INTERVIEW: Mike Shea, founder of Alternative Press Magazine

INTERVIEW: Mike Shea, founder of Alternative Press Magazine

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LOS ANGELES, July 21, 2014 — Mike Shea started Alternative Press Magazine in 1985 as a punk rock fanzine. The magazine has since grown into a media giant. Today, the magazine is set to unveil the first ever Alternative Press Music Awards in Cleveland, Ohio. Alternative Press founder and CEO spoke recently with Wells On Music regarding the origins of Alternative Press Magazine, adjusting in the digital age, and putting together the first Alternative Press music awards.

Kevin Wells: What made you want to start Alternative Press?

Mike Shea: Well, it was 1985. I was going to college at the time. I came down with mono and I got these weird electrical shocks in my arm. I got misdiagnosed and I actually had some sort of brachial plexopathy. The doctor said, “Well, just don’t use your arm.” He thought it was just like I pulled a muscle from my book bag. It was the worst thing I could have done. So, my muscles atrophied and I lost the use of my right arm, which is my dominant hand. I knew that when I got my arm back after physical therapy, I wanted to do something with writing.

I had been befriended by a punk rocker dude and he introduced me to the real underground punk rock community in Cleveland. I was just a suburban new wave kid at the time and was into goth stuff. It was like a whole new world to me. I found out over some quick time that all the communities, all the subgenres of underground music weren’t connected. They were like a circuit board, but the pieces didn’t talk to each other. They all kind of didn’t like each other, but we were all misfits.

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We were all kind of at the mercy of whatever the big newspaper in town was, Alt Weekly, or the major radio station. None of these people talked about our community. When they did, they talked about it in disparaging terms. So, I felt we needed kind of a fanzine to bring us all together and educate each other to the different communities we have, but also to stay on top of what’s going on with our community.

I was a newspaper in high school and yearbook editor, so I knew how to put out a high school newspaper. I got a bunch of friends of mine who were also into the punk rock community. Some wanted to write record reviews, some did show reviews, some took pictures, and we put out a four-page fanzine that was printed like a high school newspaper on like an offset press. We handed out a thousand copies at a punk show on June 6, 1985 and we got rid of them all in a couple hours at the show. All of the sudden of the next couple of weeks kids started writing us saying, “Hey, I wanna write a scene report for you from Columbus,” or from Pittsburgh or wherever.

The name, Alternative Press, really had nothing to do with alternative music. Alternative music wasn’t coined as a term until the early 90s. It was really as an alternative to the press that was in town that wasn’t covering us, our community. It has really always been about covering music for the misfits. Pun intended in a way, I guess.

KW: When did you know that this would become a legitimate revenue source for you?

MS: Umm, not until the 90s. We’ve been an independent company. Madonna almost bought us in a fire sale just because it’s Madonna in 1998 or 1999, but I refused to do it. I knew as soon as her projects or whatever the deal is that she would be doing at the time would go south, she would just shut down whatever she was doing and that’s exactly what happened. I’m glad I never did it. We’ve always been an independent company, so we’re never really hugely flush with cash, corporate wise, and we were always kind of struggling all the way through.

In the early 2000s, 16 years later, when we came out of the nu metal world and came back kind of to our roots, kind of in the punk rock community, that it was something we could possibly keep going and that’s been great. You know, but being an independent company, we got hit with the internet. Now, you’re fighting with the internet. So, you always got to adapt. You gotta adapt or you die.

KW: How has the internet affected your business?

MS: It challenges you. It makes you have to stay on top of things a lot faster. I think every journalism company out there, whether it’s The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, everyone has had to adapt because the internet, and now mobile more than anything, is really changing everything. Some people want to have those weekend reads that are three or four thousand words long, but most people want to zip through it on their phone while they’re standing in line at the convenience store. It changes the world. So, you’ve got a lot of old-school journalists that are really mad about that, but our demo is 18, 19 years old, so, we have to reflect their tastes. We kind of have no choice.

