Run Out Groove

It’s been a couple of days now since I got the phone call from Sam, announcing that the forthcoming issue of Real Groove was to be its last. It’s being spun as a merger with its sister weekly publication The Groove Guide, but seeing as the new venture will retain the name, frequency and price tag of the latter I think at this point we can safely say that Real Groove is gone. I sincerely hope that the new publication manages to retain a lot of what made Real Groove matter to me and others, and would hope I’ll end up writing for it too – but while public relations demand that this be sold as a merger, common sense dictates that we call it what it is, and salute it appropriately.

Real Groove died on its 18th birthday – going out with the forthcoming Leonard Cohen issue and therefore having some kind of generational symmetry with its first incarnation, a two colour news-print in-store publication with Warren Zevon on its cover. While it initially focused on the blues and roots music which was its parent company Real Groovy’s bedrock, there was always room for everything within its pages – that same debut issue also featured Kerry Buchanan writing about Jimmy Cliff, hip hop and dance music.

While the blues/roots thing remained dominant through the first few issues, it wasn’t long before it started to mutate. As long-time contributor and columnist Gary Steel notes in his meditation on the magazine’s passing, each editor brought their own take on what mattered musically to the table. But I think what made the magazine special, at least to my eyes, was that for the most part it never valued one style of music over another, and fought the good fight for provocative criticism and artists who were either ignored, marginalised or derided by other publications.

It had that luxury because, at least for the first few years, it was the pampered offspring of Real Groovy, its whims indulged because that particular institution made a lot of money out of promoting music outside the mainstream. That lack of a profit-motive in the early years heavily affected how it finally turned out – it was certainly why I was so enamoured of it as a teenager – but it also may have sown the seeds of its ultimate demise.

Because while it established an audience, one which wasn’t large, but that held steady while others fell away, that audience wasn’t attractive to advertisers. When I look at, say, Remix‘s latest issue, over 400 pages long, with double page spreads for brands who wouldn’t blink at or argue with the price tag (around $4k per page) it is clearly what the market wants. The latest Real Groove probably has more words in it, at around a quarter of the length, but its contents page is the first thing you see. That fact alone tells you all you need to know and more.

When I think about Real Groove, though, it’s undoubtedly romanticised. It was a magazine I grew up on, first encountering it in the mid-late ’90s, an era when I’d walk into town on the first Monday of the month specifically to pick it up (always slightly apprehensive that they’d have missed their deadline and I’d go away empty-handed – which happened maybe a quarter of the time). My friend Mark and I were particularly obsessed with the columns of Kerry Buchanan and Troy Ferguson, contemporary hip hop and a shadow history of rock’n’roll respectively, which deeply shaped our listening habits. They were hardly the only great writers at the magazine then, though, just those adolescents were most likely to find fascinating. As Gary mentions in his piece, the columnists were the beating heart of the magazine til its end, and to a certain extent the way the internet has catered so well to niche audiences (while largely missing the massed ones which Real Groove, for all its prickliness, still catered to and coveted) might be part of why those columns perhaps lost some of their sense of being a gateway (the gateway, actually) to another world.

I started contributing to the magazine after hand-writing a strange combination of a fan letter and job application to then-editor John Russell in 2001, and remember the phone call he made six weeks later to offer the opportunity clearly even now. I became the live columnist, reviewing a scene much less vital, in venues far less numerous than their equivalents today, nearly a decade on. It was an often tedious task, reviewing no-count bands on Wednesday at the King’s Arms, but I loved it, loved that I was now a small part of a magazine I had devoured.

From there I progressed to writing reviews and features, and applied to become editor when John resigned, ultimately losing out to Brock Oliver, who steered the magazine for a couple of years which, while bright, bold and cheerful, seemed to me to lack something of the spark, humour and obsessive dedication to trying and valiantly failing to be all things to all people which had characterised John’s tenure. Perhaps I’m biased to the man who hired me and against the one who beat me out for the job, but I will always feel like the John Russell era was Real Groove‘s peak – in terms of a bullish, defined editorial stance, deep, influential columns and the will to put Dimmer, Janet Jackson and So Solid Crew on what were in my mind (though probably not in reality) consecutive covers.

