From the vaults of Evan, part 1: Crisis music? The relevancy of the music zine (2005)

I was recently looking through some old files and found some stuff that I had written back while zine-ing that I had forgotten existed. So I thought would resurrect some of them to allow them to chance to grow old in public, rather than as a dodgy Word 97 file in an old computer. This piece was written for a friend’s music zine in London, called Transparent Magazine. The zine first started out as a A5 photocopied affair, but soon became a blog, which was quite successful. A look at the site now though shows that it hasn’t been updated since 2011. So I have no idea what’s happening with the zine now. Sahil Varma, the editor, asked me to write something short, but I came up with something that was 3 times as long as he wanted, so he put it on the first version of the now defunct website. So here it is in its entirety. I have edited a few things, but have kept in most things as a record of my thinking back in 2005 (I especially like the reference to live journal!). I apologise for any errors that 2005 me made. Enjoy…

Although zines, and more generally independent publishing, has been a constant phenomenon for most of the twentieth century, there certainly have been peaks of interest and production. This is not a history of independent publishing, of fanzines or ‘underground’ press, but will look at some of characteristics of one particular genre of zines, the music zine, its development and its relevancy now in the Internet age. General music zines, opposed to fanzines of particular artists (usually run by fan clubs), first really developed out of the ‘underground’ press culture that occurred in the late 1960s. There is still much debate as the causes for the counter-culture of 1960s, but in regards to the burgeoning ‘underground’, such as Oz, International Times, the political Black Dwarf, the comic Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and others, it was a reaction to the fact that the mainstream press ignored youth culture and the means of production had become affordable, due to student grants and the invention of the photocopier. (For a list of ‘underground’ press in the late 1960s, see Richard Neville’s Play Power) The now staid, seriously mainstream Rolling Stone began as an independent publication in the late 1960s in San Fransisco, where its popularity grew among the SF music scene and it unfortunately became a stock-standard publication by the mid-1970s.

By the mid-1970s, the cultural radicalism of the counter-culture had been dissipated after it had failed to achieve its goals of social revolution and the world was gripped by economic crisis. A cultural reaction to dire situation of the 1970s was the sudden explosion of punk rock, especially marked in Britain with bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned and many others. Punk has been talked of excessively in other areas (one of the best analyses being Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming), but it is important as the culture of cut n paste zines covering the music, still largely ignored in the beginning by NME, Sounds and Melody Maker, was created during this time. Music zines such as Sniffin’ Glue and London’s Outrage, the latter printed by Jon Savage, covered punk from a fan’s perspective and was able to influence the scene as much as report on it. (Sniffin’ Glue, like so many music zines, constantly complained that London wasn’t as good as the New York scene)

Although many have focused on the well-marketed ‘anarchism’ of the Sex Pistols, underneath the hype by the mainstream, a radical political sentiment, fuelled by the socio-economic crisis that plagued 1970s Britain, was infused in punk. What Stuart Hall called ‘one of the timeliest and most structured of cultural interventions’ was Rock Against Racism, started by several young members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, inspired by punk rock and outraged by the fascist National Front’s attempts to exploit the desperation of youth. Rock Against Racism organised gigs at local level, co-ordinated marches and carnivals with the Anti-Nazi League (another SWP influenced organisation) and published a zine, covering punk, reggae, ska music and political issues, titled Temporary Hoarding. Inspired by the Dada publications of the early 1920s, Temporary Hoarding was a cut n paste zine, designed by Syd Shelton and Ruth Gregory, that was visually dynamic and literarily revolutionary, which was one of the most influential zines of the punk movement. (The history of RAR and Temporary Hoarding is the focus of David Widgery’s Beating Time and also analysed in Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack) Temporary Hoarding’s style was mimicked by the political newspapers of the period, with even with the Young National Front’s magazine Bulldog copying the zine format. However punk’s evisceration by the mainstream press and its evolution into ska, post-punk and ‘new wave’ saw the zine culture fade away. Although the emergence of punk and hardcore in the US in the 1980s, inspired by well-known acts such as Minor Threat, Bad Brains, the Germs, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and so forth, saw the zine format continue with zines such as MaximumRocknRoll and Flipper, but many viewed it as a sectarian and elitist culture, with zines carrying the ‘official’ line of the ‘scene’.

With the focus on ‘alternative’ music in the early 1990s after the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the zine was once again in the spotlight of the mainstream press. It has been argued that zine production initially wasn’t increased by the rise of ‘grunge’, but the publicity of the zine phenomenon portrayed it as a sudden explosion of DIY culture. It is very probable that the publicity that zines were garnering, particularly in the US, inspired other young people to start making their own zines, but it is not correct to interpret this time as a cleverly created marketing ploy or a ‘zine revolution’. Music zines flourished in this time with a myriad of different music styles, previously unrecognised, being pushed to the fore and gathering greater acceptance, with multitudes of music zines being dedicated to almost every style of music, although particularly the punk/hardcore zine was by far the biggest component. By the late 1990s, the zine catalogue Factsheet Five listed thousands of different music zines amongst the zines for every little niche culture that existed in communicating through zines. The functions of the music zine was to report, as well as critique on music at a fan’s level and discuss music in a way that was not present in the mainstream press or that was going ignored in other publications.

