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The Changing Face of U.S Zines

October 2nd, 2007 · post by Edd · Make a comment

The end of Punk Planet, and a number of other large American titles, is a tragedy, but perhaps it is also an opportunity for new ideas, and new zines to spread.

At some point in June I was rolling around the internet when I thought I’d head to Punk Planet’s site. I hadn’t seen the new issue out and was wondering if there had been a delay. It was much worse than that: Punk Planet was ending. 13 years, and 80 issues after they had started the doors were closing and they were moving on to other projects.

Their reasons were fairly simple, according to an editorial post on their site, ‘Benefit shows are no longer enough to make up for bad distribution deals, disappearing advertisers, and a decreasing audience of subscribers’. Equally the external pressure of the internet poaching readers couldn’t be over-estimated. Essentially Punk Planet had suffered the fate of many other punk, radical and independent magazines and zines have over the past year.

Whilst HeartattCk, Clamor, Kitchen Sink et al. were all shutting up shop it felt like Punk Planet might survive. Perhaps it was false logic on my part, the zine I most love must surely be the one to survive. But they all, with possible exception of HaC, suffered similar fates. The newsstand distribution service they were part of, Independent Press Association (IPA) ceased to pay what they owed to magazines and then went bust. As if that weren’t bad enough it came at a time that advertising revenue is moving out of print media and either online or into the ‘real world’ (i.e. urban environment advertising, tour sponsorship etc.), and it was the mid-level publications – those that sell 5,000 – 20,000 copies – that felt the pinch first. In addition readers are moving online as more and more content can be found for free either on activist-run, and radical sites like Indymedia or infoshop.org or indeed mainstream media sites such as bbc.co.uk.

The problems that these zines have faced with newsstand distribution could almost read as a morality play of why radical media and corporations don’t mix. Whilst the IPA was established as a non-profit, and by all accounts with good intentions of helping its members it still had to play the big magazines’ and corporate shops’ games. Essentially it boils down to the fact that US newsstand distributors demand that you print more than you’re ever likely to sell so that the Barnes and Nobel always have copies on the shelf. Or as Daniel Sinker, Punk Planet’s founding editor put it in an interview with Venus Zine, “You will eat that paper for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for months and months and months, and they don’t care. They don’t care that they’re essentially putting you out of business by placing print orders that are five times higher than they should be. Because that’s just their way of doing things. The types of publications that they are comfortable distributing are OK selling 25 percent of what they actually print. That’s not a model that works for publications like ours.”

Josh, in his zine Herbivore another publication hit by IPA’s closure and their involvement with the newsstand expands more on the economics in issue 13 of Herbivore, ‘Here is a rough sketch of why the industry is such tough sledding for independent magazines like ours: From stores we get paid 40% of the cover price of the magazine for issues that sell. So if a store orders 100 copies and sells half of them (which would be well above the industry average) we would get $119 ($2.38 each). Herbivore costs about $2 per magazine to print and ship to the store in the first place. So even though we just sold 50 magazines, we just lost $81 (roughly). And the 50 copies of the magazine that didn’t sell get thrown away (having been shipped back to us would cost even more.)… [What] they do pay us for doesn’t arrive for six to nine months. By that time there are new printing bills to cover, and the cycle unsustainably continues.’

Whilst Herbivore actually left IPA before they went into administration others were not so lucky. Kitchen Sink for example were sunk; Carla Costa, Kitchen Sink’s publisher, in an interview with Punk Planet (#80) about the IPA said,  “We won’t ever revive Kitchen Sink magazine. We just can’t. It’s a money problem – not for lack of will.” Punk Planet suffered the same fate being left, “exhausted and deep in debt” according to Dan and Anne Elizabeth Moore by their dealings with IPA. “It was a hole that proved impossible to crawl out of” they continued.

For those, like Punk Planet, that are primarily based around music, but with other radical culture issues attached, the internet has also proved equally detrimental to their sales figures. As Lil from Household Name records pointed out in an interview I recently did with him, “There’s more access to bands. Let me say Myspace. You can spend six hours on Myspace following band links listening to four songs by each particular band and you’ll have gone around the world twice probably. Back in the day you couldn’t do that.” When you have such quick access to actually hear what a band sounds like it is difficult to see why people will read reviews about them, or even interviews with them. Especially when, as seems to be happening more and more rapidly, sub-genres and bands peak and trough on an almost monthly basis. Again no doubt thanks to the internet.

Likewise social networking, and blog sites, what could very broadly be termed Web 2.0 have also created an additional set of problems. During the zine boom of the mid-90s, which Punk Planet helped to fuel in no small part, the only way to network, and express your personality was through a zine, which you traded and handed out at shows. If you were a photographer, illustrator, comic artist etc. your only means of sharing your work was via the xerox machine. The larger zines, such as Punk Planet, were helped along by this, since there was a healthy level of contributers to call on, not to mention a large group of people eager to read reviews of their zine or their friends’ zines.

Of course in 2007 things have changed. Whilst you have to fit your personality to that of Facebook, or Myspace, you can have your own page online where you can ‘network’ and share your thoughts and feelings with anyone in the world with a computer. Equally the immediacy of blogging, and the accessibility of content management systems (Wordpress etc.) makes it easy for anyone wanting to express themselves online. None of these of course are necessarily negative things, or at least if they are it is the topic of another article, but they have nonetheless caused a diminishing number of people to read newsprint, be it radical publications or Cosmopolitan. As evidence one of the bloggers who regretted that Punk Planet’s had closed inadvertently admitted the part he had played in it’s downfall,  ‘I know it doesn’t seem like something that Consumatron would be sad about, but DIY culture (whether it was related to the punk culture or not) played a major role in my life. Before I had a videoblog or blog, I wrote and read ‘zines, connecting and commenting through snail mail with other independent creators.’

