Zine Culture: From Print to Web

Me in 1994, laying out an issue of my zine.


I love magazines. When I was in college, my schoolwork took a backseat to my obsession:

Publishing My Own Magazine.

Of course, it was called a zine back then, which meant it was an underground, do-it-yourself product, created without commercial success in mind, driven by the passion of a small group of people, with a niche audience of dedicated readers who existed in their own social network around a common belief structure and topic. This was a culture of not just consumers, but creators.

Sound familiar? Perhaps a bit like blogs, social networks, and many of the new media web 2.0 mindset?

I would like to explore how zine culture has shifted from print to web, and identify how this relates to B2B publishing. This is the story of how I came to publish a zine for 2 years during college, and my goals at the time:

  • In college, my friend Dan Black and I were obsessed with music. All of our free time was spent listening to music, shopping for music, talking about music, or making music (poorly)
  • I learned about music zines, and was shocked to discover that record companies actually valued the efforts of their fans to review music and spread the word about their bands.
  • So Dan and I created a magazine. I did layout and design, he came up with the name: Our Friend Alfred. OFA for short.
  • I was charged with cold calling some record labels and try to act like a real journalist. Amazingly, my calls went through, and I was quickly chatting with some big names in music PR. We focused on a certain kind of music (mostly Britpop, indie-rock and alternative), and suddenly had access to insider information from people who actually knew the bands!
  • Then came the cd’s. Glorious glorious cd’s. They sent us HUNDREDS of cd’s for free. I’m telling you, it’s as if I was Homer Simpson, and it started raining donuts. All was right with the world.
  • But it got better, during a regular phone call with a PR rep from one of the big labels, they casually asked if I would like to interview the band we were chatting about. My heart stopped.
  • So the next 2 years were spent interviewing our favorite bands, getting into shows for free, hobnobbing with record company executives, and putting out a magazine.
  • In the end, I decided to shut down the magazine because the business of music began infringing on the joy of discovering and listening to new music. The trade off simply wasn’t worth it. It should be noted, that publishing this left me thousands in debt, and I think I earned around $6 an hour at the time. Good times, good times.

Dan Black (left) and Dan Blank (right) in 1995… our goal: publish the greatest zine that indie-music has ever seen. (Note: Yes, his name is Dan Black, my name is Dan Blank, and to make things better: I am married to Sarah, and he is marrying a Sarah tonight!)

Now, if I were in college today, my efforts might look like this:

  • Starting a blog. Creating reviews and articles that explore the music I love, and have it be immediately accessible to the entire world, for free.
  • Downloading mp3s of songs that are just coming out or not even released.
  • Hunting down rare live versions of songs from bootleg sites.
  • Reading hundreds of other music bloggers, and working to start conversations with them and connect to like-minded people through various means: email, comments, phone, IM, Twitter, and linking to them in my own blog posts.
  • Using social music services like Pandora or Last.fm to not just consume music, but analyze my listening habits and share my playlists with friends online.
  • When I go to see my favorite bands when they come to town, not just experience the evening, but video tape their performance, and share it with the world. Also… I would be able to view almost every show in their tour, but finding similar efforts from other fans.
  • I would connect with all these new friends in a myriad of ways, from niche listservs and bulletin boards, to regular social networks like MySpace and Facebook.
  • I would be able to constantly hunt down new bands on places like MySpace.
  • If I felt a need to buy cd’s or mp3’s, it would all be done online through stores like Insound.com or iTunes.
  • I would be active on fan forums, constantly trading stories and learning more about the bands and music I love. I would have information first, months before it was published in a magazine like Rolling Stone.
  • Finally: I would not just experience music 24/7, but every step of the process would allow me to connect with others, from all over the world. 

I can tell you, that as much as I loved creating that magazine back in college, it is NOTHING compared to what I could experience today.

Dan Black writing an article in our “offices,” as our intern sorts through the cd’s we will be reviewing.

Now, how does this relate to a commercial publication, be it consumer or B2B? There are differences, sure. Perhaps the best way to frame a conversation like this is to consider how you would launch a new brand today.

Would a print component be your top priority? As a startup, would you have the time and money to create that kind of system, and would it give you the greatest chance of reaching a broad audience, and get a significant return on your investement?

I still read plenty of magazines, and I still love them. But I am increasingly aware that it is a one-way medium, and that I am missing the connections that are inherent in new media. The value of those connections can’t be overstated, especially considering the reasons that an audience reads a magazine, especially in B2B:

  • To CONNECT them to ideas.
  • To CONNECT them to people.
  • To CONNECT them to solutions.
  • To CONNECT them to opportunities.

And even though I love magazines, and love the one I created back in college, I can’t let sentiment or habit drive my own decisions about what best serves these needs of CONNECTION. 

All of this isn’t to say that magazines aren’t incredibly valuable, and will continue to be. They are, and they will. But as I look around at various publishing and media businesses, I feel that they are looking for the following:


… and I can’t help but feel that these opportunities center around digital media, to connect their readers to ideas, opportunities, solutions, and each other, while giving the maximum return on investment.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can say that I am happy to see that any college student with an internet connection, can experience the same things that Dan and I did back in the early 1990’s, but with much less effort, and without spending thousands of dollars to do so.

The connections Dan and I worked so hard to find are now commonplace and without cost. And that is a beautiful thing.

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