However the accessibility of the Internet in the late 1990s and its effect on communication in the 21st century, while at first allowing communication between music zinesters to flow more freely, finally made the concept of the music zine to be redundant at a purely functional level. The function of the zine was allowing people to independently own and control the means of production of publications, but while this allows for a free flow of ideas without the necessity of a large amounts of capital to put into production, the concept of independent publishing is not inherently radical or progressive, or more to the crux of the matter, alternative. What has traditionally driven the production of zines is communication with others at a basic level, where the means for publication are, for the most part, economically viable and not the spread of radical or ‘counter-cultural’ ideas, which some have purported to be the significant factor in the creation of zines. The photocopier is much more important than, for instance, Timothy Leary, John Lennon or Che Guevara. So in the age of Internet, the role of zine has changed and music zine, which has been essentially reporting or expressing opinion on music outside what is basically covered in the mainstream, was outstripped by the economic viability of the website and its means for mass communication.

In discussion of zines, the prefix ‘fan’ was dropped as the zine evolved from being the necessary means of disseminating information to becoming more of a genre onto itself concerned with deliberate aesthetics and format. The music zines of the 1990s slowly vanished as the zinesters started to publishing ‘e-zines’, creating websites or discussing the nuances of their preferred genres on mailing lists and discussion boards. Progressive punk zines, such as Punk Planet, become more and more similar to other mainstream magazines, but still performed the necessary function of providing information on punk music that wasn’t being reported in Alternative Press, SPIN or NME. Other punk zines, such as MaximumRocknRoll, became historical oddities that perpetuated the idiosyncrasies of punk zines in the 1980s and 1990s and slowly devolved into stale, elitist name-calling. One of the few genres of music that exploded in the late 1990s was experimental and electronic music, which few zines had picked up on, but were effectively countered by the Internet and the existence of the very sophisticated, and sometimes too complicated, WIRE magazine. (As Cex said @insound.com, “the Wire can kiss my a-word”) This does not mean that music zines stopped entirely, but a large amount of them ceased to exist, and the music zines that stood out, such as Robots and Electronic Brains, Ujaku, and Chic Alors to name a few, have done so because of the author’s deliberate use of the zine format to say something about music and has inserted a personal aspect into their writing of the very subjective topic of musical taste.

‘Per-zines’, a genre of zines that encompassed zines in which the author discussed aspects of themselves and not necessarily any one subject, in many ways similar to the publication of one’s diary entires, was just one of the many genres of zine culture during the 1990s, but by now, the overwhelming amount of zines have become ‘per-zines’, which reflect a conscious aesthetic format of self-expression. A concentration on art as an expression of the individual is highlighted much more than simply reporting on one’s interests in a subject through the inexpensive means of the zine. That is not to say that zines as little windows of a zinester’s personality is the only direction that zines have and will evolve, but the ‘per-zine’ is certainly prevalent in zine culture nowadays. However the Internet is encroaching upon this territory as well with the widespread use of blogs today. There is an immediacy of getting an emotion or thought across, by using a blog or a livejournal, that cannot be replicated by zines, but by putting every little thought on the ‘net, it cheapens one’s ideas more than the conscious effort of putting a selected amount for print and apart from the obvious opportunity for more accessibility through the Internet, blogs are very momentary affairs with neither the effort or permanence of the printed zine.

Is the music zine still relevant in the Internet age? The music zine as simply functioning as a commentary on music, such as the standard Q& A interview, scene reports and record reviews, can largely be found on the Internet nowadays, although by no means is it defunct in print format. What music zines require more than mere reportage is a personal engagement with the music being written about, a passion for the subject that encourages one to create a zine. As music is such a subjective medium, writing a music zine should demonstrate a part of the author’s personality or, at least, try not to give objective authority over such as particular thing as musical taste. One of the issues of Sure zine, a per-zine that changed topic with each issue, was dedicated to the zinester writing about his favourite albums of all time. While most of these were considered ‘classics’, his writings were not the typical reviews which would find in a magazine like Rolling Stone, but little anecdotes that depicted why the album meant so much to him. The music reviews in Ujaku, while appraising recent releases, were totally subjective, relating to the author’s particular biases and the context in which the author received the release. Robots and Electronic Brains is not elitist in its reviews, which was the downfall of many ‘punk’ zines, but the reviewer has no qualms about expressing their personal opinion and being blunt about their liking or disliking of a release. It is much better to read a short article on music that somehow relates to the author than to read a boring Q & A interview or a music review which ticks the right boxes and uses the correct colloquialisms. It is inspiring that some people are still inspired enough by music to write about it, but leave the reporting to NME and portray the passion!

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