Last weekend, I had the chance to sit down with Alternative Press’s editor-in-chief at their Cleveland HQ. Jason Pettigrew was a staff writer and editor for the magazine from 1986 to 2000 and became AP’s editor-in-chief right after that. He is a writer and editor but he is also, and maybe primarily, a music fan. Here is the transcript of the interview that I conducted with him on the magazine itself, their relation with bands and fans, and the future of music journalism.
It has been a pretty busy week from what I’ve heard, the AP tour has just started….
Yes, the AP tour has just started as well as South By Southwest. There are a lot of stories that need to be dealt with. I had problems with writers trying to get to their destinations this week, it was a lot of fun.
Was it really fun or was it busy and nerve-wracking?
Well I mean, I like the work, I’m just so used to it. At this point, it’s truly part of the process. A lot of people would say, “Oh you work at a music magazine, it’s so glamorous, you can sit around and you listen to music all day”. Yeah, that’s what I’m doing in your head! In reality, I’m busy wondering why the hotel won’t give my writer a room and stuff like that.
So, you began writing for AP in 1986, at the very beginning…
Yes, I think it was about 1986. I think the first thing I did was a scene report from Pittsburgh.
How was writing for the magazine at its very beginning, without your actual level of notoriety and without the Internet?
It was really exciting and cool. Mike Shea was into a lot of different music. He was into all the cool British stuff like New Order, Joy Division and stuff like that. He was into electronic dance music and he was also into hardcore punk. So he was like, “why can’t we just unite all of this stuff? Why can’t there be something where I can find out about all of this stuff?” Because it was not what MTV was cramming down our throats, this horrible classic rock or horrible brutal metal. That was the rationale behind the idea that he had. It was exciting because there was a lot of things happening.
At the beginning you already covered bands like Jane’s Addiction or Nirvana, who blew up after that. How did a small indie magazine from Cleveland manage to get those bands?
I think the reason why we were able to get that was because nobody else at that time was doing what we were doing. There was one magazine that was really cool called Trouser Press. But they didn’t really cover a lot of the hardcore and punk stuff. So, we were taking a lot of our cues from the British newsweeklies like NME and Melody Maker. I think we were able to get those types of artist at that time because I don’t think there was a forum that was created for that kind of stuff. And then, when Nirvana hit and pretty much killed that whole performer metal thing, I think we were the first ones to get them on the cover and that kind of solidified that thing.
Good Charlotte were in Cleveland a week ago and during their set, they dedicated a song to AP. How do you establish these kinds of close relationships with bands and how do you manage to keep them?
As far as maintaining relationships with people, I think you want to tell their story right without sensationalizing it, but you have to be fearless. If you know band X who has a really charismatic singer and everybody loves him, but he’s completely terrified or has massive stage fright and need to drink a bottle of Jack Daniel’s before he goes on, that’s part of the story. But you don’t want to do the whole “On the Inside, the Horrible” story. That’s TMZ. You honor people’s stories and try to get to the greater essence to what they’re about. As far as relationships with people, there are people who have been on the cover of our magazine that I hope I’ll never have to deal with ever again in my life.
Can we have names?
No! Some of my blow ups and some of Alternative Press’s blow ups have been pretty public. But, I don’t want to give anybody any more free publicity. There are people who publicly, on the Internet, made their disdain for Alternative Press public. I’m sure you can think of at least two… […]
What is your thing in music?
My thing? Obnoxious noise. Seriously, it’s noise. There is a British gentleman by the name of Russell Haswell who just recently put out a live record of him essentially making noise. My problem is that I like too much. Right now, I love the new Battles record which isn’t coming out until June but I’ve been rocking out that one severely. Also a band called Twin Kranes. I really like them. But I like a lot of different stuff, that’s my problem. That’s why my wife sometimes hates me. In my position I will still get a lot of CDs for review consideration but the problem is that all the other weird stuff, I have to go out and seek it out so I’m still running on 500 dollars a month on records.
Does AP have any favorite bands to cover and talk about?
