Hip Hop History: An Interview with Vibe Magazine Publisher Len Burnett

Len_036%20-%20fc.jpgHip hop was king. The year was 1999. Hip hop became American pop music and it did so on the back of a willing media. The music’s ascendancy was ushered in on the back of one very important magazine, Vibe. The Source was the bible that spoke to the converted. But Vibe was evangelical.

Vibe’s launch was engineered by entrepreneurs Len Burnett and Keith Clinkscales. Quincy Jones provided the vision and the business acumen to partner with Time, Inc. Quincy knew the market was huge, and knew how to position the title. But bringing it to life, running the business and understanding the nascent market of urban was left to the entrepreneurs. They cut a wide swath helping to create a market for urban; selling to print media planners who had never considered the market, giving record labels a far reaching platform to promote hip hop music (roughly 800,000 readers), and giving fans of all colors an important touchstone for the culture.

When Len and Keith left Vibe to try something even greater, the magazine lost a step. The magazine under the duo had hired the best and brightest writers and photographers who lived the culture. The doors at the bigger publishers like Conde Nast were then and remain a particularly tough nut for brown-skinned contributors. This incubator effect for talent was important to the culture. This talent and thinking gave urban culture added urgency – and made hip hop more than just beats.

Now Len Burnett is back at Vibe, both as a partner and in the publisher’s seat. I wanted to know if he was happy to be back in the house he built:

JP: You’ve been in the publishing business for how long now?

LB: I’ve now been in the publishing business for 19 years now. I started my first magazine, Urban Profile, in my apartment at 23 with my then roommate and business partner Keith Clinkscales.

JP: You’ve seen the highs and lows of urban media over the past decade, what would you call the high water mark?

LB: I think the high water mark came in 1999/2000. I was at Vibe magazine for most of that year and then left to start Vanguarde Media (Savoy, Honey and Heart & Soul magazines). In those years, generally business was pretty robust. Everyone realized that hip hop culture and rap music was not a fad and here to stay. General market advertisers were finally accepting the power of the audience in a real way and they had money to spend. At that time the “Black Agencies” were still healthy and had always been supportive. For the first time we had advertising being spent in a big way from both sides. It was not unusual for Vibe to receive advertising from the same client from both the general market and the ethnic budgets as well.

JP: And where does today, 2007, fall within all that?

LB: Today is certainly below that in many ways. We’re almost in the perfect storm. First, generally speaking, businesses are having a tough time – Detroit and the auto industry’s are well documented. The fashion, entertainment and some consumer product, businesses are not at the same spending levels. Magazines have fallen out of favor with advertisers in lieu of the Internet. I can think of five major clients who have said that there are not doing in print in 2007. That’s up from one in 2006. Many of the ethnic agencies have either lost business or influence as the general market agencies recognize the power of this audience. However, with that being said, I believe that now more than ever, there is recognition by advertisers of the need to speak to our audience.

JP: You started Vibe, arguably the most important urban media vehicle in terms of broadening the audience of urban music – being racially-inclusive – was that the goal?

LB: That was the goal from the start for two primary reasons. First, we were never going to survive by only going after the Black agencies and the ethnic budgets for advertising. In 1993 people were questioning if there was even a need for another “Black” magazine. In those days Ebony, Jet, Black Enterprise and Essence commanded all of the dollars. Everyone else was left to fight for the crumbs. Even with backing by Time, Inc it would have been naïve of us to believe that we would be able to come in and immediately change decades of the way they did business. Besides, I had been down that path with little success with Urban Profile.

Second and most important, is that we knew the “dirty little secret.” We knew for a fact that rap music was being listened to by more than just the Black audience. We set off to produce a magazine that spoke to that popularity. If we were able to tap into that vein we’d have something special. However, make no mistake that our success was driven off the fact that Black culture drives popular culture. In music terms our strategy was not too make a cross-over magazine. We developed a book that at its core was about rap music and the energy of the hip hop culture. And just like the music, the general market audience found it and came for the ride.

JP: Did you see that position, trying to appeal to a broader audience as a risk when you were launching Vibe?

LB: It wasn’t a risk. It was absolutely necessary for success. Most importantly, it was an opportunity. We would have never received advertising from accounts like Tommy Hilfiger, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. Imagine that until then these advertisers and many others had never advertised in a magazine that had a hint of color to it. The only way that we were able to sell that is to show that the magazine and the music appealed to a broader audience.

JP: Who funded Vibe originally – we’ve always heard that Quincy Jones was there, and that Russell Simmons was a partner, but somehow became not a partner, who was really there at the beginning?

