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.