20 years of Razorcake
An interview with Todd Taylor
by Scott Bass
Sure, you could say that Razorcake Magazine is a bit of a unicorn. And some people would say that unicorns do not exist. They are too fantastic, too magical, simply too darned awesome to actually live in the real world. Those same people would probably also say that in 2020, it's completely impossible that an independent music rag could celebrate a 20th anniversary having lost no steam at all as the media landscape around them continued to gradually submit to the unavoidable digital transformation. Those people are, as you probably suspect, quite wrong.
Razorcake magazine has been a beacon on the Los Angeles punk underground music scene for twenty years; not just serving as sextant for local scene sailors, but also as a metaphorical cultural lighthouse marking the musical mecca popularly known as Los Angeles on the map for those who are not as geographically close. Issue after issue, they continue to carry the torch for the L.A. DIY Punk music subculture while never budging from their original ideals nor their strict anti-corporate posture. Razorcake is a truly independent magazine for true independent music fans.
Perfect Sound Forever's resident underground cultural ambassador Scott Bass got the chance to speak with Razorcake's co-founder / Executive Director / Editor-in-Chief Todd Taylor to sneak a glance into the extraordinary world of indie magazine publishing.
PSF: It's pretty amazing to me that Razorcake is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary, especially considering you grew out of Flipside, a magazine that got started back in 1977.
TT: Yeah, it's a lot of ground covered. Flipside started in the Summer of '77 and continuously published until August 2000. I started working at Flipside in 1996. Razorcake started in October of 2000 and the first issue came out in early 2001. What's hard for me to wrap my head around is that Razorcake is coming pretty close to being around as long as Flipside had (twenty-three years).
PSF: There was a time in my life when the only two magazines that really mattered to me -- aside from the TV guide -- were MR&R [Maximum Rocknroll] and Flipside. And they looked totally different; MR&R was printed about as cheaply as possible, whereas Flipside took the opposite approach. Has there ever been plans to reprint any of the Flipside content? It's obviously way more content than Search and Destroy or Touch and Go as random examples... but there must be so much cool stuff.
TT: Full transparency: I did not leave Flipside on good terms. It's up to Aloysius Kowalewski (Al Flipside) for any sort of Flipside book. I think it'd be a really good idea--it was a 122-issue run--but I'm not the person to ask if it'd actually get done. I was a huge fan of Flipside until the day the locks got changed on me and I got fired.
PSF: That kind of begs a follow-up, can you shed some light on this?
TT: The short version is that Flipside released the Beck record Stereopathetic Soulmanure. Our record distributor Rotz owed us $80,000 in sales. Kai Dohm, the owner, kept making excuses for not paying, but wanted more copies of the record. After trying to get him to pay to no avail, we sued. It took a long time. We won. Rotz declared bankruptcy the next day. Beck's lawyer wanted $40,000 in royalties of records we didn't get paid for. So I get that putting out a successful record and you're in a $120,000 hole totally blows, and Al took it hard. He also blamed me for what had happened when in reality, I was keeping Flipside solvent. I left and Flipside never put out another issue, even though there was one finished at the printer.
PSF: So, karma's a bitch?
TT: I was deeply wounded by Al. I wish it ended differently. I had a lot of anger about Flipside for years and years, but over time, that slowly became pride in making Razorcake, not as a reaction to Flipside, but its own thing entirely. I never talked to Al after that day. It's been over twenty years. As a quiet celebration, I'm looking forward to Razorcake's 123rd issue. That's when we lap Flipside.
PSF: Ever thought about doing flexis in Razorcake? I really wish I took better care of my Flipside flexis. I still have many of them but they aren't very playable!
TT: We thought about it until we got a quote for how much it would cost--which was fair, but still expensive--and decided that money would be better spent elsewhere. I love the idea of flexis, but the quality's suspicious. Instead, we've invested in equipment for doing music podcasts, something we've been doing for over a decade and have over 700 up on the razorcake.org site. It's another avenue to share music that we dig.
PSF: That makes tons of sense -- podcasts are cheaper to produce and can reach more people. Can you share more about the original decision to seek nonprofit status? It must seem kind of brilliant in retrospect, if it wasn't already apparent. Do you think it could have happened if you weren't in California?
