I’ll preface this interview by saying that Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies of all time.  So when I saw the opportunity to interview John Martin, the CEO of CREEM rock ‘n roll magazine, I immediately jumped on it.  

In a digital age, CREEM has taken the road less traveled of producing primarily printed magazines.  CREEM was founded in Detroit in 1969, the golden age of rock, and produced quarterly magazines until 1990.  The magazine just came off of a “cool 33-year hiatus” and is back and better than ever, with stories about everything and everyone from  Metallica to British pop to Paramore.  

Check out CREEM’s summer issue, which you can order or read on their website.  Let’s get into it:

So, John, what’s your name, where are you from, and what’s the tune of the day?

My name is John Martin. I’m the CEO of CREEM. I live on the East Coast, in between New Hampshire and New York. I go back and forth a lot. We have a totally remote team – everyone works from home, which is fun. But I worked at Vice Media for like 18 or 19 years before that and lived in Brooklyn pretty much all my adult life.  For the tune, Chase the Dragon by CIVIC. CIVIC is from Australia. It’s like a five piece, I think, but it’s kind of very like post punk-rocky. It’s great. Really angular, but listenable. And it really moves you. It’s like heavy, but not too heavy. I like it a lot.

The cover of CREEM is very visceral, even a little bit disturbing. Who designs the covers and what are the inspirations?

So if you look in the archives, the old issues of CREEM were much more traditional, like what you’d think of music magazine covers. Like it was rock stars and it had the names of the artists that were all being covered in the magazine. That was because it was a newsstand magazine, you’d pick it up on the newsstand, and it would have to have Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones on the cover to sell a lot of copies.  Well now, we don’t distribute them on the newsstand. That was one of our big changes for the business model when we relaunched, we are subscription only. Being that model, it also gave us the ability and the latitude to not have to put rock stars on the cover and we could put art on the cover.  So we’ve been commissioning artists, specifically visual artists, to do our covers. The first one kind of happened organically. It was Raymond Petty Bone, who was kind of the godfather of all punk hardcore flyers in American hardcore in the early eighties, and this [cover design] began a year ago today.  We were talking with him and once we realized like, ‘hey, this could be really cool to have artists do the cover,’ it started to make more sense than fighting with publicists about what band was going to be on the cover. And we said, no, let’s just have actual art. And the other benefit is it’s more collectible, right? It’s an actual piece of art and it’s limited. There’s only 10,000 copies of this thing printed, so it is fairly rare.  So this one in particular is an artist by the name of Nicole Rifkin. She’s a fine artist – she’s done illustrations for The New Yorker and things like that. But she’s a big CREEM fan and we had connected with her and worked on the cover together over the past several months and came up with this. We wanted something that would be a little visceral. 

Do you guys have any specific audience in mind for having that connection with CREEM magazine? Any specific demographic or is it just open to whoever resonates with the content?

So we want to be like a big tent rock and roll brand. The joke I usually tell is, like, if you’re a Metallica fan or if you’re a HAIM fan, you’re both rock and roll fans- those are very different ends of the spectrum. And now we think rock and roll has gotten so subgenre and microniched that we’ve kind of lost the plot.  Everyone’s like, oh, rock is dead. Rock isn’t dead. It’s just that there’s these really small genres. You collectively bring them all together, and it’s a massive industry, it’s a massive genre. That’s really important for us, and demographically, we want that to be represented. Whether you’re 65 years old and you used to go to Stooges shows in Detroit, or if you’re 20 years old and you like to go see the Viagra Boys in Brooklyn, there’s a place for both of those fan bases with us. 

There’s three distinct eras of CREEM and they kind of match up with different audiences. There was the classic era, it was 1969 to 1989. That was when CREEM was originally publishing. That was the golden era of rock and roll.  Then we have the era that CREEM was not publishing, 1989 to 2022. I’m 43 years old, that was my era. I was slightly too young for the first CREEM era. I was nine years old in 1989, so I was slightly too young for it. So the new era, 2022 on, is the future. And that’s for people who are in their late teens, early twenties. And we would hope that whether you’re reading it in the magazine or you’re following the Instagram, if you’re a young person, you can discover a band that existed 40 years ago. If you’re an older person, hopefully you discover a new band that’s putting their first record out in 2023, and they give you that same sense of excitement that you got when you were in 1971.

So, are you guys distributing online or just print? 