Brock left in 2006, and I became editor at the age of 26, inheriting a team of writers who were all older than me, and one a little more slender than that which John had utilised. Some came back, a vibrant younger generation came on board, and I ran it for three and a half years. Sometimes it felt like we were winning, in terms of both impact on the culture and sales of the magazine – in my first year The Mint Chicks, then My Chemical Romance, then So So Modern (with the first volume of Awesome Feeling) all sold incredibly well, and seemed to capture moments in time the way a magazine sometimes can. But a lot of the time you were acutely aware that the internet was not just biting at your ankles, but gnawing on your calf bones.

Which is not to say that they were doing it better than we were. I still believe that pound for pound, the writing in Real Groove was for the most part far superior than the competition online. But it was not nearly so fast, or well-tailored to its audience. I don’t have the time or inclination to approach that endless feedback loop of a debate on magazines vs the ‘net (or address the irony that this appreciation/obituary is being published on my own blog), but it was certainly part of what killed the magazine.

The main culprit though, as with any publication, was advertising sales. Sales are the fuel of a magazine, the editor just steers it (though clearly, if they’re pointing it the wrong way it becomes harder to justify the fuel, and I certainly have sympathy to those who would suggest that me and others could have steered it better). When I began we had a salesperson who, though I found her incredibly difficult to work with – she was forever bringing copies of NZ Home & Garden to meetings to suggest what we might try editorially – in retrospect was fantastic at her job. That is to say, she convinced a lot of advertisers to spend a lot of money with the magazine. Since then we had a succession of people through who all tried hard at what I admit was something of a thankless task, and one that I definitely made harder than it needed to be. But they could never get it running at anything like the level Julia did.

Of course, as print became less fashionable, their jobs became far harder. A lot of advertisers no longer want to take full pages in magazines – they want an ‘intimate engagement with your audience’ or some variation on that phrase – basically they want to fuck your girlfriend while you clap and complement them on their technique. More prosaically, they want some kind of advertorial, where you dress a band of their choice in their jeans (for example) and then write about them. Or they create some competition – ‘you choose NZ’s next top band via the internet’ or something equally inspired – then you write about how great the people’s decision was. I might personally feel like that stuff often looks a bit lame, but it’s their money, and that’s how they want to spend it. The other thing sales staff want to do is broaden the magazine – hence Real Groove getting a fashion section, and technology coverage – in my very limited experience those broadenings were inconvenient, costly, ridiculed and never once brought any sales. Not that I’m bitter…

So that’s the internet and sales, what about editorial? I’m probably not best placed to comment, and it would look self-serving, -loathing or -pitying either way. But I certainly think my focus on my own writing meant that the magazine was never as conceptually clear as it might have been. You only have to look at the last year, under Sam Wicks’ steady hand, to see the way having a coherent mission can impact a publication. The final issue, with Leonard Cohen on the cover, is a pretty impressive way to bow out. It looks fantastic, design-wise, and seems to have settled into a groove (argh) which could have actually worked, had it been allowed to continue. A local answer to Uncut et al might have worked (though as others have pointed out, those publications’ ad pages are thin and unglamourous), with an equal engagement with the past and the future, targeting the people who still spend money on music. That was always Tangible’s plan for the publication, one which I definitely didn’t engage with beyond bowing to the suggestion that U2 grace the cover (then immaturely struggling to restrain my glee when it tanked at the news-stand). Given six more months to truly define the role and get the market to buy in maybe the story ends very differently, and for that I certainly have a good share of the blame – my obduracy on that front almost certainly hastened the magazine’s demise.

But the demise itself was never in question, in my opinion, no matter what well-intentioned sales people, editors, publishers and more tried to do. It was the date which remained in play until now. Whether magazines can continue to limp on until some new technology or system makes them viable remains open. But I feel like paid-for music magazines are least well situated to weather the storm, being at the nexus of the two industries (print media and recorded music) most battered by the internet. I guess this is why I found the passive aggressive gloating of the editor of Real Groove‘s chief competition so strange.

