An Insider’s Tour Through DIY Music Media in
Dispatch by Paul Lundgren
Jimi Sides beats the streets of Duluth to sell advertising. His goal is to print enough copies of his monthly publication, High Plains Drifter Magazine, to meet demand. He’s been printing 1,000 copies of each issue and says they all get picked up.
The role of salesman, Sides admits, is not one he enjoys.
“The thing I hate about the magazine is having to do business shit all the time,” he complains. “I didn’t go to school for that, and it’s kind of a pain in the ass. I’m super unorganized. I’m a fucking artist.”
Paul Connolly and Mat Milinkovich take a different approach. They sell no advertising and print just 100 copies every other month of … And the Heroine Screams Help! They are also in Duluth.
Both these publications are deemed ’zines (short for fan magazine), and the implication is that they are underground operations with fewer resources than mainstream publications. But it’s a distinction that isn’t always readily evident from looking at circulation figures, the quality of writing and graphics, or by measuring what percentage of space is dedicated to advertising.
Take Profane Existence, for example. Published out of South Minneapolis, the “anarcho-punk resource magazine” has been around for nearly two decades and is circulated internationally. Editor Dan Siskind says that doesn’t mean it’s not a ’zine.
“It’s somewhere between a ’zine and a magazine,” he explains. “We don’t have national distribution, we do everything ourselves. If you pick it up and look at it you’d say, ‘yeah this is a magazine,’ but if you’re comparing it to something that’s backed up by Time Warner or something, we’d have to be called a small magazine or independent magazine…. We’re basically one step up from the kids going to the store and dropping off their 50-cent ’zine,” he says.
It seems a publication can be ’zine by choice (shunning corporatization and profit) or by accident (unable to produce and sell a product that will achieve a solid revenue stream). Either way, these tiny publications’ go-it-alone status lends them more credibility in some circles than mainstream music news sources like daily newspaper arts and entertainment sections and even alternative weeklies, which are apparently not alternative enough.
Peter Scholtes, a staff writer for City Pages, says no matter what his paper does to cover the Twin Cities music scene, there will always be some disdain toward it simply because it’s become so large and successful. Launched in 1979 as an independent music tabloid called Sweet Potato, the paper expanded and eventually became part of Village Voice Media, which merged in 2006 with New Times Newspapers to form the largest chain of metropolitan newsweeklies in America.
“People love to disparage it,” Scholtes says of City Pages music coverage. “A good half of the bands that became huge were covered early on by City Pages when nobody cared. And then, of course, once they became huge, people are like, ‘oh you just cover this band because they’re huge’.”
In fact, it’s the most often cited stereotype distinguishing the mainstream music press from the underground. Either the big media outlets don’t write enough about bands, or they only write about bands that are already popular.
Paul Connolly and Mat Milinkovich started …And the Heroine Screams Help! in December 2005, three months after Duluth’s alternative newsweekly Ripsaw folded.
“The reason we started it was because we felt that no one was really writing about the bands in Duluth anymore after the Ripsaw went away,” Connolly recalls.
Another Duluth ’zine, called The BullHorn had already come and gone, and the independently published weekly Transistor offered no more than an events calendar for its music coverage. The only other sources in the city were occasional features in the Duluth News Tribune’s weekly arts and entertainment section (“The Wave”), even less frequent coverage in a weekly shopper (Budgeteer News) and a sort of public-access tabloid’s attempts to fill the void (Reader Weekly).
So it was with little competition that … And the Heroine Screams Help! got its start. Connolly mentions two ’zines in particular that inspired the format: a California-based punk publication called HeartattaCk (published 1994-2006) and a Twin Cities arts magazine, Ladies & Gentlemen, with clever sizing that allowed the mag to serve as a full-size record album sleeve.
“When I go into record stores and look for ’zines, I always like the handmade stuff, the really DIY-looking things,” Connolly explains. “I always find those the best.” …And the Heroine Screams Help! shares those mags’ rough-hewn sensibility—it’s half the size of the standard 8.5-by-11-inch publication and is held together with two nuts and screws. Seriously.
Unsure whether their new publication could actually sell in Duluth, they decided to give it away. Without a cover price or any advertising, Connolly and Milinkovich (both musicians) hold a benefit concert with the release of every issue to cover their costs. Local bands play the showcases for free, and a show this past April drew about 60 or 70 people.
“I think we made about $175 or so,” Connolly explains, “but we had to give $100 to the sound guy.” Merchandise sales offer a better margin for them, as do summertime shows that draw a lot of high school kids.
Jimi Sides also holds benefit shows for his monthly High Plains Drifter Magazine, even though he sells advertising.
“I usually fall about $300 short on advertising,” he says. “So I make it up with the shows. One month we made about $400 for the magazine, and had a little money left over to buy a hard drive.”
