Caught With His Trousers Down: The Ira Robbins Interview
By Steven Ward (May 2001)
If anyone out there has a million dollars and wants to start a music magazine, please let Ira Robbins know about it. Robbins, the co-founder and co-editor of Trouser Press, has said that a million dollars would be the only way anyone could talk him into running a music magazine again. It’s not that he wasn’t any good at it — in fact, Trouser Press quickly grew from a stapled fanzine with a devoted cult following to a glossy monthly magazine that was as good or better than competitors Rolling Stone and Musician at certain times in their publishing histories. For 10 years, from 1974 to 1984, Trouser Press worked towards becoming the “alternative” magazine of its day — a precursor to the early Spin, back when that magazine was any good.
In the mid-’70s, Robbins, the late Karen Rose, and co-founder Dave Schulps started Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press to start championing English music which the conventional rock press was ignoring. Trouser Press writers and editors went to work, telling the world about the Who, King Crimson and Roxy Music. They did not worship at the feet of ’70s critical darling, Bruce Springsteen. (Robbins said he was never a fan.)
When the magazine folded under financial and cultural pressure (MTV had just started and it was forcefully taking over the Trouser Press niche), Robbins continued his crusade with a series ofTrouser Press record guides. Now into its fifth edition, Robbins’s books have become the standard alternative music guides for music fans and rock writers.
Today, Robbins works in syndicated radio and freelances for Mojo, Salon.com, and other publications.
In the following e-mail interview, Robbins talks about the history of Trouser Press, his favorite rock mags and writers, the problem of being pigeonholed as an “alternative” music critic, and the possible future of Trouser Press on-line.
Steven: Trouser Press was a rock fanzine you started with Dave Schulps in 1974. The fanzine quickly turned into a professionally done and well-respected rock magazine that was forced to close almost 10 years later in 1984 because of financial pressure. Do you miss putting out a monthly music magazine and do you think you would ever get involved in something like that again?
Ira: Actually, finance was only one of the factors that contributed to my decision to end Trouser Press in 1984. The music world had changed, music media had changed, the lives of the staff had changed, our audience had changed–all of which conspired to make the original thrill of having a credible forum to do with as we saw fit feel more like a Sisyphean duty to fill up a bunch of damnably empty pages every month.
The emotional rewards, for me at least, had dissipated in the face of MTV’s ability to make new wave bands come alive, with audio and video, in a way we couldn’t match on paper. Part of why we existed was because commercial American radio completely ignored the bands we cared about, and college radio was only beginning to matter in the new world.
MTV, in its early-’80s infancy, lunged for the colorful (read: new wave) and the video-savvy (that meant English, since the U.K. use of video to promote bands on TV was already established, albeit not in such a concentrated way) acts–Adam Ant, Duran Duran, Stray Cats (Americans who had started their career in London), Culture Club, the Cure, Depeche Mode, et al. That wasn’t all we did, but they stepped on our toes a lot.
I was frustrated at our fiscal insecurity and, turning 30 after 10 years of doing Trouser Press and nothing else, I discovered that real life, adult life, couldn’t be postponed indefinitely. Plus there was only so much rejection of the mainstream possible if staying in business was a goal. We unintentionally had a new audience–teenyboppers excited by our coverage of their faves but too young to share our sensibilities and our skepticism: one cover story on Duran Duran that attacked the band’s flaws caused howling letters of disillusionment and anger from kids who just wanted the good news on how cute they were. How could we put them on the cover and not worship them? It made sense to us–a big story is a big story, and a band is a mix of good and bad. Little did we know that no one else thought that way. These days, what serious publication dares think that way?
Which brings me to the question you actually asked–do I miss it? Sure. It was fun to publish completely independent music reportage and criticism. Trouser Press stood for things. Our readers thought of us as a friend with strong opinions. We clearly favored cool bands over old-hat stooges, but we had a real respect for veterans and their complex careers. We (I) loved Cheap Trick, the Who, Roy Wood, Sparks, Todd Rundgren and the Clash. We (I) hated Bruce Springsteen and all the manly Americans who bellowed rather than sang. We thought Patti Smith might be over-rated, and we couldn’t cope with L.A.’s hardcore punk (a generational failure, no doubt). But we had a huge soft spot for the enigmatic charmers in the Residents.
It was all seat-of-the-pants, idiosyncratic, irreverent self-indulgence, but it was wonderful fun. It sucked getting dicked around by record companies, advertisers, distributors and all the rest. I took it all personally–I can vividly recall arriving full of enthusiasm and optimism to our 13th floor office on 5th Avenue on many occasions only to discover that the morning’s mail contained a few bucks in checks on days when the rent, or payroll, or a $20,000 printing bill was due. It wasn’t just the money, really, it was the feeling of powerlessness, that the enterprise we put so much of our lives into could so easily be derailed by another company’s incompetence or bankruptcy, or the record industry suspicion that print advertising wasn’t of any real use to them. It was a tough and lonely battle, externally and internally, and we didn’t learn until it was over how many people we were important to.
Having started out so small and informal, we never grew into a well-run organization–although we got our work done and seemed on top of things, how we did it was always pretty slapdash. When I look back at the old issues, they look and read better to me than I remember them from the creative side. It was that kind of experience–hard to watch the food being prepared but tasty once it got on the table.
So, yeah, there are parts of it I miss. But after it was over I was able to regain friendships that were seriously challenged by working together, and that means a lot to me to this day. I look back and see how well Spin did after we quit–not that the two are in any way connected, but if we’d had some of their money and a bit of encouragement, maybe we could have become a much bigger deal than we ever were. When I decided I’d had enough, I looked around for a buyer, had an accounting firm groom us for a sale, and there were no takers.
I’m glad to have done Trouser Press and glad not to be doing it anymore. Sometimes you have to know when to leave what you’ve done frozen in time and let others carry on. Fortunately, the Trouser Press books–which we started doing in 1983, while the magazine was still up and running–provided 15 added years of continuity for me, the magazine’s name and its ethos.
Would I do it again? I’ve always said if someone wanted to put up a million bucks, providing the business acumen and leave me alone to be the editor, I’d love to run another music magazine. Our slow but steady approach to business was fine in some ways, but a lack of initial capital was ultimately fatal, dooming us to be a small-time operation even when we might have done a lot more. I was never a businessman, and we were never able to get past print-it-they-will-read idealism. Successful magazine publishing, I discovered, involves a lot more than a good editorial “product”–it needs a marketing push, professional salespeople, distribution expertise, muscle, resources and management discipline–none of which we ever had. Oh well.
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