Alum Profile - Ron Spagnardi '63
It seems that behind every successful entrepreneurial venture, colorful stories of the early days abound. Modern Drummer magazine founder and publisher Ron Spagnardi '63 recalled his startup phase recently: the ping-pong table in the basement of his Nutley, New Jersey home was the most important asset for the magazine's layout and paste-up.
Back in 1977 Spagnardi's wife, his father, and even his eight-year-old daughter constituted his staff. From such humble beginnings 26 years ago, Spagnardi's brainchild has since become the most widely read drum magazine in the world with over 100,000 readers.
In his pre-Modern Drummer years, Spagnardi had lamented the absence of any major publications in which drummers could find interviews with top players and insightful product reviews. So he decided to create one.
"This magazine started as a whim," Spagnardi said. I thought that drummers should have a publication of their own. You'd find Guitar Player and Contemporary Keyboard magazines on the newsstands back then, but all drummers had were a few newsletters that really weren't very good. Down Beat would do a yearly issue devoted to drummers; but still, it had only three or four interviews and it came out once a year.
Ludwig Drummer, house organ of the Ludwig Drum Company, was a classy publication that featured interviews with people who played Ludwig drums and ads for Ludwig equipment. "I started thinking that if there was a magazine that looked as nice as Ludwig's and had good information about all kinds of drummers and products, people would buy it." Spagnardi had no publishing experience. "I started playing drums when I was eight years old," he said, "I had never done anything else." In the early 1960s, he had studied with Alan Dawson at Berklee. For many years after leaving Berklee, he earned his living by operating a drum-teaching studio and playing around New York at the Village Vanguard, the Five Spot, and other places with jazz artists such as guitarist Joe Beck and vibist Mike Mainieri when he decided to launch the magazine.
"I spent a year mapping it out, doing research, getting prices from printers, and contacting drummers who I thought might like to write articles. My wife Isabel and I had $3,500 in the bank as our life savings, and we decided to put it all into the first issue. I figured that if the magazine fell flat, I could still play and teach and get back on my feet financially."
"Before I did the first issue, I took out a one-inch ad in the International Musician and another in Down Beat. The ads described a new quarterly publication with a subscription price of $4 a year. I needed 1,000 subscribers for it to work. I figured if I got only 25 responses I'd just send the money back with a note apologizing. Later on, by the way, I found out from a mail official that what I had done is actually considered mail fraud! Federal law says that you are not supposed to advertise and receive money for a product that doesn't exist."
Luckily, Spagnardi learned about these laws the easy way. The United States Postal Service heard no complaints. Spagnardi received 3,000 checks from willing subscribers, and he promptly got to work producing the debut issue of his fledgling magazine. "Through a fluke, I was able to get an interview with Buddy Rich for the first cover story," he said. Buddy was popular then, but had a reputation for being difficult. The fact that we even got an interview with him was a real plus. I think having him on the first cover made a lot of people think that this magazine was something special."
For the first few issues, Spagnardi wrote most of the articles under various pen names. He also listed fictitious people as art director and circulation manager to create the illusion that the publication was well established. "I didn't want advertisers to know everything was being done in my basement," he said. The response to the first issue, published in January 1977, was overwhelming. Soon he was receiving calls from music stores wanting to carry it and equipment manufacturers wanting to advertise in it. Other calls came in from established music journalists interested in contributing articles. One well-connected contact gave Spagnardi his first access to artists like Max Roach, Steve Gadd, and Tony Williams.
Success breeds success. Subsequent issues of Modern Drummer featured in-depth articles on top drummers of all styles as well as product and record reviews. This brought more advertisers to the table, providing the income to move forward. An ever-widening network of freelance writers and photographers, a real office space, and more full-time staffers took some of the pressure off the Spagnardis, but hardly made things easy. "My wife and I didn't take a vacation for the first nine years," he recalled. "We worked until 11 p.m. every night and worked Saturdays and Sundays until we really got it off the ground." Now Spagnardi has 17 full-time staff members housed in a building designed and built to his specifications. His company also publishes the bimonthly trade magazine Drum Business and has launched an educational book division that lists 18 titles so far. A new product will be a searchable CD-ROM archive of over 265 back issues of Modern Drummer.
Like many who start a business, Spagnardi learned much on the fly, and now sees that his instincts were his best guide. At 59, he looks back with some amazement. A good idea combined with perfect timing, youthful energy, passion, the grit to work hard, idealistic naiveté, and luck informed his success. "I originally thought this would be a part-time job to supplement my income," he said with a smile. I never imagined that it would take over my life or grow to this point.
"My wife and I look back now and think it was a bit insane to expect to launch a national publication with $3,500. After we had been in business for a few years, I brought in a magazine consultant to help us get to the next level. We worked together, and after hearing his ideas I told him that I really wished I could have afforded him when I was doing the first issue. He looked at me and said, "It's a good thing you didn't have me around then. I would have told you that you could never launch a national magazine with less than a quarter of a million dollars.' "
"You'd probably need a half-million dollars to start a magazine today. The investment is so much greater. All I needed was scissors, a typewriter, and some glue. You can't do it that way now. Everything is done with computers, and it's very complex."
Spagnardi gets letters, e-mails, and even visits from readers across the country who have collected the magazine for years. "It's a kick to hear from them," he said. "I feel so blessed to have been able to stay in the field I know and love. Sometimes my wife and I talk about retiring, but we know it's too soon. After all these years, this is still a blast. I look forward to coming into work. If I retired now, I'd probably still be down here every day hanging around."