In the first of our series of interviews with editors, John Mulvey, boss of MOJO magazine, talks to Laura Phillips about music journalism myths, guest-list privileges and meeting his hero, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys
How has the industry changed since you started out?
It would be disingenuous to say it was easy when I did it, but it was certainly a lot easier to make a living in journalism in 1990 than it is in 2020. I’m a decent writer, kind of well organised and pragmatic about editorial decisions, but I’m also conscious that cards fell in a very sort of serendipitous way for me. I wanted to do English at Oxford then do postgrad journalism at City University, then work for the NME, and with uncommon good fortune I achieved all of that.
When I arrived as a journalist, there was a lot of mythologising, or self-mythologising rather, around music journalism as this gonzoid pursuit in which the protagonist should be as rock’n’roll as the subjects; the writer should be as wild and unpredictable as the musicians. For some people that works, and that attitude has produced some great music journalism over the years, but it’s not fail-safe, it doesn’t always make for the greatest work when the journalist is coquetted in the same kind of behavioural patterns as the artist.
What’s the best thing about being a music magazine editor?
It’s nice to be able to hear music months before it comes out, I’m sat here listening to music that’s coming out in June that I’m excited about now. Or if I want to go and see a bands sold-out show tonight, I can just call up and get on the guestlist.
And the worst?
There are frustrations, the distribution problems, interviews or stories fall through last-minute, or record releases change and a feature has to be pushed back. It’s all prosaic moving stuff around, practical jigsaws. Periods of less clarity frustrate me. I like to be organised, but sometimes the vagaries of the music industry mean that that’s not always possible.
Got any predictions for industry trends over the next five years?
I think it’s going to carry on being tough, but my prediction is to make magazines nice, make magazines collectable and worth keeping. See them in our sector as luxury objects, premium products. I always use the analogy with the music media as parallel to what’s happened to the music itself. The music market now exists predominantly through streaming services or you pay for vinyl editions or box sets. The middle ground of buying relatively cheap CDs or downloads has kind of fallen out, so basically, you’re either getting music for free or spending upwards of £20 on it. The correlation with the music media is clear: people either get music news for free online or they pay a reasonable amount of money to get a beautifully rendered magazine like MOJO. The weekly music press like the NME and the paid for relatively cheap music press, stuff that you chuck away, that doesn’t exist anymore.
How is MOJO adapting to the challenges of digital journalism?
Digital editions help us access markets where our magazine isn’t available. Getting to every potential MOJO reader is quite tough, so having editions available digitally is helpful. We still see ourselves as print-facing because we have a dedicated audience that are connected to print. I’m confident that our print product is still special and important, but it would be very short-sighted to ignore the potential of expanding our reach network that works with digital.
What content works best for MOJO?
Our readers appreciate a proper interesting mix of stuff. While they still care about The Beatles, they’re interested in new music like Aldous Harding or Big Thief. It’s nice when I’m editing the letters page and find quite a visceral response from older readers after we’ve mentioned a gig that happened in 1968 at a university, and they have really warm anecdotes about what formative experiences those shows have been in their lives.
If you started your own zine, what would it be about?
On one level I’d like to write a fanzine about improvised music in the interzone between jazz and rock and various other things (that’s the kind of stuff I play when I’m chilling out at the weekend), but I haven’t got much of an appetite to do that because I think it’s more exciting and interesting to fold that into a magazine that has Joy Division, Liam Gallagher or Jimi Hendrix on the cover.
If you could interview any musician, alive or dead, who would it be?
I became deputy editor at NME in 1993 and since then held senior staff roles, so I’ve always been more of an editor than I have been an interviewer. In 1995 I went to Brian Wilson’s home in Los Angeles. After I’d done that I said, “that’s my retirement job.” I was never going to get a better interview with a bigger hero than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys.
The one person I always wanted to interview and regret never doing so, was Lenny Cohen. Alongside loving his music, I’ve always been seduced by his sentence construction; whenever I read or saw an interview, he has the most elegant way of composing a response in real-time. It’s probably a reporter’s pragmatism in that the act of transcribing Leonard Cohen would probably be infinitely easier than transcribing anyone else.