Friday, March 07, 2008

Some Depression

There's a swell drinking mix over at Barstool Mountain. We'd suggest checking it out. Your liver will thank you.

We're gonna get ourselves back in line shortly with a post about a grand honky-tonking trucker named Dick. But first, today, we want to offer up an obituary of sorts. With musical accompaniment, of course.

Venerable music mag No Depression is closing up shop, at least in it's print version. I've got mixed feelings about this. Except for the first couple of copies, I've purchased every issue of No Depression since it's inception back in 1995. I never subscribed, since I wasn't initially sure if it would last, and then, as it marched, seemingly successfully, forward, I wasn't sure about what point the other shoe would drop and I'd lose interest. The magazine always seemed to have a tenuous grasp, at best, on what I was interested in, so far as "Americana", "Alt Country (whatever that is)" or downright just Country music went. But I kept picking it up, every two months, at my local record store. An impulse purchase, maybe?

For a good portion of it's existence No Depression functioned well as a great resource for newer roots or Country inspired acts. What it lacked in historical overview (it covered the "obvious" old-timey artists, but skimmed or overlooked, for the most part, some of the more seminal or forgotten artists of yesteryear.), it made up for in it's extensive coverage of up-and-coming acts (it's "Town and Country" section, particularly). It took us through Bloodshot Record's glory years, North Carolina's (via Chapel Hill) alt-country "scene", and rambled the world for regional acts. It's coverage of the new burgeoning Country and roots scene was, for the most part, exemplary. I wish they had managed to make their way to Denver, Colorado to investigate the nascent Country scene happening round those parts, but that's neither here nor there at this point.

As I write this, I'm listening to The Derailers, a band introduced to me via No Depression, way back when. For the majority of it's lifespan, No Depression was responsible for lightening my wallet and bank account. There was a time when the magazine forced me, forced I tell you, into committing to 5-10 records per issue. Yep, they held a gun to my head. But, and there's always a but, the last time No Depression was responsible in leading me toward picking up a record was a short review of James Hand, buried in the middle-to-back of their reviews section ("Waxed"). Long-time readers at this site will recognize how well that purchase worked out (our Best Album of 2006). That record came out almost two years ago. I don't recollect (and I could be wrong) hearing another peep out of No Depression about Mr. Hand.

And that seemed to be a bit of a trend with the mag. I'm not sure what their target audience turned out to be. Certainly not the James Hand fans. Nor the Johnny Bond, Hank Thompson, Stonewall Jackson, Dave Dudley, Lefty Frizzell, etc. crowd, either. It's hardly a revelation, and I'm sure many have already pointed this out, but it seemed like No Depression really did jump the proverbial shark when they changed their tag line from "The Alternative Country (Whatever That Is) Bi-Monthly something or another" (paraphrased) to the even more unwieldy "Surveying the Past, Present, and Future of American Music". What that tag line suggested was a shift in focus, of sorts, a re-imagining of what No Depression's mission was (whatever that is). A bold new direction. They tried to explain the decision in an editorial, but I don't think they were ever able to properly identify what direction they wanted to go. The focus shifted to cover artists like The Shins (because god knows they weren't getting any kind of coverage in more mainstream magazines like, oh I dunno...Spin, Rolling Stone, Magnet, Entertainment Weekly...) and Miranda Lambert (the Alanis Morrisette of modern Country, a cynical, label-created, "safe enough" version of "outlaw country" as the suits can properly market.). Again, No Depression went to great lengths to justify these covers, and some of their revenue-based justification were fair, but what many long-time readers took away from these flirtations with the mainstream was a sense that the magazine was dropping it's base in favor of a broader and more bland sense of music "reporting". So, by abandoning it's base and courting a readership that didn't really exist, or got it's music coverage elsewhere, No Depression seemed to have dug itself into a bit of a quandry as to who they wanted to read their magazine.

I have no scientific data, or financial information to back up my opinion. It could very well be that the magazine has seen an upward surge in readership that ad revenue simply hadn't caught up with. They address some of the financials in their statement about the end of the print version of the magazine. They say the have not suffered a significant decline in readership. It's a well thought out statement, but doesn't seem to strongly address the intangibles in the way they now cover music, and the manner in which they do so. Of course, they don't owe me an explanation of any sort. I'm just a lone blogger with a very specified readership. We're probably not considered their demographic any longer, anyway. Who knows? I could be wrong.

Anyhow, we come not just to bury, but to praise, No Depression. Some have suggested that No Depression was easily replaced by magazines such as Harp and Paste. I strongly disagree. Harp and Paste read like glossy press bios disguised as magazines. Everything in those magazines feels like it's been test-marketed to death before reaching print, and the articles are poorly written, and without a love of the subjects they're covering, music being a day job and not a passion. And the layouts are atrocious. No Depression, on the other hand, and despite it's faults, was one of the best-written magazines on the stand. The journalists had a real affinity, for a good part of its existence, for what they were covering, and you felt as if they did what they did out of love for the genre (whatever that was), and a real concern for preserving a musical culture that was always teetering towards obscurity. And No Depression always looked great, particularly in the old "black and white only" days, utilizing a clean-style format and well-placed retro-ranch styles. It was influential in it's time. It certainly influenced me.

I have no idea if we'll ever have a print replacement for No Depression. There may not be a large enough audience to support one.

For a good while No Depression provided a respite from the usual tripe sitting on the newsstand. We certainly wish it well in it's online endeavor. More so, we wish it's writers and, particularly, it's founders, Mr. Peter Blackstock and Mr. Grant Alden, well. I'm not sure if we'll follow it further, but it's been a grand ride in the ole pickup truck, bumps on the dirt road notwithstanding.

The following tracks are sort of a nudge and a wink tribute to No Depression. If you've read the magazine, you'll probably get it immediately. If not, well, it never hurts to have some classic Carter Family, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco songs on your hard drive.


Uncle Tupelo: No Depression (mp3)

Uncle Tupelo: Slate (mp3)

The Carter Family: Hello Stranger (mp3)

Wilco: Box Full Of Letters (mp3)

Uncle Tupelo: The Long Cut (mp3)

Uncle Tupelo: Screen Door (mp3)

No Depression started as, essentially, an independent 'zine of sorts. Please consider supporting your local, independent journalists and Kinko's scribes. You never know where the next Lester Bangs will come from.


Cricket said...

Lovely. I couldn't have said it better myself. I've been toying with what my own public commentary is on the end of No Depression. I think you've summed it up well.

Part of the reason I started blogging was because I kept feeling like ND was slightly failing me more and more every month, especially after the tagline change. I think perhaps they never carefully defined their audience, or tried to for narrow but still far too broad coverage in whatever they had identified as their genre.

Mark P said...

Despite the changes, ND, for my money, was still the best music magazine out there. God forbid they fulfill the remainder of my subscription with the likes of Paste.

Randolph and me said...

Yep, pretty well-said - a great, though flawed, magazine. Like some of my favorite Americana blogs, it did start to lose its focus, but it remained above average and still the most suitable for people of our taste. (I'd rather have a Shins cover story in a magazine filled with country stories, than a James Hand cover story in a magazine filled with pop.) But I do have some good memories with the magazine, like sitting on my brother's front porch in Nashville reading the Kristofferson story.

Paste is no substitution. I regretfully subscribed to it recently. Uncut is expensive and its dead rock star tributes get old after a while. I'm no longer Rolling Stone's target demo, and I can't keep up with the Economist.