Small is Beautiful (and a Lot of Work)
I read a very interesting article this week, 'Little Magazine. Big Story.' posted Sunday, 14 August 2016 by Nell Nelson, editor of HappenStance Press, on her blog page. It begins:
I’ve always specially liked the term ‘little magazine’. It sounds so un-literary. But of course, it’s the reverse. This is how the British Library defines a ‘little magazine’: ‘a literary magazine, usually produced without concern for immediate commercial gain, and with a guiding enthusiasm for contemporary literature, especially poetry’.
It made me think back to my days of being co-founder and contributing editor for an independent music magazine called Splinter. As Nell says in her post,
little magazines are started (and sustained) by people with a bit of an obsession, and then they’re written about by people who have a somewhat obsessive interest in them.
The truth is, as it ever was, that anybody can start a little magazine. Anybody can print and publish their say, and the say of others. Anybody at all can start it. Even if you have no money at all, there is always a way. But very few can keep it going over decades.
That was Splinter in a nutshell, so I thought I would share this potted history of how Splinter came into existence and eventually met its demise. HappenStance are publishing the story of one magazine that has survived, The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, by Gerry Cambridge.
A Potted History of Splinter
In 2005, whilst working as a Chartered transportation planner, I co-founded a fiercely independent music magazine with an equally-obsessed music friend, Fliss, who had studied journalism and often wrote zines about different bands. Fliss was magazine editor and I'm down as "contributing editor" but Fliss and I did anything and everything not only those roles!
We covered indie bands but had quite a wide spread of different styles of bands and musicians. We wanted a good quality publication so it was colour and glossy, and we had many independent record stores throughout the UK stocking us, in addition to the local Borders store in Bristol who initially took 10 copies of issue 1 and re-ordered twice.
Unfortunately we had failed to grasp the move towards free magazines in the music world. Advertisers did not want to pay to advertise in a magazine that people would have to pay to read. They wanted to advertise in free magazines that anybody could pick up, read, see their advert, and put down again.
As a music magazine we loathed the way journalism in the NME had deteriorated from impassioned articles to very much more commercialised drivel, pandering to the advertisers' whims. That was the antithesis of our vision for Splinter Magazine, and sticking to our guns meant we could not fund issue 2 from advertising. We wanted to take care over exactly who was advertising in Splinter. We had one advertiser, Fantastic Plastic, who wanted the full back cover which, though very welcome was simply not enough for us to survive.
Bands, CDs and gigs reviewed and interviewed in the pages of Spliter or on the website include Hood, Brakes, Devendra Banhart, Mirah, The Magic Numbers, Sleeper, Electrelane, Scout Niblett, Matt Elliott, The Field Mice and the Sarah Records phenomenon, Durutti Column, Explosions in the Sky, Gwar and Disco Inferno.
We did issue 2 as a PDF version, but called it a day after that. I had taken out a £5,000 bank loan to allow us to print issue 1 which took me years to pay off!! Any small press is going to understand this economics stuff, but naturally the cost per issue for printing goes down as the size of the print run goes up... we printed 3,000 copies so that the per-issue cover price could be kept down to £2. I still have about 2,000 copies stored unopened in my dad's garden shed!
It was a fantastically hard year doing Splinter. Fliss had moved from Milton Keynes to Bristol, where I worked, and we rented a house together. Fliss was editor for the magazine and we simply shared my salary. We weren't a couple, which maybe made the circumstances even more of a challenge! I did get as far as collecting application forms for a second bank loan to fund issue 2, but I thankfully saw sense and decided we could not carry on in print format.
People kind of think that producing a magazine like that just means going out to gigs, writing articles and getting friends to write bits and pieces, photocopying at the library and handing or mailing copies out! When I think about the experience Fliss and I had doing Splinter, from writing articles, commissioning contributions, contacting potential stockists and bands for interviews, designing and running the website and online forum, managing subscriptions and sending out purchased copies, my mind boggles with hindsight! I remember some of the local stores in Bristol who took three or four copies on the understanding that they would keep 40 percent of any sales, and going round to ask for any sales money, and the record stores flatly denying that they had ever had any, had not sold any or could not find any of their copies but were sure they had not sold any! To be honest, when we're talking about asking a store to hand over the princely sum of £1.20 per copy they had taken I feel very disappointed in the world.
I do count it as an important and useful experience into the world of publishing and commerce in general. We met a lot of lovely people from bands and small shops, and I think those skills are still useful as I think about my poetry — about selling my pamphlet when it goes into print next year.
Anybody whose appetite for musical nostalgia is invigorated by this potted history and would like a copy of Splinter issue 1, please feel free to leave a comment. The cover price remains unaffected by all those economic irritations like inflation and Brexit, so for UK and Ireland readers it's £2 and a postage contribution of 50p. Postage on overseas orders will vary dependent on the destination.
May your literary and musical small press reading be enjoyable and continue for many more years :)
#HappenStance #TheDarkHorse #GerryCambridge #SplinterMagazine