The Skills To Pay The Bills: Alan Light
New York City, New York
I met Alan Light at a panel discussion on hip-hop at Housing Works Used Café in New York City. I had read his engaging book on the Beastie Boys, The Skills To Pay the Bills, and I was excited that he would sit down with me to talk about the Beasties, his career, and music. He’s held a variety of positions from Senior Writer, Music Editor, to Editor-In-Chief throughout the years at top magazines from Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe, and Tracks. The Career Cookbook interview sheds some light on what it takes to succeed in the magazine industry and write about music.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work as a music journalist? Did this stem from your mom being a dance critic as far as talking about the arts?
AL: My mom influenced me absolutely. I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything else, which is scary if you wake up in the morning and realize you don’t want to do it anymore. I’m not trained to do anything else. (Smiles) Growing up around a newspaper and attending performances with my mother there was this idea of going to see something, you sit down and talk about it, and then it’s in the paper the next day or the day after that. That was how I thought everything works. My father listened to a lot of jazz and there was a lot of music in the household, which I was always drawn to. I started doing bits of writing when I was really little and kept doing it through high school and college. That’s where everything has always pointed me to.
I think the interesting thing specifically about my mother being a dance writer is that really gives you a sense of a critic’s power much more than writing about pop music ever could. If you write that a Mariah Carey record (stinks), who cares? It doesn’t matter. That has no impact on anything. If she would sit down and write the Cincinnati Ballet sucked no one would go and they would have to close down. You have so much more power within a small community and within more of a high art, more of a select art community. It raised a lot of questions about the responsibilities of that. And a lot more thinking about those issues than if I came to it through the pop stuff where in some ways its set off in its own universe and doesn’t have that impact at a consumer level that she would see.
CCB: Did your education at Yale as an American Studies major prepare you in any way for your career?
AL: It’s funny because I was mocked nationally for writing my thesis on Licensed to Ill (The Beastie Boys first album). I remember Spy magazine used it as a punch line, what have the Ivy League schools come to? I made up a major with a concentration in American Popular Music. A lot people were like, “What a joke, that’s ridiculous!” Though the department was very supportive and I’ve always been very grateful to them. Turns out that was the most pre-professional (training) out of anyone I knew and what they were doing in school. I think it was the opportunity to find different contexts and frameworks for thinking about music and culture. I could write papers about Springsteen or Graceland. That it could be taken seriously, that it was taken seriously, that I took it seriously, was a tremendous opportunity. I still wonder why they got it as much as they did, but it was great.
CCB: How did you break into the industry initially? Is this the freelancing fact checking you did at Rolling Stone after interning there?
AL: I interned at Rolling Stone first. I was very lucky that I interned there 20th Anniversary year. There were a lot of extra special issues and I was able to grab on to more things to do because more was going on. I interned, started doing some fact checking, and stayed in touch with some people. When I graduated I showed up one day and there were no jobs. I worked for a little while for a magazine called 7 Days by the people who put out the Village Voice. We won a National Magazine Award and went out of business the same week. It was a great startup weekly, an incredible young staff. At a point seven Editors-In-Chief came out of that staff. After I was there for six or eight months a fact checking job opened up at Rolling Stone and I came back in the beginning of ’89 on staff.
CCB: Is your presence at Bob Dylan’s “no press” rehearsal at Toad’s Place (Connecticut, 1990) your defining music journalist moment?
AL: I don’t know if it’s my defining moment, but it was certainly my shot. That’s the break you wait for. I was always a huge Dylan fan growing up, until this day. I’ve seen him around 65 times. He was playing a club show down the block from where I used to live in New Haven and I pitched it as a Random Note to Rolling Stone. The day of the show he cancelled all press and I thought now I really want to go. My best friend was going ahead of me and I told him, "Take out as much money as you can, buy me tickets, I’ll pay you back but I have to get in." We bought tickets; he goes in ahead of me. I get there with my photographer and they say, “Wait a minute these are fake tickets, I can’t let you in.” So, I went to the pizza place next door where I used to go anyway and saw a guy from the club, called him over. “Look I’m up here from Rolling Stone, here’s my building pass, I’m not faking. Let me in and the club will be in RS, you have to want that.” He wasn’t so sure. I told him, "I’ll be right here having a slice." He walked around, did some stuff, and came back. He dropped two tickets off on the table, didn’t even look at me, and kept walking. There was a whole thing with my photographer, but we get him in. Dylan plays a four hour show, he’s taking requests, he’s playing stuff he hasn’t played for twenty years, and I’m the only press in the room. I go back and it’s not a Random Note, it’s a story. It ended up opening the music section. Jann Wenner (Founder of Rolling Stone) was like, “Who got this? This is great.” That kid in research. “Sign him up. Give him more stuff to do.” That was the thing that got the notice from everybody there for the break. Everybody I know has the same story. You interned, you scrapped, you did whatever you could and then something happened. You hung around long enough to get a break and to deliver something. I’m sure the first draft was terrible, but it was a story when that break came.
