Small Pages, Big Ambitions was the first event of this year held by Stack. Steve Watson, the founder of the subscription service, hosted the event in Shoreditch, where he invited three speakers from the indie mag scene who all chose to produce smaller publications. We heard from Liv Siddall, editor and writer at Rough Trade Magazine, Jack Self, the founder of Real Review and Steven Gregor of Gym Class Magazine.
Liv Siddall was challenged last year to create a brand magazine for Rough Trade, a record label and store opened 38 years ago that has become synonymous with diverse and innovative independent music. Liv explains her trepidation as an outsider, coming into a community given the tricky task of representing an authentically alternative brand with a magazine they ‘didn’t want’. She took inspiration from the friendly, open and “hungover vibe”. She describes how the editorial priority was to deliver their community spirit, which was so protective over the name. On a surface level, the design and delivery was paramount to Liv’s vision and the scruffy walls of the loos at the London store gave an insight into the customers’ mind. But, she tells us “I don’t care if a magazine is beautiful, if it can’t flop open and you can’t read it while you’re eating your breakfast, or leave it on a bus or just chuck it in your bag then it’s too precious.” Rough Trade’s smaller size means that customers can grab a copy, collect or swap and as Liv tells us, the funding can go towards the content. For her community, she took a smaller, “weirder, dirtier and puerile”approach.
Jack Self, the erudite founder of the Real Review and architectural firm Real Foundation explains how the “underappreciated” review format inspired his publication. The architectural magazine is small, folded vertically like a newspaper and is unlike any other magazine on the market. Jack admits there is “nothing revolutionary about” the choice to fold that way but that the simple, alternative way of approaching the design inspires him. Because, he tells us, “In a world where everything seems to have been discovered and nothing is new” it reminds him that design and innovative thinking can always find a way to improve. The delicate subtleties in style which separate it from its counterparts simultaneously entice their intended community and innovates in a way never considered before.
Founder of magCulture, Jeremy Leslie describes Steven Gregor’s “impeccable taste”. Over the 15 issues he has featured “many of the best art directors and editors as well as addressing key issues around the industry.” About magazines, the publication is for ‘mag-folk’. The title pokes fun at the industry, ultimately though, they could not break even. Gregor mentioned on the Stack podcast recently how indie titles in newsagents are competing with every singly genre due to the high standard. Steven Gregor admits that the smaller size of Gym Class was purely economic. He continues, and the entire panel agrees, that he hasn’t quite worked out his approach yet. Magazines allow constant room for improvement and reflection. He found Gym Class had come to its conclusion and the mounting pressure challenged him to reach what he considers the best issue, at the end. He was pleased with how it had worked out, and was ready for his new, more “mainstream” project.
As questions are accepted from the audience various people expressed to Steven how annoyed they were when Gym Class announced they were over. Why not reduce the costs and carry on? As the magazine progressed, the inevitable life-span drew to a close, although Gregor attributes the increase in price down to the hyper-gentrification of the indie scene. Jack jumped in and defended him, saying it’s very hard to know when to finish something, Steven laughs “Can I just take you everywhere with me, you’re great!”
As Steve (Stack) leads the questions, we learn about the difficulty of going into print, the dedication and man hours it all requires. The panel are asked, why print and what is the point. All the back and forth with printers and commissioning contributors, the struggle with paying each and every one as much as they deserve. Jack builds on Liv’s opinion that the editorial control in print, in a digital age with an abundance of information and surveillance is providing a private service to a public community. Jack adds that the limited number of pages, team of closely connected passionate people and higher costs elevate the standard. He tells us how in retrospect when he worked on a website, the content was more disposable, and it ‘didn’t really matter’ if something went out that he wasn’t quite sure on. You can simply edit or delete. Liv remarks that in an age of surveillance you have total anonymity with print, no one knows what you are reading or who you have given it to and hopefully for those making it. But argues that she feels print isn’t always necessary and, as Jack agrees, depending on who your community is and the function, the form should follow.
I found the audience questions which were asked abnormally critical, and had a sense that the room was filled with people from the industry who were either curious or sceptical about the indie scene. Gregor, Self and Siddall all agreed that the most important force that drives your magazine is the community you want to provide for. Liv told me:
“No matter what you do, if you don’t believe in it and you don’t love it, you shouldn’t do it!”.
The market has flooded with titles in the last few years and while this is fantastic for a consumer, as a creative in the industry, understanding your niche and your point of view will be your life line amongst the sea of sexy titles. As long as you don’t distinguish how you are attempting to contribute, aid or inspire with your own alternative approach you may fade into the background. On the other hand, define your own success. For instance, what I find remarkable about the indie publishing scene is some of the most beloved titles only break even, or struggle to do so. Therefore, what do you hope to be as an ongoing print publication, who do you want to reach and what are you willing to do to achieve this.
I left this particular Stack event feeling truly inspired to carry on pursuing creative work. Jack and Steve both made very sobering points on our changing world, division and hostility towards journalists. As small publications, with vision that eclipse their humble projects, they have created something to share and influence others based on values of their own, not for money. We should all champion and support curiosity and tenacity in the face of greed and apathy. Through thoughtful dialogue, innovative design and artistic expression we build stronger communities.
– – Eve Cross
Eve is a Magazine Publishing and Journalism student at London College of Communication. She is a lover of indie mags and is currently working on her own zine. Follow her on Instagram @e_v_e_v_e_v.