No Need to Panic
Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Published in Grapevine Issue 14, September 2007 www.grapevine.is
Late September Icelanders can expect the first issue of Monitor, a new magazine dedicated to pop culture. The editor for this new publication is Birgir Örn Steinarsson, former front man for the indie-rock outfit Maus, also known as the solo artist Biggi. A Grapevine journalist sat down with Steinarsson to learn more about what to expect.
So, the first issue of Monitor should hit the streets by the end of this month, what can readers expect? That is, what kind of a magazine is Monitor going to be?
They should expect a magazine about Icelandic pop culture, with the emphasis being on Icelandic. Around 70% of the material is music, and of that around 90% is about Icelandic music. It’s an entertainment magazine, and I’m pretty sure most people have an idea what to expect when I say that. There will be good space for in-depth reports and interviews, but there is also space for simple light weight material for everyone. On the web, we will definitely have more space for what’s going on internationally, but I don’t want the paper to be just news that we’ve copied up from press releases or translated from the web. I want it to be a credible source, and I want to give the readers a realistic view of the music scene here, devoid of glamour, even if the look of the magazine is quite stylish.
As a musician yourself, how did you get tangled up in editing a music magazine?
Well, I never planned to be a journalist. I don’t even remember considering it as a job option before I was asked to write a page about comic books in Undirtónar. After about 6 months of doing that I was offered a day job writing in a short lived weekly magazine called 24/7. After about 2 months of doing that Morgunblaðið called and offered me to write for them. Then I was asked to write for Fréttablaðið, which I did with pride because I got a chance to create and build something new. I worked professionally as a journalist for 5 years before moving to London. And while I was there I supported myself by writing music reviews and by interviewing movie stars. When I got back I felt there was a space on the market for a monthly street magazine about pop culture. I used to pick up one in London called The Stool Pigeon whenever I had the chance. Snorri Barón Jónsson, from [The ad-agency] Vatikanið, felt the same way, and strangely enough he asked me if I wanted the job. I was there to apply for another job I wanted to try out. So I’ve never applied for a job as a journalist, it’s just always come to me.
Will it be hard for you, as a musician, to step into the role of the journalist? Some of the people that will be working for the magazine (Mínus drummer Bjössi and rapper Dóri DNA) are also musicians, do you think there is any danger of the people involved being to close to the scene they are covering?
Too close to the scene? I honestly don’t think that’s possible, but it doesn’t matter anyway because they don’t write about the scenes that they are in as musicians. Dóri writes about computer games and Bjössi is writing about the past. As for me, I’ve always been a musician and a journalist, and I’ve done OK so far. Maybe it will put some people off my music, but that’s not important to me anymore. If people are unable to divide my art from my day job, then that’s really their business, not mine. It’s not going to stop me making music. If the music paid for my meals, I wouldn’t have to do this job, but unfortunately that’s just not the case. And besides, I’m not really a part of the music scene that I want to focus on here. I want to focus on the new generation and what they are doing. Not old indie-farts who have been around for ages, like myself. I get enough exposure elsewhere; this paper will always be a bit more open to upcoming artists, rather than the established ones. If we don’t think the artist is doing exciting stuff, he will be ignored rather than slaughtered.
Does that mean that you will handle music coverage by yourself?
Only in the first few issues. I won’t be writing music reviews personally, but I will be doing most of the interviews in the first issues, just to set the tone of the direction.
As a self-described old indie-fart, are you still able to connect with the next generation of musicians, and more importantly, readers?
I’m pretty sure I can. It’s not that hard to follow the output of a younger generation, even if you’re a bit older. To think otherwise is arrogance. I mean, this is not a big city, and there are not that many outlets for bands to get heard in. So, it’s not that much of a hassle to keep an eye out. Plus, we have reviewers and journalists here that are younger than I am. And I’ve always been a digger; it’s in my nature to seek interesting stuff to listen to. And music doesn’t really have an age meter anymore. I might joke that I’m an old indie fart, that’s just because I’ve been releasing albums for 13 years. But the truth is that I’m still considered young in the music industry, I’m only 31 for Christ’s sake! I started really young. It’s not like I’m a 70 year old man, trying to be cool for the youngsters!
Mónitor will be published by an ad agency (Vatikaníð) which handles ads for Sena, by far the biggest company in Iceland when it comes to recording and selling music, as well as distributing movies and video games, will this make it difficult for you to run an independent editorial policy?
I hope not, if so, then I’m out of there. We’ve made it very clear to everyone involved what kind of a magazine we want to make. And let’s face it. Sena doesn’t have a lot of artists at the moment, who fit the criteria. So far, I haven’t even heard from them in this process. And I don’t even think about who’s pressing the music we are covering. My interest is with the artists themselves. Sena is just one of many clients that Vatikanið has. I don’t see how they could possibly get into the position of telling us what to do. Vatikanið has other clients as well, such as banks, soft drink companies, clothing stores and pizza companies. I don’t believe that none of these companies would ever pick up the phone and try to do my job for me. And I don’t think anyone in the music industry would be that crazy either. I have a good healthy relationship with the people at Sena, as I do with the people from [the recording labels] 12 tónar or Bad Taste. As an artist I have released albums for all those labels. This is a promise, no one is going to push me to write about something that I don’t think belongs in this paper. I’m perfectly capable of making up my own mind and won’t be pushed or pigeon-holed, I’m sure all my ex label managers know that by now.
OK, coming from a journalist at a magazine that runs on a similar business model, this might be a strange question, but… Did you ever think that the print medium is dead? I hear the internet is all the rave these days…
No, I don’t. And you forget that Monitor isn’t just a print medium, it’s also going to be a vibrant active entertainment web-site. Personally, I pick up papers and read them. Reading from the paper is just more soothing than reading text from your laptop. And I think what is happening, for magazine publishers, is that the internet is being used as a strainer on what goes to print, and what does not. There is always more space online, but what actually goes to print, is what someone had enough ambition to send to print. This way, the web both becomes a teaser for what is to be found in print, and a way to get more in-depth coverage to the core audience. No need to panic.