“Justice!” “I feel vindicated!” “Some of you normally big mouth bitches are being awfully quiet today” – perhaps he’d claim to be talking about something else entirely, as there was never any attribution to those sentiments, only the timeline to tie them together. I think that sensation, while incredibly satisfying, might not last too long. Because while RipItUp is now the last one standing, it will likely be gone within a year or two too. Already it’s been merged with Back2Basics, but with its news-stand sales in free-fall, and readership decimated (it began the decade with over 100,000 – I would guess that the next survey will show under 70,000 remain) the sense of victory cannot help but be short-lived. That too will be a sad day, for a publication with such a matchless history – but surely not many can doubt that it is coming.

While most reaction to Real Groove‘s departure thus far has been heart-warming, and affirming the sense that we are losing something which mattered, opposing editors weren’t the only ones resolutely unmoved by its departure. Promoter Simon Coffey commented on Steel’s post that “locally produced, monthly entertainment print magazines are dinosaurs in the age of blogs and online ‘zines,” something you would be hard-pressed to argue with. But the comments I found most dispiriting came from journalist David Cohen in the same venue.

“Punters wouldn’t buy it, the industry wouldn’t support it and the publisher wouldn’t pay for quality writing. Seems like a circle of diminishing returns alright, and I’m only surprised it lasted as long as it did… it has to be asked whether the formula of lengthy pieces based on brief telephone conversations with artists about to tour or release a new album, as well as reviews penned for the most part by ageing men beset with sadly antiquated notions of what’s hip in terms of politics and art, is commercially or even journalistically viable. I rather think not.”

Can’t argue with the punters and the advertisers part – though I would point out that in terms of readership and news-stand sales I would guess (without having the figures to hand) that the magazine largely retained its 2000 numbers in 2010, which is more than can be said for most magazines. (Perhaps it’s worth noting, apropos of nothing, that the monthly sales of Real Groove, were it an album and not a magazine, would have it near or at the top of the NZ charts). But in terms of the comments about “ageing men… mired in notions of hipness and political rectitude and ‘authenticity'” – if they were ever true I don’t think they have been for a long while. That’s one of the things I think we did best at Real Groove in good times and bad – rarely if ever regurgitate received wisdom about an artist or style of music. So to hear that out there in the marketplace as being associated with the publication seems to me to speak to the heart of why it had to fall.

One of the things you struggle hardest with as a magazine is just getting people in the door, and one of the biggest barriers to that is people’s conceptions of what it is they’re buying. David seems to have a very fixed idea of what Real Groove espoused which is entirely at odds with my own – one of the things I and many other writers railed against were notions of ‘authenticity’ in particular, so it’s shocking and vaguely depressing to be held up as part of that particular problem. Whether he is emblematic of a larger perception or just an isolated case I guess I’ll never know, but it’s undeniable that a magazine exists as representing something in people’s minds, and whatever that was made some people buy it and care about it and others indifferent or hostile.

Once formed those opinions are hard to shake, whether you’re doing good work or bad, because the cost of entry to disprove them or have them re-affirmed is judged to be too high. Which is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to seeing how the new The Groove Guide turns out – like a (non-News Limited) website, admission is free, so assuming that the distribution is right even those who are only peripherally interested will pick up a copy. The free distribution model has worked well for Drum Media in Australia and most large cities have well put together street press – if the new publication can retain the best of each publication’s writers and pull advertisers along with it then there’s no reason to think it can’t be sustainably successful.

But Real Groove is gone, and it will leave a hole for all the owners, publishers, editors, designers, salespeople, writers, musicians and readers who ever cared about it. Reading the latest issue (which I urge you to go out and buy when it goes on sale tomorrow, if only because you’ll never be able to do it again) after it arrived yesterday morning it struck me with real force that this moment, which I had looked forward to for well over a decade, would never again come to pass. RIP Real Groove. You were a lot of fun, while you lasted.

