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There Really is No Alternative: An Exclusive Interview with Alternative Press President/Founder MIKE SHEA

By Curt Miller, Pittsburgh Correspondent
Tuesday, May 19, 2015 @ 6:47 PM


"You never forget where you came from. That's really what it's all about."

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Mike Shea Photos Courtesy Of Graham Fielder

Like countless other kids, when Mike Shea was just out of high school he was into his local music scene and was disenchanted by the fact that there wasn’t much in print about the bands in which he was interested. What separated Shea from the rest was that he didn’t just sit back and wait to see if someone would do something about it. With knowledge gleaned from being the editor of his high school’s newspaper and yearbook he set out to start a fanzine to support the bands and music he loved. 30 years after his first issue, Shea’s Alternative Press is one of the leading music publications on the newsstand.

It takes more than just drive to make it as far as he has in an industry (print media) that some say is dead. Mike Shea is a savvy businessman with a keen understanding of his demographic, the ever-changing music scene, and the equally volatile world of journalism, where the definition of the term itself may even be fodder for debate.

A conversation with Mike Shea is more than just a chat with someone who digs music. It’s a whole lesson in how to navigate the tumultuous waters of a growing business all while never abandoning the ideals that you put in place on day one.

KNAC.COM: There’s little question that your passion to promote the music you love led to the initial four-page issue of Alternative Press (AP) in 1985, including selling ad space to local businesses, and getting it into the Coventry, OH music scene. That said; how long after the magazine came into existence did it really start to become clear to bands that exposure in AP was a key to reaching their fans?

SHEA: It happened quickly. Bands in our region started to reach out to us pretty aggressively. There was no Internet back then so, if they didn’t have our phone number, they had to find another way to track us down. But yeah, it was quick because they found that there was someone who wanted to write about them regardless of whatever scene or sub-scene they were in.

Bands were also attracted by the fact that they had the opportunity to appear in a publication that looked and was written in a professional manner. We gave them an alternative to the local press or just getting a placement in a club’s “upcoming shows” listing.

On the national level we started seeing a response by our fifth issue. It was a write-around featuring the CURE. We’d done the publicity photo and our photographer got backstage at the CURE show here in Cleveland. He ended up getting some photos of the band and asking a few questions. The resulting story was an interview/career retrospective with some quotes from Robert Smith wrapped around it.

By then, on the national level, record companies had begun to add AP to their lists of regional fanzines for tour press and interviews. Things were running full-steam-ahead by issues six and seven, however; by the eighth issue we were starting to run out of money and it began to fall apart. We didn’t really know what we were doing as a business. Originally, for the first six issues, AP was a free publication and we were throwing punk shows to generate funding. With issue seven we charged a buck-twenty-five or something like that for it. We had a local “Alt-Weekly” business model in the beginning. It was a weekly, fanzine model, but we found out that wasn’t making it and we were going massively into debt. After issue eight we stopped and took a hiatus for almost a year.

One of my associate editors who’s also a record reviewer reached out to me in February of ’88 and told me he really missed doing it and asked how much it would cost to do a reunion issue, just one more. So, I scribbled down some numbers and came back with maybe 500 or 800 bucks. He asked if he fronted it if I’d do the issue. I was in. If he was willing to front it, I definitely wanted to do another issue. I was in retail at the time and had considered becoming a filmmaker, but I didn’t go to California nor filmmaking school. I’d also dropped out of college by that time because Kent State had shut down its film school and I didn’t have any interest in radio. I was kind of lost, so this offer of doing a reunion issue got me really excited about it again.

To do the reunion issue we got in touch with the original crew, though some had moved on. We reached out to the national record companies from whom we’d been getting records and interviews to let them know we were publishing another issue. They were all very excited to hear about it, but I really understand why. They explained that we had become very important, that all of their bands wanted to be in AP. I was like, “What?”

Remember; this was pre-Internet, so what had happened was that we’d sent out issues eight and seven of our zine, ‘cause those were the paid ones, to Tower Records and a lot of the Indie record stores. They’d end up sitting there for months and they’d sell. Kids had discovered the zine while we were gone because there was no place for the stores to return the zine. We’d become an entity that was liked, so when we decided to publish the reunion issue, there was an outreach of support from the distributors and record companies. We ended up selling more ads for that one zine than we had in all of the prior issues combined.

The reunion issues kicked us right back into gear as a full-time thing. Everybody was so excited about it and we were getting offers for interviews with bands that we never thought we’d get.

KNAC.COM: As you’ve explained, like any fledgling business the early years had their ups and downs but, once you’d dug in, what were the next steps to being circulated outside of the Ohio/Mid-West market?

