Hello, everyone! Thanks for spending a few minutes on our site. We have a great new Blogger Spotlight to share today, and I personally have a feeling you are going to love the publication being discussed. It’s familiar enough to be easily accessible, but the team behind it is driven to such an extreme there is little as to whether or not they’ll soon be setting the standard for blogging amongst young writers.
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I have mentioned this before, but it feels like 2015 will be the year we see more and more music blogs attempting to craft digital magazines – either for profit or not – to expand their online presence. A few sites already doing this have been featured on the blog before, including the wonderful team at Highlight Magazine, but when we did there were very few direct competitors to their style or release schedule. That seems to be changing now, and today we’re thrilled to introduce you to a young digital publication that is starting to gain a lot of attention in the alternative world.
Focus Magazine is the brainchild of Penelope Martinez, a freshman college student from the state of Illinois with a passion for music and photography to match any of her industry peers. Penelope has been a lifelong fan of music, but her interest in the business really took off after see-and later meeting-the band Mayday Parade. Being in the crowd at one of their shows changed Penelope’s entire life, and today she’s helping a growing number of fellow aspiring industry professionals chase their dreams through her efforts with Focus Magazine. She doesn’t do it all alone, of course, and during our exclusive interview this past week Penelope made sure to mention those who are assisting her in building this new music empire. You can read that conversation, which also includes information on how you can apply to write for Focus, below.
As with any young blog, Focus Magazine needs your support to thrive. If you enjoy this feature, or if you just want to show your support to struggling creative people, give the magazine a follow on Twitter and a ‘like’ on Facebook.
H: Hey, Penelope. How are you today? What is life like in your neck of the woods (or city, or plains area)?
P: I’m doing pretty swell actually. Day off from work, had some iHop, weather was ok, went on a cool adventure to the frozen Lake Michigan which is 5 minutes from my house. Can’t really complain! I live a few minutes from downtown Chicago so life here is pretty hectic. At least for me it is haha.
H: I always want to ask people about the city they’re from specifically, but in this business people are often traveling, so I found its best to just ask where they are and build from there. I’m sure you can relate.
P: Of course. I’m not traveling… yet. Hopefully someday soon or in the next few years I’ll be able to answer with something like “well tonight we’re in this city.” But not tonight!
H: Anyways, it’s great to speak with you today. I’m so excited to feature you on the blog. I admittedly did not know of your publication until you reached out to highlight Haulix. When did you launch Focus Magazine?
P: I don’t blame you! Focus is still a relatively small outlet. I launched it almost a year ago with my friend Mariana. I had first launched a minimal news blog but gave up within a few weeks. Then I met Mariana and we both enjoyed the same artists and thus Focus began.
H: Before we go to far down that path, I do want to learn about your youth. When did you become interested in alternative music?
P: That’s a tough one. I grew up listening to radio music, top 40 kind of stuff. Then I learned Yahoo Videos was a thing and I listened to Eminem, Chris Brown, Jay Z and more hip hop artist on the daily. I think it was sometime between 5th and 6th grade that I was introduced to alternative bands however. I had a friend who was in love with Pierce the Veil and Avril Lavigne, we sat next to each other in Science class so I eventually got hooked on alternative music.
H: First concert?
P: I wouldn’t count this as my first one but what the hell – Plain White Ts and Sean Kingston, weird combo right? It was in a small parking lot somewhere outside Chicago. The local radio station announced it the day of and it was free so I begged my mom. But my first real show, without my mom, was Mayday Parade, The Maine and The Postelles on October 3rd 2012. It was the show that changed my life. It also made me very broke because it was sold out and I bought the tickets off some dude on Craiglist for $40. It was worth it though, I got to meet Derek and Jeremy who were relaxing behind the venue, I was at the end of the line. It pays to be at the end of the line sometimes.
H: Have you chosen to pursue anything related to your industry work through college or other forms of higher education?
P: Well right now I’m a freshman in college but I’ve only taken 3 classes. I’m taking this semester off due to some issues with the school, but school had nothing to do with me wanting to work in the industry. When I went to my first concert (Mayday Parade one) I spotted a photographer in the pit and it sparked something in me. I knew of other photographers such as Adam Elmakias but I never really considered the possibility of me doing what he did, until I tried it out. After a couple of months doing photography, I realized I could do more and create more connections by being more involved in the industry. School is cool, just not a priority for me. (Sorry mom.)
H: Your email mentions photography, so is it safe to say you were into shooting shows and other things prior to running your own site, or did they happen simultaneously?
P: Shooting shows definitely came first. Photography in general has always been a huge part of my life but I left it during my first year of high school so I could focus on school (no pun intended). It didn’t help haha. During my sophomore year I thought, “what the hell, I might as well be putting my time into something I love if I’m going to be screwing up in school.” So I did. I picked my camera and haven’t put it down since. After a year or so of shooting for an outlet, I decided it was time for me to try to do my own thing.
