In Need: Signal to Noise

Houston experimental-music journal needs a hand

I don't want to call our advertisers "delinquents," although I've hung out with some of these people, and a few of them really are! I can sympathize with them because they're usually stuck in the very same spot that we are — waiting around for a check from their distributor, upon which they've based their budget, and then when it finally arrives, it's not as fat as one supposed it would be, and other unforeseen expenses have come up in the meantime. So, often we're stuck waiting to get paid. I should say that many of our advertisers pay on time regularly, and I think they are awesome for that.

Have you thought about localizing, i.e., selling more ads to Houston-based businesses that might be friendly to STN?

Well, we probably only distribute fewer than 100 copies here in Space City [STN is available at Sound Exchange, Domy Books and some area Borders and Barnes & Noble stores]. Our coverage is so specialized that we're appealing to those five guys in Toledo, 12 people in Phoenix and so on. We do really well in New York, Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. But being based so far away from these places, it's tough to sell ads to local ­businesses.

I should point out at this time that like almost everything else here, the ad selling falls on my shoulders, and I am really terrible at selling myself and my magazine, no matter how emphatically and sincerely I believe in it. I kind of labor under the ridiculous notion that good work should sell itself and therefore will ultimately be rewarded if one has enough patience.

What about co-producing or co-promoting events with similarly minded local organizations like Dave Dove's Nameless Sound or DiverseWorks?

We co-sponsored a couple of gigs with Nameless Sound alongside the Menil and the Rothko Chapel last summer...and seeing our name linked with theirs on the poster which hangs in my bathroom still blows my mind. But you know, those gigs run on donations, and I am not sure there's any room for another organization to be supported that way.

I do give away free magazines at those shows whenever I attend, just to get our name out there locally, and I'd partner with the entities you mention anytime, in any way that would suit them. At this point I'm thinking long-term about an arts career for myself in Houston, so I'm going to pitch in everywhere I can just to try and meet people and find out what's going on.

What about — and I'm not trying to be blasphemous or anything here — expanding what STN covers, such as putting more indie-rock, electronica, underground metal — stuff that might bring in new (and younger) but still musically savvy readers?

We have done that to some extent, putting artists like Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, Oxbow, Fourtet, the Residents, even Public Enemy on our covers — that's pretty diverse! And it's not a cynical or calculated move. All of these groups very cleanly fit into our editorial ethos. And any time Wilco or Sonic Youth's people want to start answering our e-mails, I'd put them on our cover, too.

We cover a fair amount of indie rock, electronica, doom/black metal stuff, underground hip-hop and rap, but I don't want to do it at the expense of the free jazz and electro-acoustics that have always been our raison d'être. I mean, it's just us and The Wire covering that stuff, and it's what attracts a lot of the readership that we do have. 

What do you think of the future of print media in general, niche publications like yours specifically, and what will you have to do to survive?

No doubt, it's getting tough out there. In the past two years we've lost No Depression, Harp, Resonance, DIY and Punk Planet, and these were all good-to-great magazines who'd found their audience, found their niche and were doing consistent, engaging work. But then a big distributor goes belly up or you lose a few key ad accounts and there's no buffer're just sunk.

I think the solution for Signal to Noise is to keep doing what we do, and to try to do it as well as we can. If too few people buy the magazine or use it as a tool to market their wares, we're toast. Hey, that's capitalism. Great magazines, great clubs, great coffee shops, great restaurants go out of business all the time. And then people say, "Hey, why'd that place close? It's been forever since I went to a show there, but I liked that club!"

Finally, what keeps you from giving in and making STN Web-only?

I am a paper-and-ink kind of guy, I guess. I do spend a lot of time trawling the Web in the course of the day, and it's a great source of information. But I'll bet there are a lot of people like me who like to kick off their shoes at the end of the day and sprawl out on the couch with a book or a magazine. For reproducingphotographs or publishing a 6,000-word article, I think print is still the wayto do it.

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