Email arrived tonight from Ernie Rideout tonight saying he has been laid off as editor-in-chief of Keyboard. Without disparaging in any way the awesome talents and unflagging energy of Steve Fortner, Michael Gallant, and Debbie Greenberg, it’s not easy for me to see how they’re going to be able to keep the wheels turning with such a shrunken head count.

A bit of history: I was laid off from Keyboard in 2002, after 26 years on the editorial staff, so I have at least a vague idea both what it takes to produce a magazine and what may be going on behind the scenes in a publishing house of this sort. Personally, I was grateful to be out of there. It was already pretty much a pressure cooker ten years ago.

But we had more editorial staff than that in 1978. We had Tom Darter (editor), Dominic Milano (half-time editor, half-time art director), me, and Bob Doerschuk. That’s 3-1/2 editors. Today, Debbie is half-time Keyboard and half-time EQ, so they have 2-1/2 editors left. Plus, Debbie is neither a musician nor a writer, so really they have only two editors left. And life is more complex today. There wasn’t any Internet in 1978, folks. Product review insanity was all but nonexistent; the magazine was filled with artist interviews, which are much less time-consuming to produce, especially when you’re Bob Doerschuk and can write great cover story interviews in your sleep. There wasn’t even any voicemail in 1978 — we had an office assistant who took phone messages (and did some proofreading on the side, I might add).

The way corporate bean-counters typically think about layoffs (I know none of the management personnel involved in this latest decision — I’m generalizing here based on what was going on six and a half years ago, under different ownership), they can replace Ernie with a newly hired assistant editor at half the salary or less, thus keeping enough warm bodies on hand to write and edit stuff, so the magazine will still get produced. This is a great example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Decisions of this sort are generally made by people who know nothing about the nature of the product (the magazine) or what goes into it. As long as there’s ink on the page, they think the magazine is the same as it was before. They don’t give a shit about musicians, and they don’t give a shit about excellence. All they care about is maintaining the profit margin that the CEO dictates. They will kill the magazine entirely without a qualm (by making it all but unreadable and then wondering why nobody wants to subscribe or advertise) rather than let the profit margin slip.

I mean “unreadable” to be understood in a technical sense. Even when we had five editors, mistakes were made. Not just typos — technical errors. When you have two editors, there is simply no way to nail everything down that needs to be nailed down. Shit slips into print because nobody has time to check it.

Keyboard is, among other things, about complex technology. Even if manufacturers could be trusted always to tell you the truth, fact-checking would take big slugs of time. And I have personally had manufacturers’ representatives tell me, “Yes, the product will do that,” when I knew the answer was no, it wouldn’t. So I had to rephrase the question, leaving them no wiggle room — and then they would admit, “Oh, you mean that? No, it won’t do that.” When their sales are falling through the floor, they have even more incentive to shade their story in optimistic ways. So you can’t ever quite trust them — but if you have no time to check it yourself, what choice do you have? The magazine becomes simply a manufacturers’ mouthpiece, and guess what? The readers notice that.

To be sure, times are tough. Two of the magazines I’ve written for as recently as last year (Virtual Instruments and Remix) are trying to reinvent themselves as online-only “publications” in order to cut costs. Other music magazines are getting skinny, but hanging on.

But hard times are not the whole story.

Keyboard, Guitar Player, and Bass Player were originally part of a company whose publisher was Jim Crockett. Jim was a musician and had started out in the company as an editor. He cared about editorial integrity. Sometimes his decisions made everybody crazy, but he had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish, and he followed through on that vision. Since the company was sold in 1990, I’d have to say the trend has been slowly but steadily downward.

That’s not to say Keyboard hasn’t done good things under Ernie’s stewardship, because it’s done some fantastic things! As it did when Greg Rule was editor. Heck, even that Sanders guy got a few things right. But there has been erosion, and the erosion started long, long before the current economic slump.

Under Pat Cameron’s guidance as publisher, things were generally okay. (This was the 1992-98 era, I’d have to look up the exact dates; we were part of Miller Freeman at that time.) Pat wasn’t a musician, but she respected what we did and seemed to trust our editorial judgment. When Paul Gallo was brought in, though — don’t get me started on Paul Gallo. I will say nothing about his management practices, because he might sue me. His personal style, however, I always found amusing, and I don’t mind talking about that. His first day in the office, he called a little meeting to introduce himself to the staff. It was, at his instigation, a stand-up-at-a-wide-spot-in-the-hallway meeting, because it was supposed to be quick and informal. The man talked for 45 solid minutes. It was unbelievable — a display of unbridled ego beyond anything I had ever seen.

