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So What Do You Do, Sia Michel?

After a successful first year on the job, Spin's EIC talks to mb and gets ready to raise her rate base.

By Rossiter Drake - May 20, 2003

In February 2002, Spin magazine tapped the then-35-year-old Sia Michel to be its new editor-in-chief, capping off her nearly meteoric rise at the notoriously snarky rock title: She'd started there as an assistant editor just five years earlier, literally working out of a storage closet. But Michel is also no stranger to quick success: She won the 1999 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Excellence for her reporting on the death of hip-hop star Notorious B.I.G., and she'd previously picked up the 1995 California Newspaper Association Award for Reporting and the 1995 Best of the West Feature Writing Award.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Michel started her career at the student newspaper there, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and she worked as music editor of SF Weekly and at the startup magazine The Web, which covered the internet culture, before joining Spin. Since taking the reins last year, she's worked to freshen the magazine, giving it a more consistent tone and a sharper look. Her efforts seem to be paying off: Effective with the July issue, and for the first time since 1998, Spin will raise its rate base, to 550,000. mediabistro.com recently checked in with Michel, to talk about her magazine, her job responsibilities, and rock 'n' rollers' sleazy moments.

Born: May 17, 1967
Hometown: Erie, Pennsylvania
First section of the Sunday Times: Week in Review

What are the responsibilities of the editor-in-chief of Spin?
I'm responsible for everything from the cover and the cover lines to who we're going to write about in the issue and what the other stories are going to be. I sign off on every single piece. I come up with a lineup and then, once the copy comes in, read everything in the magazine and top edit it. I work a lot with the businesspeople and on other kinds of branding things, like when we do something with MTV, for instance, or any of the live events that we sponsor. But, really, overall, I shape the vision of the magazine.

Where did you learn your craft?
I started out as an intern at SF Weekly in San Francisco. I was writing about film and theater, and then I moved more and more in a musical direction. I became the music intern, and eventually I was writing cover stories about a wide variety of topics, but I was also their music editor. I was also freelancing for all kinds of different music magazines, and I caught Spin's attention and started getting a lot of work from them, then they offered me a job. I started out as an assistant editor, literally working in a supply closet. They had to move mops and stuff out to put my desk in there, and it was so small that if I moved my chair back a little bit I'd hit the back of my head on the wall behind my desk. And then, over time, I was promoted to associate editor, senior editor, and so on, until I became editor-in-chief.

What goals did you have when you began your tenure as editor-in-chief?
I wanted to focus more on what bands we put on our covers, to make sure the cover choices more consistently embodied our musical mission—which is to be the home for good, innovative, important, forward-looking music. A couple years ago, when the music industry and the rock scene went into free fall, there were very few cover options for a magazine our size. Spin experimented with putting more mainstream acts like Matchbox 20 and Creed on the cover, and they not only tanked on the newsstand, they confused our readership. Even though we had great music inside, our readers didn't want to walk around with a music magazine with Kid Rock on the cover.

We received a lot of feedback from readers complaining about how fucked up the music industry was, and we responded by highlighting bands that were new and exciting and creating great music without necessarily receiving national coverage. And over the past year, we've had a slew of great bands on the cover, including the first U.S. covers for the White Stripes and the Strokes. Those covers sold as much as any superstar covers we've done. But we were lucky, too, because rock became really fun and interesting again, while our competitors are mainly putting trashy, half-dressed divas on the cover.

How else has the magazine changed during the past year?
When I came in, one of my mandates was to freshen up the magazine and determine what direction we should be going in, because of all the changes in the musical landscape and everything that was going on in the music industry and magazine business. One of the first things I did was hire this amazing design director, Arem Duplessis, who really gave us a different look for our covers. We freshened up the design, the photography, and the sections. He does a lot of creative things with the features and takes a lot of risks. We added a new section called "My Life in Music" [in which musicians reminisce about albums that influenced their sound], and Chuck Klosterman, a great writer I hired about a year ago, contributes a column. He wrote this great memo about heavy metal called "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," and he provides an exciting, fresh voice and funny, smart, interesting ideas that translate into great, compulsively readable stuff. Also, we redid the reviews section recently, and we're reviewing many more records than we did before. We're still selective about what albums we do review, though. I just don't think our readers need to hear about every single Todd Rundgren reissue that comes out.

Your June 2003 cover, featuring Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, is a guide to "75 Sleazy Moments in Rock." In October 2000, Spin did a similar cover, "The 100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock," featuring David Lee Roth. Are "Sleazy Moments in Rock" becoming Spin's "50 Most Beautiful People"?
We did the "100 Sleaziest Moments in Rock" two years ago, and it was very popular then, but it was more about some of the classic examples of rock 'n' roll debauchery rather than the bad behavior exhibited by today's crop of pop stars. It just seemed like the '70s were the most decadent time in rock, and our 2000 sleaze issue focused mostly on that period. We thought it would be fun to do a more current issue with people like J.Lo and Marilyn Manson. There's so much happening right now, and it seems like we're living in another crazy, decadent time for bad behavior from pop stars. But I'm not sure that it will become an annual issue.

One issue that will become an annual event is the "Next Big Things" issue, which featured Dashboard Confessional on the cover this year. It runs down a list of 50 bands that are coming out this year that our readers are going to be excited about. Another issue that is bound to become an annual tradition is the "Ultimate List" issue, which this year had Eminem on the cover. We got the greatest response ever to that issue, and a lot of readers said it was fun and funny, something that you'd want to keep around for future reference.

How do you keep that a 17-year-old institution like Spin fresh and vital?
Any youth-culture magazine should constantly be evolving to cater to the pace of its audience and its competition. One cool, new thing that helps us communicate with our readers is online file sharing. In the past, we'd cover underground records and worry about whether our readers around the country would ever get an opportunity to hear those records. Now kids can hear it instantly by going online. One new band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is really big in New York right now, but how does a kid from Oklahoma get to hear them? Thanks to file sharing, anyone can go online and listen to these new bands, and that's been really great for us.

Ultimately, I want to keep the magazine as entertaining as possible. I want Spin to be the music magazine that has a soul. We have a great group of writers and editors who are passionate about music, who are constantly looking for new music and going out there, discovering new bands and having a great time at shows. I want our writers to pour the energy from those shows into the magazine. We have one assistant editor, Sarah Lewitinn, who goes out every single night and see bands. We need people like that experiencing culture and capturing their experiences in the magazine.

If you were just breaking into music journalism today, where would you start?
I would start at an alternative paper somewhere, to work closely with an editor and learn the ropes that way. When there was such an explosion of web outlets for young writers, lots of stuff would go up online, but a lot of it was unedited, and you're going to grow a lot slower as a writer without the guidance of a good editor. A lot of young writers coming from the online world would not want to change something about their stories, and they couldn't see why it wasn't working, or why it wasn't smooth enough, and why it didn't feature enough original ideas.

Growing up, Spin or Rolling Stone?
I've been reading Spin ever since the very first issue, which came out when I was a teenager and had Madonna on the cover. Somebody gave it to me, and I read it and was really excited about it, because at the time, the only magazine that was covering the kind of music that I listened to was Rolling Stone. But I didn't feel a connection to Rolling Stone, it was too mainstream for me. I was interested in a lot of bands that I'd only heard about, and there was no Internet at the time, so if it wasn't covered in your music magazine, you had no way to get any information about it whatsoever, unless you joined a fan club or something like that. I feel like Spin's always stayed true in terms of its musical vision, in terms of being a champion of music that is innovative and important and interesting and fun. Spin's always been a magazine for people who have strong opinions about music.

Rossiter Drake is an editorial intern at mediabistro.com.



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