Almost Famous

How Mike Shea built Alternative Press from a Cleveland fanzine into a national punk-rock powerhouse.

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About two years ago, Mike Shea, the CEO of Alternative Press, attended a Human Rights Campaign dinner at the Renaissance Hotel. It was a swank function, bustling with politicians and dignitaries, so Shea put aside his jeans and T-shirt and dressed in a business suit.

At a charity auction before the dinner, a friend introduced Shea to Mayor Jane Campbell and Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. Shea thanked them for their work promoting Northeast Ohio and told them about his magazine. They were polite, but didn't seem particularly interested.

Nevertheless, Shea later mailed each of them letters and copies of Alternative Press. "I was just saying, 'Hey, I'm here, we exist, and anything I can do for you, just let me know."

He expected a form letter or a perfunctory phone call. He never heard from either of them.

"We get paid more attention to in New York and L.A. than we do in Cleveland," Shea says. "We've always felt that the city has basically ignored us."

Yet while the city wasn't looking, Alternative Press became one of its coolest exports. Hot acts credit it with helping to break them. A&R reps use it as a tip sheet of bands to sign. And with the emergence of emo and screamo, Alternative Press is helping to shape music's Next Big Thing.

"Specifically, in the alternative world, it's a very important magazine, because it's really the first of its kind that sort of showed the world these underground bands," says Lisa Vinciquerra, a program coordinator for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "There's obviously more now that are copycats, but AP was sort of the innovator."

Alternative Press may be the best argument that cool things can not only survive in Cleveland, but thrive. But it wasn't easy, building a little fanzine into a national punk-rock powerhouse.

"I have a really bad tendency not to give up, no matter how dark it gets," Shea says. "And after you've been in war long enough, you learn how to deal with mortars going off."

The gray flecks in Shea's hair and goatee are the only signs of age. At 38, he's still wiry, boyish, and excitable. Seated in his office -- which is decorated with posters from disaster movies -- he seems like a kid who wandered into a punk show to hawk 'zines and somehow ended up CEO of a national magazine. And that's pretty much how it happened.

Shea graduated in 1984 from Aurora High, where he served as editor of the school newspaper and assistant editor of the yearbook. He enrolled at Kent State, intending to major in film, but his studies were interrupted by a mysterious virus that virtually paralyzed his right arm. "I said, 'If I get my arm back, I'm gonna write,'" he says.

After therapy that amounted to turning doorknobs for hours on end, Shea followed through on his vow. Without a journalism degree or even a college diploma, he turned to the only outlet available: fanzines.

The ubiquity of photocopiers had made it possible for any kid to christen himself a publisher. There were several 'zines in Northeast Ohio and hundreds across the country. Yet Shea wanted his to be different. He aimed for a cleaner, more professional look and for something more than the standard snarky carping from punk elitists.

"I never felt like I could be part of the crowd," Shea says. "I was always on the outside, looking in."

The first issue of Alternative Press debuted at a punk show in 1985. All 1,000 copies disappeared the first night. Shea published five more issues that year. One caught the attention of a young record-store clerk named Jason Pettigrew.

Living in Western Pennsylvania, Pettigrew was starved for culture. On one of his many record-buying trips to Cleveland, he picked up an issue of Alternative Press. It included Shea's review of goth god Peter Murphy's cover of "Final Solution," by the seminal Cleveland punkers Pere Ubu. Shea liked the record. Pettigrew, a Pere Ubu fan, was outraged.

He found Shea's home phone number in the 'zine and called him. "What the fuck were you thinking when you wrote that Peter Murphy review?" Pettigrew asked.

"You think you can do better?" Shea responded. "Show me."

Pettigrew began writing reviews. "I don't think that's a successful way to get a job at a company in 2004, but that's how I got the job," says Pettigrew, who is now the magazine's editor in chief.

By issue seven, the 'zine was picked up for national distribution, but money was still a struggle. Shea borrowed a couple grand from his mom and slapped a $1.25 price on the cover, but it wasn't enough. Soon he had fallen so far behind on bills that the printer balked at additional work. Shea turned to an unknown printer in Southern Ohio.

Bad idea. The eighth issue looked terrible. Worse, after Shea unloaded the bundles onto his front lawn, it started raining. He knew it was time to give up.

"I couldn't borrow any more money," Shea says. "We were broke."