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A lot of people scan stories online now. If the headline says, “You won’t believe what Bob did,” and then they go to the story and look at the first sentence and it says, “Bob did something really crazy.” Then they skim down and it says, “Bob jumped in a pool of spaghetti.” And then they look at the end and see, “Bob’s okay.” They skipped everything in the middle and got to the point and then they go on to the next story. It’s a new kind of scanning version of online reading that people have because people are sneaking reading while at work.

KW: The first ever AP Music Awards are on June 21. Why did you want to start doing an awards show?

MS: It was needed in the community. It was necessary. We didn’t have anything. There was the Kerrang! Awards in the U.K., but that was a totally different beast. We were asked and I was already thinking about it. We were asked a couple years ago by some friends at Hopeless Records and we were thinking about doing one because I kind of felt like we needed one. It was actually overdue. We should have done one earlier. The economy, I think, made it difficult for anyone to try anything new. What it really is not even just about the awards show, it’s about all of us, as a community, coming together and hanging out for a day or two.

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There really is no place where we can do that. Some of us get to do that on Warped Tour for a little bit in LA, Warped Tour New York City or Warped Tour New Jersey, but none of us get to do it for very long all together at once. Maybe we see some of each other for five minutes at SXSW and that’s it. This is a time where all of us come together. We have bands that aren’t even on the road that are mowing their lawns that are hopping back in the vans and they’re driving out here because all their friends are gonna be here and they want to party. It’s gonna be awesome, plus all the performances are gonna be unique. I think 98% of the performances are ones where people are going to be doing something different than they normally would. Fans that are coming to the show aren’t going to see the same thing they just saw three months ago from their favorite band. They’re gonna see something totally different.

KW: How involved have you been with the planning for this event?

MS: I am heavily involved. I was just going over the catering before I called you. We’re working on shuttle buses now. We’re taking over a park that’s behind the rock Hall [of Fame] for the actual show. This whole thing is a festival inside an awards show. You’ve got over 84 stars involved on stage in one form or another and a 105-piece orchestra. It’s a lot [laughs]. We’re sitting here having to feed 500 people twice on the day of the show. That’s a lot and you’re trying to watch your budget. You have all that going on and then you’re also like are the awards going to be here on time? Do we have the plaques ready for them? Do we have the envelopes ready? Those all have to be ready, etcetera, etcetera. We kind of have two things going on at the same time. It’s a tremendous amount of work.

KW: Has this first run been loaded with new problems at every turn or have things gone relatively smooth?

MS: I think anything like this has the first year-itis. There’s things that you learn, things you didn’t expect, and then there’s things that went a lot easier than you thought. There’s always gonna be hiccups and road blocks and things that you have to do in every single new project. For year two, we already know things we wouldn’t do again, but we know already that we’re actually doing really good considering we’re basically building a whole new venture from the ground up.

KW: Is there a band or artist you really wanted to have perform, but were unable to get them on board?

MS: Funny enough, we wanted Billy Idol. I know it sounds weird to say that, but we did. I mean, come on, he’s from Siouxsie & the Banshees originally, then Generation X, then you know. It’s pretty much the quintessential mainstream rock n roll punk rocker you can get. He’s widely respected by everybody. He’s a real cool dude. We really wanted him, but he was in England during this time period, so we couldn’t get him. I really wanted him to come out and do something special. We have our sights on him for next year. I don’t care. We’re gonna get him.

The APMAs are broadcasted by official digital media partner AXS TV, who will have a special red carpet pre-show area co-hosted by new addition CM Punk and Automatic Loveletter frontwoman/The Voice season two runner-up Juliet Simms. In addition to covering broadcasting the red carpet pre-show, AXS TV will broadcast the award show itself, beginning at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on July 21 and will feature footage from the official VIP boat party. Viewers can head to to watch exclusive behind-the-scenes videos and view photos, as well as take part in live polls and get involved on social media.

Kevin J. Wells is the Sports Editor for Communities Digital News. He also writes about Major League Baseball, punk rock music and food. Kevin plays guitar in the Los Angeles punk band Emmer Effer. Follow him on Twitter @WellsOnBaseball

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