Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tales From Typographic Oceans

My first job out of college was doing public relations for a producer of computer industry trade shows. I was there for two years and got to visit Atlanta and Las Vegas multiple times, as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Tampa. But I wasn’t all that interested in the computer industry and so I left in search of new opportunities. After 10 months without a job, I was ready to do just about anything. During this span of time being unemployed, I was devastated by the end of a four-year relationship and I met the woman I would eventually marry and divorce.

It was at that point (1988) that I got hired by a company called Bitstream, which was the first independent digital typefoundry. What that means is that they made digital fonts that anyone can use on any computer or printer. That seems obvious now, but back then it was a matter of a U.S. patent for an artificial intelligence-based scaling technology, while a package of four typefaces (usually the roman, italic, bold, and bold italic of a single design) sold at retail for $200.

This was when the term WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) was in vogue; it meant that the type you saw on your screen looked very much like the type on the document you printed. Again, we take that for granted today, but back then it was pretty exciting. That capability and the democratization of type (meaning it was no longer the exclusive domain of professional printers and publishers) led to the emergence of desktop publishing.

As part of Bitstream’s marketing communications team, I had to know how to use this stuff and when I realized how easy it was to make a pretty professional-looking document I realized I could do something I’d long thought of doing: publishing my own music newsletter.

The reason I wanted to do a music newsletter is because I’ve always loved talking about music. I was sort of expert in various groups and genres, was always an avid liner note reader who could make connections between producers and studios, and loved comparing and contrasting different musicians and albums. My friends and I were all like this, and I thought it would be cool to create a vehicle that would broaden the discussion among like-minded people across the country.

At the time, I was a subscriber to a Todd Rundgren fanzine, which was well-done in terms of content (having had the cooperation of Rundgren’s management) but hard on the eyes. I wanted to do something that looked nicer and hoped that the content would work itself out. But first I had to figure out what group or genre I wanted the newsletter (personally I despise the term fanzine) to focus on. It didn’t take all that long, as I pretty much knew I wanted to talk about progressive rock, that cerebral form of music that grew out of late-‘60s psychedelia and whose heyday lasted until the backlash of mid- to late-‘70s punk and new wave.

The latter styles brought rock music back to the basics after the progressives blended classical motifs and impressionistic lyrics in a complex stew of unusual time signatures, expansive instrumentation (multiple keyboards, mellotrons and moogs, double-necked guitars, and Taurus bass pedals were standard, and flute, violin, cello, and vibraphone were in some groups’ arsenals as well), side-long songs (one album by Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans, was a two-record set with only four songs, while Jethro Tull and Nektar both put out albums where a single composition spanned both sides of a record), and the dreaded concept album.

Being so cerebral, progressive rock was a natural for prompting musical discussion. However, I thought for a while as to whether I wanted to key on my favorite progressive group, Gentle Giant, or the prog genre as a whole. Ultimately, I decided that Giant was too obscure (this was pre-Internet and I didn’t have a way to know just how many Giant fans there are in the world). Also, Giant ended in 1980 and few of its members were particularly active so it seemed like the content well would soon run dry. So I decided to focus on progressive rock, but I named the newsletter after a Gentle Giant composition, On Reflection.

To lay out the newsletter, I used a long-defunct application called PageMaker. I learned on the job how to design a publication, prepare images for printing, and amass content. I was lucky in that former Yes members had just announced out of the blue that they would be forming a new band with the law-firm name of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (Bruford had done even better work with two successive lineups of King Crimson after leaving Yes in 1972). So between that, a manifesto of what I wanted to accomplish with the newsletter, and a few album reviews, I had much of the first issue composed in fairly short order.

The next challenge was to promote it. I elected to start small with a single 1/16-page ad in Goldmine magazine, the primary publication of record collectors. From one ad I got numerous queries. I decided that I would send an issue to all respondents with an offer to subscribe. Over the next few issues, subscriptions grew and I was surprised to get subscribers from Europe and Japan. I don’t recall how many readers I had at the newsletter’s peak but it was well beyond my poor management and financial skills, and within a few short years On Reflection went belly up.

When all was said and done, On Reflection ran monthly from February 1989 to March 1992. Nineteen months later, I married a woman who despises progressive rock.

I was sad yet relieved that my venture had failed. The fact is, towards the end I was getting kind of sick of the genre, the problem being that I had been bound to focus on one style of music, listening to new recordings sent to me of neo-progressive bands who sounded just like 1973-era Genesis or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Though I was desperate to explore jazz and ethnic music more deeply, I felt constrained by the needs and expectations of my subscribers to maintain a narrow musical focus – ironic, given the expansive scope of the genre.

Yet in many ways it was a very positive experience for me. It was my first entrepreneurial venture, it gave me a chance to write about a subject I was passionate about, I met some interesting people, and I had the opportunity to interview a few prog musicians, including the lovely Annie Haslam from Renaissance (she began the phone interview by saying she had just stepped out of the shower, and I nearly fainted), the iconoclastic Daevid Allen from Gong, and the ambitious Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, who at the time was president of Atco Records and is still an industry executive and entrepreneur.

Today, I still enjoy progressive rock, and have even reviewed CDs for Progression magazine, which essentially is the reincarnation of On Reflection, it having risen from the ashes by a former subscriber with minor assistance from me in the beginning. However, I now have the freedom to listen to whatever I want whenever I want, so I certainly don’t miss those days spent traversing typographic oceans around the dark side of the moon, venturing close to the edge and lying down on Broadway.