The Guardian, February 2nd 2009
by Simon Reynolds
A canny indie music publicist had realised that not only did band buzz typically start with the fanzines, but many zine writers went on to join the music press, making it a shrewd move to develop relationships early on. The arrival of a free LP certainly had an instantly corrupting effect on Monitor, which we'd founded on a strict policy of "no reviews, no interviews, just thinkpieces". From then on we instituted a review section in hopes of encouraging the promo flow.
These days blogs are where most aspiring music journalists train for the big league and in the interim release their pent-up geyser of opinionated-ness. Blogs have enormous advantages over fanzines: they cost nothing and are vastly easier to produce, their distribution reach is potentially infinite, and instead of long gaps between irregular issues they can be updated constantly. They are also more interactive than fanzines, which often felt like they were thrown out into the void: you get links from peer blogs or reactions in the comments box, exciting conversations and spats develop, particular corners of the blogosphere can feel like a community (albeit with the problems of real-world villages: idiots, busybodies, know-it-alls, creeps and stalkers). It makes sense that today's mouthy-git critics serve their apprenticeship on blogs, often graduating to intermediary webzines like The Quietus, Pitchfork or the late lamented US outlet Stylus: online publications that tend not to pay much (or anything) but compensate by conveying cool status, access to a large readership and relative freedom in terms of word count and style.
In the age of Blogger, Live Journal and other online formats for non-professional music commentary, the fanzine ought be on its last legs, a relic of another era, as antiquated as an electric typewriter. Yet strangely zines are holding their ground. People still make them. And it's not just die-hard veterans from the golden age of the fanzine (approximately 1977 to 1994, punk rock to riot grrl) but younger people who've never known a world without email and the web. Although it's hard to quantify, it feels like the fanzine is making a resurgence in the face of digital culture, just like that other analogue format, vinyl.
Take Elodie Amandine Roy, a 22 year old French girl who lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her zine, Applejack, is now on its fourth issue and is a defiantly old-school affair made from photocopied and folded sheets that are illustrated with hand-drawn black-and-white graphics and held together by a sort of belt of ribbon (Elodie doesn't own a stapler). Applejack's sole concession to digital modernity is having a free CD-R instead of a flexidisc, which is what all self-respecting 80s zines had (even Monitor did one). Roy describes her motivations for doing it the old-fashioned way as "romantic … I wanted to make something that would be visible and material and touchable. I wanted people to be able to read them and keep them somewhere in their house." She says she carries issues of Applejack around with her in her schoolbag and gives them away to "people with friendly faces. I actually like to know who my readers are. I'm not interested in having one million people reading my writing online, because then they're just a faceless, fleshless, distant audience. I like to feel in touch."
Roy belongs to a kind of retro-vanguard within the youth of today who increasingly disenchanted with Web 2.0 reality, seeing its limitlessness and hyper-linked pseudo-connectivity as the problem, something working against the intimacy of a real, grounded community. "Fanzines say 'hello it's me, I'm here'. The internet is a bit scary to me – it is bigger than us, beyond our control." There's a groundswell of revived interest into analogue formats like vinyl (especially seven-inch singles) and cassettes (often encased in elaborate, hand-decorated packaging), that's strongest in scenes like noise, drone and free folk, where it parallels the emphasis on live performance and improvisation (the unmediated presence of the unrepeatable event). Roy aligns herself with the "anti-folk scene", labels like Olive Juice, and says she never buys digital music but instead prefers vinyl and mixtapes. "Music is associated with tangible artefacts to me. A MP3 is a file – it can be erased in one click. Collection makes recollection possible. The albums you've listened to, the books you've read, they sit on your shelves, and it is memory made visible. There is no romance involved with MP3s."
Although Roy says she doesn't "deliberately choose vintage formats over new ones", Applejack does have an arts-and-crafts air to it: the first two issues were "hand-sewn". This interest in the limited edition and hand-customised is a common thread within the new zine scene. Music journalist Jon Dale operates a long-running zine called Astronauts and has extravagant plans for the next issue: "I want to do it as beautiful old wooden box, with each page as loose leaf vellum and every image screen-printed. I figure if everyone's gonna harp on about fetish objects, you may as well make a good one!" As a contributor to Signal To Noise and similar esoteric music magazines, Dale is an expert on underground sounds like free folk and noise, where cassette labels are all the rage. In these circles, you often hear anti-digital sentiments expressed. Sounds of analogue provenance, whether it's acoustic instruments or antiquated synthesisers, are preferred. Free folker Joanna Newsom reputedly won't even allow digital music-playback devices in her own home, although such principled squeamishness hasn't stopped her from selling her album Ys in both CD and MP3 form (via the online independent retailer eMusic).
