The Creationists

Creating NOW Magazine with Michael Hollett

July 08, 2020 Steve Waxman Season 2 Episode 1
The Creationists
Creating NOW Magazine with Michael Hollett
Chapters
The Creationists
Creating NOW Magazine with Michael Hollett
Jul 08, 2020 Season 2 Episode 1
Steve Waxman

For close to 40 years, Toronto’s Now Magazine has been one of North America's preeminent and successful cultural guides. But it  wasn't always that way. 18 months after launching Now Magazine was struggling and founders Michael Hollett and Alice Klein were hoping to find new investors to keep the doors open. One of the potential investors was City TV’s Moses Znaimer who pulled Michael aside one night at a party and said that he might be happier if you didn't accept a second round of money from investors.

Of all the people that I've interviewed so far, Michael Hollett is the one person most likely born into his profession. So, it only made sense to begin our conversation talking about his family's background in publishing.

Michael Hollett: I've been thinking about this stuff lately because it's a reflective time. And the first Christmas present I ever got was a Toronto Star metal delivery truck - a shipping truck.The first Christmas party I ever went to was at the Toronto Press Club.  My grandfather was an editor at the Telegram. And my father was a writer, photographer and cartoonist at the Star. My mother freelanced at all of those papers and Maclean's. And my grandmother, my mother's mother, was also a freelancer. My parents met at a newspaper in Hamilton. And when I go to the Exhibition, I don't know if you know this but there's a building, a beautiful building to me called the Press Building. And my grandfather, conflict rules were a little different back then, also did P.R. for the Ex in the summers. I would visit him in the Press Building and there was a little balcony and I would stand there with him looking out over the Ex thinking this newspaper business is all right.

Steve Waxman: (laughing) So, were you conceived on a stack of Toronto Stars?

Michael Hollett: (laughing) Just about, man. Just about.

For the full transcript of this episode visit
imstevewaxman.com

Michael Hollett left NOW Magazine in 2016 to concentrate on running the North By Northeast Festival. He’s now working towards launching a new print paper. If you’d like more information about North By Northeast, please visit nxne.com

To see more materials related to each episode of The Creationists, follow @thecreationistspodcast on Instagram or "Like" The Creation podcast on Facebook. Let us know who you’d like to be featured on future episodes of The Creationists: [email protected] 

Show Notes Transcript

For close to 40 years, Toronto’s Now Magazine has been one of North America's preeminent and successful cultural guides. But it  wasn't always that way. 18 months after launching Now Magazine was struggling and founders Michael Hollett and Alice Klein were hoping to find new investors to keep the doors open. One of the potential investors was City TV’s Moses Znaimer who pulled Michael aside one night at a party and said that he might be happier if you didn't accept a second round of money from investors.

Of all the people that I've interviewed so far, Michael Hollett is the one person most likely born into his profession. So, it only made sense to begin our conversation talking about his family's background in publishing.

Michael Hollett: I've been thinking about this stuff lately because it's a reflective time. And the first Christmas present I ever got was a Toronto Star metal delivery truck - a shipping truck.The first Christmas party I ever went to was at the Toronto Press Club.  My grandfather was an editor at the Telegram. And my father was a writer, photographer and cartoonist at the Star. My mother freelanced at all of those papers and Maclean's. And my grandmother, my mother's mother, was also a freelancer. My parents met at a newspaper in Hamilton. And when I go to the Exhibition, I don't know if you know this but there's a building, a beautiful building to me called the Press Building. And my grandfather, conflict rules were a little different back then, also did P.R. for the Ex in the summers. I would visit him in the Press Building and there was a little balcony and I would stand there with him looking out over the Ex thinking this newspaper business is all right.

Steve Waxman: (laughing) So, were you conceived on a stack of Toronto Stars?

Michael Hollett: (laughing) Just about, man. Just about.

For the full transcript of this episode visit
imstevewaxman.com

Michael Hollett left NOW Magazine in 2016 to concentrate on running the North By Northeast Festival. He’s now working towards launching a new print paper. If you’d like more information about North By Northeast, please visit nxne.com

To see more materials related to each episode of The Creationists, follow @thecreationistspodcast on Instagram or "Like" The Creation podcast on Facebook. Let us know who you’d like to be featured on future episodes of The Creationists: [email protected] 

For close to 40 years, Toronto’s Now Magazine has been one of North America's preeminent and successful cultural guides. But it  wasn't always that way. 18 months after launching Now Magazine was struggling and founders Michael Hollett and Alice Klein were hoping to find new investors to keep the doors open. One of the potential investors was City TV’s Moses Znaimer who pulled Michael aside one night at a party and said that he might be happier if you didn't accept a second round of money from investors.