CCB: You’ve had many different job titles throughout the years in your various magazine positions. Can you briefly discuss your responsibilities in each?
AL: As a Senior Writer at Rolling Stone because of the stuff that I was doing with hip-hop I was off on my own island, telling editors what we should do and then they would say go do it. I also did a Neil Young cover, I did a U2 cover. That was purely writing. When I left to go work on the Vibe launch as the Music Editor that was the first time I moved into assigning, putting a section together, overseeing the music coverage in the magazine. For the first year there I put together the review section, edited the music stories, and negotiated the covers. I like a lot of that stuff. I go back and forth with that missing the writing and enjoying the organizing and the planning. After about a year at Vibe we made a change where the Editor-In-Chief left and they asked me to move up into that job. I was 27 and I’d never seen a budget before, I’d never managed anything besides my writers. Then I certainly saw that editing a magazine is so much more about being an administrator and a manager than being an editor. It’s about budget, business, planning, and strategy. I always insisted on doing a final top-edit on everything that went into the magazine, but that was more because I liked it and it kept my head in that part of the game than that was essential to the job. I could have not been editing copy at all and running the magazine. There were things about that I liked and things that I didn’t.
Especially at Vibe it was by definition a young staff. We were really developing something. There weren’t a whole lot of places to go find people to write about hip-hop in 1994. We kind of got everybody. It was a lot of hand holding and teaching people about having jobs and deadlines. It was very personal and emotional work and I got exhausted after about four years. We got big enough that we bought Spin. I made up this Editor-At-Large job where I was writing for both and doing some editing for both. I edited a couple of books, the Tupac book, and the Vibe History of Hip-Hop book. I recharged for a little while. Then they wanted to make a change at Spin and asked me if I’d like to take that job over. It seemed an interesting enough challenge that I gave it a shot.
CCB: What was Spin’s claim to fame at that point, what kind of music were they covering?
AL: The thing that is really challenging about Spin to this day is that it’s a magazine that has always been defined by what it isn’t. We’re not Rolling Stone. We don’t do the pop stuff. We are not a hip-hop magazine. For a while in the early ‘90s they were alt-rock. They could do Nirvana before anyone, Pearl Jam. When that moment passed it was always difficult to answer what is this magazine? That was the hardest for me. I think we put out a good magazine in the time that I was there. I was proud about the caliber of writing. I liked the people that I had brought on board. There was a sense every day is this the right magazine? Is this what people want it to be? You never knew. That was the challenge then and Spin is still fighting with it. We were fortunate that it was a boom time in the magazine world then so we didn’t have to worry a lot, but we had to worry some.
I left when my publisher and I had this idea for what became Tracks. Spin and Vibe had been up for sale. We hoped somebody would buy them and we could maybe do other stuff, spin it off. Then that sale didn’t go through. We looked at each other and said if we are more interested in this idea then staying longer here let’s go do it and set out to try and launch a magazine from zero. Do the business plan, do the prototype, raise the money, and make a business. We published for a year and a half and it was frustrating when our backer bailed out on us at I think a silly time to do that. There are things that I learned from that I could not have learned any other way and I have no regrets about doing it or how we went into that project. I’d been a part of the Vibe launch but that was with Time Inc. behind it. That was a certain kind of greenlight. This was can you even get to that greenlight?
CCB: Tracks was supposed to be a magazine for an older audience?
AL: We were looking at a world now where the majority of the music bought was by people over the age of thirty. You have the biggest tours, the bigger artists are older. They just don’t get covered. Norah Jones sold 8, 9, 10 million records and wasn’t on any magazine covers. We were looking at that audience of people who were still engaged, are thirty, still want to be interested but don’t have anything to help them navigate what’s out there. That was what we wanted to try to do. The obvious challenge to that is there are a lot of them out there, they are very diffuse, they have very different levels of engagement with the music, and how do you reach them. It was either going to take some money or it was going to take some time. We didn’t have any money and we didn’t have enough time. We were very upfront with our investor about that but I think after all of our saying we’re going to need you to have a strong stomach to do this, he just didn’t have it.