Not every zine operator is so zealous about the superiority of analogue over digital. Take John Eden, a veteran of fanzine culture since the 80s who recently returned to the hard-copy format after a period of blogging. The music covered in Woofah – grime, dubstep, digidub – depends on computer technology. Hardly a Luddite, Eden was drawn back to fanzines for both sentimental reasons and for their practical advantages. "I missed that feeling of holding something in your hands, really. Something that impressionable people might read over and over again and get obsessed with like I did in the 80s with anarcho-punk and industrial zines. But I'm also not sure people absorb material properly when it's read fleetingly on a website – and the boss might be looking over your shoulder. I also felt it would open some doors – artists still like the idea of being interviewed for a magazine rather than something online." As you can tell from its title, Woofah celebrates the bass-booming tradition of "UK soundsystem culture". Eden says the magazine's ethos is to "make it critical and to have articles that engage deeply with the culture – either people involved with it like producers or MCs, or with issues like the police shutting down grime raves in London". Unlike blogs, which thanks to their rapid-response format tend to comment on a mixture of ultra-obscure stuff and mainstream things everybody's aware of, Woofah sticks to the original remit of the fanzine: in-depth coverage of underground sounds neglected by the mainstream media.
The era of the music fanzine really began with punk. Zines before then had either been done by science-fiction fans, or they took the form of newsletters and heavily pictorial, mail-order-only periodicals produced by fan clubs and dedicated to specific movie or pop idols. Punk's DIY ideology unleashed a tidal wave of samizdat publishing. But the zine revolution would never have happened without certain technological breakthroughs, says Joly McFie, a veteran of the 60s underground press who would play a crucial role in fostering the UK post-punk zine culture with his famously idealistic "print now/pay later" scheme. "Around 1975 the price of duplication went down dramatically," he says, noting that Xerox went from approximately 50p a sheet to 10p. "Copy shops started to spring up all over Britain. At the same time Kodak introduced instant printing. The combined effect of these two things was dramatic, really on a par with the arrival of the internet." Sixties underground magazines like Oz and International Times (where McFie worked as the music editor) were irreverent and radical but their actual mode of operation was far closer to a newspaper than a fanzine: they were still part of the top-down transmission of news and opinion, says McFie, whereas fanzines involved a shift to a more bottom-up, anti-hierarchical set up that eroded "the distinction between producer and consumer. You could be part of the process now."
Despite these democratising technological breakthroughs, there remained a host of limitations to the fanzine's means of production. Punkzines often turned these constraints into an aesthetic of anti-professionalism. If Letraset was one-use only and expensive, they'd cut letters out of newspapers, blackmail-style. If photo-size reduction was too pricey (it required a process camera, which cost £1 per shot), they'd just run their pictures giant-size. Strips of typewritten and typo-riddled text would be glued at skewiff angles, with pencil-scribbled addenda in the margins. Other zines did their best to look like "proper" magazines but, falling short, often looked a bit drab.
This remained the state of the art well into the 80s, indubitably the boom era of zine culture, thanks to the enduring impact of punk, which had split into squabbling tribes (Goth, anarcho, Oi!, US hardcore) and spawned offshoots like industrial and the cutie-pop/shambling/C86 strains of indie. What I remember about Monitor was the sheer struggle involved in making and selling the thing. In those pre-desktop publishing days, production was protracted and painstaking. That was kind of the attraction, in a way: although we were all ex-students on the dole, we weren't slackers. We were looking for collective purpose, in a sense looking for a job. And we made it harder on ourselves by having pretensions to being different from other zines (indeed the debut issue included a critique of fanzine culture, penned by yours truly). Monitor styled itself as a pop culture journal (hence the essays-only policy – no rambling verbatim Q&A interviews in tiny print for us) and aimed for an elegant, verging-on-slick presentation: high quality paper stock, stark typefaces, striking design. That this was achieved owing everything to editor-in-chief Paul Oldfield. I recall him poring through books of fonts for hours and rigging up a substitute for a designer's light table using a pane of glass, an anglepoise and a wooden chair frame from which he'd removed the cushioned seat. The laying-out of a Monitor issue took many nights of small-hours toil, although I confess my contribution was mainly moral support and making endless cups of heavily-sugared instant coffee. Where I did come into my own was the other problematic area: distribution. Being the least socially unskilled, it fell upon me to trudge around to record stores and newsagents in Oxford and plead with them to take copies. I took trips to London to deliver copies to the ICA bookstore, the Rough Trade record shop, and the late, great Compendium, Camden's radical bookseller and clearing house for underground publications and pamphlets of every kind.