Of all the people that I've interviewed so far, Michael Hollett is the one person most likely born into his profession. So, it only made sense to begin our conversation talking about his family's background in publishing.


Michael Hollett: I've been thinking about this stuff lately because it's a reflective time. And the first Christmas present I ever got was a Toronto Star metal delivery truck - a shipping truck.The first Christmas party I ever went to was at the Toronto Press Club.  My grandfather was an editor at the Telegram. And my father was a writer, photographer and cartoonist at the Star. My mother freelanced at all of those papers and Maclean's. And my grandmother, my mother's mother, was also a freelancer. My parents met at a newspaper in Hamilton. And when I go to the Exhibition, I don't know if you know this but there's a building, a beautiful building to me called the Press Building. And my grandfather, conflict rules were a little different back then, also did P.R. for the Ex in the summers. I would visit him in the Press Building and there was a little balcony and I would stand there with him looking out over the Ex thinking this newspaper business is all right.


Steve Waxman: (laughing) So, were you conceived on a stack of Toronto Stars?


Michael Hollett: (laughing) Just about, man. Just about. 


So, yeah, I grew up around newspapers.  Full on.  Kind of more old school in the sense that my family were called reporters and editors, they weren't called journalists. They didn’t think of it that way. They were news men. That tended to be the term even though there were lots of women around, in fact, in terms of being reporters.  But I would hang out at the Star building.  And the Star building I would hang out at is the one that was the inspiration for the Daily Planet. It was one of those wedding cake buildings on King St. but it’s gone. So, I’d go hang out there.  I’d go hang out at the Tele and then we’d all go out to The Senator.  I’d be this little six year-old kid on the stool at the diner and all of these newspaper folks would be smoking cigarettes and having important conversations. 


So, yeah, you could say it was really in my blood.  When I was a little kid, I would interview the local politicians running for Parliament and then I would make a newspaper. I’m talking about when I was in grade 5 or 6. And, I would print these interviews in my newspaper and be convinced that people would want to buy them, my friends would go and sell them and I would go and work for the politician that I thought was the best one. (laughing) I was the only person under 30 that worked for Robert Stanfield instead of Trudeau because I liked the local Conservative candidate. I was a little more conservative as a young man.


Steve Waxman: So obviously that’s what led to what you wanted to do with the rest of your life.


Michael Hollett: Well, the funny thing was that my mother spent most of my childhood begging me not to go into the newspapers. Like, literally begging me. So I had to pretend like it was never going to happen. She basically talked about newspapers as though they were a bad lover in the sense that newspapers will break your heart.  You’ll never make any money.  She’d go “Your grandfather never owned his house, he always rented and that’s because of newspapers.  He put all of his time into that”. So she was, like, be a lawyer, be something, be all of these things. I went into university not intending to be a journalist. I intended to be a disgruntled employee somewhere making jokes about the boss. I didn’t know really doing what. 


Steve Waxman: So what happened?


Michael Hollett: I say all that but, as I mentioned, I was constantly making newspapers. In university I edited the campus newspaper at York - Excalibur. And then an uncle of mine was working in Orangeville and they needed someone to fill in for a maternity leave for an editor in Orangeville.  So I took it as a temporary job.  Things went really well. The paper started doing better while I was editing it and they asked me to stay on.  I went from there, edited a paper in Georgetown and I was sort of spun on my path.  And still, my mom was determined to get me out of it. (laughing)


So I was visiting Toronto and my girlfriend, who is Alice and figures in this story very big, I was visiting my mom for lunch.  She was consulting for the Workman’s Compensation Board which it was called back then. And somehow she tricked me into applying for a job there which I got and I ended up being a speech writer for Lincoln Alexander. So, I was writing speeches for the head of the Workman’s Compensation Board because of my mom’s trickery.  Because she wanted me to get a job that paid better.  She wanted to keep me out of newspapers. But, she was one of the first investors in NOW when I started raising money.  So, she came around.


Steve Waxman: How did you and Alice meet?


