A very odd, slightly strange, idiosyncratic mutant

by Steve Watson in October 2009
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Hot on the heels of last week’s interview with Bigna from The Drawbridge is this from The Wire’s Tony Herrington. We spoke on Friday and he filled me in on how he got started at the magazine, how he became publisher and editor in chief, and how The Wire is managing to swim against the tide and increase its sales.

I think I’m right in saying The Wire has been published since 1982 hasn’t it?
That’s right.

And how long have you been involved with the magazine?
Since 1992.

How did you get involved?
I originally started out as a freelance contributor around ’86 or ’87, just filing reviews and interviews and stuff like that. That’s when I was living in Manchester, and in ’91 I moved to London to try and make my way in the big city and journalism and all that, and it coincided with a time when The Wire was looking for a deputy editor, so that’s how I started. I came in as deputy editor basically, which meant I was responsible for commissioning all the record reviews, live reviews, book reviews, all that stuff. At the time it was very small. There were basically two editorial staff – me and the editor and then a part-time designer and that was it.

So how did you end up as the publisher?
Through a series of fortuitous or unfortunate events. There was a publisher at the time and the publisher decided that her and the editor didn’t get on so she basically sacked the editor and made me editor after I’d been there a year. I obviously didn’t know what I was doing so was just busking it through, and she left a bit after that and all of a sudden I was editor and publisher. At the time the magazine was owned by this small publishing house called Namara, which owned a couple of book publishers and The Wire, but they didn’t really know much about The Wire so they were totally hands off and we had total autonomy at the magazine. We could pretty much do what we wanted, which is how I ended up being both publisher and editor, and of course I knew even less about what a publisher did than I knew about what an editor did.

And that’s it really – the magazine has sort of developed according to the idiosyncratic tastes and interests of the various people who came and went through the office. We slowly built up the readership, built up the staff, and other people came in, and I carried on as editor and publisher until about 2001. By that point I was pretty much burned out trying to do two jobs at once and I realised one had to go, so at that time Rob Young was the deputy editor and I said to him, ‘you should be editor’. So he took over and I assumed this ridiculous title of ‘editor in chief and publisher’, which sounds incredibly grand but I guess it basically means I’m the general manager here now, and have been ever since basically.

So it’s basically been a very organic process. Nobody ever sat down and designed The Wire – it’s a very odd, slightly strange, idiosyncratic mutant of a publication. Because it’s never had a publishing executive telling it what to do or where it should be going or sitting down and working out what demographic we should be appealing to and so on. We’ve never ever done that – it’s evolved through the interests of the people who actually produce the magazine, and anticipating and responding to interesting bursts of energy or cultural shifts within the music we’re interested in, which is basically all manner of underground, experimental, alternative music. I don’t think you’d ever sit down and design it from scratch, because if you did you’d look at it and think it was completely unsaleable, but that’s its strength actually – the fact that it’s quite odd and idiosyncratic and you can’t quite guess what it’s going to do next. Because we don’t know basically – we leave the parameters of what the magazine is and what it can cover quite open.

People like that – I think that’s helped it to keep going and flourish, even in the current times which obviously aren’t great for magazine publishers. But The Wire’s actually holding its own and bucking the trend in the market – we’re even expanding our sales in certain areas. And I think that’s because it’s not a bullshit publication – it’s come about through genuine enthusiasm and that’s why people respond to it and like it. There are hopefully other aspects of the magazine that people respond to as well – we put a high premium on quality journalism; that’s the main driving force here. We’re all journalists and the magazine has always tried to publish the best writing it can about music, and then frame it with decent photography and minimal layouts.

You mentioned that you leave the parameters open and allow the magazine to be led by the people that work on it, and that’s something that Francis Morgan who used to publish Plan B also said to me. Of course Plan B disappeared not so long ago – does it feel like it’s harder making the sort of music magazine you make than it would be making a more mainstream magazine or do you think your niche helps you?
I don’t really think we’re a niche – I don’t think of it like that. I think it certainly helps that the mainstream is so overloaded with different platforms where you can access the same information. I mean if you’re talking about magazines like Mojo or Uncut, they’re very professionally produced magazines but they’re also obviously driven by the demands of the bottom line. As soon as you become part of a big publishing house you take on all this weight whereby you basically have to make a certain amount of money to justify your existence. So obviously the advertising has to be brought in and the readership has to be sustained, but the problem those magazines have is that everybody else is covering what they’re doing. Not just in the broadsheets and the tabloids and the other lifestyle magazines that are not specifically about music, so I don’t know GQ or FHM or whatever, which still have that strong music content, but also all the websites online as well.

