The Recession of 'No Depression'

Birmingham Weekly | May 15, 2008
It is odd for a product plainly labeled No Depression to induce one, but that's what happened last week when I picked up the last-ever issue of that plainly labeled and about-to-be-sorely-missed music magazine.

For 13 years, Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock have poured their love of all kinds of music into the godawful enterprise of magazine publishing, a line of work even the host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs would be afraid to tackle. The process of putting out a magazine once a month combines the worst aspects of sausage making, watch repair and beekeeping into a sleep-shattering, soul-deadening marathon only marginally preferable to assembling a jigsaw puzzle in a tar pit. Paradoxically, it can also be a lot of fun. It wasn't just free promotional CDs and the chance to hobnob with some of the best music makers in the world that made the tiny staff of No Depression whistle while they worked. They knew that by providing a place where readers could find richly detailed articles and essays about meaningful American music, their efforts made No Depression the center of a fan community just as vital as those surrounding the musicians about which they wrote. Depression was evident this issue in the letters of ND devotees. "Like losing a family member," Chris Aaland wrote from Colorado. "Your magazine has been an oasis for me," said Pat Fitzgerald from Alaska. You had to smile at Peter Kraemer's lament from Maryland: "What will we do without you? I even read all the damn advertisements, for God's sake!" Ad space was the final frontier for the magazine. Though No Depression's circulation was stable for a niche publication and it enjoyed comparatively robust newsstand sales, the publishers had noted a 64 percent drop in advertising revenue during the last couple of years. That was the result of another depression in progress in America: the collapse of the music industry as we know it. Despite what the wild-eyed minions of the Recording Industry Association of America would aver, the business isn't vanishing because a bunch of kids have been stealing music on the internet. A perfect storm of mismanagement, unabated greed and indifference to the marketplace has turned the major labels into minors. Knowing years in advance that the internet was going to change the way people obtained their music, the moguls inexplicably refused to get ahead of the wave and are now being swamped. When Paul McCartney would rather record for Starbucks than Sony, there must be an iceberg up ahead. It could be argued that the foundering of the record biz has led to the destruction of small local music stores and the ruination of commercial radio (where desperation dance crazes seem to be turning the once-proud genre of hip-hop into "Soul Train" for the 21st Century), but certainly the slashing of record company ad budgets signaled the end of the line for No Depression and many other small music-oriented periodicals. Whereas Rolling Stone can get by on miles of ads for cosmetics, cars and clothiers, having long ago abdicated its position as a serious music magazine, ND and its ilk subsisted almost exclusively on ads sold to record companies touting the very music written about in their pages. And what pages No Depression offered. Unlike most such magazines, ND thrived on what is called "the long-form piece" sprawling interviews and elegantly diffuse essays that compelled a reader to seek out the songs discussed with such evident high regard. Initially concentrated on artists working in the then-new realm of alt-country music ("whatever that is", each month's cover whimsically proclaimed), the magazine grew to embrace what Alden called in 2005 "the disparate traditions of this continent," as he announced the mag's mission would be henceforth "surveying the past, present and future of American music." Labels didn't matter. Every month excellent writers would delve into old masters like Merle and Loretta and Porter with the same enthusiasm they brought to The New Opry; Son Volt, Wilco, Alejandro Escovedo, Patty Griffin. The future of such music was never overlooked, either. There must be a couple of hundred pickers and singers whose first professional mentions arrived in the pages of No Depression. Of all people, Neil Young, legendary bete noir of all things digital, last week gave us a peek at what the world without music magazines might look like. He announced the imminent arrival of his long-anticipated Archives series -- to be released not on vinyl or cassette but on 10 Blu-Ray DVDs -- at a Sun Microsystems conference in San Francisco, where he demonstrated how "an interactive filing cabinet" would allow fans to listen to hitherto unreleased music from his past while browsing through his memorabilia of the period, including photos, film footage and, yes, print material. Expanding the finite storage capacity of ordinary disks, Young and the uber-geeks at Java have designed the Archives series to be continually upgradable, so that when he finds new stuff in his attic, he can download it directly to you. Here is how deeply Mr. Young has embraced the new technology: he recommends PlayStation 3 as the best platform for viewing his Archives. Fear not, though, because Young insists he'll keep recording his new music on old-fashioned analog tape, dumbed down to a higher level, as he put it. Downloading? Probably not. "Listening to MP3 is like hell," Shakey grumbled. No Depression, too, is abandoning old ways, for an online presence at, where Alden and Blackstock will blog instead of writing columns and you'll have to click a button if you want to see a record ad. They promise they'll publish books full of good music writing twice a year, and perhaps that'll hold those of us who still find merit in the kinds of words you have to hold in your hands to read. In the end, fear not. After all, the Carter Family used to sing, "There will be No Depression in Heaven..."

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After 10 years, Birmingham Weekly has emerged as a strong and significant voice in local journalism — a respected major player in a crowded field of conservative, JOA-bound dailies and other alternative papers. With an emphasis on diverse local coverage,...
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