Michael Hollett: To be consistent with this tale I appear to be weaving, Alice and I met almost the same way that my parents met, over what’s called a paste-up table. A table where you actually create a newspaper. Alice was part of a Trotsky-ist group in downtown Toronto and, among other things, they made a newspaper that they gave out at political events. I was at York, working to get a lot of people elected to student council, including myself. And, we were kind of running as a left wing coalition. So, these Trotsky-ists let me and my friend use their place to create materials for this election. So we sent to look at that space and Alice was there working on a commie newspaper. So, that was literally the first time we saw each other. 


We won that election at York and I was on the student council and we hired Allice to be our Executive Assistant or Administrator - whatever you would call it.  So she worked for the student council at York. And then we eventually became a couple.


Steve Waxman: At what point did you guys start discussing starting your own paper?


Michael Hollett: I’m pretty sure that I dropped it on her out of the blue in the sense that I was now working for the government, thanks to my mother’s machinations, and, I hate this cliche but in this job I did have a lot of spare time and I was afraid that I would get seduced by that job.  I found it easy to do. So I tried to think of things to do to fill that downtime. I was trying to use the spare time in that job to think of something constructive and, in the process, I realized that I had made such great connections at York - a lot of people that were interested in media. I was working at Yonge and Bloor and I was right by a Ticketmaster so I was constantly buying concert tickets for my friends because I could leave my job and go do that.  And there was obviously something happening in Toronto and, being such a student of newspapers, I was very familiar with the alternative news weeklies in the States - obviously the Village Voice in New York in particular. From my point of view Toronto didn’t really have one. My short-hand for all of this is that I realized that we had to make the paper that I wanted to write for. 


I sometimes say that I’m an accidental businessman in the sense that I made a business to have a newspaper. I didn’t start a newspaper to have a business.  I don’t know if I would have started another business. That was the thing that brought my head into that.  Okay, I would like to work for such a paper. The city needs to have such a paper. I guess we should make it. And I had worked for other publishers by then.  I had been an editor. It’s not complicated. The power of the press belongs with those who own the press. There’s no other way to put it.  At the end of the day there would be an issue where the interest of ownership might be different than the desires of the writers. So, when you’re all of that in one package, that issue goes away. That was part of creating the type of paper I’d want to read and write for.  To have that kind of freedom and to be able to have a voice that, for some people, was as out there as NOW was.


Steve Waxman: It was interesting what you said about wanting to create a paper that you would want to read, because of all of the musicians I have spoken to over the years who have said “I write songs that I wanted to hear but don’t exist.”


Michael Hollett: Huh, wow.  That’s really interesting.


Steve Waxman: What were some of the first steps you took towards making it a reality?


Michael Hollett: Well, the good thing about my office, which was at Yonge and Bloor, was that I was right by the library. Well, actually the first thing I did was - the government agency I worked for had previously published a magazine. They stopped making it because it was expensive - blah, blah, blah. But, it was actually a useful thing.  It was about workplace safety. So, I proposed relaunching that magazine for them. In part, to be honest, as a smokescreen for me to do research for my magazine. It did the job for them and it gave me a reason to say that we needed to look at other media to get ideas.  So I had every alternative news weekly in North America sent to me at that office. And it was a cute thing “Oh, there’s more mail for Michael”. So that was hugely useful. And I was right beside the Metro reference library so I went there and read books on how to start a business. How to get a bank loan. There was no internet so you actually had to go read them. Alice took courses at the Skills Exchange.  It was real basic stuff because we really didn’t know.  My business experience had been selling Fuller Brush door-to-door as a teenager.  That was it.


Steve Waxman: What year is this?


Michaerl Hollett: 1980 is when we started working on it. I’ll never forget.  We were driving to my parents cottage.  I was driving.  Our little daughter was sleeping in the car seat in the back. We were driving through Holland Marsh. And as we started driving up the hill out of Holland Marsh I turned to Alice and said “We ought to start a paper like the Village Voice”. She didn’t react and I hadn’t said such a thing to her before. And she wasn’t shocked.  She wasn’t frightened. She was completely opened to it and as we spoke on the rest of the drive, she was in. Which involved a huge risk because, ultimately, it meant that I was leaving a very secure job and putting everything on the line.  And then there was the fact that we had no experience running businesses. These were all things to be concerned about but she responded positively right away.


Steve Waxman: I understand that you read up on how to start a business but what do you need to do to start up an alternative paper in a city like Toronto?