CCB: Where did the idea for a Beasties book, The Skills To Pay The Bills, come from? Was it something you had been thinking about for awhile?
AL: I wrote my thesis about License To Ill, so it’s always been in there. After I did the Spin cover which was an oral history piece when Hello Nasty came out, that was when I put together the proposal and sold it with the intention of doing it relatively soon. About two months after I sold it they came to me and asked if I wanted to start editing Spin and so if I was going to do that the book had to go on hold. Every once in awhile I’d take it out and poke at it. Then it was now I’m going to launch a magazine, now we have a baby. The first thing when Tracks folded I said I need to sit down for a couple of months and get this thing done. The Beasties make it simple by not doing anything for months at a time. (Smiles) Its five years late, but I didn’t really miss that much. (Laughs) I could pretty easily reconstruct the stuff I didn’t have. Initially I went through phases where I thought it would be more written but in the end it just seemed like the oral history thing. It’s such a great story. We have all the voices of all of the principals who were involved. Why do I want to get in the way? People don’t want to listen to me at that point. Tell the story. There are some reviews that say its just interviews. Well, those were there to be had and it’s a way to do this in real time with no fat on it and maybe just a phase where I’m not that interested in rock-crit speak. In the meantime its twenty years since License To Ill came out, which I just happened to coincide with by pure luck. These guys could be up for the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame next year. It’s time somebody put something out there.
CCB: What do you think it is that gives them that longevity?
AL: I think they are really honest about themselves and what they are interested in and how to put that into what they make. As with any band I think they’ve each found their territory that will keep them engaged working outside of the other two. That’s something that I see over and over again with bands, the ones that stick it out. They have a healthy relationship to the business side. They each have an independence from what happens when they are all together. That’s what has enabled them to maintain their friendships and their own relationships. I think it lets them be true to that when they do sit down and make records.
CCB: What was it like seeing hip-hop coming into its own and evolving while at RS?
AL: Writing about hip-hop when I was doing it, I kind of got the end of this feel, it must have been like writing about bebop in the 40’s or writing about rock ‘n roll in the ‘50s. Where there is just this explosion. You are waiting, next week what’s it going to be? It’s really happening so fast with 3 Feet High and Rising, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Paul’s Boutique all coming out within a few months of each other. This constant sense of people raising the bar, there was going to be a single and it would sound like nothing you’d ever heard before. There was such intensity of energy to it. People were like, “Why were you listening to that?” Well, how could I not! I wasn’t listening to Poison, so much of the rock stuff sucked back then. Hip-hop was going so fast you couldn’t keep up with it.
The other thing I was so fortunate about was that it was like a cottage industry. It was so much smaller. The number of labels, the number of artists, the number of outlets covering it, it wasn’t like there were people lined up waiting to do stories with these guys. When I was writing about these guys in the late 80’s, early 90’s there were so few places writing about them and those that did it was if there was a controversy or saying it was too violent. That somebody would want to come in and talk about music, it was great. It was like come spend a couple of days and hang out. Now you fight for half an hour in a conference room at the label for a cover story. Now there are so many more outlets, everyone wants a piece of these guys. I was so lucky that I was able to have that kind of access.
CCB: Where do you think hip-hop is headed now?
AL: I think it’s going to continue to grow and diversify around the edges while it’s also going to continue to be this monolith in the center. It’s gotten so big and it’s for kids. That’s not a criticism. You do this panel (A discussion on hip-hop at Housing Works) and everybody comes and says it’s not as important as it was, it’s not as powerful, it’s not as good as it used to be. Yet, it can still draw a room full of people who will come and get heated talking about it and still feel that strongly about it thirty years later. That’s pretty amazing that it can still polarize. How it’s been able to maintain that is a real testament to something at the heart of it that is easy to overlook when you say its all glamour and sales. I think Jeff’s point (Journalist Jeff Chang) was really well taken, that we haven’t seen an explosion outside of this country in a way that seems inevitable. In the same way you could also argue that we haven’t seen the takeover by white culture that everyone expects is going to keep coming and it never happens. It’s able to maintain for a number of reasons the fundamental African-American thing that it was built on. On the one hand it has kept the African thing and on the other hand it’s kept the American thing. The point is that it hasn’t broken and the point is that it is all over the place.
