All posts by Sofia Luu

Arts Editor 2013–2014 Associate Online Editor 2012–2013

Printing digital

It’s challenging to tell a story in 900 words.

Nine hundred words is only about three pages double-spaced. It’s the number of words we were assigned for this piece — which we slightly exceeded, but will likely be trimmed down to by the editor. This isn’t a number that’s been pulled out of thin air — it’s a very informed amount that provides a glimpse into how print media works. It’s a number dictated by the editor’s plan and what they have in mind for this particular story and where it stands in relation to the other stories in this magazine. It’s a number that reflects the resources at the publication’s disposal, design limitations, and visual specifications. It’s a carefully chosen figure, one that can make telling a story in its entirety very hard — but this is the reality of print.

There are several tropes that plague discourse around modern media consumption, such as social media addiction, listicles, and the catch-all phrase that “print is dead.”

In the last few years, a common step for many longstanding print magazines has been to stop print production entirely. These shifts are usually hailed by critics as proof of a dying industry — but transitions to web may not necessarily be the death knell they are often perceived as.

AN EVOLVING INDUSTRY           

The fact is, print isn’t dead — its impression as such is emblematic of wider evolution in the publishing industry.

The most profitable magazines today are tabloid weeklies, glossy fashion publications, and lifestyle magazines from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Owned by media conglomerates, publications such as these face fewer financial challenges than smaller-scale, niche products.

David Rose, a publisher from Lapham’s Quarterly, differentiates between the power of strong editorial design versus business make-up. After almost two decades of publishing experience, he argues that the opposite of what we may think is true: a magazine with low-quality content will sell if the business model works.

Despite these challenges, magazines like Hazlitt are inverting traditional standards with new editorial approaches. Hazlitt was founded on the notion that good writing can make anything interesting — even a dense finance story.

Haley Mlotek, editor of The Hairpin, is inclined to agree.

“I really think that if I chose the writers and the articles I believe in, if I publish articles I really believe people want to read, then I’ve done my job,” she says.

Mlotek admits that it’s not an exact science, adding, “My faith, if you want to call it that, lies primarily with the writing first.”

The publishing giant, Random House of Canada — now Penguin Random House — created Hazlitt as their digital space to showcase good writing on any and all topics. Random House is straddling the space between print and online, employing its traditional model of publishing in the web realm.

THE ELASTICITY OF DIGITAL

From a creative perspective, there are no technical boundaries to what you can publish online.

The internet comes equipped with hundreds of different platforms and tools designed to make using it easier. Sites such as WordPress, Tumblr, and Medium have opened up the act of publishing to pretty much anyone with a decent WiFi connection and valid email address. Articles have the potential to come alive with the addition of multimedia and interactive elements such as audiovisuals and infographics. 

“Online, there are some things I can do that you can’t do in print, like publish really timely pieces or not worry so much about things like word count or page layout,” Mlotek explains, adding, “It’s more flexible to the writing.”

Digital content is also more universally accessible to readers. Physical magazines are only available in certain locations to those who can afford them. When we’re reading online, we don’t have to purchase an entire issue of The Atlantic just to read one feature — and, if we really like that one article, we can save it to revisit and share it on social media towards facilitating a conversation about it.

Print publications often cater to a target readership. When you’re a digital publication, however, you might have a target readership in mind — but if one article goes viral, your audience can dramatically expand in a matter of hours.

For print, the number of issues being produced and the amount and value of advertising space being sold are strong indicators of a magazine’s health — but measuring success online is more challenging.

There are a number of things that an editor can consider to gauge how well an article is doing, such as page views or the number of shares on social media.

Mlotek emphasizes that success in terms of page views doesn’t necessarily mean a positive public response, however. “I can think of a lot of articles published online that are technically successful because people ‘hate read’ them,” she explains.

“On the other hand, it’s really important to me that I see some reaction… I want to see what readers think about a piece, how they feel, what they like or don’t like,” she adds.

NOT DEAD YET

Rose argues that the reason print magazines fail is not due to poor quality, but merely lack of publishing expertise. Looking back to a decade ago, when the digital sphere was rapidly expanding, print publishing skills were often entirely cast aside to make way for their digital counterparts. 

It is not uncommon for magazines to experience success online and then flounder when looking to expand into print — which Rose attributes to a lack of knowledge of the fundamentals of print, including balancing a budget, marketing strategically, and management.

Today the digital magazine industry is showcasing innovative editorial visions — and while the online model allows for complete creative freedom, it is the intersection with print that measures the resilience of these publications. The loss of each small, independent magazine is used as fodder for the growing idea in our minds that print is, in fact, dead. Print does, however, live on ­— in some cases with great success. The fork in the road between print, online, or both presents a choice for publications. The decision they make depends on their preparedness in tackling the medium, not on a flaw in the medium itself.

