Interview with Tom Johnson founder of our new favourite music magazine GoldFlakePaint.
So, tell us how GoldFlakePaint started? We understand it was a music blog for quite a few years before becoming a print mag and we feel totally ignorant that we never came across it until this point as so many people clearly have come across and been reading it for a long time.
It was, and I suppose is still, a music blog. We’ve always been relatively niche, but we’ve built a nice community in one corner of the internet/music world. I started the site back in 2010 for a lack of anything else to do. I didn’t have any background/experience, I’d never written anything before, and I didn’t really have any expectations for it. Music was just about the only passion I had in an existence that was quietly fading away. So, me and a friend (who was hoping to become a website designer) jumped into it just to see what might happen if we made a website and filled it with nice things. Over nine years later, and many miles from where we started, it’s still going, which is somewhat mind-blowing when I stop and consider that fact. It’s always been a small team, with me as a constant, and other writers and helpers drifting in and out. The blog really stepped up a gear when I moved to Bristol and my great friend Sammy started helping me out more permanently. We were able to really push the blog forwards and reach more people than we ever imagined we could do, while also doing other fun things like starting a label, putting on events, etc etc. Then I moved to Scotland and made a home for it, and me, here. We re-shifted the focus last year and transitioned to print, mostly because it felt like the right time to try and do something I’d always wanted to do. I think we were always more of a long-form publication than a snappy blog anyway, so it made sense. We’re still a small team; Sammy is still helping me, and my partner Hannah also edits the journal and looks after our great team of writers who make it all possible.
What influenced the name GoldFlakePaint? Is it a reference to an obscure album track that we're going to have to go and find out about or something else?
There wasn’t much of a plan when starting the site, so me and Dave (my friend who built the site) got a couple of friends together in a Sainsbury’s cafe during a lunch break of the job I was working at the time and we said “We're going to start a music blog if any of you want to help out?”. That was the official start of something happening, I guess: some pea soup, a bread roll, and just enough creative spark to start a new chapter. That night I went home, drank a bottle of wine, played a bunch of my favourite records and wrote down any combination of words that jumped out from the speakers. “Gold Flake Paint” is a lyric from an Elliott Smith song and I think I knew immediately that it was my first choice. I’m still not sure if it’s a good name (we get lots of paint-related spam) but I never expected anyone to pay any attention to what we’re doing so I really didn’t think that it mattered all that much. Elliott’s music always has and always will mean so much to me on a personal level though so it’s nice to be loosely attached to his work in a way I sometimes remember to remember.
So now you're an actual physical print mag in a world that isn't particularly set up for running what might be thought of as viable print mags. The last time we had anything to do with selling any magazine advertising, even back in the early 2000s, it was hard, and now the giant corporate Googles and Facebooks have even gobbled up all the internet advertising, so we have to ask – how are you managing to get it out there at such a reasonable price? We note there are a few ads. Did you have to think hard about what would work prior to releasing as a print mag?
It was a total leap of faith. I had no experience of how things might work until doing it. We’re completely independent and I’d also spent the best part of a decade trying to run a blog full-time, so I had no savings or funds to dip into for security. But I did know that people seemed to like what we do and so we had an existing audience that seemed sincerely interested in what we might do next. I backed myself, and the people around me, to make something really nice and worthwhile. So I pinned all my hopes on these few straggly beliefs and hoped they would come together to make something far sturdier. When we had a firm plan in place, I reached out to a few record labels that we’ve worked with over the years and asked them if they’d like to buy an advert to help us raise the funds to make a magazine and thankfully most of them said yes. I’m not much of a salesperson so I had to rely on a lot of goodwill but luckily there are still a few wonderful people left in this funny ol’ industry who still value the kind of community and support we now rely on.
When launching I still had no idea how many copies to make, how many we might be able sell. So, we launched a pre-order that ran for a few weeks and then essentially printed up just enough copies to fulfil that batch of sales. That was kind of a test-run of sorts to give us some idea of our audience. This also gave us a platform to work from when it came to planning the four-issue run that we’re committed to doing throughout 2019.
I guess the short answer would be that we know this is a very niche thing, and we know that people paying for anything music-related is becoming less and less realistic, but we really believe in what we’re doing and I think making small incremental steps, and living within our means, is probably the best path towards some kind of longevity, if such a thing exists anymore!
Let's talk about the GoldFlakePaint's ethos. In an era where music criticism/journalism can occasionally feel reduced to the copying and pasting of press releases, your mag doesn't feel like that at all. How did that evolve?