Paul was running the music magazines in the late Nineties, but seemed to have no clue whatever about musicians. Just from his haircut, you could tell he had skipped the Sixties. The Sixties happened while he was tying his bowling shoes. And this was the guy upper management thought was the right choice to operate Guitar Player, Keyboard, and Bass Player, which tells you something about upper management.

Once Paul was out (and not on account of his haircut), things got maybe a little less insane for a while, but then the British ownership laid me off, so I don’t know what’s been going on since then.

I’ve been lucky, for various reasons. There is definitely life after Keyboard. I hope Ernie’s landing is as soft as mine has been. I’ll keep writing for them, if they still want me to. But it won’t be the same.

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10 thoughts on “The Future of Keyboard Magazine

  1. Thanks for the insight Jim. Let’s hope the publishers haven’t put the nail in the coffin. Keyboard has been my the most valued part of my “reference library” since its inception. I hope Steve, Michael & Debbie can weather the storm.

  2. I’ve been through this magazine-downsizing experience several times, and each time it did seem like the decision-makers had no clue about the market or how the magazine was addressing it. Miller Freeman killed Music & Computers just before MP3s hit; Future killed Revolution (and five others) because the company itself got overextended; etc.

    I particularly remember that last one because shortly after Future hit FuckedCompany.com, the entire staff marched into the publisher’s office to tell him why killing the magazine just as it was taking off was a bad idea. I used a car analogy: When you’re about to run out of gas, you don’t drive your car over a cliff; you pull into a filling station and then motor on.

    Nonetheless, getting out of that pressure cooker was a relief, and I’ve been freelancing ever since. If this country can implement universal healthcare, freelancing should become an even more attractive option.

    I have to say, though, that my four years working in the Keyboard/Guitar Player/Bass Player group were wonderful in that there were so many talented musicians “playing” together. I really liked that shared focus.

  3. Good summary, Jim. I remember my days in the music group (1989-1999) fondly. Being editor of Bass Player and helping it move from a fledgling quarterly to a successful (and, yes, profitable) monthly was one of the great experiences of my life. My last two years there, as group publisher, were less fun — although better paid — but I took that job largely because I believed that someone who was a musician and came from the editorial side had a better chance of preserving the mission of the magazines. But when they announced that divisions were being merged and Gallo would become my boss — I knew it was time to go. And now … it’s just sad.

  4. I had the sobering experience recently of stopping at a Borders Books store on my way to a gig in Nashville and picking up the latest issue of Keyboard. I hadn’t looked at the magazine in maybe eight months or so, and it was shocking to see what it had become. Of course, reasons for its radical diminution go beyond issues related to editorial decision making and into the broader realm of these post-literate times. Still, like Jim, I remember well the days when issues came close to running 200 pages, the great majority of which was produced and edited in-house. (The fact that the ad/editorial ratio was around 50/50 says much about why things have come to where they are today, though there is much more beyond that to say as well.)

    With Ernie’s departure, I have reached a milestone in my relationship with this magazine, which was my home from 1977 through 1995. As of now, I officially know only Debbie on the KM staff; every other name is a stranger to me. I take Jim at his word that the few who remain are gifted and dedicated — they would have to be, like that other Crockett, the one who stuck it out at the Alamo. But I have never met or spoken with them, though I did have a brief and strange conversation with a Keyboard ad guy during last summer’s NAMM Show in Nashville, who seemed unaware of who I am and disinterested in changing that state of affairs.

    Of all the folks I knew and admired from Keyboard, as well as my subsequent colleagues at the late and lamented Musician magazine (Mac Randall, Mark Rowland, and especially my great friend and publisher Paul Sacksman), I believe I am the only one who still earns a living as editor at an actual, physical magazine. I would never have dreamed even a few years ago that I would be at the top of the masthead at CMA Close Up, the bimonthly journal of the Country Music Association; as I told Sacksman after receiving this job offer, my idea of “country” used to be a vacant lot in Queens. Yet here I am, and I am grateful to have come this far and still be in this business, with people as provocative, stimulating and brilliant as Jim — well, almost.

