Ten years ago, give or take a couple of weeks, I submitted my first review for MM: a report on the first gig in a while by the recently major-label signed Nylon Pylon, one of the hottest new bands in Manchester. I don't really know how it came about, I'd been writing bits and bobs on forums and the odd thing for a city centre residents' community website and I had also been a regular attendee at MM's Chairsmissing nights, largely because in the very early 2000s in Manchester if you wanted to see good new local bands like Moco, Red Vinyl Fur, Politburo, Monomania, The Sonar Yen, Scapa Flow, Jackie O, Tsuji Giri and Thee Virus House (thank you all for reawakening my love of new live music from its late-twenties dip) without the lottery that was (and still is) a random unbranded "can we have a gig please" night, there wasn't much choice. Whatever, I was pretty flattered that the city's definitive music site was interested in what I had to say, and in addition there was the oportunity to temper my ever-increasing gig-going costs by writing in return for entry. Could even lead to a career change...
Yep, it was that turning-thirty, going-nowhere rut, increasingly embittered with regret that I hadn't done something with my life, and job prospects in the manufacturing industry didn't feel great - we'd had three lots of redundancies in the seven years I'd been there. It's a fallacy, by the way, that all music writers are failed musicians, or at least that they write for that reason: I'd had a fanzine out at sixth-form college, I dabbled in a band briefly as a student, but first and foremost I was always a writer. I just didn't know the way in. Student journalism maybe? I'd approached the student paper and explained that I was an experienced fanzine producer, and having grown up round here I knew the local music scene pretty well. This being 1990, a fair few students had actually come here because of the music, and I figured my knowledge of Mancunian sounds beyond (as well as) the obvious "Madchester" bands could be an asset. I had visions of a column similar to Mick Middles' "The Word" in the Evening News, of benefit to bands and to this new potential fanbase alike, but I didn't even get as far as explaining that: "yeah" sniffed the editor "everyone wants to do the music reviews, you have to put in some work before you get free stuff". I showed him my zine - your typical 32 pages of typed and photocopied A5 - in an attempt to demonstrate that I was not just after "free stuff". He looked at it like he'd never seen one before.
It's easy to say now that I should have ploughed on ahead with my own zine, but my wild ideas weren't matched with confidence. I hated - dreaded - approaching people and asking for interviews or gig review access (and to be honest I still do); my school friend with whom I'd done the first one wasn't really interested any more and my immediate new student friends weren't really into music the way I was. And the printing cost back then, too - the 50p cover price of most A5 zines was basically the cost of doing a small run if you didn't have contacts. A lot of people I know these days have no concept of growing up without the internet - certainly most of the talented young music writers I know (and some of the older ones, too) have established themselves in the great online democracy, where being a bit shy in social situations and not having the right contacts are no longer the barriers they once were, when you can publish from your bedroom to the world if you're good enough.
Anyway, here I was over a decade later, writing the sort of stuff bands quoted on their websites, being invited onto on Channel M to talk about new music in Manchester, and dreaming about escaping the nine to five...
I'm not even sure when I realised there was little chance of that career change: probably some time before I was prepared to admit it to myself. The number of former music journalists now employed in completely different fields, even within my own circle of acquaintances, was telling. Then I saw writer friends despairing over sub-edits that completely changed the thrust of their carefully chosen words, and musician friends devastated by harsh attacks masquerading as reviews; gradually lost all desire to be part of this. Sour grapes? Maybe, but I genuinely wanted to do the good stuff without the bad stuff; to write words that would encourage new talent; to introduce my friends and the wider readership to good new music I liked; and to not have to conform to anyone's editorial policy except my own. And so many people I know used to love music until they were chewed up and spat out by the industry; it's the old paradox isn't it? You wish you could make your passion into your job, but when you do it can put a dampener on the passion, even kill it altogether. Finally, I like the idea that my ability to put food on the table will never be directly threatened by the word-blockage we all get sometimes.
The continued depletion of the print music press and all those former music writers now doing other things also made me think about the fact that we had been doing something unpaid that other people do (or did) for a living: was that depriving them of work? No, it's just that the world has changed, and people like us not reviewing gigs unpaid would no more bring back Sounds and Melody Maker than a few people buying more vinyl will stop free(down)loading. I dearly wish we could have those titles back, along with the more recently and very sadly closed Word Magazine and many more - the choice of reading matter for the fan of new and current music (specialist metal titles aside) standing in W H Smiths ahead of a long train journey is hideously limited these days. I never thought websites would actually become a substitute for magazines. I still like flicking through pages, eyes wandering to a piece on the next page to the one you just finished, maybe discovering something new whose hyperlink you'd never have bothered clicking on. And yes, it's true that anyone can listen to anything with a few clicks - but I still believe there's a place for writing about music, actually choosing words carefully as one would writing a letter or story. As a punter, if I'm trying to plot a schedule through the timetable of some all-dayer and there's an hour's gap between bands I've heard of, I may well Google the unknown bands performing in that slot - and I'm far more likely to read third-party reviews, especially those from trusted authors or sites.