SHEA: Well, there was a lot of trial and error and exchanging notes with other zine editors. There used to be a zine out of Columbus called The Offense Newsletter that was very reputable and its editor was one of the first guys at the time to bring the 4AD bands, like the COCTEAU TWINS, into Ohio. By chatting with him and other zine people around the country you start to learn the tricks of the trade.

There were also record distributors back then that have all gone away as a result of being bought up. They were like Hot Topic stores for distribution. They sold everything: vinyl, t-shirts, fanzines, whatever to record stores and such. I’d talk with those distributors and befriend their buyers. They’d let me know what was and wasn’t selling and what they liked and didn’t like about my zine and we’d make changes accordingly. Most of those relationships were great, but sometimes the record distributors would go under and we’d be stiffed for thousands of dollars.

But yeah, it was very DIY. There was no book on how to do it. Actually, I think there was a book that came out in the early ’90s about how to do a fanzine, but it was so generic. Every zine is different and caters to a different market. One may be a hemp zine while another may be for comic book kids. Trial and error is how we built it up.

KNAC.COM: Nowadays, the old-school music magazines have become more “entertainment” magazines with stories spanning everything from celebrity scandals to the latest in politics. As such, AP may not be such the “alternative” for readers anymore. It’s now become a go to source for the latest in music. Has that resulted in a progressive change in format or do you still pretty much stick to the original mold?

SHEA: You have to change over time. If you don’t you’ll be dead. Look at the way we consume news in general. It doesn’t matter whether it’s political news or music news. Even if it’s about bands that aren’t Pop bands, but very specific to a particular community: Metal, Punk, Jazz, whatever; all of the news is now online. It’s done through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and websites. It would be insane for us to think that we can publish a monthly news magazine in a contemporary world. People don’t go to monthly magazines for music news or any type of news, really.

Time Magazine is barely holding on in a print format and they’re weekly. What print has become in a very weird way, but an amazing way, is like vinyl. There are two things that hurt print, the Internet and the economy. The Internet hurt print due to immediacy and because it was free. Say, for example, KORN puts out a new record and an interview with them that’s to appear in our August issue. There will be a ton of websites with stories about the album as soon as it’s released and some will have interviews if they can get them, so by the time our August issue hits the newsstand, we’re already late.

The internet has then changed the subject matter contained within print articles. By the time print media is released bands have already talked online about the making of new records or they’ve done a video on their own website with in-the-studio updates. Doing print now means writing stories with unique content, making publications collectible, something readers will want to refer back to. The standards typically associated with journalism: who, what, when, where, why, and how have all been taken away by Internet reporting. Referring back to that example about running the KORN story in August, all of those questions get wrapped up in one paragraph and we move on to something that the most online outlets don’t get to, which is depth.

A very big weakness of the internet is depth, so print allows you to provide more quality or deepness in a story and thus, print becomes collectible. Print also needs to be produced better. You can’t get away with gloss 34lb. paper like the stuff you see at checkout counters anymore. There’s a value problem with it. Readers don’t think that stuff is worth the five bucks and I don’t blame them. Not only does it need to be printed on better paper, it has to look less like a magazine. One of the things we’re still refining now is our cover text. We want the photographs on our cover to breathe more so it looks more like an album cover and less like a traditional magazine cover. Too many magazine covers are flooded with cover text about all of the other stories inside.

We had to adapt over the years and it’s actually helped us quite a bit. We already had a high retention rate with kids keeping the magazine issue to issue and making libraries of it. Of late, that’s increased another three of four percent, which we’re very happy about. But, you have got to change.

I still get emails from someone who read AP in the ‘90s who wants to know why we’re not featuring SMASHING PUMPKINS, FLAMING LIPS, KITCHENS OF DISTINCTION or whoever he/she is into on the cover anymore and that we’ve sucked ever since. Well, the reality is that, if we did, the magazine wouldn’t sell because today’s kids want their own idols. The people who were into the SMASHING PUMPKINS are now older and married and they don’t go out and buy print mags. People who follow and idolized Billy Corgan will read about him online. They don’t mind reading a story about who they’re interested in, but they’re not going to race out and pick up a magazine because of Vic Fuentes, Hayley Williams or Patrick Stump.

We have a new generation and the thing that’s kept AP around so long is the fact that we never grew old with our readership. We recognize that every year there’s going to be a graduating class who are going to leave us. They’ll hate and send us email telling us that we suck and that they can’t relate anymore. They go off to college and discover RADIOHEAD and Jazz and that’s awesome. They just can’t deal with Andy Biersack anymore.

