Unconventional Party: Founder moves Alternative Press Music Awards to Columbus, AP's 'second home'

Joel Oliphint

Back in 1985, the only way Mike Shea, then 19, could find out what was going on in the various corners of Cleveland's underground rock scene was by reading about it in UK publications likeNME andMelody Maker. Which made no sense to Shea.

Plus, the Cleveland scenes were segmented; skate punks didn't associate with metalheads, and neither paid attention to the goth kids. Shea wanted to bring the underground community together, so he decided to create a fanzine with that mission, pasting together the pages of that first issue ofAlternative Press in his mom's house and then passing it out at shows.

"People started writing us, wanting us to report on their scene in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Columbus, New York, Chicago. It grew from there," Shea said recently by phone. "We've been doing this now 31 years, and I think we took a very Midwest approach to it. We didn't take a cynical 'seen it all, done it all' attitude, which a lot of entertainment press tends to do."

AP morphed over the years, becoming a glossy national magazine that covered the early days of grunge and other alt-rock and punk acts. Since the early-to-mid 2000s, the magazine and altpress.com focus mostly on Warped Tour bands in the overlapping emo, screamo, pop-punk and post-hardcore scenes. (Spotify's "The Scene" playlist is a good intro toAP's core bands. A recent sampling: Blink-182, Of Mice & Men, Yellowcard, Moose Blood, Panic! At the Disco and Columbus' own Beartooth.)

"I've always been more comfortable around the underdogs," Shea said. "This community has been underdogged. It's a widely known thing that if you say your band is on Warped Tour, radio programmers won't listen to you or consider you. They think you're too small. They think you're just a Hot Topic band. … A lot of these bands are being dismissed."

The magazine sometimes gets flak for covering bands that often appeal to younger audiences. Over the years, staff writers have called Shea in a panic, saying, "We gotta do indie rock! Everybody's doing Pitchfork stuff!" and "Everybody's doing EDM! We gotta do EDM!" But Shea has resisted those realms, maintaining a niche focus on oft-maligned emo/pop-punk offshoots that have scores of young, rabid fans.

WhileAP's online audience is older and broader, Shea said young music listeners are more drawn to ink and paper. "Our print fans are younger and like to collect and hold onto things and rip things out and put them on their wall," he said. "They're superfans. The fanaticism toward bands when you're in high school or early college is very different than when you're in your 20s and you're trying to pay your car insurance and rent."

In 2014, echoing the mission of that very first issue ofAP, Shea saw a need to unify the loose collective of bands beyond the pages of the magazine. "I thought, we need to bond our community together," Shea said. "We should create our own awards show, because kids will flip over it, and it's a great way to honor some people and have a great party and some great performances."

And so, two years ago the magazine hosted the first Alternative Press Music Awards in Voinovich Bicentennial Park behind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. Pop-punk mainstays Fall Out Boy rerouted a tour to attend. Columbus natives Twenty One Pilots appeared, too.

"None of us knew how it would turn out," Shea said. "It ended up being this huge thing." About 5,500 people showed up, so in 2015 the magazine did it again, moving the awards show to the Quicken Loans Arena. Roughly 7,000 people attended, and more than 450,000 votes were cast to award each winner a "Skully" trophy. Multiple national media outlets covered the four-hour show and the red carpet event beforehand.

"When the entertainment attorneys are starting to come, you know you've been successful," Shea said. "There's a lot of industry people who come the day before [for] business meetings to do contracts, doing stuff with artists and managers and agents. So it's turned into something that's a must. ... Bands pack their suits now before they go out on Warped Tour because they know they're gonna need it. Bands that aren't on the road get in the van and drive here. Bands that are typically overseas come to our show."

For this year's APMAs, with Cleveland hosting the Republican National Convention the same week, Shea knew he'd have to move the event, but he wanted to keep it in Ohio. "Columbus is our second home," he said. "I remember the first two years of our existence making the monthly trek down to Columbus to distribute the zine at SchoolKids [Records]."

This year's event, which takes place on Monday, July 18 at the Schottenstein Center and will be streamed live atamazon.com/apmas, will feature Dashboard Confessional, A Day to Remember, Good Charlotte, Yellowcard, Beartooth, Rob Halford of Judas Priest performing with female Japanese pop-metal act Babymetal and more. Marilyn Manson will also be on hand to receive an Icon Award.

Monday also happens to be the day after the inaugural PromoWest Fest. "We both didn't know about each other - that we were both booking that same weekend," Shea said. "Once we locked it in, then we were told about PromoWest Fest. … We know there's music industry people coming in a couple days early to go to it, but we don't think it's dragging from us too much. The lineups are so different."

Since many of the bands at the APMAs haven't been invited to the Grammy Awards or other similar shows, Shea said they often need some guidance. "The handlers last year weren't watching the alcohol intake. We had a couple bands go up there completely obliterated," he said. "But they've never done awards shows like this before. Most of these guys go up and don't know what to say. We've had acceptance speeches that areway too short. So we're trying to coach everybody, like, look, even if you don't think you're gonna win, you should at least have your thoughts together."

While Cleveland is already pushing for the APMAs to return home next year, Shea said he's fielding requests from other cities and hasn't made any firm decisions about 2017 yet. "I know Columbus is already trying to get us to stay," he said.