About three or so years ago, in what was a reflection not only of the dwindling music industry but the downward spiral of the print magazine world, I received what I thought was the final issue of Magnet magazine.
What is Magnet? Magnet was the quarterly bible of the indie music world, a slacker’s guidepost to everything cool, a critical lighthouse in a sea of audio mediocrity. Every issue was a snapshot of what was hot and happening right now in indie music. Each issue launched with an in-depth cover story that led into smaller profiles on bands and musicians just getting noticed, updates on those that have been around awhile, and, of course, pages and pages of reviews of records that you hadn’t heard before, all capped off with an essay by acerbic scribe Phil Sheridan, who wrote from a vantage point every one of us could recognize.
Magnet launched in 1993, and I have no idea how I found my first issue, which I still have, stuffed in a box somewhere in my attic (I probably bought it at Homer’s). It joined an already crowded magazine rack that included hip, cool, but physically unreadable (because of its design) Raygun, the slick and concise Option, and the other bible of indie, Alternative Press. Of those three, only A.P. is still around. Magnet was the best of the bunch, the most in-the-know and the most critically important and accurate.
For a band to be featured in Magnet was a big deal, especially if it was an Omaha band. And to be reviewed in Magnet was sort of an honor. Remember, this was before the prominence of the internet (Yes, kiddos, there was a time before Pitchfork, when people actually read these things called magazines).
We all knew, for example, that Saddle Creek Records was onto something when Magnet began to take notice.
“Magnet was one of the first magazines to do a Bright Eyes feature,” said Saddle Creek Records executive Robb Nansel. “I remember I was working my ‘real’ job when Magnet called me at work to set up the photo shoot for that article (right around the release of Letting Off the Happiness (in 1998)). There was a lot going on for the label at that time, and it wasn’t long after that phone call that I put in my resignation.”
Reviews and features about other Saddle Creek artists soon followed in Magnet, and shortly after that, the rest of the world began to take notice of what was going on in Omaha. Those reviews weren’t always terribly positive. In fact, Magnet didn’t offer a rating system, just narrative and descriptions, which oftentimes left you wondering if the writer liked the album or not. But that was part of the appeal (to me, anyway) — Magnet left it up to you do decipher.
Anyway, about three years ago, new issues of Magnet quit arriving at my door. No real explanation was given but I knew the magazine hadn’t folded. In fact, their website — magnetmagazine.com — continued to be updated. After a year went by, however, I figured I’d seen the last of the printed version.
And then out of the blue last Friday there it was, peeking out of my mailbox, a fresh new issue of Magnet featuring those shaggy boys from Wilco on the cover — same design, same slick perfect-bound publication, as if it had never gone away.
Magnet Editor-in-Chief Eric T. Miller explained it all on page 4. It turned out that the declining music and publishing industry had finally caught up with them. The publication planned a short hiatus to redesign the Magnet website. That hiatus became extended when injuries sustained by the publication’s art director — Miller’s wife — put a wrench in overall operations. Things looked bleak as to the magazine’s return, and then out of the blue, Miller ran into Alex Mulcahy, an old friend whose company, Red Flag Media, publishes metal magazine Decibel. And the next thing you know, Magnet was back, but this time as a monthly instead of a quarterly.
There are a few other changes. The publication seems thinner and some sections are missing along with some writers, but the profiles are there (including stories on Neon Indian, Tommy Keene, Spank Rock, Beauty Pill, Mac McCaughan, Das Racist amd Thundercat), a Q&A with Blondie’s Debbie Harry, and a lengthy cover story with Wilco. And of course, those reviews. Though now each review also includes a 10-star rating, which takes away a lot of the mystery. But I guess in this era when bands live and die by a Pitchfork 10-point rating system, adjustments had to be made, even though ratings dissuade people from reading the actual reviews.
My favorite part is the return of Phil Sheridan’s “Back Page” column, which starts off: “We know what you’re thinking, and it’s wrong, as usual: Now that 1995 is back, here comes Magnet to cover the bands it already covered to death. Literally.”
So true, Phil, so true. All’s I know is that Magnet is back, and hopefully this time it’s for good. Because in an age when we’re all tethered to electronic gizmos that put every conceivable piece of information at our fingertips — including the music that we listen to — it’s nice to be able to turn off the screen, unplug the electronic world, pull back the cover of something tangible that we can hold in our hands — whether it’s a book, or a copy of The Reader, or an issue of Magnet — and just read.
As Robb Nansel put it, “Magnet exposed us to tons of great music when we were growing up, and I am definitely happy to see them carrying on.”
As am I.
Lazy-i is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on the Omaha music scene. Check out Tim’s daily music news updates at his website, lazy-i.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.