The ‘New Age Of Curation’ Interviews: The Quietus’ John Doran

Following an initial post on the importance of so-called ‘princemakers’, and an interview with Twitch’s Todd Brown, we’re continuing a series of interviews with media-centric websites that do an amazing job of surfacing great art.

Further food for thought since last time – a  brilliant talk/post from Topspin’s Ian Rogers that very much feeds into my discussions of trusted brands online. And, happily enough, Rogers is talking about music, which is the theme of the new ‘new age of curation’ interview, with The Quietus‘ John Doran.

Ever since I found the site a few months ago, I’ve been blown away by its eclectic, journalistic take on music in all forms. For example, on the front page right now there’s everything from a Wayne Hussey interview through a fascinating profile of Bjork and Jamie Vex’d talking name changes. Oh, and  Suggs’ favorite albums.

So I caught up with Doran via email to discuss the site’s genesis — and for him to refute some of my presumptions about his excellent endeavor:

Simon: What was the original reason and context for setting up The Quietus, and how would you describe the website?

John Doran: [Back in 2008] my friend Sean Adams at Drowned In Sound asked me to pitch a website idea to him for a “classic rock” website. I said I already had a better idea if he wanted to see that.

It was, roughly speaking, going to be like the online version of a quality monthly like Mojo or UNCUT but instead of concentrating on stuff from the 60s and early 70s, we’d have a start date of the mid 70s and go right up to the current day.

Also we’d ignore the trad, canonical stuff like alt country and Britpop and cover stuff like Afrobeat and Krautrock instead. They wanted to choose me a deputy editor but I said I’d sooner work with Luke Turner as a co-editor.

We’d always got on well and his experience of being a music journalist and a web editor was more substantial than mine.  We make most of the major decisions together and it’s worked quite well so far.

Simon: Your tastes on the site seem both erudite and wide-ranging, and you run a surprisingly large amount of high-profile interviews and interesting longer form articles about music (and some film!) Why go to all that trouble when ‘quick hits’ can get as many users?

John: We do run the occasional gallery which can be good for traffic but not very often and we’re very open about what we’re doing.

If I was purely interested in clicks and money, I would do something else entirely as there is very little cash available in the music industry. Some of it is a pain in the arse. Like there are plenty of features we run on obscure artists that don’t get many readers but we’ve got a clear idea for what the site should be like and it is often these little features that give the ‘flavour’ of the site.

But mainly I’m not interested in taking the piss out of the reader. Both of us want to make something we’re proud of. Also I’m very pig headed and enjoy problem solving, so when we started it was interesting to be able to make a success of a site where we’d ignored most of the advice we’d been given about what “people want” from a website. Mainly I want to be able to sleep at night.

I’ve been a journalist for ages now and it makes you feel like shit when you’re working for a shit publication, it’s as simple as that. I’d refute the idea that we’re erudite or have ‘good taste’. I think it’s a bogus idea and one you can get bogged down in. We start from a very simple premise – do either me or Luke like this kind of music and if we do, then we figure out the best way we can cover it in an intelligent or funny manner.

Simon: How have your readers of your site grown in size and demographics over time, and do you feel like your message and goal for the site changed over time as you reached a larger audience?

John: Well, in very simple terms we’ve grown in three years from having say one or two hundred readers a day to getting 250,000 unique users and 750,000 page impressions a month.

I’ll feel like we will have passed an important point when we get over a million page impressions a month. I’d like to hope our core goals haven’t changed too much and I try and ignore demographics or any kind of second guessing what your audience want. Inevitably they will have changed a bit though.

The first two and a half years were insane. Working long hours, seven days a week. We had to change down a gear after that for the sake of our health but I still miss those days of a sense of a mad battle taking place every day.

Simon: Do you see it as your mission to cover artists and scenes that other people don’t cover?

John: Ideally I’d like for us to be in a position to really get out there and uncover a lot of bands that other magazines don’t but I don’t think we do too much of this at the moment due to staff and money constraints.

Anything we cover, someone else will be covering somewhere else in some form or another; I guess the main thing is that very few other people will be putting equal emphasis on underground dance music and extreme metal, for example. With the Quietus it’s more about the way we combine music, I think.

Simon: Have there been particular favorite ‘success stories’ on The Quietus in terms of musicians or other artists you feel you championed or otherwise covered to help them ‘break out’, even a little bit, of their particular niche?

John: Personally speaking, I’m not sure if I agree with the question’s assertion and I can’t say how much we’ve helped or hindered any band really.

But it does give me great satisfaction that we cover certain amazing bands that have tended to get less press elsewhere such as Factory Floor, Teeth Of The Sea, Arabrot, Walls and My Disco.

And it makes me happy that when other magazines pour all of the energies into supporting creatively bankrupt acts like Kings Of Leon or Kasabian we’re continuing to cover bands that have fallen out of favour in press terms but tower above them artistically such as The Fall, Wire and Chris and Cosey.

Also, fingers crossed, we’re covering certain acts that only usually get covered by the niche press and bringing them to a slightly bigger audience such as Omar Souleyman, SunnO))) and Tamikrest.

But I have to be very clear about this – I don’t think we ‘own’ any of these acts; I think that’s a very unhealthy attitude for any magazine to take.

Simon: Why do you curate? What’s in it for you? Were you born to do it? Why do you enjoy it?

John: I don’t think of myself as a curator. I get the satisfaction of doing a job every day that always scratches my ‘trade’ itch and occasionally scratches my ‘art’ itch. It’s a form of therapy for me.

I was relatively old before I realised that I needed to work hard to remain happy and there’s always a lot of work to be done at The Quietus. I wasn’t born to do this job but when I was younger I did used to make a lot of my own fanzines about Smurfs and Dr Who and stuff, so there was always an interest there. That said I was also really into dinosaurs and astronauts, and I don’t work with them.

Do I enjoy it? Most of the time yes. I get to work with people I like and respect. I get to have lunch with Debbie Harry and DJ for Cornershop and go to every ATP and Supersonic. It’s a great job and it certainly makes up for the fact that I’m always skint.

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