David and I meet in the foyer of the British Library. We make our way past the pop-up Punk shop (“trustafarians selling you Clash albums for £25”) to the terrace café and chat about Word magazine and David’s book ‘1971 – Never a Dull Moment: Rock’s Golden Year’ in the late September sunshine.
Let’s start with Word magazine. Was setting up Development Hell the first step in its creation?
Yes, Jerry Perkins and I set it up initially to develop magazines for publishers. We quite quickly decided we wanted to launch a magazine ourselves so that necessitated raising money which takes a long time and is a very educational process. We raised the money on the basis of what we’d done working for EMAP. The feeling amongst investors was that while the landscape was heading towards a digital age, the magazine area was still worth investing in. That proved not to be the case and it was a long and painful learning process for people who’d already learnt an awful lot. Nobody was wet behind the ears, nobody was naïve: in retrospect we were all naïve but no more so than every other publisher in London, from newspaper groups to broadcasters. I don’t think anybody envisaged the kind of hollowing out that’s taken place in the last five years. We now live in a world that’s owned by Google and Facebook. Everybody works for them – they either admit it or they’re in denial.
So people say to me that they miss the magazine. I always say, “Well, I don’t miss it at all.” It was my struggle, it was partly my money, my pain and I’m glad to have it out of my life. One thing in any business, is that you’re not wrong to launch things but you are wrong to not close them when they don’t appear to be going right. Of course it’s something we rationally know but we all emotionally resist. You always think that if we can just cut our cloth we’ll get round the next problem and there’s a brighter future ahead – but there isn’t.
In retrospect should you have closed it earlier?
Yes, we should have done. We’d have saved an awful lot of investors’ money. We had some fantastic investors but they know when they put money in that it can go wrong. It went wrong but we were trying to do everything sensibly. We weren’t making ourselves rich or flying around the world first class or anything. It just didn’t work because the timing was wrong.
Where did the original idea for the magazine come from?
It was probably mine but it’s always difficult to go back and trace exactly what the thoughts you had were and the order of them. I think it started with me thinking that there might be an opportunity for a kind of more general arts and entertainment monthly. Something for the people who didn’t want to go down the Mojo or Uncut route. There also seemed to be a lot of stuff happening like long-form television, technology, narrative non-fiction – there were lots of straws in the wind. We thought we could do something like that, that was our initial position. When things don’t go right you very quickly retreat from those positions. I always used to say that the first question you should ask anybody when they say they’re going to launch a magazine is ‘”Where do you want to put it in the newsagents?” If you decide that it’s going to be alongside Q and Mojo you’re going to have a musician on the cover. And if you’re going to have a musician on the cover, you’re going to need a musician who sells – therefore you’re going to end up with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd etc.
You used Nick Cave on the front of the first issue. Was that an obvious choice for you?
There was an opportunity to get him and he was a big deal. What we eventually found – and this isn’t just Word, this would have applied to anything being launched around that time – is that nobody sampled or tried anything new anymore. If people try it and don’t come back that’s a shortcoming in what you’re doing. If people don’t try something in the first place that indicates there’s no curiosity, there’s no appetite for trying something and there used to be. In the 80’s or 90’s, if you put out a new magazine which was even halfway good, you’d sample quite a lot of people. They’d just try it. They’d be in a newsagents, see it and think ‘That looks interesting’ and buy it. That’s completely gone now. We thought we might sell 35, 000 and thought we could then grow it to 50, 000 through word of mouth.We never did 35, 000, certainly not in the early issues, it was way below.
In the first few years we were lunging around trying to find what sticks. And very little sticks when the market’s not growing. Then we had the even worse problem that the advertising disappeared. In the glory days of music magazines, when there were £15 CDs for which they had a huge marketing budget and they had to get their product into Virgin or HMV. It was all about getting physical product into retailers, getting visibility at point of sale and thereby selling a ton of Oasis or Robbie Williams or whatever. Those days have gone. As soon as you move away from physical product, they don’t advertise anymore. We could have sustained the magazine even with a circulation of 22, 000 if we’d had the advertising because they were the right 22, 000 people who spent money. We had neither. The advertising disappeared and it wasn’t just Word: if you look at a magazine like Q now, it’s like a pamphlet. These things used to be over 200 pages, stacked full of ads, that’s the time when people made money. That was the time that people could afford to do decent things like fabulous photo sessions. Nobody can do that now.
