(Publisher 2004-2012; Co-Owner 2004-present)
“So, what are you boys here for? Ya’ll want me to buy this rag?”
That was the first thing out of Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner’s mouth 10 years ago this month. Somehow, co-owner Doug Waterman any I found ourselves in a 1,500 square foot office overlooking the Avenue of Americas on a cold New York night. We were rocking jeans, cowboy boots and of course our “big meeting” corduroy jackets. Jann was in a suit worth more than our monthly pay at the time. Jann had his feet propped on his desk, as traffic, cabs and commuters set the backdrop as he flipped through the pages of the latest American Songwriter. I distinctly remember thinking, “This feels like a freaking movie.” R.EM. was on the cover. “I hope he likes R.E.M.,” I thought.
When he made the “buy this rag” comment, Doug and I jerked back for a split second, a little in shock. Doug then responded: “No… it’s just, well, we just wanted to get some advice from you, sir. You’ve been in our shoes, and we just came for advice.”
The next few minutes were not pretty. Let me rephrase that, the next few minutes felt like someone taking a chainsaw to your dreams. Jann’s feedback came in swift, concise blows. He basically told us that the magazine was, at that time, “a rag.”
He first looked over the “Industry News” section. “What is this crap?” he asked. “Nobody wants to read this.”
He then looked at a one-page Q&A with Rufus Wainwright. It sported a new design I was particularly proud of in which text overlayed a full-page image of Rufus. I told him that I oversaw that element of the magazine. “Don’t be stupid” he said, looking directly at me. “If you design something people can’t read, you’re not gonna have many readers.”
He then flipped through to the back, where our “Gear Section” awaited. “Where are all the articles with SONGWRITERS!? What kinda songwriting magazine is this!?” he said. Doug couldn’t take it anymore, and fired back, “Mr. Wenner, you just passed those articles, they are right there!” As the discussion went on, things got heated. I had to literally shout “easy guys” over both Jann and Doug as they debated editorial direction, what songwriters want to read and how long or short a feature should be.
He left us with one simple takeaway: “Write the best 10 stories about the best 10 songwriters you can find, every issue. Tell great stories about great songs and the people who wrote them. Focus on that and you’ll be fine.”
I remember sitting over a burger after the meeting and saying, “Doug, did that just happen? That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about! How can we take out all that other stuff?!”
We went back to Nashville and kept on plugging. It would take more than two years of trial and error for us to finally heed Mr. Wenner’s advice like we should have done from day one. He was so right. We were so wrong. Literally everything he told us to do, we learned the hard way. It was almost insane how spot-on his advice was.
I look back on how crazy Doug and I were in early 2004. Doug (the editor-in-chief and other lone employee/co-owner for the first three years) knew much more about media than I did. All I knew was how to run Quickbooks and sell. But we created one common mission: to become the “greatest songwriting magazine in the world.” Our mantra stated that we owed it to every great writer and musician in the world … that telling their stories behind their songs and exploring the craft of music was the greatest gift we could give the musical universe.
Well, fifty cover stories later, as cliche as it sounds, the things I learned along the way were the most valuable. I learned that people make great companies. I discovered that nothing is impossible with the right mix of teamwork, hard work and passion. It took a few years to realize that Jann Wenner taught me a key business principle, which is: To run a great business, both you and your team must be able to handle criticism well. It’s questioning what and how you are doing something, that leads to the better way to do it.
Like a great verse, chorus, verse, we somehow managed to keep the magazine in play and in print by staying true to our mission: to be the greatest songwriting magazine in the world. I’m proud to say in its 30th year, with the help of Doug, Albie Del Favero, my father, great employees like Rachel Briggs, Matt Shearon, Jamie Younger, Caine O’Rear and more … we’ve realized that mission.
There are few things in life that I love.
I love my family, my girlfriend, my dog Sally, Auburn football, Kansas Bible Company, God, Songspace… and music, all types of music, actually. And I’ll always love American Songwriter. Here’s to another 30 years!
Robert Clement recently launched the music tech company Songspace. A software as a service for publishers, labels, managers and songwriters, Songspace provides a song catalog for creative music teams and businesses to better manage and market their songs. Clients include Downtown Music Publishing, mtheory, Arthouse Music, Secret Road Music Services and more.