So there are lots of platforms covering what you might want to call mainstream or popular music, and I think those magazines are really suffering as a result of the overload of information that’s available about someone like The Beatles or Coldplay or whatever. And they took their eye off the ball because they should have realised that people who read music magazines religiously or passionately are the people who genuinely stay with you. And you keep them by challenging them and introducing them to new ideas and new music, not by telling them the same old shit year in, year out. If you read magazines like Mojo and Uncut you can see the same issues coming around year after year – the Beatles cover, the Neil Young cover, the Dylan cover and so on. It’s a bit like on diary publishing, doing the same thing each year, and obviously the law of diminishing returns is biting hard on those magazines because their sales have plummeted.

Whereas a small magazine like The Wire can survive on a relatively low sale but will hold onto readers because it doesn’t bullshit them and gives them something that they can’t find anywhere else – even online. You might find out information online about the sort of music we cover, but what you can’t get is the sort of expanded writing that we publish. The Wire has a lot of high profile writers working for it, like Ian Penman and Simon Reynolds – I mean these are some of the top music journalists of their time and the reason they’ll write for us and not for other magazines where they’d probably get paid three or four times as much, is that we give them scope and space to stretch out and write about what they want to write about and also to exercise their brains and explore ideas. We give them a platform that they really take to and respond to and readers really respond to that stuff as well.

So we’re small and mobile, not trapped by demographics, not trapped by generic restrictions. I think the way The Wire approaches music is also a more accurate reflection of the way that most people consume music or get interested in music – they don’t think in genre boxes. Obviously lots of people just use music as an accessory or something to dip into and out of and of course that’s fine but The Wire’s not really for them. The Wire is for people who make music a central part of their lives, maybe even a liberating, powerful force. It’s definitely for people for whom music matters, almost too much! I think that’s why people respond to it and I think that’s why small magazines can flourish. I mean Plan B was one of a few magazines that came out in recent years obviously heavily influenced by the kind of approach that The Wire has taken. But I think its problem was that I don’t think its coverage was very good, I don’t think the writing was of a high enough standard, the layouts and designs weren’t great, it wasn’t original enough – it didn’t follow its own nose and I think it followed agendas that had been set by other people including The Wire. I think that’s probably why Plan B went down – maybe it wasn’t as lucky as we are, maybe it wasn’t as hard-nosed as we are, maybe it wasn’t as stubborn as we are. Because we are a stubborn bunch here – we just keep on going.

Twenty-seven  years is a phenomenal amount of time for you to keep on doing what you do. Have you ever reached the point that Plan B obviously did reach where you thought, actually the next issue might be the last?
No, never. I mean we were skint for years and we still are essentially. Nobody’s ever going to get rich working for a magazine like The Wire. I mean you can make a living, and the magazine turns over enough cash to provide a living for quite a sizeable number of people now, but you’re never going to get rich. You’re prepared to do it and get paid a borderline subsistence wage and we’ve always done that. So 10 or 15 years ago the magazine was selling, I don’t know, 7,000 or 8,000 copies or something and there were four or five people getting paid bugger all to produce it, but you didn’t care because we were doing what we wanted to do, and it was exactly what we wanted to do. So you make those kind of decisions about your own lifestyle that you’re just going to struggle and suffer or whatever. Fortunately we’re now selling many more than that, and we can afford to pay ourselves something approaching a living wage.

But no, I’ve never ever thought we were going to go under, because even if the times got even tighter, we’d just cut our cloth to suit it and ride it out and storm back again. The Wire is an incredibly solid organisation if you want to talk about it as a company – it’s pretty rock solid. We have no debts, which is probably unique I think. The other thing about The Wire is that when people come here they stay because the realise it’s such a good place to work and it’s somewhere they can do interesting work. There’s always new people coming in because that’s how you keep the magazine fresh, but there’s kind of a hardcore of people who have been here for quite a long time who actually run the thing and kind of keep it on track.