A lot of it came from actually charging money for something. I didn’t want a single person to buy the magazine and feel like they’d been ripped off. It couldn’t just be the blog on paper, it had to be more than that, bigger than that. But as an overall ethos for our content I think that evolved both very early on and very naturally. By which I mean that I never sat down and thought GFP had to be some kind of champion for the written word or independent thought, but this thing I’ve made absolutely was/is an outlet for my funny and deep passion for music and ~ what it all means to me. The site naturally became a place where those feelings could be explored and shared and, over time, for other people too. That’s the kind of writing that I’ve always wanted to read and spend my time with, and I think it’s what’s helped establish our voice over the years. It’s for those reasons that we’ve never done news pieces, for example, when that is the way that most other sites generate the majority of clicks. I have zero interest in spending my time regurgitating a press-release in the hope that it brings a few hundred people into clicking through to our site. It’s absolutely fine for those kinds of sites to exist, of course, but I would always rather channel my time and energy into trying to find something new to love and share with just a handful of people. It’s that connection between ourselves, the music, and the listener that has always been the lifeblood of the site, I think, and the idea that we can make a small change to someone’s day with a new song/album/artist recommendation is a really humbling and unique experience - and not one that you tend to find in a news article or press release.
In many ways GFP reminds us of Chickfactor which was, to some extent still is actually, as it still gets the odd issue out, one of our favourite music mags of all time. Chickfactor's peak years were during what some academic bod, I can't remember who, once called the Age of the Indies in the 1990s and whilst they obviously were/are totally independent and not tied to any particular label or anything they seemed to be supported by, and supportive of, the many indie labels that had only just come into being at that point in America and the UK, labels like Merge and Subpop and other labels that dated further back like K Records and Dischord. The style of Chickfactor was very intimate and all about enthusiasm about the music of bands that sometimes weren't that well known at all but who were brought to early attention by appearing in Chickfactor. This was all done with passion and not at all in that kind of coldly calculated way that happens when the industry exercises what's left of their machinery to promote bands/artists. It was a simple strategy really – kind of like 'I want to write about this band and this music and to relay my excitement about this music, so I will'. Do you see any parallels there and what influences went into the GFP idea of how to write about music? Any previous magazines or other influences?
I’m not aware of Chickfactor but I definitely see parallels based on what you describe. We’re definitely a warm body that lies somewhere within a landscape of independent labels/PRs/writers/promoters/other blogs and publications, etc. We reach outside of that community too but there’s definitely a cluster of us that work together, support each other, and try and hold each other up, in the same way as those early 90s indies. It probably feels more disparate because of the internet age, which has mostly replaced tangible scenes, but it absolutely still exists.
I grew up in a rural area that didn’t have a music scene, nor a single venue. I didn’t know what a zine was when I was growing up; I watched Top Of The Pops and taped the chart show. Music was my escape from a number of difficult things that I grew up with though so eventually I found ways of exploring its more hidden corners, especially as my own view of the world changed and grew as I did. The arrival of – the internet – at just the right age did wonders in that regard, opening up things in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.
I think it would be very fair to say that GFP is a channel for the enthusiasm of our writers rather than a critical platform. We’ve taken our own criticism for that over the years, from other sites who I won’t name, who think that blogs that only champion things are somehow dishonest – which is nonsense. We only write positive features because we exist only to share the things we like. It’s not like we’re sat here writing nice things about records we actually think are shite. We’re just saving the small space we have to say “Hey, here’s something that made this forsaken world feel a little lighter for three-and-a-half minutes.” Quite why anyone wants to spend a few weeks writing about something they actively dislike is beyond me. I’ve never understood who’s supposed to benefit from that. Also, I can’t play an instrument very well and I certainly can’t write a song so who am I to tell someone else that they’re doing it wrong? It’s bizarre. So, all I can do is relay my emotional response to something and that’s the way we will always operate. It doesn’t mean that we’re proclaiming every new band we write about to be better than Prince. We also like hearing the stories behind the music, so we mostly centre the magazine around conversations with artists, finding out how they work, the things that move them. It’s not all happy-clappy.
Although you started out writing the majority of the pieces for GFP alone, we can see from the latest issue that there are quite a few voices in the mix now. What do you think the other writers have brought to the mag as it has evolved (whether online or off)? Of course, I image you're all very different people but is there a kind of identifiable GoldFlakePaint sensibility?
I always thought the most rewarding aspect of GFP would be seeing my own name on a printed magazine but honestly, it’s been seeing what it means to the other writers involved. My partner Hannah edits the magazine alongside Sammy (who’s been a part of GFP for a few years) and they’ve been amazing at creating a really positive space for new, often young, often non-cis-male, writers. As with all avenues of life there are way too many white men with beards and an opinion spread across the music industry, and all the most interesting and important voices get buried beneath that. I think that outlook has had a huge effect (for the much-much-better) on the journal and I’m so proud of the work that other people have turned in for us. We try and save space for at least three or four personal essays in each journal, and the topics we’ve touched upon so far have covered disabled access at venues, lone women attending gigs, climate change, grief, depression, and much more. I think that side of things shapes the magazine immensely for the better and raises the bar for everything else around it.
Nobody needs or wants 130 pages of my own personal diary. I actually found a nasty subtweet about us earlier this year which essentially asked why you would support GFP when all we ever wrote about was some guy from The National whose music sounded like “dew rising from an autumn field”. As well as being an almighty sick burn (for all of his three followers to read - zing!) it also might have been somewhat true in the distant past but it’s absolutely not what we exist as – and for – anymore.
