June 04, 2015
No one ever hatched a grand scheme for Exclaim! Magazine to become Canada’s foremost music authority. There was never a long-term business plan for the publication to outlive all other nationally-distributed music magazines. But 23 years after the first issue of Exclaim! Magazine hit the free distribution circuit in Toronto, the fledgling publication remains as a firmly established cornerstone of music information and culture in this country. Exclaim! has become one of the last music magazines standing.
For publisher Ian Danzig, one of the founding members, the growth of the magazine and subsequent digital platforms that followed was more evolution than revolution. That may be one of the key factors in its longevity. “We have very deep roots as an organization and what we built up was very much based on community,” says Danzig. “It was a gradual and organic evolution. I never would have thought that we would be where we are now, so many years later.”
What began as water cooler talks among programmers at Ryerson University’s CKLN-FM campus radio germinated into finding a way to celebrate and support the local music that they loved. All passionate music aficionados, they had their fingers firmly on the pulse of the lively independent music scene that rocked the small venues and dive bars of Toronto. At the same time, they were fully aware that most Torontonians were oblivious to the ground-breaking sounds happening every night in their own city. The idea—to start a publication showcasing great music that nobody knew about—took root and began to grow.
Danzig, who was the radio station’s Arts Director (as well as a program host), reached out to programmers, musicians and friends in the local music community, who responded with a resounding and collective hell yeah. During their free time—in spare moments away from day jobs—the group spent most of 1991 brainstorming, trying to figure out the logistics of publishing a free music magazine.
In March 1992, the inaugural issue of Exclaim! Magazine hit the bars, record stores and university campuses of Toronto. In keeping with what would become one of Exclaim!’s defining sensibilities throughout the decades—the celebration of live music—the launch was marked with a kickoff concert. Headlined by Edie Brickell, who was in town working on an album with Ron Sexsmith and producer Bob Wiseman, the show was the first in a long line of concert tours and showcases that have been a tradition at Exclaim! ever since.
Initially the scope of Exclaim! was intensely local, focussing on music being made in Toronto by Toronto musicians. Gradually, roots firmly planted and spreading ever wider, the reach expanded to its current monthly readership of 361,200, with a circulation of 100,000 copies distributed to over 160 cities across the country. A modest subscription base is maintained, primarily to allow readers in small and remote communities the same access to in-depth coverage that music fans get whenever they pick up a free copy in a downtown record store.
The magazine’s editorial breadth has expanded alongside its geographic reach. Music coverage has moved well beyond the Toronto spotlight, to showcase the best in emerging music throughout the country. Film and gaming—which have always had a sporadic presence in Exclaim! Magazine— have emerged as meatier sections in recent years, driven by the interests of editorial staff and readers alike. Particularly true online, where content is not limited by page count or pop culture coverage that falls outside the realm of music, and has since grown to include areas like comedy.
It comes as no great surprise—given that Ian Danzig is a computer science grad from the University of Waterloo, who worked for IBM upon graduation—that Exclaim! Magazine adopted an early digital presence. Way back at the dawn of the internet, the magazine broke digital ground by being one of the first to acquire its own website. Oddly, thanks to the techy friends who procured the initial URL, the website was christened schmooze.net. “We never thought to get a URL that was actually our own name,” laughs Danzig. For many years, schmooze.net hosted content that was strictly cut and pasted from the magazine, but as internet culture became increasingly predominant, so too did Exclaim! Magazine’s (now renamed) online presence at exclaim.ca.
Mac DeMarco – “Salad Days” on Exclaim! TV.
Today, the website is a catch-all for Exclaim! Media in all its guises. From music news to concert lineups, album streams to Exclaim! TV, Exclaim!’s digital platforms now occupy about 80% of its staff and resources. “We like to call the print magazine, the vinyl of publication,” quips Danzig. Like its vinyl record counterpart—old-school, but still very much in demand—print issues of Exclaim! Magazine can be seen tucked under arms on campuses across the country. Comprehensive print-only resources, like Exclaim!’s annual Summer Music Festival Guide, Fall Hangout Handbook, and Holiday Gift Guide keep the palpable paper edition relevant, recognizable and real.
From its inception, the magazine has married in-depth coverage (reviews, interviews and profiles) with the unbridled passion of music geeks unafraid to champion a band nobody has ever heard of. Not content to be a fanzine, never riding the easy wave of popularity, Exclaim! Magazine broke ground (and proved to have very good taste) by being one of the first publications to write about bands like Arcade Fire and Metric and by featuring emerging bands like the New Pornographers on the cover long before Neko Case, A. C. Newman and Dan Bejar were household names. “We had a lot of notable successes on that front,” says Danzig. “We have never said ‘it doesn’t make any sense to write about these bands because nobody has ever heard of them.’ Because of our editorial bent and where our writers were coming from, we always said ‘no, this is fantastic stuff and that’s why it deserves to be heard and seen.’”
Part of the magazine’s strategy in building and maintaining a trusted voice is to have editorial and writing staff who are first and foremost passionate fans. “Our voice speaks from the perspective of an active fan, as opposed to that of a journalist who is merely an objective onlooker. That has always been at the core of our editorial mandate,” explains Danzig. “You can teach a skill set for writing, but you can’t teach passion.”
Regardless of whether they are a freelance writer in Winnipeg or Vancouver or an editor in Exclaim!’s Toronto office, the first criterion for Exclaim! staff is that they have music at the core of their being. It’s a win-win strategy that over the years has attracted to the ranks such acclaimed Exclaimers as Editor-in-Chief James Keast, who has been on board since 1998, and FFWD alumnus Josiah Hughes, who joined the ranks after the recent demise of that publication’s print edition.
Even people whose day jobs at the magazine don’t directly reflect that passion—like Distribution Manager Scott Gray who spends his days wrangling magazine distributors who drive cube vans through cities—are either musicians or ravenous consumers of music, or both. “Scott’s job is not something that specifically requires a knowledge of music, but he’s here for a reason,” says Danzig.
BADBADNOTGOOD – “Flashing Lights” performance at Hillside Festival 2012 on Exclaim! TV.
More than just words on a page, Exclaim! Magazine is an active participant in music culture and a sure-fire presence at events across the country. Partnerships with music festivals like Pop Montreal, Halifax Pop Explosion and Wavelength, coverage of film festivals like Toronto International Film Festival, Hot Docs and Sundance, and presentation of the annual Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts prove that Exclaim! Magazine is far more than just a collection of ink-stained scribes. You can almost certainly expect an over-the-top concert series to mark Exclaim! Magazine’s 25th anniversary when it rolls around in 2017.
By zigging where others have zagged, by allowing passions to drive content, and by maintaining a voice that readers trust, Exclaim! Magazine has ridden through the dust cloud of a collapsing magazine industry, to emerge as one of the last standing.