Keep it real. Easy to say, hard to do. The phrase, on its face, blends in with the pack of platitudes inundating culture daily—"Life Is Good," "I’m Lovin’ It," " Do the Dew." Flipping keep it real from a slogan into a true business code takes work.
"If your job is to tell people what is good, evangelizing from the top of the mountain, they better know who you are," says Elliot Aronow, cofounder of pioneering free MP3 site RCRB LBL—an editorially driven, meticulously curated music hub—and, separately, creator/editor/host of Our Show, an online variety program launched in 2010. "Personality and humanity are things you have to strive to get to shine through in the Internet era. That’s something all brands across the board need to work on." Aronow’s latest foray into the real may be the least expected—launching a print ’zine.
With his hands in seemingly disparate pots, Aronow’s specific brand at first seems tough to pinpoint. But to spend a chunk of time with the well-coiffed 31-year-old is to fully grasp that his brand is himself. He’s identifiable with RCRD LBL—as successful and buzzed-about now as it was at its 2007 launch—and he’s the face of Our Show, but the brand is Elliot Aronow.
Aronow had no outside pressure to turn his web show—which has featured spots with TV on the Radio, Das Racist, and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy—into a physical print product, a publication that takes its cues from the underground punk heritage. He’s just keeping it real—corporeal. "The Internet can spark awesome, disparate ideas coming together; conversely, it’s responsible for a lot of passivity and groupthink. I grew up on 7-inch records and silk-screening and real shit—it wasn’t a passive culture," Aronow says. "‘Liking’ something on Facebook takes about half a second and shows no connection to what you’re doing." An etiquette feature late in the ’zine advises readers not to "Like" it but to live it.
Try a basic question like "Why start a ’zine on the eve of 2012?" on Aronow and you’ll know the answer before you finish asking: Why not? "It was time to get active," Aronow, already quite an active person by any account, writes in his breezy letter from the editor. "I didn’t want to make a print magazine because it was retro," he says. "I wanted to make one because it was the correct thing to do."
Vol. 1 of the quarterly Our Show is a 50ish-page mag sized like a paperback book. It calls on many of the friendships Aronow has built in his 16 years orbiting music and culture—iPhone "poetry" with DJ sensation Diplo, a slang-ridden Q&A with NYC chef and Baohaus proprietor Eddie Huang, a photographic study of Morocco by Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner—and utilizes his expertise as a curator to flesh out the rest. There’s a conversational guide to selecting a suit. There’s an interview with Dr. Jay Parkinson, a Williamsburg health-revolutionary Fast Company named Doctor of the Future in 2009. There’s a glossy four-flap centerfold of a non-nude, non-plastic, vaguely freckled brunette who seems like she keeps it real.
The ’zine is unfussy and fun-loving. There are exclamation points, lots of fonts and non-sequiturs. It bends. It folds. Which, to anyone who’s picked up a magazine ever, is not revolutionary. But swirl the content with the "why now?" aspect and suddenly there’s indelible newness afoot. "Where curation intersects with creativity is that you’re not only historically aware, but you’re in line with what’s happened before and you know how to pull very specific things from it that hopefully, in the aggregate, become a new thing," Aronow says.
One constant in Our Show is the tendency to speak with readers and viewers rather than to them. It’s a careful choice, one that aims to veer away from the way media tends to handle the purveyor/recipient relationship. "Brands are still having a really hard time talking to a guy like me—they’re addressing either the millionaire, up-in-the-sky, über-luxury guy alienating culture, or it’s total schlock," Aronow says. He predicts big branded experiences will soon be thrown for a loop: "The era of quick-buck, over-saturated lifestyle marketing is coming to an end. The people they’re trying to reach are pretty damned sophisticated by this point; we’ve been messaged for almost a decade."
Aronow cites Vice and Intel’s "Creators Project" as an endeavor that gets it right. "Minimal branding and maximum infusion of resources and capital into a culture that always needs those things, to paint, make video art, be in a band—that’s really changed the game in a lot of ways," Aronow says, also citing Vans, Supreme, and J. Crew as brands that have their strategies right.
"You’ve just gotta keep it real," he insists. "It sounds kind of trite, but that’s the way that I feel about all this stuff, whether it’s doing branding or hosting a TV show or putting out a ’zine or just being a person consuming media who’s alive in the world; don’t be a hack. Expecting that people are going to deal with inferior product, especially during an economically challenging time and a time when they have certain things that work spectacularly well? You’re gonna fail. Think about stuff a little bit."