the rise of indie mags
Once boasting the power to create entire subcultures and scenes, NME experienced a fall from grace just over a year ago, ceasing operation of their print version and becoming an online-only publication. Similarly, Company magazine vanished from the newsagent aisles in 2014, despite an initially successful rebranding just years prior.
Yet, amidst a seemingly catastrophic period for print, a community of independent magazine creators have emerged from the rubble, with an audience willing to pay higher prices for their work. Stack, an independent magazine subscription service, has experienced a 76% rise in customers since 2014, the year of Company’s demise. As self-publishing becomes easier, it seems that new magazines spring up daily, keen to contribute to this so-called ‘phenomenon’.
So how have independent publications thrived while their mainstream counterparts diminished in the online age? Jamie Atherton, 43, manager of magazine shop magCulture, has some theories: “I suspect that because they’re so big, they’re very slow to change,” he says, adding: “The process of making a major change would require so much with all the levels of management, whereas when a small mag wants to relaunch, it’s a team of three people meeting over coffee.”
magCulture serves as something of a cornerstone for indie mags. Opened in 2015, following the success of founder Jeremy Leslie’s blog, magCulture is a true celebration of design. Though small, the store is decorated in magazines, being the only shop in London solely dedicated to them. Despite their strong online presence, the Clerkenwell store is a crucial physical space in the era of internet shopping. “We sell online and have a big international customer base, but I think physical shops are really important,” Atherton says, adding: “You can’t emulate digitally the experience of print. It’s a product that’s made to be handled, picked up and leafed through. You get a feel of the weight and the size and what it’s about.”
But what can magazine creators do to earn one of the coveted spaces on the shelves of magCulture? It’s all down to three qualities: “great content”, “great design”, and “great production value”. Perhaps even more important is to find a niche: “It’s really interesting when a magazine covers something very specific, when they find a niche that they’re obsessed with and take a chance that other people are also obsessed with it,” Atherton says. This is something he achieves with his own publication Failed States, which combines art and geography in an aim to “investigate ideas around a place”.
Julie Freeman, founder and creative director of Like The Wind magazine, concurs: “It’s important to be as niche as you can. If it’s niche, chances are you will find people who also love it,” she says.
Freeman prides herself as a member of the ever-growing indie mag community, who balance their publication alongside other careers. Like The Wind began as a collaboration between Freeman and her husband, both avid runners who were dissatisfied with the representation of the sport in print. The embodiment of ‘if you want something done, do it yourself’, the couple sought to create a publication they would want to read. “We thought we would have hundreds in our loft forever. We didn’t think it would keep going,” Freeman says, surprisingly now that the magazine is on it’s 19th issue.
Impeccable design, illustration and photography intertwines on the matte pages of Like The Wind, creating a sense of disbelief that such a product could be created by a pair with no prior experience. But, it is this accessibility that contributes to much of the allure of independent magazines. “Back in the day you had to have a suite and software, whereas now you can pay monthly for InDesign and just try it. There are videos on Youtube and forums, so anyone who’s passionate about a topic can do it,” Freeman says.
In fact, it is this separation from traditional methods of publishing which Freeman credits to their success. She believes that the consumer has began to “see through” the mainstream press, instead finding themselves turned off by commercialism. “We’re very careful about preserving the content and being close to subscribers,” Freeman says, adding: “I don’t know many indie publishers who make money, and that resonates with readers who’ve had enough of the mainstream press.”
This appreciation of independent print is seemingly echoed by the consumer. Fashion student Noora Liesaho, 25, credits her love of indie mags to their authenticity: “I find something original from them. I feel that most mainstream publications are driven by money and therefore don’t give an objective or realistic picture of the topics included,” she says.
There is also an undeniable level of romanticisation when it comes to print, something Liesaho particularly appreciates, saying: “There’s something that reminds me of the past, in a good way.” However, studies have shown that print is not only beneficial aesthetically, but also in terms of absorbing information. As a consumer, Liesaho concurs: “I feel I can concentrate, whereas while reading online, there are constantly ads popping up on the screen, taking away from the magazine article and story itself.”
Although at times feared to be fading into oblivion, print has made an unlikely resurgence recently, with Buzzfeed, one of the most notable online publications, releasing a print magazine last month. Similarly ’The Face’, a previously defunct fashion and culture magazine, has just announced it’s return to print after 15 years. Perhaps this means editors are waking up to the fact consumers want tangible content that doesn’t scrimp on quality.
After-all, could even the most impeccably designed website compare to the texture of a glossy magazine page, or the feeling of holding words in your hands? Atherton puts it best: “An online platform changes and might be inaccessible in 10 years time, but you can preserve a copy or a magazine collection forever.”