Words by Ed King / Pics Rob Hadley
Interview conducted at The Sunflower Lounge on Saturday 22nd April.
Richard Franks started Counteract seven years ago. Seven years ago today in fact, on his birthday. Which along with World Earth Day, Record Store Day, and what seems to be the warm up for Pride marching past The Sunflower Lounge, makes April 22nd a pretty red letter date.
Having “kind of” studied journalism at Birmingham Metropolitan College and then again at University in London for “only a couple of months”, Richard Franks took his career into his own hands and out of the classroom. After scaling/banging heads against the brick wall of being an unknown freelancer, Franks picked up his ego, accepted his fate and did what all honourable men do in the face of professional adversity. He set up on his own.
Seven years later and Counteract is the leading online music magazine in Birmingham, with a monthly readership and reach that can impress and intimidate the publications around them. A regional reality I know only too well.
“I didn’t really do my A Levels,” admits Richard Franks, “and I started writing about music online pretty much straight away, as I left school at sixteen. So all I have are GCSEs and AS Levels; I’ve done all the things that I’ve done without the need for a degree. I made a lot of things up in terms of the way I do things; a lot of guess work. Like learning to make a website. It was never built on ‘I want to copy them’, I just thought right I want to make a website, Googled ‘how do you make a website’, then did it.”
World’s largest library at our finger tips. But some publishing houses, especially those behind the mainstream broadsheets, still ask for a degree at interview – do you ever regret not having that piece of paper? “Not so much, because through the things I have done that’s how I’ve got other jobs. My employers always found it interesting that I’d started the website; it shows a self starting attitude, it shows you’re quite positive.”
“You’ve only got to look at what I’ve done to see that it is possible to do what you want to do,” continues Franks, as I ask the ‘any advice’ question no self respecting interviewer should ask, “to follow a path you know you want to follow. I’m very much an advocate that you don’t necessarily need education to do what you want to do. There are a lot of people I know – in bands or who write – where it’s gone from a hobby to their full time job. That in itself makes it clear you don’t need an education.” I’d argue this with some professions, but the national curriculum has never impinged on my working world. “Obviously there are pressures from all types of angles, from parents, from friends and from the general working life. But I think you’ve got to follow what you think is right and if you’re happy with what you’re doing then so be it.”
Are you happy with what you’re doing? “Yep, sure. I am. There was a time when perhaps I wasn’t, jumping from job to job, thinking how the hell do I make a career out of this? But over the past six months I feel firmly settled. I’m not saying that had I got a degree and then went and got a job I’d be any better or worse off, you don’t know do you. But I felt this way would develop; for different people it’s different things, isn’t it.”
“I don’t think qualifications are so important anymore,” Franks continues, as the afternoon bubble of tired shoppers begins to burst at the bar. “Especially the way online journalism and copywriting and those areas are developing. I think you’d be more likely to get a job now, in an online sector, probably if you have more experience than if you have a degree.” So imagine the scenario, two candidates walk into Counteract HQ for the same salaried position…
“It’s a bit of a double edged sword; how do you get experience if you’re not offered experience in the first place? That’s the kind of thing I struggled with so early on. I was sending reviews and my CV off to places like the NME and The Guardian, but I was either getting knocked back or I wasn’t getting a reply whatsoever. That hurt me, and because of that, I think, I’d be more inclined to give something to someone who didn’t have experience.”
At points, I couldn’t agree more (excluding surgeons, airline pilots…). There was a time whilst recruiting for an entry level position at a PR agency that I stopped interviewing graduates: a blanket ban on university brats. I ended up employing a woman who had worked in a clothes shop since she was sixteen, a few years later she became regional MD.
But I’m not here to pay lip service to the old guard approach of garrulous opinion (think Hunter S Thompson meets a Raymond Chandler character) it’s Counteract’s seventh birthday and the line up to their self promoted party is too strong to ignore, with The Mother’s Earth Experiment, The Hungry Ghosts and newcomers The Dream Collective all on the bill. There’s even a special guest: a bastard child of the B-Town “baby boom” who have been teased out with the Spielberg adage, ‘we’re going to need a bigger boat’.
Speaking of B Town…
Certain coattails are more fashionable than others and the toilet walls of this venue plot point various rising B Town balloons. But Counteract was one publication, one regional publication, one readable publication, which was there before any widespread interest. How did the national media land grab make you feel as a regional editor?
“I was glad at the time that they were getting the kind of publicity they were getting,” explains Richard Franks. “I know all of the bands that were in that circuit, one of them are playing tonight; Harry Koisser used to message me on Facebook asking, ‘we’ve got this new song, can you put it on Counteract?’ This was in 2011/2012, something like that. We always had that little personal relationship with the bands. But I think…” So often does this subject create an uncomfortable pause.
“The term itself, B Town, while it was good at the start it just became a bit of a joke. I don’t think people here, the people that were involved in the music scene here, liked it after a while. It became a parody of itself. And all the bands moved to London. So you’re talking about B Town, you’re talking about Birmingham, but Peace, Swim Deep, Superfood all moved to London.” How does that make you feel, again as a regional editor – one who championed these artists when there was no NME in sight? “It annoys me but you know why they do, because there’s more there.”