TT: Razorcake's always been an odd duck. It was early on--2003 or so--when we sat down and looked at our future. How could we remain sustainable? With non-profit status, we would be open for grants. It's an official designation. Agreed, most zines don't make a profit. But this way, people could donate to us and it would be tax-deductible. The designation would also reinforce that we're intentionally operating in a different way, trying to distance ourselves from being a purely capitalistic enterprise. Full props go to Megan Pants. She did a lot of the guiding and initial paperwork. It was an extremely long process because the IRS didn't believe us. We had to explain to a bureaucrat in a cubicle in Iowa that we had no aspirations to become the next Rolling Stone, and then explain to them how DIY punk worked outside of the music industry. We got denied the first time, reapplied, and got it. To my knowledge, we're the only music magazine in the United States to ever hold its own 501(c)(3) designation (MRR had/has a fiscal sponsor). It was worth it. Being an official non-profit has saved our bacon. We can keep advertising rates and subscription prices low ($17 for a year's sub of six issues). We've been awarded grants and people have been generous with donations. We're very grateful to be in this position, especially in 2020.
I can't think of any sort of California-specific non-profit advantage we have, except that Los Angeles has a robust non-profit arts sector. California is the world's fifth largest economy and the arts, broadly speaking, are actively defended here more than in other states.
PSF: What is a typical day like in the life of a nonprofit music magazine editor?
TT: Everything we do is in service of trying to present something clearly -- DIY punk -- and give our contributors solid footing and a reliable platform. It's on a two-month rotation and each week has its things-to-do list to stay on schedule. We don't outsource much of anything beyond physical printing, so it's this pattern of mapping out an issue, contacting all of the volunteers -- columnists, reviewers, illustrators, graphic designers, interviewers, photographers, editors -- making sure every page is accounted for and everyone's clear on what's expected of them. Editing between 200-300 reviews per rotation, reading every single interview and feature we print both online and in print and providing feedback, overseeing all pre-production and making sure it's tight and won't get bounced back from the printers. Keeping on top of ever-shifting postal codes. Keeping the computers running. The zine gets delivered at 7AM on a Friday and by the end of the day, we're now processing all 2,000+ subs, ready to get in the mail on Monday. Unless there's an emergency or an out-of-town band, I stopped working weekends. I completely unplug.
PSF: Is Razorcake down with social media? Has that changed your modus operandi much?
TT: Social media has been a challenge for Razorcake because social media is a challenge for me. I've never had a social media account. I, personally, don't engage in any of it. I just don't like it. It makes me nervous, and not to sound like an asshole, but I have plenty of friends who I'm in contact with. I'm also not interested in promoting myself; just Razorcake. But, over time, social media's shadow cast over Razorcake and people's online consumption shifted from independent websites to those platforms. If you're not on them, you become more and more invisible. It sucks, but that's the reality. Currently, we have a fantastic social media director, Dayna Castillo. She's the brains behind Razorcake's social media programs and is in charge of coordinating everyone who helps us out in those realms.
PSF: Like Flipside, Razorcake spun off a same-named label to release records. Is running a record label much like running a magazine? What release has done best for you? It's been almost five years since your last release -- has the record business gotten too competitive?
TT: One thing I've learned is that my true talent is making a zine. Day-to-day, it's Daryl Gussin and me the past thirteen years. We've done tons of other projects, like the records, but we always refocus on the zine as the heart and soul of what we're doing. Daryl took over running Razorcake Records--he was in God Equals Genocide and Spokenest and is currently in Marriage Material and the Mr. Eds.--and one day our titles stopped selling. Follow-up records by artists that sold well a year before came to a standstill. It's hard to diagnose why--was our website shitty? Did we not make a transition on or off a social media platform at the right time? Did people's tastes shift that quickly? I'm proud of the records we did and happy we did them. We did it fairly. I love the music. The artists were all happy and no one lost a ton of money. We sold out of most of them, but don't think we ever did a repress, so a lot of them are tied as best- sellers.
PSF: I wonder if the punk vinyl marketplace just got too crowded?
TT: Locally, I do know that due to Record Store Day, the pressing plants kicked tons of smaller pressing records aside so they could do represses of Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin -- stuff you could easily find for $5 just a couple years prior in cut-out bins. Production times got much longer for small labels. Prices kept creeping up. Sure, there were tons of punk records being made, but, numbers-wise, was being dwarfed by the majors. And, sure, some records -- punk included -- aren't that good, but that hasn't changed since the advent of vinyl as a medium.
