Categories
Music Industry

The Print Magazines That I Miss

I love writing for a music magazine! I currently am a regular contributor to Fiddler. I work with a great editor (Mary Larsen), I have learned to appreciate the violin more, so much so that I have gone from a disgruntled beginner to a disgruntled intermediate player, and most important, I have become friends with a number of musicians in the bluegrass, klezmer, folk, and Americana folds.

I have written for a number of other magazines over the years, but that has dropped off due to a number of reasons such as difficult editors/not getting paid, financial situations ceasing publication, or the decision to go strictly online (which results in lack of pay many times as well).
Hitting the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble is pathetic. The choice for music-related magazines is minimal, and what is there is more trendy/gossipy than intellectual or industry oriented (with a few exceptions like Guitar Player).

Yes, times change, and perhaps the current young generation is content with getting its information from the web instead of a hard-copy magazine. When I was a young and easily influenced beginning musician, I salivated over the numerous music magazines that were available, either as intelligent criticism of the current music trends or as helpful mentoring in becoming a better musician. One can get any lesson for any instrument on YouTube, as well as personal reviews of equipment. However, it just isn’t the same as relying on that monthly music ‘zine that either came to your door or was waiting for you at the bookstore to get valued information and advice.

I have been thinking lately of some of the print magazines that I miss getting my hands on over the years. Here are a few of them, and I hope that it may bring back some fond memories for you.

Blitz – As a teenager in the early 1980s, I was getting into the punk/new wave scene both as a listener and musician. When I discovered Blitz, I thought that I had found the Holy Grail! It hailed itself as “The Rock and Roll Magazine for Thinking People,” and it was. This was more than the local fanzine, even though it covered musicians primarily from California. However, those were the bands that I was into at that time. The Plimsouls, The Blasters, X, The Long Ryders, Green on Red, The Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, Blood on the Saddle, the list goes on. They also covered a lot of European bands that were making a name for themselves in the US, as well as bands from the 1960s that still had a cult following. I remember the first issue that I got. Josie Cotton was on the cover. The writing was not pretentious like Rolling Stone, more down to Earth without being moronic. There were three or four artist articles, then a ton of album reviews that I relied on heavily. It started in 1975, but was no longer being printed by the mid 1990s. There is a Facebook page run by the old staff, but I don’t do FB, so I pass.

Frets – This was (and still is, I believe) a sister publication to Guitar Player (which also had another sister called Keyboard for those interested in that instrument family). Started in 1979, this was a magazine for those interested in acoustic music, no matter what the genre. While most of it seemed to lean toward bluegrass artists, there was also ample coverage of jazz, international, acoustic pop, and folk. Also in variance were the musical instruments covered. Besides guitar, there were regular articles on players of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, even autoharp, sitar, and bouzuki. That may have been its weakness, as it is very hard to find a large readership that is into many acoustic instruments from many musical formats. By 1985, the content seemed to lean mostly with acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars, although there were some great stories on the New Grass Revival and Mark O’Connor. The original magazine folded in August 1989, but was brought back about a decade later covering almost only acoustic guitars, most likely to compete against Acoustic Guitar magazine and to keep that audience that wasn’t interested in electric guitars satisfied (like the original publication in 1979). I haven’t seen hide nor hair of this magazine in over a decade, and the website (www.fretsmag.com) has information dating from 2006.

Bluegrass Now – This was an alternative to Bluegrass Unlimited when it was alive. It was bi-monthly, so it was not as timely as BU. During its last few years in the early 2000s, I wrote a few articles for it. I got along great with the editorial staff, but there were some financial difficulties within the magazine. In 2003, it chose to go online-only, but could not garnish enough interest from the bluegrass community to survive (trust me, this community will always love its hard-copy reading). There were one or two other bluegrass-centric magazines that dropped by the wayside as well. BU was fortunate to partner with the Bluegrass Hall of Fame to ensure its continuance. BN was more in-depth with its interviews, a quality that BU seems to be moving toward. However, snagging an authorship in BU is nearly impossible, as it has its regular contributors. So I do wish that there were more bluegrass print publications out there, but I can understand the financial reasons why there are not.

