In 1993 my brother Rohan asked me if I'd sell some ads into his soon-to-be-launched Club Scene Magazine. He nicked off early in the piece and I’m still here.
Truth be told we didn't even know the recently emerged phenomenon that was street press existed — and the unkind would say that nothing much has changed! In those 20 years, we've had some notable achievements of which I, and others, are rightfully proud.
Those early editions were ground out of a residence in Bardon and pretty well my only memories are of my Nokia brick — the size of a lunch box and the battery life of an ad break; and our first record company ad: Polydor's Jam and Spoon.
As the name suggested, Club Scene Magazine was aimed primarily at the clubbing reader — and that suited us fine as Brisbane already had two rock-centric street mags and so began our long association with electronic music.
Very early advertisers included Club LQ, Mary Street, Transformers, City Rowers — all of which have passed into Brisbane lore; but lid-dipping honours must surely go to The Zoo, Casablanca, The Beat and Q Masters: all early advertisers, all still operating and all still under the same ownership. Bravo!
With the explosion of the dance phenomenon, and the rock bases loaded by Rave and Time Off, we embraced 'the scene' with a passion. Rave culture's colour, energy and emerging status made for a serendipitous match for a newly-hatched music mag, published in full colour and gloss (from issue 15) — our counterparts were wall-to-wall newsprint, no gloss jackets for them in those days.
WE PROBABLY NEED AN EDITOR
We didn't get our first editor until 1994 when Neil Richards, who'd been our senior contributor, agreed to take the plunge. Neil's R&B/ soul predilection complemented our non-rawk leanings well, but like those who followed him, his genre versatility allowed Scene Mag to play any position; for instance consecutive covers in January 1994 were Carl Cox, Kim Wilde, Peter Gabriel, Baby Animals, d.i.g. and East 17.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better first-up editor. Neil was passionate about his music, had good commercial nous, was well respected, loyal and dependable in what were often choppy waters. It’s why I went looking for him when we launched in Melbourne a decade later.
The first year moved very quickly. Within months we'd found a new home at 17A Skyring Terrace, Newstead (building next to the Newstead ferry terminal) with Darren Clark’s Shawthing Entertainment and Suzanne Snape’s The PR Company.
And it was also time for a format change. Advertisers liked the editorial offering but demanded higher circulation. Today's processes allow us to print a high volume of gloss magazines, but not in 1994, so the decision was made to go to the darkside — newsprint. What emerged: a square tabloid newspaper (bigger than A4 and smaller than A3), was what I termed awful while Jenny Juckel, DJ and Scene Mag writer, refers to as 'the awkward time'. Perhaps inevitably, within a few months we succumbed to the inevitable full tabloid format.
In November 1996, when Scene Magazine was exactly three years old, we opened Café Scene on the corner of Brunswick and Ann Streets, where Universal Clothing stands today. It was a not-insignificant operation — trading 24/7 on one of Brisbane's busiest street corners. Café Scene was a bohemian affair that featured an internet cafe component, gig ticket sales (they weren't always sold online!), cable TV (which had only launched in Australia the previous year), a boutique staged area for showcase performances and topped off with full size enclosed, illuminated window displays to the street to promote album launches and gigs. It was loads of fun. Chess (one of my mistresses), pancakes and double strength flat whites around the clock. On tap!
There were sleeping quarters (of sorts) in an alcove above the café and it was there I awoke one morning to the news of Princess Diana's death. At 5am one weekend, we blacked out the windows and hosted a System 6 recovery. We had some serious speakers at the time and it did go off — no doubt much to the confusion of the early morning commuters.
Café Scene is also where I met my wife, Renée — kind of. To service the backpacker/ internet café market, the staff needed to understand ‘chat’ — a precursor to today's social media. The short story is that having signed-up an account on some random chat server to train the staff, I met Renée. And a good job it was too‚ her catering background improved the gastronomic fare 100-fold!
PAT WHYTE AND ENSEMBLE
It was also at Café Scene where Pat Whyte, qualified journalist, had taken a job, so when Neil Richards moved on to pursue his own business career, Pat was in the box seat for the big chair back at the mag. He stayed for a decade and probably played a more significant role than any other staffer in shaping the company’s flagship offering.
A gentleman, confidant, a talented writer and universally well respected. As a bonus, he happened to be an excellent editor (he’s an editor with News Ltd these days) who grew the editorial direction of Scene Mag every which way: metal, roots, jazz, dining, travel, tech, fashion, cyber news as well as holding the line on our EDM base.