PSF: What are your thoughts on the current state of vinyl in 2020?
TT: I'm of two minds. I've always been a fan of vinyl. Punk, along with hip hop, kept vinyl plants alive in the thin days when CD's ruled. I still have records that I bought when I was thirteen. I play records all the time. It's my favorite mode of listening to recorded music. But, they're getting more expensive for various legitimate reasons. Instead of being purely one of the cheapest ways to preserve music, they're now, by and large, luxury items. An LP is $20. CD's are still cheap. They're not optimal, but they're untethered to the internet and more utilitarian. On one hand, I want everyone who's interested to have access to music. On the other hand, vinyl just still makes me happier. I got a couple records from mail order today and I'm legitimately excited to listen to them this evening.
PSF: You've also spun off a short film project called Eastside Punks. Can you tell us a bit about that? Are there plans for any more? You're investigating some groups that haven't been well-documented before!
TT: Eastside Punks is the brainchild of Jimmy Alvarado. Jimmy drove around with me to find an apartment for Razorcake. I deliberately wanted to be headquartered in East Los Angeles and Jimmy's lived here all his life, been in punk bands since '81. ELA has this deep, rich musical history, including punk, but just like the river that separates East L.A. from Los Angeles, there's this massive divide in coverage of bands. Circle Jerks, Black Flag, X -- they're world famous. Thee Undertakers, Stains, Brat? Great music that's been tremendously overlooked. There are a lot of reasons that come into play. So, fifteen years ago, Jimmy started filming interviews with an eye towards a feature-length documentary. We ran the transcripts in print.
The film project stalled for a variety of reasons. Karla, Jimmy's wife, came up with the idea of doing shorts and releasing them individually. That's worked. With the addition of Billy Kostka as editor and Dino Everett helping us convert our footage to the right formats, we're on very solid footing. We have plans for this to be a continuous series and have ten more episodes lining up and coming into focus. I'm proud that Razorcake is facilitating the project and that The Brat episode won "Best Documentary Short" at the Highland Park Independent Film Festival, so that's gratifying.
PSF: Has this been your (and Sean's) sole vocation the last two decades? Are people shocked when you tell them that you publish a print magazine?
TT: Actually, Sean was day-to-day for Razorcake for the first five years. During that time, he was teaching, like at East LA City College. I did a lot of writing for other publications, like for Thrasher, for a decade. Sean is now an Associate Professor at the literature department at Cal State University, Channel Islands, is on the Razorcake board, and does a column.
For the past decade, Razorcake's been my sole job. It's more than full-time. I seldom tell people who I don't know what I do. I'm a terrible self-promoter and, honestly, I'm tired of conversations at get-togethers when people learn what I do will ask me, "Isn't punk dead?" I have to bite my lip to not tell them to go fuck themselves. It took me four years to give a copy of the zine to my neighbor. He liked it. He subscribed. But most people are incredulous or don't quite grasp it and I'm usually not interested in breaking it down for them. "No, this is what I do every day... No, it's in print... No it's not a blog... Yes, traditional magazines are dead, but we approached it fundamentally differently... " I'm not a cheerleader for myself.
PSF: For the record, just this one time, how is your approach different?
TT: We print 6,000 zines and within a week, 5,850 of those zines are processed and shipped out by us. Those magazines are pre-paid by subscribers and through donations. That's 180 degrees different from traditional magazine distribution where you have to rely on a third party to do a lion's share of the selling for you. That old model killed so many zines because distributors rarely paid what they owed. We've never taken on a cent of debt to run Razorcake. That's how I see it as fundamentally different.
PSF: That's truly impressive and no doubt quite unusual for a magazine. Do you ever wish you had a more traditional job? How supportive has your wife and family been over the years?
TT: For years, when we were less stable, I often questioned what the fuck I was doing. The stress was incredible. We're not part of any larger organization or institution. There's no external safety net. During those times, I wished I was just a full-time writer or journalist, working for someone else. Write. Get paid. Don't worry about how to keep an entire organization afloat. These past five years, again with Daryl's invaluable help, I don't feel like knives are at our throats every day and I'm a lot less tense. We get to make our own small universe. There's some wiggle room. At the end of the day, we answer to ourselves, and that's liberating.
