‘SUPer star

by Steve Watson in February 2010
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This month’s Stack delivery is ‘SUP, the inventive, ultra-cool trans-Atlantic music magazine. Started 12 years ago by editor Marisa Brickman and going stronger than ever, it’s full of clever design ideas and refreshingly unpretentious writing. Marisa landed in London yesterday after a two-week stint in New York, so we caught up with her fresh off the flight to hear how the magazine has grown from its humble beginnings, and how exactly you make a magazine based in two continents in your spare time.

You’re just back from New York – did you manage to do a bit of ‘SUP stuff while you were there?
Definitely. I usually plan a trip over for work and then once I know I’m going to be there for work I’ll tag stuff onto it. So we did the issue 21 release party at this place called SubMercer, a little bar under the Mercer Hotel. It’s one of those secret cavern type bars and it was really fun. The place holds 80 people and we actually had 750 RSVPs or something. I don’t know how it happened and how it got that crazy, but it was a good crowd – like a music-y, fashion, design crowd. We try to do either really down and dirty loft space grungey bands, or high end… we try to tick off both vibes and this was the more posh vibe.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about is that in the magazine you give completely equal weight and respect to some little band that’s just got a few songs on its Myspace page, and bands like Arctic Monkeys.
Yeah. To be honest the print issue ends up being very image driven, so we’ll kind of decide what are the bands we want to cover, how much copy we want to give to each feature, and then the actual amount of pages tends to end up being decided by how good the pictures are. And we’re getting to a point now where we’re working with photographers we want to be working with and kind of letting them do their thing and it’s becoming a lot more exciting design-wise because the amount of images we have that we can use is getting higher, so it’s getting harder to choose what we’re going to use whereas before it was just a case of picking out the ones that were good enough to be in there.

I think the design is really exciting. There’s so much stuff in the magazine that I haven’t seen done anywhere else, like you’ll use a series of very similar images one after the next or you’ll have two opening spreads for a story with headlines and everything.
The guys when they talk about it, they like it to feel like you have to read it from beginning to end, so its design is really storytelling rather than story by story if that makes sense. It’s important that it flows from one page to the next. The way we work is that I’m the editor and they’re the designers, so if I really hate something ultimately they’ll end up taking it out, but that’s where they’re creative and that’s where they do their thing. Initially I didn’t really get some of the things they were doing – it’s funny, a lot of the things they do, people think are mistakes. So on the website the way the logo’s cut off, everyone thinks it’s a mistake and I get so many messages from people going, ‘hey, your website’s fucked up!’ Or in the print issue, half the article will be cut off or a photo will kind of bleed onto another page, but it’s all intentional. Whether that’s the most user-friendly way to present information I’m not sure, but it certainly makes a statement.

It’s interesting that you talk about it as storytelling – I hadn’t thought about it in that way but that makes sense.
Well that’s the whole vibe of the magazine – we want to allow artists and photographers and writers to tell their story. It’s really all about the artist and portraying them in the way that they were in the interview, and that’s why the Q&A style works for us. A lot of music journalism in particular is really bad and a lot of music journalists will tend to talk about themselves more than they let the artist speak for themselves, so they’ll have a personal opinion or an agenda that they want to get across about the band and you end up feeling like you’re hearing more about the writer than you actually hear from the band. So we have a style guide for new writers about the way we like to do our interviews and reviews, and that all feeds into the relationship between the stories and the photos and everything else.

Every time Stack goes out now there’s a flurry of activity on Twitter with people tweeting about the magazines, and one of the things I saw written about ‘SUP is that one person got it and it took them 15 minutes before they realised it’s a music magazine, and they really liked that. Do you make a conscious effort to be unlike other music mags?
For sure. For me that’s a point of difference and it’s what makes us unique, but it also makes us very difficult to sell to people. The people that advertise in music magazines tend to be record labels, technology brands, etc, and none of those, apart from a few of the technology people, really have any money. We do have a lot of fashion brands in the magazine, and those are brands that are kind of inspired by music, but the bigger fashion brands won’t advertise unless you’re actually doing fashion editorial. So we definitely set out to make it like a journal – we want it to look more like an art journal than a fashion magazine or a music magazine, so I’d take that as a complement I guess.

I’m sure it was intended that way. You’ve spoken a lot about the designers you work with, but how does ‘SUP actually work? You’re in London and New York – how do you manage that?
Well there’s Brendan who runs a company called An Art Service in New York and he’s the creative director and he has a bunch of guys who work with him. Cameron’s the managing editor and he lives in New York and Abbey who’s the online editor, she lives in New York. And then over here there’s me and Josh, who’s the UK online editor and Laura who’s the assistant editor, and it’s really just a case of having a lot of conference calls and getting organised upfront so you can split up who does what. Usually the US guys will take care of the US stuff and the UK guys will take care of the more international features, and then the editing process is all done remotely amongst ourselves.