Micheal Hollett: Basically, we had to create a document to convince people to invest in it.  In the process we were creating a document convincing ourselves that this was real and that this could happen. That involved gathering information about the market. My father was in advertising so I could talk to some of his agency buddies at lunches and get some ideas.  Ironically, very little what they said would happen happened. (laughing)  I really thought that Eaton’s (Canada’s biggest department store at the time) was going to be all over NOW but they never bought an ad.  But that’s okay. Many of our assumptions proved to be wrong.


So we created a business plan and we spelled out what our financial needs were and then we would have dinner parties with friends of ours.  We had a lot of friends that were older than us for some reason. They were friends of Alice’s mom.  Alice’s mom went to U of T later in life so she knew a lot of people. So we had these dinner parties and show people our business plan and solicited investments. An early supporter of NOW, I sometimes forget, was Tom Cochrane (of “Life Is A Highway” fame). The one thing you do is you’re not shy. We went to anybody that we knew.  I was more concerned about not getting the money than being embarrassed asking for the money.  So we would have the conversation with anybody that would listen. And, as fate would have it, the people that did listen, they did well. 


Steve Waxman: Was it always going to to be called NOW or did you have alternative names that you were kicking around?


Michael Hollett: We had many terrible names. In fact, we didn’t get the right name until very late in the game. It was crazy.  We had really dull names, to be honest. Very corporate. They sounded like the kind of names the Toronto Star would have income up with in a funny way. So we kind of knew that they were placeholders in a way though I really liked one of the names but the rest of the group were, like, “that’s a placeholder, right?”. But once we had our investment group, we would, once again, have these dinners.  We had these fancy friends from France and they would host these dinners and we would have parties with friends who weren’t investors and we would drink wine and probably smoke joints - definitely smoke joints - and just throw out names and keep making a list. I have the list and we were just so far off. None of those processes explicitly generated the name. Although who knows.  Who knows how the unconscious works because, one day, I was at home with Alice and I was on the phone talking and Alice walked by me muttering and she said “Now.  Hmm.  Now.  maybe we should call it Now,” sort of to herself.  I covered the phone and I said “That’s it!  You just named it. That’s the name”.  I told the person on the phone Alice just named the paper.  It’s called NOW. 


Steve Waxman: Can you share any of the awful names that you guys considered? 


Michael Hollett:  Well, one of the ones that we had for a while was City Beat which I thought we would shorten to The Beat. For some reason, I thought that was a cool name. It probably has something to do with some ska album that I liked that had that name at the time. Or the English Beat. There were crazy names like that and then there were some of our colleagues from France who, because English was their second language, came up with some crazy ones and we’d go “What the hell does that even mean”.  And they’d go “Oh, it’s different in French,” and we’d go “Okay.”


Steve Waxman: How did you put together your staff?  You contributors?


Michael Hollett: Well, again, you never know how these things are going to turn out. A number of my pals from York University that I thought would come with me, for a variety of reasons didn’t in the end.  So that core that I thought would be there wasn’t all of the core. But, basically, I sort of put the word out.  I guess that we had some friends, so of peripherally - Daryl Jung…


You know what, Steve, pardon me.  There’s a third person I’m forgetting in all of this.  There was a fellow named Gord graham and he was a buddy of mine.  We had gone to school together in Montreal. He came to York when I went to York. And he was at the core of helping us get going. He was an early believer. And you need that - people telling you that you’re not crazy, unless they need to. And he had some York people that I knew peripherally, Daryl being one of them and Daryl didn't have anything particularly going on so Daryl started helping us. And I still had the government job and we had an office on the danforth and I kept whipping back and forth. Daryl just started reaching out to event producers in Toronto and started creating a listings database for us which was a way of telling people that NOW was coming and then in those conversations, some names would come up.


I feel like I put a classified ad somewhere, but I can’t imagine where.  I just know that people started sending me resumes. And some of the key people at NOW were found that way. Not the way I thought which was, I thought, all my old buddies.  Jon Kaplan was just a resume. I remember reading his resume and thinking ‘this guy sounds really good’. I had an idea of what I was hoping to get in a theatre critic at that time. I wanted someone to be more supportive. I thought that local theatre was being judged in a way that was kind of ridiculous. The daily papers were writing about it like it should have been like Broadway productions. I was looking for someone who could be supportive of indie theatre. And Jon Kaplan came and we sat in the backyard and we talked for a while and he was my guy.  He went on to be a revered and loved part of the theatre community in Toronto until his passing.  