– Duncan

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14 Comments

Filed under Announcements, Music

14 responses to “Run Out Groove

  1. Haley Beatson

    I’ll keep putting the back issues up for as long as they’ll let me hang around the office, gone but not forgotten.

  2. Duncan

    That job has ensured it’ll live on for as long as the domain at least. Thankless and anonymous, but incredibly important to ensuring the work lasts longer than the month and the paper stock. Am bummed you never got to realise your editing dream Hayley, but sure your time will come somewhere else… The Groove Guide 2014 maybe?

  3. Haley Beatson

    I think the Groove Guide would be the death of me, I really do. For the time being I’ll just keep writing for Hussein, I think he’s got a good thing going on over at The Corner. Still nursing Friday’s wounds though, built that dream up for 10 years only to have it killed in 10 seconds unceremoniously by the water cooler.

  4. Excellent piece, Duncan.
    I can’t help thinking that, rather than the seeds of its demise being sewn by its inclusive material, it was always hampered by having lacked the integrated publishing expertise publishers are supposed to provide. Perhaps Tangible came on board too late to save it. During the years it was published by Real Groovy, the flavour of the magazine was defined by each successive editor to a degree that an international magazine wouldn’t have allowed, and that’s because Real Groovy weren’t publishers, and didn’t themselves know what to do with a magazine. Secondly, without the traditional apparatus of a publisher behind the magazine, it lacked the promotional acumen to really make it tick.
    I’m not saying that those involved weren’t great, there were some innovative promotional campaigns, including the free CDs, but a magazine that really means business has to have a very strong idea behind it, flog that idea relentlessly, and have a system (and the cash) to do that with.
    Lastly, although I broadly disagree with Cohen’s commentary, I do think that too much of the writing in the magazine has always been amateurish, lacking in broad knowledge, and is a perfect illustration of the hoary old saying “pay peanuts, get monkeys”. While there was always good-to-great writing to be found within its pages, too often it was dogged by those damn phone interviews, and not enough editorial that constituted real stories or journalism that gave an insight to the subject matter. That was always the problem with Rip It Up of old, but then, it was a free magazine, as Real Groove was at the beginning. Both titles put a price on their covers, but the only thing that improved was the cover stock.
    Which seems cruel, but it’s obvious from my own blog on the demise of Real Groove that I have a huge affection for the title, despite its flaws.

  5. Nice post, Duncan. Interesting to see some numbers in there re circulation etc. And as for grumpy David Cohen, his description of “… reviews penned for the most part by ageing men beset with sadly antiquated notions of what’s hip in terms of politics and art, is commercially or even journalistically viable…” reminded me that Cohen used to be a music journo, and that description could easily be about him, cept of course he’ s a respectable business journo now.

  6. steve

    Print is basically dead and real groove didn’t seemed to move to an online presence till late in the piece.

  7. Duncan

    Gary I think you raise a great point about the integrated total thrust of a true publisher – keeping it more on-message would undoubtedly have aided its marketability. My concern would be that had it been we would have had a more tedious magazine, and one which may not have had room for columns on esoteric electronica and extreme metal. And without each of those the magazine wouldn’t have been what it was. In terms of the writing, I know it has that reputation, and certainly it was always a struggle trying to find enough quality writers. But I truly think that the writing always, always stacked up to 90% of international music magazines. maybe it was less ‘professional’, and it was certainly less well edited and subbed, but the passion wasn’t sucked out of it, and even over the past few years there were moments that I thought were absolutely world class when assembling the magazines – Aaron and Stevie’s reviews, Joe and Dan’s features… most everything Gavin submitted. It’s those young guys I feel most sorry for out of this – they’ll never get to edit the magazine, and the number of opportunities to engage seriously with music to a large print audience (Listener, Herald, SST, Metro etc) are pretty much closed off now – think about the turnover in those positions over the last 15 years or so. they’ll figure it out, but it still kinda bums me out that they won’t get to experience what we did, in terms of putting a magazine together and watching it head out to its public.
    Peter – the numbers are readership, not circulation. I reckon pretty much all the ‘culture’ magazines would do anything to avoid releasing circulation numbers. Funny to read that about David, there did seem to be something around the edges of his comments that indicated he’d been a critic at some stage – though I thought the most bizarre utterance was his barracking for Pitchfork as a beacon of light.
    Steve you’re so right about the online presence. I don’t know many magazines, particularly locally, who do that balancing act well (Idealog being a notable exception), but I tried hard to get a website off the ground for years after I started – if I’d known how easy it was I’d probably have started something, anything sooner. Still don’t think it would have changed anything in the long run, but it was something we fretted about internally, if that helps.

