Sleaze hits the high street

Jennifer Rodger looks at a newcomer to the crowded youth magazine market
After a year and a half of free distribution into the sweaty palms of clubbers, Sleaze Nation magazine is about to go on sale at WH Smith.

Launched in November 1996, this design-led club and lifestyle magazine attracts elusive young opinion-formers. Now it aims to take on the hangouts and hangers-on of youth culture, and make an impact among the ever-growing mass of style and listings magazines.

"There is a market hole," says a confident Jon Swinstead, Sleaze Nation's independent publisher and sole investor. "A lot of magazines are advertising- based, poorly written and bad quality."

Indeed, Sleaze Nation is different from other publications: it doesn't use the latest "It" person to scream "buy me" from a glossy cover, and with its thickly bound book format, varying typefaces and stunning visuals, it moves away from traditional magazine production values.

But as the media-savvy generation knows, you don't judge a magazine by its cover. Sleaze Nation may employ similar scenery to The Face and i- D, but it is not obsessed with pushing the boundaries of modern style. "I think it would be self-important to say we are pushing against boundaries," says Steve Beale, the magazine's editor. "Just being different helps to push boundaries.

"If anything, we are an anti-style magazine, but you have to know how to be stylish to be unstylish. One of the greatest assets of the members of our team is the way they can analyse popular psychology and culture."

This ability to be objective or even critical about popular culture is crucial to Sleaze Nation's engagement of readers aged between 16 and 35 - the most difficult group to target successfully. And the Sleaze Nation team have found that consumerism and descriptions of designer lifestyles aren't what their readers want. "We want to redress the balance between media and the public it represents," says Beale.

He is particularly concerned with common representations of clubbing culture. "A lot of magazines are very patronising," he says. In its mission to set the record straight, Sleaze Nation offers some new terminology.

It has declared the term "youth culture" redundant, as it implies disposability or that "the kids will grow out of it". Instead, the magazine talks about "modern subculture."

But its not all earnest sermons and semantics. Sleaze Nation aims to be humorous while making its points. "Modern subculture is wonderful," says Steve. "But we wanted people to lighten up a bit about culture; it is there to be enjoyed.

"We give more honest portrayals. Especially in youth music-style mags, everything is `brilliant' and people can be lauded who shouldn't be. We encourage young people wanting to be involved in the media, we profile some people who actually do have talent."

And the editorial team plan to do more than just write about new talent. There are plans for a merchandise company, linked to the magazine, which will showcase up-and-coming British designers.

Beale says he is also keen to involve local art colleges and creative talent in a rolling exhibition of club photographs.

It is impossible to be a successful magazine without advertising revenue, and when Sleaze Nation asked its "media-aware, young, but high-spending" readers: "Do you admire and respect a product for being `down with the programme' enough to advertise in Sleaze Nation?" - a whopping 94 per cent said yes.

Advertisers include Levis, Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, Kodak and Ericsson. Beale is relaxed about the uneasy balance between underground credibility and commercial viability. "We have to open things up, be accessible. Other underground magazines are far too self-indulgent," he says.

Speaking of indulgence, Sleaze Nation will soon host a series of parties around the country to coincide with their move on to high-street magazine shelves. It is hoped that the bashes will raise the magazine's profile among both potential readers and advertisers eager to ensnare the attractive 16-35 market.

Sleaze Nation also plans a youth consultancy service to provide advertisers with information on how best to target their readers.

Sleaze Nation, pounds 2, on sale at WH Smith from March.