When Voice Media Group sold New York's venerable Village Voice to Peter D. Barbey in 2015, he vowed to help the publication survive and prosper. But, like most alt-weeklies across the country, the Voice struggled due to competition from other online sources. Last August Barbey shuttered the print edition, and on Friday, Aug. 31, he killed the outlet completely.
There are people who would like to see L.A. Weekly (which was owned by VMG before last year's sale) suffer the same fate as the Voice, simply because of who bought it. Having been with this paper for well over two decades — as a freelance music critic, then nightlife columnist and now Culture Editor — I'm one of a handful of writers working hard so that doesn’t happen. As long as there are people and places and ideas that need to be covered and celebrated in Los Angeles, we will continue to use this platform (in print and online) for that purpose.
Iconic culture columnist Michael Musto seemed to have this same attitude when it came to the Voice. His much-beloved column “La Dolce Musto” (which covered the nightlife scene in New York much like my Weekly column “Nightranger” and its precursors, “Slush” and “La Dee Da”) was the go-to for scoop on the drama and dirt in the city after dark, not to mention the glitz and the glamour. Musto's column provided an immersive take on clubs, celebrities, music, theater, the gay scene, the art scene and the underground that would inevitably influence and shape what was to come in pop culture, in New York and in the world. Even after he was fired in 2013, Musto continued to write for the Voice as a freelancer. He definitely inspired me and my work here in L.A., and I’m sure countless other writers across the country as well. It is an honor to have Musto provide his memories and perspective about the end of the legendary Village Voice. —Lina Lecaro
In 1984, when there was an opening for an entertainment columnist at the Village Voice, I brazenly pitched myself for the job. I had written a few features for them and loved the mixture of subversion and prestige that afforded me. And I knew that a weekly column in the ultimate alternative weekly — a legendary one that had thrived since its formation in my birth year, 1955 — would give me a powerful venue, make me connected, and also provide a lovely paycheck, plus health coverage. (The Voice writers were unionized and even “bargaining unit” freelancers got covered.) As an audition, publisher/editor-in-chief David Schneiderman had me do a sample column — and he even paid me for it — so I trotted out a nervy mixture of nightlife, cultural and celebrity coverage, all breathlessly told in the first person, like a demented and hopefully witty diary.
I bagged it! My column was “La Dolce Musto,” based not only on La Dolce Vita (the Fellini movie about the jaded gossip columnist) but on an SNL spoof of that movie with Gilda Radner called “La Dolce Gilda.” Unsure of how to best use the space, I was told by my personal editor, Karen Durbin, to simply run with it: “You won’t know how far to go until you’ve gone too far.” After years as a freelancer basically writing for hire, this was a blast of cathartic air to my ears. And so, I bravely criticized big guns, trashed celebrity entitlement and celebrated drag queens, performance artists and starlets who lit up the night scene with their daring flash.
I didn’t exactly cause a sensation right away, but I was finding my voice as I went along, the Voice giving me the luxury of doing that (since no one had exact traffic numbers back then, they could only guess your popularity). In the ’80s, I became more politicized as the horror of the AIDS epidemic mounted and nothing was being done about it except by the community itself, a situation that galvanized me. Suddenly I was as interested in writing up an ACT UP protest as I was an “outlaw party” (illegal but fun bashes held in public places) or a Pee-wee Herman event.
I also was determined to elevate underground performers who weren’t always getting big mainstream opportunities. Through the years, I helped further the careers of future stars like RuPaul, Justin Vivian Bond and Bridget Everett, while also covering the ups and downs of the nightlife world, detailing club-kid leader Michael Alig’s charisma and crassness and eventually putting out some dark buzz — that Alig and a cohort had supposedly killed drug dealer Angel Melendez — in a blind item that opened a lot of eyes. Yes, one of my specialties was doing items that left out the names but put in clues, hints and innuendo for some truly scandalous dishing.
In addition to my columns, I did features on “The Death of Downtown,” the return of sex to the club scene, hate crimes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and whether Tinky Winky the Teletubby was gay. I started to notice that my reputation was growing along with my column — which went from a third of a page to a full page. A mention from me meant so much to certain people, they would even offer sex in exchange for one. (I declined. That’s so not sexy to me.) I became a sort of dealer to the clubbies, except that instead of coke, I was doling out some dizzying publicity, the type that quickly faded, requiring another fix very soon. As TV producers noticed my byline, I got booked a lot, from MTV to E! to MSNBC and beyond, and was often chased by fans and groupies, making me the rare alternative-weekly writer who felt like a rock star.
When the Internet rose up, the Voice (which was a free handout at this point) was savvy about its importance, and launched a lively site with articles and web-extra items. In 2008, I was made a staff writer, on the condition that I also pen a blog, so I birthed “La Daily Musto,” doing one item a day and later upping that, as I sensed increased pressure to crank out copy and keep the paper alive. In 2013, I had gotten to the point of sometimes doing eight blogs a day — plus my weekly full-page column — but it still wasn’t enough, as marquee names were being fired by the then-owner, New Times, and the paper was a shadow of what it once was.
The internet had brought about the decline of print, and as for web stuff, everyone on earth had a site and a voice on social networking venues, so the competition was intense, plus no one wanted to pay anywhere near what they used to. It was an inevitability that I was laid off that year — “total termination,” I was told by a charmless woman in black — though three years later, the new owner, Pete Barbey, brought me back to do cover stories, and everything miraculously looked hopeful again. But it turned out to be only temporary life support.
Last year, Barbey shuttered the paper, making the Voice web-only. I kept writing pieces for the site, only to learn at the end of last month that the Voice was completely shutting down, except for a few staffers who would work on archiving the old stuff. End of an era unless it’s sold and lives again. Print-stained fingers crossed.
Through the declining years, I realized that alternative weeklies are important for their personal, passionate approach to reporting and the things they uncover in the culture that no one else does. The problem is, the underground has been subsumed by the mainstream thanks to the proliferation of media, and a drag queen today cares way less about being mentioned by me than about getting on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve evolved. But I still have my voice and I plan to keep using it.