When I think of the thirty years that has passed and I think of rock ‘n roll where a generation had come up with it that’s when punk came and said its gotten too far from where it started and it needs to be shook up. What’s going to do that for hip-hop? It’s the dominant music, the dominant culture, the dominant signifier of our time.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a journalist?
AL: I mean the obvious ones are things that sound really corny to say but are true; curiosity, persistence, and discipline. Toure (Another journalist on the panel on hip-hop) is always the great exception to most of the things that I say because I always say you can tell when you look at the interns. The ones who say if I’m going to Xerox I’ll do the best I can. If I’m going to staple I’ll staple right and then they’ll trust me to do something better and that’s how I’ll get other stuff. You can tell the ones who are like I’m not going to staple, alright well then you’re not going to stay in this game. Toure is the exception that proves whatever rule. Every once in awhile these will happen because yes he was every bit as bad an intern as he said. (Smiles) I’m glad he still speaks fondly of me looking out for him at the time. (While both were at RS) Mostly that kind of persistence and once again just hanging in until you get noticed or get your shot or you get better, there’s nothing else that can really replace that.
I’m going to be teaching at Yale in the fall, teaching a seminar about writing for the Performing Arts and so I’m thinking about a lot of this stuff. These are the things that I come back to. You can never read enough. You can never write enough. When people ask for advice you write, you find places to do it, and you do it. You don’t worry about the paycheck at first. You don’t worry about the exposure at first. You say I’m doing this to build a body of work and I’m doing this to see things you learn from seeing your stuff in print that you can’t learn any other way. Now it’s a different world with infinite number of outlets through the web. It’s a different kind of a hustle. Anybody can make their blog, put it up, and have it all there. I think still keeping that sense of discipline and focus are important.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming journalists? You write and amass clips that you send out.
AL: You send them out and you meet people. If you are out and about you see people at shows. It’s a big small town once you are within this community. You come to a panel. None of this stuff is that many million steps away to be able to start to make that contact.
CCB: Do you have any tips for getting better at writing and editing your own work?
AL: I really do believe that there is something different about seeing your work in print than just writing and reading your own stuff. I think there is something from when you see it in front of people that you see it in a different way than if it’s in a journal or in your own exercises.
Editing is a funny craft. For me it’s reading and seeing what works and why it works. Trying to pay attention to how you put stories together. When I was fact checking, to spend a year or two taking stories and pulling them apart, what went into this? Why did he choose these quotes from the transcript? Why did he choose to make this point about this person’s history? Having to reconstruct that out of the raw elements I think was a good experience for me. I don’t know if that universally translates. I think there are a lot of those tools that you try to assemble.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
AL: Right now the most difficult part is trying to hustle while I’m freelancing, trying to see what comes. I’m lucky I know a lot of people. The phone still rings. I’m as busy as I could possibly be but it’s such a different rhythm when you not only have to worry about what you are working on now, but make sure you are still in the loop for what comes after that and that you are still making contacts with everybody. The keeping myself as a business part is more of a scramble right now.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the career so far?
AL: I don’t think anything will ever replicate the launch of Vibe. During the years I edited Vibe we went from a struggling and about to be shut 200,000 circulation magazine to a booming 600,000 and skyrocketing magazine. There were like three years where everything worked. When they asked me to edit Vibe I was given three months, three issues. Cut the budget in half and show visible growth in three issues or we will shut the magazine down. It was so absurd. I’ve never seen a budget, I don’t know how to do that but OK I guess I’ll do the best covers I can. If it doesn’t work, I can’t walk away from it. We pulled that out to a point where everyone was comfortable moving forward and everything started to click. I’m never going to see anything like that again.
CCB: What has surprised you the most about your career?
AL: Moving more into the managing and business side I had no training in that. That was a surprise because I didn’t anticipate that and those things presented themselves. It was like I’ll run with it and see.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
AL: It makes me feel as though there is something that is sort of flawed in what we do because so many times people are like, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” If you said you wrote about movies, everybody knows about movies. Everybody knows about music. You know something about music. You know what you like. Why is there this sort of intimidation factor of, oh that must be too cool? I don’t know why it freaks people out like that. (Laughs)
CCB: How do you think the i-Pod technology has changed the way we listen to music?
