Keeper of the Gateway
Signal to Noise magazine founder and avante-garde ambassador Pete Gershon is in tune with the jamband/jazz connection
by Lee Abraham
Pete Gershon is a jazzman. He loves to talk about jazz, write about it, listen to it, philosophize about its relevance to the human experience… he's all over that stuff. But most of all, Gershon loves to -share- jazz. As publisher/editor of "Signal to Noise, the journal of improvised and experimental music," Gershon has firmly entrenched himself as a cultural renegade. An avante-garde ambassador on a mission to lift the veil of misunderstanding surrounding his music of choice.
"Sometimes it's like listening to people speaking in another language," says the twenty-something native of upstate New York. "It might sound like they're just making a bunch of funny sounds with their mouths, but they -are- saying something! So I try to depict this stuff in a way that's accessible to for younger listeners who might be into Phish and dig a 45-minute 'Tweezer.' If they like -that-, then there's probably no reason why they wouldn't like Full Metal Revolutionary Jazz Ensemble. Except maybe they're intimidated by the word -Jazz-."
Like many STN readers, Gershon discovered jazz by way of the jamband scene. As a college student at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., the non-declared literary major evolved from his Rush, ELP, Yes, King Crimson phase in high school to the long strange trip of the Grateful Dead. Then he found out about Phish, God Street Wine and Blues Traveler. That lead to the Charlie Hunter Trio and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Without realizing it, Gershon's musical interests had transported him into the jazz zone.
"I was just sort of really interested in broadening my scope and finding about all this great jazz that I suspected was out there, but really didn't know where to start. I just knew there was probably a ton of it, and that it would take a long time for me to make my way through." After graduating from Hampshire in '95, Gershon moved to Burlington, Vermont. He had visited the town before and liked its "nature and character." As soon as he was settled, he searched for a magazine to write for.
"It became clear very quickly that there were no opportunities in Burlington," says Gershon. "I was shocked by the disinterest that I ran into." To make ends meet, he took "a shitty job working for a catalog company." Even though he wasn't writing, the fledgling journalist was going to see live music three or four nights a week. "I was taping the shows, taking pictures, just totally documenting it as fully as I could. After awhile, I found a sympathetic editor down in North Hampton at the Valley Advocate."
The first article he got into print was a piece on the Jazz Mandolin Project. That was in the fall of '95. For a brief period he was also writing for -The Collegian-. "A really grass roots paper that was geared toward the college age group. But it folded," says Gershon. At first, the articles he did for the Advocate covered bands from Burlington that he had an inside track on. Then came a series of assignments on -free jazz-.
"These were names that I was completely unfamiliar with, but once I got exposed to their music I was like, Aha! Now this is something I can sink my teeth into after so many years of Phish and the Allman Brothers."
Gershon started interviewing and writing articles on musicians with "heavy resumes." Portfolio of published clips in hand, he went back to the Burlington rags that had given him the cold shoulder. His persistence paid off. Although sporadic, he did get a few assignments and if nothing else, was beginning to establish himself as a music journalist.
Right around that time, the catalog company he was working for relocated out of Burlington. Out of a paying job, Gershon focused his efforts on regional and national magazines, trying to find a market for his freelance writing. "It didn't take very long to tell that just wasn't going to work out either. The kind of stuff that I was interested in, there wasn't alot of demand for articles on these bands."
The rejections were frustrating but also served to strengthen his resolve. Gershon kept searching for publications to write for. Once again, his persistence led to opportunity. "I stumbled across a little magazine, kind of like our size and format, except they have a black and white cover, very few pictures and not as many pages. This thing was all over the place and it had some of the crappiest writing I had ever seen in my life. I picked it up and was just flabbergasted! The thing was that they were trying to cover this kind of music, they were just doing it -so- badly!"
Although the magazine passed off retyped press releases as articles and had an amateurish layout, "they had a ton of ads," says Gershon with a still-fresh tone of disdain. In a flash of inspiration, his path became clear. "I didn't know anything about making a magazine, but I do know about writing and I did know for a fact I could make something much better than that!"
With nothing else to do at the time, he got busy. First he called some printers. Then he started writing. Once again, he wrote about the Jazz Mandolin Project. But this time it was different. "This was the in depth piece on them that I had always wanted to do, but never had a home for." Along with another feature article, several concert and CD reviews as well as a few ads, 10,000 copies of "Soundboard" magazine was printed in September of '97. "Way too many," laughs Gershon. "I still have a few thousand."
Learning as went, Gershon wrote almost all of the first few issues by himself. The original idea was to cover the scene in Burlington and the surrounding areas. "I like the idea of the magazine being something that people can pick up free, at least in the area we're based out of," says Gershon. "Part of my motivation for doing this is to broaden the audience for this kind of challenging music."
