Interviewer: Peter Houston
Peter: I’m in Planet Hollywood at Las Vegas with Rachel Arthur. Rachel, why are you in Las Vegas?
Rachel: I am very happily here to attend FIPP’s World Congress. And last night I picked up an award for being a Rising Star in Media, which was very, very nice. I was Highly Commended last year, and then bumped up this year, so a really, really nice end to the year.
What’s the award? How do they define what they’re looking for, for the people that won that award?
So a lot of it’s around new initiatives within media and publishing. So in a couple of weeks, it will be a year since I went full time on boom, it was always a bit of a side hustle previously, and this year has been a really interesting one because as I said in my application, it’s been largely about kind of firming things up behind the scenes.
So working a lot to tighten up the business model, think more about revenue streams, and consider new initiatives. Which is, I mean, I’ll just be totally frank with things, it’s something I find really challenging because I’m consistently thinking of people on the outside looking in, and the traditional measurements of output, and how many publications and how many projects, but now that this is a full-time thing, there’s so much extra to think about.
As I said, we have such a strong purpose and mission, which is always at the core of everything that we do.
But with a sensible, sustainable hat on, I can’t be a martyr to make that happen, or it will cease to exist. The foundations need to be strong.
So that’s what a large part of this year has been about, alongside working on this new initiative around social distribution, which I can maybe touch on more later if that’s of interest.
Go on, talk about what you do, boom saloon, what is it?
So boom saloon is part of a triple-stranded business. It’s a print magazine which has a mission to democratise creativity for good. So how we do that is we work with a really, really broad spectrum of contributors, from students and people who have never been published before, right up to the industry experts and the people who are considered to be at the top of their game.
And within that spectrum, what we really push for is, people who feel quite ostracised from the creative industries. So a lot of people who personally feel that they don’t have the “right” kind of education, status, they don’t know the “right” people.
And that’s where I feel we have this amazing opportunity to come along and say, literally none of that matters. If you’re doing something creatively of merit, then we think it should be recognised and showcased on the same page as the people who are seen as being at the top of their game, and championed in a publication that’s sold all around the world.
And then that whole concept is furthered by the second strand of the business, which is our projects. So they work mostly with young people in areas of deprivation.
We build upon a concept called asset-based community development, or ABCD, which essentially means we identify a community within which we recognise one or a series of assets who have these sparks of potential, but often don’t realise they exist, don’t realise they could be a genuine career path. Often it’s something that they’re hiding.
Because we’re working with a lot of young people facing challenges, quite often, they have this incredible talent, but it’s very much behind closed doors.
So is that idea of an asset is the talent, the talent is the asset?
Yeah, exactly. So that could be any kind of creative endeavour, creative pursuit whatsoever, it’s just about how we open people’s eyes to this potential that we have within themselves and work with them.
A lot of what we want to do is around legacy, and this idea of transferable skills. The worst, absolutely the worst thing that we could do with the projects is fall into this way of thinking, of parachuting into a community that we’re not a part of, running a project once, leaving, and that’s the end of it.
So with each and every project, the whole process is opened up to every single person, they are talked through every single step of it. Sometimes, they’re not the biggest fan of that kind of thing, trying to teach young kids about invoicing, they don’t want to know, but the idea is that we have equipped them with every single step of the way to be able to then take this, and replicate it themselves.
I don’t see much use in running something which isn’t going to leave some kind of lasting imprint on people. It’s this whole idea of, you know, if a man’s starving, you can either throw a fish in the sea, or you can teach him how to catch it himself. So that’s really what we want to do.
So you’re based in Edinburgh for the projects, are they all in Edinburgh, or do you work in other places?
Very much in other places. The first one was based in Edinburgh largely for realistic expectations. So like I say, I wasn’t full time on this then, tiny team, even tinier budgets. In spite of that, I’m so proud of what we achieved.
So yeah, Edinburgh-based with the first project, Glasgow-based for the second, and we’re actually in the throes of planning our first ever international project at the moment, which will be taking place in Berlin.
And the really nice aim of the projects is that we want to be able to open these doors internationally between all these different communities who might in theory, you know, a lot of them are dealing with issues around isolation, and feeling very much like they’re in a certain silo, and they are placed within this box.
Whereas if we can be the conduit that opens these doors internationally for them, to me that’s only ever going to be a positive.
So what’s the link between the magazine and the projects, how are they tied together?
So as I was saying the business is triple-stranded, the projects sit in the middle, and on either side is boom saloon the print magazine, and then the boom room, our creative studio. All profits raised from both of those funnel directly into the projects.
