Fanzines - The scene that smells of zine spirit

It should have died out with flexi discs and VHS, but now a new generation is embracing the DIY world of the fanzine. Jessica Bateman celebrates a timely resurgence
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Do you remember the fanzine? Those crude, photocopied bits of paper, lovingly cut'n'pasted together, thrust into your hands as you waited outside a gig or piled up high in the local record shop. Peppered with spelling mistakes, strewn with swear words and often loaded with egomaniacal rants, they were still the best way to find out about new bands and hear what other fans had to say about them. And they also held a strange energy – time and enthusiasm were poured into making them, and they provided a fleeting peek into strangers' thoughts.

The internet should have killed them off. With blogging making it easy to share information without any pesky printing prices or distribution worries, and the speed of creating a community online that fanzines took months to build, they should be a relic from the past as much as Bros cassette tapes and Morris Minors. But somehow, they never quite went away. In fact, it seems that the fanzine community in Britain is the healthiest it's been for a decade. London Zine Symposium is now in its fifth year and attracting crowds of more than a thousand. Similar events, such as the Manchester Zine Fest, are pulling strong numbers. A new social networking website for "zinesters", We Make Zines, is attracting around 50 new members a day. The fanzine is, it seems, having a resurgence. What's going on?

Producing a fanzine is more difficult and costly than web publishing, and anyone producing one is making a clear choice to do something different. But when a 19-year-old Mark Perry set up the UK's first punk fanzine, Sniffin' Glue, in 1976, it wasn't through choice but through necessity. There was simply no other way to spread information.

"When I heard the Ramones for the first time, it was like a revelation," says a 50-year-old Perry. "It was so exciting, but there was no one writing about it." After trying, and failing, to track down an elusive New York magazine called Punk, he took matters into his own hands. Sniffin' Glue, named after the Ramones' song, was put together with a typewriter, felt-tip pen and the use of his girlfriend's work photocopier. "The first issue was really basic, it had one staple in the corner, was printed on one side and had about 10 sheets or something," he recalls. "But I took it to my local record shop and they were like, 'This is brilliant!', and they gave me some money to go make some more."

Over the space of 12 issues, Sniffin' Glue's circulation swelled from 200 to 20,000, and Perry chose to close it for fear of absorption into the mainstream media. "It was legendary and I would rather it stay that way than end up one of those boring magazines that everyone looks at and thinks, 'What are they still doing around?'"

Mark doesn't think he would have felt the same need to start the fanzine if he was a teenager in the digital age. "I can look up any band, even if they don't have a record out, and they'll have a MySpace and a website already. If I could've gone online and found a bunch of Ramones fans, then there just wouldn't have been that need."

But today's fanzine-makers insist that the renewed interest in the form stems from a desire to offer more than the simple sharing of information. John Eden, 38, a fanzine writer in the Eighties and Nineties, is a music enthusiast who is returning to the art after a long period of blogging. His publication, Woofah, a niche music zine covering underground reggae, grime and dubstep, has been met with an overwhelming response: its circulation stands at more than 1,000, and issue one is sold out. "There's a real move back to the physical right now," he tells me. "People are fed up with MySpace and want to have something they can hold in their hands. There's a whole generation that have grown up reading information on the net, and they see fanzines as something different and exciting."

Even though fanzines can't beat the immediacy of the net, Eden feels they can offer far more depth. "People pay more attention to things when they're printed," he says. "Online, people often just discuss the latest tune or who played what DJ set, but with Woofah we want to look really in-depth at the culture and the history of the music we cover, go into areas that haven't been discussed much before."

Natalie Ridgway, 25, who set up the London Zine Symposium five years ago, believes their appeal lies in offering something aesthetically unique in a world of mass-production. "People are going very handmade in their approach to zines and putting a lot of effort into the presentation, packaging them in an interesting way and making them special," she tells me.

Browsing the publications on sale at this year's zine symposium, beautifully embellished front covers, unique typography, painstakingly detailed, hand-drawn illustrations and exquisitely folded, origami-style packaging were present. Many zine readers describe them as collectable items, hand-crafted one-offs to be kept and cherished. It seems the handmade element established by Mark Perry, which was a necessity before Macs and desktop publishing, has remained central to their charm, transforming them into items of beauty in a world full of mass-produced fodder. "There's a growth of the DIY craft scene at the moment, so this is crossing over with zine-making," says Ridgway.

This thirst for handcraft could be interpreted as a reaction against technology and digitalisation. But the internet, rather than competing with the fanzine world, has been instrumental to its resurgence. "The zine symposium has grown so much since we started, and that's down to the internet," says Ridgway. "You can promote things directly using sites such as Facebook."

Individual fanzines are harnessing the power of the net, too. Traditional outlets such as independent record and book shops may be in decline, but anyone with a blog or a MySpace page can add a PayPal button and sell their wares to the world, while social-networking sites make for free promotion. One fanzine riding the Web 2.0 wave is the 26-year-old Alex Zamora's three-year-old Fever, which, thanks to promotion through Facebook and MySpace alone, has swelled from just five copies a time, printed and stapled by hand, to a magazine with a 5,000-strong circulation, and readers and contributors from as far away as Argentina, Australia and Japan. "I'm of the internet generation, so that was always going to be reflected in Fever," Zamora says. "I made the first issue, put a MySpace page up asking for contributors, and it just spread like wildfire from there." Both Zamora and Eden have bypassed old-school outlets completely to sell their wares solely online, at and respectively.

In addition, the specific social conditions that gave rise to the golden era of fanzines are back on the table. "One of the things I associate with the Eighties is the economic recession," says Eden. "There were people squatting, putting on gigs and making fanzines because there was no work and they had time on their hands. I think we'll see people sitting around the kitchen and getting their Pritt Sticks out because it's a rainy day and there's nothing else to do." The resurgence in craft hobbies over the past year, as people look for simpler ways to achieve quality of life in the face of recession and environmental concerns, is clearly having an effect on fanzine-making.

As well as unemployment and boredom, Mark Perry recalls the feelings of hostility and isolation that led to punk. "When the Sex Pistols swore on TV, and punk gigs were banned, you felt like the whole world was against you," he says. "But I think that sense of alienation, that feeling of aggression against you, it makes you stronger and it really makes you more creative. I think that's why punk exploded like it did."

It is interesting that Woofah covers the only music scene in recent years to have received similar levels of hostility as punk: UK urban music. Despite continued police attempts to shut down live shows, an evolving flow of DIY creativity has continued to spring from the UK urban scene.

With a sense of anger simmering again, as young people are faced with economic and environmental crises not of their doing, perhaps these growing feelings of isolation and aggression are bringing with them another burst of creativity. Just as old copies of Sniffin' Glue are auctioned for thousands of pounds and stored in the British Library, regarded as important cultural relics that capture a moment in time, perhaps the current wave of fanzines will prove to be the most honest and significant documents we have of this turbulent period in time.


Savage Messiah
This black-and-white, cut'n'paste-style zine by the artist Laura Oldfield Ford, in which she traces her psychogeographical drifts around London's grimey underbelly, has achieved cult status in art circles since its first issue in 2005. Be warned: this is a city you won't find in any guidebook.

Fever Zine
The marriage of fanzines and the internet is exemplified perfectly in this daring zine, which covers lo-fi culture the world over and sources international contributors via MySpace.

Last Hours
A perfect marriage of the old-school punk fanzine and sleek web 2.0 publishing, 'Last Hours' began as 'Rancid News', a traditional punk newsletter, in 2003 before switching to a new name, an elegantly illustrated format and a hugely successful interactive e-edition a couple of years later.