He took a job at Dillard's, selling socks and underwear. He kept his spirits up with late-night phone calls to Pettigrew, during which they played their favorite musical quiz game: "Name three good bands on (insert name of shitty major label here)." He packed his "to do" lists and freelance submissions into a closet.

Hundreds of fanzines died after one or two issues. Kids grew up, put on suits, and forgot their silly dreams. It looked as if Shea would be no different.

Then Shea got a call from Carl Bujorian, a freelance writer and one of Alternative Press's biggest fans. Bujorian wanted to put together a reunion issue, and offered to front the cost.

Shea called record labels to announce the magazine's upcoming issue, and was stunned to learn that Alternative Press had quietly built up a national following among music cognoscenti. "Before I knew it, we had more ads coming in than we ever had before," he says. "I was blown away."

Dreaming of a full-scale relaunch, Shea went to his grandmother, hat in hand. She agreed to a $16,000 loan. The magazine came back to life in spring 1988.

Eager for Alternative Press to be taken seriously, Shea tried to make his workplace more traditional. In the middle of a sweltering August, he decreed that staffers wear ties and button-down shirts. But nobody liked the dress code, including Shea, and it was abandoned within a couple weeks.

Besides, working at the magazine hardly felt like a real job. Slash from Guns N' Roses puked on photographer Norman Wonderly. And Pettigrew got in a pissing match during an interview with former Sex Pistol John Lydon. (Lydon complained that he was bored, to which Pettigrew retorted, "I listened to your new album several times, so I had to repay the gesture.")

Yet the magazine was gaining respect. Its professional look and national distribution set it apart from most fanzines. Interviews with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane's Addiction, the Pixies, and other bands getting heavy college-radio play made it a must-read.

"All of a sudden, it was this great magazine and it was national, and I would be in California or New York and I would be able to find it out there," says the Rock Hall's Vinciquerra. "It was pretty shocking that a local magazine would be a worldwide publication."

Art rockers Sonic Youth dubbed 1991 "the year punk broke." Nirvana released Nevermind and ushered in a new musical era. Gone from the charts were Michael Jackson and Madonna. In their place came a cavalcade of loud, angry bands. Suddenly, high school kids who used to pick on punkers looked to them for fashion advice.

The niche Alternative Press had carved for itself had gone mainstream. Bob Guccione Jr., the publisher of Spin, sent in a subscription card, which Shea promptly framed. "I knew we had arrived," he says.

Finances were a different story. Shea quickly exhausted his grandmother's loan. Each issue felt as if it were the last. Yet whenever Alternative Press got close to the brink, an unexpected flood of advertising poured in. "I don't know if it was luck of the Irish or what, but AP had this luck," says Shea.

But by 1993, a field of four-leaf clovers couldn't save Alternative Press. The magazine was printing 50,000 copies of each issue, but half were going to newsstands, where only about 14 percent actually sold. The bills piled up.

"We owed two-hundred-some thousand dollars in printing debt," Shea recalls. "It got to the point where lawyers were called, and they were not going to let us print the issue. That's when I had to grow up and learn to be a businessman."

Shea brought in David Inglis, a corporate attorney. "It was a bunch of kids that got together to write a magazine about music they were passionate about, and they cared a lot more about the music than about the business," Inglis recalls. "They were younger and perhaps more naive than the average business client that we had."

Inglis told Shea to hire people qualified for the job rather than his buddies, and to solicit ad dollars from big companies instead of tiny independent labels. It was hardly an MBA curriculum, but for a music magazine that abhorred "selling out" above all else, it was much-needed advice.

Inglis found an eager student in Shea. "He was like a sponge," Inglis says. "It was so much fun to work with him, because he wanted to absorb as much as I could give him. We were able to start at ground zero and build a business from scratch."

Gradually, the magazine whittled its debt and found firm financial footing. In the first quarter of 1996, the magazine showed a significant profit -- $200,000-- for the first time. It had also seen its circulation more than double in the previous two years, thanks in large part to the mainstreaming of alternative rock.

Alternative Press had finally become a self-sustaining business, and Shea was no longer in danger of losing his shirt. But as the '90s drew to a close, he was in danger of losing something far more valuable: his soul.

Music wasn't the only industry undergoing major changes during the 1990s. The decade brought rapid consolidation in magazine distribution. Safeway, the supermarket giant, shocked the industry when it announced in 1995 that it would cut the number of magazine wholesalers with which it did business. Mass retailers followed suit. Soon, the number of wholesalers shrunk from more than 180 to just 4 that handled 90 percent of the national business.

