A colleague in school asked me a while back why I was still writing/making fanzines. Why I was still writing about Pop culture, if not simply Pop music, at age thirty, when perhaps I ought to be spending my money more wisely on learning to drive, getting a car and a bigger house. Having a family. That kind of thing. And I admit that I couldn't answer them straight out with anything but a sigh that said 'oh you'd never understand', or 'you sound like my mother when I was twenty'. And I admit that it's difficult to express it in any sort of considered manner here, which is why I slip back into teenaged rhetoric with the following 'explanation'...
"Because I still believe in the power of words, of Art, to change the direction of people's lives. I still believe that it's the words and the artefacts which give the words life which instil people with a sense of the possible AND the improbable. I still believe that communicating your ideas, dreams, that whole EXCITEMENT AT BEING ALIVE is eternally ESSENTIAL and positive and ooooh... a load of fun too. I still believe that the perpetually extending jigsaw puzzles of our lives are enhanced by the involvement of expression, whatever the medium used. Put bluntly, I still believe in the Magic Of Pop."
I remember back in the day when the Glasgow Virgin store was all grimy black and shocking pink peeling paint with a mass of vinyl in racks. You could walk up the staircase to the first floor, and beside all the racked up singles you'd be confronted by a mass of fanzines. I thought it was just so cool, I used to go there all the time on the way home from art school and pick up stuff like Juniper Beri Beri, Communication Blur, Legend! Attack on Bzag. Even a few years later, when the store was beginning to look shiny and the vinyl was going the way of the Dodo, you could still visit the shrinking fanzine section (a section that it shared with the 7" singles incidentally) tucked away behind computer games and pick up stuff like Simply Thrilled Honey, Are You Scared To Get Happy, Baby Honey, Caff etc. All those fanzines were just so exciting, they were what I'd always wanted from Pop, but hadn't realised until I found it.
The best of these fanzines were infectious in every way. The words were excited and sharp, the whole visual experience one of movement and dynamism. A friend says similar things about the Postcard fanzines of his own youth, and that more than this, he can still quote chunks of the text from them. Important times.
These days I walk into record stores, even the small independent ones and see... well not fanzines, or at least if I do it's of a minimal quantity. The nature of Pop culture has moved on, and those who would once have had to seek out a fanzine to find out about some marginally obscure band can now just pick up a copy of Select or one of the myriad of similar publications available on the shelves of WH Smiths the land over. Or, if you're hooked up to the internet and you want to know the low down on that obscure band or record, you post a message to a news group or a mailing list, and someone (hopefully) answers and solves your problem almost instantaneously. Which is great if you only want to read for information and not for inspiration. Which isn't really a gripe as such because most of the printed fanzines were only information bores anyway, it was just the occasional few which showed the flicker of inspiration and fight.
However, even some of those who were inspirational in what was an underground stance of passion and fashion against the soulless style obsessive eighties mainstream became thoroughly subsumed into mainstream culture. From and through them grew a marketable version of post-punk indie, turning rebellion into money. Again.
Look at what became of the independent post-punk fanzine writers that I mentioned earlier: Communication Blur: One Alan McGee was responsible for this one. Wonder what happened to him? Legend!: In those days he went by the moniker The Legend!, was sometimes called Jerry Thackery, later called himself Everett True and took over as lord god almighty of, uh is it NME or MM? I can never remember. Attack on bzag though spawned the chief of the other one in James Brown. As for Juniper Beri Beri well that was Stephen MacRobbie, aka Stephen Pastel and Aggi, both of whom are now lauded as the progenitors of indiepop, from the USA to Japan. Didn't they do well.
The later fanzine folks didn't do quite so well for themselves, but still... Rockin Bob Stanley moved off from Caff and wrote for Melody Maker for a while before Pop infamy beckoned with Saint Etienne. Matt Haynes gave up on AYSTGH and teamed up with Clair KVATCH Wadd to become an indiepop mogul with the loved or loathed Sarah records, and now alone with Shinkansen.
They all did all right for themselves out of it, which is just fine I guess, inventing and reinventing genres and sub-themes from which to keep themselves and their media in jobs and cash. Fair enough, that's Pop (mass production and inherently industry money was always vital to Pop), except that for some people there's still a nagging feeling that in terms of what they actually achieved artistically post-fanzine was a bit of a let down. A feeling that there was too much compromise, not enough of that 'keeping the faith' which seemed important to them all back in the day. As Kevin might say, they didn't keep it 'Pure'. They lost 'IT'. Maybe all they lost was a sense of adventure, and maybe that's being too harsh. Whatever... times move on and some of us are still plugging away with the same spirit if not entirely the same soundtrack. Maybe we're truly the losers for still believing that content and intent are more important than profit and fame. Someone else can decide that one.
So if fanzines have disappeared from record store shelves, where have they gone to? Well the above argument about the relevance and market for fanzines stands, although it's also true to say that fanzines have moved even deeper underground and are much more specialist than they ever were. People use them for much more personal causes, which is just great. My personal favourites are those stuck together by school kids who feel that need to communicate, and those are the ones that come across best as emotive yelps and giggles. Cool. But it's also true to say that fanzine writers are starting to use new mediums for their expression, and the internet is one place where they are going. The big question though is, if it came to a contest between fanzine and ezine, which would come out on top?
