A lost cause?

Today's so-called alternative magazines – with their focus on music, fashion and design – are a pale shadow of their underground forebears from the Sixties and Seventies. Tony Elliott, who founded Time Out in 1968, urges a radical rethink

Tuesday 25 June 2002 00:00 BST

This evening I will join a panel for a discussion at London's ICA about underground magazines. The promotional material for the event categorically states: "The British underground magazine culture was launched in the 1980s with The Face and i-D, which linked music, fashion and design." But when I launched Time Out in 1968, the most important influence on me was the plethora of British and American underground and alternative publications that had burst out of nowhere from the mid-1960s.

The underground or alternative society – and the term was used widely, unselfconsciously and proudly – of the Sixties was an international phenomenon. A vast array of independent publications found a large, hungry and loyal readership, and a fair-sized advertising constituency of record companies; record, clothes and other shops; concert venues; and promoters of all kinds of multicultural activity. It was an era of dope, sex and rock'n'roll, heavily laced with serious cultural and political intellect.

The range of publications was formidable. Among them, International Times (a general fortnightly newspaper with a circulation of 80,000), OZ magazine (bi-monthly; 100,000), Black Dwarf and Red Mole (monthly political newspapers; 10–15,000), Spare Rib (a feminist monthly; 20,000) and Suck (a sex newspaper from Amsterdam). Those and many others throughout the UK (Gay Times, Ink, Frendz, Gandalf's Garden, Idiot International, Sting, Grass Eye, Let It Rock, Strange Days, Street Life etc) formed a huge publishing community. They contained a vast and often surprising spectrum of content, and they were generally available throughout the UK, often through alternative distributors that had sprung up to bring these new titles to the new audience. Most were members of the international Underground Press Syndicate, membership of which allowed one to use the published editorial and artwork of other members – usually for free.

The founders of Time Out (me), The Face (Nick Logan) and i-D (Terry Jones) all grew up in that era. Logan spent most of the Seventies working for IPC as editor of the New Musical Express (NME), and Jones for Condé Nast as art director of British Vogue. I never worked for anyone, leaving Keele University in the middle of my degree course to found Time Out in August 1968.

We are all much older than most of today's editors and publishers of independent (so-called underground) publications. We are indebted to the creative environment in which we came of age. Much of the Seventies was a dire battle to survive the political incompetence of the Labour government of the day and its extraordinary union-dominated years, which worked against individuals wanting to be independent and creative. Despite that, some new independent titles emerged, such as Ritz, Boulevard, ZigZag and New Style.

In the mid-Seventies, punk burst upon us, planting the seeds of creativity and attitude that would feed into the next generation of independent magazines. Punk fanzines briefly flourished. Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, as this extraordinary creativity came of age in a new, freer economic era.

Time Out planned to buy the bankrupt ZigZag around 1979. We planned to move it away from just music and incorporate coverage of fashion, clubs, sport and anything of interest to the younger stylish generation. The deal was scuppered by the internal union issues at Time Out, which eventually led to my closing down the title for over three months in 1981 and firing most of the staff, who then published City Limits with financial support from Ken Livingstone's GLC.

It is very important to understand the late -Sixties/early-Seventies publishing scene to see just how limited in vision and content are most of the current independent, so called underground, titles.

Over the past 10-15 years, a host of people have been to see me about new projects or existing publications that need help, usually financial. Virtually all offer nothing as new, exciting or innovative as the early underground titles of the earlier decades and the territory staked out by The Face and i-D in the early 1980s.

There were some potential exceptions that came our way in the 1985-95 decade. I regret that we were not able to provide all the capital for the launch of Bitch, a women's magazine to sit in the still-vacant vast desert at the radical end of the UK's anodyne women's magazine market. We funded a dummy for Green, an environment title, but could not find the additional outside investment to share the risk. And we got excited by the prospects of the radical cyber-culture monthly Ice.

So many people have been to see me with style and design magazine clones that I think I'll scream if I see another one! Just how many such titles does the world want? Is there such an unlimited pool of advertisers and sponsors to support the endless cycle of "music, fashion and design"?

I was recently a judge of the annual Guardian Student Magazine Awards and was very disappointed by the publications. It was almost as if nothing had changed in the last 30 years.

I accept that the shape of the creative world has changed a lot in the past 20 years. Not only is there an extraordinary number of weekly newspaper and magazine supplements, but the multimedia world of TV, video, film, art and performance, and, of course, the internet is often the first port of call for people with fresh ideas.

If you want to start a new innovative, independent title, you are not going to persuade any of the large publishers to back it. Most companies know what they want to do – and I include my own Time Out Group – and have little or no time or money for anyone else. But I continue to see people from time to time, as it is usually interesting and rewarding. And I can encourage them to soldier on and not lose their vision or independence.

I would like to do more, and I therefore propose setting up a development fund for new titles, which might be able to help genuinely fresh ideas a stage further along the road. I fully expect to be attacked for com-mercialising or exploiting this area of independent publishing, but I think something of this sort is long overdue.

Perhaps it would break the cycle of building magazines round Prada and Levi's ads – and we might unearth something genuinely new and surprising.

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