Bold, broke and backing real music: 10 years of The Quietus

Bold, broke and backing real music: 10 years of The Quietus

‘Nobody thought we’d make it’ — As the music publication celebrates a decade of editorial independence, founders John Doran and Luke Turner reflect on the highs and lows of their tumultuous tenure – from stealing Mick Hucknall’s clothes to launching their own label.

In 2008, Luke Turner and John Doran cleared their office desks by stuffing their belongings into a bin bag, freshly printed P45s in hand.

As a chronic alcoholic who had just decided to quit drinking, John was also in the process of pouring away all of the bottles of booze he’d found hidden in various places. Red wine and whiskey was sent sloshing down the plughole, much like the hopes they had for the online music publication they’d recently been hired to launch.

Things had been going well until the financial crash. When the market went into meltdown, their investors (Sky) pulled funding almost immediately. The site hadn’t even been fully designed when the pair were told: “We’re sacking you, but you can keep this fucking useless website that nobody reads.”

As they continued to pack up their things, a line manager came into the office. One of his clients was Mick Hucknall, who kept a walk-in wardrobe there – just in case he needed to change for any last minute gigs. “Taking pity on us, he told us that he was going out and noted that the door to Mick’s wardrobe was ajar,” John remembers. Two days later, dressed head-to-toe in Mick Hucknall’s clothes – suits, shirts, boots, pants – the pair met up to discuss what the hell to do.

A five-year plan was scribbled with Hucknall’s biro, on Hucknall’s post-it notes, and a conclusion was reached: “Fuck it. Let’s just carry on with the site anyway.”

A Fresh Start

Deciding that Kraftwerk’s track ‘Autobahn’ was a musical benchmark of modernity, they decided to use the year of its creation – 1974 – as a philosophical ground zero for what would become The Quietus. The aim was to fill a void in modern journalism: to counter “canonical dad rock, NME horseshit indie and anaemic, drippy American Pitchfork crap” and level the playing field.

“I thought, ‘Imagine running a publication where heavy metal was treated as a serious progressive art form and not this music for educationally subnormal working-class people,’” says John. “Likewise dance music. We wanted to give everything equal weight.”

At first, they blagged a tiny desk in the office of a games designer friend who worked in East London’s Truman Brewery. “We had these old shitty DELL office computers,” John continues. “They had spring-loaded keyboards and the noise they made sounded like gunfire. It felt like we were going into battle every day. I’m aware how pompous and idiotic this makes me sound, but it was only by harnessing this really zealous attitude that helped us survive the first year. I don’t think anyone but us believed it would last.”

The next step was sharing a space with music newspaper The Stool Pigeon and a small indie record label: all of them squeezed into an extension at the end of a row of terraced houses in Stoke Newington.

From the outside, remembers Cian Traynor – an editor at Huck then working at The Stool Pigeon – it looked like a slightly dilapidated building on an unremarkable street. But inside, he says, the walls would constantly rattle from The Quietus’ blaring stereo: “Pummelling industrial techno, Norwegian black metal, The Fall’s entire back catalogue – it rarely let up. It felt like they were on this relentless search for the most intense sounds known to humankind.”

The Quietus’ space was essentially a dimly lit living room with bars on the windows and a kitchenette almost exclusively used for brewing Yorkshire tea,” Cian goes on. “There was a constant stream of visitors, never-ending laughter, occasional shouting interspersed with reliable amounts of drama and scandal. The Stool Pigeon was contained to a tiny loft directly above and so, sometimes when we’d finish late, heading downstairs through an empty tQ office felt a little unsettling. The space was a vacuum without them.”

Supporting the Underground

Offices would come and go over the years, but the site grew consistently: gaining more readers and writers while covering an increasingly expansive selection of music: drone to post-punk, pop to electro, chaabi to psychedelia.  

Its fervent stance – delivered via longform features and reviews – led to them throwing their full weight behind music and not worrying about covering certain artists repeatedly. “There’s too much flimsy objective journalism around and not enough brusque opinionated stuff,” says Luke. “How can you write objective music journalism? It’s an oxymoron.”

Their end-of-year polls have given number one spots to artists such as Liars, Gazelle Twin, Grumbling Fur and Arabrot – albums that arguably wouldn’t even scrape the top 50 in other lists. Gazelle Twin’s Elizabeth Bernholz describes the accolade as a life-changing feeling. “To be thought of in such a way, by such radical and brilliant thinkers, made me feel deeply proud of myself for sticking to my guns with that record.”

The site has played a crucial role in championing new, boundary-pushing, ear-terrorising music. But it’s also proved an invaluable influence in keeping niche areas of musical history alive. Take, for instance, Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti: artists that have been celebrated for their new work, as well as the influence of their former group Throbbing Gristle.

“Our legacy has benefited greatly from their continued support – exposing, attracting and expanding our audiences,” they explain, via a joint statement. “They have a true understanding and appreciation of all the strands of our work.”

Turning a Publication into a Record Label

That love for music bubbled over to such an extent that the Quietus decided to start a record label in 2013. William Doyle (FKA East India Youth) would become the first artist whose music they wanted to release themselves – an idea that took root when he enthusiastically shoved a CD into John’s hand at a Factory Floor gig in late 2012. “That was genuinely one of the turning points of my life,” William says.