Favorites? No, we don’t play favorites. I don’t think we owe anybody. We had a nasty bust-up with Good Charlotte, they were on the cover several times and they released that album, what was it, Good Morning Revival? Not a good record. And the guy who wrote the review was the guy who wrote their previous cover stories so he knew the guys. He gave it a two out of five because it was just a bad record. Their response to it was like, “fuck you Alternative Press!” so it was kind of an over-reaction. There are only a few people I’ve dealt with who truly, genuinely understand that whole writer-subject dynamic. And they know that If I’m going to do a story, me or any of my freelancers, they want honesty and they want the truth, so they’re not going to hide from anything. If I go into a restaurant with Gerard Way and I say, “Dude, you live in the Hollywood hills, you’ve got a fabulous wife as your soul-mate, you have a child, sports cars in your garage, you have all this stuff, how could you be considered punk in the slightest?” And he will answer me, he won’t get really indignant of me. He will casually size up the question, and tell me straight out. A lot of guys, they need to back-pedal when somebody actually asks them a straight question.
So, you can cover bands whom you don’t appreciate as people and also don’t put bands that you like a lot on the cover?
Well, I mean we cover bands that mean something to this particular culture. If there is one band who’s like, really popular within the whole contemporary punk (or “music played really fast with loud guitars”) thing but they don’t want to [reveal their story], does that mean that we just ignore them entirely? No, we will certainly review the records and all that. I want to do things that interest people. On the other hand there’s also the reminder that this is a business so you have to sell magazines. So you have to reconcile that this is a business and you need to be successful in the marketplace. Hopefully, there’s a niche where you can actually do both things. It’s kind of tough to do twelve times a year but I think we do a pretty good job.
Do you listen to what fans say?
Absolutely. Probably more so than any other magazines. We’re very much fan-conscious with Twitter, Facebook, our website’s message board and all that. We read every legible letter, every “I hate you Alternative Press” thing to understand how to respond to certain things.
For example, for the January issue, you had Never Shout Never on the cover because he was readers’ artist of the year. If it was AP’s favorite band would you have put something else on the cover?
If it was AP’s favorite band? I don’t know because frankly, you’ve got four editors here who have really strong opinions about stuff and you also have the guy who signs all their pay checks who also has an opinion and his opinion counts as two! We want to do good and interesting things but there’s also the reminder that you have to keep the lights on. Is there a band that we put on the cover simply because we thought they were great? Yeah, that has happened several times, and it came back to bite us later, “Hey, nice call dude, you killed four forests of trees for nothing.” We’re trying to reconcile all that stuff.
So, the AP tour has just started. How do you choose the bands who go on the AP tour?
We all get into a small room, with steak knives, and the last person to walk out of the room standing up gets his choices.
Ha ha! Is it that hard?
It feels like it. Because the thing is that with that issue, you want to make a statement like: this is what everybody is into; here is somebody that’s on something so let’s push them over; here’s a band who’s kind of new and upstart but you should check this out as well. You obviously want a decent package that people want. And number two, they’re gonna learn something from it like, “Oh I saw a band accidentally on the AP tour and they were really good, I’ve never heard of them before,” or “I really hate their record but they were really good live.” We just want somebody to get something out of it that would hopefully somehow enrich their leisure time.
What’s your personal opinion on the bands who are on this AP tour?
I haven’t seen I See Stars live but I have a friend of mine who did and said he was really impressed by them because of the whole pop thing but with more charging to it. I haven’t seen D.R.U.G.S yet. I saw Black Veil Brides, it was a spectacle. It was like the Mötley Crüe aesthetic with a lot more charging, metal-core type thing. Versa Emerge I think they’re a great pop band.
In the 80’s, the alternative rock scene that you covered was mainly punk. Then it involved to mainly grunge or pop-punk and all that stuff. So, what type of music does AP cover now? Do you see a trend for the future?
