 we were pretty well-established and I think we began to really fill a niche.
On average, how much time goes into each issue?
There’s always the day-to-day of dealing with labels and publicists, just people following up about records they sent in. There’s also the business end of things like dealing with returns and payments from distributors, plus payments from advertisers. But the bulk of the work for a single issue probably takes up a month and a half. All the submissions need to be listened to and from that assignments for reviews and features are made. Photo assignments also need to be made for the features and coordinated with bands / labels. Once writers start submitting their assignments we have to format and proofread all the text before it goes into the copy-editing stage. At this time we’re also coordinating ads for the issue, cover artwork, page count and placement order, etc. We’re also working with distributors to get final orders for the issue and coordinating pricing and production timeline with the printer. Once all the materials (photos, ads) are in place and final edits are complete we start work on the design layout, which takes about two weeks. The issue then goes to the printer and that takes about two weeks, during which time we’re finalizing the shipping costs and preparing to send out the promotional mailings. Once the issue is in hand we get the promo mailing together (contributors, advertisers, publicists, plus subscribers). At that point we usually take a bit of a break, we still have the day-to-day work but we’ll take a month or so before we start looking hard at the next issue’s assignments and start the process over again.
What factors enabled a band to be featured in your magazine, and why did you tend to normally cover underground and obscure bands – as opposed to more mainstream artists?
Again there were never really set guidelines for the zine and that included how we decided on the bands we covered. Since the zine was essentially Andrew and myself, even after we had a large group of contributors, it was mostly based on our personal interests. After the first couple years I began to handle the business side of things and Andrew almost exclusively handled editorial, so at that point the music we covered was primarily based on what Andrew liked. Although it wasn’t necessarily conscious, this typically meant underground and obscure bands. He likes to discover new music, and that doesn’t mean “discover” the next big thing but simply try and get an understanding of what is out there that is really interesting and doing something different. We have covered mainstream artists like The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Dinosaur Jr., The White Stripes and Iggy Pop. But even though these artists might be on major labels and have varying degrees of commercial success, their roots are still in the indie music community and we either covered them early on in their careers or tried to take a new perspective with the features, they weren’t booked just so we could have a big name band on the cover.
What tips would you give on design in terms of layout, cover and fonts and typography. And do you handle all design duties yourself and what software packages would you recommend to others?
Graphic design/layout is the one job that we’ve hired an outside person for. Early on the design was done by myself and it was largely cut and paste, even though computers were used and it still had a clean, magazine style format (vs. a cut-and-paste, xeroxed fanzine) there were no design programs used to create it. But once the zine got more established and there was a higher page count we found a graphic designer to take on the task of layouts, and most recently I believe he used Adobe InDesign. The designer had a lot of liberty with the individual layouts, but the general format that we’ve used for years was more or less established by Andrew and myself and I’ve always served as the “art director” in the sense that I’ve been responsible for obtaining all the photos and artwork and selecting what images get used (though the graphic designer would choose where and how the images got placed in the layouts). Andrew was largely responsible for selecting and working with the cover artist each issue.
My tip is pretty much to keep it simple. We never liked magazine layouts that looked like an art student’s school assignment. Just because you can do something fancy with graphic design programs doesn’t mean you should. If a page is too busy or images are too altered it just doesn’t feel right. In some ways we might’ve kept our design too basic, like we almost never used band logos or non-photo artwork on feature layouts. But that is what worked for use, we liked a basic design that was pleasant to look at and easy to read. And as far as the cover artwork, each artist had a lot of freedom to do what they wanted. We obviously selected artists based on past work, so we had some idea of what they might do. And we would discuss certain things with them regarding the purpose of the artwork – it was a magazine cover, so there had to be a lot of space for the header, content listings, barcode, etc. It also couldn’t be an offensive image and rather understandable requests such as that. But otherwise we didn’t dictate anything such as “this is a spring issue, draw flowers.” We never did anything like that.
What paper stock do you use for the text and cover of the magazine?
This has varied slightly over the years. The biggest difference is that we printed sheetfed, heatset for quite a while before returning back to web, coldset printing. The former produces a much higher quality product, but it’s also very expensive. Most recently the cover stock was a 100# gusto satin and the text stock a 60# offset.
Why do you insist on making the magazine Black and White?
This was largely a cost decision, for us to print as many pages as we do, with such a low ad to content page ratio, the only real decision was B&W. We also used higher grade paper for both the cover and text than most color, glossy magazines. But after a while we also grew to appreciate the B&W format, there are certainly benefits to printing in color but we felt continuing to print in B&W kept us more of a fanzine than a full-blown magazine.
Why do you think the idea of the “fanzine” is romanticised in underground sub-cultures, and how do you think the fanzine can break out of its niche to become a more mainstream concern? With this in mind, how do you think the fanzine sits in our modern cultural framework?