My brother and I couldn't be more different on paper, but we're driven, no-nonsense people who come from modest means. He served twenty years as a combat engineer in the Army. My parents love and support us both. My dad reads every issue and emails contributors questions. They understand this is what I love and I'm truly fortunate. My wife, Jennifer, is incredibly supportive. We've been doing podcasts together lately, on Scandinavian punk and punk songs with horns in them.
PSF: Are you still close friends with Sean after all of these years?
TT: I am. Sean's one of my best friends. I wish I saw him more. He lives up in Morro Bay, about four hours away. One of the smartest and funniest people I've ever met.
PSF: Do you think your readership is aging with you or do younger groups who are more interested in the music scene constantly replace those who "adult out?"
TT: I'm a poor judge of people's ages and I don't ask. I do think our audience skews a bit older than typically youth-oriented content, but I'm heartened that we always have new blood flowing through Razorcake with our columnists and reviewers. I remember a contributor celebrating their twenty-first birthday, and they'd been writing for us for six years by that point. I had no idea they were that young. What did I care? Their writing was on point.
Razorcake also tries to both respect the work and legacy of older punks, but still give emerging bands a platform also. It's a policy not to interview the same band twice in print. We've only gone against that policy twice.
PSF: Since it's only happened twice, can you please tattle on yourself?
TT: The first one is Alice Bag. My buddy Kat Jetson and I interviewed her when Alice was laying pretty low. She was either moving to or from Arizona; had been teaching for a while. It was before her book Violence Girl came out. Alice lived close to us and is a matriarch of L.A. punk, as far as I'm concerned. The Bags' "Survive" 7" was one of the first records I ever bought. Over time, we became friends and when we released our 75th issue, I wanted to celebrate Alice again, so we put her on the cover.
The other one, I learned an important editorial lesson. Don't count on the quality of a piece--no matter how excited you are about the band--until it's in hand. We put space aside for the interview, didn't make a contingency plan, the interview was meh at best, but we had to go to print. That band also later got a cover, but with an interview I was proud to publish.
PSF: Is your circulation primarily individual copies or subscriptions? What percentage of your readers would you say are in the Los Angeles area?
TT: A little over 2,000 people directly subscribe, so that makes around 4,000 issues going to places, mostly through Sponsor A Space. I'd take a stab and say a third of our readers in L.A. County. We send them to every branch of the L.A. County Library and most of the LA Public Library.
PSF: Has circulation remained steady over the years?
TT: Our circulation has been uncannily steady. We're at 6,000 right now. We started at 4,000. But of those 6,000 now, all but 150 of those copies are already sold, already paid for, instead of waiting for a distributor to say they're going to pay us, and mostly not. Our subscriptions are strong. Daryl masterminded Sponsor a Space, so for a $150 tax deductible donation, we'll send a box of 25 copies, six times over the course of a year, to any place in the United States. The place itself doesn't have to pay for it. We're prepaid. The issues go into thankful hands. Not a bad system.
PSF: Sponsor a Space is a brilliant concept; you mentioned all of the L.A. area libraries get copies; are there any places being sponsored that you'd consider unexpected or unusual?
TT: I'm a big fan of Pony Sweat, who host fiercely non-competitive dance aerobics, and are a sponsored space.
PSF: Do you think magazines will continue to be relevant 20 years from now?
TT: I'd be a dumb asshole wasting his life if I thought otherwise. I do like to think my life has some purpose. I love reading. I love reading books and zines. I really enjoy the process of making a zine. I also think that what's in Razorcake is important and we're in a unique space.
PSF: Do you ever read books or magazines on e-devices yourself?
TT: I read one ebook and it was weird how little I retained of it. I didn't like the experience. This far along in life, I've got my tricks on getting cheap books and having at least ten books on hand to read next. My wife and I just scored a huge tub of books from a neighbor moving to Canada. I stare at a computer screen too much as it is.
PSF: Do you still write for other publications? Aside from the Los Angeles music scene what other subjects are you most passionate about?
TT: I've been writing for Zisk, "The Baseball Zine for People Who Hate Baseball Zines," for over a decade. In the past, I've written about the history of the protective cup, grass bending and artificial turf, Disco Demolition Night. I'm honored that a long essay I wrote about the displacement of the communities of La Loma, Bishop, Palo Verde, and the construction of Dodger Stadium became a stand-alone issue for their twentieth anniversary issue. Lately, I've also been writing for Behind The Zines, where zinesters share stories about making zines.
