After 10 years, the local rock magazine still gets its groove on
Photo courtesy of Brent Cole
A lot of people look at the Bellingham music scene and cast judgment right away.
Maybe there aren’t enough venues or all-ages shows or whatever, but Brent Cole, editor and publisher of What’s Up! Magazine, has been around long enough to have a broader view of things.
“Everything comes in waves,” Cole said. “That’s one thing I have learned over 10 years is that you can’t get too up when things are up and you can’t get too down when things are down, because it always picks back up. It’s a college town — it doesn’t have a choice.”
For the past 10 years, either in a burrito joint or in a local record store, What’s Up! Magazine has reported on the local music scene’s ups and downs without ever losing its edgy, independent vibe or its free price tag.
“You won’t find a What’s Up! in a lot of towns,” Cole said. “Bellingham is a hotbed of creativity and it has been for years. There is a large emphasis on creativity here, whether it’s music, film, theater or art.”
While the magazine has grown from being designed in a Western computer lab at 4 a.m. to a successful mom-and-pop operation that also publishes eastern Whatcom County’s Foothills Gazette, Cole said the mission of the magazine remains the same.
“At its core, it’s still about telling local music fans about great music,” Cole said.
Rocket to Bellingham
Cole grew up in the suburbs of Seattle during the late ‘80s Seattle music scene.
“My first show was Green River opening up for PiL in 1986 at the Moore Theatre, and I just saw Green River again for the first time in 20 years,” Cole said.
At that time, The Rocket, a Seattle-based monthly music magazine that ceased publication in 2000, was the definitive music publication in the burgeoning, pre-grunge Seattle music scene.
“I would read it basically every time it was out, but I lived in the suburbs so I wasn’t much more than a fan at that time,” Cole said
Later, Cole moved to Bellingham, where he graduated from Western Washington University with a sociology degree in 1996.
Living in Bellingham, Cole would attend up to 300 shows a year and he discovered a number of great bands that nobody seemed to know anything about because no one was really writing on the local music scene. So Cole and a friend, Sean Spain, saw a niche they could fill.
Cole said that Spain had a lot of experience with the Bellingham music scene, booking bands for local clubs and writing for The Bellingham Herald’s Take 5 weekly entertainment insert, and in 1998, within a month and a half of talking about it, What’s Up! Magazine hit stands for the first time.
“We didn’t have any real planning,” Cole said. “We just had a lot of friends and a lot of love for the music scene. That’s how it started, really.”
After a few months, Spain left the publication to pursue other opportunities and Cole was left to the solitary reality that he didn’t really know what he was doing.
In the beginning, Cole said the magazine was supported with limited ad sales and a small, loyal crew: then-girlfriend Amy Marchegiani, who designed the paper, Carey Ross, who is now the music editor for Cascadia Weekly and a couple of faithful copyeditors.
“While we had a lot of heart, we didn’t have a whole lot of experience or know-how, so we were fairly stalled for quite a while there,” Cole said. “We had some great people working to make it better, but none of us had enough experience to make it what it needed to be.”
Over the first few years of publication, Cole said he ran the magazine like a hobby.
“I had a couple of other jobs,” Cole said. “I worked at the Pickford for a while, then Alpha Tech Computers, then back to the Pickford. So it (the magazine) was purely for kicks.”
For one of those jobs, Cole was hired as the editor of The Northern Light, a community newspaper in Blaine, where he replaced outgoing editor Becca Schwarz.
“Turns out I was painfully unqualified for that position,” Cole said. “As editor of a music magazine, I was aces, but in reality I didn’t know as much as I do now. So I got fired within five weeks.”
After Cole was fired, Schwarz took him out for a drink. Soon after, the two were dating and have now been married for two years and have a two-year-old son, Harrison, with another on the way.
Although modest about her contributions to the success and quality of the magazine, Cole maintains that What’s Up! improved dramatically once she got involved in production.
Unlike Cole, Schwarz has a journalism background beginning with her high school newspaper and later an award-winning stint with her college paper at State University of New York at Plattsburgh. She went on to work at a daily newspaper and also started a weekly community newspaper in the New York state/Vermont area.
Schwarz said when she first moved to Whatcom County, she would read What’s Up! Magazine.
“I have always liked independent media, so no matter what the subject, I would check it out,” Schwarz said. “But they were still a little raw. It needed to grow up a little bit. Certainly with the blossoming of the all-ages scene, you want to tone down some things.”
Cole said that Schwarz got him to tone down some of the emphasis on drinking and debauchery, correct the ad rates, and hire an ad sales person to bring more money into the publication.
“She was fantastic with how to make the magazine more profitable. I would just be an idiot not to utilize this person who knows more about journalism than I am ever going to know,” Cole said.
However, Schwarz is quick to point out how Cole’s passion for music is the magazine’s driving force.
Early on, Cole wrote most of the magazine’s editorial content, but over the years it has gotten easier to attract good, local writers.
“It used to be kind of tough to get writers, but in the last three or four years as the magazine has really tightened up, it has become a platform that people could use to get clips and get jobs,” Cole said. “There are always going to be people who have good writing chops and love music.”
What’s Up! for the future
Through the ups and downs of the Bellingham music scene and What’s Up! Magazine, Cole’s passion for music has been the publication’s engine. Even when he has wanted to quit, something pulled him back in.
“Passion has given me a lot of benefits because I haven’t been able to stop,” Cole said. “I just kind of kept going with it because I really care deeply about the bands and the fans.”
But Cole and Schwarz said things have changed over the past 10 years. They have a young child with another on the way and Cole can no longer attend 300-plus shows a year like he used to. So, last year, the magazine was put up for sale.
“It could be good for someone younger who is going to shows a lot,” Cole said.
Cole said there were some interested parties early on but with the tanking economy, no one is taking on new projects. He is confident that the magazine will go on but he doesn’t know in what way he will be involved.
“In 10 years, it could be run by someone else or we could still have it, but I won’t be the one in charge of it,” Cole said.
In the meantime, Cole is very active with What’s Up! and the local music scene, sitting on the board for Whatcom All-Ages Arts & Music and working on a What’s Up! T.V. project and a local music pod cast.
“It’s hard to say who I’ll be in 10 more years, but I know I will be involved in local community music, because that is what has always got me going ever since I was 14 or 15 years old,” Cole said.
If he ever feels that enthusiasm fading, Cole said he can always head to a local show.
“I recently saw Cicadas play for the first time and immediately I had another year or two of inspiration, just because I saw these guys play this music,” Cole said. “This is something you are not going to see in so many other towns.”
2008 What’s Up! Awards events
- All-ages event at the Old Foundry on Jan. 30, $5 at the door
- The Russians, Connecticut Four, Idiot Pilot and The Tread Abraham, DJ Postal
- 21+ event at the Wild Buffalo on Jan. 31, $5 at the door
- Candysound, Hot Roddin’ Romeos, Holy Tail Feathers, Rooftops, Sugar Sugar Sugar, Lucky Brown, DJ Postal