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The Print Magazine Is Not Dead: A Celebration of the Best, part one

by dave heaton

While the rise of the Internet has made it possible to create and publish a magazine or journal without having a big budget (or a budget at all), there's something irreplaceable about the experience of picking up a magazine, newspaper, pamphlet or fanzine, of having something tangible to hold on to and carry around. I don't care how used to reading online publications I get, I hope I never have to give up on print magazines. For as old-fashioned as the format might seem to some, there's still plenty of magazines which are by no means conventional or out-of-date. In this age there's still people all over the world doing amazing things within the pages of conventional magazines. Whether they're pushing the boundaries of what magazines are by playing with readers' expectations or pushing into unique aesthetic or intellectual territory, or simply filling up pages with some of the sharpest writing you will find, all of these magazines are exciting in their own ways. They come from different backgrounds (some are run in independent, DIY fashion, others are part of larger corporate structures) and cover a wide variety of subjects, but to me each represents a level of quality that's hard to match. Every one of these magazines has in its own way surprised me, excited me, made me think. The magazine format may be regarded as inherently disposable--think of how many magazines are sold at airports for quick read on a flight, then likely discarded after the destination is reached--but there's fantastic magazines out there that are built to last. These are magazines you can spend serious time with, that you can return to in the future and still appreciate and learn from.

[For this feature I've pulled together my thoughts on my favorite magazines currently in circulation. This is not all of the magazines that I read, but the ones I currently find most exciting. I've also tried to include the voices of the magazine creators themselves; I sent each magazine the same 5-question survey, to try to balance my perspective with that of the magazine editor. Most of the editors responded, giving gracious and detailed answers which offer insight into their motivations and ideas. These Q&As are included with the section on the appropriate magazine. You may also click on the link below to take you directly to a particular magazine Part One deals with six magazines. In September or October, Part Two will follow, covering six more magazines (including Adbusters, Nest, and Film Comment).]

Architectural Review, The Big Takeover, Cabinet, Elemental , Wax Poetics, The Wire

The Architectural Review

I'm no expert when it comes to architecture. I've never studied the subject, know little of the jargon and recognize only the most famous architects by name. Yet I'm fascinated by buildings, interested in how surprising and imaginative some of them can be. The art of designing a building intrigues me. While I've read a few architecture magazines, the only which consistently impresses me is The Architectural Review, a monthly magazine from the UK. Though it no doubt is written for readers more knowledgeable about architecture than I, it presents its subjects in a way that helps even a neophyte like me learn about what's going on today in the architectural world.

The bulk of the magazine is given to a look at new buildings around the world. The full-page photos, floor plans and detailed descriptions give you as good a sense of being in a building as you can possibly get from a magazine, and the buildings they choose range from intriguing to mind-expanding. With each building the writers also give a sense not only of the history of the building and its architects but also how it fits into the bigger picture of what's going on around the world.

Each issue has a theme. The buildings that are spotlighted fit that theme in some way, as do all of the other articles. Some of the magazine's other monthly features include "View," a quick overview of current architecture-related events; "Comment," a 1-page commentary on that issue's theme, "Delight," a page in praise of something (an art installation or an architecture-related book, for example); "House," which obviously focuses on one particular house; and "Books," a section of book reviews. One of the more interesting pieces of writing I've read in this year was a "Theory" column in the February 2003 issue of the Review. Titled "The New Paradigm in Architecture," it was one scholar's perspective on a shift he's seeing among current architects, where their styles are based on systems of organization found in the natural world.

That issue's theme was "Light"; the newest issue that I've purchased, the May 2003 issue, has "Entertainment" as its theme. From an essay on the connections between public entertainment and architecture to a glimpse of an amazing-looking movie theatre being built in Syndey, Australia (where images from movies are projected onto glass and metal fins on the outside of the building), the issue is as filled with wonder and intrigue as any issue of Architectural Review that I've seen.


The Big Takeover

I can't imagine music fans ever having a magazine that's as much of a treasure as The Big Takeover is. Where some magazines attract you with a flashy look or glamorous style, The Big Takeover is all about content: 300+ pages of writing about "music with heart." I can't even begin to describe how many articles are packed into each issue, but what's even more important is how good they all are. The Big Takeover started as a punk fanzine started by musician/music lover Jack Rabid, and over 52 issues has grown in size and stature while maintaining a higher level of quality than just about any publication in any field.

It's a personal endeavor--Rabid writes a hefty portion of each issue himself, in addition to being the editor and publisher. His writing is straightforward and brilliant, more like one of your best friends telling you about the music, old and new, that he's obsessing over, than someone trying to be a "professional" writer. Yet the magazine's other writers are also talented and knowledgeable; their contributions also help broaden the array of music covered, to include groups and genres that Rabid himself isn't as taken with.

The magazine's focus is on rock music of the past and present. If you care about rock and pop music--not the corporate-crafted, top 40 kind but music that people play for the love of it--or ever have, you'll find articles about your favorite bands. Rabid has done intensive interviews with some of the most important musicians of our time, from legends like Ray Davies and Joe Strummer to newer talents like Guided By Voices, REM, Bob Mould and Radiohead. His interviews are more revealing and interesting than any you'll read, as they're lengthy but also friendly, like two people actually having a conversation, not just a journalist asking typical questions to a "celebrity." Even when I've never heard of the musician or when I'm not a huge fan, I still end up being completely wrapped up in the conversation.

