In retrospect, Alternative Press’ eventual role as the Rolling Stone for the Warped Tour generation was an obvious conclusion: the magazine’s roots were in vintage punk-rock. When punk grew up, AP grew with it.But as the story unfolded, the magazine’s path was not nearly so linear. Before Warped exploded as a cultural force, the idea of punk as a permanent, commercially viable touchstone was laughable, especially to its most loyal fans.
Over the 1990s, AP’s success with popular rock groups like Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead led to the magazine covering the bands who succeeded them on the radio and in the street. And as quick as you could say “Kid A,” AP had Sugar Ray, Korn and Creed on its cover during a dark period that left the staff demoralized and the magazine broke. After the millennium turned, AP washed its hands of those platinum bands, returned to its roots, and became the financially solvent magazine you know and cherish today.
Former AP Editorial Director Aaron Burgess was integral to that change, and the behind-the-scenes business strategy that made it not only possible, but sustainable. A skater, hardcore kid and metalhead, the pivotal Burgess was with the magazine from 1996 to 2006. Like Editor in Chief Jason Pettigrew, Burgess came to Cleveland from the nearby Pittsburgh hinterlands. He started as an intern, earned a spot in the starting rotation, left for turn in the corporate world and returned to AP as a master of marketing and content strategy.
When the post-9/11 economic downturn had AP on life support, Burgess helped the underdog magazine figure out how to stay independent and become profitable, without sacrificing its integrity. Burgess departed again with issue #218, which tied the magazine’s highest page-count. In the years since, the father of three has had a successful career as a marketing/creative executive in multiple Fortune 500 companies.
“He was the one who advocated embracing our inner Warped Tour, instead of trying to appeal to everyone,” offers AP Editor In Chief Jason Pettigrew. “I think his quote was, ‘as opposed to selling a Tori Amos fan on a Scandinavian death-metal band.’ If it weren't for him, we would have been fighting with Spin for covers on LCD Soundsystem and Interpol. And losing out. The success of all those issues [featuring cover artists] Dashboard, A.F.I., et. al, backed him up. And we've been in that niche ever since.”
How did you go from civilian music fan to someone who worked at AP?
I had been reading AP for years. I always thought that would be a really amazing career path. But it didn’t seem something like that would be lucrative. And my parents didn’t think it would be lucrative. I had an internship lined up with [daily newspaper] the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I had sent an application to AP, and never heard back from them. And then I got a call from [Marketing Director] Carla Nocera, who said “We’d love to have you if you’re still available.” It was unpaid internship. I was working as a telemarketer to make money. And I was living in a room in a Catholic rectory for $200 a month.
How did you go from being an intern to being hired?
I came in and did everything. I had a good work ethic, and I [didn’t think I was] too good to do anything. I would do anything they asked me to. I didn’t have any aspirations of coming in and writing. My first job was sitting in the art room and updating Carla’s advertising database. And I would clean Pettigrew’s office. I would answer phones and do whatever they needed.
When did you feel like you first started to influence the magazine?
In 1998, they did an issue with the Verve on the cover. And [Editor] Rob Cherry was toying with doing a scene special about hardcore. That was the first time I felt like I got my culture or my scene in the magazine in a meaningful way. I got to work with [AP West Coast Editor] Ryan Downey, who is still at the magazine. I pulled him in for that.
What led you to leave the first time?
I’ve always been very pragmatic in decisions I made in life. In 1999, I was married. We were going to have our first child. You’ve got to do what’s going to put bread on the table. It wasn’t a fun decision, but I found a job working at [Cleveland-based greeting card company] American Greetings and doing online editorial work.
When did you start to suspect the things you were learning at your new job could be applicable to AP?
I’ve had a couple different forays into the corporate world, getting to learn about marketing in a business that makes money on a pretty big scale. [I realized] AP is a business, and there are models that can be effective in running a music magazine. I left on good terms. I kept in touch. AP was in a pretty bad spot. I went out to dinner with Mike [Shea, AP’s founder and CEO], very much working on trying to help, and prove I had the mettle to make an impact.
In that era of working with big bands, who are some ones that you felt like you held the door open for and got to sneak in?
Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance were the big ones. I felt like my biggest score was being able to have a friendly relationship with Ian MacKaye and getting him to agree to being in the magazine multiple times. For me, the Dillinger Escape Plan, it was almost comical the amount of times I was able to get them into the magazine. I don’t know how much of their current popularity we can be traced to that, but…. There were a couple bands like that: For [AP former music editor] Jonah Bayer, it was Thursday.
