Lessons from Creem Magazine

In the late 60s, Barry Kramer started a Rock n Roll magazine. He named it Creem. A misspelled version of his favorite band, Cream. Kramer thought Rolling Stone magazine was named after a Dylan song (Like a Rolling Stone), why not do the same.

Kramer, a hippie-businessman-entrepreneur, wanted to do something all together different from Rolling Stone magazine. He believed RS was too high brow and interested in other things besides Rock n Roll. Barry wanted Creem set apart and like nothing in the country. A magazine unabashedly committed to only and everything Rock. Later using the tag line: “America’s only Rock n Roll magazine.”

Barry had some success with record stores and other ventures leading up to the Creem idea. And after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and the burning down of his own city Detroit because of racial tension. The time was ripe for inspiring the next generation of Rock n Roll enthusiasts.

Kramer secured some grungy offices in a sketchy part of Detroit and assembled a handful of inexperienced writers to see the magazine become a reality. You can get a feel for the crazy that was Creem magazine in those early years from an award-winning documentary called, “America’s Only Rock n Roll Magazine.”

My affection for music created in the sixties and early seventies aside. The story of Creem magazine can teach us many things about art, business, and life. Creem happened in a particular time and place and is a unique story. But it’s a surprisingly inspiring one.

Nobody controls the twists and turns of culture and history except God. The tensions of the late sixties were not a planned affair. But nothing in history happens in a vacuum and the events leading up to the assassination of MLK and Kennedy were not completely unseen.

The timing of Bobby Kramer starting Creem magazine was important to their story. Kramer saw something that nobody else saw. Not only a unique business venture offering the world a specific Rock n Roll offering. He understood if Creem had any chance of survival, the business side of making money was part of the equation. No cash, no magazine.

But the timing for a younger generation dealing with a culture unraveling is where Creem served a need. Creem was a needed voice in the wilderness. Imagine young kids from small towns wanting to make sense of the world. Music is almost always a portal into understanding the tensions in our hearts, souls, and minds. A place of connection and shared experience with others. At least for me it is. Creem was giving a front-row seat to the voices that were shaping the culture, albeit for good and ill. Kramer had its pulse on what young people wanted. They wanted to be heard.

Timing is everything.

Second, everybody needs a tribe. Not only did Creem cultivate a tribe of like-minded rock fans in the country, but the same tribe drove the magazine. In the documentary it’s obvious the people who worked at the magazine genuinely loved music. Bands would come into play in the offices. Some employees played in bands. Music was flowing through the veins of the staff of Creem.

The like-minded tribe of Creem were keys to the magazine's success. They were all music lovers and also functioned like a family. A crazy, and often dysfunctional family. But when you hear their stories years later they all say it was some of the best times of their lives.

When you have a tribe which becomes a family with a common purpose and cause, it becomes unstoppable.

Let’s talk about passions. Barry Kramer and the early writers and staff of Creem were passionate about the work. They loved the music, the scene, people associated with the scene, and the impact they had on the generation. When you find something you love to do, something you are fairly competent at, run after it. Listen to your life, as Frederick Buechner says.

The passion Creem had for music and giving a generation some hope in the wilderness kept the magazine going until well into the 80s.

Creem was not for the faint of heart. Not everything they said or did uplifted the masses and often was sexist, homophobic, and mocked people in the culture. Common for the time. But if you look beyond the words and comments used for a cheap laugh, something profound emerges in the story of Creem.

Timing is essential in sharing your message and finding a tribe. When do I start this project, make my art, or create that nonprofit? It’s hard to know, but we must read the culture as sometimes we see an obvious need that isn’t being met. The best time is often right now. Creem filled a need for a magazine that focused on Rock, and only Rock. They did it with humor and invited other rockers to be in on the joke.

Tribes are essential. Find a community of people that share your vision. It doesn’t have to be big. One, two, or twelve people will suffice. Creem results from a like-minded tribe. Much of our art will never get off the ground without a supportive tribe rooting us along the way. The tribe only improves our art.

Passion will keep you going in the hard times. When Creem wasn’t doing well, passion carried them to another phase. Money was running out, morale was low, but the passion to see all things rock get to the masses kept them going.

I understand passion is often spoken of in ethereal terms. But you know what it is when you see it, feel it. The thing you love to do even when it doesn’t make money or nobody seems to care. Passion and love aren’t distant cousins.

So go figure out the timing, find a tribe, and do it with passion. Creem magazine is a story of showing how it’s done. Rock on!

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