H: Did you design the site yourself? It’s a very clean and modern look.
P: I wish I could take credit but sadly no, I didn’t do anything. It’s all thanks to Squarespace. They’re lovely.
H: How would you describe the content found on Focus Magazine to someone who had never visited the site before?
P: We’re a super small magazine who features rad people who love what they do. We’re all about showing the fans just how big the music industry is and how much work goes into it. There is so much more to a band or artist than meets the eye and we’re here to showcase that.
H: What would you say your site offers that cannot be found on other music blogs? Why should someone choose you over, say, another site covering the wide spectrum of alternative rock?
P: I think that our “Artist of the Month” and “Behind the Band” features set us apart from other outlets. As I stated before, we’re all about showcasing the people who help an artist in any way possible; whether it be by designing their merch, managing them on tour, documenting them or whatever their job is, we want the fans to know these people exist. Not many people look at a cool shirt and say “Hey man, nice shirt. Who’s your designer?” And we want to change that. We also want fans to acknowledge the crews of the bands. TMs, sound techs, publicists, merch slingers- anyone who helps the artist be where they are now. These people work their butts off and rarely get recognition. It’s time to change that. But I don’t think readers should “choose” us over another outlet, I do suggest they check us out because we’re a bit different than other magazines, and different is good.
H: There is also a digital magazine component to your efforts. Can you tell us a little about that project and the work that goes into it? I noticed the last ‘issue’ came out near the end of November.
P: Ah yes, our magazine. This is definitely the most challenging part of our outlet. It’s a pain in the butt in all honesty. But it’s so so sooooooo worth it! Every month (or so we try), we gather up as much content as we can so we can release it in our issue. I am lucky enough to have my friend Lori (lorigutman.com) as the managing editor. She helps me with everything Focus related. Together, we make lists of artists we’d like to feature and artists who will be visiting the cities where we have photographers and writers. We then shoot an email to their publicists and hope to get interviews and shoots with said artists. We also find a wide range of artists of other mediums ( photography, design, drawing etc.) and people working in the music industry and we ask to feature them as well.
But of course, sometimes things don’t go as planned- like with our December issue. We had a bunch of amazing content lined up, it was actually going to be our biggest issue ever. Our artist of the year was Lights- I had Lori do a photo shoot with her and everything. Unfortunately, the writer we assigned to conduct the interview with Lights had some technical problems and wasn’t able to write a proper story. Aside from that, most of the artists we had didn’t turn in the interviews in time so we didn’t have enough content to release an issue that I would have been proud of. This isn’t the first time it has happened; we’ve had many ups and downs, but I’m not ready to let some bumps in the road stop me. I’ve put everything I have into Focus and it’s too important to me.
H: When can we expect the next issue to be release? Any chance you will tell us who we can expect to see on the cover?
P: We are back this month and the issue releases on the 24th! We got some real cool people in it like Matty Voguel, Pup, Have Mercy, MAX and many more. As for our cover artist, let’s just say this band wants their fans to Hold On, because Pain Ends. They “Know Hope.” (;
H: How much planning goes into one of these issues? How far out are you currently working? Have you gotten to summer content yet?
P: A ton of planning goes into them. We had the Tonight Alive issue planned 2 months in advance for example. We like to make lists of everything -tours, artists, festivals, people- so we plan ahead of time to be safe. Right now we have plans up to our one year anniversary. I have many ideas for this one even though it’s a couple of months away. In order to help us plan, I have our photography team shoot me a list of shows and artists they’d like to cover and work with. I then discuss everything with Lori and we strategize. We also have to assign interviews, albums, shows and such to writers. We have two emails for the outlet so we have a ton of people reaching out to be featured or reviewed and that helps. Aside from that, we have to plan with the artists and their team as well. We have to make sure that the artists will have enough time to answer the interview questions and that our writers will have enough time to turn said interviews into stories. It’s pretty hectic. I usually have only a few days to put it all together so lately I’ve been getting a head start on the design part.
As for the summer content, I have some ideas of festivals and artists that I think would be rad to feature. Lori and I haven’t thought too much about it though. She goes to school full time and I work full time so we only get to plan for a couple of hours at night. We make it work.
H: This is a lot of work to do for little to no pay. Do you have any plans to monetize your efforts in the future?
P: In all honesty, I don’t. I have no clue how I would even get money out of an online outlet. Sure, I can sell “merch” and put ads in the magazine, things like that, but even then, it’s not something that’s on my to-do list. As long as the fans and readers get access to our content free and they’re happy with it, I’m happy. If someday our readers begin to ask for physical copies then maybe I’d have to find a way to give that to them. Magcloud and Issuu print digital magazines for a semi low cost (around $7-10) so I don’t think I could even get a profit out of that. Sorry to all my staff who were hoping to get paid! But you never know, maybe I get some really cool sponsorship from a print company in a few years. Besides, the economy isn’t really good right now, at least my boss says so haha.
