Rough Trade magazine’s unique, grassroots take on music journalism
There are so many magazines that are too easily overlooked. With newsstands now brimming with countless great independent titles, we are increasingly prone to bypassing ones that don’t immediately grab us with their thick, luscious paper or a pristinely designed cover.
When I finally picked up an issue of Rough Trade magazine, lured in by an interview with soul singer Charles Bradley, I realised that the zine-like format and teenage moodboard aesthetics are the perfect presentation for a magazine filled with intimate interviews, passionate music commentary, odd features (there’s a series called ‘Jof’s Fears’, which is basically just a list of trivial things Rough Trade member of staff Joff is scared of) and just straight up love letters to the people behind great music.
So last week, I went to Rough Trade East to speak to editor Liv Siddall about the magazine, where she also picks out an album that is soothing her in the current post-election apocalypse.
Tell us about Rough Trade magazine.
Basically, there was so much stuff going on in the Rough Trade stores, with musicians coming in and out, performances and conversations and so on, the company wanted to start a monthly magazine, radio show and series of films to collect all the stories together. Before I started, they did a thing called The Fold, which was a printed, monthly leaflet that had the top 10 albums of the month. So now the magazine is based around the same idea, with the main lead feature as the album of the month and then a bunch of other fun features around it.
We don’t really critique music in the way Pitchfork or other music magazines do, we just celebrate our favourite ones. The magazine is not trying to give you weekly music news, it’s just this nice monthly thing that gives you a flavour of Rough Trade.
What is the ‘flavour’ of Rough Trade?
When I was putting the magazine together in the beginning, I spent the first few months just talking to people who work in and around the store. The staff at Rough Trade just know so much and are so, so passionate about music, so I wanted to reflect that. But what I loved is how it isn’t squeaky clean. The toilets are super gross, filled with graffiti, all the customers are happy to write on the walls, new bands come in and put their posters up. Every time I ask someone who works here what they love about Rough Trade, it’s always this feeling of family and community and knowing each other. Like a big messy house filled with a loud family. So I wanted the magazine to definitely get that across.
How do you reflect that in the mag?
A lot of the conversations about music happen at the pub, and I want the magazine to have the tone of those conversations. So a lot of the time, I get bands to interview each other, and it’s kind of showing off that bands know and love each other. Same with the staff. That’s how I want the tone of the magazine to be: like a good old chat with a pal in a pub.
Do a lot of staff write for it?
At the beginning I thought I was going to have to write to loads of music journalists and get them to write for the magazine, and then after a few weeks, I thought, that doesn’t make any sense for this. It’s better if we get customers and staff to write for it. So far it’s been very successful and has made the magazine so much more personal.
There was one time in issue seven, and the album of the month was D.D Dumbo (below). He lives in this place outside of Melbourne, Castlemaine, so I found a photographer (Jamieson Moore), paid her to get a tank of petrol and drive out to photograph him. But I didn’t have a writer, so asked the photographer if she knew anyone, and she’s like, “Not really, but I know a girl who’s a big fan of his music.” So I was like, “Great, take her.”
So this girl, who’s just a fan of his music, ended up doing the lead interview in the magazine. The idea is that anyone can write for this magazine, because if you can have a conversation with someone you can interview them, and if you’re passionate about something, like music, then of course you’re going to have good questions to ask. We can make it sound clever later.
Tell us about photographing the bands in the magazine.
One rule I set myself was to never use press shots. I love choosing which photographer to commission, it’s my favourite task (aside from sending out subscriber copies and covering the envelopes in stickers). Usually, for a brief I send photographers this folder of weird images — there’s one of the Sex Pistols sitting in a skip, there’s one of David Bowie walking down the road holding a bunch of stuff, really casual, not posed. Ideally, on every page, someone’s smiling, because when I was a teenager, all the magazines I read — i-D, Pop, Love, and The Face — had people just grinning on every page, and that made me feel like I wanted to be a part of the culture.
Usually, our photographers shoot with film which keeps the zine vibe of the magazine. If I know a band is on tour, I’ll often email them and just get them to photograph their own tour. A lot of the time bands hate the press photos of themselves, so if I give them the control the band’s gonna enjoy it, and it’s a unique, exclusive feature. So it kind of works well for both parties.
And it kind of ties back to the what you were saying, that everyone can write…
Yeah exactly. Helps if they’re really good looking as well, which a lot of them are…(laughs)
The zine-y aesthetics of the magazine really works with this grassroots ethos.
Bruce Usher, the designer, came into the store when I first started making the magazine, and I took him into the toilets and we stood there for 10 minutes looking at the graffiti. I mean, it stank, but I was like, “This is the most important thing you need to look at here”. A lot of Bruce’s work is very beautiful and quite polished, and I was like, it needs to be toilet-y, it can’t be too nice.
Any tips on magazine making or music journalism for those starting out?
One thing I will say is, I don’t think there are a lot of bands that are impossible to contact. Every band tours the entire UK, and they will go to Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, and be in that city for five hours on that day. If you say, “Can I come talk to you for 10 minutes, for a zine or a blog or a podcast,” chances are they will say yes. Email a band and say “can you recommend some new music for us to listen to”, and that’s a feature. Get a friend to photograph stuff, maybe another can do a cartoon. There’s no excuse to not make a music magazine, podcast or blog really. That’s my last word.
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