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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.

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 there...you'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.

It keeps up the quality control, too — when you're paying for printing, you better believe you're looking twice at every word. I mean, there's a lot of stuff on the Web I can't even read, it's so bad. It's free, but you get what you pay for. I guess I could try to be one of the exceptions, but my heart just wouldn't be in it.

You know, whenever a paper magazine folds, there's always some snotty guy on some blog somewhere talking about the passing of "dead tree" media. Well, if you make a product that people like enough to keep around, and then pass on to the next guy or sell it on eBay a few years down the line, I feel like you've justified your carbon footprint. And what, do you think computers and servers run on solar power? Not yet!

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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