Editorial and cultural standards have never been higher than under his purview. During the late ’90s and early ’00s, we were fortunate to have landed some excellent sales personnel: Roger Wheelahan, Karen Sellers, Shane Turner, Colleen Ginty, Coreena Duncan and Mark Strugar in particular. I'd like to thank them for their loyalty and their contribution to the cultural growth of the company. The article does not permit proper acknowledgement of the services of Anita Caruso, Jeff Polley, Marc Grimwade, Wade Roberts, Mikolai Napieralski, Michelle Brown, Alex Roche and my two PAs Rebecca Barnes and Jess Goddard. Probably boring as batshit for readers as well!
WE'RE A BIT DIFFERENT
We do quite a few things differently from industry norms, one of which is not having an ad sales commission scheme. I was once told that a commission sale is a dirty sale, and while I'm not sure that's necessarily correct, I'm proud that for 20 years we've paid our advertising staff a salary so they've never wondered what their pay would look like, even during the most challenging trading conditions. There's also the benefit of what they say and write being less strained because their next meal or pair of jeans doesn't hinge on the outcome of any given sale. I don't want to disparage the commission schemes that exist throughout the media — I'm certain there are some excellent ones and excellent people, but this is how we operate — and it has served us well.
In 1998, the lease at Entertainment Place was up and we needed a new home. We found great digs at 192 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley (between the The Arena (then The Roxy) and St. Vinnies) and we've been there ever since. Three metres and a concrete wall separate us from the main room next door so many a Friday afternoon soundcheck was a challenge, especially in days when people used telephones to conduct business. T.e.l.e.p.h.o.n.e. — look it up!
On the topic of technology, it's worth noting that Scene Magazine didn't operate its first e-mail account until 1999 — especially odd since we’d been at the pioneering end of the internet café industry three years earlier. Record labels and promoters couriered their artist pictures to us. We'd then print each page of the magazine on an A3 laser printer and drive that artwork to the printing presses. Then the world got really advanced and we all drove around with zip and jazz drives. Zip drives — look it up!
It's in the production arena that Scene Mag's longest-serving staffer (11 years), Patrick Herlihy, gets special mention. Pat, with serious goth tendencies, was both a talent and a stalwart, well-known and regarded by a couple of generations of advertisers. Pat's technique and speed were second to none and we were very lucky to have his services. Even The Gorillaz thought so: they selected his Scene Mag cover for inclusion in one of their artwork showcase publications. Top right cover of this page.
AND THAT’S HOW THE FIGHT STARTED ...
Scene Mag wasn’t CAB audited. I had a number of misgivings with the process and believed it was subject to publisher manipulation. I still hold that opinion, although I don’t say that all publishers do so. In 2000 I became aware that Time Off had, at least on occasion, printed some thousands of copies fewer than their stated CAB audit on that same edition’s front cover. I published a full page ad blowing the whole shooting match sky high. Very public. Very full page.
They weren't pleased, and nor were the audit people. They both sent me the sternest letters from their legal people and I told them all to sod off — and they did. We never heard from them again — and the allegation was just left hanging out there like a big, dirty lurgy. Over the years I have run various parodies of the audit process, all resulting in the same letters, all resulting in the same response.
It was around this time that Scene Magazine moved into the number one spot in the market. More pages. More colour. More ads. Market positions invariably ebb and flow due to a variety of factors, but this was significant because it was the first time Scene Mag had reached the mark having been the last title to enter the (saturated?) Queensland street press market. We were assisted by the burgeoning club market, but I believe we were progressive in most facets of our business and we had earned our success.
Issue 457 (8th October, 2002) heralded the advent of a gloss cover — the first in Queensland — and we remained alone in that claim for many years. Our website resided at the sceneonline.com.au domain on account of a grubby cybersquatter at scenemagazine.com.au. He eventually got bored doing nothing and vacated around 2007.
It was at this time of high growth that thoughts of expansion developed, and it was a toss-up between Perth (which was a one-paper city) or Melbourne, the heartland of street press and what was certainly then, the music capital of Australia.
We launched Scene Magazine in Melbourne on 30th April, 2003 with a very good offering. Although the Brisbane edition had expanded into the rock arena, we pitched Melbourne as 'dedicated to dance'. 'Beat' and 'Inpress', the incumbents, were running the same format as 'Rave' and 'Time Off' in Queensland: rock out front with a club supplement.