Sides, who was an unpaid photographer for the last five issues of Ripsaw, is a 26-year-old St. Cloud native who has lived in Duluth for seven years. He jumped into the ’zine world in October 2006 after shopping his services in vain everywhere else in town.
“It was out of frustration,” he says. “I just wanted experience. I went to a bunch of places and tried to apply to get a job and it was like ‘well, you have to have three years of experience.’ I went to (the University of Minnesota-Duluth) for six years, can that count for something? It makes me mad that you pay so much to go to school, do all this stuff, and you can’t catch a fucking break.”
As a publisher, Sides benefits from some pretty substantial local support—his printer routinely cuts him a deal on his monthly bill, he’s got some solid local advertisers—but the going is still hard.
While …And the Heroine Screams Help! focuses almost entirely on covering Duluth-area bands, Sides goes in for a bit more variety in High Plains Drifter, incorporating a handful of columnists, a three-page horoscope column in giant font, random features like a two-page spread devoted to comic strips (called “illustrated laughing boxes”) and a pair of clip-out recipes.
Dustin Wilmes, publisher of a new ’zine in Mankato, is following Connolly and Milinkovich’s lead in style if not substance. He recently printed 100 copies of the second issue of Save the Crumbs, an advertisement-free, pop culture-focused, every-other-month publication with just a small dab of music news. It’s a small world: he went to Le Sueur-Henderson High School with Connolly.
“I was inspired by him, definitely,” Wilmes says of Connolly. “Maybe a little jealous, too, I don’t know. When I finally got my stuff together and wanted to put something out he was the first person I got a hold of to get some advice from.”
“It’s me that basically puts it all together. There are two other people that help me fund it, so, it’s definitely the DIY kind of thing. We wanted to put something out there to maybe inspire other people to start up things and kind of make Mankato a little cooler.”
As you’d expect, all of these ’zines make use of web resources like MySpace (for some, their MySpace page is their only website), and Wilmes posts all Save the Crumbs’ content online.
But while many independent rock-and-roll journalists have taken to the Internet exclusively in recent years, Wilmes insists the appeal of the printed page is still strong. “It’s definitely cool to have a hand-printed copy to keep for yourself so ten years down the line you can still look at it. It’s more of a sense of accomplishment than saying, ‘hey, check out my blog’.”
Competition among indie music media outlets in Mankato and Duluth may be slim, but in the Twin Cities it’s heated. Rift, a free monthly out of Minneapolis, is probably the best example of a regularly published ’zine in that market. It appears to have strong advertising support though, which may cost Rift its ’zine status.
City Pages’ Peter Scholtes perhaps best defines the line: “The point at which you are able to pay a staff, maybe that’s when you become a magazine. I’m assuming that the people on staff at these various publications [bigger magazines and newspapers]—whether they’re editing or writing—are able to make a living at around the level of a teacher, at least that’s where I am. I think I get paid around $32,000 or something. No ’zine could pay that. Anyone writing for a ’zine is just writing purely to support the local music scene. And that’s great.”
Scholtes also observes that, even though there are a lot of publications covering Twin Cities music, Rift is a welcome addition. “Its comprehensiveness is extremely valuable because we’ve reached the point where there are more local CDs released—even among the papers that exist—than there is newsprint to cover them. [Rift’s coverage] catches things that other people might miss. I think they have amazing art direction… it looks really good.”
The Twin Cities has also seen two new weekly publications entering the market in recent years to compete with City Pages. The Onion, a lampoon newspaper that began in Wisconsin and in 2004 launched a Minneapolis office, publishes a serious arts and entertainment section (the A.V. Club) that includes regional music writing. Vita.mn, a newsweekly owned by Minneapolis’ Star Tribune and launched in 2006, is focused primarily on arts coverage. Another indie media resource, the ten-year old weekly Pulse of the Twin Cities, ceased publishing its print edition in May but will continue some of its coverage online.
The Elusive Weekly Freak
Another made-in-Minnesota music publication that circulates far and wide is Weekly Freak, a magazine which claims to publish “mostly on the full moon” out of Spring Park. Timmy “Freak” Smith is founder, editor and publisher.
Several calls were made to Weekly Freak for this story. Each time the same message was heard: “The mailbox belonging to ‘Freakazoid’ is full. Please hang up.”
About the writer: Paul Lundgren is a Duluth-based freelance writer who feels obligated to disclose that he is a columnist for Transistor and a former managing editor of the now-defunct Ripsaw. He also grudgingly admits to a brief term as editor of Reader Weekly, back when it was called Northland Reader.
Wanna handpicked sampling of some Minnesota DIY media offerings? CLICK HERE for Paul Lundgren's cheatsheet for homegrown 'zines, online radio stations, websites, TV shows, and more.