AL: I think a world where there is infinite access to infinite music has to be better. It has to be better for the listener. It has to be better for the artist. It isn’t better for the music business executive and that’s why they’ve fought it so hard. The existing models completely break down, distribution, packaging, marketing models. They are gone and they are hanging on to scraps of that as long as they can because it’s the business they know how to do. You can make it as a garage band, in your bedroom. You can post it, it’s up, and it’s out there. How does anybody find out about? That’s the challenge. That’s where myspace (The community web site) has been a truly revolutionary thing. It’s great.
We have to remember that there is nothing sacred about the construct of the album. It’s always changed. When it was on 78’s you could only put three minutes of music on a side so those early Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong records are less than three minutes long. They are no less great, they are no less important. You work with the technology that is in front of you. That’s what it was in that time. Albums, that model, had a long run. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t know if I’m going to subscribe to Jay-Z and every month he’ll send me a song or when he’s got something. Prince has been doing that for a long time and everybody thought he was a kook for ten years. All of a sudden he was ahead of everybody.
We obviously live in a world where the release of the album is the centerpiece for everything else. Nobody is making money off selling albums. You make money because then you can tour. Then you can license it to a soundtrack. All of this I think is only good for musicians. I don’t think the music suffers. I don’t think we have any idea what its going to look like a couple years from now. You know Apple cannot maintain 85% market share forever. They are geniuses because they keep innovating while everyone else stands around looking stupid. They keep that window further and further out because they come up with the next thing before anyone got the last thing. You don’t clown Microsoft forever. At a certain point others are going to get into that game and that market is going to be very different than the monopoly that it is right now that they earned.
CCB: Can you talk about Housing Works (nonprofit) and your involvement there. How can we help this worthy cause?
AL: I used to live around the corner from the store in Soho. (New York) I used to go there and hang out when it opened. A few years ago I was actually writing some stuff for the New Yorker and my editor there, we got to be friendly, and she said, “Do you know the bookstore? I’m on the board and we keep talking about doing something with music and nobody can get it together. Would you like to take a shot at it?” It was trying to launch the magazine, waiting for the baby. I was so crazy anyway, what the hell. I started calling up people seeing if they would come play a show for a good cause. What we quickly discovered was it’s a great room for it. It sounds good, people like playing there. If we deal with it as a real gig this works. That was 3 ½ years ago and I’ve put 125 different artists on that stage through The Live From Home series and we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Housing Works is the largest minority owned A.I.D.S. service provider. We offer shelter, medical services, job training, and legal advocacy for homeless people living with A.I.D.S. in New York City through a variety of entrepreneurial ventures. There are different thrift stores, furniture stores, and the bookstore is one of them. I got so involved with the bookstore through the day to day of doing the series that I joined the board and am now the Co-Chairman of The Board. It’s incredibly rewarding to take fifteen years of my contacts and people that I’ve worked with and be able to use that to do something like this and be involved with a cause that is so astonishingly amazing for the work that they do.
*Find out how you can help this worthy cause: housingworks.org *
CCB: What do you having coming up career-wise?
AL: I’m going to be teaching at Yale in the fall, doing the seminar. I’m working on this Rolling Stone 1000 issue special project that I’m deeply buried in right now. Then I’m going to be doing this book catalogue thing with an instrument company, they are my title sponsor for my music series. I did this Chili Peppers cover for Spin that is about to come out in a couple of weeks and still some more stuff for the New York Times and just grinding. Trying to see what is going to come. Then I’m consulting with this company that does boutique concert and production stuff, trying to put music in front of different audiences. I have different layers of things going on right now.
CCB: What are you listening to right now?
AL: So much of the stuff is skewed by what I am working on. I’m listening to the Chili Peppers which is really good for that story. Laugh at me at your own risk because I just did a thing with the Dixie Chicks. Rick Rubin did the record and it’s fantastic. I think they are really good anyway, but I think the record is great. Then because of this Rolling Stone thing I was writing about a Bruce Springsteen cover that came out when The River came out so I was listening to that. I was writing about the Janet Jackson cover so I was listening to the Janet record. I was reading Toure’s book after the panel and it sent me back to D’Angelo’s Voodoo record so I’ve been listening to that. It’s been a lot of going back to stuff lately because of that which is great. But in terms of out right this second I’m looking for more stuff to be excited about. (Smiles)
*You can find his book The Skills To Pay The Bills in a bookstore near you.*