by Rahwa Asmerom
One of the things that made the recession so real was seeing the fall of established brands and businesses. Along with Lehman Brothers , Washington Mutual and several other financial giants, the magazine industry took a serious hit with the folding of iconic publications like Gourmet, Domino and Vibe to name a few. Len Burnett, one of the original publishers of Vibe magazine, witnessed how the magazine that he spearheaded 17 years ago devolve from being one of the most authoritative publications about hip-hop and urban culture to becoming one of the last victims of the recession when it ceased publication in the summer of 2009. “It was the perfect storm,” he said. “The ad market really hit Vibe hard. Music advertising went from a high of about 200 pages to about 30 or 40 pages in the course of a year.” Years after he left the company, oddly enough, it was Burnett’s company Uptown Media Group, with Intermedia Partners, that bought the brand in November 2009 and re-launched it as an online publication and quarterly magazine.
Reaffirming Vibe’s presence online and in print is no easy feat but as a leading pioneer in the translation of urban music and culture to the mainstream print medium, this challenge represents just another chapter in his long career. For Burnett and his friend and business partner Keith Clinkscales, the journey began in Florida in 1987. At that time, the roommates had graduated Florida A&M and moved to New York where they decided to launch a magazine called Urban Profile. They came up with the idea mainly due to the fact that it was the cheapest way to break into their desired industry. It was the dawn of desktop publishing and it was a way for these young entrepreneurs to make their mark on the media market.
“We decided to launch a magazine that was targeting young African-American social political history from the young
black perspective, “ he said. “It was a time when there was a lot of racial tension in New York City, it was the advent of rap music with meaning and lyrics that were speaking to fighting against the establishment, there was the Tawana Brawley case going on and there was a sense that the media wasn’t portraying the views of young college educated African-Americans.”
The effort was sustained as a labor of love. To keep it afloat, they held down full-time jobs and worked on the magazine at night out of their shared apartment. The only money that came in was from the parties they threw, where they passed out magazines with subscription form inserts. “We designed it ourselves, shot the photography ourselves and to fund it, we threw parties,” he said “It probably cost us $5000 [to launch].” By the end of the first full year of business, they had garnered four paid ads.
Eventually, they moved the operations to Baltimore and received an investment from Clinkscales’ business school classmate and delved further into the now full-time business. “Our circulation at its peak was about 25,000 copies,” he said. “It was very crude publishing, but it was the way we cut our teeth and learned the business. We had some well known and well written articles on everything from the war in Iraq to [caricature sketches] of how not to get pulled over and arrested by the police.”
After another year and a half, they sold their debt to Career Communications Group. “We never became profitable but we didn’t lose money either in the end,” he said. What they did gain was the credibility and rare experience of having started and sustained an urban publication in a time when that market was especially under-served. At the time, The Source, even as different as its audience was, represented the only competitor.