Then, every year we get a freshman class that comes in, a new generation of kids that wants us to write about whoever they’re into, bands like: SET IT OFF and CROWN THE EMPIRE. We’ll take the criticism from the older readers, but I think they get it. Out of every couple of emails that I get from readers from the ‘90s telling me that we suck, at least one will go on to recognize that we have to change to stay relevant and bring in a new generation.

It’s a challenge, but we’re winning it. You have to change the model in this contemporary world whether it’s journalism, how you make a magazine, or how you communicate information. The greatest thing is that we’re seeing a movement back into print from the major advertising agencies and brands. We’re starting to see more op-ed now where as before everyone was rushing with enthusiasm into digital. What we’re finding is that more than three quarters of banner ads are never seen, most of them are never clicked on, and half of all YouTube commercials are never seen. Our print advertising sales are going up, which is awesome. We realized that we couldn’t take our foot completely out of print because there are still a lot of people who read it. It seemed everyone was just momentarily caught up in the social media party.

KNAC.COM: One thing that’s really refreshing about AP is the publication’s continued focus on promoting music and bands. Readers won’t find band-bashing articles, or pieces about what one ex-band-member said about another’s sleazy new girlfriend either in print or on AP’s website. Was that a conscious decision made at the beginning, to keep the focus on music, the artists, and not any of the behind-the-scenes drama?

SHEA: Part of it is because of the Internet. There’s a portion of news journalists out there who, quite frankly, aren’t even journalists; they’re just music fans. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and yearbook and was writing material and music journalism for local media outlets, so I kind of felt like I was already a journalist when I started AP. A lot of people writing right now realize that the way to get their website noticed is by being dramatic.

The TMZ model has had a profound effect on a generation of people starting websites specifically when it has to do with entertainment coverage. You end up with a lot of people trying to find the salaciousness in everything, which is why anytime a musician gets in trouble with law enforcement there are at least five websites racing to the courthouses website trying to dig up paperwork to see who will be first to get it all online. We now have all of these zine-TMZs out there. The result is editorializing of the news. [Laughing] I call it “he’s an asshole” journalism.

Take Scott Weiland, for example. One of these so-called “journalists” will report, ‘Scott Weiland got arrested today for taking a chair, throwing it into the audience, and hitting a female fan in the process.’ The next line will be, ‘this guy’s an asshole. I hate him. Why is he allowed to be onstage? He must hate women. Blah! Blah! Blah!’ They editorialize the news piece with their opinions because many of them aren’t setting up websites to be journalists; they’re doing it so their opinions are heard.

These reporters eventually get ahold of band management or the labels and request interviews and are told, ‘go to hell because you just bashed the artist in your latest piece.’ The websites get all dejected, go back online and write even more material slamming management or whoever else. In the end, they pretty much just shoot themselves in the foot because they’re not journalists.

At Alternative Press we believe in sticking to the facts, not rushing to judgment, and allowing artists to feel as though they can come talk with us to get their side out. If something happens, whether the person is guilty or not, we’ll present the facts and get into all of the details. We certainly don’t let people off of the hook, but we don’t editorialize our pieces. We’ll talk about issues in the magazine: drug problems, divorces, whatever, but it’s because artists want to talk about them and feel safe talking with us. In the long run, I know that’s why we get the story and we’re seen as a professional outlet whereas others are not. Again, many others in it today aren’t here to be journalists; they’re in it to get their opinions out. Well, if that’s who you want to be, don’t do a website; just do a Podcast and go get a day job.

KNAC.COM: 30 years in, AP is the gold standard for what’s current in music. The publication has been and continues to be a major sponsor of the Vans Warped Tour, AP featured its own tour for six years (2007-2012), and the APMAs in one year have outgrown the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to take over the Quicken Loans Arena. In your wildest dreams starting out, did you ever imagine that your “underground” music magazine would obtain this level of success or become this big?

SHEA: No, I never did. We didn’t even know how long it was going to last when we started out. For many years we thought, ‘okay, we can get a couple more issues out? Is the other shoe going to drop? Are people going to advertise anymore or continue to subscribe?’ We never knew because we were never massively funded by anyone. We’ve always been an independent company; no one ever bought us and we’ve never had deep pockets from which to pull. When the recession hit in ’91-’93 we really took the brunt of it and when the even bigger recession hit a few years back we took the brunt of it again.

