Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

30 years of….

Blame Ronan Fitzgerald for this. His post ends with what sounds like a challenge. After listening to this man self-eulogising about the good old days on Irish radio this week I thought: where’s good old Jim Carroll when you need …

Mon, Jun 25, 2007, 09:54


Blame Ronan Fitzgerald for this. His post ends with what sounds like a challenge.

After listening to this man self-eulogising about the good old days on Irish radio this week I thought: where’s good old Jim Carroll when you need someone to burst the bubble of a bloated Irish institution? That is, on the pages of a considerably less bloated one. (Them’s fightin words!)

Lets clear the lines for readers out foreign before we go any further. Ronan is writing about Irish music and what-have-you magazine Hot Press and its current 30th birthday celebrations covered by various radio shows. “This man” refers to the magazine’s editor for every single issue of its 30th year tenure, Niall Stokes. “A considerably less bloated” institution refers, I assume, to the daily newspaper which pays my wages. We’re not bloated, we just have a fancy new building on Tara Street.

Ah, Hot Press. A declaration of interest. Like Ronan and the vast bulk of Irish journalists who earn their corn writing about music and dancing about architecture, I used to write for Hot Press. Back in the day, back in 1989/90, back when I was young and foolish and my Tipperary accent was even thicker than it is now, back when I needed to do more than just write for the local papers, I reviewed albums, interviewed pop stars and went to gigs for Hot Press. I did it for about a year until I went off and wrote for someone else. I moved on and I didn’t look back.

These days, I don’t really take much notice of Hot Press and I’m sure it does likewise. I get on with my life and it gets on with its self-appointed task of keeping Ireland safe for rock’n'roll every fortnight (or, to quote Fergal Crehan’s excellent piece from six years ago, keeping Ireland safe for PA hire). Both Hot Press and I are happy with this state of affairs.

I know some of its writers and I get on fine with them like I get on fine with most people who don’t support Limerick hurling or Glasgow Celtic football. But I couldn’t tell you if you threatened to dislocate my shoulder what they wrote about in the last issue. While I rarely read every issue of Hot Press from cover to cover, I do glance at it on the shelves, note who’s on the cover (there’s a clatter of Irish pop types on the current one) and flick through it. It’s there in the background.

Any media observer would be churlish, however, if he or she failed to point out that Hot Press has survived a lengthy tenure in the game and it deserves plaudits for surviving the cut-throat world of Irish magazine publishing. Many would-be competitors have come along in the interim to jostle for its crown (I know, I wrote for and got paid by a few of them), but all have been sent packing. A 30 year run calls for a tough neck, late nights, hard work and some lucky breaks. A 30 year run calls for a few bottles of champagne to be uncorked and I assume many have arrived to the Hot Press offices in the last few weeks from its various friends.

The problem, though, is that 30 years at the coalface doesn’t give you an automatic pass. The fact is that Hot Press is no longer relevant or credible as a music magazine. There is an argument to be made that the magazine was never relevant – one which John Meagher made succintly in the Irish Independent’s Day & Night magazine on Friday by drawing attention to the albums which failed to make the Hot Press critics poll in 1977 (piece not online) – but for the purposes of this post, the past really is another country.

In 2007, how do you find out about music? Where do you go to get the latest information on the music you like, the bands you dig, the new sounds which give you a tingle in your belly?

As you are reading this blog, you probably read other blogs too. You probably also check out various other online magazines and publications. You might listen to online and offline radio and TV stations. You may even browse the various music and entertainment supplements which come with the daily press. You may well even find out about new music subliminaly by a process of osmosis. You certainly don’t rely solely on a magazine which is published every other Thursday and which covers music as one ingredient in an overloaded dish.

The problem with Hot Press is that the magazine doesn’t want to recognise its place in the new data order. Sure, the magazine forms part of the flow of information, as do many thousands of other sources, but it is not the main or only connector between you and the details you require any more. No magazine or source can claim that.

But Hot Press is still residing in a world where Hot Press is the only game in town. Once upon a time (certainly from 1977 to 1988, say), Hot Press was the only place to go to get such features as a review of the new Cry Before Dawn record, an interview with a politician doing a bit of f-ing and blinding to be down with the kids and some cliched tirade against Catholicism and randy clergy.

These days, you can get the same or equivalent absolutely everywhere (well, bar Cry Before Dawn). We have information overload. Every position, point of view and permutation thereof can be found in a dozen different locations every hour on the hour.

As a result, a publication’s relevance is tested on a daily basis and Hot Press has been found badly wanting again and again in the last couple of years. A music magazine needs to be at the top of its game at all times and Hot Press’s failure to be first, best, fastest and coolest means it no longer has any of the cachet it might once have automatically claimed to possess.