So, the magazine we publish quarterly, and every three months we update the website with the new issue. We don’t do daily content, like you won’t find daily articles. There’s a million websites, I read a lot of them, that are doing daily music content and I think that’s great for them, but we don’t do that. We put all the content from the issue in the archive and we update that every quarter. In a way, it’s kind of like how the internet functioned like 20 plus years ago where you would put a magazine if you were a magazine company, you put your magazine up online, you didn’t worry about daily content. We see a world where the daily content, for us, is just a waste of money. 

The more I think you see this with, there are a lot of media brands that try to just publish more and more. They dilute their brand pretty significantly because they’re just trying to publish something for everyone and get the most eyeballs so they can sell the most ads. We don’t care about that. We would rather get the right audience – have them really subscribe to us, follow our social channels, buy a ticket to our event, buy the t-shirt and have a lifetime relationship with them and provide them something of value that they really care about rather than something they click on.  And then they go to another website and they go to another website and it doesn’t mean anything. So we’re really big on pushing the CREEM brand as like this premium rock and roll content experience and that starts in the magazine and it does go online, but just once a quarter.

You mentioned that CREEM does events. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

We have five lines of business. The magazine is one. Obviously. Merchandise is one. Experiential events is another. So we started doing events in March. We did a three day, very small club-takeover. We had 20 something bands over three days. And it was a rock party. It was a punk show. And we’re scaling that up now. We have a larger event that we’re going to announce very soon in Brooklyn in July. And then we have some more events throughout the fall. But this is all laddering up to bigger and bigger events, right? Like, eventually we want to have a CREEM Festival.

Can you drop a dream line up for the CREEM Festival right now?

I think it’s like, you want a little bit of nostalgia acts. And probably, any act that would be categorized as nostalgia would probably hate to be categorized as nostalgia. But CREEM was also born in Detroit, right? So if we were going to do a festival, you’re going to want to get Iggy Pop to play a part. You’re going to want to get the MC5 and something that nods to Detroit. But you’d also get younger bands who are from Detroit. You’d get like, Proto Martyr or The Armed.  We have some nostalgic older bands and some younger stuff, and then we fill in the blanks like we’re making a magazine. You get the Viagra boys, you get Amyl and the Sniffers. You get younger and up and coming bands that are maybe only selling 400 tickets in New York, which is still really great, but you pepper them in the lineup and you make it special. 

Festivals are very cool because you give a platform to bands to play alongside really large acts and it’s a big step up for a lot of bands to be booked on festivals. So we would want some of those big headliners, big names. Like if you’re going to get a Queens of the Stone Age, it’s going to cost you a lot of money, right? But you also want to get other bands in that lineup that people are going to be curious enough to show up for early in the day and that you can help them grow their careers and let them play on the big stage. 

So we’re not there yet, but we will be doing festivals in the future and I think booking them will probably be the you know, it’s the fun part, right? Like curating the lineup is the fun part and that’s mostly done right now. That’s mostly done by our VP of Content, Fred Pisaro, who he’s done a lot of show promotion in New York as sort of a side hustle over the years. But he’s pretty sharp on booking bands. So right now he’s putting the final touches together on the Brooklyn event in July, which we’re going to be announcing in like a week and a half.

What type of event is the Brooklyn show?

There’ll be like five bands, maybe six if we’re feeling ambitious. It’s going to be a daytime thing. It’ll be on a Saturday. It’ll be a daytime party and it’ll be over by ten or whatever and it’ll be outdoors. So it’ll be a nice summer day. It’ll be an unofficial CREEM summer barbecue.

What would you tell students who are interested in getting into the world of music journalism?

Just start writing or taking photos. If you just have an Instagram where you write record reviews, you can point to that and say, “this is what I do. This is what my tone of voice is.”  So I would say, don’t be afraid to just start writing. You don’t need a big company to back you. You have to start doing it on your own. So write for your college newspaper or interview people for the radio station or put it on your own instagram.  You have to put your work out there and you shouldn’t be too precious or too scared to do it. You just start doing it and you get better that way.. You hone your skills by doing it more often. So don’t wait around for the perfect opportunity. Just take your opportunities as you can make them or as they come to you in the beginning of your career. Say yes to a lot of things, and then as you get further into your career, you can be more choosy. But, yeah, certainly if you’re getting into journalism, start writing and start putting it out there.