David Hepworth – a Q&A about curating music

It has been my privilege, over the last few years, to write a few pieces for Britain’s best music (and arts and movies and stuff) magazine The Word – including, a couple of issues back, an article about the curation boom (my articles went the way of all flesh, of course, when David and Mark closed The Word, but here’s one about my early Internet life that I scanned).

The magazine’s publisher is David Hepworth (its editor – and the man to whom I tremblingly submit my copy – is David’s long-time publishing partner Mark Ellen). David oversees the selection of tracks for Now Hear This, The Word’s covermount CD: a monthly curatorial gem that regularly stays in our car CD player for the whole month (until the next one comes out).

I asked David a few questions about this rather successful example of 21st Century music curation (and also about his Saturday morning vinyl curation habit #platterday).


SB: tell me about the Word covermount. How does it come together each month?

DH: It’s put together by Andrew Harrison and Alex Gold with ideas thrown in by everybody else.

Are you extensively schmoozed by label PRs? Do bands send you stuff?

The record business is on the bones of its arse but you wouldn’t know that from all the stuff we get sent. Yes. PRs are instructed to try and get certain acts on the CD. it’s one of the few places where they can place unheard music and assure it gets heard.

Are there punch-ups in Word Towers about who’s on it or do you keep it all to yourself until its done?

No punch ups. You chase thirty tracks and you can’t get all of them. You might get twenty possibles which you edit down to fifteen. You need a mix.

What are the economics of the covermount? A few years ago everyone seemed to have one – and the newspapers went mad for them. How do they work?

Newspapers etc. have them for totally different reasons. They pay big money for music in order to outsell their competitors. Eventually they realised that the likes of Prince were taking them for a ride. They cost a lot of money because you have to pay mechanical royalties with them.

What’s the fate of the covermount? Will you replace it with a memory stick or a Spotify playlist?

No. It works because it’s a physical object.

Supplementary question: tell me about #platterday. Is it a model for publishing in the social media era or just what you do with a bacon sandwich on Saturday mornings?

I just got out my old deck and loved restoring the ceremony of playing black vinyl records on Saturday morning. Twitter just seemed an obvious way to share that experience. I posted a picture of a shelf full of my records and people started saying “oh play that one” which is clearly insane.

What is curation in this new sense? Is it different from being an editor?

I dunno. What I’m always trying to do is say something that doesn’t sound like the usual over-heated recommendations. It’s very hard. I find 99% of recommendations don’t actually convey anything about the nature of the thing recommended at all. They’re just endless variations on the expression “it’s brilliant!” Saying something meaningful about music is very hard, that’s why most people don’t bother.

Is there a business in it?

Shouldn’t think so.


David keeps a rather good blog of his own and curates a storytelling night called True Stories Told Live.

UPDATE: I asked David why he no longer picks the tracks himself. He says:

I did it for three years and was only too delighted to pass the job on. If you choose the tracks you have the unenviable job of writing the accompanying blurbs, which is like pulling teeth.

Magazine masterclass

Right, I’ve been very busy with my new thing: I’m blogger in residence at the BBC. Honestly. It’s really cool. Follow my comings- and-goings at the special blog I’ve set up for the purpose at commonplatform.co.uk (the feed’s here). More about the whole thing here later…

In the meantime, I just want to share with you a small masterclass in how to run a web site and talk to your customers if you’re a magazine publisher. Mark Ellen and his team over at Word Magazine are in a tough market up against some pretty big-and-ugly competitors and their web site is full of lessons on how to make that work to your advantage.

Check out this brilliant forum thread about subscription prices, in which senior staff, including publisher David Hepworth, make funny and honest contributions that must have influenced the opinions of the complainers who started the thread and probably even sold a few subs. It’s the kind of thing that would almost certainly have been supressed or ignored by an EMAP or a NatMags but which the tiny, independent Word turns to its advantage. Perfect. 10 out of 10. Go to the top of the class.

I also really like the very simple video promo for the current issue that’s on the home page at the moment. One take, no edits, shot in the office, hosted on YouTube—brilliant. (declaration: I write the odd bit for Word, including this piece about memory and the Internet and an earlier one about Wikipedia and I’ve got a piece about why futurology’s rubbish in the current issue—so I’m probably a bit partial).

What’s so cool about The Economist?

There’s nothing quite like The Economist. Many have tried to duplicate its authority, its prescience, its attitude but it takes a blend of uptown (that’ll be Oxbridge) haughtiness and downtown worldliness to produce writing quite so learned and quite so sarcastic at the same time. Take this week’s excellent feature about Google. No new information here but just the right synthesis of critical distance and intimate understanding to produce enlightenment – an intensely satisfying read. I’d like to claim The Economist’s unique tone of voice for Britain and it’s true that, by comparison, the American newsmags are miserable, irony-free zones, but I’m afraid this kind of provocative, highly condensed wit is rare on this side of the pond too.

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“Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy” – Tim O’Reilly

I’ll join the throng bookmarking this cogent defense of file sharing from publisher Tim O’Reilly. Tim is the man who made a fortune by selling his early portal, the Global Network Navigator, to AOL and has been able to pursue the life of the Libertarian Gentleman Publisher ever since. His books (with their beautiful Dover Press animal woodcuts) are the backbone of the geek culture and his conferences and events increasingly organise the whole geek mindset.

Anyone give me odds?

This may be my weblog’s first authentic scoop. A ‘friend’ (picture removed) – an author and publishing insider – tells me, with some credibility, that Michael Crichton’s Nano-frightener Prey will be followed by two more books – each focused on extinction-level threats to humankind – from Robots and Geneticists respectively (but not necessarily in that order). The implication is that Crichton has made a close reading of uber-worrier Bill Joy’s 2000 Wired article in which he lays out the existential threat from nanotech nasties, self-replicating robots and out-of-control genetic engineering (He’s mostly wrong, of course). Joy’s paranoid-determinist vision will be published as a book next Autumn.

Blogging – is this the hypergrowth phase?

Apps that add comments and notes to blogs and web sites are booming but some can’t take the demand

I got comments working – so now you are required to tell me what you think about all this blather. Enatation was the only site still accepting registrations when I researched annotation. Presumably all the other guys have stopped accepting new users because they can’t afford the bandwidth for the epic number of clicks their hobby sites are now attracting. Of course, two years ago they’d have called a venture capitalist and drawn down two or three million dollars to fund them through to IPO. The slightly flustered ‘closed’ signs swinging behind the plate glass at the annotation sites are telling us something. I don’t have any figures to hand (do you?) but I think the blogosphere is probably just entering the scary hypergrowth phase. The phase that comes immediately after the dogged pioneers and just before the steady flow of settlers – when the network effects really start to bite. Enatation was so trivially easy to install that I surpised myself. Copy, paste, copy, paste, save. Done. Blimey. Why did we ever spend all that money hand-crafting web sites? Don’t answer that.