Phil Hebblethwaite

Phil Hebblethwaite

Counsel For The Young Indie Publisher — Honest tips and jaded insights from The Stool Pigeon grave, resting place of a music newspaper that was fiercely independent to the end.

In early 2005, I teamed up with graphic designer Mickey Gibbons and launched a bi-monthly free music newspaper called The Stool Pigeon. On February 6 this year, we shut up shop. We hadn’t gone bust, but we were exhausted and it felt like the right time to stop.

“We’re closing ourselves down. Thanks for being a reader,” we tweeted and, right before we did, I turned to our online editor, Alex Denney, and said that only two possible responses would be acceptable:

1. A total tumbleweed moment, followed by an enormous sense of relief that we’d finally quit and, my God, how did we not realise that no one cared!?

2. An outpouring of affection for a title that was resolutely independent and determinedly on the side of its readers.

I don’t mind telling you that five minutes after we fired out that tweet I burst into tears, and it was because of response number two.

One of my favourite musicians to interview is Chilly Gonzales, the Canadian pianist/producer/rapper who has spent much of his professional life in various European cities. He imparts so much wisdom when you talk to him that we once decided to do an interview based solely around him offering advice to younger artists. It was called ‘Counsel For The Modern Musician’ and he began with: “Quit music. There needs to be fewer musicians.”

I’m in a reflective mood while I close down The Stool Pigeon and what follows is my attempt at counsel for young, independent publishers.

1. Treasure your independence

You know you won’t get rich, so why are you doing this? You might feel you have something to say, or you might just want to create something beautiful. Your cause is noble and I wish you luck. Those friends of yours that work on mags run by corporate publishers… ask them what they can’t get away with. That’s your bread and butter. Advertisers associate themselves with reputation and decent circulation, and you get reputation and decent circulation by being risky, original and honest.

You don’t need to stick LOL cats on your website to get traffic. Grit sells! The second most read story on The Stool Pigeon site in 2012 was a long, knotty investigation into the rotten business practices of a festival/gig promoter called All Tomorrow’s Parties (first was a Krent Able comic that went nuts after it ended up on Reddit). For a number of different reasons, no other music mag would have run the ATP story and our following issue became the highest grossing in our history. Everyone thought the opposite would happen — that we’d alienate our advertisers. Not so.

The most-read piece ever was published just before we closed: it was both an epitaph and a kind of snarky summation of what we’d learned about music writing, by Alex Denney, titled The Stool Pigeon Guide To Music Journalist Bullshit.’

And therein lies another important lesson…

2. Be funny

I can’t stress this enough. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the only chance you have of making your mag a success is by being funny. It’s not easy, but here’s the good news: there are tricks you can play in this field. If only fifteen per cent of what you produce is funny, people will still think that your magazine, in general, is funny.

As a bare minimum, you only need one funny writer. Finding someone who can write crisp, amusing copy is extremely difficult. Hunt high and low and when you think you’ve got someone, give them as much of the mag to write as they can handle. We were lucky: we had a few writers who were funny, but mostly we had Jeremy Allen – and Jeremy Allen is a very funny writer.

To my great surprise, last year I was headhunted for the position of editor at NME after Krissi Murison announced she was leaving her post. I greatly enjoyed the two interviews I ended up having (wasn’t offered the job, mind), particularly this exchange with Steve Sutherland, bulldog former editor, now editorial director:

Sutherland: “It’s almost impossible to be funny. How does The Stool Pigeon manage it?”

Me: “We have one main funny writer, so he comes up with nearly all the funny stuff under a bunch of assumed names and characters.”

Sutherland: “Aaaaaah! I can’t fucking believe I didn’t realise that. Of course. Aaaaaah!”

Final point on this matter – a quote from Oscar Wilde: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

3. Steal furiously

If you don’t know about magazines and newspapers, and you’re not particularly interested in their history, you won’t be able to make a good one yourself. If, like me, you’re a journalist who started a newspaper, you must get very interested in other newspapers/magazines very quickly. Then it’s your duty to steal furiously from them. All the best ideas in The Stool Pigeon were in someway transposed from elsewhere, even if that was something as simple as thinking, “Hmmm, there’s a wonderful heritage of printing comics on newsprint… we should start a comics section.”

Be creative when you pillage and get over your whole gonzo-Lester-Bangs-Hunter-S-Thompson fixation. If you must take inspiration from a ‘new journalist’, choose Gay Talese. But you’re a publisher now, so find yourself a publishing hero. Mine is William M. Gaines of Mad magazine and EC Comics fame, and if you’re serious about being a credible indie publisher, I’d recommend closely studying Frank Jacob’s biography of the big man, The Mad World of William M. Gaines.