By it's 3rd issue, -Soundboard- was being distributed by Tower Records. In an effort to bolster subscriptions, Gershon produced a compilation CD as a freebie promo item for new subscribers. That was issue #5. "Around the same time we got a call from the editor of 'Soundboard Magazine,' and it wasn't our Soundboard," says Gershon.
Turns out the other -Soundboard- was a classical guitar magazine and both were being stocked by Tower Records. That got confusing. Because the other Soundboard had been around much longer, Gershon felt that it would be best to change the name before his magazine got any bigger. The "Signal to Noise," era officially began in September of '98 with issue #7. Today, the mag is up to issue #11 and has a circulation of about 8,000.
"We're committed to making it better with every issue," says Gershon. Some of the more dramatic improvements have been the upgraded color covers and an increasing stable of top writers. That's enabled STN to expand its coverage beyond just the Burlington area. Future goals: add more pages and go monthly. "In addition to the new grass, jambands and avante-garde, we'd like to get into more world and funk stuff," says Gershon. "Assembling the best staff of writers, that'll ultimately be the key to our success."
In the mean time though, it's still a one-man show. As the magazine has improved, the cost of putting it out has also skyrocketed. Current issues cost more than five times as much as the first issue, which was published for less than $1,000. The good news is that ad revenue has grown to match expenses. Cash flow management can be a nasty game though. Sometimes taking care of the bottom line forces tough decisions.
For example, the back cover of issue #10 was a full-page ad for a video called "Ordinary Couples, Extraordinary Sex." How does that relate to improvisational music? "It doesn't," responds Gershon. "It relates to our poverty and our need to sell advertising." The ad actually came from friend of Gershon's that worked for the video company and wanted to help his cause. Although the ad that ran was provocative, it was tamer than an earlier ad Gershon rejected.
"I take the music extremely seriously," says Gershon. "I didn't want for that to be a reason for anyone to doubt my integrity about what we're doing, and I don't think anybody did." The guy may be serious but he's got a sense of humor too. With the smile on his face shining through his voice, he adds, "Really, after all, scantily clad babes have long been used on album covers to sell jazz, so I'm just upholding a time honored tradition!"
The real punch line: the ad didn't get a very good response and won't be back. "They did get a couple of orders and that's about it. Our next back cover is from a record label."
In addition to putting out the magazine, Gershon recently began hosting STN Radio on local 90.1 WRUV-FM in Burlington, the show airs on Tuesdays from 2:00 to 4:00 on Tuesday afternoons. Although he enjoys being on the air, writing is still Gershon's primary focus. "There's something more anonymous to the written word that's appealing to me."
In the big picture though, all his activities are related to "raising the profile of the music." Toward that end, copies of STN are mailed to music biz movers and shakers around the country, including people who may or may not have heard about the cutting edge artists Gershon deals in. "We try to get everybody from members of the media who's interested in this stuff to the record labels, promoters, musicians themselves and various organizations."
It's no surprise that STN's readership covers a broad demographic range. "Some subscribers are seasoned jazz fans that have been listening to jazz for longer than I've been alive," says Gershon. While the hardcore jazz community is a logical stronghold, the fastest growing segment of the mag's readership are folks like Gershon himself. Younger music enthusiasts that by and large, evolved from a Grateful Dead or Phish orientation to inevitably cross paths with the jazz world. With its emphasis on improvisation and experimentation, the jamband scene is in fact proving to be a "gateway genre" to jazz.
"There's very much an open mindedness that's a part of that whole scene," says Gershon. "Whether it's through bands like Sonic Youth, Firehose, or Tres playing with Marshall Allen and Michael Ray, acknowledging the whole scene's huge debt to someone like Sun Ra, it's just happening all over the place!" Although there are a couple of exceptions, the vast majority of the media have yet to wake up to the burgeoning jamband scene. Those that have, can't match STN for its excellent cross genre coverage and insight into the jamband/jazz connection.
For Gershon, the genres are secondary. The main thing is the artist's -approach- to music. Sometimes that creative fire burns brightest in artists that have yet to be "discovered," or have been overlooked and under appreciated by the media. Giving exposure to new talents as well as artist's that don't fit the commercial mold is another aspect of the magazine's coverage that makes STN unique.
"Anything that's been marginalized but is authentic, real music is the type of stuff we want to investigate," says Gershon. STN is obviously on the right track. Circulation and ad revenues continue to climb. With each issue, Gershon learns a little more about layout and "all the other little things that go into putting out a magazine." In the process, STN continues to grow and improve. People are taking notice.
"Some readers are fanatics," laughs Gershon. "One guy in particular calls every once in awhile to let us know he appreciates what we're doing. One time he called up and said, 'I just want to remind you that you're doing God's work!' It's ridiculous and rewarding."
Contact Pete Gershon at:
Signal to Noise
492 US Route 2; Suite 1
South Hero, Vermont 05486