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The Beat Goes (Back) On!

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January 8, 2010

Ken Braun, manager, Sterns-US and African music devotee, rallies the troops!

A quarter-century: that’s how long The Beat has been in my life.  I started reading it in 1984.  There was a three-year period in the second half of that decade when I lived in Ntondo, Zaire, where going to the post office was a two-day trip and I had to take a riverboat or a plane to swing by the nearest magazine stand, but on returning to New York in 1989 I rounded up as many back issues as I could find.  The Beat was especially crucial to me then, a serial encyclopedia of records released in my absence and my guide to which ones I really needed to hear.  I could rely on the intelligence and taste of Beat writers to tell me fascinating things I wouldn’t have otherwise known and lead me to marvelous music I might not have heard on my own. 
Appreciating my own tastes and thinking I knew a thing or two too, I submitted a few pieces on African music to the editor.  Though I couldn’t hold a candle to her regular contributors, I was honored to be admitted to their company and pleased to imagine that I might turn a reader on the way these writers turned me on. 
When I took a job with Sterns Music I went from being a writer for The Beat to being a promo man and advertiser.  The 90s were a great time to be in the record business, even for purveyors of African music.  They were also a great time to be publishing a unique music magazine.  Every year more and more people took new interest in music from outside their regional pop industries and beyond their borders, and these were the people The Beat and record companies like Sterns cultivated and depended on.  We sold The Beat at our shops in London and New York and got to know the customers who routinely picked up the latest issue and riffled through the remainders for any they’d missed.  There was a complex but very healthy relationship among the magazine’s staff and writers, its readers, those of us in the biz, and the artists we were all interested in.  We needed each other, we served each other, we learned from each other, and we scratched each other’s backs.  There was nothing crass or unseemly about it.  We recognized ourselves as fellow devotees of high culture and good times, and we respected and liked and supported one another.  Except for a few deserving musicians, none of us got rich.  But though the money was never very plentiful, for a good long while it was sufficient to sustain enthusiasm and good work.  In those years labors of love could keep the wolves from the door. 
The decline began at the turn of the last decade.  We all know the reasons – new technology, shifting demographics, changing notions of intellectual property, clueless and craven entertainment conglomerates – but we haven’t succeeded in pulling out of the descent.  And because we’ve been so interconnected for so long, we’ve all ended up in that hand-basket going to hell.  When CD piracy and illegal file "sharing" eviscerated record companies’ and artists’ earnings, they had to cut back on promotion and advertising, and that crippled music magazines.  But let me tell you something about The Beat: When Sterns had to close the New York shop and could no longer afford to advertise, The Beat, unlike some magazines, continued to feature our artists and review our CDs.  There was never any quid pro quo.  In fact The Beat gave us lots of good press right up to the last issue this past fall – except, of course, when our work fell short of expectations, in which case the writers frankly said so, as they always had.  Their publisher and editor never told them what to write or filtered their critiques.  I got to know quite a few Beat writers, was one myself (and an advertiser to boot), and this was always clear.  Without waving banners or editorializing, Roger Steffens, CC Smith and Carol Haile-Selassie have been champions of journalistic freedom and integrity. 
It’s a crying shame that championing journalistic freedom and integrity is not profitable.  So many excellent periodicals have been forced to cease publication in recent years (while gossip and bunkum tabloids still thrive), but The Beat’s fade-out is, to me, the most disheartening.  On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed knowing its staff, contributors and readers, have learned much from them, and will always cherish their validation of my work, so I’m anxious about losing contact with them.  On a wider plane, I’m worried about what this bodes for the music of Africa and the African Diaspora so far as Americans are concerned.  With the demise of The Beat no magazine published in this country covers this vast and diverse field with such knowledge, deep appreciation and timeliness.  The back issues to be archived online will be a treasure chest at our fingertips, but how will we keep up with new music and all the old recordings being rediscovered?  Where can we read all about it?  Whom can we trust?  There are no carbon copies of CC Smith. 
But we still have the original.  CC may be leaving Los Angeles, but she’s not leaving us.  Thanks (ironically) to the internet, we can all stay in touch with her and with each other if we all want to.  I want to, and if you do too, please join me in imploring CC to keep this going.  I don’t mean the magazine, either on paper or online – I understand that the wherewithal isn’t therewithal – but the conversation.  Let’s turn the ByeByeBeat blog into TheBeatGoesOn blog (if Sonny & Cher fans haven’t already claimed that domain).  I lean Luddite when it comes to computer cybernetics (out of incompetence, not ideology), but some of you know your way around and could show the rest of us.  We wouldn’t have to lay all responsibilities on CC’s shoulders; we could carry them cooperatively.  Though no one would be paid, I suppose there might be some costs, but they wouldn’t be anything like the costs of publishing a magazine.  We could all contribute a little sustenance as well as some content, couldn’t we? 
By we I mean everyone who’s had any connection to The Beat as a writer, an editor, a photographer, a reader, a musician, a promoter, a fan, a record-collector or what-have-you.  You!  You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t into Caribbean music, African music, Latin music, that kind of thing, so you’re the kind of person I’m trying to rally.  What can you tell the rest of us?  What have you heard?  Who have you seen?  What do you know and what do you think?  Tell Mama.  Tell CC.  (Revive her enthusiasm for music – that part’s a cinch).  Tell all of us.  Keep the beat. 
Ken Braun


  1. I have a story for you about Sterns. My first trip to London was in 1984. The magazine was just a year or so old, but Sterns was already a major source of albums and dependable information for my "African Beat" radio show, at a time when most African records were either imported from Europe or had been carried to the States by African expats.
    So my first priority in London was a pilgrimage to Sterns, their original location in the appliance shop I think, and the very first thing I see is a BEAT bumper sticker affixed on the front of the counter. How mindblowing! I then knew I was home.
    All of us involved in African music (other than the mega-corporations that thought for a brief time that they could actually make some money on it) are a worldwide community, doing what we do because we are first and foremost and forever fans of the music. It's a symbiosis between the makers and the sellers and the writers and the broadcasters and the listeners... we all are interlinked and all need each other to make the magic happen. It has gotten a lot more difficult lately to do that, but Africans will always make music and so it will survive eternally, even if our "industry" does not.

  2. Ken, you have expressed beautifully what I have been thinking for days now. Yes, let's keep the dialogue going and contribute what we can.Like you, I lived in Africa for several years (2001- 2004) and I know absolutely that brilliant music is still being made. I'm not astute at cybernetics, but I can write and submit with great pleasure. CC has given us such great opportunities to express our passions; now let us carry them forward. CC, are you OK with this? I sure don't want to stop writing and sharing.

  3. I'm totally open to any and all possibilities. With our wonderful, crazy mix of brilliant contributors, something is bound to evolve.