With less competition, distribution companies began to demand stronger sales from magazines they carried. Where once a niche publication like Alternative Press could get away with selling 35 percent of its issues, now it needed 50 to 60 percent to avoid being dropped from the stands. "Alternative Press had a decent circulation, but it wasn't one of the stars, so they ran the risk of getting lost in the forest among the big trees," says attorney Inglis. "And you gotta get on the rack. That's the business."

The magazine responded the way many did at the time: by chasing celebrities. "We started fighting for the metal bands that were big," says Shea. That meant competing with Spin and Rolling Stone for the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit.

The new direction crushed the morale of staffers. "I'm pretty sure there are still notes in my personnel file discussing my attitude toward work then," says Pettigrew, then the senior editor. "There was a degree of self-loathing."

Perhaps no one was more distraught than Aaron Burgess. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, he had looked to Alternative Press for musical salvation. "AP helped me get through my adolescence," he says. "AP was my dream." He interned at the magazine in 1996, secured a job as office manager, then was promoted to assistant editor.

Yet now he was being forced to kowtow to bands he despised. In 1998, he joined the Family Values tour with Korn -- a band he dismisses as "Motley Crüe in Adidas tracksuits." "There was one particular incident where I saw a road manager, a dildo, and a room full of teenagers," Burgess recalls. "Fieldy, the bass player from Korn, knew I was there and physically threatened me if I wrote anything about it."

Burgess wrote about it anyway, albeit elliptically, which brought a call from the Firm, the high-powered management company of Korn and other big nü-metal acts. The company decreed that Burgess would never again have access to the bands under its management. But the bullying didn't have the desired effect on Burgess: "I thought, 'Thank you! I'm free!'"

For its August 1999 issue, Alternative Press featured rock-rapper Kid Rock on its cover. For Burgess, it was a clear sign the magazine was no longer the one he had grown up reading. "It had gotten to the point where I couldn't identify with it anymore," Burgess says. Soon after, he accepted more money and the promise of stock options to work at American Greetings. He figured, if he was going to sell out, he might as well get paid.

Shea considered selling out too. He got an offer from Madonna -- then fashioning herself a mogul with her label, Maverick -- to take control of the magazine. She and a partner would pay $300,000 for a controlling interest. Shea needed the money, but worried that the new owners would fold the magazine if times got tough. He didn't take the offer.

Still, he didn't feel he could keep going. "Spiritually, we were just dead," says Shea. "It wasn't fun. It was all about sales. It was turning into a corporate thing."

Sitting in the lobby of the Sony building in New York in the summer of 2001, Shea had a realization: "I can't do this anymore."

But he wanted to leave on his own terms. "I didn't want to go out as this fizzled-out thing," he says. If there was going to be a last issue, better that it have a good, underappreciated band on the cover. That was, after all, why Shea had started his 'zine in the first place.

By then, Burgess had realized corporate life wasn't for him. "It was horrible," he says. "It was everything I never wanted to do. . . . I finally understood Dilbert." He had kept in touch with Alternative Press as a freelancer. Now he began talking to Shea about changing the magazine's focus. He thought the magazine should pay more attention to its readers and bring the covers in line with the content, instead of "trying to sell a Tori Amos fan on a Scandinavian grindcore band."

Marketing director Aaron Wilson was coming to similar conclusions on the Warped Tour, where he manned a promotions booth. "By being out there, we were able to sit with thousands of kids a day and have one-on-one conversations with them and hear what they wanted." What the kids wanted was a magazine that was all about good punk and indie bands, something that Spin and Rolling Stone, with their broad formats -- from Britney to Ja Rule to Staind -- couldn't offer.

Meanwhile, Pettigrew was on the cusp of 40, married, and gritting his teeth as he wrote about nü-metal flavors of the month. Talking to Burgess and Wilson rekindled his faith. They "gave me the formula, and I mixed the chemicals," he says. He maxed out his credit cards buying new records, then charted a new direction: "Let's mean something to people again, and more importantly, let's mean something to ourselves again."

The new focus debuted in March 2002, with two different covers featuring Saves the Day and AFI -- punk bands with rabid fans, but little exposure. To Shea's surprise, the issue was a huge success.

"It went through the fucking roof," he recalls. "It sold out. It sold double -- and in some cases triple -- what Chili Peppers, No Doubt, Disturbed, and Korn [covers] had done."

