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Interview: Urb Magazine's Raymond Roker Ditches Print

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Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 12:00 PM

Raymond Roker started Urb magazine out of his apartment in 1990. He initially distributed the newsprint publication out of the back of his car. It was distributed mostly in clothing and record stores on Melrose. The magazine focused on the crossroads of burgeoning dance music and indie hip-hop. Its early cover stories featured a then-unknown Moby, local spinner Doc Martin and even Cypress Hill. Advertisers ranged from independent dance music labels to rave promoters, which printed their fliers as full-page ads. By the mid-1990s Urb exploded along with electronic dance music and left-field hip-hop. It became a national glossy and even inspired some pretenders (Yrb, Industry Insider).

The publication grew to become a viable alternative to the Spins and Rolling Stones of the world. As electronic dance music, DJ culture, and backpacker hip-hop grew and became natural allies on record store shelves in the late 1990s and early '00s, Urb's role expanded: It was a bonafide bible for all things not rock. Where putting the Prodigy or Ice-T on the cover was subversive in the early 1990s, it was almost mainstream ten years later. Roker, a product of Fairfax High School, used the publication as a pulpit to pontificate on the state of rap, race relations and the White House.

click to enlarge Raymond Roker
  • Raymond Roker

In the mid-'00s the magazine hit a profitable stride: Roker expanded into marketing and produced a print campaign for Scion cars. At the same time longtime Urb subjects such as the Black Eyed Peas made it big. But earlier this month Roker, 41, announced that the print version was going on hiatus while he pursues its digital future. The publication, he says, succumbed to the same market forces that have downed such mighty glossies as Vibe and Gourmet. In a world where consumers can not only find out what a DJ played last weekend but also download the set, print doesn't make as much sense. Urb was a rare survivor in a dance and hip-hop marketplace that claimed Mixer, BPM and other magazines even before the downturn. Still, Roker is as upbeat as ever. He thinks the time is right to rethink the magazine medium and make it viable for digital world. Roker's a fan of the social media landscape. He contributes regularly to the Huffington Post and is a Twitter fiend. At the end of the month he'll unveil a new Urb experience online, and he'll continue to publish a digital version of the magazine. We caught up with Roker and asked him a few questions about his beloved L.A. institution.

LA Weekly: What led you to shut down the print edition of Urb?

Raymond Roker: I could see the dramatic fall off in advertising occurring. Just like any other publisher, I saw the market was off at the end of last year. We could see it coming, but we weren't large enough and well positioned enough to comfortably ride it out. I made a choice in my head that there would be a better opportunity to seize the moment and stake a claim in new media to do great video and online content and have a website that's not just a magazine site but a website where blogs and social media lives.

Emotionally I couldn't quite let go, but I knew we needed to make a clean break. Magazines represent such an antiquated product cycle and distribution model. Everything about it is so not current. You have to cleanly break from that to put a stake in the ground and say we're going to be a new media company. The economic realities made the time no better than now.

Was there a final straw for you? Did a big advertiser pull out and make the decision easier?

There wasn't an economic final straw. I think what happened to us and a number of magazines this year was that you had the absolute acceleration of social media -- of course with Facebook truly defining the new social media territory. Then you had Twitter change everything again. This would have been a challenging year for anyone trying to peddle old media. Put the bad economy on top of that. We haven't been dependent on any one client. There's actually been a rebound in some categories like independent record labels. It was really me saying we not able to deliver great, timely, relevant content in a way that lives up to that content. Talking about music in the pages of a magazine is ridiculous in this day and age. When you talk about music today you should be able to hear it and see it. As the web continues to mature it became glaringly obvious we had to break cleanly from print.

But you're doing a digital edition, which is basically the magazine, page by page, on your computer.

We are doing a digital edition. We have one coming out in sync with the re-launch of the site [at the end of the month]. Right now it's uncharted territory. Many magazines are doing digital editions and they're doing them as a way of augmenting a shift in circulation, or they're trying to get readers who have migrated to the web and stopped subscribing. I think it's one spoke of a multi-spoke media wheel right now. Ultimately people want to interact with content in as rich and tactile a manner as they can. That is part of our strategy, but its' not the only card we want to play. We intend to be a player in video and web to 2- to 3.0.

For years the word on Urb was that your marketing arm made more money than the print edition.

That was a blessing and a curse. That was true for a while. We absolutely made more money in the mid-'00s from doing marketing. I think it was a distraction. In a lot of ways you can kind of look at that in the same way as the newspaper industry making money from ancillary operations while it wasn't thinking as much about the technology of delivery. We had a marketing spin-off that took off gangbusters -- doing work for Scion. We weren't putting out as good a magazine as we should have. We weren't looking at the future as much. We were doing spin-off publications and DVD projects. But that wasn't the business I wanted it to be. That was a cash-cow distraction. When we came out of the haze of doing work for Toyota we had less momentum in evolving our content delivery across the web. That was the downside.

The focus of your coverage changed a lot over the years, from techno and raves to indie hip-hop to even some indie rock. Was it hard to keep ahead of the musical trends?

