For a good part of the 2000s, you could go into a record store and pick up Arthur Magazine, the free bi-monthly magazine that served as a catalyst for the blossoming "New Weird America" scene, spotlighting folks like Six Organs of Admittance and Sunburned Hand of the Man before they became under-the-counter culture kingpins. Then there was blues legend T-Model Ford's advice column. And recipes that artists like Greg Cartwright (Oblivians, Reigning Sound) have been cooking in the kitchen. The running commentary by album reviewers C & D was one of the funniest, nerdiest ways I've ever seen record reviews written (they were dead-on with almost everything they said).
But it wasn't just the music that made Arthur so great. At a time when the United States was ruled under the slack-jawed power of George W. Bush, Arthur printed some of the the most insightful and provoking political commentary from the minds of folks like Douglas Rushkoff. Additionally, co-publisher and editor Jay Babcock conducted a heated, interrogating interview with Godsmack singer Sully over his stance on the war and selling Godsmack's music for military recruitment ads. The past few years have been tough for the magazine and Babcock, who was forced to buy out departing co-founder Laris Kreslins' half of the magazine in 2007. He then had to rebuild the financial stability of the magazine to get it printed again (which happened), until he finally decided put the print magazine on hiatus and focus his efforts exclusively online. While online, it continued to generate some terrific articles from the solid stable of contributors (who by this point were doing it gratis, for the love of the Arthur itself.) Arthur curated ArthurFest and other inner-stellar music events, and continued to release their sought-after, impeccable compilations. But it still wasn't enough. This morning, I learned that Babcock has exhausted his efforts on Arthur, who released the brief following statement to his readers and fans:
After years of service, Arthur departed the material plane today.
He died as he lived—free, high and a-dreaming of love, ‘neath vultures’ terrible gaze.
Thank you, and love to all.
I asked Babcock some questions regarding the recent state of the magazine, which was established in 2002, and what ultimately brought it the magazine to its knees.
TR: What year was it that you stopped printing Arthur and went online exclusively?
JB: The final issue, No. 31, was published in October 2008. Another issue was finished, due out in Dec. 2008, but I pulled it before it went to press. I think I made the announcement that we were on print hiatus and would be online for the time being in early 2009. TR: What is the main reasoning behind shuttering Arthur?
JB: As I've said many, many times: I need a partner, one who concentrates on the business aspect of Arthur.
That partner has not emerged since March 2007, when my ex-partner/Arthur co-founder Laris Kreslins forced me to buy out his 50 percent of Arthur. When he did that, it a) put myself/Arthur into tremendous debt, b) disrupted our previously agreed upon transition plan and scared away the incoming business partner c) forced me/Arthur to find a new printer and establish a new credit line, an extremely significant financial hardship. I will never understand why Laris did this—it was not in his interest to cripple Arthur as he did, yet he did it anyway.
Nonetheless, in September 2007, I revived Arthur as solitary owner. I had no partner. I was the editor and the publisher and the business manager and so on. I had to simultaneously put out a magazine, find finance for each issue and seek out a new partner. The hope was that with Arthur's healthy revival, a publisher/partner would emerge.
That never happened. In late 2007, a prospective partner made an offer and then withdrew it; his finances had started to go into turmoil as the economy began to freak out over the metastasizing mortgage crisis. I had no choice but to soldier on, and by Spring 2008, with the credit crisis coming to a head, I made a last-ditch move from my rental in Los Angeles to a shared loft in Brooklyn in a desperate attempt to find a partner and/or financier, as well as more advertising revenue, near the center of publishing, media, advertising and finance that is New York City. Of course, I arrived too late. For most of 2008, cash that was owed to Arthur has stopped moving as companies went out of business, or delayed payments on advertising sales as long as they could. Arthur was often the least important of their creditors, so we got paid last. Yet, the magazine still had to be published regularly. So, I turned to friends for cash flow temporary loans, and eventually the Arthur community itself, which generously loaned us $20k in three days at the end of July, so that another issue could get published with delay. (By the way, we paid back those monies to those who asked for them. Others called it a donation.) After that, Arthur became true hell for me. With the economy tanking; with print publishing being viewed by business folk and investors as old/dead media; with Arthur's mounting debt; and with just the sheer amount of anxiety surrounding the Sept 15, 2008 economic meltdown, Arthur became a singularly unattractive entity for anyone interested in being my partner. I guess. I mean, you'd have to interview folks to see why they didn't want to partner up.
In early 2009, I put Arthur on hiatus, and at the behest/counsel of many Arthur folk, put new emphasis on Arthur's online presence. Meanwhile, over the last two years, like many other businesses and individuals, I've been able to restructure or settle almost all of Arthur's debts. I came up with a new format for Arthur's return to print, which would significantly lower printing and shipping costs while remaining attractive to advertisers. I made contacts with new advertisers desperate for the kind of audience Arthur draws. I made plans for new ArthurFests. Everything is ready to go—but I don't have a partner. And without a partner, I can't do Arthur beyond a blog/Twitter/Facebook, which receives very little income, doesn't pay for itself, and is extremely ungratifying and unrewarding for both me and for the readers, relative to what Arthur was. I could see doing that for a while—but indefinitely? Year after year? No. I gave it two years. It's time to let it end.
TR: There's the saying in advertising, where it's now digital nickels to analog dollars. Was there some sort of online advertising lull that contributed to the demise?
JB: See above.
TR: Arthur released numerous compilation CDs, which were always a way to expose your readers to the music you covered. Your last couple compilations were only released digitally. Did that impact the overall exposure and sales (i.e. not available in record stores, where Arthur's core base regularly shops)?
JB: Our last compilation was Who Knows What Tomorrow Might Bring. It did well, as did Blackout. But yes, without a print magazine, many people who would have dug those comps never heard of them.
TR: What do you plan on doing next?
JB: I'm finishing work on a book on the San Francisco Diggers, which my literary agent will be shopping to publishers shortly. My girlfriend and I are putting in an enclosed vegetable garden today at our home in Joshua Tree, California, near our outdoor shower and compost toilet. And, I am at work on a new magazine/app concept that is appropriate to the time and place that we live in — —one that I can't believe nobody else is doing. This time, I'll get the business set up correctly, right from the start. I've learned my lesson(s)!