We were never that good at making five or ten year plans because we were always thinking, ‘can we get another year out of us?’ Plus, there’s the fact that going along competing with countless other zines is kind of similar to climbing Mt. Everest in that people drop off along the way. You’re always wondering, ‘am I going to be the next one to drop off?’ I never bought a house in Cleveland all of those years because I was so used to thinking, ‘if I buy a house and the zine goes under, I’ll be stuck with a mortgage and I’ll be screwed.’

We hope everything is going to work and we make plans, but the way things were it was always a tenuous future. I’m glad we were cautious and never went on a spending spree. We never bought a building or had wall-size aquariums or pool tables put in. That may be why we’re still around. We chose to stay in Cleveland. We’ve always been kind of humble. On the negative side, people on the bigger side of music journalism tended to overlook us because they considered us a “teen-zine.” They didn’t show us the same respect given Rolling Stone Magazine or someone like a music journalist from the Chicago Tribune. But we’re still around and a lot of those people no longer have jobs.

KNAC.COM: A lot of times people ask for a person’s fondest memories over the years, so I will. But, I’m going to make it tough. In the 30-year history of AP what would you rate as your 3 biggest accomplishments and there’s a caveat; they don’t necessarily have to be magazine related?

SHEA: Starting the AP Tour was a big one when we did it a number of years ago and we may be bringing it back. That decision will be made soon. Doing the Alternative Press Music Awards (APMAs) is also another big one. It’s not just an award show; it’s an event where all of us in our community come together. It was much needed and it’s great! It’s just as much an award show as it is an opportunity for all of the bands, tour crews, and industry people to gather, have fun, and catch up all in a two-day period. It’s awesome!

Third, and in all sense of humbleness, just being here after everything. To tell you the truth, there are countless reasons why we shouldn’t be around. Regardless of whether it’s been outside sources, like the economy, the rise of the digital era, or battles with Rolling Stone and Spin, or our own internal issues, there are way too many reasons why we shouldn’t be here; yet we still are. Through the good and the bad, the fact that we’ve survived is a credit to our staff, those who are here and those who aren’t, as well. Pretty much everyone became an AP “Lifer.” They’ve worked long hours and shown a lot of creativity. We’ve loved each other, hated each other, and fought about bands. [Laughing] If some bands knew how passionate the fights in our offices have been over the past 30 years regarding whether their band should even receive coverage, they’d be sending Christmas gifts to writers for the rest of the writers’ lives.

We’re all so passionate about what we do at AP, you can tell right away whether someone’s going to be here long or not when they join us. If people aren’t into being AP “Lifers” in the sense that they love and live for this stuff, then they’re out. They’ll get squeezed out naturally because that’s the way the rest of us are.

Those are definitely my top three but I’d probably reverse them. The last one is my number one. That we’re still even here is pretty amazing to me. When you think about consumer music magazines in print, like Rolling Stone, who’s been around for what, 46 years? Well, we’ve been around for 30, so where are the rest of them? They’re either gone or they’re online.

[Laughing] Am I a survivor or am I an idiot? Should I have gotten out by now? I don’t know, but I love my job, I love doing what we’re doing, and love the fact that we can make a difference with fans and bands. We still help bands get built up and realize the dreams they had when they were sitting in their bedrooms singing into their mirrors, or playing guitar with headphones on, thinking that they’re going to be like the guys in RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.

It’s been a really crazy trip. I’ve hated chunks of it and it stressed me out, but I’ve loved every minute of it and I’m very fortunate.

KNAC.COM: People know you for your work at AP. What about you might surprise people to learn, like particular hobbies outside of music, or a TV series, movie franchise, or author whose material you never miss?

SHEA: This sounds a little weird, but it started as a result of my Goth background, ‘cause I was a Goth kid. We actually had an intern here once who asked what I was like as a kid and I told him about being into the Goth scene. [Laughing] He came back with, ‘wow, I thought you were a skater; that’s disappointing.’

I wasn’t as trendy as South Park Goth kid with the hair flip and didn’t tend to be remorseful for no reason, but I’ve always been into spooky stuff, and not the Punk Rock skeletons. I like real skeletons, the Goth, scary, spooky stuff.

In my spare time I work on tracing my family history since I’m a huge history nut. I like making the connections as to how my family has been involved in history throughout the centuries. Doing so resulted in me visiting to all of these old cemeteries, which tended to be pretty much demolished. Some were actually run by major organizations being paid for their upkeep; yet it was as though they’d been completely forgotten about.