I can’t honestly say whether the idea of fanzines is romanticized or not. For a long time we’ve sat on the fence between fanzine and magazine, so although we operated much like a magazine (printing, distribution, etc) it was always a two-man operation that had the most DIY foundation you could imagine. If the idea of the fanzine is romanticized I think that’s why. You have the ability to cover what you want, when you want, and how you want. There are no filters and no controls. You don’t need to concern yourself with what your editor thinks, or in some ways what your readers think. You’re not trying to compete with other magazines and be the first to cover this band or that band, or predict what the next trend in music is going to be. You exist to cover the music that you love. It’s as simple as that. And because of that it is difficult to break out of the niche you’re in and become a mainstream magazine. Once you become a consumer publication you are targeting the general reading public whether you want to admit it or not. You become concerned with what your advertisers think, you have to worry about how to maximize newsstand sales and increasing your subscription base. There is thought put into almost every aspect of the magazine. Even if you love a band, you have to consider whether they’re going to be the “next big thing”, whether it’s the hot release of the summer, etc. You are no longer simply producing something that you think others who share your interests will enjoy.
As far as how the fanzine sits in our modern cultural framework, that is a difficult question to answer. If you simply mean printed fanzines, there are very few of significance left. It’s almost impossible for them to survive. There may still be a few local music fanzines out there, but as far as regularly published and widely distributed fanzines there are only a handful of examples that I can think of. For the most part the fanzine has been replaced by the blog, and just like how many professional writers first used fanzines to get a start writing about music, blogs are now the stepping stone to either becoming professional writers for newspapers and magazines (or larger blogs / ezines) or to evolve that blog itself into a more professional online publication.
Also, with the advent of desktop publishing over the last 10 or so years there is often little difference between the appearance of a fanzine and consumer magazine, so the question becomes how do you define a “fanzine”. To answer this you might need to look more closely to how the zine operates, because if they are truly following that idea of covering their interests and not concerning themselves with the interests of their readers than they could sell 100,000 copies and still be considered a fanzine.
Who would you say was the target audience of Skyscraper Magazine, and how do you think it compared to other music magazines covering the same kind of music?
We never had a target audience in mind, but the most responsive readers always seemed to be “music geeks”. These were the people who truly immersed themselves in music and often ended up being musicians, record store clerks, publicists and label employees – people who tried to make a living off the music they loved. But also record collectors and others who simply loved discovering new, underground bands. I don’t know that this differed much from other music magazines that cover independent music, these same individuals certainly read more magazines than just Skyscraper. But one thing I think people really appreciated Skyscraper for was the longer, thoughtful interviews and more analytical reviews that we ran. This was definitely suited to the more diehard music fans than casual readers.
What advice would you give to those who are also thinking of launching their own print based magazine?
It will be harder than ever to launch a new print magazine. The avenues of revenue (advertising, newsstand sales) will continue to decline and the cost of production (printing, mailing) will only increase. To be relevant and find a niche you’ll really need to do something different. This could mean any number of things from being a genre-specific music magazine (many of these, such as No Depression, have folded and so there are some opportunities available) to the style of writing (much how Skyscraper differentiated itself). However, no matter what you do you will need to have a much better business plan and financing than the fanzines that started 10 years ago. The current economic climate and market conditions (i.e. state of the music industry) won’t allow a magazine to develop slowly; you will need to hit the ground running.
With the print edition folding, and with the magazine evolving into an online presence, do you have any plans for expanding the scope of Skyscraper (such as podcasts, printed books etc) and will you be introducing services that will help engender a sense of community on the site (such as social networking etc)?
The website will be utilizing the online community a great deal. The site isn’t fully developed and I can’t reveal all of our plans, but there will be many multimedia sections and user functions that will allow site visitors to contribute or otherwise take part in the magazine. We want to try and be a pioneer, if that is still possible, in how an online magazine can use every available option to engage the user and allow their voice to be heard while still maintaining our unique identity (i.e. not just an internet forum). As far as books, that is an interesting idea but it’s not likely. We wouldn’t be able to finance it ourselves, but if a publisher approached us with a good idea we would explore it. There have already been people that have suggested just the Skyscraper covers could be put together into a book or gallery showing. And there have obviously been other fanzines, such as Punk Planet, that compiled many of their interviews and features into a book, and Skyscraper would certainly be a candidate for something like that because we’ve run so many lengthy pieces that could probably still hold up today. But that isn’t something we’re really thinking about right now.
What steps are you taking to secure content for the website?
The online version of Skyscraper will continue to work with many of the writers and photographers that contributed to the print version, therefore the steps to secure content won’t change much. We may look to pick up some new writers and possibly a couple section editors, but overall the process of selecting and assigning content for the website will not be much different than the print zine. However, the website will have several new sections we never covered in the print zine, including the use of multimedia, and so we will be securing some forms of content that are new to us.
Finally, what would you say is the proudest thing you have ever achieved with Skyscaper, and where do you see yourselves going from here?
Just in general I’m proud of what Skyscraper has accomplished, and I feel the magazine established a much-needed niche in a media landscape that was interested more in style than substance. The fact that we started Skyscraper with no clue as to what we were doing and no idea of where it might go, I believe Skyscraper was a huge success. Just the fact that we lasted 11 years and found an audience of readers that had an overwhelmingly positive response to what we were doing is something that I’ll never forget. That said, the end of the print zine does not mean we’re disappearing. The format will change but otherwise I think people will find the same things they liked about the print version in the online version. The writing won’t change, if anything the new format will lift any restrictions we had on the length of pieces and so those longer, thoughtful interviews and analytical reviews may gain even more depth than before. We’re simply moving online and hopefully Skyscraper can continue for many more years in this new medium.