The May issue featured Puddle of Mudd, a middling hair band getting lots of radio airplay. The July issue featured Dashboard Confessional, a tattooed emo-crooner. The results were the same: The smaller band outsold the big one.

And Alternative Press was getting flooded with appreciative letters. When the November 2002 issue featuring Good Charlotte sold out, it cemented the magazine's commitment to its new direction.

"Linkin Park, for whatever reason, really wanted to be on our cover this year," says Burgess. "That's a band that, during the nü-metal boom, we would have put on our cover without thinking. But we turned them away."

Once again, Alternative Press's timing was uncanny. No sooner had the magazine abandoned nü metal than the genre imploded. Korn's sales went limp; Limp Bizkit got corny. As the recording industry cast about for a new sound, it latched onto the same bands Alternative Press had covered six months earlier -- the same bands Wilson had met on the Warped Tour, playing tiny tents on the periphery of the main stage.

"We were able to connect with them and watch them grow and stay a part of their buzz," says Wilson. "We remain loyal to some of those bands, and the bands remain loyal to us. I think a lot of those bands sort of look at it like we've been part of their growth from the beginning, instead of a publicist calling and saying, 'Look what's hot.'"

Kevin Lyman, the founder of the Warped Tour, which contracts with Alternative Press to produce its tour magazine, agrees: "They stepped up when Rolling Stone and Spin wouldn't pay attention to the Warped Tour. What has followed is, everybody else has been forced to give us attention, but we stuck with Mike [Shea] as our primary music magazine."

Now Alternative Press takes its pick of bands begging to be on the cover. "Simple Plan fought and kicked and screamed to be in our magazine," Burgess says of the band featured on the cover last month. "Here's a band that could probably easily be on the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone."

NOFX, a veteran punk group, chose Alternative Press for its first major interview in eight years. "Alternative Press I can actually read, and it'll take me a half-hour," says NOFX's Fat Mike, "whereas Spin will take you five minutes."

Instead of following trends, Alternative Press sets them. Geoff Rickly, frontman for the hot screamo quintet Thursday, credits Alternative Press for helping to break his band. "AP was the first magazine to give us major critical acclaim," he says.

Burgess and Pettigrew have heard from A&R reps who use the magazine's annual "100 Bands You Need to Know" issue as a tip sheet for bands to sign. The bands later pop up in Spin and Rolling Stone, which is why this year's was subtitled: "The Issue Most Music Mags Will Be Stealing From All Year." Spin recently launched a virtual carbon copy of 10 Essential, a list of the most important bands or albums of a particular genre -- one of Alternative Press's most popular features. "We're the magazine that comes up with all these ideas, and the other mags cop them," Shea says.

Sales are better than ever -- 218,000 copies a month, at last count. Somehow, the magazine has struck a delicate balance between two distinct audiences: kids who love pop punk and shop at Hot Topic, and older punk fans who care deeply about musical integrity.

But most important, says Shea, "We're happy doing what we're doing, instead of feeling like we have to sell out."

Pettigrew has a new favorite joke: "How many indie rockers does it take to change a lightbulb? None, 'cause indie rockers can't change anything."

He uses it to poke fun at music elitists who dismiss bands that find success by remaking punk rock's old formula. But it's also his way of distinguishing Alternative Press from fanzines that were more ideologically pure, but less successful. Indeed, the magazine has changed a lot over the years, and it's now in a position to change popular music.

"They were writing about bands that no one knew about or cared about, and then, over the past three or four years, that particular music has become popular," says Anthony Nicolaidis, a booker for House of Blues concerts. "Bands like Dashboard Confessional, AFI, Thursday -- all these bands really started out in AP magazine. And now every kid in the world loves those bands."

Not everything has changed. Recently, the staff gathered to choose which band will be on the next issue's cover: Story of the Year, Senses Fail, Finch, Newfound Glory, the Offspring, or Blink-182. It was an important decision, but the professional atmosphere quickly degenerated into a bunch of music geeks shooting the shit.

"Name three good bands on Epic," Shea asked the group.

"Modest Mouse," someone offered.

"Good Charlotte," said another.

"Lamb of God!" Burgess bellowed.

After an hour, the group was no closer to coming to a consensus, and the cover was still up in the air by the time they adjourned. But one thing was certain: It would not be Kid Rock. Not now, not ever again.

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