I was never a fan of making Urb answerable to the rock music world. I always felt dance music and hip-hop was a world unto itself. However, as hip-hop and dance music started to abandon its own beach head and started to cross collaborate, I couldn't ignore this indie-rock chatter. At some point I stopped standing in the way of that and we evolved into that area. Some of the hip-hop and dance purists weren't down with us covering TV On The Radio, so it became harder and harder, and this was the limitation, again, of print. The music was demanding more and more diversity. Overall we served as a pretty strong voice. If you were to look at Urb and didn't have the music in front of you could you trace our covers and see where the music was going. We were one of the first magazines to acknowledge that the indie kids were the next DJs. We did that before Spin an others. We were the first covers for TV On The Radio, Kid Sister. Flosstradamus. Our Next 100 [annual issue] was the rally the place to see where things were going like the Diplos of the world and even A-Trak when he was a turntablist b-boy. We have done a good job of it, but it absolutely got more difficult for any publication to keep up with the diversity of the music.

Urb's once subversive scene has become mainstream - from Moby to the Black Eyed Peas. It's hard to justify it as a subculture in its own right anymore.

When we had our 15-year anniversary I wrote that the battle is won. We were fighting for the b-boy, electronic music underground. It all changed. When the book is written, it's iTunes and the iPod that changed that. It made it possible to mix up your own musical intake to indulge your own musical pleasure and taste stuff from the past.

Did you ever imagine you'd see this reunion of hip-hop and electronic - which you've espoused from Urb's beginning?

It's hard to put it in perspective and visualize hip-hop before Kanye. He has a whole generation of offspring now. There would never be a Cool Kids or Lupe [Fiasco] without Kanye. I go by my old high school, Fairfax High, and see those black kids with skinny jeans and pastel t-shirts. They would have been absolute outcasts back in the day. They were given the freedom as the music evolved. That was always in the DNA of what this magazine was about. But I could never really see it clearly until it started to happen.

Even though it's not the hippest social network, MySpace changed things for music as much as any medium - allowing consumers to take paths from act to act, getting free music along the way.

That's definitely a huge part of it. Your choices are informed by your options. I think of Chris Rock's quote that guys are only as faithful as their options. It allows you to sample and follow and hangout in the background and hop into something else. We always preached that, but the technology wasn't there to fully embrace that. Because of technology you can be a hyper-vertical expert and just want to hear B'more [club music] or U.K. dubstep. We had to come to it at some point -- exploring these deep rabbit holes of music.

Is there still a market for long-form music journalism?

That was the big question at this Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit I was at in D.C. [in early October]. I think there is a place for it. I don't have sympathy for those displaced by the media shift, and I'm as much a victim of if as anyone. That's the cost of freedom: If people want to write long-form about music, they need to cultivate an audience that cares. But no crying.

Do you think that the Pitchforks of the world are displacing music magazines?

That's an understatement. Every music magazine got their asses handed to them by Pitchfork. They have a million Twitter followers. We have like 20,000. The guy who invented Pitchfork was toiling around with it in 1996. While we were enjoying advertising revenue in the mid-1990s, this guy was thinking about the next thing. They turned the game we invented into something virtual, with so much less overhead and infrastructure. I do think they changed the game, but I don't think they're the panacea. If you're a kid who likes dirty-candy-ugly-ass crunk from Houston, Pitchfork is not your answer. There's an answer for everybody out there. Pitchfork is to music magazines what Craigslist is to newspapers. They took the biggest thing that makes the music magazines relevant, putting out timely information about records, and they beat you by weeks. What are you left to do? Bigger photos? Most music magazines right now in my opinion are operating on borrowed time. There isn't really anything that a music magazine is doing better than you can get from putting ten different blogs in your Google reader.

You still seem enthusiastic about the music.

Not in the same way. I'm enthusiastic about culture. The call of music doesn't sound the same as it did for me back them. Now its ubiquitous. We used to be in conversations with advertisers about whether their product was consumed by music fans or not. That would be unheard of today.

As you go online, is there pressure to sell music rather than critique it?

No. If I got a few cents from every track I wrote about who knows. I know that we don't find it as necessary to crap all over a record. That might have been how we would have done it for the first 10 years. There's so much stuff out there, we'd rather talk about stuff we're celebrating. Maybe there's been a shift in journalism because of that. There is a lack of deep criticism of music. Another way content is being commodified is more insidious: Bloggers have to be that guy, the publisher and the editor. The commodification is a little more on the surface. Some are more transparent,, some are more shameless, but it's there. There was a day when editorial and advertising were church and state, but that was artificial. We're dealing more with the real way the world works.

So Urb moves on.

This will continue to play out. It's a very interesting time. I haven't abandoned old media. Around the 26th we'll start to unveil the new site with a front-end, back-end facelift, new technology, with all the tools, including Flickr. It'll really be connected to the social web. I'm really excited about it. At the same time, we'll also have the digital edition of Urb, with 25 new artists to check out, a mini version of our Next 100. We haven't walked away from print in perpetuity, but we put a pause on Urb the periodical.

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