You mentioned a loyal readership which was affectionately known as the Word Massive. Were you surprised by how it grew?
I wouldn’t say surprised but I was delighted. That was one of those straws that you grasp at – okay, we can’t sell enough print but there’s a community here, can we monetise the community by selling advertising? There’s a saying in publishing that in moving from paper to digital you’re moving from offline pounds to online pennies. Anything online has only a fraction of the value that it has in the physical world. So you might get some advertising but you wouldn’t get much money from it. If you want numbers they go to Facebook or Google – if you want to target music consumers there are far more efficient ways to do it than using a music magazine these days.
It was good to know that they were there and Frazer Lewry did a fantastic job on cultivating the community. The reason it was so good was that he policed it brilliantly – he told me that he only ever banned two people in the whole history of the forum which was incredible. He was looking at it pretty much all day and all night and that’s why it was so good. Also people bought into it. There was an acceptance that you didn’t abuse people or go too far and most people are very civilised. We had a great deal of enjoyment and pleasure – and then there were the podcasts.
I wanted to talk about them. They seemed like a lot of fun to do.
They were huge fun. I remember at some point after we’d been doing the podcasts for a while, Mark said to me, “I’m not sure they like the magazine but they like us.” I thought that was a good point. It was simple to do – it was just a matter of energy. “Bang! Let’s go!” The only creative decision I made was that there would be no start and no finish. It’s just going to fade in with people talking and fade out at the end. The listeners like the idea that these conversations are going on all the time and they’re eavesdropping. I listen to a lot of podcasts and I can’t bear ones that waste your time telling you what they’re going to have, giving you a menu. It’s not telly – just get on with it!
We used to love doing them, we would laugh like drains. It was really just an excuse to do, in a slightly heightened way, what we already did in the office anyway, to sit around and banter. The idea that we could record some of it and it was entertaining people was a great feeling. We used to get lots of feedback, people loved listening to it as they walked their dogs or went cycling. It took up dead time in their day and provided some joy. It wasn’t trying to ingratiate itself with anybody, it was just for those that liked it.
The podcasts now tend to be live events with an author Q & A. Are you planning to do anymore which are just talking bollocks with Mark?
It’s not impossible. We have done occasionally. We got round to Fraser’s, talk bollocks and go for an Indian meal afterwards. That’s kind of fun.
What kind of listener numbers do you normally get?
I’ve no idea – and nor do I care. I don’t think anybody in the world of podcasts really knows because it’s a stream. The problem with internet numbers, whether they’re website hits or downloads of a podcast, if you say it’s this number – half the people think it’s too many and half think it’s too few. There’s no way of working it out. Who cares! It’s for the enjoyment of people doing it and the people listening to it.
Which podcasts do you regularly listen to?
There’s a good one about football called ‘The Football Ramble” which I like. I recently started listening to Alec Baldwin’s ‘Here’s The Thing’ where he interviews comedians, writers, musicians. He’s a really good interviewer, I’d recommend that one.
Have you heard Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Revisionist History’?
I have. As much as I like Gladwell, it’s a bit too much like a radio programme. I like podcasts to be a bit ragged, they should be raw. There’s plenty of polished radio if you want that. I switch around a lot because I do a radio preview column for The Guardian so I’m always looking for new stuff to write about.
What about magazines. Do you have any subscriptions?
Yes, I subscribe to The New Yorker and to The Week. We did used to get The Economist as well but that was my son’s subscription and now he’s moved out, that’s gone with him. I think it’s quite interesting that they’re weeklies. I think information-based weeklies still do quite well but nobody’s bothered about presentation-heavy monthlies. There are too many other things in our lives. I’m not resentful at all, I don’t miss those things. I look at them occasionally for work purposes but not much.
Your book, ‘1971’ started life as a magazine article in Word didn’t it?
