The story behind the legendary zine
As told by editor Ira Robbins (June 1997)
One of the reasons that our zine started up was because there were other music nuts before us who wanted to tell the world about the music they loved that wasn't getting covered in big magazines. One of these pioneers was Ira Robbins who helped to found TROUSER PRESS magazine. Even after the magazine closed up shop in the '80s, Robbins and his cohorts have put out two indespensible music guides and now continue their crusade online. As a grand-pappy to us and an inspiration to us, we wanted not only to salute Ira's work but to also show all the up's and down's, glories and pit-falls of putting out a print music zine. Things have changed a lot since Ira and company learned all of this the hard way but a lot of same principles still apply. If you're considering this yourself, hopefully it won't scare you off but at least make you realistic about doing this.
I had worked on a left-wing neighborhood paper and I had been variously involved in my college newspaper. When I was six, I published a block newsletter with my mother's help. It was something that was in me.
My best friend in high school, David Schulps, and I spent our time in high school reading Melody Maker in the chemistry lab at Bronx High School of Science around 1970. He went to college and we were still good friends. I stayed in New York. We'd meet up every time he'd come back to the city. The magazines we were thinking about when we started this were Crawdaddy, Who Put the Bomp? (Greg Shaw), the Rock Marketplace (Alan Betrock), the New Haven Rock Press (Jon Tiven). I was addicted to Zigzag because of their family trees of bands. Dave and I had a very historical bent to rock and roll- we really researched things just to find out more about it. Anytime we found a band, we'd find out what other bands they'd been in and what other records they made before. We were attracted to magazines with historical slants to them.
In the spring of '73, we found a friend who has having a gathering of record collectors at a house in the Bronx. We didn't know anybody- we just wanted to hang out and talk about the Yardbirds and the Kinks. We met Karen Rose, who had been the editor of the Brooklyn College newspaper. The three of us were talking and whimsically said 'let's start a magazine.' It was just conversation on a downtown subway train. Then we retired to our respective corners and stayed in touch. It was a whim. Then we decided to actually start working on this. Over Christmas break, I started writing articles for it.
THE NAME GAME
We hatched a name soon after that and within six months there were disputes about who came up with this. Talk about historical clarity... No one could remember who actually came up with it. The original name was Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press. 'Trouser Press' is a Bonzo Dog Band song, which was important to us and it had a nice pun to it with 'press.' 'Trans Oceanic' was there because we were describing a lot of what was coming out of England. It had the initials T.O.T.P. which was also the initials of 'Top of the Pops' which was a British TV show and a Kinks song. We felt it had a lot of resonance for us.
The first issue was 24 pages. This woman I was going out with at the time was an art student so she did the mimeograph stencils. I went out and bought 32 dollars of paper and black ink- we had 350 copies in the first run which were hand-stapled. Our slogan was 'an alternative to the alternative alternatives.' We found that the underground rock magazines were faulty. Our marketing concept was naive- we thought that if we had stories on bands that were about to play in New York, that would help us sell an issue. The first issue had the Who, Rory Gallagher. We started selling it outside the Academy of Music on the street for a quarter. To be honest, the first issue we did was the only issue we had planned. We didn't launch it as a big deal. It was a test to see what would happen. So we stood in the street, waving these around and sold a few hundred the first night. There was another concert around that we sold the magazines at and we sold out the run. We looked at each other and said 'let's do another one.' We just totally took it one step at a time- there was no grandiose marketing scheme.
FINDING A NICHE
We had a record review section- we had bargain bin classics. We bought a lot of cut-outs. In the mid-70's, labels were just dumping stuff and you could find amazing things. You could get a Nazz record for 50 cents. We would buy stuff where we liked the cover or the band name. Basically, our whole idea was to zag when everyone else zigged- we wanted to write about what everyone else wasn't writing about. We didn't presume to be better journalists, we had interests that we presumed weren't being served in the music magazine community.
We were very fact oriented with historical material also. We had some odd bits in there like archives stuff. There were multi-part articles on the Yardbirds, the Animals, King Crimson. The rock magazines of the mid-70's weren't covering this stuff. The music that was prevelant then was arena rock, disco, singer-songwriters. The stuff that was selling a lot of records wasn't the stuff we were interested in.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
We had these goals like 'it would be cool to get [the magazine] bound' or 'let's get color on the front cover.' It was just whatever the next step was, that's what we pursued. It was very laborious. For the first year or so, the staff meetings were at the Grand Central Post Office because it was central and we had a post office box there. No one wanted the mail coming to their house, which was smart. Then we met on the subway train. Then we wised up and met at peoples' houses. It moved at one very slow step at a time. We had an office, then we improved the quality of the printing, then we increased circulation. We started from ground zero at each level. For instance, we didn't have any distributors because we were selling it on the street.
