In Need: Signal to Noise

Houston experimental-music journal needs a hand

Recently, one of Noise's contributors forwarded me an e-mail from Pete Gershon, editor and publisher of Houston-based experimental-music journal Signal to Noise. Facing rising production costs, slow-to-pay advertisers and, well, just being a print publication in our Internet-mad age — and one targeted to a small, specific audience to boot — Gershon urged his contributors to in turn urge their friends, colleagues and contacts to subscribe to the decade-old magazine and order back issues; a sort of pledge drive in print.

"So far I have been reluctant to make this kind of appeal," Gershon wrote. "My thought has always been that we have to earn our readers' interest with superior content, and that I shouldn't go around begging and pleading for reader support. But hey, NPR does it, and Arthur magazine was just snatched back from the brink of extinction with a fund-raising campaign that netted them over $20 grand (in gifts, not in orders) in just two weeks' time."

Now Noise is doing the same thing. For starters, anything with Noise in the title is automatically close to my heart. Besides, a one-year subscription to Signal to Noise, published quarterly, is only $20 (slightly more in Canada and overseas), or not even one night's bar tab. Pony up, people.

Although it's seldom written about in mainstream publications, thanks to organizations like DiverseWorks and David Dove's Nameless Sound, Houston's experimental community — an admittedly vague term that encompasses everything from avant-garde jazz to neoclassical noise to outré Indonesian folk music — is one of the city's hidden jewels. It's not on par with its counterparts in New York or Chicago, but it's not far off, and is light-years ahead of Dallas and Austin. How many other music scenes around here can we say that about?

Presently, Signal to Noise is more in Houston than of Houston (Gershon publishes it out of his house in the Heights), but — provided it survives — that may be about to change. Indeed, the biggest reason Houstonians should care about saving Signal to Noise is that now that his small children are getting older, Gershon says the magazine's coverage of Houston-spawned content is about to increase.

"I'm open to ways in which Signal to Noise can work with the local community," he says. "I'm kinda new here [Gershon and his family moved to Houston from Vermont about three years ago], and with kids I haven't been able to get out very much. It's probably been three years since I've been to a rock show late at night — I've never been to Walter's on Washington, I've never been to the Mink. Right now it kind of limits what I can do, and limits my involvement in the localcommunity here. But that's gonna change."

With Hurricane Ike looming in the Gulf last week, Noise e-mailed Gershon to get the 411 on Signal to Noise's predicament, and what we — and by we I mean you — might be able to do to help.

Noise: Forgive my bluntness, but how bad off are things right now? What is your biggest expense publishing STN? Have you thought about other ways you might generate more revenue besides this grassroots subscription drive?

Pete Gershon: Well, it's not like the Enron collapse or anything. I'm really only a few thousand dollars in debt, which doesn't make me an unusual case in the music world or the publishing world. But I've got 12 years of my life invested in this project and I'd like to keep it going, and even a modest infusion of subscription and ad dollars would make a big difference right now.

I should really stress that we've been quite successful insofar as retaining a dedicated readership and a loyal pool of advertisers who seem to genuinely value what we do. Unfortunately, you can't pay the printer or the post office with supportive e-mails and thank-you notes.

As far as alternate means of generating revenue, it's tough to find them without various startup costs. One thing that will probably happen is a series of made-to-order books through Blurb, where we'd start to make money from the very first sale. But ultimately, publishing a magazine is what we do, and we need to sell magazines and sell ads to stay in the game. For a few years, back around the turn of the century, we were set up as a nonprofit organization, but trying to get grants is even harder than selling ads.

What makes you say you think you've reached a ceiling as far as ad sales? Who, in general, are your advertisers, and why have they been delinquent in paying?

With a circulation of 10,000, I've had a hard time attracting the attention of microbrews, publishing houses, what have you. We're not a "lifestyle" magazine, and we deal only with uncompromising music on small labels, so the extent to which those labels support us is what's going to make or break us. We have done a great job retaining most of our "smaller" advertisers, but some of the major labels and larger indies who used to advertise frequently have trimmed their budgets and we seem to have borne the brunt of those cuts.

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