The apparent collapse of Vibe Media Group, and the end of Vibe magazine, is something less than a surprise. Rumors have circulated for months that Vibe may fold at any moment. The same rumors shadow every major newspaper and magazine, from Paste and Spin to the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, like crows waiting to pick at their carcasses. At one point, Vibe was the best-selling urban music magazine in the country and second only to Rolling Stone in circulation; now it’s the biggest casualty of a rapidly deteriorating media climate and, to an extent, a hobbled and broken music industry.
The announcement on June 30 that Vibe is suspending publication was met with mixed reaction, from sadness (mostly on the part of journalists and industry folk) to snickers (often from musicians and music fans). (Vibe Media has changed hands many times since Quincy Jones co-founded the magazine with Time Inc. executive Robert L. Miller in 1992. It is currently owned by the Wicks Group.)
“Vibe Mag goes under.–thank you for many years of little to no coverage and bad reviews. You will be missed,” read a Twitter post from Evidence.
“What will we do when there’s no one to hate our music in print?” wrote Mr. Len.
“Wow, Vibe is gone…can they PLUUEAZE take BET with em???” wrote James Poyser.
It’s an all-too-familiar response to a decaying urban entertainment megalopolis that everyone loves to hate but no one seems (financially or creatively) capable of changing.
Some say that back in the 1990s, Sean “Puffy” Combs ruined black music with his outrageously expensive marketing campaigns and maximalist, platinum-or-nothing approach. So should we also blame Vibe, who presciently crowned Puffy as the future of black music in a 1993 profile? “As hip hop makes its mad dash toward the finishing line of high capitalism, it will need a hero,” wrote Scott Poulson-Bryant in that story, which was published just as Puffy launched Bad Boy Entertainment. Perhaps he inferred that Vibe, too, would become a heroic conqueror.
I have written several pieces for Vibe as a freelancer since 2001. Most of my contributions consisted of small front and back-of-the-book stuff such as reviews and the occasional profile. Many other writers had a deeper relationship with Vibe than me, and I expect they’ll weigh in with commentary over the next several days and weeks.
My first encounter with Vibe was seeing it on the newsstand in the fall of 1992. It was the preview issue with Treach on the cover. A year later, when it officially debuted in September 1993 with a cover story on Snoop Doggy Dogg, I became a major fan. With its excellent photography, insightful articles and well-written reviews, Vibe truly aspired to become “the black Rolling Stone.” It sought to chronicle black culture in all its forms, from house music (a heartbreaking piece on Larry Levan) to then-rising black Hollywood (cover stories on Wesley Snipes and Rosie Perez).
But just as the original Rolling Stone evolved from a sharp catalog of 60s radicalism into a cheery and shallow pop bible, Vibe subtly changed. First, an annoying “girlfriend-sistagirl” informality crept into many of the stories and especially the front-and-back charticles, ostensibly to make the magazine less intimidating and adult-oriented to teenagers (who, let’s face it, are hip hop and R&B’s target audience). Next, it jettisoned the stories on non-musicians, sticking to familiar R&B stars such as Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson.
Vibe’s coverage of the tragic East Coast-West Coast beef between Combs’ Bad Boy Records and Suge Knight’s Death Row Records irrevocably changed it. Its stories on the rift between those two labels almost destroyed its credibility – many in the industry felt Vibe wrongly gave the two camps a bullhorn to amplify their sometimes-ridiculous claims, with 2Pac and Biggie as the eventual casualties. But I think those charges were just a case of “shoot the messenger.” The real problem developed when it brainlessly embraced the subsequent big Willie, bling-bling era of the late 90s while virtually ignoring everything else. This is what Evidence complains about in “little to nor coverage.”
