The recent print closures of magazines such as Look, Glamour and NME portray an industry on the brink of implosion. Yet things look very different in the independent publishing arena – a place where new titles are thriving, albeit under a different definition of success.
The story of independent mag publishing in the UK is the subject of Somerset House’s latest exhibition. Print: Tearing It Up is an exploration of the indie landscape’s history, from the obscure Blast (the modernist zine halted after two issues by an inconvenient war in 1914), the staunchly scurrilous Private Eye and the game-changing Spare Rib, to the likes of Burnt Roti, The Gentlewoman and Gal-dem – products of what co-curator Paul Gorman calls the “new resurgence of independent magazines”.
After penning a book on The Face, the cultural magazine published from 1980 to 2004, Gorman became aware of the raft of indies emerging from the detritus of the economic crash. Often beautifully produced, the mags provide a tangible antidote to digital proliferation.
“Around 2011, 2012 I noticed these magazines emerging – like The Gentlewoman and Mushpit – and I was quite encouraged by the fact they were being published mainly by young women,” he told The Drum. “They were anti-corporate, and they had all those values that appealed to me.”
There’s a running theme throughout the contemporary magazines featured in Print: they’re written by and for the women hitherto glossed over by the mainstream glossies. There’s Sabat, a beautifully produced publication for modern witches; Thiiird, a style bible with an unashamed editorial slant on the underrepresented; and Burnt Roti – a lifestyle mag for the modern South Asian woman.
“I went to a bunch of shops and picked up magazines, and never saw any issues that affected me or people who looked like me in those magazines,” said Sharan Dhaliwal, editor-in-chief of Burnt Roti, in a Print podcast. “I wanted to give that community space to talk about anything they wanted to talk about, without having any concerns about being judged by the person who was going to publish or read it.”
Dhaliwal is unusual in that she runs Burnt Roti’s annual print mag, website and events full-time. Rhona Ezuma, the editor-in-chief of Thiiird, for instance, couples her role with her gigs as a stylist, and the majority of her flannel panel do the same. “It’s not really a publication that sustains itself – it doesn’t feed any of us,” she said.
Gorman noted that the new breeds of indie mags are “quite often quixotic enterprises in that they’re not for profit”.
“They’re more often about the circulation of ideas and the way they’re sustained quite often is [by being] but one part of the range of the activities that the people producing them are up to, whether it’s consulting, styling, or having day jobs,” he said. “It’s a mix between a hobby and a vocation for a lot of younger publishers.”
The ideas-first nature of these publications also means deals with advertisers aren’t looked upon as a lifeblood like they are in the mainstream publishing space; without a drive for profit, publishers would rather fill their paper with editorial content over third-party advertising and make their money from distribution, subscriptions and events. Select fashion zines such as Thiird, however, have managed to cross the commercial bridge and work with the same brands that approach the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar; designers that come to the indie mag space are often looking for a sense of cultish authenticity not offered by the likes of old school publishing houses.
Can heritage publishers learn from this alternative success route?
“I think the next five years are going to be really interesting to see whether they can,” Gorman said. “But the fact that Conde Nast closed down Glamour, which had the kinds of figures that in an independent model would make the owners millionaires, suggests to me that like the major record labels and film studios, the major corporate entertainment companies have kind of lost their way, and don’t know how to exploit youth culture tastes as cleverly as they did before.”
Prioritising ideas above profit is what makes an indie in the purest sense. At the exhibition, a wall is adorned with huge mind map filled with the names of independent zines – past and present. What’s immediately obvious are the short lifespans of most. Even those that were hugely significant for various countercultures during the 70s, 80s and 90s struggled to survive beyond five years.
But this doesn’t make them a publishing failure, in Gorman’s eyes at least.
“In some ways I think of it as a beautiful idea that is tested, works really well and then as culture moves on the people move on,” he said. “They lose interest but that doesn’t make it any less valid.
“I think the braver the gesture the more appreciative I certainly am of it. As the late Malcolm Malaren was told by his art teachers: ‘it’s better to be a failure than a benign success’. What he’s talking about there is pursuing your vision at whatever cost.”