John Harkness, who I think was one of the greatest film writers I ever read, he was the same.  I got his resume but unlike Jon Kaplan, John Harkness I didn’t connect with. I think that I ran into him at a press conference before NOW launched at the Festival of Festivals. I saw him and he was trying to talk with me and I actually, for some bizarre reason, was avoiding him. I just didn’t like his vibe. (laughing) And then I read his articles and thought ‘Oh, my god, I hope I didn't insult this guy’. I showed his work to Alice and she agreed that he was amazing. I tracked him down and he was ready to go.  And he wrote with us until his passing as well.


And then the other writers.  Daryl Jung was helping out and we’d try him out as a writer. And he had a friend, James Marck that he brought in.  And really, I was the only person pretty much that had experience making newspapers. I had in my mind, there was almost this lefty thing, that the writers shouldn’t just write but they should make the paper. In those days you’d have to paste it up.  I really did.  I thought that had to be part of the whole process. So, I was teaching these people how to handle knives and wax paper and these were not the most soberous conditions. Sometimes a fingertip would end up on the cutting room floor. (laughing) So they were not just writing, but making the paper. This thing was evolving in real time. We launched NOW with a cover price.  We were going to sell it.


Steve Waxman: And, what was that cover price?


Michael Hollett: 50 cents.  Which would have been a lot back then.  Concert tickets were $4.00 in some cases.  But, it was wishful thinking.  The Village Voice had a cover price.  I was obsessed and I was horribly wrong about this whole idea.  One good idea I had was that we gave away free copies at the film festival.  We actually published the film festival schedule. If you can believe it, no one was publishing the film festival schedule in those days. So I reached out to them and we became the exclusive place for the film festival listings in our first issue. So it was a huge leg up for us and they let us distribute in their theatres. So they had two people come help us make the listings for them. One of them was Piers Handling, who went on to become the head of the film festival and the other person helping him was Rena Polley, Jim Cuddy’s (Blue Rodeo) wife who I didn’t know.  Blue Rodeo didn’t exist. It was just a random thing.  Piers and Rena helped us with the listings and we were giving away thousands of free papers into the Festival of Festivals but we were trying to sell them but they weren’t going very well. 


But the crazy story was - I was at a friend’s house, we were about a month, six weeks into publishing, I went to use his bathroom.  Taped to the lid of his toilet seat was an insane letter. I don’t know why he put it there.  But I was reading it as I was doing my business and I went to him and said “What the hell was that? Who the hell wrote that letter?” And he goes “It’s a guy named Buzz Burza and he used to do distribution for the Skills Exchange in Toronto and now he’s gone to New York to do that.” I said “What are you telling me?  You actually know a guy who knows circulation? Please, connect me with this guy.” And so I phoned him in New York.  It was like talking to Jack Kerouac blended into Allen Ginsberg blended into, I don’t know, Marilyn Munroe or something. His way of speaking blew my mind. And, he basically said, that he would come up from New York and help me with circulation if I could find him a couch to sleep on and pay for his train ticket. And he also said that he’d bring me a bunch of racks that weren’t being used by his current employer which I hoped his current employer would agree with.  So he showed up in Toronto with all of these racks, dragging this big cardboard box.  Daryl Jung and I were picking him up at midnight at Union Station. He was way older than us.  We were punks in our early 20’s. He seemed very old to us because he was in his 40’s. It took until January, it was four months that we were still sort of selling but Buzz was giving away papers in selective places. But it was all under the guise of being an introductory. But this guy was amazing.  We’d be in Speakeasies that I didn’t even know existed. He was brilliant at what he did. He was really important to our success. 


So, by Christmas we were tapped out. We were in bad shape. I thought we had raised enough money that we’d be in business for years and it turned out that we had only raised enough money for months. But, talking to everyone, we came to the conclusion that we could make a smaller paper and use the money we saved from making a smaller paper to make more of them and make it for free. Because there’s a huge waste.  When you’re selling a paper and you sell half of them, that’s a great result.  If you’re giving them away, you’re shooting for 100%. And NOW was between 95-98% which is magnificent. 


Steve Waxman: So you launched in September during the film festival? How many pages were you publishing when it was a paid paper?


Michael Hollett: 24. Which is still small now. But we went to 16 when we gave it away. And that really helped.


Steve Waxman: And that was after the New Year?


Michael Hollett: Yes. The New Year.