We might not have had a cool looking website - I was reminded of this fairly recently by someone referring to it as dreadful while touting their own site (wordpress by numbers in both form and content, as it turned out). There wasn't Wordpress in 1999, you had to actually write your own website from scratch, and someone did just this for Jon and friends: unfortunately the logistics - some years later and without said people - of finding a new home for literally thousands of articles in a fully keyword-searchable database and migrating it so it remained such was beyond my non-existent computer skills and Jon's better but still limited ones. The odd thing is, as the decade drew on I grew to love our old-fashioned site. Before long we could have started calling it "retro", especially as the 90s seem to be pretty fashionable right now, and at least we never frazzled your eyes with loads of moving stuff nor bombarded you with advertising. In our simple, plain text way, we were always more of a fanzine. We were about the content - content which I honestly consider unrivalled in its field.
250 live reviews a year, on average - many covering two, three or even more acts.
Over seven thousand release reviews - that's ten a week, every week, for thirteen years.
Three thousand news stories over the same period, or four to five each week.
Crunch the numbers. Call each piece an hour's work (on average - sure, banging up a brief news piece would be a lot less but writing up, formatting and posting a ten band festival report quite a bit more) and you're looking at a thousand hours' work every year. Twenty a week. Add another ten for general administrative tasks, editing other people's reviews (I am a grammar and punctuation martinet, and I like anything I publish either in my name or on someone else's behalf to read well); fighting with the data entry page and arranging gig access and press accreditation. And consider the bulk of this was done by just two people - first Jon and co-founder Mike Gray, later Jon and longtime editorial assistant Dave Himelfield (now largely found writing for the Huddersfield Examiner, where his Grumpy Young Man column is always worth a coffee-break read), then Jon and me. Obviously there have always been people contributing reviews, and I'm not going to start naming them all for fear of missing and offending someone important, but the donkey work always fell to Jon plus one. As the last and longest serving plus one, I've come to think of the site as mine too - and while we both agreed it had run its course, it doesn't mean I'm not really sad about this.
I love music, and in my time as content editor of MM, as well as in my own writing, all I ever tried to do was reflect this. I figured there's nothing particularly unusual about me, so there must be plenty of other people who think the way I do. People who understand that it is perfectly possible to enjoy an earthy guitarslinger with an audience of alleged hooligans one week and arty French prog jazz the next; watch Simon Scott weave his intricate ambient sound collages on a Sunday and The Killers fire glitter-cannons of pomp-pop across the Arena on Tuesday; catch a Scenewipe bill of five of the city's hippest in the afternoon then The Fall with equally middle-aged supports in the evening. I wanted MM to capture all this, and more. I wanted us to document everything that went on here.
The cool, the uncool and the "what-the-fuck!?"; the mini-scenes that pop up and fade away at various points in space and time; the great bands that were way better than similar ones getting lucky breaks but happened to come from Failsworth as opposed to London, the bands that sounded great but weren't pretty enough; those who were ahead of their time or just too far outside it; those who fell apart far to soon and those who refused to give up long after their window of opportunity had gone because they knew they still meant something; the life cycles of venues and promoters and club nights; the stuff the mainstream media wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole and the stuff they'd go on to love; the reuniting legends and the kids to whom they meant nothing; the many many musical Manchesters. Maybe it was just too much to take on. In the end, that was my dream. Not a cushy career for myself, but the resource this glorious city deserved. I think we did pretty well.
But like so many of those wonderful bands I've reviewed over the years who never became as successful and/or acclaimed as I wholeheartedly believed they should, the time has come to close the door. It's not been an easy decision, as I'm sure it wasn't for any of them; just because it was the right thing to do doesn't mean it's not devastating. This has been such a big part of my life for so long.
I'll still be writing: taking a larger role at Incendiary Magazine, a Dutch-based largely English language site for whom I've been doing odd bits for a few years now, as well as doing more writing for Louderthanwar. I will still listen to or come and see your band, at least if I think there's a chance I'll like it - and I'm pretty open-minded, especially when it comes to watching music - there's not much I wouldn't try once).
I honestly believe the whole Manchester music community owes Jon some thanks: when he and Mike started the site in 1999 the reaction from pretty much everyone was "why would you want to do a music magazine on the internet?" I'd personally like to thank him for giving me an opportunity that led to ten years of the sort of life I could never have imagined fifteen years ago as I sat there thinking there should be more to a young adult's lot than going to work every day and watching TV most evenings. We were there for the beginning of the renaissance of the city's music scene after the nineties hangover and we've seen a lot of great bands and club nights and promoters take their first steps. We took a hard line and shouted loudly about pay-to-play and "battle of the bands" ticket-selling contests and people listened, with most of the worst offenders seeing their little empires collapse and bands far less likely to accept unfair arrangements. I've made a lot of friends and only a couple of enemies. We had a good laugh along the way, too.
It's been a great ten years. This is Cath Aubergine, signing off. Thank you and good night.