During your second run, the magazine went from its low point to its high point. How do you look back on your second tenure?
Financially and [in terms of] creative freedom, there was nowhere to go but up. Pure dumb optimism worked in my favor. It didn’t feel like we were pushing anything uphill, because we had been through way worse.
AP had been featuring big commercial or radio rock bands like Creed and Korn. From your perspective, what was the turning point where you decided to stop playing the game and do something different?
There was a run-in with Korn, an article I wrote. I was reading it with my son the other day — he was cracking up, “Oh my God. I can’t believe you wrote this!” I went on the road with those guys, and they said I could never write about them again. Having lived through ’80s hair metal and never feeling connected to that scene, seeing this thing [nü metal] that was trying to latch on to all these credible genres… I could understand why we were working with them: This is big; this is alternative; they’re willing to work with us. But is this a train we want to latch onto for the long run? The answer was obviously no.
The Warped Tour was already in place. [Influential former AP Marketing Director] Aaron Wilson had already been working with them, and he was a fan who had been reporting from the shows. We’d been working with Warped in custom publishing—a lot of magazines, publishing custom magazines and programs for stores and events. And we got to know each other. And when we proved that a lot of us came from and got this culture, it made perfect sense for us to be working as more than business partners once a year.
In retrospect, the Warped era makes perfect sense, and you can draw a straight line from that to what AP did in the ’80s and ’90s. But at the time, there was nothing obvious about it.
It’s a logical path, with a lot of insanity and contradictions in the middle. But having bands like Sugar Ray and Creed on the cover makes sense, too: It was to Mike’s credit that he never gave up — he got that tattooed on his arm. If “never giving up” means we have to put some bizarro choice on the cover and still deliver an awesome magazine inside, we’ll never give up. And when the perfect chain of events led to AP being able to come back and get behind a scene — and the audience was there and hungry for it, and nobody else was catering to that audience, it was all uphill.
What was the office atmosphere like?
It was just this constant energy that was there, that I fed off. It was fun to be there. Credit to Mike for pulling in them and keeping the right people. We were always riffing off something. Editorial meetings were amazing. We’d get in, and it was a stream of tangents for hours. But we would come out with really amazing stuff. Everybody there was a really strong conceptual thinker. We were constantly feeding off ideas.
It was loud, and it would get louder as the night got longer. There would usually be something completely random blasting out of Pettigrew’s office: extreme industrial metal or Jane Child. And what was blasting out of Pettigrew’s office was always a reflection of what mood he was in. Like, “Oh shit, I’d better stay away from him” or “okay, it’s good to go in.” Just loud and freewheeling, and more psychotic as the nights got longer, when you’re working 3-in-the-morning nights on end, and you have to be up the next day to start over. Laughter and energy — I miss it now. I still dream about it.
So many other magazines with more money and corporate backing came and went. What do you think AP did that they didn’t do?
There’s a certain freedom that comes from when you stop worrying about being cool. And by not worrying about being cool, we stayed with our readers. Magnet had hard, fast indie ideals that it was going to stay with, regardless of what readers were saying — and I credit them for that. Those other magazines, we got knocked by them for bands we were covering and choices we were making. But the choices were logical, based on [our] readers. And that’s who is still around.
I think the rivalry between Cleveland and Pittsburgh is rooted in the fact that they have such similar attitudes: that blue-collar, no-frills, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work approach to life. What did the character of the Cleveland area contribute keeping AP alive?
Had AP tried to get its start anywhere else, it probably would have packed it in a long time ago. I think all of us were scrappy Rust Belt kids who happened to be working at a cool music magazine. And that was reflected in the tenacity we had. I’ve worked in a lot of places, and I have never met such a hardworking, determined group of people.
And I also have never worked so damned hard in a place — and it never felt like work: I work hard now, and it always feels like work. At AP, the hours just flew. We worked every day, around the clock. We came in on weekends. We were just in it. No one had to be pushed. We all knew there was weight to be pulled, and we pulled it.
The attitude was, “This is all we have, and we’re going to make it work, and we don’t want it to go away.” Mike built this, and we always respected the fact it was his; it’s not like it’s one part of a corporate conglomeration. That definitely changes your perspective on your work. alt