I like to refer to it as music played really fast by people with loud guitars. How would I describe what we do? I don’t know. I like to stay away from that P[unk]-word because it means so much. I would probably say it’s a youth culture that has a grounding and trends in contemporary punk-rock. And what’s the future hold? I don’t know. Now you have this idea of no-gatekeepers. Anybody with the proper technology can make a studio-quality record. But I would argue that not everybody should. There is a lot of uninspired music and I guess that listeners are the ultimate judges. I have a lot of problems with this scene because a lot of these bands who are coming out now, you can tell that they have been influenced by bands who are less than 10 years old, therefore everything starts to sound the same. I find that the stuff that really resonates is the stuff that is inspired because there are people who know that nobody is going to give them anything on a silver platter, so they work really diligently hard for everything in order to raise the bar for the scene in general.
You’re still based in Cleveland, which I think is a good choice. How is it to run such a big magazine from here? Do you have any problems for interviews or that kind of things?
Well, we do a lot of things freelance. We have freelancers in all the major cities and we’re like, “Hey I need you to talk to this person, can you do this?” Here [AP’s Cleveland office] is kind of like the hive where things get done and the magazine gets designed, the work gets edited and decisions are made. Most of the actual footwork happens outside of Cleveland.
Does that really matter then if you’re based in Cleveland or in let’s say, New York?
The only thing that really changes is that we can afford to be in Cleveland. Also, regardless to the Internet, as long as you have a computer and a decent server, you can do that from anywhere you want to. I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s much, much less expensive to run this place in Cleveland than it would be in New York or Los Angeles, and even from Chicago. There is a nostalgic reason too, because we have come up here and we’ve done a lot of great things here. But, right now magazines are really taking it hard because everybody is getting their information over the Internet. Fortunately, with the name brand that we’ve cultivated over the past 25 years, that’s allowed us a lot of convenience, whereas start-up magazines don’t have that luxury. So, I would tell everybody right now, save the trees, don’t start a print magazine. [He pauses.] Actually let me take that back! I would say that if you’re going to start a magazine, make sure you know who your audience is, make sure you painfully know exactly who you’re aiming for, and go out with a fury and a resolve that is never been anything before. And that you’re willing to make great social, personal and financial sacrifices to do it. Also, I like the idea of artifacts. Isn’t it weird to buy a download from the iTunes store? What did you buy? You can’t touch it! It’s a weird time right now with technology.
Going along with that, how do you see AP’s future? Do you see a day when you’ll have to stop publishing actual printed issues?
Probably. Just out of sheer economic reasons. I don’t know when that it is. Five years? Maybe… I mean, I would hate for that to happen as much as I’m like, “let’s be full on technology”. And another thing: photos just look better on paper! I mean, if the magazine would just say “yes, we’re going online” the magnificence of some of those photos… I think something really special will be lost and I wouldn’t want that to happen to magazines, magazines in general.
And there were some new things in AP in the latest issues: the new material for the cover and the fold-out poster. What was the idea behind it?
Basically, it’s just a quality issue. As for us doing that, I think it just makes for a better looking product. These fold-out things are something our readership has always asked for. It doesn’t matter if you’re into Never Shout Never, you’re a pop-punk band or if you’re into mohawks and street punk. You would want some sort of image to hang up on your walls. I have the My Chemical Romance poster on the door of my office. A lot of people would say, “oh you’re turning your magazine into Tiger Beat [magazine] or whatever with your little posters” and we get these letters like “dude, awesome photo of The Wonder Years!” -the one at the live show with the guy jumping through the air- because that image of that band manifests what that person likes and what he’s about. People think posters “oh, teenage girls” but no, we’re looking at it as a marker for a particular culture. It’s something to designate what you’re about.
Who reads AP? Do you think these changes define the demographics of your readership?
It’s weird. We get letters from all over the place. It’s certainly young people from 15-year-olds to also a 50-year-old guy who hated what I said about their favorite band on the back pages. But define the demographics? I think that now more than ever, people want things that help define them in an age where everything is online and you need gadgets and technology to somehow define yourself. Something like a poster of your favorite band, I think that somehow means more to them as some sort of physical manifestation.