H: How many people are on your staff? Contributors?
P: I have a small team of staff: 9 photographers around the U.S, 1 in Canada, 1 in the U.K, and 3 writers. I’m short staffed on writers so if anyone reading this wants to apply, please do so!!
H: Are you looking to expand either of those groups? If so, how can people apply to join the Focus Magazine team?
P: Yes, I need more writers. A lot more. If you’re good at grammar and have a passion for writing, please shoot us an email! You get to meet cool people and Lori will help you grow as a writer. I have asked her many times to write my essays because I suck. She doesn’t want to. If you want more info visit http://focuszine.com/about/apply/ or shoot us an email directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We need more writers, I can’t stress it enough.
H: Speaking of people looking to get a start in music journalism, what advice would you give to people aspiring to be a part of the online writing community?
P: Have excellent grammar and amazing transitions! But in all seriousness, if you’re genuinely interested in music journalism, be open to learning new things and just have an open mind in general. You’re going to have to interview and review artists you’re not a fan (musically and professionally) of, but keep it professional. Try to not be biased. Give small artists a shot, give them their first real interview and don’t be a jerk if someone criticizes your work. When trying to come up with interview questions, make sure you’re not asking questions that can be easily answered by searching past interviews or looking online. I’ve heard many artists comment about how they hate doing interviews sometimes because they get asked the same questions. The most important thing is be confident with yourself and never stop growing. Don’t underestimate how far you can go.
H: 2015 is still relatively new, so how about you share some of the goals you have for Focus in the months ahead?
P: One of my main goals is to expand the genres of music that we cover. I love the scene we’re in, but as I mentioned before, I grew up with hip hop and pop music. I’d love to get Chance the Rapper in the magazine, some Chicago natives. Maybe some pop artists too. I also want to feature more mediums of art. We have the “Artist of the Month” feature where we interview designers, illustrators, photographers and more, but I’d love to have some actors too. There’s nothing wrong with loving Bring Me the Horizon and Taylor Swift at the same time.
H: What would you say are the biggest hurdles standing between you and achieving the goals mentioned above?
P: I think it’s kind of risky to try to cover such a wide range of artists, people might be confused as to what we’re doing here. I tend to not take risks with Focus and I think that’s one of the main problems I have. Lori has helped a lot, she’s pushed me to shoot for greater things and it’s been good. I also think that publicists and managers would be cautious with an outlet that covers Rap and Indie and Rock artists because one of the only magazines to do so is Rolling Stone, so I would think they’d be like “hmm this is weird.” The main obstacle, however, is that I tend to compare Focus and my personal work to others. That’s a huge problem in any profession. I’ve gotten better at it but every once in a while I catch myself thinking about how well others are doing or if someone did something already I shouldn’t because it’s not unique anymore, things like that. It’s a terrible habit but I’m working on it.
H: Do you hope to make this a career in any way? What do you see Penelope doing in 5 years?
P: I do. If I don’t find a career with this, I have no clue what I would do. In five years I’d like to be traveling with a band and stressing out over the next issue of Focus. If the music industry isn’t my path, then I’d like to have a rehabilitation center for wild and domestic animals open where people with physical and mental traumas can visit and let it out a bit.
H: If you could recommend one artist for everyone to listen to, who would it be and what song would you choose?
P: Oh geez, there are so many I can think of. I would have to go with some locals, Gardens (https://www.facebook.com/gardenschi), listen to “Sleep” off of their newest album Death in the Family. Also Sleep On It (http://sleeponitband.tumblr.com), their EP Everything, All At Once is phenomenal and they were the first cover artist of Focus. Proud of that. I love the Chicago local music scene but these two bands are my favorites. I can see them doing amazing things.
H: I think that covers everything. Before I let you go, are there any final thoughts or observations that you would like to share with our readers?
P: I really hope I didn’t scare anyone into not starting their own outlet or doing what they love. If you truly love it and enjoy it, do whatever you gotta do. Also to my fellow photogs out there, don’t compare yourself to others. It’s such a terrible thing to do, because you’re awesome. We’re all awesome. Let people know how much they mean to you. If you have any questions regarding life, photography, rescuing or fostering dogs, doctor who, or anything at all, shoot me an email or a tumblr message. I love getting to know people and I’m always down to help and share what I know. Also, be kind to yourself, my friend Anam (http://amerchantphoto.tumblr.com/) sent me this really nice video, watch it if you’re having a bad day: http://youtu.be/3QF0m32zAIs. To any bands/people who are interested in getting featured or have suggestions, shoot us an email! Thank you so much for having me James. You’re rad. Stay rad.