Can You Feel The Vibe?
No matter what you thought of Vibe magazine--whether you found their coverage insightful or passe, tantalizing or unbearably boring--there is one thing all sides can agree on: as the American economy continues to flounder, Vibe's June 30th demise won't be the last in the world of music press.
It's rather amazing to think that all the commentators who were raving over "green shoots" a few weeks ago are now wearing a sheepish look as they painfully admit that we may be headed "back into the abyss." Actually, it's not that amazing. Ever since last September's great financial panic, these troglodytic talking heads have repeatedly insisted that our "rock bottom" has come, only to be left scratching their heads as the unemployment rate climbs. Won't someone please stop giving these idiots a microphone?
The stock of folks who grabbed the mic at Vibe were definitely a cut above. Writers like Jeff Chang, Dream Hampton, Alan Light. Photographers like Ellen von Unwerth and David LaChapelle. These contributors brought an insight into hip-hop commentary that no publication had ever applied to the genre. What can you expect from a publication founded by the great Quincy Jones?
From its first issue in 1993, Vibe took its milieux seriously. While Rolling Stone and Spin played hip-hop and R&B on the second tier to rock and pop, Vibe placed it at the forefront. It also built on the coverage of other "urban" publications like The Source and XXL, promoting a world-view where hip-hop and rap were a legit part of the world around us.
It was good timing. Hip-hop had struggled with many a journalist unwilling to believe that the music was little more than a flash in the pan during the '80s. By the '90s, it was clear that it was here to stay. More than that, it was becoming the dominant trend in youth culture. Vibe not only covered but rooted the music. Boomshots, the regular column by Rob Kenner covered reggae and Caribbean music, and drew the connections between them and rap.
There was one problem, however. That problem was, simply enough, the market. Like any publication seeking to reach a wide audience, Vibe had to reckon with the reality of investors, advertising, and the shallow notions of "what sells" that dominate the music industry. Ultimately, these are the contradictions that brought the publication down.
One would be right to call out Vibe for the garish Dolce & Gabbana spreads, and the sexism that often graced the covers (including the semi-notorious incident when Ciara's clothes were airbrushed out)--as long as one also notes that these are the same clap-traps that any music rag is liable to fall into.
When Vibe was sold to the Wicks Group in 2006, it was at a time when print media was starting to acknowledge a real crisis. The rise of internet journalism was often crudely grafted to the dip in print's popularity. When it came to the music presses, however, it wasn't just the fact that people could get it for free, it was that they felt they could get bettermusic journalism online.
Surprisingly, Vibe managed to keep pace with its own website. Chang's commentary of the '08 elections was among some of the best anywhere. Jaylah Burrell's column, Hello Babar, went out of its way to find musicians well off the beaten path, further extending Vibe's scope and breadth.
Despite everything it had going for it, the depth of the economic crisis that gained speed late last year is leaving nothing safe. Housing and jobs are on the chopping block, so why should we expect any protection for a hip-hop magazine, even if it is one of the more insightful within the mainstream?
At its height, Vibe had a circulation of over 800,000. By the spring, it had cut its print run down by a quarter, and its staff down to four days a week. When it abruptly and unceremoniously closed its doors two weeks ago, it had many questioning whether print music journalism still had a future.
Fears like this aren't misplaced. While Vibe's coverage may have been exceptional, it's all-too-likely that its end won't be. The Source is currently negotiating bankruptcy. XXL is rumored to be going through financial troubles. Blendershut down last year. The pundits talking about these "green shoots" might want to take a closer look. After all, the fewer magazines are out there, the fewer places these nimrods have to pay them.
And yet, the fall of these publications is proof that music, writing and culture don't exist in a vacuum. The pressure to reduce content to its lowest possible form is great indeed, and it's one that every publication is susceptible to. In the end, that's a pressure firmly rooted in a system that views all culture as disposable.
Was there ever a better reason for a new generation of artists and journalists to break the chains that hold them back?
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, cultural critic and activist living in Chicago. He is a columnist for The Society of Cinema and Arts and SleptOn.com, and a regular contributor to ZNet and Socialist Worker.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.