The way we eat now

Earlier this year, blogTO published a list called “The top 10 most outrageous fusion meals in Toronto.” This list included “novel mash-ups” such as the bulgogi cheesesteak (from Oddseoul) and the cheeseburger spring roll (from Lee). By describing these meals as the “trend du jour,” the article suggests that the entire concept of fusion — or food that combines techniques and styles from two or more cuisines — is a gimmick. But fusion is not merely a passing food fad to be forgotten when the next big trend hits the city.

IMG_5213Fusion is hardly a new idea and certainly not something Toronto can proudly call its own. According to Nick Liu, the former executive chef of Niagara Street Café and the upcoming GwaiLo,  fusion entered the culinary mainstream in the ‘90s. These fusion dishes looked a lot like “miso in smoked salmon and wrapping it in Vietnamese rice paper,” says Liu.

He adds, “These dishes were usually created by French-trained chefs, chefs not of these cultures. This type of cuisine lacked culture and history and was a trend that died back in the ‘90s.”

The type of “fusion” found in restaurants today tends to have different roots, both historically and culturally. Ask any Toronto foodie about what comes to mind when they think of “fusion,” and they would be quick to drop a few well-known names: the Lee Family, Susur Lee and his sons, Kai and Levi Bent-Lee; and the Han brothers. Leeto and Leemo, owners of Swish by Han and Oddseoul are just a few of the many.

This particular group consists of young chefs who are primarily of Asian heritage. Trying to stay true to what is commonly defined as “Chinese” or “Japanese” food is complicated in a city as diverse as Toronto. For many of these chefs, rather than resisting the influences of these other cultures and trying to stay within the boundaries of “Chinese” food, they welcome external influences. The result is a new style of cuisine that is both innovative and delicious.

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Liu describes his style of cooking as a “natural integration” of the Asian dishes he grew up with and his own personal belief in using locally sourced food. But don’t you dare call his food “fusion” — in fact, the term is dreaded among the new crop of chefs who are creating dishes that food critics and media would label as such.

Liu instead prefers “new Asian cuisine,” or simply “Canadian.” Many would be quick to point out that Toronto is the furthest thing from a homogenous city. Our neighbourhoods are a reflection of the ethnicities that were once the largest in the city: Chinatown, Little India, and Greektown, for starters. While it is easy to identify certain dishes associated with certain ethnicities, trying to define “Canadian” food is problematic.

Although Shinji Yamaguchi — owner of Gushi, a street stall that specializes in a style of Japanese street food called kushikatsu — grew up in Japan, it is pretty clear that the Gushi menu was strongly influenced by his experience in “Canadian” dining. One notable item is Gushi poutine — a hybrid of the Canadian staple and Gushi’s signature chicken.

IMG_5254The history behind the poutine meal at Gushi is simple: Yamaguchi wanted to combine both of his favourite foods into one meal. Many of us consider the act of starting off the day with a double-double and doughnut from Tim Hortons as a way of asserting our Canadian identity, but we seldom think about why we consider this combination to be “Canadian.” Perhaps the reason why there has been so much obsession with “fusion” food is its tendency to take dishes we consider “traditional” and reimagine them as a dish that is culturally indistinct.

These new hybrid cuisines aren’t killing off cultures; they are celebrating them in new ways. Innovators are bringing the mingling of cultures on the streets of Toronto and other cities into the kitchen and forging new courses within traditional cuisines.

Fusion food — debates about the authenticity of bulgogi cheesesteaks and kimchi fries aside — asks diners to consider the diversity of personal histories and influences behind a single dish. Much more than a trend for foodies to cash in on, fusion is a natural and exciting product of what happens when a chef of another ethnicity grows up in Canada.

A music festival for Toronto

Jeff Cohen doesn’t believe that Toronto has the potential to be a world-class music city, because the reality is that we’re already there. Toronto is both the fourth-largest city and the third-largest music market in North America. In 2012, The New York Times claimed Toronto was having a “Seattle” moment based on the number of its critically successful hometown heroes — such as Drake, Feist, and Fucked Up, to name a few.

There are many aspects of the music scene in Toronto worthy of a pat on the back or two. We have a vast number of quality venues — such as Massey Hall,  Horseshoe Tavern, and El Mocambo. You are never more than a stone’s throw away from seeing a friend of a friend of a friend play in an impromptu side project.

What’s missing from the picture is a large-scale, weekend-long outdoor music festival to pull it all together. Almost every city, big or small, has one; Montréal has Osheaga, New York City has Governor’s Ball, Manchester has Bonnaroo. Los Angeles (technically, Indio) is home to the “godfather” of all North American music festivals: Coachella, which has been so successful that organizers decided to expand it to run for over two weekends.

Toronto has been without a music festival for years — is it time for us to have a festival for us to call our own? And if it is, can we actually pull it off?

 

Ghosts of festivals past

Merchandise frontman Carson Cox at NXNE. CAROLYN LEVETT/THE VARSITY

The closest thing we have had to our own Osheaga in Toronto was the UK-imported Virgin Festival (V Festival). The festival began in 2006 but, after a rocky four years, the 2010 festival was cancelled due to poor ticket sales and unforeseeable logistical problems.