I was taking pictures at these cemeteries with my iPhone, which eventually made their way online. The next thing I know people were telling me that I was really good at it. I was like, ‘What?’ So, I created a Facebook page, an Instagram, and a Flickr as outlets to post the photos and eventually got kind of pulled into this community of what are called taphophiles. They’re people who are obsessed with cemeteries, graveyards, and stuff. It sounds really strange, but it’s really cool. It’s a whole community of people who go around taking pictures at cemeteries. [Laughing] Yeah, I guess it’s still pretty Punk Rock in a way.

That’s something about me most people don’t really know. My Instagram name is “mikesheaisgrave.” It’s kind of a scary thing.

KNAC.COM: One last question: AP’s 30th Anniversary issue could have featured anyone, but FALL OUT BOY made the cover. Was it their win for “Artist of the Year” at last year’s APMAs or a combination of many things that brought them to the top of the list?

SHEA: One of the reasons we moved away from Alt Rock, started covering Nu Metal then went back to our roots was the Warped Tour in ’01 and ’02. There was a time between ’99-’01 when a lot of huge bands like the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS, OASIS, RADIOHEAD, NO DOUBT, people who we’d put on our cover and, in many cases, we’d been their first U.S. cover, had gotten so big that they’d forgotten about us. Some wouldn’t even give us interviews anymore or they’d give us stock photos rather than allowing us the time for a photo shoot. They’d give their interviews to Spin or Rolling Stone instead. They pretty much blew us off and it got to a point where they didn’t care where they came from anymore. We felt like the whole thing really sucked.

At that point we had a booth at Warped Tour and were covering the event. Our marketing person came back from the tour in ’01 and made it clear that something was happening, things were really changing. There were these little bands that weren’t necessarily selling a lot of records, but the fans were crazy about them. The kids were coming up to our booth asking if we had anything on these bands, so we knew we needed to get on it.

All of a sudden nobody cared about our coverage of RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS, KORN or SLIPKNOT. We did a bit of research on that Warped Tour and decided to feel this new craze out. Originally, we’d planned to do a cover featuring Disturbed since we had the first interview with them after the release of their latest album, but we decided to push that issue back a month and ran a split cover featuring AFI and SAVES THE DAY instead. Those were the two bands that’d been blowing up on Warped Tour, so we said ‘let’s do it.’ We sold out of that issue. We sold more copies of that magazine than we had of the previous KORN or SLIPKNOT issues.

We ran the DISTURBED cover the next month and it didn’t do well at all. Then, we ran SUM 41 and that one did great. The following month the COAL CHAMBER issue bombed. Not only were we doing well with these new bands, but they were really nice to us, as well. They were enthusiastic, supportive, and appreciative of what we were about and what we were doing. They basically started a partnership with us, wanting to talk with us regularly, and offering us exclusive interviews. We’d cultivated relationships directly with these bands that hadn’t evolved with other bands. It was awesome! We were selling, the kids were excited about it, and we felt better about what we were doing ‘cause we’d gotten really bored with Nu Metal. There were probably only two good bands that came out of that scene anyway.

The point here is that FALL OUT BOY became as big as RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS and NO DOUBT. They could have done to us what those band and others like them did and walked away from us. They’re Rolling Stone. They’re MTV. They can get anything they want but, when we let them know we were doing an award show (the inaugural APMAs in 2014), they diverted their tour to be there. They were to have a day off between dates in PA and NC. Instead, at their own expense they diverted their tour and drove to Cleveland overnight to play our show. Here’s a band that gets a huge chuck of money to play, yet they performed for us for practically nothing. They did it because they support us.

After the show Pete (Stump) sent me an email thanking me for allowing FALL OUT BOY to be part of the event. He was thrilled to be part of something where he and his band represent the elder statesmen. FALL OUT BOY never forgot us, and they came back. PARAMORE and BLINK-182 are also like that, where there’s this community, family connection.

FALL OUT BOY can go and play in the Hip-Hop world then come right back down into our community and do a 400 capacity room and blow it out Pop-Punk style. We respect that and we felt as though this band represents what our community is like. As such, there was no other choice for the cover of our 30th Anniversary issue. We were their first major cover, we have an amazing relationship with the band, and the guys are just solid with us.

FALL OUT BOY represents everything that we as a community believe in. PARAMORE is already at that level and, if ALL TIME LOW ever gets that big they should treat our community like FALL OUT BOY by never forgetting where they came from. The problem we had in the past is that some bands forgot where they’d come from and no longer wanted to be associated with it.

Mike Shea has proved that with the right mindset and a solid business model you cannot only achieve your dreams you can also unify that which you love most into a community, a family if you will. With 30 years of success, a focus on what’s next, and an unyielding determination to stay true to his core ideals, Shea and Alternative Press will likely continue to show the world that his alternative is the right one long into the future.


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