January 7, 2010

Towering To New Heights: An Interview With Skyscraper Magazine's Peter Bottomley.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Skyscraper magazine founder and owner Peter Bottomley concerning the personal decision to discontinue the magazine's printed publication in favor of an online offering of the same content, at no cost to the consumer.

Skyscraper was founded in 1997 by brothers Peter and Andrew Bottomley, originally as a hardcore fanzine. Once the two found their little zine had a following, and a niche, they quickly gathered up regular writers and contributors, broadened the scope of their content slightly to include the burgeoning indie rock, post-punk and noise circuits, and packed it all into a novel-length quarterly magazine. The result: a decade of prolific underground, cutting edge music coverage spanning thirty issues.

Peter and I spoke through numerous e-mails, the culmination of which led to our little interview concerning Skyscraper's rise, the effects of an economic recession on an independent quarterly publication, and the brothers' personal decision to take Skyscraper's content to the web. Here's most of our conversation.

Joel: What originally influenced Skyscraper Magazine’s creation, and what inspired its content and design?

Peter: "Skyscraper has always been run by myself and my twin brother, Andrew. In high school we started making cut-and-paste fanzines and started a record label, ...and then there were none (later re-named Satellite Transmissions). Since we weren't musicians we were always looking for ways to be more involved in the music scene, so helping out our friends' band or doing these other projects allowed us to be connected to the scene beyond just being a consumer.

"I moved away to college and about a year later my brother followed me to Boulder, Colorado and about six months after that we started to play with the idea of starting a real fanzine. This would've been late 1997, and at the time we were mostly influenced by hardcore fanzines like Second Nature, Indecision, Trustkill, Anti-Matter, Number Two, and Nothing Left. However, the format we ended up using was more similar to HeartattaCk, Maximum Rock N Roll, or Punk Planet.

"There wasn't really a single source of inspiration though; we simply wanted to start writing about the music that we liked. Even though the design of the 'zine looked like desktop publishing it was really cut-and-paste. We typed things up or scanned them in, but then pasted it together. We had no experience with desktop publishing, and only a crude knowledge of programs like Adobe Photoshop. Everything was trial and error, and throughout the life of the magazine we let it grow very organically.

"We picked up freelance writers when they began to approach us, and we had friends or acquaintances start to take over the graphic design duties. After about two years was when we started to have more outside contribution, and that's also about the time that we grew to the size (in terms of page count) and design format that was largely continued for our entire run.

"One of the main things people recognized Skyscraper for was its size. In our prime we published about 200 pages per issue, and that was packed with dozens of features and hundreds of record reviews. Although the content was designed for quantity over quality, we were also recognized as a very analytical publication. We would run 8-page features and 500 word reviews. We never censored or heavily edited our writers' work, so the opinions were very honest and they were given the page space that they needed. This is something that was lacking from most music publications, not just mainstream magazines but fanzines as well.

"There are only a few magazines that I think were comparable, a couple of those being The Big Takeover and The Wire. As much as people often pigeonholed us as a hardcore fanzine early on, we very quickly started covering all genres of independent music and at the end you could find everything from indie rock and punk/post-punk to rock'n'roll, garage rock, pop, hardcore, metal, electronic, Americana, and avant-garde/noise music . It was a good representation of what an independent music fan listened to; there wasn't a genre-specific mentality at all."

J: Although Skyscraper’s decision to move the zine to an online format was one of professional choice in keeping up with the digital age, and not necessarily due to the economic downturn which one would assume, what were the effects of both an ongoing digital revolution and a bottoming economy on Skyscraper?

P: "The decision to move Skyscraper from a print publication to an online format was largely a personal choice. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep a regular publishing schedule as Andrew and my personal and professional lives matured. In many ways, it's a surprise to us that we kept it going for 11 years. The "digital revolution" didn't even prompt the change, but in the end we saw the online format as a way to both continue running Skyscraper in some form and also expand the coverage that we provided given the advantages that the medium allows.

"Skyscraper was never a mainstream publication and our core readership was a pretty specific niche of the music scene - one that wasn't effected as much by the downfall of the music industry and the economy as a whole. However, we weren't totally immune to the failing economy. Even before the economic recession the problems within the music industry had caused many record labels to reduce their advertising budgets, so the amount of income we had coming in from ad revenue had decreased by 50-70% over the last few years.

"Since advertising revenue was our primary source of income it did lead us to reduce our page count slightly, but otherwise there was little noticeable change to the magazine. And we certainly could have continued to publish for the foreseeable future, but it would've been a struggle, and since our personal lives were pressuring us to make a change, it seemed like a reasonable time to do so."

J: Can you explain the process involved in transferring a printed publication into a digital publication?

P: "We're not actually transferring the printed magazine into a digital publication. There are some magazines that have tried to do this; they pretty much publish as a print magazine, but they put it online rather than on newsstands. We're transitioning to an online format in every sense, which means we'll look more like Pitchfork when everything is said and done. But everything that people liked about Skyscraper (the writing, the photos) will still be there, and in many ways the online medium will allow us to expand on that. We're still in the process of making this transition, and it has taken us longer than we initially expected, but I think people will be happy with the results."

J: Can you give your readers an estimate as to when the Skyscraper site restructure will be complete?

P: "The new site should launch in February, 2010. It's difficult to put a firm date on the launch, but we're very close to settling on the final design and structure of the site, and so we just need a month or so to gather enough new content to get things started. Because we've been dormant for the better part of a year we haven't been utilizing our contributing writers and photographers as much as we should've been, but the majority of contributors from the print magazine will be continuing to work with us as an online publication and so it'll be a lot of what people expect from Skyscraper - just updated weekly rather than quarterly, and it's free!"

Skyscraper will now be available at your RSS doormat weekly. We share in Peter's excitement in this aspect, and although we will all miss seeing Skyscraper on the shelves, we look forward to the convenience and frequency this new format allows its readers.

Visit www.skyscrapermagazine.com for your underground music news, interviews, reviews and more! Thanks to Peter and all the Skyscraper crew for your time and dedication.
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