We started hard with a gloss cover and eight pages of full colour gloss in the middle — more than our rivals, with one of them still entirely in newsprint. I'd been told, upon news of our imminent launch, one of the southern publishers (I won’t divulge which) interrupted their own rivalry to approach the other to explore Scene Mag shutout tactics. Ten years later and we’re allied with one of those publishers — I must get around to asking whether the story was apocryphal!
We enjoyed immediate support from a number of national advertisers and steadily grew the business. Record labels were booking into both titles, EDM retailers such as Central Station Records, DMC and others were supportive, and Melbourne clubs to varying degrees were warming to the whole 'dedicated to dance' offering. At the time, there were more copies of Scene Mag on the streets of Australia than any other title.
By Christmas of 2003, it was apparent it was going to be a pitch battle. Inpress had discovered gloss stock in a hurry and Beat had thrown out its entire club offering which had served it well enough for a decade and rebranded as 100%, supported with a sizeable street poster campaign. And who could blame them — one might think the outfit from Brisbane was showing them up!
Three days before Christmas 2003 (on production day in both cities), my first first son, Andrew was born ten weeks prematurely. In the second week of January, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
We hadn’t yet made any money in Melbourne. In fact we’d invested a heap establishing the Scene brand, but with the two giants finally awake and reacting like they should, all considered, the decision was made to bid a retreat back to Brisbane, where business had never been stronger. And so on 24th March, 2004, after exactly one year of publishing Scene Magazine we withdrew from market — with a promise we'd be back!
Melbourne is a beautiful city, I could easily live there — I met some terrific people with whom I still stay in touch. 2003/ 04 holds some of my fondest publishing memories.
IT'S STREET PRESS, BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
The next significant milestone was another change of format. The emergence of the festival scene, the change of millennium and advances in printing technologies, allowed us to ditch the newsprint in favour of a return to A4 — but this time, it was gloss throughout, colour on every page — a format still unmatched anywhere in the country. Our page count, staffing and circulation increased dramatically.
We released the digital flipbook edition of the magazine, available to read online on the day of publication. Certainly no big deal now, but another national first-to-market for Team Scene.
Street press was at its zenith in 2007, but some publishers had surely missed the memo regarding the forthcoming decline of print — Murdoch and other illuminati had been warning us all for some years. In 2007 a competitor press title was purchased for a million dollars. You read that right — in my opinion, that’s what the Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels writers woud call the mother of all something or other. I believe the previous owners still pinch themselves every morning and twice on Sundays. The industry had peaked.
By 2010, we too were experiencing easing print sales and in response launched Junior — a national A5 title, which I'm convinced that in any other era would have worked well — a single title, catering to every state, in a handy dandy format. We signed Molly Meldrum to write a monthly column and covered all genres of music plus requisite fashion and tech.
Junior was CAB audited at over 80,000 copies per issue (no fiddling!), making it Australia's highest circuiting street press — another achievement for Team Scene.
But Junior, too, was put on hold when in 2011/ 2012 titles around us started to fold very quickly. Our company was restructured and the industry lost 3DWorld (it too had recently been purchased at the height of the silly season), Tsunami, MAG, Rave Magazine, Tsunami (Sunshine Coast) and Sauce (Tasmania). My turn-of-the-millenium prediction that by 2010, street press would rationalise to two competitors proved correct. Today, there are two groups in street press, each with a title in each capital city — we are part of the National Street Press (NSP).
In the last six months, Rupert Murdoch's City News and The Independent have ceased publication while just recently, Triple J announced it would cease printing its monthly magazine at the end of this year.
The Scene brand is very much alive and well. With the rationalisation of the print market, we have experienced a significant resurgence of late. Online, Scene Magazine is now the only QLD street press to have a locally-produced website site and continues to grow its audience. We also publish three other sites with no print driving to them, such as scenestr.
I have no idea what the next 20 years hold — but I can tell you for certain, there won’t be another 1,000 Scene Magazines! While the milestone is a rare beast, it is rarer still that the founding publisher is still at the helm.
I have enjoyed much of the journey. For the parts I haven’t enjoyed so much, I’ve been most fortunate to have been surrounded by very good people — staff and family. Thank you to Renée, my beautiful wife and to my parents, who this week trump my 1,000 issues with their 50th wedding anniversary.