The Big Takeover will also introduce you to plenty of musicians you've never heard of. I've discovered too many great bands to mention just by reading Jack's enthusiastic reviews. I've been turned onto current groups like Idlewild and For Against but also discovered great musicians from before my time, people I'd heard of but never really thought about, like Paul Revere and the Raiders. The Big Takeover covers the best of what's going on today without assuming that the old music is dead. Rabid can get just as excited about an old jazz or soul record as he can something new, and he doesn't withhold that fact for the sake of selling more magazines. After reading what he said about them, I've also reconsidered groups I thought I didn't like (Gene, Catherine Wheel) and been pleasantly surprised. Beyond the reviews and interviews, each issue also includes intelligent editorials, from Rabid and some others, which deftly articulate important-to-hear views not only on the direction of the music world but on the direction of the world in general.

The current issue, featuring Idlewild on the cover, is another hefty tome that exudes a love for honest and edgy music. Besides literally hundreds of album reviews and a handful of concert reviews, there's some truly fantastic interviews, with people like Ken Stringfellow, Johnny Marr, T.V. Smith, James Chance, Eric Idle (an unusual choice but a great interview), and, my favorite, Mark Gardener of Ride. As an obsessive music fan, The Big Takeover is truly a godsend. Even when I don't agree with Jack Rabid's opinions (though more often than not I do), I love reading what he has to say. I should give fair warning though: it's an impossible magazine to put down. Once you start reading expect the hours to fly by quickly.


Q&A: Jack Rabid, Publisher/Editor

In a sentence or two, how would you describe The Big Takeover's vision, what it's all about?

In contrast to most entertainment/culture/music magazines, which are just thinly veiled "lifestyle" magazines disguised to sell expensive ads for jeans, sneakers, designer clothes, beer, vodka, soda, etc. to young people hoping to feel hip, which not coincidentally focus on the newest celebrity artists and the star making machine, or the latest disposable trends/bandwagons, we concentrate entirely on the joy and substance of actual music and encourage people to care about that instead! Our ads to content ratio is very high, and even all our ads are for new records. Out 19,500 readers per issue think we're a very unique publication, judging from our mailbag, since we cover music first and try to raise the funds for that and stay in business secondč-which in turn inspires a level of trust and enthusiasm in our readers that they aren't being suckered for an ephemeral agenda and marketing strategy.

In your most recent (or next) issue, which article are you most excited about, and why?

For me, it's always the editorials that I labor over and care about the most. In the new issue, I wrote two, a long piece entitled "When You're Out of Work, A Tax Cut Doesn't Help; Is Bush the new Hoover" lambasting the current administration's blindly obsessive tax cut policy in the face of the facts of the massive unemployment figures, spiraling deficits, and draconian State and City cuts. I'm exited about it because I think I put a real humanistic slant to my background in economics (I majored in it at NYU). The other is a short tribute to Joe Strummer, an old hero of mine from my teenage years in the late 1970s.

What would you consider the most bizarre or unusual article you've ever published?

There's two interviews, one with Cat Power's Chan Marshall by Greg Weeks where she kept breaking down over and over, and another with ex '60s/'70s star Emmitt Rhodes by Jeff Kelson, where it revealed that he hasn't made any more music in 30 years because he suffers from a crippling and paralyzing depression. Both of these went well beyond the usual discussion of music into the creative demons faced by some of the most creative artists. To a degree the interview myself and Michael Ackerman did with Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson was a subtle treatise on that unintended subject as well! As far as my editorials, the ones I wrote on crushing romantic loss in 1995 and on the deaths of my father and two close friends in 1999 were the ones that provoked a flood of mail by people who really were very moved by the pieces, and that in itself made them quite unusual.

How hard is it to keep the magazine going these days, in a time when plenty of magazines seem to come and go fairly quickly?

It's funny, but it seems as if that very fact works in our favor. It's understood after 23 years that we are staying around and prospering, and I think people really respect that and keep buying it and keep advertising in it, the two things that we need in order to keep publishing it. I've always said that the readers and labels would "fire" me in this manner if our quality, relevance, or coverage no longer inspired that support. But in fact, we've been growing in leaps and bounds the last decade in both our ad sales and our magazine sales--and certainly the latter begets the former, so it's a nice upward spiral. Also, I made a conscious decision in 1995 to pursue this as a job instead of a hobby, as it was the first 15 years, so I've been happy to catetake that growth, at a steady "word of mouth" clip, so that I insure my own level of interest/inspiration to keep doing this. Not only to carve out my modest living as I have these last eight years, but to feel like we keep improving while at the same time reaching more and more people. That just keep me wanting to make more issues, when the feedback comes from the last one and I see that people really do appreciate the hard work and stubborn focus on the substance over the mere style. It makes me feel like we're justified in the Herculean effort and devotion to the cause our staffers, contributors, and I put in to make this happen twice a year. It's a great feeling, and we're doubly proud seeing other magazines more focused on the bottom line instead of the quality journalism fall by the wayside constantly as their ad sales dry up in recession, yet we continue to grow. I feel bad when the good mags bust up (as they do in any time), but I feel nothing but pride when the bad ones go because they are losing money. See ya! And thanks to Shirley Sexton, who does our web site, for making it so much easier for folks to find us, that's really been a big help too!

Besides your own magazine, what is one of your other favorite print magazines, and why?

When not reading non-fiction books (right now I'm reading a rather fascinating one called Cadillac Desert on the American West's disastrous water policies the last 100 years, and I finished re-reading a sharp book on the Scopes monkey trial, which also was illuminating) and the occasional novel, I spend all my time reading The New York Times (I devour the op-ed page every day), The Economist, The New Yorker, and the few sane columnists in the Village Voice like Nat Hentoff. For music. I'm more of an editorial than a News junkie, I absolutely hate the 24-hour news mentality. That's no way to make sense out of any developments. For music, I like Magnet, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Razorcake, Amplifier, Dagger, Mojo, and others that seem to share my philosophy on the importance of great music leading to a truly more enriched life.

{Continue to the next page for more.}

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