Fanzine editors in those days would traditionally rail against the weekly music papers for their out-of-touch uselessness and corruption. Yet at the first whiff of an opportunity of writing for them, they'd jump at it. When I joined Melody Maker in 1986 I was following a well-trodden route. Just before punk kicked off, broadcaster/critic-to-be Paul Morley did one issue of Out There, an attractively designed zine that was attacked by Sniffin' Glue's Mark P for "looking like fuckin' Vogue", then received the proverbial telegram from NME. Everett True went from doing rebarbative indie zine The Legend to becoming Melody Maker's champion of grunge and is currently the publisher/editor of independent music magazine Plan B. Most meteoric of all was the ascent of James Brown – in the 80s he was the mouthy git behind Attack on Bzag! before he became the creator of Loaded and a magazine-publishing magnate-about-town.
Fanzines in the UK mostly affiliated themselves to punk (and spent the bulk of their energy debating what the spirit of that movement had been and fighting over who had followed the true path). But in lots of ways their vibe reminded me more of hip-hop. The writer-editors were like MCs, all swollen ego and competitive hostility, unacknowledged legislators of the music world who were totally convinced of the righteousness of their taste. Just as every rapper wants to be where Jay-Z is, it makes perfect sense that zine editors lunged for the chance of a bigger audience. But it's different nowadays: blogs offer an easier route to notoriety for loudmouthed megalomaniacs, while the impulse to do a fanzine is much more about abstention from the mainstream, reaching a select and compact audience of like-minds. So Elodie Roy's Applejack is a freezine ("gratuit", it says on the front). "I generally take my zines to record stores directly and leave a few copies." John Eden says Woofah is "only interested in attracting the hardcore, wherever they may be. Someone who ordered issue one lived down my road, the next order in the pile was to someone in Russia! We have no plans to increase the print run of 1,000." Jon Dale's next issue of Astronauts – the one in the wooden box – is necessarily going to be a small run. "I do like making limited editions of things, it feels like you've hand-blessed each thing individually."
Doing a fanzine in the Noughties is all about the process of making it, and having that direct impact on an individual, who will (hopefully) cherish the object you've lavished effort on. Mike McGonigal, who did the legendary American zine Chemical Imbalance in the 90s and now publishes Yeti, a hard-spined zine dedicated to all kinds of outsider music and art, says that he sees a boom in zines "of a very particular kind. It's all from the art/literary side". The web and music blogging has freed zines from the need to provide news or even be "a form of communication", so "now you have far more little zines with silkscreen covers. Maybe made by someone in a band but there are 40 made and half of them got sold probably."
In parallel with this artisanal approach to creating magazines to treasure, vintage zines have emerged as a burgeoning market. Although nowhere near the level of rare records, there is a bustling trade in collectable zines, which generally means those that have a talismanic connection to legendary eras of music like punk rock or the 80s underground noise rock. Beneath its vinyl-crammed racks my local record store in New York's East Village has cardboard boxes full of old magazines in dust-protective plastic sleeves: "proper" ones like Creem and New York Rocker but also zines like Forced Exposure and NO, with certain issues priced as high as $20. John Eden says he's "shed a load of my archive via eBay – the cost of keeping that stuff, especially the industrial music zines I'm no longer interested in, was far outweighed by the money they go for". Joly McFie recalls picking up via eBay a copy of a zine that he'd helped to produce on his printing press back in the late 70s, paying a tidy sum while being acutely aware of the irony of having had at one point hundreds of unsold copies lying around his Ladbroke Grove premises. And Mike McGonigal recalls seeing "an issue of Sniffin' Glue in a glass case for several thousand dollars, in this ridiculous ephemera/art/book shop on the Upper East Side of New York".
What's going on here is what academics describe as "slippage of the auratic". Walter Benjamin theorised about the "aura" possessed by the singular artwork, the painting or sculpture, in the age of mechanical reproduction. Yet as digital culture takes over, "aura" is being conferred on things that not long ago would once have been considered mass produced and characterless. In the age of the webzine and MP3, it is solid-form cultural artifacts – vinyl records, vintage DJ mixtapes, yellowing magazines – that become attractive in the face of the infinite dissemination and seeming ephemerality of web culture.
In this respect, fanzines have a significant edge over even a golden-era copy of NME or Rolling Stone, in so far as they're limited-run and thus closer to being a one-off. Fanzines are dripping with "aura". They're special too because they're typically the singular expression of an individual, who often appears to be deranged with enthusiasm or frustration. And in addition to evoking the fanatical intensity of particular moments in music history, they tend to contain amateur photography of bands or gigs: images that haven't been widely disseminated or officially approved. So it makes total sense that collectors are hunting rare zines down.
All I wish is that Paul had not taken the several hundred copies of Monitor that languished under his bed for years after we called it a day and chucked them in a skip.