“I’d just signed on to Jobseekers to give me some shred of financial support while I tried to get a record deal based on a heavily compressed CD-R with no gigs lined up, no photos or any music online. I was feeling quite depressed by my outlook. John then texted me to say he really liked the CD. From that moment on, a gigantic door opened and basically formed the foundation of my life and career ever since.”

Less than a year after the newly established Quietus Phonographic Corporation put out an EP by William, his debut album was released on Stolen Recordings. Then he was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and went on to sign with XL. “Even if it all ended tomorrow,” John says, “it would have been worth it just for that.”  

The label also went on to release music by The Charlatans, Grumbling Fur, Sex Swing, Chrononautz and an album of musical collaborations that John released to accompanying his 2015 memoir Jolly Lad.  

A Place For New Writers

Many writers (this one included) began writing for The Quietus at an early stage in their career and were given a sense of freedom and encouragement during a key period in their own creative development.

Rory Gibb, a staffer between 2011-2014, feels this avuncular approach is where they have truly excelled. “Their greatest strength has been their commitment to fostering young writers and exciting unknown voices, many of whom might not get a platform elsewhere,” he says. “It’s telling that many editors and writers with important and interesting perspectives on the current moment are tQ alumni.”

Such alumni includes The Guardian’s Deputy Music Editor Laura Snapes, Lauren Martin of Red Bull Radio and ex-NME reviews editor, Emily MacKay, in addition to esteed contributors such as David Stubbs and Simon Price.

“They have nurtured successive waves of talent, giving a diverse range of young writers a chance to develop, as well as maintaining a network of valued contributors for years to come – and that is not easy,” adds Cian, who remains a regular contributor to The Quietus. “They’ve accumulated so much goodwill, too. As someone who has written for a lot of publications, it’s rare that an artist will light up or show any genuine warmth when you mention the publication. But tQ is different.”

Money (is Too Tight to Mention)  

Zealousness and tireless work has earned the site a reputation as a fierce voice in contemporary cultural journalism, although this doesn’t necessarily equate to financial success.

“We didn’t pay ourselves for nearly two years and our first pay packet was £50 a week,” John says. “We still earn less than minimum wage now.”

John and Luke freelance on top of tQ, which is also made up of small team of part-time staff. But Luke says that even if they were earning more money, it would be going to the writers rather than themselves.

As an independent site without a publishing house or brand money behind it, John says, they are closer to a modern, digital equivalent of the zine Sniffin Glue than they are to the likes of Mojo. “If you were an accountant and you looked at our finances you would fucking weep.”  

The Future

Facebook and Google’s move into selling targeted ads has had an enormous impact on tQ, draining their ad revenue. The site has been surviving by relying on patronage from readers for the last year or so. “If people can contribute the price of a pint or a couple of coffees a month it makes such a huge difference,” Luke says.

Of the site’s future model, John adds that “we need to become more like an American radio station, such as WFMU,” referring to the listener-supported New Jersey station that holds annual fundraising marathons to keep them going. “There’s no feeling that they are going around with a begging bowl. It’s people that can afford to, supporting a cultural initiative.”

But the voices wishing to keep tQ alive are plentiful. For Liars’ Angus Andrew, it’s about knowing people out there have his back. “Who else bastions the difficult? Who else supports the weirdos and the freaks?” he asks. “They have always understood that popularity is not the mark of achievement. We are all heading toward a personalised spam-a-thon of culture and it’s essential that publications like them remain vigilant and strong-willed.”

No Regrets

Getting sacked was the best thing that ever happened to us,” John says.  “Because there’s no way that tQ would exist now if we hadn’t, or even if it did they would have got rid of us.” Luke agrees with this statement. “They wanted something very different from what we were willing to do. We’re both quite obstreperous and we wouldn’t have carried on doing it if they had asked us to go in certain directions.”

By digging their heels in and avoiding fickle fads or binary predictions about the future of the Internet, tQ has built itself a reputation during a time of turbulence and turmoil in modern publishing. It’s the industry and networks around it all that have changed, while its voice has remained forceful, indomitable and irreverent throughout.  

“There’s been lots of gimmicks and initiatives over the years to try and work out what the future of publishing is,” Luke says. “And we’ve just stuck with: ‘Here’s some text with a picture at the top and some sounds embedded in it.’ None of the other things have endured. Just look at [what happened with] ‘pivot to video’, when publications [like MTV] got rid of all their editorial staff and hired video people… then realised people don’t want just to sit and watch videos all day.”

John adds his own analogy to this disaster movie. “It’s like when my mate John Tatlock did such an incredible 720 degree pivot at a Prince show that he broke his own leg in the process. It was spectacular while it was happening, but the after-effects were awful.”

This attitude has had a clear impact on those that have worked alongside them. “The Quietus challenged me to think about the types of music I consume, helping me realise just how big the musical universe is – and that’s it full of hidden gems that can knock you on your arse,” says Cian. “You couldn’t be around these people and not broaden your horizons. That is a magic thing to absorb.”

Looking back on celebrating 10 years of the site, Luke remains modest. “We’re probably the two most naive people in publishing,” he concludes. “We’ve always just felt that the main thing is the quality of the writing, the opinions and the celebration of artists we believe in. It’s probably to our personal fiscal detriment but… ah well.”

You can support The Quietus through their website

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.