Vibe didn’t just give short shrift to the underground rap scene that swelled in the late 90s and early aughts. It failed to cover the indie soul movement – a network of coffee shop poets and acoustic soul troubadours whose support could have possibly saved the magazine. But many of these artists, save for breakout stars like India.Arie and occasional major label signings like Emily King, apparently weren’t mainstream enough to warrant coverage. Then there’s electronic music, often pioneered by black artists, from the second wave of Detroit techno led by Carl Craig and Jeff Mills in the 90s to the beat movement currently headed by Flying Lotus; the spoken-word phenomenon personified by Saul Williams; and the black rock explosion led by TV on the Radio. And what about white and multi-racial artists like Dilated Peoples and the Rhymesayers camp that make urban music? Vibe either slept on most of it or consigned it to back-of-the-book reviews.
Vibe has never tried to represent all urban music styles; unlike Rolling Stone, which profiles ascendant underground rock forms as well as shallow pop detritus, Vibe doggedly stuck to street rap and ghetto soul. And when those underground artists created huge international followings, Vibe didn’t care. Instead, it pumped out more “Vibe Confidential” gossip about Rihanna, P. Diddy and their hair styles.
To its credit, however, Vibe attracted top journalistic talent, and occasionally produced great long-form stories. Among my favorites were Elizabeth Mendez Berry’s revealing piece on domestic violence in hip hop – unfortunately the late Big Pun’s reputation was its collateral damage — and Jeff Chang’s influential cover stories on Barack Obama.
I also have to give a shout out to Sean Fennessey, who allowed me to review the likes of Sage Francis, Lyrics Born and Yesterday’s New Quintet (although the latter review was canceled because of space). We had our conflicts, but he’s an incredible editor, and he tried to restore some artistic credibility to the “V Revolutions” reviews section by widening its range beyond the latest black pop debacles. Unfortunately, the “V Revolutions” section was killed last year and put online.
Finally, that leads me to Vibe’s disastrous Internet philosophy. I’m not going to address its much-criticized “Best Rapper Alive” contest, which included asinine pop rappers like Nelly and Plies at the expense of accomplished lyricists like Lupe Fiasco. But Vibe.com only posted 4 or 5 items a day, while megasites such as Concreteloop.com and Nahright.com drew swarms of traffic with 20-50 daily posts. Even similar magazine sites such as Spin.com and Rollingstone.com posted more often. If Vibe.com couldn’t keep up on the Internet, how did Vibe Media Group expect to survive?
Cataloging Vibe’s editorial and creative failures doesn’t explain why it failed. There are hard business reasons, too. But they help explain why its demise after 16 years in print generates so little sympathy.
“As i write this i see my entire tweet network celebrating like the witch is dead,” writes Questlove on Okayplayer.com. “Yes i WOULD have loved a more balanced magazine that coulda schooled me to Jean Grae and Little Brother or maybe even Bilal and dead prez instead of the other way around. Vibe also gave black writers a job.”
“The void that the closing of Vibe leaves is immense. I don’t believe any other media is equipped or even remotely interested in taking up the space that Vibe has,” Chang noted on his Cantstopwontstop.com site. “The only upside of this depression is that many of us no longer have a side hustle to distract us from the incredible art we gotta make.”
But we need more than just a patchwork of niche sites and entrepreneurial journalists/bloggers. We need a big tent, a home where everyone can meet, like Vibe once promised it would be. We shouldn’t have to wait for the New York Times to throw us the occasional bone.
It should be black-identified (and, god forbid, maybe even black-owned), but open to all races and willing to discuss all topics. Black isn’t just a color, but a state of mind; URB magazine owner/creative director Raymond Roker has proved that for years. It should recognize that urban culture is more than more than just thugs and street pharmacists, more than just gossip folks, more than just giddy, pop-obsessed teenagers (although it includes those things, too). We need a community that encompasses every facet, from underground to mainstream, and recognizes that black people listen to rock and roll and electronic music, too.
Someone will try to devise an equivalent to Vibe, whether it’s in print or new media. We need to demand that it reflects all of us.
Rest in peace.
(July 1 update: Minor typographical and grammatical corrections have been made to this story.)