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Michael Goldberg
is to online music journalism what Jann Wenner (the founder of Rolling Stone) was to dead tree music writing in the late '60s. The website Goldberg founded in 1994, Addicted To Noise, served as the blueprint by which many other music-oriented online sites, including hybridmagazine, have been operated, and for that matter, judged. Before it was all said and done, Goldberg established a round-the-clock music news service, whose global reach was an astounding 40 million homes; created Cinemachine, the movie review search engine; and chalked-up half-a-dozen Web awards, including a Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award for Web reporting.

However, when things turned too corporate, the 48-year-old entrepreneur simply walked away from the empire he'd built. "I always figured, if things got too weird, I could do something new," Goldberg now says. Indeed. On June 1, he launched a new site with designer/artist Emme Stone called Neumu (neumu.net).

One might assume that someone of Michael Goldberg's status and experience might be a tad bit self-absorbed, maybe a bit pretentious. A name-dropping music know-all-ogist, if you will. You know the type of person I'm talking about -- think John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity. Or perhaps he's a typical jaded dot com-merce netizen, who'd rather discuss marketing strategies, branding, sticky content etc, than music.

However, as soon as Goldberg answers the phone at his Northern California residence, it becomes apparent that neither of those descriptions fit him. Nevermind the fact that Goldberg created and oversaw the first online rock magazine, or wrote and edited for Rolling Stone for ten years, Goldberg is a genuine fan of music, period. His first words to me have nothing to do with what he's accomplished as a journalist, or how successful and pioneering he is. In fact, the only thing on his mind this evening is how excited he is about the new Radiohead record. Hearing him talk about the new album with as much carefree exuberance as my eight-year-old son talking about the WWF, is completely refreshing.

Seven years ago -- which in the online world is a lifetime -- Goldberg launched the most successful and critically acclaimed music-oriented site on the net. Addicted To Noise was not only one of the first sites of its kind, it was the first site with original and compelling content covering artists -- from Sonic Youth and Neil Young and the Ramones to Wilco and Radiohead -- that truly mattered.

ATN, which eventually merged with SonicNet.com, was not started with huge amounts of venture capital or gratuitous hype. In fact, ATN was conceived before Goldberg even knew what the Web was.

He was introduced to the World Wide Web in early '94 while interviewing the founders of the Internet Underground Music Archives (IUMA) on the campus of the University of California in Santa Cruz. He was working on a story for Details magazine chronicling how new technology would impact music, and IUMA was the first site that served as a repository for independent music, years before MP3 and Napster made the Internet an ubiquitous source for music. Goldberg was ahead of the curve -- in the fall of '93, he had hatched the idea for an online music magazine and hoped to implement it on America Online. After pitching the idea to potential investors for the better part of a year, he resolved to launch the idea with or without funding. And after meeting the IUMA founders and seeing his first website, it became clear that AOL was not the right vehicle for his new idea; the Web was. He left Santa Cruz, a driven man with a newfound mission.

Addicted To Noise was a combination of a good idea, good timing, the right person "and some luck," says Goldberg. "I think that the reason it clicked was because I had years of music journalism experience, and I quickly grasped how the Web could be used to create a new kind of multimedia magazine."

Goldberg believes that ATN's success also had to do with his sensibility. "Remember, when I started ATN, grunge and alternative rock was happening," he says. "I really felt that an online magazine that looked and felt fresh and that could deal with all the really cool rock and punk, from the Stooges and MC5 and Nirvana to Patti Smith and Echo and the Bunnymen and on and on... I believed that a lot of people were hungry for that. And for a sense of humor and passion. I mean I got the great poster artist Frank Kozik to do the logo (the original logo was a coat of arms made of two crossed syringes with the words "Addicted To Noise" overlaid). That was outrageous!"

On December 1, 1994, his vision was realized. ATN was launched, with Goldberg himself bankrolling the new venture with about $5000. His self-described paranoia of missing the window of opportunity was the catalyst for the concept becoming reality, even without outside backing. "I really saw that there was an opportunity to establish something brand new. An editorially-driven music publication that could, because of the medium -- the Web -- compete with the other things that were out there.