But the kind of overarching umbrella over all of them, is this idea of using media as a force for good, and trying to democratise the whole industry. So that’s the common thread that ties them all together.
But in a more, I suppose, business model type sense, boom saloon and the boom room both financially make possible boom projects.
So that idea that media is a force for good kind of flies in the face of a bunch of stuff that’s going on at the moment. Do you find people sceptical, or supportive?
I’d say hopeful, which is great, especially because this is something I’m so obsessed with. I’m so interested in the history of the media, and to me, you know, historically it was such a position of privilege to be within the media, and you were looked to as this, you know, speaking of trust and influence and power, and it was categorically, media was there to report the facts.
And I feel like lately, we’ve moved from that stance. It’s really interesting, and I think it’s an incredible platform to, voice debates and hear different opinions.
But obviously, there are all the negatives that come along with that as well which are definitely much more at the forefront of everything that’s happening right now.
So if we can do something to combat that, then that’s the dream.
No, definitely, I think is a few news people in there that could learn something! Media as a force for good. So the boom room, tell me about what’s going on there, what you’re trying to do with that.
So that’s our creative studio where we offer design, editorial and strategy work to clients all around the world. That could be anything from creating a new brand identity, print campaign, digital campaign, strategic positioning workshop, any combination of those three things essentially.
Because I suppose, in a more cynical way, but you can think of it because this is a tried and tested model, boom saloon, our print publication is essentially a calling card of what we can do that ties together the design, editorial and the strategy. Everything is done in house.
So any potential clients can look at that, pick any of those three elements and be like, we want you to replicate that for us. It’s also arguably the most financially viable aspect of the model.
Well I think a lot of indie magazines in the past…I’m thinking Delayed Gratification does infographics, Hot Rum Cow used to do publications. So it’s that model that almost the magazine is your brochure, the best looking brochure in the world. Do people talk about it like that, do you talk about it like that?
To be perfectly frank no, because that’s not why it was started. It was started with a – and I almost hesitate to use the word pure – but essentially a much purer mission than that.
Boom saloon is for the community, is for our contributors, is for everyone that we work with. There is very much a reason why my face isn’t plastered everywhere, because it’s not something that belongs to me, it belongs to everyone that creates it.
And in the same vein, it will never, never be clearly something which is created as an advert for what we can do, but it is nice to be able to have a physical, tangible product which showcases that.
So it has a value and a position in itself. What is that position? What are you trying to say with the magazine?
Well, I think everything is tied into this concept of democratising creativity, and how we can remove those barriers which are so, so prevalent at the moment.
I was having a really interesting discussion with someone earlier about whether or not they have always been in place, and the fact that…I think there are a lot of issues with accessibility within the creative industries currently.
That’s not to say that it can’t be done. But I think it’s very far from a level playing field. And you shouldn’t give up on the fight until that is the case.
So you know the Press Pad initiative where people offer a spare room to journalists, or trainee journalists, young journalists coming up, especially in London. Is that the kind of idea, the idea that, you know, you’re not giving people a handout to make it easier for them to show what they’ve got?
Yeah, to some extent there is something very much ingrained in everything we stand for, which is this concept of quality and of being to a certain standard.
I strongly believe that you do people a massive disservice if you add in any concepts of pity or charity. I don’t think it’s right to look down on people and say, for you, you’ve had a terrible time, you know what, we’ll lower the barrier to entry, we’ll lower the standard for you to make up for that. That’s ridiculous, that is discrimination, and I just don’t think that there is a place for that as we move forward.
So we’re very much of an opinion that there is such incredible talent across the board. And I think not laziness, but maybe a sense of, everyone’s time poor at the moment, right? So you want to go for the quick wins.
Whereas what we want to try and do is take the time to find those unexpected voices who would never normally come to us or other publications, and work to support them and nurture them, and give them a platform to shout about the incredible things that they do. Time consuming, but definitely worth it.
What’s that process? How do you identify those people?
That’s one of the main questions people ask us, and it’s so, so varied. I’m out there a lot, looking at all sorts of different things. Pounding the pavements.
The dream is when there’s crossover between one of the three different strands. So if we are working with an incredibly talented young person for the projects, who has some kind of overlap with the magazine, or they can open up a whole new community of their friends and contacts, who then could cross over to the magazine as well.
Social media is a big one for us. Because we work with contributors from all around the world, like I say, a very small team, not much time not much money, there’s no chance of jetting around the world to go and find people. But social has been really, really great for us.