Yes, written in a tearing hurry – ‘Need a column, need it for tomorrow morning.’ I wrote “1971 was the annus mirabilis for the rock album…” and it got a good response. We sat and talked about it in the office and people said, “You know, I think you’re right.” And once you’ve set up the theory, every bit of evidence that then comes along confirms it. Years later I was approached by a literary agent who wanted me to write a book about Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’. I said “I can’t do that but I would like to write about music in 1971.” He liked the idea so we did a concept, I wrote some chapters and we shopped it around. Bantam were very keen in the UK and Henry Holt in the United States and it’s done better than they thought; they’ve delayed putting it out in paperback because it’s continuing to sell in hardback. There are plans to turn it into a multi-part documentary because we’re now in the world of Netflix and Apple and music films do quite well. I now have a deal to write two more, one of which has to be delivered quite soon.
One of the parts of the book that really struck me was the section about Elvis, doing his Vegas shows, mining his heritage by playing the old songs.
Yes, that became the future. That’s where it started to go round and round. There’s a part in Bruce Springsteen’s book where he talks about that period of time before we started repeating ourselves. That’s pretty much what my next book is about. We’re now in the period of endless repetition, it’s different.
Something that I’m still pushing as an idea for a book is that The Beatles were underrated. It was one of the few things I wrote for Word that people still ask me about. I really believe that we overrate seriousness in pop music. We overrate people like Nick Cave – if they appear serious they must be better than we think they are. People who don’t to that, like ABBA, we tend to think that they’re not as good as they are. The generation of joy is the greatest aspiration of popular music. Motown. The Beach Boys. Ultimately it matters more than modish misery.
Going back to your memories of Word – it sounds like there was a fair amount of pain involved but there must have been some highlights too.
Yes, of course, there was a balance. I do meet a lot of people with tears in their eyes. “Can’t you bring it back?” I respond, “No!” I’m quite happy now. Do you know how much misery would be involved in all those people having to do that?
However, if you were to slip your rose-coloured spectacles on for a moment…what are your abiding memories?
It’s just the people – I miss the people. I still see Mark, Kate, Fraser and Paul occasionally. We had a great feeling and it was a lovely bunch of people. I said to them when we closed that they’d never have another experience like that in their working life. I think that’s true. I think it was the last magazine of its kind. There won’t be any others, certainly not like that, with that much love. That’s not to blame anybody, it’s just the way of the world. It’s like bands or anything, when the market’s expanding you can go into these things with love and end up making a living out of it. When the market’s not expanding, don’t go into it for love, go into it for money and work out where you’re gonna get it from because you’ve got to eat.
I don’t miss the writing – I mean I still write but I don’t sit there and think “Oh, so-and-so’s got a new album out, if only I could go and interview them”. I’m sure Mark and Paul feel the same. Sitting there listening to someone saying “I think this album is the best album we’ve ever done.” I can’t believe that there was ever a time when it was important and people wanted to read it. That’s disappeared from the world. I know you get those features in newspapers but I can’t believe anyone reads them apart from the band. “The Killers have got their tenth album out” – well, whoop-di-doo! That’s what the music press did, it used to provide a unique service to the music business in making its acts seem considerably more interesting than they actually were, more glamourous, more charismatic. I’ll go to the Mercury Music Prize night or something and I’ll sit and watch this parade – and I know I’m old and out of touch – but I think ‘God, you’re not very interesting are you?’ And the reason they’re not very interesting is that there’s no media making them interesting. They’re out there on their own. If you want to know why people still remember The Clash it’s because of the NME – they invented The Clash, Penny Smith’s photographs invented The Clash. Nobody’s seen through that kind of lens anymore.
A lot of the time you hadn’t even heard any of their music. You’d read interviews and reviews and convince yourself that you’d probably like them – half of it was what you constructed in your own head.
Absolutely. The music business, particularly the rock press, are monuments to the self-delusional capacity of men, both the guys in the bands and the people in the audience. ‘Do I like this? What does this say about me?’ Mark and I always used to say that the difference between men and women listening to music is that if you play a piece of music in a public place, women will tend to say ‘I like this – what is it?’ Men will say ‘What’s this? I like it.’ They need to know first if it’s one of the acceptable things to like.
So I miss the people and the Massive – nothing else.