Steve Williams is the editor and publisher of UK Vibe, a now-online magazine which celebrates its 30th year in 2023. It’s a treasure trove of reviews and other pieces covering everything from the newest releases in the jazz world, to retro classics and vintage reissues.
With a small team of writers distributed mainly around the UK – as well as a podcast radio show – the site has forged a reputation for covering forward-thinking music which is infused with jazz and, well, good vibes.
With so much music out there (not to mention the algorithms second-guessing what you want to hear), finding a handful of writers and radio/podcast presenters you trust can be a great way for fans to grow their collection.
And, for the musicians whose music is covered in these places, a great opportunity to connect with the sort of people who are willing to dig into a full album or support on platforms like Bandcamp.
Steve agreed to answer some questions which will hopefully give some great insight to people on both side of the music industry fence!
Before that, though, one very specific and interesting takeaway for musicians: be aware of what format the press contacts you’re pitching to want to receive music in. As Steve mentions:
“every single album we have through is given a chance if it is sent physically or in lossless format”
Anyway, here’s the interview!
UK Vibe has been around for more than 25 years; how did it get started and how has it changed in that time?
Back in 1990 I was asked to present a jazz radio programme on a pirate radio station in Birmingham, England.
I jumped the corsair to three other stations until 1993 when the pressure from the local authorities increased from “taking your records” if they catch you, to “taking your car and anything else used in the process of broadcasting”. This was a scary thought indeed.
So what to do with this enthusiasm? I decided to put together a jazz fanzine to help promote local events. I distributed these to the many record shops in the Midlands and like-minded music lovers wanted to contribute.
With their UK-wide contributions came the facility for them to distribute to the various towns and cities. It was a very different ‘magazine’ by issue 4. We were even stocked in Tower Records Oxford Street, having subscribers from as far afield as the States and Japan. It was fun.
As the editor of a multi-writer site, how do you work to keep a cohesive style to the coverage?
The roots of the team are firmly bed in the sound of the UK. The soul, funk, jazz and hip-hop that we grew up listening to and buying. I guess that passion guides our way today.
Embracing contemporary styles has come with age. Our policy is to only review promotional material sent to us. We never review albums we have purchased, although often when a reviewer writes about something another team member will order for themselves.
The music has to stand out from the crowd. We are presented with, averaging out, 10 individual albums each day of the week. That needs to be filtered heavily before a reviewer even has the opportunity to listen. Without this filter, nothing would be reviewed as everyone would spend all their time listening – something I do all day, every day.
My weekly radio podcast is a way to showcase some of those that often slip past the reviewing stage.
Vinyl has seen a big resurgence in recent years; what tip can you share with someone who wants to get back into collecting?
We were brought up on vinyl. CDs never felt right but the choice was taken away from us. Much of what we loved was only released on CD.
Now there is a slow development where those albums are being reissued on vinyl, giving us the replacement opportunity but those unfamiliar the wonder of owning something sealed fresh out the bag.
Vinyl prices are high. Postage is having a major impact on ordering vinyl, especially from abroad. For those fortunate enough to have a record shop nearby, we would always encourage that option first.
Go play some stuff and discover it for yourself. Read the sleeve notes and investigate the musicians therein further – that’s how we all learned. I can’t even read the text on most CDs these days!
Read a few reviews and borrow the odd record from a friend.
Find your mojo yourself.
What’s your set-up for listening to vinyl?
We can never have what we want when it comes to hi-fi. If I had the disposable income to buy what I wanted, I would spend it on music instead! After all, it’s all about the music.
I’m driving some great 727 Mission speakers (1981) with a Chinese Yaqin MC-10L Vacuum Tube Integrated Amplifier.
My front end is a Thorens turntable with an Audio-Technica cartridge – nothing fancy. It does require the use of a Musical Fidelity preamp (there’s no CD player in the house), and some American Grado headphones for when the family want a jazz-free evening.
When receiving information on new releases, what makes an album stand out to you before you’ve hit the play button?
Years of experience.
Even the artwork can give the game away. I like lossless files if vinyl isn’t affordable for the artist/label. I make a point of deleting all mp3 files on arrival – this is a small step to limiting the vast quantities, but only after informing the sender of our policy.
Original music rather than standards is a good sign. As for the play button, every single album we have through is given a chance if it is sent physically or in lossless format. I listen to everything. Only then are albums selected or rejected.
I would never push something aside without listening. That’s not fair on the artist or the campaign.
Do you have any go-to trusted sources for new music discoveries?
When it’s part of you, every day is a new discovery.
Bandcamp is fantastic. But then not everyone uses the platform to sell their wares, so sites like Juno (there are many others) and record shops (outside of lockdown) are always necessary to complete the obsessive hunt.
The team share their knowledge too and that’s valuable.
How vital (or not) is it for an artist to have a record label in 2022?
A label for a mainstream pop act always made sense but how many in ‘our’ field of music have the finances to support an artist or band?
Labels like ECM and Blue Note clearly have a structure and sales to support the ‘label’ idea but for most, I would say not. It all depends on how big they want to be and how fast they want to spread their message.
Again, Bandcamp gives the little people a terrific platform these days to go it alone. Do your thing and if it’s noticed by a label then talk the talk.
UK Vibe has a great selection of jazz art available; how important is the visual side of an artist, in your opinion?
The art was a way of redressing the magazine ethos we first set out almost 30 years ago. Those artists are the foundation of ‘our’ being. They are what inspired us in the 80s and 90s and what we all go back to over and over.
Art is part of that legacy. “You need to know about some folk before you find your path”.
Big thanks to Steve for taking the time to answer these questions.