The State Of The Medium In 2012

Thursday, 23 February 2012

If they pick up a copy, the first thing readers will see in the March/April issue of SPIN Magazine is a statement of intent which brims with possibility. Now, things have most definitely changed for the magazine – the print edition is jumping to a bimonthly edition (six issues per year) and abandoning the conventional, eight-and-a-half by eleven, newsstand page size which was the norm last year in favor of a larger form edition to those which were published in the Nineties – but the changes will likely be exciting to readers who have become a little disenchanted with the quality of rock journalism over the last few years. This issue seems to have been designed to figuratively hit the giant reset button and get back to basics and, to make that point plain, readers will find a few biting elating and hope-inspiring words after they flip past the requisite deluge of ads. They go about like this:

“Firstly, thank you for holding this new issue in your hands. Now drop it. Seriously, toss it onto the table. We'll wait.

That sound you heard? The dull, gentle thud as it landed? That might be the most important sound in this magazine's history, all apologies to the first three chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It's the sound of real weight, of something making its presence felt in physical space, and it's a sound that regular throwers of SPIN have not heard in more than a decade.

In the many discussions about how best to enable this magazine to have a long, prosperous – or any – future, it became impossible to ignore the past. Not just this magazine's past, but the very idea of ehat magazines have meant, of what we want to read in them, and why. As took its own quantum leap in February, with a bold, intuitive redesign and a fresh approach to how we cover culture on a minute-to-minute basis, the bi-monthly print edition now seeks to find the stories you can enjoy as thoroughly today as four months from now, stories that are about an idea, not a moment. Timeless, as well as timely.”

As they reach that point in the narrative, there will undoubtedly be a couple of readers who heave a heavy sigh of relief and murmur, “It's about time.” With those words, SPIN is clearly conceding that music journalism has been floundering pretty desperately over the last decade. The decline and disappearance of print-based publications for music has been lamentable and worrisome certainly and, while this re-introduction begins to spiral off into a couple of undesirable tangents as it progresses (no new release reviews in the print portion of the magazine anymore? It doesn't even mention what will happen with live reviews), the possibility that the dialogue implies is truly exciting: it seems that the magazine begun by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione's little boy plans to flush the fashion and other such non-musical content which has plagued its pages since around 1999 and get back to the business of being the highest profile fanzine-leaning music book on the newsstand.

Good on them; here's hoping it works.

So why does Ground Control care about what SPIN is doing? Put simply, it is heartening to know that some traditions are being upheld; the downside to the growth that the internet has enjoyed over the last ten years is that music – the artists who make it, the albums they make, the labels who release it and the magazines who promote it – has become very much an “of its moment” art form. Sure – some artists have managed to maintain a legacy and generate enduring interest over time (Tom Waits, NOFX, Flaming Lips and Ani DiFranco are all good examples of that, and there are dozens more), but they are exceptions to the rule in a business which has seemed to become obsessed with “the new what next” and chasing the fastest dollar return; increasingly, record labels are re-shuffling, revisiting and re-thinking both musical taste trends as well as promotional principles and then abandoning those ideas not on an annual basis and not by the month, but by the day. In many ways, the press has followed suit with the labels too; jumping from trend to trend with impunity, all the subjects and artists addressed in the pages of some of the biggest music magazines in history have become a blur; the idea of presenting the portrait of an artist – below the glossy shine of his/her publicity photo and getting into the nitty-gritty of who they are, where they may be going and what is so remarkable about them that this publication wants to show the band to readers – has been lost in the name of capturing as many fleeting fancies as possible. In such an endeavor, SPIN is bravely daring to show they believe in the artists they're covering and are going to stand behind what they publish and promote by extension, not just publishing as much as they can in hopes of tripping over something fantastic by accident.

That's an old-school idea that we at Ground Control can very much respect, but how well will it work? By its own admission, what SPIN is seeking to do is present a definitive image of each subject they cover and offer readers something classic but, with trends and tastes changing so rapidly now, the idea of classicism – of presenting an artist and their ideas, as well as their history and image – is difficult to pin down. In SPIN's reintroduction, the magazine boasts that it will endeavor to present stories in such a way that they'll be as gratifying a read months from now as the day each issue was published, but how easy could that possibly be to do if the trend which was covered today is totally exhausted and the thing of ridicule tomorrow? It's a treacherous and fine line to walk and there is certainly the chance that it will flop pitifully and spell the demise of SPIN Magazine forever but, if it works, the success could be hugely important for journalism – a form of writing which (let's be honest as we're also being ironic in the fact that this contention is being made in an online music magazine) has felt a series of decisive and crippling blows since the internet made it possible for everyone to get read somewhere, by someone. By the same token though, SPIN's idea of reintroducing a certainly level of quality with an interest in (to paraphrase the magazine's 'Opening Act') offering up the stories that matter and not just a series of pieces on the new fifteen-second phenomena which grace the world stage is very provocative and intoxicating. If it works, SPIN may not be the first, but they're obviously throwing their hats in to be the finest purveyors of the new new journalism; the storytelling which holds the images, dreams, urgency and romance of the moment as well as the truths which are timeless, all wrapped right there in one hundred and twelve pages.

We can appreciate that notion, but (without meaning to sound too self-important) that doesn't mean we at Ground Control won't do our best to out-do or trump anything SPIN does every step of the way, because we like to think we've already BEEN doing what they're now just going to try; so we've already got the benefit of experience and knowing how this kind of game works. Is that a polite way of saying that we're feeling a little competitive? Not really – the field is more than big enough for more than one publication. If anything, SPIN's decision to change the way they play the game  feels nice to us because it stands as proof that we're not alone in thinking that the stories people want to read are the “stories that are about an idea,” and the publication who finally figured that out is a lot bigger than we are – so might bring the idea a bit more attention, and might get more of the excitement we feel about music circulating again.

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