How Pulse magazine shaped the way I discover music
Steve Reich turned 80 years old on Oct. 3, 2016. I discovered Reich when he had just turned 50. He would be one of many discoveries I made through a magazine published by Tower Records called Pulse.
In 1986, I started high school. The popular radio stations played all the usual hits of the era — Madonna, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, to name a few. Toward the right of the dial was a classic rock station and a light jazz station. On the other end, the classical music station played the war horses, while the University of Hawaii radio station couldn’t be heard beyond three miles of campus.
Radio’s insistence to overplay its most popular tracks spurred me to abandon the format in 1988. I replaced it with Pulse.
A shopping guide in the guise of an impartial publication, the magazine went wide with its coverage, including classical, jazz and world music with rock and pop. An interview with Sting ran next to an article about Buster Poindexter. Reviews of Bulgarian women’s choirs shared column inches with Throwing Muses and R.E.M.
The ads were as informative as the editorial content. Pulse offered a “No-Risk Disk” guarantee for Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut album — return the album within 14 days if you don’t like it, no questions asked. That purchase would lead me down a rabbit hole of the Nonesuch catalog.
But I wasn’t just paying attention to band names in these articles. I scoured liner notes for credits, making note of producers and guest musicians.
In 1991, MTV ran a short feature on a band called Smashing Pumpkins and featured a snippet of “Siva”. It was enough to get me curious and pick up a cassette copy of Gish. It became one of the most played albums in my collection that year.
A few months later, an article in Pulse about a band called Nirvana mentioned Butch Vig, who I remembered produced Gish. So I bought Nevermind based on that connection. I showed the album to a friend of mine, who found the naked baby on the cover quite odd. It would another half year before he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio.
Pulse ceased publication in 2002. By then, the Internet had edge it out as a source for new music.
Even before file sharing networks, word of mouth through online communities — Usenet groups, mailing lists, bulletin boards — served as recommendation engines. I also happened to live in Austin, Texas in the late ’90s, where Waterloo Records’ generous policy of allowing shoppers to listen to anything in the store verified those recommendations.
I kept picking up Pulse every month till the end, but format changes and shifts in editorial focus left the magazine gutted. File sharing put Tower Records on a decline, and the shuttering of Pulse was an early harbinger.
But Pulse helped me take responsibility for my listening choices. It taught me how to parse music reviews to make educated guesses on whether I’d like an album. I would apply the habits I developed with Pulse to other sources. It’s Japanese counterpart, Bounce, would guide my choices in the early 2000s, which I parlayed here on this site.
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