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Jun 2003 / media shoegaze :: email this story to a friend

Playback St. Louis: The Birth of a Monster
By Laura Hamlett

A few months ago, a local singer hooked us up with a new writer. "She's an old family friend," he explained. "Writes for the newspaper. I think she eventually wants to do what you do."

"What's that?" I asked. "Run a magazine with no income and no free time?"

Sure, I was kidding — but only partially. Seriously...why would anyone want start a local arts and entertainment magazine with no corporate backing, no promise of a salary or benefits, and no job security?

Playback St. Louis We had put the first issue out on the streets — Playback St. Louis debuted in April of 2002 — before we realized what we'd done, my husband and I. "You know that dream we'd had, the one where we quit the day jobs, and you did graphic design and I did writing and we made a living out of it?" That one. We still had our day jobs and we certainly weren't making a living off of the magazine — but we'd just taken the first step.

But that's not why we started Playback St. Louis, at least not consciously. Really, there was a myriad of reasons. For starters, St. Louis was crying out for someone to support its local scene, to provide positive feedback and encouragement to a scene that offers great promise and the potential of growth. Add to that the fact that we're lifelong music lovers, Jim and I; our tastes vary wide of the mainstream and, quite frankly, we wanted to share what moves us in hopes that it will move someone else, too.

Finally, we just needed an outlet. The free monthly we'd both written for had dried up and we — foolishly, naively — thought, How hard can it be?

The answer: not very, and ridiculously so.

Like I said, we'd put out an entire issue before realizing how deep were the waters into which we'd just jumped. Before we knew it, we were adding writers and pages and advertisers and circulation and distribution sites. Every new media contact we'd made felt like a new friend, every package in the P.O. box a little taste of Christmas. It was exhilarating, it was heady; we felt so accomplished. We were publishers; we had made a name for ourselves!

And then, seemingly overnight, the jig was up; the Playback St. Louis name had become known, and not just around town. We were suddenly bombarded with self-released demos and press kits, e-mails and Web site links, more CDs and information than we could personally listen to and absorb. We had record labels calling us, asking us to cover this concert or that new release. We needed help.

It's taken some getting used to, but we're learning — gradually — to prioritize, to delegate. We've just brought on our first college intern, and hope to be adding another one before summer's out. We're learning to ask for help — and then accepting the help when it's offered.

In the beginning, everything was so loose. We had a small group of writers, whom we basically sat down every month and asked, "What do you want to write about?" We offered no pay to our contributors, but did our best to get them onto guest lists for concerts or to procure press copies of CDs for review. Basically, anything they wanted to write made it into print; we reserved the right to edit, of course, but we got amazingly lucky; somehow, we've managed to attract a talented and versatile bunch of people.

With the May 2003 issue, we finally began to offer small compensation for their efforts. We've had to make some rules, though; for example, we can only accommodate X number of CD reviews and Y amount of live shows, meaning we have to set limits on our writers' wish lists. Contributors are asked to follow a set of guidelines, including word count, accepted file format, and copy deadlines. We've also instituted new writer procedures — two writing samples followed by two Web-only pieces, after which you'll be evaluated for print.

Basically, it's a lot like having children: We're still quite in debt, and we still don't know what it's like to have an evening or a weekend to ourselves. But we're so proud of our creation as we watch it go out and stake its claim on St. Louis and the world beyond.

Laura Hamlett is the managing editor of Playback St. Louis, a monthly arts and entertainment magazine she founded with her husband and co-publisher, Jim Dunn. Available in nearly 300 locations throughout the metro St. Louis area and beyond, Playback celebrated its first anniversary in April. The magazine is also available online at

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