But of course, whilst large corporate magazines can to some extent diversify out of the falling readership by becoming ever closer to their advertisers, ditching journalists, and paying crumbs to their workers less short-sighted, and more interesting radical publications – like Clamor say – can’t. As Anne Elizabeth Moore notes in her interview with Venus Zine the one thing that could have saved Punk Planet, opening their magazine to major labels and other corporations, was the one thing that they could never do. The only option was to close.

But as mentioned earlier the experiences of these publications, and ultimately their demise, can act as a morality play of why DIY forms of distribution work well. It means publications only need to print the number of copies they’re likely to sell, which obviously has cost benefits as well as the more obvious environmental and waste benefits. But it also means that the zine is more engaged with those reading it. More importantly perhaps it means there is no potential for censorship from either the distributer or whatever corporate bookstore it ends up in.

A fine example of this is Rolling Thunder, now in it’s second year, it is published by some members of CrimethInc. It is a radical, fairly uncompromising magazine about anti-authoritarian and anarchist struggles and culture. It is accessible, well-presented (with the latest issue including colour pages for the first time) and it is entirely done on a DIY scale. Admittedly this means that it takes them a while to get copies to Active Distribution in the UK (or even rumour has it, respond to emails!) but it also means they bypass, as much as possible, the capitalist paradigm that they’re trying to undermine.

The ‘death’ of fanzines, radical publications, and non-conformist titles then seems to be exaggerated.

Anne Elizabeth Moore in her concluding editorial said, ‘No doubt in the mean time, many of us will bring our work back underground, continue to create our music and zines and comics in secret, practicising democracy only in small localised ways still available to us.’ The ‘mean time’ of her statement is whilst ‘we’ wait for the government and ‘cultural awareness’ to come and save the day. The problem with the statement of course is that we’re not making any of these things in secret. Across the western world there are things like the Portland or London Zine Symposiums, San Fransisco’s anarchist bookfair or the Small Press Expo in Washington DC. Nor do we lack distributers from aforementioned Active Distribution to Microcosm, through Fall of Autumn Press. There are literally hundreds of small distros, many running out of people’s bedrooms, many being done because they love reading the publications they distribute. Surely a better network to be forging than one where publications are reliant on large corporations who care for the magazine only so long as it sells copies, and doesn’t challenge too obviously their business methods.

The important thing about these networks is that, in many parts, they don’t need to be formed. They already exist. If anything the challenges that the likes of Punk Planet faced have already been met by others. They simply bypassed the networks that the larger zines were trying to push their way through. This can be seen in a number of ways. Despite blogging, and networking spaces, the per-zine (broadly speaking an auto-biographical zine about day to day happenings of the author) is far from dead. If anything it is more popular than ever helped along by the likes of Alex Wrekk’s  Brainscan series or Cristy C. Road’s Greenzine. They don’t have anywhere near the number of copies published when compared to those that were distributed by IPA. But then if that was the only measure of success MTV would be lauded with praise, whilst Discord Records would be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Bart Beaty, an associate professor at Calgary University, and author of Unpopular Culture that looks at European comics makes an interesting point about how small-scale, alternative, publishers like L’Association, Fremox etc. represent themselves, ‘These house are increasingly autonomous’ Beaty notes, ‘and disavow the principle of the market place, seeking… the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for the producers, namely their competition.’ The alternative is the dominant model which is, ‘heteronomous and finds its validation in marketplace success.’ In the context of this article it seems like chasing validation through ‘marketplace success’ is something that has overtaken other considerations when it comes to creating our media. Alternative culture can always be out-competed by Murdoch’s News Corp. Better perhaps to be on a different playing field, or to change the rules of engagement so that the radical media can actually challenge them.

The idea of autonomy vs non-autonomy (heteronomy) is important. It is the difference between making value judgements based on pleasure, pain, or other human emotions and those that make value judgements based on money. Those who create, and read, zines and other forms of alternative culture hopefully find value in the former. If that is the case then the means of production needs to reflect it. This isn’t to advocate against distribution deals, but it is to question the sense of, as Josh in Herbivore put it, ‘Getting our message in front of as many people as possible.’ If by virtue of spreading the message you tarnish the very ideas you’re trying to expose.

Equally punk, and other radical subcultures, should not be regarded as a spectacle. As something if you purchase the magazine you become a part of it – armchair revolutionaries if you will. Rather all these subcultures create some form of situation that demands audience participation – be it by dancing at a gig, creating your own zine to trade or throwing a brick at a police car. To make parallels to other thoughts from the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan posited that ‘the medium is the message’. That is the content is irrelevant, it is the medium that is important; it is the means of communication that is what alters the conciousness of the reader. It could be argued then that the means of communication chosen by having only a few ‘large’ publications that people could buy, and thus not look for other smaller, perhaps more radical or esoteric zines, sucked some of the oxygen out of the radical alternatives the larger publications were attempting to illuminate.

Perhaps then the death of Punk Planet, Clamor, Kitchen Sink and all those that sunk because of IPA is not such as a tragedy. After all it should be acknowledged all had amazing successes. Least of all Punk Planet; how many other publications can lay claim to 80 issues, 13 years, and a number of published books? Not to mention the array of incredible articles and interviews they published. But still their ending allows new beginnings. Or as Dan Sinker put it more poetically, ‘The fight… is now yours. Fight for independence; fight for the freedom to create; fight against the monoculture that threatens every aspect of your life.’

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