These are just three of the many magazines that I miss. Getting information off of the internet is not the same. I enjoyed getting a different magazine each week and reading it cover-to-cover, keeping it with me so that I could read a little at school, at a restaurant, at home, waiting in the car, or a dozen other situations. Surfing on your phone is irritating.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music Musicians

Bluegrass Unlimited/Billy Sheehan/MerleFest

A short but sweet blog.

While I am still on the fence regarding the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine’s format (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/11/05/the-new-bluegrass-unlimited-magazine-some-thoughts/), I truly appreciate the YouTube channel that the publication has established. Every few days they post a new video that is either a quick lesson on how to improve your playing on guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or dobro, or it is a jam track. These consist of standard bluegrass instrumentals with a lead guitar handling the first verse, then followed by a few verses of just rhythm guitar, bass, and rhythm mandolin. Perfect for practicing your own lead work! Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxNYVomNcDI-5mrOy3KgoHA.

Another likeable YouTube channel is the one set up by bassist Billy Sheehan. While I’m not big on “bass guitar as lead instrument,” I do know that Billy is one of the top bass players out there, and if he says something about bass playing, YOU LISTEN! His channel has only been up for a few months, but the videos up are worth watching. There are a few performance videos, but there are also some great videos on what he does to work on his basses to make them play better. Like me, he likes to get his hands dirty by working on things like setting up his guitars, setting intonation, and adjusting parts for better playability. He’s personable, humble, and appreciative of his success. Definitely check out his channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/BassPlayerBilly.

MerleFest is back on for 2021! Although the festivals is usually slated for the month of April, this year it has been moved to September 16-19. Unfortunately, anyone planning to attend AmericanaFest will have to either choose between the two, or hope that his/her boss will give them two weeks vacation. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is also on, with entries being accepted April 15-June 15. For more information, go to http://merfest.org/.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

The New Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine: Some Thoughts

I received my November 2020 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited yesterday. Now that it is being published by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum, one could expect a few changes in the appearance. Well, a lot has changed visually, and here’s my take on it.

A first glance at the cover tells you that there is a new sheriff in town. Gone is the laid-back look of a sit-down magazine. Instead, we are treated to a more in-your-face look. The use of multiple fonts can give your eyes a workout, to say the least. The design leans more toward a fashion magazine. Instead of simply stating who or what will be covered within the pages, the cover shouts what is ahead with subtitles.

Opening the magazine, one can see that larger advertisements for instruments and accessories seem to remain the same, although there seems to be a lot less of them than before. This could be due to the Coronavirus (lack of festivals scheduled for 2021) or an editorial choice. There are also a lot less half- and quarter-page ads. The departments in the early pages (General Store, Notes & Queries) are still there, although it is a bit confusing to read with all of the new fonts on text and titles. Also, before N&Q, there is a new column called The Tradition that seems to be an op-ed style essay on a specific time/date in bluegrass (in this case, it is about one of Bill Monroe’s quotes and how it originated).

Featured articles are now each part of a section. Before, there seemed to be a flow of the cover story, a few other artists’ stories, an article on a popular festival, then concluding with a bluegrass gospel artist profile. Now, there are sections on The Artists, The Sound (apparently covering instrument makers and dealers) and The Venue (covering festivals and concert halls). As for the artists, there are the usual A-list articles, but there is also an article on Lindsay Lou, a performer more in line with the jamgrass and progressive grass culture – something not usually found in the previous incarnation of the magazine. Personally, I like seeing a more diverse listing of artists. I was finding the previous coverage a bit tedious, with some artists being interviewed only a year or two after an earlier article. However, I do see the possibility of some traditionalists complaining.

The rear of the magazine contains the stalwart inclusions of reviews and the national survey. As for the reviews, there seems to be a lot less included, with only the more outstanding albums appearing. The old BU used to have a good handful of mini-reviews that were helpful to interested parties. Also there are no book reviews, only announcements.