When I read the incoming section of the magazine, sometimes I read letters from people who express how they are disappointed in the magazine. Sometimes, it’s also people saying how they regained faith in the magazine thanks to such or such article. So, how do you feel about that? And do you think it has something to do with the fact that there are so many sources of information now that people can choose what they want to read and believe in?
Oh, absolutely. The blunt answer to that is that I’m just glad people are paying attention. I’m glad people are reading Alternative Press and taking something out of it. It’s very easy to write anonymously “your band suck”. If you want your letter published in Alternative Press you have to back it up with something. And I would like to think that it’s gonna require a lot more thought than just an instant reaction. “You said my favorite band sucked! But then I re-read the article and I can understand why you would think that. But you’re still wrong!”
There was a panel this year as SXSW called, “It’s not that I’m old, your music does suck”. The big statement from the guy who was moderating the panel, was that he challenged anybody to come up to him and tell him who’s gonna be the classic band that’s happening right now that we’re gonna talk in classic terms in twenty years. And my response to that is “who cares?” A lot of my favorite records in life have virtually to no commercial potential, nor were they recognized on a wider scale as being classic. My favorite rock band in life is The Screaming Blue Messiahs who had one novelty hit on their second album. I’ve seen them five times before they broke up. And all of their records are so very near and dear to my heart because there was a certain type of passion in what they were doing that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. There is nobody on Earth that is going to demean that band for me, in my eyes because “they weren’t played on the radio so I guess they weren’t good”. The thing is that you have to realize that your own personal mythology and the things that are important to you right now are the only things that matter. Ultimately, these things where people talk about classic status, who cares we don’t need that anymore. People need to be passionate about music, as opposed to “I downloaded it, I’ve heard it for three months, I deleted it, what else have you got?”
What kinds of challenges do you face with the Internet and the Web 2.0?
The primary thing now is that it’s impossible for a magazine to break news because you can’t beat the immediacy of the web, that’s impossible. The only thing that magazines can do is do their research and come up with a greater analysis and uncovering the whole story as to why certain things happened the way they did. In order for you to do that responsibly, it’s going to require lots of research and understanding of how things work. It’s one thing to report that Michael Jackson is dead. OK, but what happens with it? I think we still have a need for that type of research journalism because of the breadth of the deeper analysis of the story. With Facebook and those 140 characters on Twitter, that’s probably the greatest role magazines have had, probably more than ever because everything is so immediate.
You say we need greater analysis, which I agree with, but do you think that this generation who grew up with the Internet, and didn’t read newspapers, do you think they care about greater analysis?
Boy, they should! On the basic, small and insignificant level that we’re talking about, right now [music compared to what’s going on in the world] there’s a new British band called Brother. They’re essentially dumb kids, in their early twenties. The music they make is nothing more than the rewrite of the concept of Brit pop: Oasis, Blur, all that stuff. What they are doing is that they are going to try to jack up a career on the feelings of nostalgia. Do people need to know that? I think so because I don’t think what they’re doing is honest. On a major level you have this situation in Japan where Japanese leaders have been saying that it is just as bad as what happened at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. You make a reference to Three Mile Island to somebody in their late teens/early twenties and they look at you like a dumb guinea pig. That’s why analysis is kind of important. I think deeper analysis and understanding of that thing is always necessary. And if young generations don’t understand that, we are so doomed as a civilization.
Do you think there is still hope for kids from, let’s say my generation, who want to become professional music journalists? Do you think they should still believe in that, go to college, get a journalism degree and try to get a job in print journalism?
In regards to that it’s not about print journalism anymore, it’s the of concept of digital native. You have to learn all the basics, ethics and procedures of good journalism but then you have to be able to be technologically savvy in terms of getting the message out. You’re not just a writer anymore. Sometimes you’re a photographer, sometimes you’re a sound recordist and all that.