And how did it all start? When did you start ‘SUP?
I started in 1998. I was in college at UNC Chapel Hill and I always tell this story that I was working for the college newspaper in the entertainment section. At UNC they have a daily newspaper because the journalism school there is quite big, so I was like, “yeah, I’m working for the paper, awesome,” and I’d just got a job working for the college radio station and it had taken me a little while to get that job, so I was already a little apprehensive about whether they thought I was cool and credible.

I wrote this review of Faithless’s first record and I really didn’t like it. I didn’t slam it but I gave it a six or something, but it turned out that the editor at the time really liked the record so he inserted two paragraphs of the press release that came with the album into the beginning of my review, which totally changed the whole review. So I took a copy of the newspaper into this crowded newspaper office and I’d circled everything in red that I didn’t write and basically told them all to fuck off because I was starting my own music magazine and they just didn’t get it. They’d rather cover Alanis Morissette than Polvo, who lived in Chapel Hill, so I was like, “there’s this amazing music scene in Chapel Hill and all you guys want to do is cover Faithless!”

They just weren’t interested in the local scene at all, so for the first couple of issues ‘SUP was really just a totally local zine. It wasn’t even all music in the beginning – it was mainly music but then there was some weird art stuff too, like this girl who was in a band did these weird puppet shows so we wrote an article on her. That’s kind of how it started. I was an AV tech, so I used to go and set up projectors in classrooms and when I wasn’t wheeling around trolleys with projectors on I was sitting in my little office on Microsoft Word – I actually used to lay it out on Microsoft Word – and then I’d print it out and make the little book, then photocopy a load of them and staple the spine. I had a friend who was older – one of those rock dudes who ends up living in a college town forever – he was the manager of a copy store so I just used to go there late at night and make copies on his copy key.

But then at some point I was like, “okay, this is taking a really long time to staple all these pages together,” and I had piles of them all over my living room and I realised that I could print more if I did it in newsprint, so I started selling ads to local businesses and local record labels, and it kind of grew from there. Sub Pop was the first record label that bought an ad from us and the guy, Steve, who bought it actually just left Sub Pop a year ago, so it’s cool because a lot of the people I dealt with… like I was friends with the guys who started Pitchfork back in the day – they started after ‘SUP, so it was crazy to see the trajectory of what everyone else went on to do starting from these kind of fanzines, labours of love, and I just watched as the passed me by! But we’re still printing, so that’s something.

Well more than that, you’re selling copies now. Is that a big deal for you or just something you’ve been meaning to do for a long time?
Well the biggest goal is to make every one better than the last one, and just take baby steps towards that. Expanding to the UK gave us a new motivation and gave the magazine a new life, and it’s great to have a new fresh team of writers and photographers in the UK who don’t really know the magazine – I think that motivated everyone. And we’re starting to do side projects for brands, which is where the money is actually coming from to keep printing the magazine, so hopefully we can do more of that because selling ads is just a total schlub. You really need a dedicated ad sales person if you’re going to do that, and all the ads I sell now are totally through personal relationships and when you don’t have a production schedule that you religiously stick to and your distribution is kind of through boutiques and we don’t have all the hardcore data we’d need to have to sell to bigger companies, you can only get so far on personal favours.

So what sort of branding work have you been doing?
We started a magazine for Nike sportswear in the UK called 1948. They have a space on Bateman’s Row in Shoreditch which is under the arches and is kind of a concept store meets community space meets art gallery. We’ve done two magazines for them and we’re working on another one now, and it’s all about the characters of East London. It’s great – we’ve had some really good feedback on that.

In the US we did a big blog project for Fox Searchlight. It was for 500 Days of Summer and we called it 500 Days of ‘SUP – it’s still online at 500daysofsup.com. It launched about six months before the film came out and the goal for that was to generate buzz around the soundtrack and try to establish the film in the music world before it came out. We did a post every day, and it wasn’t really 500 days but it was pretty close, so it was music from the film or inspired by the film. That was cool so maybe we’ll get to do more stuff like that. Because it’s also a nice way for me to pay everyone that works on the magazine – everyone works for expenses and doesn’t get paid, so it’s really nice when we can work on corporate projects.

And do you see a day when that could pay you? Could it become your job one day?
I would love for it to. I’ve kind of been struggling with that for the past 10 years. I started out in music and then worked in PR and then went on to brand marketing, and I worked at The Fader in New York for a couple of years, and now I’m at Diageo in the FMCG brand world, so I feel like I’ve had a good path of learning about lots of different ways to do business. I haven’t pinpointed what the best business model would be for ‘SUP, but we’re trying to take on as many other things as we can to see what does work. Because I think we all know that print publishing isn’t really a viable way to make money! I think we could probably make money from the web, but rather than trying to focus on monetising that we’re really working to get the website into shape and get the writing better and be more active on Facebook and Twitter, and I think that once our hits are up to something we’re happy with we can start trying to sell advertising.

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