Steve Waxman: How was the paper accepted at first? 


Michael Hollett: Um. I mean...you know...


Steve Waxman: More importantly, when did it become a part of the cultural scene of Toronto? How long did it take?


Michael Hollett: That’s a good question.  You know, there’s a certain kind of narcissism in this kind of a project. I mean, in my mind, people loved it pretty quickly. But, that’s because we were so steeped in it.  That was our world. It was a cause.  It was a religion. It was so consuming. Actually, you know, the crazy thing is Toronto Life within months of starting publishing, Toronto Life sent someone around to sniff around and see about becoming involved with us you know, and invest. I forgot about all of this but in the very first months that happened and a really important thing happened is Moses Znaimer (founder of City TV) reached out to me. And all of this happened in our first weeks really. You know, just talking to you Steve I’m remembering this now, I couldn’t answer your question initially because enough people embraced it right away.  I mean, Michael Budman from ROOTS phoned me after our fourth issue or something - the first time we put a celebrity on the cover.  He said “Now you got it.” And I was like, wow, that’s cool, the guy that owns ROOTS just phoned me. And Moses Znaimer had a really cryptic way of reaching out to me. It was fantastic. 


Patti Habib, who would go on to launch the Bamboo, was working with Moses, helping him on some pay-tv project he was developing. But Patti also had a Speakeasy in what is now Liberty Village - the greatest Speakeasy I ever saw called the MBC. So she phoned me and said “Hey, this paper looks cool. We have this club. You should think about coming by.” And I said, okay that sounds cool but it opened up at 1:00am and that was crazy late and I had a little kid. We had this long conversation and then she says “Oh, my boss, Moses Znaimer, he’s going to be there and he says that he wants to meet you.” And that’s when a light went on and I went ‘Oh my god.’  I told Alice we have to get a baby sitter.  We have to go to this place. We have to be there to meet this guy. There’s something going on here. And we’re hanging around and it was getting late. I was getting tired. And then Moses comes in and he goes to the bar. And I was in another conversation.  I broke it off and I went to the bar and pretended not to see him. And I start talking to the bartender.  Oh, it was Patti behind the bar and Patti goes “Moses is here. He wants to meet you.” “Oh, is he? You’ll have to introduce us.” And then Moses, sitting, turns sardonically and goes “Hello Michael.” And then we just started talking 


And basically I started doing a dance with Moses and doing a dance with Toronto Life both, ostensibly to get them to invest cause we knew that we were going to run out of money. But the process of being in those conversations with potential investors taught us so much about running our business that ultimately we didn’t need to take on those investors. And I think that all of them were fine with it.  I had a very apocryphal moment with Moses. He kept introducing me.  He was amazing. He was so supportive. And I’d have these crazy moments where I’d be at home and freaking out that ‘Oh, I’ve got to get more money.’ And I knew that Moses would be in his offices late at night.  So I would get up, get dressed and drive down to City TV and wait on the sidewalk at, like, 1:30 at night and he would come out and I would say “Moses! You didn’t get back to me in a couple of days.” And then he’d commit to another meeting. So, ultimately we had tons and tons of meetings and then at a certain point it was The New Music’s 100th episode party at the Concert Hall. Moses and I are talking at the front of the room.  Everybody’s eyes are on us because if you’re with Moses, that’s what it was like then. And we’re talking and, basically, there was a deal, he was part of a deal and he basically talked me out of the deal. He said “You don’t need it. If you don’t need this deal, don’t take it,” was basically what he said to me. Which was incredible. I wanted the deal so badly because I owed people money.  I owed staff. People were being patient with their pay. And he said to me “You know, I know that feeling. When I started City TV I was desperate to be able to pay everybody that believed in me.” And he talked about selling City TV to CHUM. And then he goes “You know, once a week I have to go to a board meeting with my bosses at CHUM. You think about that.” And I was like ‘Whoa. I don’t want to have a boss.’ I mean I went off and I thought about it. I talked to Alice and I said “I think the guy was giving me a message.” And she went “Whoa, it’s true.” 


And basically we went back to the people who we owed some money, Including staff members and our original investors, and we said look Moses Znaimer, City TV, Toronto Life all of these companies believe in this project. They want to make a deal with us but that second money is always a worse deal. You have to give the shares to get more cash. So we said to everyone, we’ll give you the second money deal that was being given to us. We'll flip our debt to shares at that rate. Do you want to do that? And they all said “yes”. So, some of them became shareholders in NOW and we didn’t have to take on that new money.  We had the confidence that the money was there from people who knew what they were doing that believed in us enough to put the money in. So, we realized that, okay, we don’t need it. Let’s just go for it.  Let’s do this.  Which is what happened. 


