The survival of alternative magazines

Magazines for the trendsetters and fashion gurus are enjoying a revival. Mairi Clark finds out how many are likely to succeed

Magazines for the trendsetters and fashion gurus are enjoying a revival. Mairi Clark finds out how many are likely to succeed

G-Spot, Dazed and Confused, the Idler, Code, Touch, Herb Garden, Jockey Slut, Blow, Straight No Chaser; new magazines celebrating alternative culture seem to launch every day. These publications, often launched on a wing and a prayer, have been made possible by the advent of relatively cheap desktop technology and the so-called bedsit publishing market. And in this way, they embody the ‘do-it-yourself’ dance, clubbing, Generation X culture they write about.

But the question is: how do these alternative publications survive in an increasingly competitive market? Even mainstream publications, with the financial backing of a big publisher, are apt to complain of rising production costs and are not themselves immune from other potentially fatal problems.

The most recent alternative title to launch is the London-based Code, which set up in March as the style magazine for young Londoners. The majority of the magazine’s revenue comes from advertising and sponsorship - attracting between seven and ten sponsors each month, the debut issue includes such sponsors as Rolling Rock, HMV and Tanqueray Gin. And some income derives from its pounds 2.50 cover price.

David Waters, the editor of Code, is a former staff writer for the Evening Standard and has freelanced for Dazed and Confused. He admits that it is a tough business. ‘We do run a tight ship. You don’t send bikes for example, unless you really have to. The Standard is almost lavish compared to this. But we’re not aiming to be bought out by a big publisher. Independence is our strength.’

Survival and success in this market are possible. Some, like the Face, even go on to achieve a sort of respectability conferred by age. Others surrender independence for the comfort of a big backer. The Idler, a magazine started by the editor, Tom Hodgkinson, has been supported by the Guardian for the last year. Despite this, its content and attitude remain the same.

Matthew De Abaitua, the Idler’s deputy editor, says: ‘Most independent magazines are crippled by logistics; things like phone bills, postage and paying people. Since getting the backing of the Guardian, those things aren’t really a worry any more. The Guardian doesn’t view us as an investment, we give it access to different cultures. I’d agree that the Idler is an alternative magazine but the most radical thing it’s done is to abstain from being fashionable. We’re not in it for the money so we can be as alternative as we like. Advertising will take a while to catch up with us, but the Guardian is giving us the chance to wait for it to catch up.’

The Face is arguably the most famous and successful of the independents and celebrates its 16th birthday this year. It was started by the former editor of Smash Hits, Nick Logan, after he saw a gap in the market for a style title. When Emap refused to back him, Logan decided to set his magazine up independently and it now has a circulation of 112,000. In 1986 Logan’s company, Wagadon Press, launched another successful style magazine, Arena, and two years later he sold 40 per cent of Wagadon to Conde Nast. However, the title is still seen as an independent publication.

Dazed and Confused - the glossiest and most controversial of the recent crop of independents - was set up in 1992 by Jefferson Hack, Ian C. Taylor and Rankin Waddell, with a view to showcasing new artists. But the title folded after only two years when the money ran out.

Last April, it was relaunched by Rankin with financial backing from his father and since then the magazine has become a confirmed success. Dazed and Confused has made some precedent-setting sponsorship and advertising deals; one cross-promotional mail-out in conjunction with a record company told consumers about a 16-page feature on the band, Ocean Colour Scene, and generated 100 enquiries about the magazine. The magazine has also managed to negotiate profitable deals with Kodak, Eurostar and Sony Minidisc. Rankin says building a high profile is the key to success.

The Evening Standard once denounced a Dazed and Confused fashion shoot that featured models licking bloody knives; W. H. Smith only recently agreed to restock it, after a feature was run on Jake and Dinos Chapman, the artists made infamous by their controversial child plaster-cast models.

Rankin admits this isn’t the kind of publicity Dazed and Confused needed. ‘Dazed failed first time round because we were na•ve. If I was coming straight from college now, I’d go into TV, not publishing. It would be impossible for a new magazine without financial help to survive today.’

Alternative publishers say they face two main obstacles: libel and distribution. Almost by definition, alternative magazines live life at the cutting edge and are required to test the boundaries of taste. The infamous libel case brought against the Face by Jason Donovan, for example, nearly brought its parent, Wagadon, down. And on distribution, Rod Sopp, advertisement director for the Face, believes it would be harder for a similar magazine to start up now and run successfully. ‘The problem now is that you would have to print more than you can ever hope to sell in order to get the presence you need. The most important thing is to get a good distributor. To an outsider it looks easy, what with desktop publishing, but people don’t realise how much investment you’re looking at in terms of money and effort.’ Waddell agrees: ‘Distribution is key. If someone refuses to stock us, then people can’t buy the magazine. It’s impossible for new magazines to set up today. You need at least pounds 150,000 just to get your first issue out. When we launched we were working hand-to-mouth. A significant problem was trust. We could never get anything on full credit; the printers would give us 50 per cent credit but we’d still have to find the money from somewhere. If you can get a good distributor, that’s half the battle.’

Another magazine that seems to be surviving is Touch, the monthly jazz magazine that has been published for five years and claims a circulation of 30,000. Jaimie d’Cruz, the editor, is confident that Touch will survive. ‘For the first two-and-a-half years, we were a free magazine, and advertising was our only income. Now we get fairly major advertisers, such as Jose Cuervo and Diesel, and revenue is also taken

from sales.’

Although alternative magazines appeal to clubbers and trendsetters, some advertisers are still slow at putting their money on the table. Morag Blazey, a director at Pattison Horswell Durden, says: ‘Advertising production costs really mitigate against independent magazines, which is probably the element that affects advertisers the most.’ But Steve Clark, media manager for Levi’s at Motive, is more enthusiastic: ‘It depends what your brand wants to be. Magazines like Herb Garden, G-Spot and Dazed and Confused cater to a small, but very important, audience.

They’re the first in their group to wear a new brand, or drink a new drink so if I was launching a brand now, they’d be the people I’d try to reach.’