election anxiety countdown

5 Days: Alt-Delete

Yesterday, the alt-weekly I grew up reading in Minneapolis published its last issue. City Pages, like many of the surviving alt-weekly newspapers around the country, had been shrinking and struggling. Every time I make my way back to Minneapolis to visit family, or for work, I still have been in the habit of seeking out a copy to help plan my free time. The nameplate logo changed from the bold all-caps red of my youth to a funkier rounded typeface. Each visit the paper seemed to shrink: first in page count, and then in page size. It went through ownership changes, but somehow kept cranking out valuable coverage of the music and arts scene at the heart of the nordic prairie colony, along with the occasional news scoop missed by bigger outlets.

My earliest memories of City Pages, and its long-departed rival, the Twin Cities Reader, are of driving from coffeeshop to coffeeshop in high school friends’ cars. We’d order sickeningly sweet mochas or hot chocolates and page through the free newspapers, pretending we were as sophisticated as the adults studying for law school or out on first dates. I’d bring the City Pages home and read late into the night about local music, film, and art going on in venues I’d never heard of, and would scan the concert listings for all-ages shows and big tours of bands I knew from MTV’s 120 Minutes or the modern rock station KJ104 and its successor Rev105.

A few years later, I had a temp job downtown. The new issue of City Pages would be stacked high in the second story pedestrian skyways on Wednesday mornings. I’d tuck one into my messenger bag and bring it back to the office as I ran errands for my boss. By the end of the day on Thursday, copies were hard to find downtown. Yes, it was something to read for free on lunch break since Instagram hadn’t been invented yet, but it was also an essential tool for planning your weekend: concert listings, restaurant openings, movie times, and fine print classified ads offering glimpses into subcultures all over the city.

By the late 1990s, I was the bored barista making hot chocolates and mochas for high school kids. The midweek delivery of City Pages with a thud in two bundles bound by plastic strapping counted as excitement. A few of my coworkers were musicians, had friends in bands, or were involved with the University of Minnesota’s Radio K. We’d look at City Pages together and see which bands were featured in a photo, or in an A-List critic’s pick for the week. These friends would tell me whether it was worth walking over to the 7th Street Entry to see this band or that band after we closed the coffeeshop. Other times, I was the one doing the teaching, paging through the paper and educating a new coworker who’d just arrived in Minneapolis for cosmetology school from a farm on the prairie.

For a time, I earned a little extra booking musicians into the chain of coffeeshops I worked for and sent the listings to City Pages each week. When each new issue came out, I’d confirm the listings made it in to print. It seems almost magical now to think that thousands of miles of newsprint were devoted to printing the names and set times of the little-known singer-songwriters who played for tips at every coffeeshop and dive bar in town. A few of those singers were veterans who’d been playing the folk scene since Bob Dylan was bumming around in Minneapolis. A few others were just starting out and went on to bigger things:

I specifically remember that at the Uptown show there was literally no one there, not even the baristas because they had another separate room they were working in. I felt like such a loser because there was this big glass window behind me and people kept walking by seeing me play songs to an empty room… I remember reading the City Pages every week and listening to Radio K obsessively and I never in a million years dreamed that I would be written about in the paper or playing the Mainroom.

Will Sheff, Okkervil River

By 2000, the internet — and specifically Craigslist — was already interfering with alt-weeklies’ classified ad revenue. City Pages struck a deal with an early online dating service that had media partners in markets all across the country. They excerpted the best online ads in print as a replacement for the outdated 1990s classifieds that used voicemail boxes. I met and started dating a new girlfriend through the new online service, and a few months later moved to Philadelphia with her. We found new alt-weeklies there to help orient us to the music scene: Philadelphia City Paper (R.I.P.) and Philadelphia Weekly (still going). We didn’t last as a couple, but when I moved on to new places, I sought out the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper for some clue as to how each city worked. When I’ve travelled, I’ve found good company in the San Antonio Current, Seattle’s The Stranger, SF Weekly and others.

There are analogues online. There are excellent writers covering local art and music everywhere. Critics are working freelance. Writers are rambling on and on in blogs like this one. We haven’t figured out a new way to get paid sustainably, and we aren’t going to be found by accident in a free box on the corner by someone looking for movie showtimes. Still. Art and music scenes are more united across neighborhoods and across continents than they ever were through print. But that’s an issue to explore another day. Tonight I’m pouring one out for City Pages.

Thanks for reading!

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