"I thought at the time that I was racing against the inevitable. My feeling was if Rolling Stone or Spin really launched something solid before I was able to do it, then no one would really care. Now, I don't think it would have mattered. In any case, neither of them did launch anything on the Web until long after ATN was established."

The timing was perfect for an online rock magazine. But without the financial backing of a corporate sugar daddy, Goldberg had to be extremely resourceful. "One advantage that I had was that I had been a music journalist for a long time," he says. "I had been a senior writer and associate editor at Rolling Stone for nine years. Before that I had written for Creem, Crawdaddy, the New Musical Express and Downbeat," he says. "When I launched ATN, I called R.E.M.'s co-manager, Jefferson Holt, who I had a relationship with, and said 'I'm starting something that no one has ever seen before and unlike anything else that exists.'

"I described it to him," Goldberg continues. "I said, 'I want to go to Australia, where R.E.M. are launching their tour and I'd like to interview them. It's going to be pretty amazing what we're going to be able to do. They'll be able to be featured in a way that a band has never been featured before, because nothing like this has ever existed.'"

As fate would have it, Michael Stipe happened to be in the R.E.M. office when the conversation took place, and loved the idea."Getting that kind of right-off-the-bat cooperation from a band of that stature was a big deal. You have to remember, at the time, "Automatic for the People" had made R.E.M. essentially the biggest band in America. Now they were coming back with their first tour in five years and getting ready to release "Monster." Basically, getting one of the three biggest bands in the world to agree to be interviewed and participate in this new thing, was a very big deal."

Being the first at anything can be advantageous or a complete disadvantage. Not everyone can call R.E.M.'s manager and request an interview, especially if you're an upstart publication with no precedence. I asked Goldberg if it ATN would have been as successful, had he not had those connections.

"I'm the type of person, who at the beginning of my music career, would stand outside a dressing room as long as I had to, to try and get an artist to be willing to do an interview," says Goldberg as he recalls the time he did a cover story for Rolling Stone on Stevie Wonder, and sat in a hotel room for a day and a half, waiting for an interview. Then there's the time he interviewed Bill Graham in two successive eight-hour sessions, with no breaks for lunch or dinner. "That's the kind of person I am, I'm very persistent." he says.

After he deceided he wanted to become a staff writer at Rolling Stone, it took him almost a decade to become one of those four guys on staff. "My entire focus was on getting that job at Rolling Stone -- for nine years-if you can believe that." Then he says emphatically, "I believe whether or not I would have had those relationships, it could've been done. It would have just been harder. But you also need to realize that there was a time when I had no relationships. Before starting ATN I spent more than 20 years developing relationships and a reputation as a respected music journalist.

"People don't really understand," he says. "I did a lot of investigative reporting while at Rolling Stone. For years. And my stories earned Jefferson Holt's respect. He took my call because he respected my work as a journalist. It wasn't like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth."

Connections and timing aside, Goldberg's success with ATN can also be attributed to his solid work ethic and distinct vision. A typical workday for Goldberg started at 6 am and didn't end until midnight. Goldberg notes that Jon Luini, who handled the technical aspects of Addicted To Noise, and early ATN staff members such as Brick Thornton and Aimee Spanier were a big help.

He also believes that the graphics by underground poster artist Frank Kozik made the site stand out. Plus a combination of high profile writers who wrote for the site, interviews with high profile artists and Goldberg's own sensibility. He recruited name music journalists that people were familiar with from a different context, and brought them all together in one place. Those writers in turn covered a diverse array of big name artists -- artists like Sonic Youth, Neil Young, Wilco, Son Volt and Morphine, artists that truly mattered -- and presented them in a way no one else could.

ATN enjoyed a completely independent existence until March of 1997, when Goldberg sold ATN to Paradigm Music Entertainment, and it was merged with New York-base SonicNet (which Paradigm had also purchased). Until then, ATN invented the rules as they went along. "There was no one to consult with at the time," Goldberg explains. "It was kind of isolated in a way, it wasn't like there were a lot of people doing what we were doing."

