“I’m kind of working,” Matt whispers in my ear. He smiles at a short, gray-haired guy who smiles back at him and slurps on his drink. Matt is temporarily employed at the CBC and right now he’s “working” the room. His contract expires soon, he tells me as he shoos me off.
“Fine,” I think to myself. I look around to see where my date is, but he too seems to be working. Or rather is being worked by a frumpy woman in red who squeezes beside him at a crowded bar.
Everybody seems to be working the room. Writers celebrate the phrase “Two-fifty a word!” like a scrumptious treat they picked up from one of the many plates of finger food that are being served. An undercover photographer from Frank snaps photos (that are later featured in a two-page colour spread in the biweekly’s relaunch issue). Gossip scribblers socialize enthusiastically, trying to scoop as much buzz as possible about this new magazine called the Walrus.
The event is in full swing. Tipsy, influential partiers air-kiss each other and shake rows upon rows of hands at the Capitol Event Theatre, as speeches and promises are being made.
The launch party for the Walrus looks like it has nothing to do with journalism, but lots to do with walrus-size drinking. But it is in fact about journalism. A launch party is a happy mix of business and pleasure.
Word of a good party ripples through media waters, often ensuring – if only for a couple of months – that the magazine gets picked up from a newsstand.
Anik Decoste, publishing director for Strut magazine, says buzz is precisely what a magazine launch is about. “You want to get as many people as possible to talk about the magazine,” she says. “You want your name to get out there in a big way.” According to her theory, if you don’t have buzz you won’t have readers, and if you don’t have the readers you won’t have a magazine.
Guests who are invited to launches are the most important thing. “We invited anyone who’s potentially instrumental,” says Ann O’Hagan, Toro magazine’s communications director. “People who create awareness of advertisers play a role.”
And in order for buzz to happen “you want them [the guests] to feel spoiled,” Decoste says. It’s good if you are as flamboyant about your new “baby” as possible. Get the strobe lights, DJs and half-naked models, get Casa Loma or the restored 1918 Capitol Theatre or cheap sex toys and the newest cool spot in town. Have a fashion show, hot music, free drinks, gifts, breasts, press, press and more press.
“I went to the launch. Did you go?” Fabrice Taylor, a new publisher of Frank magazine asks.
“The Walrus?” I say, because it’s the only party that seems to matter in Toronto that night. Taylor nods.
You want people talking.
And when they’re not talking? I run into a friend – a journalist – at the Felt magazine launch party. It’s being held at Element, a regular dance club on a regular Thursday night. “Nice magazine launch, eh?” I say, trying desperately to make conversation.
“What launch?” Turns out he’s just there to dance.
Chris Casuccio, Felt’s managing editor, says he isn’t looking to “whore too much,” reasoning that he’d rather invest money in the magazine itself. He says he spent less than $300, with the $50 DJ being his the biggest expense. But Casuccio is disappointed when no media shows up for his party. It’s too bad, too, because the launch is fun – candy bowls filled with deadly sweet bubble gum and felt blindfolds, and lots of eye candy sexing up the dance floor.
Decoste says a lot of what makes a launch – and magazine – a hit goes into getting sponsors to pay for your party treats. “If you end up not spending money, you know it’s a success.” She says it is a very hard work to try to get sponsors for the food, the venue, the music, the gifts but it’s doable. Decoste says, “We never pay for our parties.”
The Walrus – an animal that has doesn’t mind paying for its first party – spends a couple of bucks. At $2,500 a night for Thursday venue rate, approximately $40 per guest to cover the open bar, the administrative costs and advertising and the band and the hors d’ouevres… the Walrus’ first dip into Toronto pool is probably costing tens of thousands. However, they hope the publicity they get – partly because of the Toronto launch – is priceless.
Another priceless thing about launches is the networking. These parties are good to meet fellow journalists – hell, it’s not even that much of a faux pas to talk about ideas. “The point is that there’s a tremendous amount of work done leading up to the first issue. You need to celebrate all the staff and all the work,” says Ken Alexander, publisher of The Walrus. “But you also have to invite people who are interested in courting your magazine.” Poppy Wilkinson, managing editor of Maisonneuve, agrees. “It is a social scene. It’s there to increase awareness in a community. We wanted to invite influential people. And you also get to bounce ideas back and forth.”
Matt apologizes later for ignoring me at the Walrus party. He says he was just “sucking up” to a publisher. I forgive him. A lot of journalism involves what he refers to as “sucking up” and networking.
Sure, magazine launches may seem like media-whore events, but if you weed out all the marketing suits and the professional partiers you are left with the real “buzz” – the people with the gold ideas that fuel the whole industry.