CLEVELAND — The philosophy that drives the success of founder and president Mike Shea’s Alternative Press music magazine and website can be summed up in one word — listen.
Listen to the fans. Listen to music – lots of music. And listen to your gut instincts.
Those instincts for what alternative music is right this minute has propelled the growth of Alternative Press Magazine since its inception in 1985.
That cutting edge music will be front and center July 18 at The Schottenstein Center in Columbus as the Alternative Press Music Awards show celebrates the hottest alternative artists along with a host of music legends.
And what could be more cutting edge that an on-stage collaboration between legendary heavy metal vocalist Rob Halford of Judas Priest and the explosive jaw-dropping Japanese metal/J-pop fusion band Babymetal and the Icon Award to Marilyn Manson?
Civitas Media interviewed Shea as he was working to bring the third APMA show to Columbus instead of its normal venue in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is being held the same week.
Shea’s ancestors came from Ireland and settled in Delaware County in the 1860s, then moved to Cleveland in the mid-1870s. “I am still looking at finding out more about their time in the Delaware County area,” he said.
His magazine has survived and thrived for 31 years in a volatile music world and even more volatile media publication world. No easy feat.
Civitas Media: Are you surprised by the growth of AP?
Mike Shea: When we started out, we were just a bunch of kids who thought our music was cool and we wanted to write about it. We really didn’t have a game plan when we started. But then we started to be embraced by other kids in the suburbs and in suburbs around Ohio. Then we found kids in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana and Chicago and it kept growing and growing and growing. Then we had kids from all over the country and then it started going overseas.
We were kind of swept up in fulfilling this market. We ended up stumbling into it by being the most together of the alternative magazines.
Civitas Media: What is your niche?
Shea: There will always be an alienated kid that lives in the suburbs. Because of that, we always have had this market. Niche kids live and die by their idols. They get their lyrics tattooed on them and their walls adorned with their posters. It is very akin – although changed by social media and the internet – to Beatlemania in a way. This fan enthusiasm is pretty crazy, and that is what has consistently kept us going. If we had ever pivoted and tried become another music brand, especially in print, and tried to cater to Indie Rock, we would have been dead. Because all those Indie Rock fans in their mid-20s went online. And that’s why you saw Spin collapse and why you saw a lot of rock magazines collapse. That is why Rolling Stone became an entertainment magazine, a pop culture magazine and not just a music magazine.
We are small enough that we can still do good with the crowd we are in. It has been really an awesome experience this last 31 years. The whole world could end tomorrow, but I have got no regrets. It has been really great. We have influenced a lot of kids, a lot of bands. I think that is really the most satisfying out of it. We’ve made a difference to kids.
Civitas Media: Tell us about the time you were printed in Urbana:
Shea: We were printed once in Urbana, issue number 8. We were just kids and we were running out of money We couldn’t afford typesetting at the time. We couldn’t afford proofs. We didn’t have any money, so I checked with a company down there and called them up and they gave me a price that was dirt cheap. Found out later how.
We were like a broadsheet at the time – like a regular newspaper and printed in sections so the printer would collate the sections and they would be dropped off for us and then all we had to do is drop them off at the record stores. We sent all the layout sheets to them back then, this was in 1986.
We were two weeks behind, we tried to call them, couldn’t reach them. It was raining one day and all of a sudden a big semi truck showed up at my home in Aurora. The driver asked, Are you Alternative Press?” and I said yeah, and he opened up the back of the truck and here was our magazine – uncollated. Probably several hundred stacks. Not shrink-wrapped, boxed or anything.
So we just literally threw the bundles onto my mom’s yard. It was the worst printing job I had ever seen. The photos weren’t half toned, it looked like it was photocopied. There were press marks over the whole thing. I ran inside and called them. The phone was disconnected. They had gone out of business. So I got a couple of the staffers and we literally had a collating party to get the edition out. That was our last issue until 1988. The edition can still be found on eBay, he said. It is crazy, kind of flattering that people will pay for them today.
Civitas Media: How do you determine which bands you highlight and feature? Do you hear from fans when you highlight a band they think isn’t in their genre?
Shea: You have to listen to the kids, in all honesty. We do a lot of research online. We really scour social media. We look at feedback, sales figures … it is really a little bit of everything actually. Our readers, whether online or in print or via social media ultimately tell us what they are getting excited about.
You have to keep your eyes open and your ears open. The problem is when you are in the music industry for a while you can kind of start to think you can see all the trends before they happen. You can let your biases throw you off, so to speak. We have a really tight staff that really does pay a lot of attention to kids and talk to our readers and friends all the time.
Our readers tell us what they are liking and not liking, either online or by not buying the issue. We can usually tell pretty fast what kids are liking.
Civitas Media: Do you try to anticipate who is “next big group,” someone who is going to be hot in the future?
Shea: Yes, definitely. You have to respond to the new generation. The generations cycle out about every seven to 10 years. So all of a sudden the band you had on the cover in 2005 is now your current readers’ older brother’s or older sister’s band. You can’t necessarily put your band from 2005 on the cover any more, because your fans in 2016 want their band on the cover. They want their generation, not their brother’s generation.
Civitas Media: Is Alternative music the ‘here and now? Who represents you today?”
Shea: Yeah, I think so. I think it all comes together that way. I think you nailed it.
Civitas Media: Who is your audience?
Shea: The funny thing is it is still basically the same fan we had back in 1985, except it is just a different generation. The music fans (today) just devour the information and follow the bands but they do just in a very different way. It makes it a little more challenging today as a journalist covering entertainment or politics or whatever because so many people communicate via Twitter or Instagram or Facebook now. We were used to break stories and interviews, now we have to find another angle on it because the artists now are in contact with their fan base so much.
Sometimes the fans approach the media brand with the attitude that they know everything already. So your trick is to sort of get in there and find out about something they don’t know. I think that is the challenge for journalists today.
Civitas Media: Is it better to get to the band when they are just starting out, before they are known?
Shea: Oh yes. It is always best to get the band when they are just getting started, because they remember you. If you do the research and you get to know them, they remember you. Especially if they don’t feel you are just there for clickbait or for scandal.
Civitas Media: Who do you see as the up and coming bands of the future? Who will be the headliners in the future?
Shea: I think there is a bunch of them. There is a band from Florida called “Set It Off.” They are putting out a very pop-oriented song this summer and they are just absolutely amazing. They are just an incredible fun band for fans to go see, and their singer Cody Carson is a star. “Against the Current” has got a new record coming out and it is a lot of fun, very accessible and very well produced. Chrissy Costanza is a very energetic front woman. Another great front woman is Jenna McDougall of Tonight Alive. She is an amazing personality. I love anything that she does now. Andy Black is really blowing up, caught a lot of people and critics of his by surprise. That looks like a breakout record this year. So I am so happy for him.
Civitas Media: Who are you listening to right now?
Shea: Actually I listen to a lot of stuff. I think you have to be very well rounded, so you can understand the history of things. I might listen to 70s southern rock and then on to Eddie Condon and 40s Dixieland Jazz Revivalism to maybe some of my favorites of the 80s, then pop punk bands of today to Panic at the Disco. I am just like, all over the place.
Rural Life Today editor Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.