Obviously the crossover between the 60s/70s hippie counterculture and the computer industry has made for a preponderance of new-ageist fractal loving evangelists. This is something you have to live with on the internet, but that's okay, because things move fast enough for there to be enough spirit of eclecticism creeping into ezines to keep things exciting and inspirational. It's also a quickly growing medium, so just like in the real world of ink and paper, there's always going to be more piles of crap to sift through before you find the somethings that you really dig. Such problems of quality and personal taste will exist whatever the medium.
As for actually producing these somethings, well DIY publishing on the internet (or to be more precise on the world wide web) is as easy or as difficult as it is to produce a photocopied paper fanzine. Easy in that assuming you have access (you never had/have to own the stuff) to the resources required (computer/net access = typewriter/photocopier. HTML/graphics software = scissors and glue), ANYone can do it. Hard in that, if you've got nothing much to say or have no idea about visual presentation then what you produce will suck whatever the medium.
That said, it is more difficult to produce an ezine which packs the same emotional punch that the best ink'n'paper fanzines can manage. Things are getting better but until we get some way of html authoring that supports/allows fanzine design staples like text running at angles and around pictures of irregular outline (without having to cheat and do it as a graphic), then we're stuck with rigid columns, just like the 'real' press (and aping the real press was never the goal of any right minded fanzine writer). I look at my favourite fanzines and dream of being able to use the same visual excitement in an ezine that isn't so graphic heavy that it takes forever to download, in which time the viewer has buggered off someplace else. Things are progressing for sure, but it's still not enough, not yet at least. Oh yeah, and by exciting and effective page design I don't mean overloading with full colour images and multimedia Java and Shockwave gimmicks, I mean not much more than considered use of colour, text and space.
The physicality of the fanzine, or lack of it in the case of the ezine, also raises another issue. We are borne of a western culture which promotes the product, and the accumulation of product as a symbol of our progress. The fanzine fits into this scheme nicely, which is why it is so Pop. But the fanzines which inspired me were ones which bemoaned the effects of mass-consumption and which attacked the very nature of wealth accumulation and measured progress as a continual personal movement forward. Surely then the movement of the fanzine to the ezine solves this problem at least in part? We can no longer collect and flaunt our collections of product in visible, physical form but instead allow it to gather in memory. Either our own personal vaults of the mind or stored in hardware somewhere out of view. Of course then the hardware we use to store those memories becomes the measure by which we display our wealth, which is arguably the same thing, but at least it's not as visible and doesn't clog up the cupboards, or fill boxes under the bed. And as a creator it's a lot easier to ignore the fact that people may be ignoring your artefact on the internet than it is with boxes of unsold printed matter clogging up aforementioned spaces. Ezine sneaks it.
What about other areas?
A friend criticised the use of the ezine over the fanzine on the grounds of it's lack of accessibility to potential readers. He thinks that the sort of person who would get something from a fanzine is the sort of person who probably won't have internet access. But I think that his question of accessibility to ezines is something that isn't really an issue. Remember that in the heyday of the fanzine it was hard to get access to any of them unless you lived in the big cities. With ezines this isn't a problem for anyone who lives in the sticks, because with an internet connection that barrier no longer exists. For someone living in the cities it's probably even easier to find an ezine with the stuff they want than to find a printed fanzine, simply because in the city there's less of a requirement for the internet access to be from home. So in the UK at least it's the wealthier male who has private internet access, but there's free access from universities and colleges, more cyber cafes, more access from schools creeping in, and eventually there will hopefully be public library access. In that respect the ezine wins easily. And getting a fanzine from another country? Difficult and expensive. Ezines? Easy and cheap.
Want to be able to quickly publish your opinions? Hand write or type it and photocopy it, hand it out to your friends and to strangers in the street for sure, but what about getting it further? Distribution, paying for postage, the hassles of making flyers... Or upload your file to your server and it's there for the world to look at instantly. Announce in the directories and news groups. So only a few people will probably bother to look anyway, but is that so different from fanzines which have print runs of a couple of hundred, half of which sit in your bedroom for ever? We've had more visitors to our ezine in three months than we've sold copies of fanzines in three years.
There's doubtless many other arguments for and against both mediums, but I do think that in so many respects, the ezine is potentially a great successor to the ink'n'paper fanzine. I strongly suspect that as future generations grow up taking the screen interface more for granted (something like 90% of students aged 11-16 that I teach have a computer at home) and internet access becomes cheaper and easier then there'll be more people actually producing the electronic equivalents of Hungry Beat and Are You Scared To Get Happy? and more people who will be able to view and get excited about discovering them. It's going to happen. I just don't really see how it won't. It's a modern and exciting medium, and we've just got to trust that there's always going to be people with great things to say through it. We can make the start by ensuring we do something positive and brilliant with it ourselves.
Alistair Fitchett, October 1996.