Media: Dazed and enthused by their sudden success

Can the underground magazine make it into the mainstream while keeping its freshness and radicalism?

Meg Carter
Monday 12 October 1998 23:02

FRESH FROM its TV debut on Channel 4 last month, the left-field style magazine Dazed & Confused has reached a critical point in a brief but high-profile career. Launched as a platform for underground culture, the independent monthly is now teetering on the brink of mainstream.

"We don't need to compromise to grow," declares the magazine's co-publisher and creative director, Rankin Waddell. "We could double the sales without changing the editorial. If people want it, they'll buy it."

Brave words. Not least in their timing - the day after a TV programme conceived and co-produced by D&C went on air, provoking dismay among die-hard D&C fans.

The Channel 4 show, Renegade TV gets Dazed and Confused, was the first masthead programme to go out on UK terrestrial TV since a change in Independent Television Commission guidelines, introduced on 1 September. Interestingly, D&C beat the publishing giant National Magazines to get the first print- title-branded magazine spin-off on to mainstream TV. Surely a strange contradiction for a self-styled enemy of populism?

Rankin (as he is widely known) and Jefferson Hack, his aptly named co- publisher/editor, are having none of it. Television - and, come to that, any other cross-media foray - is part of the masterplan. Which is? Balancing the inspirational and the aspirational to stimulate culture, they boldly explain.

Dazed & Confused was set up in 1992 by Rankin, Hack and Ian Taylor, who met at the London College of Printing. "We launched in the early Nineties, when there was a creative explosion in London in terms of photographers and writers," says Hack. "It was the height of ecstasy culture and there were lots of cross-overs between different creative communities. So much was going on in our own backyard, but few magazines were dealing with it at the time."

At first it was produced on the cheap and published infrequently. Content and ideas were driven by what was going on around them. The design was stylish and, at times, impenetrable. The stark, challenging "look" was pioneered by Rankin, then an up-and-coming photographer, who has now officially "arrived".

"The format was inspired by Interview magazine as it was in the early Eighties, when it was a fan-based title about movies, before it became part of the publicity trip," says Hack. And, of course, The Face and i- D, "though by then, both had become an established part of the magazine scene. D&C was to be different - more challenging.

"We wanted to inspire. The title is meant to be anti-hip and accessory. We wanted to reflect the whole style tribe thing that had got all mixed up - dance, soul, reading books," he adds. "We felt style magazines were too much about dictating a lifestyle for people to buy into: how to be groovier, for pounds 2.50." Dazed & Confused focused on the new and radical. It buttoned together art, fashion and music, without news, style or gadget guides. Although it has since evolved into slick order, it still covers the unusual and presents the usual in an unusual way - such as the fashion shoot featuring disabled models in the latest edition. The end result is still miles away from today's highly structured consumer titles which, Hack asserts with a disdainful shrug, have become "little more than glorified shopping guides".

However, D&C has proved to be attractive to advertisers. The first three issues were sponsored - by Black Bush Whiskey, Levi's and Stella Artois - and advertiser interest has steadily increased. Ralph Lauren, Diesel, Pepe and Fred Perry have featured in recent editions - not bad for a title with just 40,000-50,000 monthly sales and no clearly defined market. When he is asked who the magazine's readers are, Hack suggests: "I'd think mostly people between 16 and 30, or even 18 to 35 - it's very broad."

Although money remains tight, the magazine's presentation continues to improve. It has to, to attract the talent it now features, such as the photographer Nick Knight, who contributed to the September 1998 issue, guest edited by Alexander McQueen. And, of course, its future will depend on the strength of the D&C brand - a fact that Rankin has been careful to exploit.

"Our style has always been to do as many different things as we can, working across as many different platforms as possible," he explains. So, two years ago, the magazine opened its own gallery. It has staged live events and club nights.

"There's been a book, there will be compilation CDs through a deal with Columbia Records. And, of course, TV."

"We want to break down the magazine as an exclusive, closed-door environment," Hack adds. "It's about getting the ideas we cover in print out there. These are all building-blocks to make Dazed & Confused more accessible to a wide audience. We want to sell people new ideas."

It's the message that is strong, not the medium, he believes.

He'd better be right, because the next phase of development will be tricky. It takes determination and deep pockets for a magazine to come up from underground. Some have faltered as their founders' interest has waned.

Others have sold to established players - and stood accused of selling out. Few have managed to find backers truly sympathetic to an independent spirit. Rankin and Hack are determined to be an exception to this rule.

Publish and be profitable, or fold

Private Eye launched on a shoestring in the early Sixties. Despite a steady stream of legal threats, the fortnightly remains independently run and has outlasted young pretenders such as Scallywag and Insider.

Loaded was launched by IPC Magazines in 1994 - at the time just another men's mag. But its cocky editorial mix inspired and legitimised laddish culture, with fast-growing sales. With a modest launch target of 45,000, it now sells more than 441,500 a month.

Mixmag began in 1983 as a news-sheet for clubland DJs. In 1989 it became an underground music and culture mag for clubbers. Last year it was bought by Emap - a move stalwart fans predicted would see its cutting edge toned down by corporate profiteering. Even so, monthly sales have hit 81,008.

Eat Soup, a foodie magazine for Loaded lads, was launched by IPC in1996. Early prospects looked bright with an initial bi-monthly print run of 70,000. But it ultimately failed and IPC closed it in May 1997.

Blah Blah Blah joined the teeming ranks of youth lifestyle mags under a licensing deal with MTV Europe two years ago. Developed by a co-creator of the US cult mag Ray Gun, its dense type and weird graphics proved impenetrable. Publication was taken over by Attic Futura, but plans to go mainstream failed. The title closed after a year.

Punch, launched in 1841, was a satirical mag lambasting all political parties and foreigners equally. Closed in 1992, it was revived four years later by Mohammed al-Fayed as "a grown-up magazine for grown-up people" but this has not been translated into soaring sales.

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