For what it’s worth, Part 2: Editor Steph Kretowicz on holding space & how to #keepAQNBalive to close our month-long push for subscriptions

, 30 July 2020

About this time two years ago, I’d written a piece expounding on what it means to run an independent online editorial publication in the 2010s. AQNB had at that point operated under its current remit for seven years when a final ditch public funding bid in 2018 had failed. An extended existential crisis on my part ensued, while the article titled ‘For what it’s worth, Part 1’ described a short history of the site, as well as myself and my colleagues’ roles within it. From managing editor Caroline Heron’s AQNB Productions services arm to deputy editor HP Parmley’s commitment to going beyond her job description, we had exhausted all potential income streams and a tremendous amount of our own uncompensated labour. ‘For what it’s worth’ was as much a gesture toward transparency, as it was a plea to our readers to help keep the site running via our Patreon account. An initial spike of subscriptions followed (82 to be exact), which partially covered site running costs, while the three of us decided to stay on a volunteer basis. Our fundraising efforts didn’t go beyond publishing the piece and posting a gif of my housemate’s dog on his hind legs begging people to ‘support us’ on the AQNB home page. We carried on.

Image courtesy AQNB.

There was an element of vulnerability to being so explicit about AQNB’s troubles, a feeling of failure and undeserved entitlement that lined our reasons for staying opaque. That latent sense of shame probably fed off a broader more personal desire for anonymity that crossed both professional and personal lines. I still signed off that piece under my ‘Jean Kay’ alias, a pen name I had adopted originally as ‘John Kay’, which over time became the more gender ambiguous ‘Jean’, assigned differently in French and English. There was a practical reason for this that I explained in the first ‘For what it’s worth’ piece but there was also more to it. I was insecure about being an art writer who came to it late and never went to art school, and anything I published would go entirely unedited as I was the sole editor of AQNB. I didn’t want that role to be attached to my other profession as a music critic, and I was concerned about my position as editor overshadowing my work as a writer. The process of disentangling from this separation—where I would weigh up the pros and cons of full disclosure and queer (in)visibility—became an endless point of conversation with my exasperated colleagues.

I’d written the first ‘For what it’s worth’ text with the intention of a follow-up piece, exploring the obstacles and inequalities in maintaining an independently-run niche art and music platform with a focus on the margins, in an increasingly corporatised and untenable publishing landscape. The labour, though, was too daunting, especially while keeping AQNB’s editorial going (a priority), while also making a living as a freelancer (a struggle). It meant that any move towards developing a sustainable model for keeping the site afloat fell by the wayside, and it’s taken to this day—two years and two weeks, plus a pandemic—to do that. 

Kaino Wennerstrand (2020). Image courtesy the artist + AQNB.
Kaino Wennerstrand (2020). Image courtesy the artist + AQNB.

I mention pandemic not only because it’s impossible not to right now but because the present health crisis and its economic fallout has led to a unique set of conditions where our current in-house team has had the time and the space to strategise. AQNB’s core members now consist of Caroline, associate editor Jared Davis and music editor Matt Dell. Jared had already been unquestioningly contributing to the editorial program for one-and-a-half years as a volunteer. Matt came on board about six months ago as music editor, when I realised I was aging out of AQNB’s demographic and would eventually lose touch with new trends. It helped that he’d do it for free. Right now, things are going well for me financially, and I think that keeping the site running has played a major part in it. It’s existence meant I was eligible for emergency grants, which made focussing on making the site sustainable a priority. Along with government furloughs and unemployment for my colleagues who usually work in the services industry, we’ve been able to plan and execute a coordinated fundraising and subscription drive throughout July.

Kaino Wennerstrand (2020). Image courtesy the artist + AQNB.

One unexpected advantage of AQNB is we’ve been operating on passion alone since the last time I wrote on its predicament in 2018. While online and print publishing witnessed a cataclysmic breakdown of what was already a collapsing industry following lockdown, AQNB carried on largely unaffected because we worked with little in terms of resources already. We literally had nothing to lose. That, along with Matt’s irrepressible enthusiasm and organisational savvy meant that we tried our hand at our first art and music compendium release. In a group effort, spearheaded by Matt and Jared, along with artwork donated by Jennifer Mehigan, we enlisted 10 producers and five visual artists to take part in even my dreams don’t go outside. Each contribution would receive a share of sales, as a way to build positive momentum for our scene and a small amount of financial support for some of its members.

The overwhelmingly positive response to that release, and the fun we had producing it, made us feel emboldened to do more. For years we’d laboured over the same editorial format—across written interviews, think-pieces and focus features—and we recognised that AQNB risked stagnating, quietly slipping into obscurity amidst a new crop of art and music aggregator sites. In keeping that in mind, we launched our Artist Statement podcast on July 1, with a chat between myself and early AQNB supporter, artist Katja Novitskova. It felt like an appropriate place to start, given she was one of my first interviews in my early days as an art writer, alongside AQNB’s beginnings as an interdisciplinary art-oriented website. Jared would go on to apply his academic expertise and PhD perspective to other conversations with the likes of Colin Self and Lawrence Lek, with more from Cristine Brache and Joey Holder between us, as well as many others to come. 

Kaino Wennerstrand (2020). Image courtesy the artist + AQNB.

In addition to the Artist Statement podcasts—released via our Patreon bi-monthly, with two bonus episodes unlocked in July—we’ve also applied to our network of artists and friends to help us fundraise. These include regular mini-compendium releases, artist-designed merch collaborations, and a chapbook of poetry and photography we have in the works. We’ve already dropped our second compendium called Between two stars—with a cover design by the wonderful Helin Şahin—as well as the ‘New Scenario x AQNB—Bodyholes Green Ear Limited Edition’ t-shirt, available for purchase via Everpress until July 31. There’ll be a cap design by long-time peer and AQNB Productions alum Martin Kohout—facilitated by Janice Lee at HO HO COCO in Los Angeles—and a #keepAQNBalive hashtag and meme series from our friend and regular contributor Kaino Wennerstrand, starting today. When we first launched our call to subscribe to our Patreon in 2018, the exclusive benefits to do so were sparse. In the last months, we’ve come to understand that we have to do much more to ensure an active and ongoing engagement with our audience if AQNB is to not only survive but continue to thrive.

#keepAQNBalive (2020). Image courtesy AQNB.

All that said, we do understand that there is a lot going on in the world right now. Our community is financially and emotionally depleted, and there are other far more immediate social and political concerns on which to focus. But it’s for that reason that I believe it’s more important than ever to hold space for alternative and independent perspectives, as so many of the platforms that do and have done that continue to go under. In doing so, I would like AQNB to be enabled to grow and diversify its network, reinstating its contributor budget and reducing its in-house editorial in favour of paid writing from a broader set of voices. Our long-term goal is to run the site more cooperatively, while opening it up to more collaborative projects and paid positions for other people. For now though, we’ve set our first goal at $1,200 to cover maintenance and production costs, and we hope you can help us achieve that.

In the meantime, we will continue to roll out a number of new incentives to join the community, with a call to anyone with the means to contribute with any sum from as low as $1 a month. As a trusted editorial platform for artists resisting categorisation and responding to changes brought on by technology and communication, we’ve built a strong network around AQNB over the years. Our Patreon will be crucial to the site’s survival moving forward. In my time as editor over the past nine-or-so-years, I’ve learned it takes a lot more than money to build and develop a community, but it definitely helps in maintaining one.**

AQNB has introduced a number of incentives to subscribe to our Patreon in July. Join the community and support the site from as little as $1 per month.