They were the only game in town, flying by the seat of their pants, so to speak. "Convincing companies to advertise on the Web for the first time was a trip," says Goldberg as he recalls the early days of ATN. "If not for our head of sales, David Hyman, now president of Gracenote, we never would have gotten ads from Levi's and the Gap and Snapple and a bunch of others. David is hardcore. He is amazing."

Though he kept tight reins on the budget, during '96 he went deeply in debt, and came to the realization that unless something changed; he would be forced to go out of business. Although ATN had advertisers from the beginning, the ad revenues didn't cover expenses. In a testament to his integrity, Goldberg proudly states, "There was never a time when they (the full- and part-time staff including editors and the production team) didn't receive their checks when they were supposed to. With the freelance writers, sometimes the checks were late -- but everyone got paid."

Simple economics dictated Goldberg's next move. He spent months focused on finding another company to partner with. Prior to the merger, he was in the process of negotiating a deal with an unnamed company, when a story in The Wall Street Journal and a twist of fate intervened. Goldberg explains, "One day I read in the Wall Street Journal that SonicNet had been acquired by a company called Paradigm. David Hyman, my advertising sales guy at the time, had been in New York a month or so earlier and the SonicNet people had taken him out for drinks and actually tried to hire him away from me. SonicNet president Nicholas Butterworth told Hyman 'wouldn't it be great to merge ATN and SonicNet.'"

Hyman had returned home with the news "but I knew SonicNet was running out of money, so it didn't make any sense," says Goldberg. "Then I read about the Paradigm purchase of SonicNet. I called up Nicholas Butterworth. We talked four hours, then I spoke Tom McPartland, the president of Paradigm, and three days later he flew out to San Francisco to discuss a deal. We met for many hours, and the next day he called with an offer. An hour later we had a deal."

Convergence can be a good thing. In the deal, Goldberg became a SonicNet senior VP, and retained editorial control of ATN. With SonicNet handling the business, Goldberg had more time to focus on the editorial aspects of the site and less on the business aspects. He revamped and expanded the ATN editorial department, which became SonicNet editorial. He began to oversee all editorial for both sites. SonicNet editorial had a larger budget, which enabled him to begin expanding and improving the daily music news section, which ran on SonicNet as "SonicNet Music News of the World," and on ATN as "Addicted To Noise Music News of the World."

Under McPartland's regime, Goldberg was free to operate with much the same autonomy he had prior to the merger. Both McPartland's and SonicNet President Nicholas Butterworth's hands-off approach made for an exhilarating ride. "We didn't have to convince anyone that a good idea was a good idea. If I came up with a great idea, I could just go ahead and run with it," he says. "It was like everyday, I looked forward to waking up."

It was also during this time that the music news section started to become more commercial and started to stray from his initial vision. "We wanted to be the number one source for music news," Goldberg says. "We didn't want people to go anywhere else. When I started ATN, I only covered things I cared about and thought were important. I wasn't making a magazine for Michael Jackson fans. ATN was for Sonic Youth and Ramones and Wilco and Morphine fans.

"With SonicNet, the goal changed. The new goal, which I believed in at the time, was to be the be all and end all of music news. We wanted everyone to come to the site. So it became necessary to cover all of popular music," he says in an effort to explain the perceived commercialization of the site. "For example, if you look at The New York Times, if George Bush gives a speech about energy, you run a story on the front page. The editor in chief at the Times may hate Bush. So what. When he gives a speech it's news and as a newspaper you have to cover it. If you're covering music from a news perspective and your goal is to be the number one place that people turn to for music news, than you have to cover everything. If the Spice Girls are popular, then it's news when someone leaves the Spice Girls, or if they are about to release a new album or tour."

Goldberg describes the next phase of the SonicNet's evolution, from January 1998 until July 1999 as an exciting and challenging time. In Jan. '98 TCI (the cable company) bought Paradigm, then formed TCI Music, made McPartland president and CEO and folded SonicNet/ATN, The Box television and DMX radio into TCI Music. It was during those 18 months that Streamland, the first online music video area and Flash Radio were created. And it was when the music news section really came into its own.

