We sat down with David Perlman, publisher/editor in chief, and Allan Pulker, Chairman of the Board, to learn more about the history of the WholeNote and where it’s headed in the future.
Tell us a little bit about the organization. What does the WholeNote do?
Allan: It started with David’s community newspaper “The Kensington Market Drum”. I was under employed at the time after the recession and was doing general contracting in a completely unrelated market, and I wanted to try music journalism. I went to David and he gave me some things to review. I started collecting information: I would collect brochures, and transfer information from brochures to a calendar. I was choosing things I thought would be interesting to people and wouldn’t cost more than 100 dollars if they went to all of them (it was 1993 – and no one had any money!). It was a lot of work, but the penny didn't really drop for me until I actually went to a concert at Walter Hall which holds about 500 people and there were maybe 60 to 70 people in the audience. It dawned on me, ‘what’s the matter with this picture?’ People fill auditoriums in Tokyo and Paris and Berlin but here it’s only 60 people? I finally realized nobody was here because nobody knows there is a concert taking place. That led me to write a proposal to David, that we should put together a publication. My mother calls it TV Guide for live music. We put together a prototype and then we set up a distribution network. To make a long story short, the rest is history.
The WholeNote distributes more than 30,000 print copies for every issue. Why do you feel it is so vital to continue the print medium?
David: You have to reach people in the media that they use. The objective from day one was not to do an elite magazine for already converted arts lovers, but to reach people who could use the information. We started a media news print wrapper, where one can print lots of copies for a relatively small amount of money and where the presenters who supported us would see from day one an impact, whether it was the lunchtime organ recital that had 16 instead of 9 people, or something much larger. It doesn't matter what scale you're operating; the whole point was there are lots of people who want this information. So, print was the way to start.
Your organization is also growing its online presence. How do you see this evolving in the future?
David: I think the key is there's a certain mind-shift that happens at a certain point where you stop seeing the word ‘magazine’ as a noun and you start thinking of it as a verb, “magazining,” as something that you do. You gather information, you add value to the information, you find an audience that wants the information and then you give it to that audience in the media that they are using. We made that mind-shift almost a decade ago. You have to you follow what your readers are doing and you keep pace with the transformations in how they prefer their information. When we incorporated 15 years ago we called it WholeNote Media Inc because we recognized that you have to keep up with the media that people choose.
Our listings are completely democratic and they're free. It doesn't matter whether you're the Toronto Symphony Orchestra or a lunchtime organ recital, if you give us specific information to publish, we will publish factual information.
You continue to provide your publication free of charge after more than 23 years. Can you explain why the WholeNote continues to do this?
David: I think it goes back to what I said: the idea is not create an elite publication for an inner circle. The only way that you can reach that wider audience is by using techniques of controlled circulation. We have over 800 distribution points. Every reader is a reader of choice for the magazine. If you can combine reader of choice with really significant numbers, you've got a formula where the presenter, the artist sees results. Free to the user has been the model we follow.
Allan: We don’t have much wastage because people who aren’t interested in the content won’t pick it up. People pick it up because they want to know what’s going on. It really works.
David: From the beginning, we’ve said to people you can have paid subscription and we typically average around 100 to 150. Before you sign up for a paid subscription, however, we ask them “what’s your postal code?” and then we’re able to tell them where you can get it at the public library, you can get it at the coffee shop, you can get at a church venue up the road and so on, so that we actually try to steer people towards being elective readers of the publication.
Can you talk a bit about why the musical community is so important to the magazine?
Allan: I see the magazine as having been and still being a community builder. That, in a way, we have a musical community now that we didn’t have before because nobody knew what else was going on. If you happen to find a concert it was a flash-in-the-pan and nobody had any idea that there were 300 plus concerts a month going on. I believe it has really given the community an identity which it didn’t have before. In terms of where I see it going, Toronto will develop a reputation well beyond its borders as a music destination and arts tourism.
David: The way I would tweak that is to say I think we have done an unbelievable service of giving the community an awareness of its identity. We didn't make it. It was there but it didn't even know that it was there. The other thing I would say is that you shouldn't overlook our coverage of recorded music which is also centered on the recorded music of the local community. We've done close to 8000 reviews of recordings since we started. I don’t think anyone in the country covers that. We review 50 to 70 new recordings in every single issue of the magazine. That has also been an extraordinary awareness building exercise far beyond Toronto. Not just far beyond the city, but far beyond the country.
Why do you feel it is important for the magazine to focus on “non-pop” music?
David: Pop music takes care of itself. Our role is to provide a service to people who live a dedicated and musical life in the realm of arts. It’s an arts workers magazine and it's not to say that one kind of music is serious and another kind of music is not. The seriousness is in the passion of the community and the people advocate for it.
Allan: Popular music is actually quite well covered by many other media outlets, and popular music is kind of a commodity. It’s different from art music: people refer constantly to the ‘music business.’ Art music is not a business in quite the same sense. We are not producing a commodity in the same sense, we are reproducing works of art.
What does being nominated for this award mean to you?
Allan: I think it's important. Sometimes we feel like we're working in a vacuum. There’s two categories of people in the world: those that know about the WholeNote and those that don’t, and it would be nice to break down that barrier and extend awareness. It’s amazing that after 23 years not everybody knows about [The WholeNote]. Being nominated could help a lot with that.
David: It's really nice have a chance to tell our story. We always tell other people's stories, so it’s really, really nice to have a chance to tell our story and hear our story told.