PSF: Zinesters, hah that's a new one for me! If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
TT: Wear earplugs, even if they look dorky. Your ears will be ringing for the rest of your life. When skateboarding, keep your trucks tight because that seventh or eighth concussion will probably do you no favors. In ways that you can't see now, all the hard work will teach you self-discipline. What you think you wanted the most, it won't happen, but you'll be fine... And other things that seem like lousy fortune cookie scrolls, but are true.
PSF: Do you ever dream of life outside L.A.?
TT: I dream of a better L.A. One where it lived up to its promise. I'd love it if there was true political willpower to end homelessness, that L.A. was more bikeable and less cruel, one with vegetable gardens in the green spaces and solar panels on most buildings, one that wasn't segregated and still scarred by redlining. Most of the bad things people say about LA are true, but they can all be changed if the political will was there. But, I have so much access here: friends, music, bands, and printer. There are only a handful of places in the United States where Razorcake could exist in its current form. That all said, and I say this half-joking, I wish the Star Trek transporter was real, so we could visit our far-flung friends and family more often. My wife and I are planning on touring the U.S. in a van when we "retire," whenever that will be.
PSF: Proudest Razorcake moment?
TT: This is something we consciously did since the first issue of Razorcake in 2001: try to be as inclusive as possible. We're always striving for gender parity in our ranks and coverage, always open and encouraging to all races and ethnicities to work together and explore all these different avenues of punk. We're totally supportive of BIPOC and LGBTQIA folks and don't tolerate any racist, homophobic, transphobic, abelist bullshit. We have lot of heavy, private conversations directly with the people we're working with, bands we're interviewing. We don't run it up a pole and say, "Hey, look at us. Look at what we just did." We just do it and constantly try to improve. It's important that we keep doing this outreach and it's baked into what we do day in and day out. We intentionally started in Highland Park, in East L.A. and now how have the world's largest collection of East LA punk band histories--largely Latinx--ever recorded and published. We've devoted entire issues to trans punks (and have several trans folks as regular contributors) and mental health. I'm proud of that. Some people came over from Flipside with me and they're still active participants with Razorcake. We've been working together for twenty-five years. How could I not be proud of that?
PSF: Biggest Razorcake oopsie?
TT: We misspelled a band on the cover. There is no band called 'Blööhag.' There's a "d" in there. Also, one time we forgot to put a UPC code on a cover, so we had to sticker the whole print run by hand. That sucked. Besides that, just garden variety bad luck and overwork. It took us two months to recover our server hard drive when a power surge spiked it. I've been working--and mostly failing--at improving our website for far too long; we're talking thousands of hours with very little to show for it. We were working on getting a radio station for five years, and it fell through after we successfully beat back a lawsuit from a national Christian organization... it's a long oopsie list.
PSF: How has COVID-19 affected business?
TT: It's really fucking weird/depressing that there aren't any live shows, aren't bands touring through L.A. Up until this time, I really tried to never interview a band I couldn't see face-to-face, with the exception of international bands that had no plans of touring the U.S. I've joined in on some Skype interview calls. It's a proxy, but at least we can still communicate.
I've been busier since COVID hit than I was previously, and I was plenty busy before. Two things happened: no volunteers can come in. Daryl and I have to take over all of their tasks that they did at HQ in addition to our own. I've also been focusing on fundamental infrastructure for the next five years, working on the website, and... yeah, it's just a big load in addition to getting a 112 pg. zine out the door every two months, regardless of what's going on in the world. This just added another layer of stuff to adapt to. It's been inconvenient, but not detrimental. We've been holding steady--actually our June subscription drive was the best in our history--and for that, I'm extremely grateful. So many people are suffering and have it much worse than us.
PSF: I note that your email signature says "he/him" after your name. That seems very California to me; can you explain?
TT: To me, it's human. The best of punk from the very beginning was inclusive. Over time, it became less so and that blows. I've been thinking a lot about fundamental accessibility and equality in the United States. People who don't fit into a prescribed gender binary are constantly pushed aside, unseen, or unaccounted for in the United States. I have many queer and trans friends and I want to be respectful of everyone's pronouns, to not make any gender assumptions, to address them how they want to be addressed, much in the vein of wanting to know how to pronounce someone's name. To make them as comfortable as possible in this space we're all creating together. Stuff like this isn't PC to me. It's just basic respect and saying, "I see you and value your input. Let's work together."
For me, that's how punk will keep expanding.
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