The Plan B interview

by Steve Watson in April 2009
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Stack subscribers will hopefully have been enjoying their copy of Plan B this month, but in an effort to squeeze just a few more drops of pleasure and interest out of its pages I’ve been speaking to publisher Frances Morgan to get her thoughts on the magazine, what makes a good cover, and the importance of not giving people a headache.

I’ll try to make this a regular occurrence, so every time you get a magazine from Stack you can expect to read a short interview with the people behind it around the middle to end of the month. What do you think? Did I go too easy on Frances? Looking back I could probably have focused more on the actual process of how the issue was put together, but would that be interesting?

As always I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

You’ve got PJ Harvey and John Parish on the cover of this issue, and they’ve been in lots of newspapers and magazines promoting the new album. But you sometimes have much more obscure bands on the covers – what do you look for in a cover and what do you see as a good cover?
I think you’ve probably put your finger on it in saying that there’s a mixture of covers, because that’s something that we’re quite keen to do – we’ll feature a new band one month but then the next month there’s someone like PJ Harvey, because yes, she’s more established, but she’s someone that we really admire and we’ve got a long history of being interested in her. It’s nice for us to be able to vary it a bit, and I think it’s really important for the magazine to do that, not just commercially but also to show that we’re not just about what’s the new thing. There are certain artists who continue to be really interesting – I mean the issue before we had a big feature on Will Oldham, Bonnie Prince Billy, and that was an example of someone you can say that he’s going to get covered everywhere, but to us he’s an important figure, so yeah, that’s what we look for. It’s really just whoever we’re interested in at a particular time.

Do you see a big difference in your sales if you put someone like Bonny Prince Billy on the cover?
To be honest we’ve had good sales, for example when we put Anthony and the Johnsons on the cover, and Bjork, of course, but then at other times we’ve done really well with a new band on the cover. That’s often for other reasons as well, for example we might have a really good covermount CD that goes along with it. It’s really hard to tell – sometimes an issue will do much better than you expect or much worse than you expect.

We’ve had a couple of issues where we’ve had somebody well known on the cover and it hasn’t done very well, and the argument for that could be, ‘well they’re getting lots of coverage elsewhere so maybe people don’t want to read about them too much’. So it’s a real balancing act between finding something new that makes people excited, but then also giving them something they’ve heard of but not doing it in a way that’s just repeating the other magazines. It’s something that I think if you’re a magazine editor or publisher you have to be constantly thinking about the cover and re-evaluating what you think makes a good cover and arguing about it in the office, and keeping it up in the air as an idea the whole time. It’s not an exact science.

You talk about having a variety of bands on the cover, and the magazine does cover a really wide variety of music. Is there ever stuff that goes in that you just hate?
That’s not fair! No! There is stuff that isn’t to my taste, but there’s rarely anything that I don’t support, if that makes sense? There’s bands I might not want to listen to but it’s often very lead by the writers. I really like all our writers – I think they’re fantastic, and if they pitch something really strongly then me and Louis [Pattison, Plan B’s editor] because he’s making these decisions much more than I am, will go with it as much as with our own personal taste.

One of the things I really like about the magazine is that it introduces me to so much new stuff – there are so many bands covered that I’ve never heard of. Is that just because I don’t know much about music, or do you find it as well?
No I find that as well – especially since I stopped working as the editor and became the publisher. I’m under less pressure now to find out about new music all the time, so actually I learn a lot from reading my own magazine! But also lots of our writers are obsessive about very particular areas of music, and the editors are as well. Richard Stacey, for example, is an assistant publisher, and he writes a lot about UK hip-hop, which is a really specific, niche kind of thing. And so you could maybe read Plan B and think ‘oh gosh, I don’t know much about music,’ but you are essentially dealing with people who know a lot about stuff! They spend a lot of time on blogs and downloading stuff, and just learning about music, so hopefully people benefit from that. I hope people don’t feel alienated by it and that they can then go and find out about all this stuff.