And Moses, he never had any regrets.  He said “Michael, it worked out didn’t it?” I says “Yeah.” He says “I gave you hope.” I said “Yes, you gave me hope.” And that’s what kept me going. Until I had more than hope to sustain me.


Steve Waxman: Wow!  That is an amazing story.


Michael Hollett: I’ve hardly ever told it.  Crazy, huh? Yeah. It was remarkable.  It was like he was a guru to me. I was 24. He had launched this cool television station. And done so much more. 


Steve Waxman: Do you guys still speak?


Michael Hollet: I mean, not as much. Not by design.  We just don’t bump into each other. When he bought the City TV building he called me.  The day he bought it he brought me in and walked me around and said this is going to be this and this is going to be that. We were very connected.  He says that he got the idea for the Speaker’s Corner from a NOW party because we had a TV set-up. We had a Speakers Corner thing at a very early NOW party. So, he went and put it at that new building. But we were very engaged throughout the 80’s which was very important for the both of us.


Steve Waxman: So, running a business, any business, can be very difficult and running a newspaper can have it’s own set of challenges.  Did it ever feel like it was easier?


Michael Hollett: So, you know, the scenario I just described, that went down in 1983.  So, basically, for a year and a half we were limping along.  And you can see this picture - we used to run these big pictures on page 3 and there’s an issue just showing someone from their shoulders to their waist and there’s two thumbs up. (laughing) And that’s the day, we kind of knew we were solid. But, in terms of getting easy, it never got easy but it was always a pleasure. But, you know, you get different problems. These are all the problems that allow us to have the currency of great joy which was publishing NOW. I can’t imagine a more fun and satisfying thing for me to do personally. And it was all of that.


But at the beginning it was worrying about could I even do it.  Do I know what I was doing.  Could I pay the people that believed in me.  Then you had different problems.  We had 100 people working for us at our peak. And, if we got something wrong, we could really screw somebody up. And then it eventually becomes hanging on to it when the economy changes, the business model changes.  It's never smooth sailing but certainly the financial success created a net.


Steve Waxman: Did being the publisher of NOW give you any unexpected opportunities?


Michael Hollet: Many, many, many.  I mean, I feel blessed and fortunate for so  many of them. And so much of it would be about access and opportunities to meet interesting people. And, as you know Steve, you know better than many there’s a lot of famous people but there are fewer cool ones just like anything else. For me, I was thinking about this recently, one of the good ones was when Ken Kesey came and hung out at my house and I introduced him to sushi for the first time. That was pretty awesome and that sparked a friendship that went on for a while. That guy remains one of my heroes.  So, to spend time with him and getting life lessons and parenting lessons for Ken Kesey that was thank you very much NOW Magazine. So, things like that.  The wonderful people that I’ve gotten to meet and then relationships that grew out of that. And some of those people are well known and some of those people are not known at all. They’ve all been fascinating.


Steve Waxman: What led to you establishing the North By Northeast Festival?


Michael Hollett: A number of things.  Critical to it was that some of my best friends started South By Southwest. Louis Black and Nick Barbaro were publishers of the Austin Chronicle. So we met through the alternative newspaper community. And, at the time NOW was bigger than their paper so I was giving them advice.  They were bi-weekly, I helped them go weekly. They told me that they were starting South By Southwest so I sort of had a ringside seat to see how that evolved and grew. And they didn’t start it to be what it became, they started it because they were music and artist folks like myself. They saw something happening in Austin that they wanted to bring attention to. They thought they were making a regional music festival. So, I was literally behind their shoulders during the conception and realization of South By and it was pretty evident that many of the components that existed in Austin, Texas that made it so good for South By Southwest existed in Toronto. You know, we’ve had and have a live music scene that rivals and in the world. Much better than New York City’s at the time. A critical part is the audience. We have audiences like in Austin who are prepared to hear artists that are not necessarily mainstream.  They’re not afraid to like something just on its merits as opposed to needing it to be popular. And that’s something that Austin audiences and Toronto audiences share.  And also, frankly, on a personal level, I always wanted to have a reason to be invested in the live music scene, especially the evolving and the new music. So there was a selfish piece for me to keep my hand in all of that.  But mostly it was to meet a need in a city where the conditions exist to meet that need. And, obviously, I had a huge advantage launching North By Northeast with South By Southwest as my partners. The first five years, I believe, the founders of South By came up with their staff - 10 to 20 staff members - and helped us produce North By. And it was a real process of the torch being passed where initially they were doing it.  Then we started doing it with them. Then we were doing it and they were kind of watching. And then finally, it was like, ‘Okay, just come for fun.  We got this.’