This issue includes the yearly Talent Directory. In previous years, the directory was about a dozen pages of small print listings of artists that sent in their particulars. This year, the print is bigger, there are a lot less artists listed (deadline concerns?), and a few of the more popular bands have photos along with their listing. My listing is in there (actually, it is in there twice due to a printer error), but I do not remember an offering of publishing a photo for payment (the listings are free).

There is one big amateur slip-up here. An article in the Tradition section covering a tribute to guitar luthier Preston Thompson was incomplete, with no “continued on page XX” or conclusion. Given that it’s the premier issue from the HOF, one can understand, but the managing editor Dan Miller has handled print magazines in the past and should have caught this before sending it to printer. He does have an editorial introduction at the front of the magazine outlining the intent of the publication. These op-eds rarely appeared in the previous incarnation of BU, so it will be interesting if this continues.

Overall, one could see that the magazine is looking to get more readers, especially ones outside of the normal bluegrass scene. One thing is for sure, it does not look anything like the old style. In fact, one could easily mistake it for American Songwriter Magazine, as the look is nearly identical. The editorial slant also seems to lean more toward its Americana counterparts than the magazine ever did previously.

Only time will tell how BU will weather the future. As it is the only true print magazine covering bluegrass exclusively, readership should not change much. They may gain some hipster types but lose some hard-nosed traditionalists. If they are trying to be more like AS, I do hope that they don’t follow its editorial path and become a lot more politically liberal based. That is the reason I stopped subscribing to AS. I wanted to read about music in a music magazine, not politics.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine Changes Hands

Earlier this month, it was announced that the Bluegrass Hall of Fame would be taking over publishing duties of Bluegrass Unlimited starting with the November 2020 issue. Ever since the passing of long-time publisher of Pete Kuykendall back in 2017, his wife Kitsy has held the reins and is eager to see this transfer come to fruition. This looks to be a good fit, as the HOF has the resources to provide historical input as well as knowledge of the audience that would read the magazine.

I know for a fact that running a business like a magazine is treacherous. I have written for a number of magazines over the years, and many of them no longer exist. Knowing the readership is probably the most important factor for keeping a magazine alive. I was a regular contributor to a magazine called Bluegrass Now years ago. It was probably the closest competition to BU. It was bi-monthly, but had a much more glossy appearance to it than BU. Unfortunately, the print costs forced BN to go online only in 2008, which led to the publication’s complete demise a short time later.

BU has a unique position in the magazine world. Its subject coverage (bluegrass music) is a niche/boutique audience. It can’t compete with other music magazines like Rolling Stone, but it doesn’t need to. It is a specialized reference for bluegrass music to other parties. It puts out special issues each year dedicated to musical instrument manufacturers, a festival guide, and an artist talent directory. Each regular issue has about five articles on either performers or venues/events, a Q&A section assisting reader inquiries, and a short “in the news” section. They also occasionally publish a “letters to the editor” section when space allows. There are a lot of advertisements, especially from festivals. Of course, with those events being cancelled during the Coronavirus, page count with BU has been down most of this year. In short, it is a comfortable read for the audience it is intended to meet.

My only real complaint about BU is the coverage of artists over the years. It seems that when you get the latest copy, the cover story is about a performer that they just did a story on within the past two years. The editorial end always feels like it is in its own comfort zone and doesn’t want to step out of it unless it is absolutely necessary. As BU is the primary resource on bluegrass music to the masses, it has so much opportunity to knock down walls and introduce its audience to new and innovative bluegrass talent. Putting a new voice in bluegrass on the cover would show that the editors and publisher have their ear to the ground and want to not only see the format continue, but also to grow even more.

At this point, it looks as though BU is being put into good hands. I hope that the new editorial staff considers the potential power that they have with the magazine and becomes more innovative than ever before. With the decline in paper publications due to access online, it will be an even greater challenge. Let’s hope they are up to the task.

Chew on it and comment.