In terms of a sensibility, the only thing we say to our writers is to always try and deliver the work in their own voice – and to write as much or as little as they want. We try not to shackle them at all, we try not to restrict them behind guidelines. We want them to be as personable and as free as they feel comfortable being, and to learn to trust their voice rather than trying to fit in with what they think a music review should be like – which I think is main the problem for a lot of up-and-coming writers.
We often wonder about the prevalence of heritage culture in music journalism these days. We asked this same question in an interview the other day, but there are times when the covers of Mojo or Uncut can seem to be set in an endless 1968 at the time of this classic album or that classic album and that all seems a bit formulaic. On the other hand reissue labels such as Ace Records and lots of others bring some interesting music to light, music that was overlooked at the time of its original release, and this something that happens on the internet too, I guess. Will GoldFlakePaint review reissues or are you mostly interested in new music? Sometimes new music can feel pushed out by the largest of the music corporations who can sit back and stream their back-catalogues, GoldFlakePaint seems to be very much into pushing new music, if not always only new bands.
We’re definitely not averse to covering old(er) records as long as they still make sense within this little world of ours that we’ve created. The online side of GFP has often done retrospective pieces and we’ve ear-marked a few things for the magazine that have thus far been pushed aside. I think it’d be odd if we suddenly started ranking Neil Young albums, but I think good music writing is good music writing, so it’s always on the table. There are also more established artists that we’ve been covering since we first started out which certainly wouldn’t be classed as “new music” - bands such as The Twilight Sad, The National, Wilco, and so on. The Mojo crew.
I think we’re very keen to balance the more established acts that make-up the cover and lead features, with lesser-known artists who don’t get that kind of space elsewhere. I mean, there literally isn’t a rule which states that because an artist is more widely known their art is better or more important. There are so many barriers that can prevent certain work and artists from floating to the surface, so we always want to dedicate time to diving into the depths and seeking them out, rather than only covering work that’s handed to us on a platter.
Perhaps relating to the last question, Bandcamp seems a positive thing and a bit of a corrective to a lack of focus on new bands. That said, it can seem difficult to parse sometimes because there is so much music out there to discover. Without restoring the kind of gatekeeping that beset earlier generations of music journalism, do you think it's important for there to be a filter, a way of helping to focus and to contextualize the music that is out there and would you see GoldFlakePaint as that kind of filter?
I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a filter, but I think that lots of people are grateful for a music source that they trust, simply because of the sheer volume of releases that now exist. I’ve never really thought of us as that, and I don’t think we strive to be such a thing, but it was recently pointed out that we are such a thing just by our very nature.
An ethos I always tried to stick to on the blog was that any of our followers could click any blog post from the past nine years and the music within would still hold some value, regardless of how much they knew about the artist(s) involved. I guess that’s shaped our focus somewhat and is something we’ve carried forward into the journal. They arrive with the seasons, but they’re not tied to them, and I hope they’re as relevant now as they will be in years down the line.
I like the idea of GFP acting as a focus-point. I would hope that one person at one time has thought “I quite fancy listening to something soft and sad and quiet…let’s see what GoldFlakePaint have shared recently!”. It’s true to say that we’re just as overwhelmed by the amount of new releases as anyone else, perhaps even more so from this side of the court, and I hope we can help to slow things down somewhat, to make a nice quiet nook in the internet where you can sit a while and really indulge in listening/reading/understanding something.
On the design of the mag (we love the abstraction of the logo design by the way) is the design of the magazine important to you? The magazine isn't full-colour but it seems all the better for it and, at least in the issue that we have, contains some great black and white photography. Plus the occasional violet two-colour tint on some of the pages goes a long way. Do you have a hand in that, or do you have a particular GoldFlakePaint regular designer who works on it?
The journal is designed by our in-house designer Tom Rogers who does an amazing job from the middle of the whirlwind that we throw him into four times a year…
The design is incredibly important to us. I always wanted the journal to be an extension of the platform we’d created online, and I really think it succeeds in that regard. We push the boundaries when we feel it necessary and we also think a lot about space and shade, dark and light. There is a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of back and forth between us and Tom, to get the right feel for the particular piece, and that also applies to the photography we use and the pull quotes, etc. We want people to lose themselves in the magazine for days/weeks/months and I think the design plays a huge role in setting the tone.
The idea of using black-and-white plus one colour was something I came up with during the planning of Issue One and after seeing the cost of printing in full colour. I really loved the idea of just an occasional pop of colour, and with the journal being seasonal it seemed like a really nice idea to have each issue somewhat defined by the colour it came attached to.
Clearly EVERYBODY should go and buy and support GFP by purchasing the new issue and whilst you're waiting for it to arrive catch up with previous articles and interviews at https://www.goldflakepaint.co.uk.