  8. Grant Smithies

    Only found out about this a few hours ago, and feel severely bummed out by the news. Very sad to see Real Groove go, and good to see someone taking the time to wrestle with the lessons to be leaned from it all. Your analysis seems spot on to me, Duncan, as does the typically excellent piece on Gary Steel’s blog.

  9. I always enjoyed the content of Real Groove; awesome features, columns and reviews. It’s still my favourite NZ music publication.

  10. mikey

    I can only comment from the advertisers perspective here as I work in advertising and have looked after many ‘potential’ Real Groove advertisers over the past few years.
    I am disappointed that RG has gone, both from a editorial and commercial point of view. It offered something that is now, no longer available.
    However, it is hard to recommend that a client pay for a full page in a magazine title when they so often give it away for free. The number of times I have seen magazines shoot themselves in the foot by offering to run editorial relating to a product or release is astounding. They come asking for money just before deadline saying that they are running this article about product X – would I like to run advertising around it? Why would I advertise? You have already done the job for my client. And we are constantly being told that editorial is more credible and impactful than advertising.
    I guess that is why we’ve seen the rise in the commercial PR Agency.
    In reference to the ‘engagement’ argument – I agree that it is becoming more and more necessary to head down that road as clients demand it. And no print publication seems to have that problem solved outside of (shiver) ‘advertorial’.

  11. Nice post Duncan, personally I lay a heap of blame on the NZ Consumer. I work for a large photographic retailer and can speak honestly when I say that we have had to cut costs and the first to go was the advertising. I think this would be true at many retailers, wholesalers, distributors and brands. With local sales declining there is less money in the pool to advertise, employ and spend. The sad thing is that the ultimate loser is the NZ Consumer, as there will be less options and we will be force fed information, music, products etc from a larger source (Australia, US and eventually China.) Anyway enough of my rant about the doom of local retail. It was good working with you whilst you had the reigns and wish the ‘merger’ well.

  12. Nigel Horrocks

    Very good analysis as is Gary’s. As an early writer for the magazine, I’m sad to see it go but as noted for the various reasons it’s the reality of the age. I thought the latest issue was terrific. I love reading music blogs but it can be hours of work. Reading the last issue, reminded me there’s something special about just picking up a magazine and immediately getting inspired to go and check out some music you weren’t aware of recommended by someone you have followed for years and whose judgement you trust.

  13. H

    Duncan. Lovely tough, tender post. Serves to remind me that you should either be a publisher or an editor. You would be great.

  14. Duncan

    @ Grant, Sean, Matt, Nigel – Thanks for your kind words – given your roles with the magazine and in music/journalism generally they mean a lot.
    @ Mikee – I totally get what you’re saying. that murky business of the line between advertising and editorial was one I tried to stay the hell away from (am sure people will doubt that, but it’s true) – but the practise of salespeople calling companies and saying ‘we’re covering your product – spend money with us’ seemed decidedly wrongheaded to me at the time, for precisely the reasons you list.
    @ H – thanks Unc. In the last year of my tenure at Real Groove I applied for positions with Mediaworks, TVNZ, The Listener and The Herald, none of which I thought beyond my experience, and each successive one more entry-level. I didn’t receive a single call or interview from the applications (am I revealing too much? Who cares, right?). That felt like a pretty clear message to me. Ultimately it only matters that I can write, which I’ll be doing here, and for Idealog and Sunday magazine in the coming months. If that’s all there ever is, I’m happy enough.

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