On November 18 a music publishing subculture that had been quietly thriving far from the bright glare of Manhattan suddenly found itself thrust into the limelight. Tracks, a New York-based "music magazine for adults," made its ballyhooed debut.
The cover boy may have been baby boomer snoozer Sting, but much of the magazine's meat was dedicated to a loose genre of music that is as increasingly popular as it is hard to name: "alt country," "roots rock," "Americana." One thing artists categorized thus have in common is that they manage to sell impressive numbers of records without being played much on commercial radio. As Adam Smith noted, division of labor is limited by the extent of the market. While geographically constrained stations may have to pander with poppy pap, publications with a potentially national audience can afford to focus on (and nurture) niche cultural movements.
The premiere issue of Tracks included a first-person essay by alt country heartthrob Ryan Adams, a profile of public radio twang champions My Morning Jacket, and reviews of new CDs by Emmylou Harris and Randy Newman. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tracks' 37-year-old editor, Alan Light, said he was trying to produce a magazine for people like a friend of his who is really into such Americana founding fathers as the Jayhawks and Wilco. "Obviously he was learning about these things," Light told the Inquirer, "but it wasn't from magazines."
At least, not the kind of magazines that get profiled twice in a month by The New York Times. Alt country/Americana supports at least three other successful six-times-a-year glossies. There is No Depression, the genre's bible (and graybeard, having launched in 1995 and built circulation up to 30,000), which was founded in Seattle but is now co-edited from Nashville, Tennessee, and Durham, North Carolina. And there's the 21st-century upstarts Paste (from Atlanta, circulation 60,000) and Harp (Maryland, 30,000).
Each has a slightly different emphasis -- Tracks, which has an initial print run of 100,000, strays the most, being the only one to dream of profiling Robert Plant -- but all benefit from the same demographic reality: Older music fanatics buy more and download less. The Recording Industry Association of America reports that 56 percent of music in 2002 was bought by listeners over 30, while a Forrester Research study from last August showed that 50 percent of consumers younger than 23 use file sharing programs, compared to just 10 percent of those 23 and older.
If Tracks takes off, or if an artist like Wilco duplicates the left-field success of such radio-unfriendly blockbusters as the soundtracks from Buena Vista Social Club and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, alt country may well have finished its long journey from cultural basement to center stage. Blame commercial radio all you want, but thank com-mercial publishers when the former finally starts playing good music.