    Jim, shoot me an email. I’d like to catch up. And feel free to run my email address — robdoe@bellsouth.net — should anyone else want to get in touch too.

    Thanks,

    Bob Doerschuk

  5. Just one of many former readers, but Jim’s firing precipitated my cancelling my subscription to Keyboard, and I haven’t picked up any issues since. I used to be in the mag biz (computer games) and saw the same cycle evolve there. Money took over from mind, basically. Emblematic of what has been happening in the wider world as well.

    That cycle is about over. Keyboard’s future readership is likely to be ants. Too bad.

  6. As some of you probably know, PC Magazine just went ‘web’ only. Lance Ulanoff had a nice list of the reasons why, summed up with “But the reality is that the ever-growing expense of print and delivery was turning the creation of a physical product into an untenable business proposition.” Of course, not too long ago, they went from 24 issues a year down to 12, which cut those expenses in half. And now they’ve completely eliminated those expenses. What hasn’t changed, unsurprisingly, is their subscription rate. It’s as if they think they’re the only ones suffering economic woes these days. I wonder how many of their salaries were cut in half either time they cut their expenses in half, as well as their work load? And now they want to offer only a web pubication and still charge the same amount, for information that is largely available elsewhere for free?

    We recently learned that our local ‘science center’, where we purchased a family annual pass a few months back, cut their hours, which will greatly affect how often we can visit. When asked about why, we got the usual economy line, but when I asked if we could get some money back too because of the economy, they chuckled. WTF?

    Anyways, the last print issue of PC Magazine consisted of ~40% advertising. If that and the sales income of the magazine aren’t enough to fund it, how are other magazines staying in print, some with much less advertising.

    What’s funny is I had acquired, through many various offers, a free subscription to PC Magazine that expired in the year 2064. I can only assume they give away these free subs because it helps them to justify their advertising rates. They certainly weren’t doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, and I’m sure I was counted as one of the paid subscribers on the form they submit to the U.S. govt. under penalty for submitting false information, yet oddly, when I requested a refund, they handed me off to another company. Greedy bastards… 😉

  7. Ernie will be missed. The reality is that the generation who used to read magazines is gone. I used to wait for Keyboard and Polyphony to come out and then I’d read them cover to cover…multiple times because it was the source of info that couldn’t be had elsewhere.
    The internet has changed how people get their information and the generation now would rather sit on a forum and complain about how every manufacturer is bad and doesn’t know anything about making gear and read about the band of the day on a blog. I just received my Keyboard mag yesterday and haven’t looked at it yet but you can find leaflets at the doctors office that are thicker. They want $5.99 for 76 pages, 26 of which are ads. The value is not there any longer. The artists who you would read about now have their own web pages with all their info and their blog to find out what is going on today not 90 days ago. The manufacturers have all their latest gear with videos, audio, manuals and specs posted so I don’t need a reviewer to tell me about it. So If I’m finding out about gear from forums and manufacturers web pages and I’m hearing about artists from their web pages and fan sites, what purpose does the magazine serve any longer?
    I loved, and still have, my Keyboard magazines from the 70’s and 80’s when it was thriving but like newspapers and most other magazines, it is now a dying medium. The online model is going to be hard pressed to do better. There are too many free resources available to make it worth while to pay for an online subscription to anything.
    If Napster would have lived in it’s former free state, iTunes would be dead.
    Magazines face the same problem with all the free info available.

    1. The problem with all the “free info” on the internet is that it is tainted. Coloured by sellouts, drowning in manufacturer salespeak.

      One DOES need some kind of filtering mechanism in place, to protect oneself from exactly that “free info”.

      That’s why I subscribe to the british Sound On Sound magazine, which btw. seems to be doing real well, thickness-wise 🙂

      There is simply NOT time enough in the universe to keep oneself updated on everything going on. One must trust the magazine employees to catpure what’s good and what’s not.

      I also subscribe to both EQ and Keyboard Magazine in their free, electronic version. It’s worth a peek every month atleast.
      I gave away my collection of keyboard magazine issues last year. Must have been back to the early 80s. Oh well.

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