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"You adapt or you die." - Interview with Alt Press Magazine Founder Mike Shea

Alternative Press Magazine founder Mike Shea
Alternative Press Magazine founder Mike SheaAlternative Press

It was three days before the first ever Gibson Brands Alternative Press Music Awards Fueled by Monster Energy Drink and one would expect that the founder of Alternative Press Magazine would be extremely busy with preparations for the show. Despite the hectic schedule Alternative Press Magazine founder Mike Shea was kind enough to answer a few questions. Mike Shea is seemingly living the dream that millions of music fans have longed for over the years. The only difference is that Mike Shea took that leap of faith pouring his heart and soul into what he loved while learning to adapt and evolve with the ever changing industry and technologies along the way. To have created such a vast career for oneself in the music media industry certainly did not happen over night. Read on to learn about Mike Shea and the history of Alternative Press Magazine, what the future has in store for Alternative Press Magazine, and much more. Afterward be sure to check out Alternative Press Magazine's killer subscription deal they are currently offering as their “Back To School Sale”, and do it soon as the offer expires on August 20, 2014.

Throughout this modern digital era AP seems to be one of the publications that has adapted to the digital transition much better than many others, did you have any sort of strategy or long term plan to help navigate going into this awkward transitional period for the industry or was it more of a go with flow, natural feeling, and trust your instincts type of move?

Mike Shea: I saw it about four years ago. In all honesty I knew things were going to be changing once the economy crashed and there was less foot traffic into stores to buy anything. People were saving their money. I knew that the distribution model was going to get heavily disrupted. I saw that the whole rate base thing was going to go away and that advertisers were going to have to start realizing it wasn't necessarily about mass reach, but quality reach. It's kind of like what they're doing now with online sites. Instead of looking at page views they're looking at time spent on site which is basically the quality of the visitor, even though it's dumb because most web traffic is going mobile now which means the time on site is going to be less and now advertisers are going to have to remember that. So I knew that there was going to be changes and that print was going to have to become cooler and it was going to have to be like vinyl. We couldn't make that move on our own. We needed somebody who was bigger in a PR sense, more publicly recognized in a way to make that first move. Oddly enough, Spin did it where they stopped going monthly, and then they went bi-monthly, and then they made these huge art books for about four issues, and then they stopped doing that. That was really the model. Thankfully, our readers are real music fans and they collect everything about these bands. For us to go into more of a book-a-zine format, and start to de-magazine it was a go, and we're still going to be doing it more. Investing in some better quality paper and photographs that are more coffeetableish, and then start taking things out of the book that you would see in a lot of magazines. Little bits, pieces, and parts that look like it was made for the Entertainment Weekly hype phase of things sort of all over the place, to basically put those things all online, where they are better suited now, and most of those have turned into listicals anyway. We felt that print had to become like vinyl. Cooler, more expensive probably, and invest in the product, and make it a better product. There will probably be less copies out there, and you probably won't find it everywhere anymore. You'll find it in select stores, maybe you'll have to subscribe, or maybe it will be sold directly to you at a particular type of event, and things like that. That's what we're doing, and we all kind of have to do it in a way. You adapt or you die.

How would you say that the digital revolution that the entire media industry has undergone has affected AP in regards to content submissions from potential photographers and journalists? Has it helped to expose more talent that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, or do you feel it has more so over saturated the industry?

Mike Shea: I think it has really helped to expose a lot of talent that you wouldn't have known about before. I think it's a good thing.

Did you ever envision back when you first began AP as a teenager at your mom's house that it would have ever grown into the notorious entity that it has become today?

Mike Shea: None, absolutely zero. None. I didn't even know that we were going to make it one year, much less twenty nine years. Next year will be thirty for us. We were just a bunch of kids into different types of weird underground music and we just wanted to write about it with all of us on the same page and have a fan zine that was for us in Cleveland and Northeast Ohio. Then it turned into kids in Columbus wanted it for down there. Then they wanted it in Pittsburgh. Then they wanted it in Chicago, and it went on from there. It just kind of kept growing and growing, but we weren't business people though. It went under after about eight issues. I did retail then, which sucked, for about a year working at a department store. One of my former writers got a hold of me and he said, "I really miss doing that zine that we did. How much would it be to just do a reunion issue?" I penciled it out and said, “About eight hundred bucks.” He went, "Let's do it." I'm like, “What?” He said, "Let's do one more" and I said, “Okay we'll do one more.” I started to get the old team back together, and some of the old writers had moved on, went off to college and stuff. I was left a bit shorthanded, so I called up some of the record companies that we used to work with in New York and Los Angeles to get some records sent over so we could review them. They were like, "Whoa, you're back?" I said, “What do you mean?” They said "You guys are really hot right now." I was like, “What?!” Back then, because you didn't have the internet yet in 1988, what happened was we had been distributing the magazine into Tower Records and Caroline Distribution contributed with that. It would then go out to independent record stores throughout the country. People were finding it and getting caught up on the past issues still on the stand. They really liked it, but I never knew about it. We had built up this following during that time we were gone. When we announced that we were doing this extra issue these record company people said, "People really like you. We want our bands written about and we'll buy all these ads." I'm like, “What?!” We made more money off of that first issue coming back than we had the previous eight. Then it just kind of went from there, through a myriad of different forms of ads, and stuff like that and the genres of this kind of misfit music over the years.