What about the promoters and labels who are still in the city. Should they have picked the up mantle with a firmer grip? “It’s money isn’t it; it’s London. How do you compete with London? But the B Town thing I could talk about that for days. I’m happy it happened; I’m disappointed they all moved – because it killed it. But in the same way it spawned so many new bands that wouldn’t have ever thought about coming in to Birmingham. The shows were busier. It was like a baby boom, just in music.”
It is both ironic and encouraging that the seemingly impenetrable wall that once compelled Richard Franks to build Counteract, is now a less of an obstacle. Here we sit, discussing national interest subjects that were once kids reaching out through the Counteract Facebook page.
So now you’re captain of your own ship, with some significant landmarks behind you, what sends you out across the waters? “Seven years ago there wasn’t such an impetus on online content,” explains Franks, “places like Buzzfeed weren’t so prominent. Whereas now it’s a little bit different because I’ve got in my mind that I’m creating the content to try and reach as far as it can, that I have to write it for an online audience.”
Extrapolate that? “What I mean by ‘online audience’ is ‘user friendly’,” Franks continues, as The Sunflower Lounge moves into the DEFCON 3 of a Saturday afternoon. “So all the buzzwords you need to use to try and hit the search engines, all the techniques you need to use to improve your website’s visibility online. All these things are in my mind now. I guess for me there’s been a big change, because of the way the online market has developed.”
“In kind of a roundabout way of saying things, and this may sound a bit bad or naive of me, but it’s now less important for the journalistic quality of the writing as opposed to the way it’s presented on the website for search engine optimisation. In those seven years it’s developed quite a lot, to the point where I like publishing the posts more than I did seven years ago. One, I know they’re going to a good audience because we’ve built up this following on Facebook, Twitter, the mailing list and all those kind of things. And two, I know that when I’m publishing the posts more work has gone into it because you’re making sure it’s set up well for an online audience. It’s more technical now than it was seven years ago.”
I didn’t expect that. There are dangers, in my mind, with being over concerned about clicks, hits and page views; I think writer first, journalist second. An embarrassing attempt at designer third. But marketing comes with a paycheck. And I’ve been running PR campaigns for over twenty years. I start to stumble around a question I would want someone to ask with more confidence.
So… in your priority list, where does the quality of a… maybe that’s the wrong word, what about the story’s… “Integrity?” offers Richard Franks. That’s the word. Where does integrity come in? “Probably not as much as I’d like. But that’s down to two things, one me not having enough time, and two, that it takes more time to publish them – because of the SEO elements of the world. In terms of the integrity of the written content itself, it still ranks pretty high.”
As both an editor and a consumer I have my issues with overzealous content, I don’t believe it. And I’ve known writers jump from one ship to another over precisely this debate. But Richard Franks is in a different place, professionally speaking, and Counteract has its own approaches and agendas. As all publications should. What about straight out bad copy – have you ever not been able to publish someone’s work at Counteract?
“I’ve had to say to people (contributors) but sorry, this is not what we expect. And I never want to do that, I hate doing that, because I want to give everyone a chance. But if they’re rubbish writers, in a roundabout way, we have to be honest. So it’s not me saying the quality of the content, the written work, is not important. It’s just me saying when we publish it the quality of the written content, while it’s just a bit more important than SEO and making sure it’s set up right it’s still not miles ahead.”
The upstairs at The Sunflower Lounge is starting to fill up; we’re pushing ‘high readiness’. And the background noise is putting a strain on my frighteningly fickle voice recorder. Plus the bands are staring to arrive now, DEFCON 4, and whilst The Mothers Earth Experiment have been wrestling with lights (and possibly lava lamps) for a few hours, there’s still some left to sound check.
As we end our interview, me putting down my pen to play ‘punter’ and Richard Franks dusting down the responsibilities of ‘promoter’, I wonder if it’s all worth it. I like Richard Franks. I wasn’t sure if we’d get on (I wasn’t even sure he’d agree to an interview) and God knows not every publication makes it to seven candles. Plus he’s given me some serious food for thought.
But the man is open, honest, and certainly knows his way around a search engine. Digital marketeers of the city beware. And whilst I disagree on some of his style sheet and publishing policies, I respect what he has achieved with Countertact. Seldom has any single person, any music journalist or publisher, done more to celebrate the music in this city; Richard Franks is to be applauded. But probably without him noticing to save an awkward moment for both of you; even whilst celebrating his publication’s seventh birthday, the biggest ego at this table is still most likely mine.
But will we be sitting here in three years time facing double figures? “The gigs are very time consuming,” Franks replies, “and I don’t like to say ‘never’… but for now it’s more important for my energy to go into the website.” Never indeed, Counteract is bringing Alex Ohm to The Victoria on 20th May – for all intents and purposes, the last in the publication’s recent flurry of live gigs.
“I’d like to get back to the place where I can give everyone a chance,” surmises Richard Franks. “The website is more important and I’m just too busy to reply to everyone right now. But never say never. Once you stop enjoying something, then stop doing it.”
I’ll make us both a note then, April 22nd 2020. Remember to buy a card, candles, a balloon in the shape of the number 10…
For more on Counteract, visit www.counteract.co
For more from The Sunflower Lounge, visit www.thesunflowerlounge.com