One of the first people to buy it was Scott Isler, who was a manager at Discount Records. He liked it and said they'd carry it there. Then another store I was a customer at carried it. At the time, music magazines weren't sold at record stores. There were chain stores and mom and pop stores who didn't want to know about this stuff. Other magazines were sold at the newsstands. We didn't have any access to a newsstand distributor because we were producing such an amateur product. It took many years before we made a deal like that. I knew a guy who was giving up a typesetting machine so I leased it for 100 dollars a month so then we had typesetting. We bought it after a while. For the first ten issues, we rented an IBM Selectric to do this then reduced the type. To get a photo done, we had to go to a camera shop and have it copied in the right format and pasted in. It was really amateur stuff. It's hard for people who grew up in the computer age to think that you didn't have these programs to do that. It was as laborious as you could imagine. It was all done by hand and as cheaply as possible without a clue about what we were doing. We were excited when we got a printer that actually stapled and then found another printer to do glue bindings.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
We got subscriptions and applied for a postal permit to mail things properly. I had a 'delightful' experience hauling all our subscription issues to the post office on a cart in the early morning after working all night. The postal inspector told me 'you did it all wrong, you have to do it over.' We literally broke down sobbing. We were learning publishing the hardest possible way. I imagine that anyone who's done this has gone through a similar experience.
We started attracting people who had bought it and got in touch with us- they became our staff. The first couple of issues were herky-jerky with scheduling. The second issue came out a month later but then there was four nights of the Who in June '74 at Madison Square Garden. Our third issue in June was totally devoted to the Who. After that, we got on a bi-monthly schedule.
Things really got going for us when we got an office and started a business which took a couple of years. I had a three day a week part-time job when I came out of college. The other two days were for the magazine (for free). One of the other people who worked with us was on unemployment. In September '77, we made the first big jump by putting ourselves on salary. We also went monthly and did our first full color cover. After that, we thought of ourselves as a business, a full-time occupation after three and a half years of doing this.
The Rock Marketplace went out of business so we got the classified ad business from them. We ran record auction ads which I had to type. It wasn't the advertising we were hoping for as a business but it did connect us to the collectors' market and made us unique. Eventually we spun that off into a bi-monthly Trouser Press Collectors' Magazine. We took out the collectors' ads from the main magazine to make it look more mainstream.
We shifted gears a few time. We didn't have any editorial plan. Then we decided that we were real British music fans so we had a slogan 'America's all new British rock magazine.' We made an exclusive policy to write about British bands for features. We covered the great bands of the '60s and also the progressive bands of the '70s. We felt it was our duty. It wasn't what we were listening to (Genesis, Hatfield and the North, Gong, Henry Cow, Camel). We felt comfortable writing about it though and it gave us a solid base from people who were buying import records. We tried to be more hip than the people who thought British music was only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Because we were so English-oriented, we had English correspondents. In late '76, they sent us stories about the pub scene and the new punk bands. Then the magazine found itself positioned to be a new wave magazine (Sex Pistols, Clash, Buzzcocks). Also, we were approached by the early indie labels in America who saw us as a place to write about non-mainstream music and unconventional artists. We started to look like a fairly respectable magazine by then. This made us a focal point for a lot of indie bands. We had a 'band aid' rate which was half price advertising for indie bands to support them. We didn't have access for ads from big companies. We ran the first ad for Half Japanese from Jad which was awful looking. We also ran ads for Pere Ubu and Devo when they started out. By '78, we were covering American indie stuff and English new wave stuff. It was an incredibly exciting time. There was lots of stuff to write about. Other mainstream magazines (Rolling Stone) weren't doing this and they didn't have a clue about what was going on.
I stopped being the editor and became the publisher. I was in charge but I didn't take care of the day-to-day handling of stories. Dave did that first then it was Scott Isler, who started out as art director. I devoted myself to business issues and keeping a marginal, small business afloat. The higher that the stakes got raised, the more difficult it became. Our ambitions and overhead increased. Ambitions cost money though. We leased equipment, we got larger office space, our printing bills became substantial. In the early '80s at our peak, we spent $25,000 a month on printing. We came fairly close to becoming a million dollar-per-year business, which shocked the hell out of me.
THE NEXT STEP
There was a staff of six that were full time but we started beating our heads against the wall because there was just so far that we could go. In '81, we made a deal with a national news magazine distributor. We had been doing runs of 30,000 issues so they said 'come September, we want you to have 100,000 issues printed.' We went out and borrowed money from our families and we got about $35,000 to pay for a few months of printing. Having your monthly printing bill go from $12,000 to $20,000 was a shocking thing.
The end result was we had been over-optimistic about our sales potential, the skill of our distributor and the time frame where we would see some results. They laid out seventy-five thousand copies and then four months later, they informed us that we sold 12,000 and paid us half of the cover price. We saw half of our print bill four months after the fact. Once we started doing that, we were in big trouble. We couldn't raise the funds to let them do their slow painful growth process so that we could see some real money come in before we ran out of our own money. We ran through our own resources pretty quickly. After that, it was pretty tough going. Fortunately, we retained our own direct-to-retail distribution with the record stores and that kept us from going under.
