Alternative Press Rethinks Music Awards, Business

A star-struck fan gets her selfie with Panic at the Disco's Brendon Urie at the 2015 Alternative Press Music Awards [David C. Barnett / ideastream]
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The Alternative Press Magazine is taking a year off from hosting its music awards to reassess the future of the event.  The Cleveland-based publication has kept the country tuned to the latest musicians and trends in the worlds of alt-rock, hip-hop and metal for over 30 years. 

The music awards launched with great fanfare in 2014.  The event was strategically timed to coincide with the Cleveland date of the Vans Warped Tour, making it convenient for popular young acts like Panic at the Disco and Black Veil Brides to attend.

But, difficulties in securing a steady venue became a challenge for the event, and with this year’s conclusion of the Vans Warped Tour, the booking of acts also became a challenge. 

“If you talk to anybody who produces events, to get the big, big artists is a ton of money,” said Alternative Press founder Mike Shea.  “So, do you keep pounding your head against the table trying to raise six figures to pay for one person?  I felt we needed to reinvent it.”

He said one aspect of that reinvention is to move away from offering another back-slapping awards program towards a fundraising event aimed at supporting a social cause.  It’s all part of a continuing effort to diversify the Alternative Press brand.  In 2007, the magazine began its own traveling music fest, called the AP Tour, which lasted five years until the dynamics of touring began to change.

“Artists weren’t making a lot of money off music, and so all they could do to make money was tour,” Shea said.  “And what was happening was they were over-touring.  So, you were finding that some of the artists that you wanted to work with had already been through the major markets two or three times within the past 15 months.” 

Because of that, Alternative Press stepped away from tour sponsorship, but Shea said there seems to be a more favorable change recently in the economics of the touring business.  “So, I can’t say we’ll never do one again.”

Alternative Press started out in the mid-1980s as a fanzine that reported on new music that Shea and his suburban Cleveland friends weren’t reading about in mainstream publications like Rolling Stone.  The upstart venture went from being a local black and white publication to a glossy, national journal of youth culture.

But, Shea said changes in the music publishing world are reshaping Alternative Press’s focus.

“I think for any magazine to work in this day and age – unless you’re part of [publishing giant] Conde Nast or some other big thing – you’ve got to niche out,” said Shea.  “You’ve got to double down on your core [audience].”

He added that, in recent years, grocery stores and other major retailers have reduced their magazine rack space.  The Alternative Press response is to start printing issues on demand.

“For us, it’s about, more and more, about selling directly to consumers via our online site and also now starting to go through Amazon,” Shea said.  “I don’t have to print tons of copies and pray to God that I sell 30 percent of them, and then get charged back for the returns by the wholesaler.”

Today’s Alternative Press is a photo-filled publication focusing on artist profiles.  Some old-school music magazine staples like record reviews are gone.  Shea said it’s part of a more realistic assessment of what attracts readers.  

“You’re not being a fool and being in denial and saying ‘Yes!  They want record reviews.’  No they don’t.  They don’t want record reviews.  That went away with Spotify.”

Mike Shea says he and his staff are constantly reassessing the readership’s taste in music — even when it comes to classic rock.

Classic rock to our readers is anything in the 90s — even Marilyn Manson, Korn, Metallica,” he said.  “This is where we’re at right now.”

Shea says the goal is to launch his musical fundraising concept next year.  It’s just another way that the feisty publication is working to keep in tune with the times.

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