Also working with other incredible platforms, so there’s something called Native Photograph who are based in Brooklyn, and they work to champion photographers from challenging backgrounds all around the world, and they do such a amazing work, and tapping into networks such as them opens doors to a whole secondary bunch of amazing talents.
It’s a really varied mix. But a lot of it is us going to find the people, as opposed to taking submissions from the people who are submitting to every other publication.
So you’ve actually got to go and look for them rather than them knocking on the door. Do you think that’ll change, do you think you’ll get more people coming to you?
It was a decision very early on never to publicly open up for submission, because we have this policy to offer everyone who submits work, a personal response.
If they’re not right for us, we signpost them to a different publication which they will be right for, which can be quite time consuming, but it’s really important, so when we think of our purpose and our mission, it’s like I said earlier, some decisions are just made for you instantly, and that is one of them.
Because it’s all about supporting people from all different backgrounds who are submitting their work, and it’s a brave thing to do.
But something that we’ve noticed recently is the mushroom effect of our network; you’ll have someone who is just starting out, has never submitted work before.
We collaborate with them, they then think this is incredible because it’s the first time they’ve been in a tangible piece of print, which is around the world. So they then shout about that to all their friends who then think, oh, I want that too, I’ll get in touch.
And so more and more, we’re having people come to us, which is great. But we can never lose the element of finding those unheard voices.
I’m going to ask a big question. Do you pay these people, do you pay your contributors?
Yeah. We’ve been very transparent with this from day one. It’s very much a nominal fee. We’ve always paid as much as we possibly can. But because all the profits from boom saloon directly support the projects, and we’re a nonprofit, it’s always been tight, and like I say, it is a nominal fee.
What’s incredible, is a lot of our contributors refuse payment, because of what we do. Which obviously makes things easier for us, but also it’s a really nice feeling, because people understand what we’re trying to do, and support that, which is incredible.
We’ve always said that we want the fees to consistently rise. As we move towards more of a sponsorship-type model, the hope is that that will kick in even faster.
But yeah, it’s a consistent challenge. We don’t run advertising. It’s a very weighty publication with great paper stock, so it’s very expensive to print.
Why don’t you run advertising?
So in the traditional iteration, it doesn’t align with a lot of the things that we stand for.
This idea of democracy is at the core of everything that we do. We work with a lot of people who have very little disposable income. We do a lot of pay it forward magazines, so people who would want to be a part of our readership can be without the idea of things being a free handout.
But I think if you then try and marry that up with a splashy advert for, I don’t know, a £1,000 coat, whatever it may be, it belittles a lot of the hard work that we’ve done previously.
Also our content is very much evergreen, nothing is trended or gossip or newsworthy. Nothing’s time stamped, we still sell copies of issue one, which is from late 2016. So if you imagine someone reading that now, and it has an advert from that time period, the publication instantly feels dated.
Also realistically, we have a tiny print run. When you’re speaking to advertisers, they want those big numbers, and we don’t have them.
So for multiple reasons, it’s not right for us. This idea of strategic partnerships however, potentially is, and it’s a model that we are currently looking at. Which is really exciting for us, because if we strategically align with the right people, then I think that can be a very powerful move.
But we just have to approach it in a way that stays true to everything that we stand for.
So you talk a lot about that, staying true to what you stand for, your mission, and all these things. When I’m hearing that, it comes from you. What are you getting out of this, because you’ve said it’s nonprofit, what do you get from it?
I love it. It’s funny, the mission and the purpose and the community, that is the number one, and it always will be. But as I said to you earlier, I’m so aware of the fact I can’t be a martyr for this or it won’t continue.
But over and above that, if I was miserable doing this, you know why…it’s a massive challenge every single day. And I think one of the only reasons that it can continue is that I bloody love it, so much. And to be able to do something that you love, I think, is such a privilege, and to get to work with the people that we get to work with is such an honour.
It’s incredibly hard, but I also think I’m incredibly lucky to even be able to consider doing that.
Compared to other jobs you’ve had?!
Yeah, I’ve had some great jobs and some terrible jobs. I still maintain this is the best job by far, but a close second was working at garden centre. That was cracking, I absolutely loved it.
You’ve just invented a new feature for the Media Voices Podcast…other jobs you loved!
My number one, and I’ve said this quite a lot, if everything goes dead in the pan, I’m going to be a florist. No funerals, only celebrations, which will kill any kind of money that I want to make, but that’s the plan!