Hot Press will, of course, point to its star writers as the difference between it and everyone else. But what was obvious from the Hot Press tributes on various radio shows and in various newspapers over the last few weeks was the reliance on the old guard to talk the talk. These were the Hot Press All-Stars pre-1990. They are the ones who have graduated from Wicklow Street and Trinity Street and who have moved onto better paying jobs elsewhere. These men – and it was strangely nearly always men – guffawed about hillarious times involving deadlines, antiquated typesetting arrangements and cow gum. Tom Sharpe would probably have loved it. Ruth Buchanan certainly giggled at the high jinks.

While you could argue that there was little emphasis on the current writing stock because the focus was on looking back, there was no sense that anyone involved in this nostalgia-fest reckoned the current brood were worth crowing about. There was also a clear sense that few of the old-school Hot Press writers had read the magazine since they left. As far as they were concerned, there are still jars of cow gum on every desk. Maybe they’re right but I doubt it.

Now, back to the music because that’s where we came in. The Hot Press spin is that it supports and encourages the Irish music industry and everyone in it. It is there to help bands on the way up and, probably, on the way down too. It interviews new bands, reviews their demos and publishes a yearbook chockablock with music industry contacts and facts. It can probably point to its support of every would-be U2 since, well, U2.

But there has been no U2 since U2 and there won’t be either because of how the long tail has seen the non-mainstream cannibalise the mainstream. Yet Hot Press continues to back every single Irish horse in the rock’n'roll steeplechase as if its commercial life depended on it. To read the reviews of Irish bands in the publication is to enter a nirvana where Irish bands are one radio hit away from ruling the world. It’s one thing to encourage, but it is another to gratuitously ignore hard facts about a band’s general musical inability to have any impact on the world beyond their immediate family and circle of friends. Soft and impartial reviews are an injustice to your readers, your writers and, yes, your subjects. It also renders you irrelevant, the most galling failure of all for a modern publication trading on music, because you’ve allowed another agenda take precedence.

Yet there are many people in the Irish and international music industry who take Hot Press seriously. Irish advertising agencies will point their clients to the magazine’s ABC figures and readership surveys as proof that it reaches its target audience and a reason why the magazine is included on any youth-orientated campaign. Record company and music business workers will speak out of both sides of their mouth about Hot Press, bad-mouthing the publication today and then taking ads in it tomorrow (maybe I should print a full list of these trash-talkers, wouldn’t that be fun?). Many London and New York-based music industry folk view the magazine in a way which is wholly at odds with reality and such myopia has to be corrected time and time again. Even bands who really should know better use a Hot Press review as a potential calling card to get other publications and writers interested in them.

The reason why this happens is that there is no feasible alternative. Sure, there are probably about a couple of dozen other titles you could say are alternatives to Hot Press in one shape or another. You could even argue that a blog like this or a supplement like The Ticket do the job. But in Ireland, advertising and marketing dons don’t like taking chances. It’s part of the national condition. They stick with Hot Press because it has been around 30 years. They may give new bucks a break now and then but Hot Press still gets their business because it has been around for as long as their bosses. It’s now part and parcel of the permanent establishment.

The permanent establishment? Hip-hop writer Nelson George coined the expression to describe how, regardless of who is making the music, regardless of whether it’s a hip-hop brat or a snotty punk, the establishment – the managers, accountants, label execs, laywers etc – remains the same. Think of it in the same way as the civil service is the permanent government.

At some point in the last 15 years, Hot Press became part of the Irish permanent establishment. But, while this would usually mean there was a vacancy for an alternative voice to take over, changes in the media environment means now that every possible alternative voice and point of view can be amplified without the kind of investment it took for Hot Press to start out initially. A magazine like Hot Press setting out today would not and could not survive 30 years.

Like Fianna Fail, Hot Press will always be with us. It will continue to cover everything from music and sex to politics and sport. It will strive to be everything for everyone who thinks they’re left-wing, liberal, anti-Catholic and alternative (a stance which is, ironically, hugely conservative in this day and age). It will sell ads, carry commercial features and keep Ireland safe for recording studios, rehearsal spaces and hotel function rooms masquerading as venues. And it will continue to be an irritation and irrelevance to those good, honest folks who live and breath music.

In 30 years time, the new Tom McGurk will probably be interviewing the new Niall Stokes about 60 years of Hot Press. And the new Ronan Fitzgerald and the new John Meagher and the new Jim Carroll will be cocking a snoot at the magazine. Life rumbles on. Take a deep breath. Nothing to see here now folks, please move on.