Throughout his career, Michael Lello has written and edited for various print publications, but his future as a music journalist – and likely the future of the business itself – may be online.
In March of 2011, he founded Highway 81 Revisited to “test the waters” to see if an independent music news website would catch on in Northeastern Pennsylvania, centering the majority of coverage around local bands as well as touring artists passing through the area and Philadelphia.
The answer was a resounding yes.
“I kind of proved my theory right, that there was maybe an opening for that in this market. … It’s obviously a lot cheaper (to produce than a newspaper or magazine). You don’t have to worry about the printing costs. It’s the web. Anybody could do it – it’s just a matter of trying to do it the right way and reaching an audience, and so far, so good with that,” Lello pointed out.
“I’m grateful that people have taken it seriously because it is a startup. It’s not some huge multimillion-dollar corporation. I can’t tell people that a million people are going to see this article if you do this interview, but readers have taken it seriously enough to pay attention to it and the people on the music business side of things have taken it seriously enough, and the artists themselves, too.”
Free of creative restraints that he feels come with being tied to papers or radio and television stations, Highway 81 Revisited has become a fresh source for news, interviews, reviews, and photos of indie rock groups, Americana acts, jam bands, singer/songwriters, and even hard rock and heavy metal bands, talking to artists as varied as Geoff Tate of Queensrÿche, Alice Cooper, Yoko Ono, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Allman Brothers Band, and Grace Potter.
“I gave a presentation at the NEPA BlogCon about content management, and one thing I talked about was I compared our site to two major sites, which are obviously much bigger and more established, but just from a content standpoint, Blabbermouth does a great job of covering heavy metal. They’re the Bible of heavy metal, but they only cover heavy metal. And Pitchfork is the go-to source for indie rock, but they only cover indie rock. We’re not covering every single heavy metal artist or every single indie rock artist, but we’re giving enough of a mix,” Lello explained.
“It’s diverse, and I guess it’s just kind of an outgrowth of my own musical interests. I don’t only write about things that I like, but I think I only write about things that I’m interested in. I think if you write about something that you’re interested in, you’re going to do a better job at it and your passion for it is going to come through a little bit.
“I wouldn’t want to know what I have to say about the new Jason Aldean album. I wouldn’t even respect my own opinion on it. You have to specialize (in your subjects) at least a little bit, I think.”
This specialization began with his earliest childhood interests – sports and music.
“My dad (got) me interested in baseball and football and basketball, and also just listening to music at home and getting ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ on vinyl for my birthday when I was like eight years old. So I was always interested in those things, but I never really thought about writing about music. Then I realized that writing was really the only thing I thought I was even half decent at. I wanted to be a journalist, so I majored in journalism at Penn State and I wanted to be a sports writer, and I was for three years at The Daily Collegian,” he recalled.
“I wrote one music story just as a favor to the arts and entertainment department about a local artist that I was interested in also. That was the extent of it. Then after college, I wanted to be a sports writer. I wanted to cover the New York Yankees for the New York Times – that’s what I wanted to do, and so did probably a million other people.”
After working as a copy editor and page designer at The Times Leader around 2000, Lello did some sports reporting before music editor Alan K. Stout gave him a chance to write about his other passion again, most memorably interviewing the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh before eventually taking over as editor of The Weekender. All of this prepared him for the creation of Highway 81 Revisited, the name serving as homage to a classic Bob Dylan record. Scranton-born musician Brian Langan helped come up with the site’s owl logo, depicting the nocturnal bird with a sword and a shield made of the I-81 sign.
“I was looking around at images online of the road sign, the 81 highway sign, and I’m like, ‘If I saw that, I might think it’s a country music site or just something not really unique for what we’re trying to do.’ I just had the idea of an owl, so I said to Brian, ‘Hey, you’re an artist. Would you mind doing me a favor and coming up with something that incorporates Highway 81 and an owl?’” Lello said with a laugh.
“That’s kind of a strange request, but he does a lot of really interesting artwork, and I loved what he came up with.”
Amassing a team of contributors, including Jason Riedmiller, Matt Morgis, Nikki Mascali, Jesse Faatz, Michael Lester, and Pati Bobeck, the 36-year-old Scranton resident has carefully managed his content and hopes to expand into video and covering other forms of entertainment, such as comedy.
“After the Miley Cyrus VMAs thing, I could have done a post on the top 10 best twerking moments and we might have been able to spike our visitors to the website for that day, but that wouldn’t really do anything for us long-term because if someone visited there because we mentioned Miley Cyrus, they’d be disappointed when they came back the next day and we’re talking about Wilco or something,” Lello noted.
“It’s kind of a balancing act between being diverse and not being too diverse because if you’re all over the map, it doesn’t really have a voice if you cover everything.”
He also has the support of local venues, hosting ticket giveaways with the F.M. Kirby Center, covering concerts with the help of Live Nation at the Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain, and sponsoring shows at The Bog in Scranton. A partnership with Cristin Powers – owner of vintage/handmade clothing store GreenBeing and co-founder of ScrantonMade, an online shop promoting Scranton artists, crafters, and designers – led to Highway 81’s appearance at the Arts on the Square festival in July and a compilation that will be released on Dec. 6 at Holiday on the Square, an outdoor market and tree lighting on Courthouse Square in downtown Scranton.
Powers suggested the idea for “Snow Tracks” to Lello, who easily obtained songs from local bands like The Great Party, Cherokee Red, Rogue Chimp, Abstract Peoples, Needle Points, Kid Icarus, and Cold Coffee by contacting each group directly. The comp, which will be distributed via download cards and on highway81revisited.com, even features unreleased material from Cabinet and Okay Paddy, a popular Scranton band that disbanded years ago.
“Everyone we asked said yes, so we’re really excited about it,” Lello said.
“I’m just looking forward to getting this out there and sharing this music with listeners and seeing what they think of it. I’m actually proud for us to be featuring these bands, and I’m also happy to be associated with the event, Holiday on the Square. It’s going to be a great way for us to promote the blog as well, but it’s going to be fun just to be there.”