Since then, other festivals such as Edgefest and the hugely popular Veld have taken place. However, such festivals cater to a specific genre of music and, in short, cannot be considered in the same light as Osheaga or Coachella.

Perhaps the real problem with V Fest was that it was not built from the ground up. It lacked support from Toronto’s hugely diverse music community. The acts that were signed on to perform — those that did not cancel at the last minute — were massive: Björk, The Smashing Pumpkin, Oasis, and The Killers, to name a few. Although they had the potential to draw massive crowds, these choices were generic, mainstream, and failed to pull from Toronto’s impressive resources.

 

Small festivals in Toronto 

V Festival has proven that having a major headliner or two is not the secret to having a successful festival: “The kind of bands that would play a large-scale event already do. That’s not always the case in Austin, small town Tennessee, Ottawa, or Montréal. When Depeche Mode or The Cure play Austin City Limits, it’s a big deal. Here, it’s likely their second play on that record in the market,” explains Cohen, owner of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace and main booker of Collective Concerts and the Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF).

When it comes to booking for a festival in Toronto, it comes down to the overall quality of the line-up — not the number of Grammy Award winning-acts with stadium sell-out potential.

Kate Killet, a Toronto-based music blogger who has been to music events all over North America, believes that Toronto already has great festivals. However, many of them don’t receive the attention they deserve: “Just because the headliner isn’t a huge name doesn’t mean it’s not a great festival.”

 

Calling on City Hall 

NXNE-levett-3What works for Montréal or New York might not work for Toronto, but there are other cities we can learn a few things from: namely Austin, Texas — otherwise known as the “Live Music Capital of the World.” With 842,592 people, the city’s population is about three times smaller than that of Toronto. However, according to 4479, Austin generates three times the amount of economic activity in the music industry that Toronto does. 4479, a Music Canada-founded initiative that, according to its webpage, seeks to establish Toronto as “one of the greatest music cities in the world” and “create energy and action around the concept of Toronto as a music city.”

Toronto does not need to be the Seattle or Austin of the North. We have already proven ourselves to be a world-class music city and there is no need to define our music identity based on what we do not have. The problem isn’t in getting people to the festivals or creating a line-up that works: “All the difficulty is behind the scenes. Government interference, insurance, silly laws, AGCO rules, the City Municipal Standards and Licensing are the biggest pain in the arse — I call ‘em the no-fun police,” explains Cohen.

All we really need is for City Hall to open its doors to the music industry — embrace the music festival as an event that has both cultural and economic benefits. Becoming a fully realized music city will foster a stronger, more defined identity for Toronto. The city has both citizens with a passion for music and a hipster appeal to artists across different genres — with support from City Hall and the logistics sorted out, everything else will fall into place.

Stepping on stage

Growing up, I learned that you could not have a proper party without breaking out the karaoke machine. As someone who was and has always been somewhat timid, I didn’t quite understand the entertainment value of karaoke. It seemed natural that I wanted nothing to do with karaoke — until recently.

Some people would never consider the idea of singing in a bar full of strangers without first having some liquid courage. But once you get over the initial fear of singing, you might find that karaoke is an experience that extends beyond the individual. You might be alone in your wholehearted attempt to belt out Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” But you should do so in full confidence, knowing that everyone who knows the song will either be mouthing the lyrics along with you or assuming the role of backup singer.

Recently, I decided to explore Toronto’s karaoke scene by visiting a College Street bar that has its own established karaoke night. I spent a bit of time poring over the bar’s expansive songbook, entertaining the idea of doing a Smiths song. Before I could even make up my mind, my friend was quick to chime in, reminding me that I “wouldn’t want to be that person who sang the Smiths.”

He was telling me that if I went ahead with any song from the Smiths’ catalogue, I would be the buzzkill of the bar. I realized that the point of karaoke is to have fun. To many, this often means singing songs that are upbeat and catchy. But to me, this means choosing a song that makes me happy and that I will have fun singing. Even if it means singing the Smiths, Joy Division, or the Cure — all of which I’ve sung in the past and I would sing again if given the opportunity to.

I never gave song choice much thought. I picked my songs according to how I felt. Sometimes my friends influenced my choices, but most of the time they didn’t. The key to enjoying karaoke is to simply not care. No one is going to judge you for doing “Call Me Maybe” because deep down inside, they, along with everyone else, will regret not choosing that song. One night, I did a duet of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Shortly after I was done, someone by the name of — I kid you not — Jude approached me to thank me for choosing that particular song. It’s surprising to see how such interactions can stem from something as simple as a popular Beatles song.

Ultimately, you will come to realize that there is no point in arguing with your friends over which song you should sing next. Karaoke isn’t supposed to be as taxing as selecting courses for next year. You’re not supposed to overthink song selection because then it becomes a burden. If you’re putting too much thought into karaoke, then you’re doing it wrong. The essence of karaoke is simple. It’s to have shameless fun, and lots of it too.