You say there’s no debt – who’s the magazine owned by now?

We did a management buyout in 2000. Basically the guy that owned Namara was getting on a bit and decided to reign in some of his business interests, so he wanted to sell The Wire. At the time I was the senior employee so he asked me to find a buyer for it, and I said I’d buy it. He said, ‘I know how much I pay you and you can’t afford it’, but there were six members of staff then so we got together and decided we wanted to buy it, so we went to see a bank and they introduced us to an accountant who introduced us to some people who had some money and were prepared to invest, and they basically loaned us a pile of money. It took us about six months of negotiations to buy it, but so now the magazine is owned by a collective of the six core members of staff, so it’s owned by the people who produce it.

How long did it take you to pay off the people who loaned you the money?
We’re still paying it off! It was a 10-year deal and we’re not far off paying it off now. That doesn’t really mean anything. It’s like a mortgage – it’s nice to pay it off, but just because you haven’t paid it off yet doesn’t mean you don’t own the house.

The Wire is very much structured like a collective. There’s no hierarchy here, despite job titles like publisher and editor. At most magazines job titles signify some kind of hierarchy, but here it’s more about denoting people’s responsibilities, so the editor is responsible for filling the pages of the magazine with features, the reviews editor is responsible for filling the reviews section and so on. The publisher is responsible for everything, but that doesn’t mean that I’m the boss or the editor is the boss – that’s not how it works. It’s very flat line management – everybody’s opinion resonates and is as important as everybody else’s, so the intern or the subscriptions manager can throw ideas into the pot and they will have as much relevance and significance as what the editor might say. And I think that’s another thing that helps to keep the magazine fresh. I think in too many places there’s too much hierarchical crap going on, whereas here people actually get involved and believe that their opinions matter. And I think that’s another reason why we’ve sustained, because we’ve maintained that kind of collective approach for at least the last 10 years and prior to that even.

I suppose another thing The Wire has going for it is that it’s been going to long now that it’s become a byword for the sort of eclectic, alternative music.
Yeah. Certainly the magazine has a reputation now. It’s a bit like people say about the Velvet Underground – when they existed nobody bought their records, but the few people that did buy them went on to form bands that were massively influential. So I think the people who read The Wire are the sort of movers and shakers out there – not just the artists, but the promoters, the record labels, people who own shops and so on and so forth, so it’s quite influential beyond its sales, and it’s certainly had an impact on the wider culture that the magazine is a part of – the festivals, live events, the networks of record labels and distributors that exist. And not just in the UK – half the magazine’s sales are overseas, so the magazine has a very international philosophy and outlook. We’re based in London, but that just happens to be the hub where we’re at – the magazine could operate from Berlin, Tokyo New York, Krakow, wherever. It doesn’t really matter. And I think we’ve helped to move the culture on by what we do. And also that longevity bestows authority – what The Wire says certainly does matter to certain people in certain circles, more so than if a new magazine came out because it has no history and no authority. So that actually helps – it feeds the magazine’s reputation.

And it’s not just about the magazine – you’ve got the site with loads of material you can’t access elsewhere, you’ve got the live events – where do you see The Wire in the next 10 years?
I think the print magazine is going to remain the core of what we do. You’re right, our online presence has grown massively in the last few years, and online culture has been liberating for us. So many media organisations look at online as a threat, but for us it came along and it suddenly enabled us to communicate with people all over the world that previously we’d had trouble dealing with because you had to fax or phone them. Email and the web threw open all these new connections that we could plug into and take sustenance from, and this mutual support network builds up, and that’s certainly the case with all the media partnerships and festivals we get involved with.

So yeah, we do all these extracurricular things like the website and the events and the compilations, the downloads, the CDs, curating events, it’s all part of what we do and it helps to keep us interested in what we’re doing, but the print magazine will remain the core of what we do. People still want to buy it – they like the feel of it, they like the paper, they like the layout, and we take a lot of pride and put a lot of effort into making sure that the magazine looks good. So we’re going to carry on doing what we’re doing – I’ve got no idea where we’ll be in 10 years, but I reckon we’ll still be producing the print magazine and all this other stuff that spins around it will continue to expand.

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