Why Zines Matter to Me

It was 1976 in London. Punk rock was a bubbling undercurrent and bored, disaffected youth were waking up to the fact that they could create their own culture. It was intoxicating in a world which had Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John and Kiki Dee as its soundtrack. The venues hosting punk bands were crappy disused basements or pub back rooms. People made their own music, their own clothes, their own attitudes. They also made their own magazines.

Sideburns was one such zine and included the infamous (and often wrongly attributed) ‘This is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now form a band’ graphic. It was simple enough, so we did.

Our band was shit; not ‘so shit we were good’ shit, but ‘so shit we were properly shit’ shit, but we didn’t care. We came up with a dozen two minute thrash songs and put our name about. Luckily, many other shit punk bands were emerging, and as we all had sets that lasted about 20 minutes, there was always demand for some lower order support acts. We gigged a lot, and probably did get a bit better, but we didn’t take it that seriously. Well, I didn’t.

We recorded a demo, only because we got some free studio time for painting a friend of a friend’s house. One member decided to punt it around a few record companies. At that time, the really good punk bands were being signed up by the majors, and the decent punk bands were being signed up by independents. Being neither really good nor decent, we plodded on doing gigs in pub back rooms.

All of a sudden, every half-arsed record label wanted a punk band, and with our demo in circulation we got a call from a label; not a big hitter but a subsidiary of RCA, so it wasn’t too shoddy. Everyone was excited, but I had a decision to make. The band had been a laugh, but I was a crap bassist and a worse vocalist, so I decided to leave them to it and do what I really wanted to do: write.

Writing bizarre and absurd stories in the late 1970s didn’t pay well. Markets were non-existent and popular culture was focused on Jilly Cooper and Jeffrey Archer. With no interweb or thriving alternative culture outlets, myself and a few friends did what we knew, and created our own literary zine. We begged favours, borrowed equipment and took liberties to make it happen.

A girlfriend of one of the team worked as a part-time cleaner at a law firm. She would let us into the offices on a Saturday morning so we could use the photocopier. A friend who worked at a school liberated a long-arm stapler and a few boxes of A4 envelopes for us. We’d spend evenings drinking homemade cider and stapling issues together, trimming them by hand with a scalpel.

We sold them at markets, at punk gigs, in pubs, anywhere we could. I always had a fistful of issues with me. If I saw a likely suspect on the street on the underground, I’d try to sell them a copy. If they had no money, I’d give them a copy. We’d get writers to do readings at punk gigs if they didn’t have enough shit support acts.

We made no money, we gained no fame, we did it because we wanted to, because it felt right. It was hard work but ultimately satisfying.

Today’s world is hugely different. Making ebooks or blogs or websites is relatively simple and cost-effective. There are multiple markets for writing of any genre. We’d have given anything to have the communications and marketing options of today.

Despite this, somewhere deep in my being, I still love a good old fashioned paper zine, put together more with passion and spit and sweat than skill and artistry. Crooked pages not quite aligned, a bit of cut-and-paste, some moments of brilliance combined with a little dribble of inanity. I love zines and will do anything I can to support them. I’ll buy them, talk about them, submit work to them, promote them; I do like a zine. However, recently I’m kind of growing wary of them.

Last year I had seven stories accepted by zines which never saw the light of day. Okay; I know things go wrong, real life takes over, money runs out, enthusiasm wanes, but here’s the thing. Three of the zines got in tough after acceptance and explained they wouldn’t be carried on. Four didn’t. Their social media died, their sites went untended, their publications went unpublished and they didn’t respond to emails; well, they did if you wanted to buy back issues or subscribe even though the zine wouldn’t be published any longer.

I had a few stories that inherited a whole range of formatting errors between my MSS and the published work. I know mistakes happen, but even a simple proofread would have shown the errors which were introduced in their processes. One story, not mine, had every three or four words running together. The writer pointed it out to them, but there was no apology or correction.

I’ve had a few recently where the marketing has been pointless. Incorrect sales links, issue availability not updated, request to purchase ignored, sales channels abandoned. The pain in the arse is that these zines are still going, still creating, but they make it so hard to support them. An example is a US-based zine. They offer a contributor copy, but I though it unfair to expect them to post it to the UK, so I decided to buy one. A half hour later, I gave up. Previous issues were all advertised with links to buy, but around the end of 2018 they’d given up. However, they are still active on social media, plugging the hell out of subscriptions.

Don’t get me wrong; its up to them how they run their zines. I’m not complaining about their choices. However, it does seem that having a relationship with many zines is more trouble than it’s worth. Few if any pay for work and I don’t care about that: I just like zines. It seems I like them more than those who produce them do!

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