LB: The magazine was funded by Time Inc. However, this was Quincy Jones idea and vision from the start. It was only because of his success and the respect that he had from the executives at Time, Inc. that a test issue could happen. There was probably no one else at that time that could have convinced them to produce a magazine like Vibe. Even with Quincy’s involvement and the tremendous success of the test issue, it took longer than usual to give it a green light for a full launch. Russell was asked to be involved as well. The feeling was that he would add insights and a level of creditability to the audience. At the end that didn’t work out as Russell had issues with the general direction of the editorial under the first Editor in Chief Jonathan Van Meter. Ironically Russell was correct in his assessment. However, in the end, as much as I respect him, it would have been pretty difficult to have an editorially credible magazine with the hottest and most important man and label in rap music being involved. There was also Bob Miller who was a trailblazer of his own in Time, Inc. He was President of Time Inc Ventures and shepherded us through the system. Without him it would have been difficult to achieve success.

JP: Some people say that Vibe, if you didn’t start it, helped foster the deadly East Coast/West coast feud, do you regret some of the cover choices of that era?

LB: Vibe is a magazine that, at its core, is responsible for chronicling hip hop culture. It is difficult to say that I would regret cover choices or articles in that era. Unfortunately, that was what was going on at that time. Everyone knew it. It was our responsibility as a journalistically sound publication to report it.

JP: Really, you’ve been pretty busy, you’re publisher of Vibe and an owner of Uptown Magazine, and how do you handle the responsibility?

LB: I’ve been blessed to have good partners and great people to work with. My partner in Uptown, Brett Wright, has a creative vision that keeps the magazine hot and urgent. And Jocelyn Talyor our Associate Publisher, keeps the magazine on the forefront of marketer’s minds. With Vibe, I have a great partner in Eric Gertler, who understands the importance of being an entrepreneur and is very supportive. Most importantly I have a wonderful family that is both encouraging and understanding.

JP: How has the advertising climate changed for Vibe over the past five years – especially given the turmoil in urban publishing with The Source filing for bankruptcy, some of the smaller books folding, have media planners changed their view of the space?

LB: I don’t believe that the unfortunate decline of The Source has had any negative effect on Vibe or the advertisers view on Vibe or the importance of reaching this market. The advertising climate has changed for al publishers. The smaller books or the ones that don’t have the ability to be more than just a magazine are the ones that have been the most affected. The good news is that the clients realize now more that ever that the urban space is important.

JP: Can we expect to see Vibe back on TV?

LB: Absolutely! We’re finalizing a deal to bring the Vibe Awards back on television this fall. We’re also in the early stages of discussing opportunities for an network or syndicated entertainment show.

JP: There are some new partners at Vibe, actually the whole company was sold, is that a new opportunity for the brand?

LB: Yes! As a matter of fact it started with the naming of the company to Vibe Media Group. The new name signifies that we’re more than just a magazine. We’re a media company with many branded platforms including: Internet, mobile, TV, VOD, books, events and another magazine Vixen which targets your urban women. Our future success is dependent on continuing to expand on the brand.

JP: Is circulation still the best measure of a magazine’s health?

LB: While it is still a solid barometer, it is not the only way. Today I think it must also include the magazines ability to connect with the consumer in various aspects of there lives and thereby providing advertisers with the opportunity to connect with them.

JP: You were partners for a decade with Keith Clinkscales, is it strange to be back at Vibe without him?

LB: I was part of a team that had the privilege of launching this great brand. There were many folks including John Rollins, Keith and others that made the magazine so special. As for Keith, definitely miss him. He and I worked together for 15 years. And the launching of Vibe is something that we both are proud of and cherish the accomplishment and the opportunities that it provided. He works right up the street with ESPN the Magazine so we see each other and speak regularly. We’ve even talked about ways the brands could work together.

JP: Vibe is a music magazine, and as urban music goes, so go the magazines, is hip hop dead?

LB: I think there are some that would like to proclaim that hip hop is dead. Certainly the record companies have taken a hit. However, the music and most importantly the culture is more important than ever. The audience that we reach is in fact now the new America, the new general market; an America where a diverse generation of young adults has grown up with urban music as a part of their lives from the beginning. The interesting thing about hip hop is that it always transforms and evolves itself. Hip hop is not just about the music, it’s a culture and a mindset. That’s what makes it so great and that’s why it’s here to stay.

John N. Pasmore • New York, NY • mailto:johnpasmore@gmail.comwww.nextthingsnext.com

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6 Comments

  • John Smith

    Great interview. Vibe has gone through so many problems and have still continued to grow. Nice to know that you are expanding to new areas. Vibe is one of the urban entertainment kings. Economic crisis has not been able to weaken it.
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  • Abby A

    It's not anymore a shocking news that once popular Vibe Magazine is now shitting its operation. Like GM, Vibe is also affected by the economic crisis that the world is facing. But the obviously, many avid reader of Vibe will be sad about the news. To read more, please visit http://personalmoneystore.com/...

  • clifton camp

    Len Burnett, is the main reason that I subscribe to Vibe!!!

    Keep it fresh!

    Clifton

  • kofi annan

    Great interview. Vibe has trully weathered the storms and continued to grow. It's good to hear that Mr. Burnett is trying to expand the brand into different areas. If there's a brand which could bring back the urban entertainment show format it'll be Vibe. Hopefully this time around they can get a weeknight slot instead of weekend.