The smartest thing would have been to have raised a HUGE amount of money by finding someone who really believed in what we were doing and was willing to put up a half-million. In my own defense at the time, the rock magazine world around '81 didn't include very many notable sucessess. We stopped being a fanzine. We were competing with the smaller echelon like Musician and Creem (who was dying). Rolling Stone had about a one million circulation and Circus had half of that and then there was a huge gap. The most after that was Musician with 100,000. We sold about half of that eventually for each issue. In those days, we saw ourselves as failing miserably. These days, fifty thousand circulation on a month basis is sizable. But there was nothing in between for these sales figures back then (like Spin). Circus was doing one Kiss cover after another, not a serious magazine- it was a pinup magazine for pimply boys.
We had a very devoted audience but we couldn't get out of our sales rut. But we didn't see a promised land ahead. There wasn't much credible evidence that rock magazines were going to sell then. Then MTV came along and magazines went out the window. TV became the medium of rock. Prior to that, radio and print were. Record companies told us point blank that they didn't see any reason to advertise in music magazines anymore. We were unable to build any other market for ourselves. We could get film companies to do ads because our top rate for a back cover ($1000) was a drop in the bucket for them so they didn't mind doing that (for soundtrack sales). But we couldn't go beyond the niche that we were in with sales and advertising.
If we brought other people in, it might have helped. We were getting insular. We could bring in good writers but we couldn't attract staff very well. It had become kind of a club. There was no way to pass the baton on any level. Ten years is a long time to be in any business because every defeat adds up. I definitely needed a break but there was no one to hand it off to. If we generated money to hire people to promote the magazine, it would have helped.
Also, we felt we were out of touch with the music coming out. The early '80s L.A. hardcore scene passed us by and that was a shame. That was a gap between the legendary local scene ('70s New York) and the rise of late '80's indie labels. There was lot of entrenchment in the indie scene. A lot of distributors went bankrupt, screwing people out of a lot of money. Things were dire all around. It was hard to imagine a future and we spent a lot of time covering bands we didn't care about (Duran Duran, A Flock Of Seagulls)- we were getting older and more sophisticated in our tastes. It was interesting enough but not great enough to do a magazine about- we became scornful of our own subjects. We'd put bands on our cover and then slag them because we didn't want to blow smoke up our readers' asses. So it was collective fatigue. We were in our 30s and we were paying ourselves sub-poverty wages. All the money was going to pay the bills. The interesting thing is that if we had been able to get through a couple more years, we could have enjoyed some of the success that Spin has now. They just had more money and they had good timing- they came along when new wave was becoming commercially viable but we couldn't hang on long enough for that to happen.
We did really well with subscriptions because we included flexi-discs in the issues- we had a really strong subscriber base. This was a half-baked idea that I pinched off a British monthly called Flexi Pop. We went to record companies and said 'if you give us the cost of producing a record, we'll put it in the magazine as an ad for your band.' It was a wash financially. They paid us and we paid the flexi producers. It gave us a great incentive for subscriptions because we didn't put them in newsstand copies (they were getting returned at 60% rate, which wasn't bad actually). They cost 20-30 cents a copy to make the flexis. Putting them in subscribers' copies saved us a few thousand dollars. The worst was when I.R.S. gave us a Hunters and Collectors track which they didn't get the permission for so we had to get the flexi producer to scrub their name off all the copies.
The magazine ended in the spring of '84 which was pretty much by design. It was harder and harder to keep it going for financial, editorial and personal reasons. Somewhere in '83, I decided that I had to do something. So I decided that we'd just publish our 10th anniversay issue and that'd be nice and symmetrical. We had a special cover of Joey Ramone with a birthday cake. We threw ourselves a huge blowout party at Irving Plaza with these bands and didn't tell anyone we were going out of business. The next morning we announced it. We knew that we'd be screwed financially then because no one would subscribe or advertise so no money would be coming in, and whoever owed us money wouldn't pay. I hired a guy to help out in the office so we stuck it out for a few months, cleaning up, paying bills and sending out back issues. By May '84, Trouser Press was history.
There's a lot more financial support today. The more prominent fanzines can attract some serious advertising that you couldn't do in the '70s or '80s. The marketing efforts of companies with youth products has gotten more progressive. Record companies now have 'alternative' departments now while we had to beg record companies to support us before. Now you have every record company ready to put ads in small fanzines everywhere. You have cigarettes, booze companies looking for ways to get kids to buy. Spin, for instance, gets major advertizing from every major type of product. That wasn't the case for any rock magazine in the '70s except for Rolling Stone. There was a time when rock magazines were seen as insignficant but now they're not. The numbers and baseline figures they have to show to attract corporate money has really changed.
In the last ten years, there's plenty of zines coming out and not just music. Ben Is Dead would have put out three issues in the '70s and folded but today it's a serious publishing enterprise. So much of the music business is DIY and the spirit was there before but it wasn't very successful. There were no Subpop's in the '70s. There were no indie labels being gobbled up by the majors. There were no indie bands that put out a single and get a million dollar deal. The whole business has changed. There's a lot more money around and there's a lot more enthusiasm for entrepeneurs which there wasn't when we were publishing.
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