One of the criteria for having a magazine in Stack is that it has that inclusive approach to the world – there are lots of magazines out there that are amazing but are a very closed shop. I think Plan B is specialist but it welcomes readers into that world.
Yeah. We do aim for that. I don’t know whether it always succeeds, but that is the idea. It’s not just about the music you know about, but also the kind of person you are and the way you listen to music, so it’s not just about being able to reel off a lot of bands you know about or make connections between lots of different genres, it’s more a kind of attitude that I hope is inclusive, if that makes sense.

Is that something that carries through to the Plan B events? I know you put on lots of events but I’ve never been to one before.
It’s very straightforward really – it’s just us putting on gigs. But we try and pick bands that we would have featured in the magazine, or that we all like, so it’s just a way to get people together and show some support for the bands we like, and also to show that we care about live music. It’s a real learning curve though, because you think it’s really easy putting on live events, but in London it’s quite difficult because it’s such a crowded marketplace.

And of course all magazines at the moment need to have an eye on other ways of making money – do the events help with that?
Actually they don’t to be honest. They ought to but at this stage they just kind of pay for themselves. We don’t see them as a money making exercise so much as a marketing exercise.

In this issue I really like the illustration on the Judee Sill story and the Fever Ray pictures are really nice. Was that all done specifically for Plan B?
The illustration for Judee Sill was – all our illustrations are commissioned specifically for the magazine by our art director, who has got a really good team of freelancers. The photo for Fever Ray was an exclusive but it wasn’t actually shot for us – it was shot for a collection of photos she was doing, but I think we’re the only people using those specific ones. We try to organise our own photo shoots as much as we can afford to do so, and we’ve actually done quite well with that. If you look at a typical issue most of the main features have got original photos, which I’m really proud of.

And yet the magazine doesn’t feel like it’s designed with a strong concept. It looks great, but the emphasis seems to me to be more about getting the information across rather than creating a strong theme or identity. Does that make sense?
Yes, but I think it’s about getting the balance though isn’t it? Because we want it to be easy to read – we want people to be able to look at it and not get a headache – but Andrew [Clare, Plan B art director] does put a great deal of thought into the designs. But they are quite subtle designs, not in the way that style magazines can be quite crazy and all over the place. I don’t know whether you saw it, but in the previous issue with Dan Deacon on the cover, the illustration for that was really interesting because that has been heavily designed. The way we approach the design is it depends on the feature. Something like PJ Harvey and John Parish we go for a very classic design because that suits their music – quite solemn and sparse, but then if we’re doing something about crazy electronic music as we were with Dan Deacon we went for something much more vibrant. I think Andrew’s ethos is to respond to what he’s given in terms of music and in terms of photos. And overall I think we like to keep it quite simple because we want people to just be able to read it and not get overwhelmed by too much design.

Do you have a favourite feature from the issue?
I think the piece on Judee Sill was really great because that’s an example of plan B featuring somebody from the past but doing it in a way that’s very us, and absolutely not the way a magazine like Record Collector or Mojo would have done it. It had our own kind of style. I also really like the In Praxis piece about Hauschka – this is something we try to do every other issue or so, about the actual business of music and how people do things, and this guy has a really interesting approach to piano playing and piano preparation, so that’s interesting, and again it’s something that I don’t think any other magazine does. What else? I think all of it was good!

You mentioned the series of In Praxis stories, and I think in this issue you’ve also started a series on the independent record labels behind the bands?
That’s right, yeah. We’ve always done it off and on – we’ve always featured labels maybe every other issue or so – but this is more of a general roundup of what independent labels are doing right now. And next issue it’s going to be longer – it’s going to be a whole spread with more information in it, and that’s something we’re excited about – it’s a good news feature.

And it’s in keeping with this practice of picking a theme and really getting into it.
I think it’s indicative of the fact that Plan B is about independent music, and it can be very difficult at the moment for independent labels to survive, and the kind of strategies they’re using to do so. I mean we’re not one of those magazines that says ‘we’re going to mourn the passing of the indie record shop and the indie record label’. I mean we do that sometimes and of course it’s sad in some ways that things are shutting down and things are changing, but if you read this label feature it’s mostly an interview with DJ Rupture, who talks about how he runs a label in a very different way. It’s all about trying to get away from old models and see how new models can work. It’s essentially quite a utopian view of things, but I think that’s interesting and I think it’s very positive.

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