Written for SYP Scotland blog | Niall Stokes – Keeping Ireland Safe for Rock ‘n’ Roll – Magfest 2015
“I’ll not tell you how to run a business, how to make a fortune, or blind you with science and numbers,” begins Hot Press’ own Niall Stokes. “I will talk about the strange, bizarre world of Hot Press and my place in it. I jumped on a train a long time ago and wanted to jump off many times, but the fucking thing was going too fast! That’s why I’m here today. I’m still on the train.”
The climate in Ireland in which Hot Press began is dark, but they persevered. “To say that we were amateurs is to put it mildly,” he begins. He was checking in to see if any adverts had been sold, and found his team staring at a portrait on the floor. His art director, who was to help with advertising went for a coffee with the people who had brought it and never came back. “That’s the last we saw of our Art Director. We’d go to the pubs and ask ‘Do you know how to design a cover of a magazine?’”
They were an hour late to the printers so the red colour spot they wanted wouldn’t happen. That’s why their first issue is totally monochrome on the cover. They had no phones and were told it would take eight months go get some, so they’d accost the local phonebox and when it rang, go “Hello! Hot Press!” Good timing on seeing a newspaper article meant they got phones sooner than planned.
“I’m a great believer in chaos theory,” continues Niall. “I didn’t make the first deadline so we missed every deadline.” He’d chase the truck who was meant to deliver their pages when they ran late and missed it, which happened a lot.
Things did start to pick up though. To celebrate one year the Boomtown Rats were happy to help on the basis they had a negative review. This was a time when you could expect to meet legends of music and spend time with them, say an hour and a half, and get to know them. One defining moment was when he interviewed Bob Marley but couldn’t understand him. “I suddenly heard him as if he was from Cork. I got into the rhythm of it and understood him.” Bob played a song he’d been working on to him, one-on-one, which is a moment he’ll never forget. “Along the way, you get to meet people who are, or become, heroes.”
Another great decision was their Yearbook, which is the Bible of Irish Music now. Without it they would not exist as a publisher; it gave them the money to reinvest loads. It wasn’t plain sailing from then on, though. Thanks to Thatcher-caused strikes, over 30,000 magazines sat in a London airport with no one to get it through. They lost two issues in the UK and lost momentum. “We were dead. We almost went out of business.”
Fast forward to the present and they’re a 360-degree publisher who do virtually everything from events, education initiatives, books and magazines, including a limited edition Phil Lynott book.
In summary, he says: being in the right place at the right time makes a difference, it’s hard work to find your voice, have an eye for a deal, be nice to people, stay open, remember it’s about ideas – always about ideas.
To condense Niall’s talk into one post does take something away from his infectious personality, rambling stories (of which there were plenty, and we could happily hear many more) and the fact that there’s a real joy and passion for what he does, and has achieved for music in Ireland. Recently, he got a call from a friend who said “You’re still keeping Ireland save for rock ‘n’ roll”, and he thought, “That wasn’t a bad slogan after all.”