4. Celebrate the sense of occasion

Once you’ve launched your own magazine, a lot of students will want to interview you and you’ll find there’s one point in particular that they seldom grasp: you can’t generalise about print media and its supposed death. What we did (print almost 60,000 copies of a very niche title six times a year) and what a daily newspaper does (print more copies than our entire annual run every day of the year) are entirely different things, and I think that being niche is actually the key to survival. In that respect, print media folk have the internet to thank.

Online evangelists often pontificate, usually with extreme smugness, on the demise of print. Ignore them – they are clueless to the many deep pleasures involved in making a magazine. It’s so rare, in fact, to hear an internet boffin say anything sensible about print media that it’s worth quoting them as and when they do. Over then to Ryan Schreiber, the brains behind Pitchfork: “I think if you’re going to be able to do a print publication that works in 2013, it has to really take advantage of that format, and the things that that format offers that are much more difficult to execute on the web are having really expansive, beautiful layouts for your articles and features, and making it feel like a desirable object.”

He’s right, and it’s interesting to see Schreiber experimenting with very magazine-like ideas on Pitchfork, such as their ‘Cover Story’ feature – an occasional homepage takeover that marries original photography with long-form writing and breaks every web rule by looking like the pages of a beautifully designed mag.

I’m sure he runs his cover stories because he’s envious of something print people must celebrate: the great sense of occasion that comes from printing a magazine, which is dampened by the high-paced, linear nature of the internet. If there’s no sense of occasion when every issue of your mag comes out, you really need to think again about what you are doing – and why.

5. Learn to stop worrying and love the internet

The internet is a beautiful thing that can do nothing but complement your beautiful magazine. Don’t be a dork — spend as much time (much more, in most cases) on your site as you do on your mag. Your site and social networks are the biggest adverts for your printed version. Let them make gorgeous music together, doing what each one does best. I was a dork – I kept the balance of The Stool Pigeon tipped in the direction of print for too long, and it became my fatal error.

6. Never retweet a compliment

There’s a special place reserved in hell for anyone that retweets a compliment. Have some dignity, for fuck’s sake.

7. Adverts maketh the magazine

They bring in the money, but there’s a finer point here: generally speaking, online advertising winds people up. We’ve trained our brains to ignore ads if they’re placed in regular leaderboard or MPU positions, so (foolish) marketeers are constantly coming up with new ways to bully us into paying attention. They make ads slip across editorial when you don’t want them to, shout at you, constantly hover around whatever section of text you’re reading, etc.

In The Stool Pigeon, the advertising worked perfectly with the editorial. Relevant independent record labels and promoters bought space and they made good-looking, informative pages that complemented our reporting. The ads, in other words, were a service to the reader, too. More than that, they made The Stool Pigeon feel beefy, and that’s so essential.

Tina Brown is a Brit-in-New-York magazine genius (CV: former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor, now boss of The Daily Beast) and she perfectly understands what I’m talking about. Quote from a recent New York Magazine interview: “…there’s something about the way a magazine looks and feels when it doesn’t have advertising that is unbelievably disappointing, both as an editor and as a writer. [Single editorial] pages are not meant to be adjacent to one another. They need the advertising to give it body and fullness.”

But don’t get me wrong on this…

8. Never allow collusion between ads and editorial

Ads are ads; editorial is editorial. Never the twain shall meet, and you instantly destroy your credibility if you mess with this most sacred rule. Copy published to brownnose advertisers, which is called ‘advertorial’ in its most grotesque form, is the curse of modern journalism and it goes on pretty much across the board. Regarding my hardnosed attitude to this, I’m constantly told that I’m out-of-date and, increasingly, readers neither notice or care if there’s a little bit of funny business going on somewhere in a magazine. All the more reason for you to take a stand against it and become a leader, not a sucker.

That said, corporate money (£10,000 from Levi’s) got us off the ground. We agreed to feature a band that was part of their ‘Levi’s Ones To Watch’ programme in each of our first four issues, and they placed a postage stamp-sized logo on that page. However, Levi’s contractually had no copy/photographic/design approval, we had already planned to cover many of the bands they were working with, and when they wanted more control after our first four issues, we walked away.

9. Be extremely cautious of anyone who uses the word ‘solidarity’

Unless you implicitly make an agreement to cooperate with other people (and sharing resources in your early days can be a good idea), there’s no solidarity in independent publishing – only competition and survival. And in the wider world of your magazine (for us that meant the music business), people only use the word ‘solidarity’ if they’re trying to prevent you from publishing an article that’s not in their interest, or they can’t pay you. Solidarity, my arse!

10. Get excited

The world is yours if you have a brilliant idea, so don’t let bitter old hacks like me get you down. These are exhilarating, not depressing, times for publishing. Get excited and rise as the tired, established models crumble. Then, as Gonzales always says, “If you make it, be grateful.”