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SOTC On the Media: An Interview with ASSME’s Aaron Gell

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Do not attempt to attend this party.

ASSME, sometimes known as the American Society of Shitcanned Media Elites, is a newly launched organization for purposes unclear, or not quite known, or just for drinking–again, unclear. Last week, the organization hosted a party with an open bar and everything, its own kind of achievement in an otherwise pathetic media climate. I went, then nearly passed out due to the insane sickness I was battling at the time. So uh–it might have been fun?

ASSME founder and former Radar editor Aaron Gell did, however, make good on his website’s offer to “discourse on the state of the media business for a gloom-and-doom trend piece or cable news segment.” I never wrote the trend piece but Gell and I did discourse, briefly, and so in the spirit of media pieces that never quite spread their wings and flew, SOTC offers this transcript of our conversation.

What exactly is ASSME? I can’t quite tell if it’s a prank, a one-night only thing, a charity drive, etc. All of the above?

Good question. ASSME started out as a joke, the sort of dumb idea you have occasionally but don’t act on because, when you’re working, who has any time? I guess that’s the silver lining of unemployment. I was talking to a friend from Radar about it, our photo editor Greg Garry, who’s also a great party promoter, and we decided to throw a party and basically curse the darkness out there in the media world.

So the basic answer, for now is, it’s a party, a website, and a way of life. The response has been pretty great, so there’s a lot of talk about turning it into something real down the road. We’ll see. Another party, for sure.

One funny thing about actually delivering on ASSME in real life is that it casts you as a kind of pied-piper of all these unemployed media elites. You’re the ringleader now. Do you think people will end up with any work out of this?

Didn’t the Pied Piper lead a bunch of children off a cliff or something? So I don’t know if that analogy is apt, or I hope not! And I wouldn’t want to overstate anything…We’re offering people free booze, so their allegiance may well stop when the p.i.n.k. vodka runs out.

But at the same time, idle hands are the devil’s plaything and there are a ton of idle hands around now and so maybe I can be the devil. It would be great to find a way to make use of some of the talent out there and help us all avoid law school. I’ve had a lot of people approach me with ideas. Without giving too much away, I’d say that between getting a lot of people sloppy drunk and completely reinventing the media there’s a lot of wide open space, and we’ll probably wind up in there somewhere.

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It occurs though that “writer” may well soon be the equivalent of “investment banker” or whatever–a job that someday soon just won’t even exist in the form you and I know it. Beyond getting people drunk – a true act of kindness right now – how do you imagine helping us all avoid law school?

I think you may be right that in some sense the vocation I’ve been working at for 15 years, magazine writer and editor, will one day seem pretty quaint, not because there isn’t an appetite out there for what we do, but because the economic model that supported it is out of steam. That’s pretty frightening on a personal level, but also because I feel like there are so many stories out there that can’t be told as well in another format. One of the toughest things about Radar shutting down was realizing how many pieces we were working on that couldn’t easily be wedged into other magazines. A lot of them have wound up at various places, but a lot haven’t. So does that mean nobody gets to read them?

Then again, there’s a big opportunity here, just due to the tools we all have at our disposal. All the infrastructure that we used to rely on to publish articles or broadcast TV shows is now basically free and sitting in your applications folder. So once you figure out how to pay the rent, which I’m still working on, you can actually just go ahead and do what you were doing, except with a lot more freedom. And in theory you can find as big an audience as someone laboring at an established media company.

This all seems like a shockingly large undertaking.

It does seem like a large undertaking, but that’s your old-media mindset talking! It’s funny how much stock we all put in a slick website. I got an email yesterday from a commercial real estate yesterday offering to show me office space in SoHo. I give her credit for ingenuity but this is a sofa-based operation.

One thing I’ve discovered, though, is that when you don’t have a cumbersome institution to worry about, or a boss, or meetings, you can accomplish quite a bit. I sat down yesterday with friend who is an IT wizard, also out of work, who’s helping me figure out if we could create something real. It’s way too early to say where it’s going, but for something that only started three weeks ago, it’s at least providing a nice distraction from what I should probably be doing, which is pitching stories. At the very least, we’ll have another party. We’re already getting offers from other liquor companies, which is a dream come true in itself.