Media: They're going to 'Touch' you for a pound: Joseph Gallivan looks at a free dance music magazine that is preparing to raise its profile as well as its price

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The Independent Online
FROM a first-floor window down a scruffy passageway in the back streets of Brixton, south London, comes the sound of a snare drum and booming bass. At the foot of the stairs, a thousand copies of a pamphlet called Development in Education sit next to old bundles of last year's Notting Hill carnival guide. These are the fruits of a contract publisher's labour, but upstairs, where the music is coming from, a more inspired operation has its home.

Touch, a dance music magazine that has been available free in London record shops and fashion stores for the last two years, is preparing to relaunch on a paying basis. From June, this slender mag, which is passed around between DJs, night-clubbers, record industry executives and even prison inmates, will cost pounds 1 an issue.

Touch is a recession success story. It started off called Free, the organ of Kiss FM, the London dance music station, but when Free was deemed unviable, Jaimie D'Cruz, the 28-year-old editor and part- owner, and his partner, Bill Tuckey, a reggae DJ on Kiss, bought it out and changed the name. After two years of struggle on a meagre yearly turnover of pounds 120,000, it has reached a print run of 30,000 and has become the authentic voice of the underground dance music scene. The days of young rave barons coming into the office and paying for their ads in bundles of used twenties are at an end.

Copies find their way as far as Liverpool, Glasgow, New York and Kingston, Jamaica. Music fans seek it out for its informed opinion, in spite of the rough style of the production. The look is basic Apple Mac, with very little colour, and articles in tiny print crammed into every available space.

'We have been known to go down as low as 5 1/2 point size,' says Mr D'Cruz. 'But from June we'll be distributed nationally to newsagents and record shops, via Time Out Distribution, and we'll be able to use things like Photoshop, to play with pictures a bit more. Our selling point, we hope, is the content, but to appeal to more people we have to look like a proper magazine.

'Thirty thousand is the upper limit for a freebie of our sort. To get more space to lay out the same type of articles in a stylish way, we have to charge.'

It is a timely relaunch. Dance music has been the biggest growth area in the music industry (apart from back cataloguing) in the last five years. Publications such as Mixmag and DJ are flourishing. The Drum is a new magazine costing pounds 1.20 that covers similar territory - soul, house, swingbeat, hip hop, jazz, reggae - but so far without the same punch.

What may see Touch through is its maverick attitude. In a music business increasingly dominated by corporate promotions, Mr D'Cruz resists the obvious and delights in putting unknown British acts on the cover (Omar, Buju Banton and Jamiroquai, for instance), usually a year before anyone else, and uses a roster of freelances who keep up to date by DJ-ing on the London scene. A whiff of the iconoclastic Viz sense of humour comes off the page, with regular slots such as the Touch Diss (cursing on some subject), the Reasoning Session (head-to-head debate), a cartoon loafer called Safe Sid, and of course the inflammatory Letters Page.

During the contributors' meeting the music is turned off as the large, spartan room is filled with a mixture of Asian, black and white faces. A discussion ensues about the Benetton picture of the Queen as a black woman. It is eventually dismissed by Mr D'Cruz, an Oxford graduate and dyed-in-the-wool Guardian reader, as boring and irrelevant.

The Letters Page shows Touch to be as multicultural as any publication in the youth market. Race issues (the abiding topic) are explored in street-level language.

Whether the open, casual approach will survive the transition to the marketplace remains to be seen. 'We had our knuckles gently rapped by the Radio Authority for printing the pirates' frequencies, so we won't be doing that again,' says Mr Tuckey. 'But remember, people used to say there was no need for a dance music radio station when Kiss FM wanted to go legal, and they were proved very wrong.'

If the name is ever to be conjured with, like Blues & Soul, NME, or Q, people might need to know what Touch actually means. 'We talked about it for about a week, and no one could agree, so I chose Touch because it doesn't really mean anything. I suppose the word had connotations for us - to 'touch' a record is DJ slang for to play it.'

'Nuff for Nish' (plenty for nothing) used to be the slogan. Come June, 'Touch you for a pound, Guv?' should be more like it.

(Photograph omitted)