During the past 29 years founding and running AP Magazine what personally stands out to you as one of your greatest moments, and also your worst moments through all of the ups and downs?

Mike Shea: Well hopefully the greatest moment is this show [Laughs], so that would be awesome. I think our worst moment was probably when we hit rock bottom. I think that spiritually we hit right before the collapse of nu-metal. We decided to kind of turn back to our roots in early 2002. Alt-rock had just kind of collapsed. The alt-rock dinosaurs didn't even give a crap about us anymore even though we would put them on the cover for their first time. They had gotten too big, nu-metal had collapsed, and music was just kind of brain dead. It wasn't anything you could make a living off of, much less that the fans cared about. We had been doing Warped Tour for about three years at that point. During summer 2001, our booth worker on Warped Tour called us from his cell about halfway through the tour and said, "There's something happening out here. There's these small bands and these kids are crazy about them.” We said, “Who are they” and he said, “Saves The Day and AFI.” We're like, “Who are these bands?” We started looking into it and found that these bands had started to build up these fan bases that were crazy devoted. These bands were only selling 30,000 records, but their fans were just so crazy devoted. We realized we could probably sell more magazines with a fan base of 30,000 than with a fan base of 1.1 million because of that devotion. We did a test and we put AFI and Saves The Day on a split cover for our first "100 Bands You Need To Know" issue and it sold out. So then we did Coal Chamber I think after that, which bombed. Then we did Sum 41 and that did great. Then we did Disturbed and that bombed. Then we're like, okay we definitely did our experimentation. New and young pop punk kind of weirdo bands sell, and everybody loves it, kids love us. Do a kind of alt-rock or nu-metal band it bombs, nobody cares. The fun thing was that doing the kind of new bands like the pop punk stuff and the emo rock stuff was actually stuff we really liked writing about. We kind of felt, wow we're back like we were in '85 again. We just said F**K all this other crap. Let's throw our heart and soul into this community, and it's where we've been. We felt like we had returned to our roots by doing that.

Are the AP Music Awards something you had wanted to accomplish for many years and it just wasn't a feasible idea back then, or was its conception something more recent in regards to the lack of proper acknowledgment and awards show to represent the underground music scene?

Mike Shea: Basically we came up with the idea around two years ago. We weren’t ready for it, but we realized the community had wanted it. Everybody felt like we had been needing an awards show for awhile, why hasn't AP done it? We took about a year to get our act together and then we started planning it for this year. The award part of it is secondary. The main part of it is the idea that we're all kind of coming together for one or two days, and hanging out as a family unit in a weird way. A friend of mine had just done a story on Cleveland.com about the show, and for him it's going to be like a family reunion. He's going to see bands that he toured with early on in his career that he hasn't seen since then. It's going to be great. That's the big thing. Some of us see each other for a little bit at Warped Tour in L.A. or New York, or maybe five minutes at South by Southwest. We don't really all get together at the same time in one place for any real amount of time. This is going to be it, a community coming together, and then the awards are right after and are secondary to that.

Being able to hold such a prestigious one of a kind event in your hometown after first starting out there 29 years ago, how does it feel for everything to come full circle in a sense and bring this event back to where you have started and pretty much based everything?

Mike Shea: It feels really great. We've always wanted to do something back here again. The last time we did anything big here was 1995 for our tenth anniversary concert so this is really cool. People in the city seem to be responding really well to it. We hope that after the show is done, and it goes really well, we hope that the city will be more aware of us. The city isn't really aware of us very well. So part of it is hopefully we have put ourselves back on the radar here.

Maybe they are all just overwhelmed with Lebron James fever currently.

Mike Shea: Yeah totally. [Laughs]

What does the future have in store for AP Magazine? Any big upcoming projects you would like to discuss?

Mike Shea: I think media companies are becoming a two pronged business model. The first model is event production, putting on things while wrapping in content with them. The second model is basically becoming a TV network with a YouTube channel. Those two and a lot of mobile reporting. Print will become, like I had said, cool like vinyl. With those three things there will become a lot of work. You have to stay on top of it because a lot of times your dealing with competitors. Well not so much competitors, but what you're dealing with online is basically those top twenty-five sites that are out there that grab most of the money or portals. Everybody else is kind of fighting over dimes at that point. You're trying to do something creative and interesting on a very small budget. The challenges are there, but because of the fan dedication not only to the bands, but also to us, and also because this market will always be in one way or another collectors that are enthusiastic and fanatical about these artists no matter what generation they're in. We expect to be a part of this for quite a long time, maybe another thirty years, who knows.