Steve Waxman:  Who were some of the acts that you actually booked for North By Northeast?


 Micheal Hollett: Well, our first speaker was Patti Smith. So, that was pretty cool. Again, you talk about great things that happened when doing this job. I would have a hotel while we were doing the conference and I had a hotel during the first North By.  There’s a knock on my door.  I open the door and it’s Patti Smith standing by herself in a Detroit Red Wings jersey. And I was like, there is a god!  These are two of my worlds coming together.  Hockey and punk rock. It’s like, ‘Yes, please, thank you!’ And she was a huge hockey fan and it was when the Leafs and the Red Wings were having epic playoff runs and so we had a good hockey talk and then she did a photo shoot for us. So she spoke at the first festival.  She was amazing. I remember we had Weeping Tile that turned out to be Sarah Harmer, of course.  They were amazing. Robert Earl Keen.  We had a lot of rootsy stuff. We had a lot of stuff from Texas. 


Steve Waxman: Let’s go back to the paper now and finish off with this.  Where do you see the future of print media and publishing in general?


Michael Hollett: I think it’s very real and I think that everything has to evolve.  This is such a truism that it’s ridiculous but you can’t stay static. When we launched NOW, one of the conversations was “Oh, the daily newspapers have no readers.  They’re in decline.” You know, young people don’t pick up daily newspapers. And we were, in part, responding to that issue. I think the daily newspaper - as much as I love them and want them to thrive - haven’t changed.  They’re making a huge mistake. They’re diminishing their offering and they’re asking people to pay more for it. I don’t get how they think that’s going to work. The daily newspapers look, more or less, the same as they did 10 or 15 years ago. They just have less stuff in them. I don’t see how that model will work.


But I don’t think the notion of print is dead. Now more than ever we’re living in a world where everyone is getting digital fatigue. You know, people are doing puzzles. 20 year-olds are playing croquet in parks. I think that if there’s a fresh approach to print there will be an appetite for it. We saw with vinyl that people like to hold stuff. They like that it's tactile.  It’s nice to experience it. I think that a print publication that celebrates what’s great about print will succeed and, in fact, I’m about to launch one as soon as the pandemic calms down. So, I believe in print and so do my new partners.


Steve Waxman: So, what does that mean?  What is celebrating what’s great about print to you?


Michael Hollett: I think it’s got to be really visual. It’s something very basic like frequency. I think what made daily newspapers great was they felt like they were a timely reporting of the news. Well, obviously, that function is gone. When we launched NOW a huge part of what NOW was about was listings. Well, now, listings in print are pretty much pointless. But there’s things about print that are fantastic and one of them is how beautiful it can be. One of the things that was really important to the early success of NOW is that we put a lot of - and continue to - emphasis on the visuals. We paid a lot of money for photography. I think, as publishers try to squeeze their offerings into smaller and smaller papers the visual part is disappearing. You get these grey newspapers, these grey publications saying ‘read me, I’m good for you’ and I don’t think that will ever be compelling to people. But, I think a beautiful newspaper or beautiful magazine that has, not quite evergreen but has the kind of content that you can read now or you can read again in six weeks.  So, that would tend to involve really great writing - really great long reads that are almost narratives. Sort of a return to new journalism that I think launched NOW.  The kind of article that’s going to be more fun to read at your leisure in print where you don’t have to worry about glare on the screen or whatever.  And you’ll want to because it's compelling enough. So, you’ll have some great longform journalism combined with shorter bits and beautiful graphics and interactivity.  I want the magazine that I’m going to make next is going to be very worn at the end because you will have interacted with it. You will have played with it. You’ll have used it. So, it’s to use its very phicality.  And that’s where I’m going.


Steve Waxman: Michael Hollett left NOW Magazine in 2016 to concentrate on running the North By Northeast Festival. He’s now working towards launching a new print paper. If you’d like more information about North By Northeast, please visit nxne.com