"We had five or six fulltime reporters, a bunch of good editors and we were kicking ass," he says. "I have to say that our coverage of the Tibetan Freedom Concert in '98 was just amazing. We must have run 40 stories over three days!"

In July '99 MTV bought SonicNet from TCI Music and subsequently formed MTV Interactive (MTVi). The following month, Goldberg, who had been acting Editor-in-Chief of SonicNet since early '97, was officially given the title.

By the April of 2000 his editorial staff had grown to over 55 people, the biggest editorial staff for a music publication -- online or otherwise. He brought in new talent such as reviews editor Billy Altman, who had been an early album reviews editor at Creem magazine where Lester Bangs was editor. He also hired Gary Giddins to write a jazz column and Simon Reynolds to write an Electronica column and hired Chet Flippo away from Billboard to edit a country music section of the site. He even got Dave Marsh to revive his "American Grandstand" column from his Creem and Rolling Stone days for ATN. Essentially, his staff was comprised of some of the top music critics and journalists covering their respective genres.

"No one could touch us," he says. "Without sounding arrogant, no one was really doing anything even close."

But all was not right. Once MTV had purchased SonicNet Goldberg found himself dealing with a corporate bureaucracy that became increasingly frustrating. "The SonicNet division was also in disarray," he says. " On the east coast, a lot of people quit. Hyman quit, a bunch of designers quit. Nicholas was dealing with the politics of MTV. Morale was bad on the east coast, and I had to keep things together on the west coast."

According to Goldberg, a new general manager who was brought in at the beginning of May began interfering with his authority and his news operation. "The guy was clueless," Goldberg says. "When it became clear to me that he was going to continue to fuck with my staff, I quit.

"There can be a period of time when something like a magazine and the times sync up. And after a while, it doesn't work anymore. For many reasons, that was the case for both SonicNet and Addicted To Noise. By May of 2000, it was really time for me to leave and move on. It was the end of an era."

He not only left SonicNet, he left San Francisco, where he'd lived for over 25 years, and moved north to the Sonoma Valley. "I was able to chill out and really spend some time figuring out what the next thing would be that would be exciting to do," he says. "I started a consulting company. I started writing again. I dabbled in a few things. The decision to start a new online magazine was really organic. It wasn't like I planned a year ago to launch a new website."

Once again, Goldberg is doing things on his terms. Goldberg's new vehicle of creative expression, Neumu [neumu.net], may just turn the online publishing world on its ear. It's much more of a collaborative effort than either ATN or SonicNet, Goldberg says.
"I was a total control freak at ATN and SonicNet," Goldberg explains. "There were reasons for that, but with Neumu there is a lot more of other people's ideas and tastes adding to the bigger feeling and more diverse feeling that I think this site has. There's also much more of an international flavor. We have writers and others involved who are in Australia, Dakar South Africa, Canada, London as well as many parts of the U.S. A lot of points of view. And a lot of really amazing talent."

Part of the amazing talent he's speaking of is Neumu co-founder Emme Stone. As the creative director, she designed the entire site, including all the art that appears on the pages. They both figured out "what we wanted the site to be," Goldberg comments. "Obviously I'm running all editorial, but I think that Emme Stone has had an impact on my approach in some ways."

When he speaks about the new site, it's evident he has very little interest in cashing in on his passion. Neumu has no advertising, and is relying solely on word of mouth to generate traffic.

"At this point in my life I would love it if a lot of people found the site meaningful in one way or another, but that's not why we're doing it," Goldberg explains. "We're doing it because we want to have a forum. A place where people can write about things they care about. To be able to have exhibits of artwork and do experimental things that have to with art and music. We really want it to be like a playground for creative people to do things that they get off on. And what we've found, already, is that there are a lot of people who dig what we're doing. But we're not creating things to draw an audience. We're making a cool inspiring online magazine that we dig, and we're attracting an audience of people who appreciate that."

As I hang up the phone with Goldberg, it becomes clear to me that he and I are kindred spirits. We both write and create solely for the passion of music and art. The main distinction here however, he's paved the road I currently walk on.

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