Having said that I tell people two basic tenants for music journalism. One, is to be a fan, an expert in whatever it is – specific genre, country – that you’re about. You need to know every single damn thing about that thing. And the second thing is that you should be able to do it in the Queen’s English. You need to be able to have the technical skills to convey information, opinion and analysis across. Getting an education on the basics of journalism will help. You know what’s really big in this particular culture, in so many punk rock websites and all that stuff? They will write quotes like “dude A used to be in the band but he’s a jerk and we wrote all of his parts”. But nobody ever gets back to dude A. With the Internet, we want to get the scandalous and juicy stuff. We don’t go back and talk to the person being discussed. This is basics journalism, this is fair play! Having actual skills and ethics in journalism is definitely a way to go. If you have a journalism degree, it means that you can write and if you can write, you’re not held down to journalism or news.
In Europe, music means a lot more to people. The mentality is that people will buy a CD or something but if it doesn’t come out in vinyl they think that they don’t own it. I think there was a story in some magazine saying that you can have a great career as a music journalist there whereas here, people are like, “my son can do that, he has a computer!” There is a lot more respect for the field in Europe.
AP has this huge and good reputation as a music magazine, so you must have a lot of pressure on your shoulders to preserve this credibility?
Absolutely, I have that pressure monthly because you want to do something that’s interesting but you want it to have integrity. That’s really hard because speaking as a middle-aged man, there is not a lot of things that we put on the cover that will appeal to me personally, and I understand that. What we try to strive for are things like, “I hate that band when I first heard them but then I read your story and I kinda understand where they’re coming from.” If there’s some sort of understanding like that. It’s easy to say “Christofer Drew, I love him! OMG, OMG!” And we get a fair amount of that too. But, we want people to think about the stuff beyond just the surface, the thing that’s coming out of the speakers. What the motivations are. I have a friend from my age who will say, “I haven’t heard of any single band that’s on your magazine.” But he would say about the biggest features,“wow is that guy actually cool? That guy was really smart.” What we’re trying to do is portray the people, who are the people behind the stuff. And if there’s a story, we’ll look for that story. And how do you do that with integrity? You ask questions and you’re honest.
Do you think Alternative Press reports about the scene or do you think the magazine creates the scene? I mean, because a lot of people look up to you, do you see your role as reporting about what’s going on or creating what’s going on?
I really see us as reporters. I genuinely don’t think we create anything because we respond to fans, we are a fan-driven magazine. Sometimes there are a lot of factions of readers who are more vociferous than others so we respond to that.
The only time we may possibly create our own thing is when we do our “100 Bands You Need To Know” issue. I don’t think we are creating as much as we are giving somebody a deeper look at the possibilities and what’s out there. And we are certainly not trying to pull the moral superiority card. If I were doing that, I wouldn’t be doing this interview with you right now. It’s a genuine thing where we came from Mike Shea, laying down these pages on his mom’s kitchen table. We certainly came very far since those days. We haven’t forgotten those days. As a fact that we are from Cleveland, we’re not owned by a major corporation, because we’re not New York or L.A. so you don’t see our writers as talking heads on VH1, MTV or fuse. We understand what it’s like to want to share something great with the world but really not having the entertainment cachet, we haven’t forgotten that, and that’s what we are going to continue to do for as long as we possibly can.
Finally, can we have a glimpse of what’s going to be in the next AP?
[Note: I agreed not to reveal it before AP does. Now that it’s on their website I think I can tell you too!] So, the next issue will have A Day To Remember on the cover. Our writer hung out with them in England for a couple days. We have photos of them holding maps, looking lost and there’s one part where they are goofing around with fish and chips. July will be our Warped Tour issue. And there’s supposed to be some really big records coming out at the end of the summer but I gotta figure out how those are gonna play on our cover…
The most promising band of 2011? Yikes, I don’t know! There is this whole scene of punk bands like The Wonder Years and also a rise in laptop-pop stuff like The Ready Set. But I don’t know.
Last show you attended? Glassjaw, they were great! They gave their new EP free to people.
Last album you paid for? Russell Haswell, In it.
Last album you got for free: Cold Cave, Cherish The Light Years.
How many free CDs do you get per month? Close to 200.
How many do you listen to? As much as possible but it is Scott Heisel‘s job, and he does it!
What is the best part of the job? Getting the mail! I am still waiting for the great thing that’s gonna knock me out.