Music magazine No Depression gets a second chance thanks to a university press | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Music magazine No Depression gets a second chance thanks to a university press 

The great Depression

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Each March, thousands of bands from around the world gather in Austin, Texas, for four days of well-wishing and slogan-syndication known as South by Southwest. Acts flood the city hoping that journalists, record label executives, publicists, publishers—anyone, really—notice their sound and help make them famous or, at the very least, help them make enough gas money to drive home.

This year's conference was only slightly different: On the third day, Harp, a music magazine that covered a wide range of rock and folk just outside of the mainstream since 2001, announced its last issue was en route to newsstands. Guthrie Inc., which purchased the two-year-old magazine in 2003, was filing for bankruptcy, and—with those proceedings—so went Harp.

The news added to the music industry's anxiety in Austin. As record sales continued to slump in light of the Internet, which remains a land of vast opportunity and disappointment for most music models, people wondered aloud about the future of the music industry—that is, if it had one at all. Essentially, another piece, albeit a small one, had collapsed. A month earlier, Resonance, a Seattle-based indie rock glossy, declared its own demise, as did No Depression, known to many during its 13-year run as the bible of alternative country music.

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No Depression offered what few of its competitors on newsstands or, in particular, on the Internet could: long-form, thoughtful, comprehensive stories that covered a market almost completely via pieces with distinct voices and personality. Whether staying up late with Ryan Adams back in his Raleigh Whiskeytown days or telling music buffs why a Billboard star like Miranda Lambert mattered, No Depression dug deeply into its subjects. According to the magazine's style guide, the word "internet" didn't start with a capital letter; indeed, at its best, No Depression's style of hyper-aware writing felt, well, bigger and better than most of what you could read about music on the Internet.

Despite a steady circulation between 29,000 and 39,000 and the magazine's authoritative position within its genre, No Depression's advertising funds had dropped 64 percent in two years. The magazine couldn't afford to put its words onto paper.

"Barring the intercession of unknown angels, you hold in your hands the next-to-the-last edition of No Depression we will publish," wrote Peter Blackstock, Grant Alden and Kyla Fairchild, No Depression's three partners and 60 percent of its full-time staff, in the penultimate issue's foreword. "It is difficult even to type those words, so please know that we have not come lightly to this decision."

But during South by Southwest, No Depression found its "unknown angels," just as the gaggle of bands that flock to Austin each March hope to do. During a series of meetings with University of Texas Press marketing director and sales manager Dave Hamrick, the magazine's triumvirate agreed to begin work on a bookazine—essentially, a longer version of the magazine with a paperback book cover. Instead of relying on advertising revenue to pay for photos, stories and salaries, No Depression would pay for content using an advance from UT Press, much like that given to an author to work on a book.

Alden and Blackstock would retain full editorial control, and the university would print the book twice a year, as opposed to the bimonthly magazine. It would cost $19.95, more than three times the cost of the final issue of the magazine. If it succeeds, it could signal new opportunities for the deeply troubled music and magazine markets.

The resurrected No Depression is a two-pronged media outlet, using the bookazine for discursive profile pieces that tell an artist's story in 3,000-10,000 words. Fittingly, the first issue focuses on "The Next Generation," young musicians advancing roots music. A rich, redesigned Web site offers news, concert reviews, a concert calendar, record reviews and regular columns from nine long-time No Depression scribes.

"Rather than try and keep the magazine alive in bimonthly format, [it made more sense] to transition to something that was more book format but kept the sensibility and approach of the magazine," says Blackstock, a University of Texas graduate who once lived in Durham but now lives in Mebane. "Our sense was to use the bookazine format for the longer pieces we're known for and the Web for the more timely things: Use each format to its respective strengths."

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No Depression's respective strengths gave it a second chance. The magazines tastes, for instance, lent itself to an association with the Texas press. Lone Star icons like Willie Nelson, Alejandro Escovedo and Kris Kristofferson have posed for its cover. No Depression pursued long-form music journalism with a rebel spirit, too. In spite of an industry-wide movement toward busied, multiple-points-of-entry layouts and shorter stories, its writers consistently aimed for the big picture. Such content lends itself to book form. In 2005, the best of those stories were bound in the book No Depression: What It Sounds Like, Vol. 2, published by UT Press.

Hamrick is quick to point out that, though UT Press pursued the project because it was passionate about the magazine's content, the project has to make money to survive. No one's sure if it will. The current contract calls for two more bookazines. It will be renewed, says Hamrick, if the new model pulls its own weight.

"It's a commercial venture for us. We have to break even. We're a nonprofit and a university press, but this is the kind of book that we need to make money on," says Hamrick. "But we may have stumbled upon a scenario that would allow other publishers to [maintain their magazines by working with universities]. A lot of these publications are falling by the way side."

Indeed, the biggest question is whether or not this model can work for other struggling magazines, music or otherwise. Trouble is, most music magazines don't have hold over a particular niche like No Depression. No Depression became a style and a look—a brand, some say—that engendered a loyal base. Its design—large, intimate photos; a weathered, bold logo; a distinct, well-spaced typeface—was as identifiable as the artists it covered.

"No Depression is the only [music magazine] I really kept," says Molly Flynn, a Raleigh fan who contributes to the e-mail group Guitartown. Borrowing its name from a Steve Earle album, the group's music of choice is largely consistent with that covered in No Depression. "I have every single issue I've ever purchased on my bookcase at home, and it makes me crazy that I don't have Issues One, Two and Three."

No Depression, then, was the exception in a glut of magazines that track the same bands in the same ways.

"Do I think that, if I go to the Regulator Bookshop and look at the less clearly branded music magazines, that each one that's shaky could find a home with a university? I don't know. I think that could be pretty rough," says Ken Wissoker, the editor in chief of Duke University Press, which has experimented to varying success with turning several of its 37 journals into books that could be sold in bookstores. "It's also a question of which things should go online and which should be books. The books should be things you want to read a year and a half from now. Would someone really want a Paste from a year ago?"

Wissoker adds, though, that he would jump at the chance to publish Wax Poetics, an elegantly designed Brooklyn music magazine that covers hip-hop, soul, funk, rock and world music in lengthy, detail-rich stories. Sound familiar?

"When I was having conversations with writers, I was saying, 'Look, you're not writing something that's going to come off the newsstand in two months. You're writing something that's meant to stay in a bookstore for a period of years, which is meant to stay on somebody's shelf permanently,'" says Alden. "Don't be rooted in the moment. Be rooted in all the things you say that relate to the moment. ... The marketplace will tell us whether we were right."

Chatham County Line and Thad Cockrell play a launch party for nodepression.com at Cat's Cradle Friday, Oct. 17, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12-$15.

  • Can this new model work for other struggling magazines, music or otherwise?

More by Grayson Haver Currin

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