Dan Sinker chuckles as we pass the gold plastic nameplate on the door of his antiseptic new Ravenswood office. Until last month Sinker ran Punk Planet--the fat, clean-looking bimonthly zine some punknoscenti are calling the successor to Maximum Rock 'n' Roll--out of his apartment. Now the chintzy nameplate is all that distinguishes his work space from those of the photocopier repairperson, diet food company, and kitchen designer down the hall. The move is part of Sinker's plan to make the five-year-old publication live up to its name, to broaden its readership and perhaps even draw an income from it. The trick will be to do this without sacrificing the integrity the zine has staked its reputation on thus far.
Punk Planet, which covers not just music but also punk culture and politics, accepts advertising only from independent companies, most of which are record labels. When the sneaker manufacturer Vans, attracted by an issue dedicated to girls' skateboarding, wanted to advertise, Sinker said no, because Vans makes shoes in China. "I grew up wearing them, but as much as I'd like to think that Vans is the one good shoe company, I can't really delude myself," he says. "I don't have any proof that they use sweatshop labor, but I certainly don't have any proof that they don't. I've never compromised Punk Planet and I never want to." But now that he has rent on the office and a freshly hired retail promotions rep to pay, such decisions could have serious consequences. "We've made little gambles before, and they've paid off," Sinker says, "but we've always kept some chips just in case. This time I've pushed it all on the table."
The zine's beginnings were charmingly egalitarian. "It started on an America Online message board," Sinker says. It was early 1994, and Green Day's Dookie had exploded, ushering California's sunny brand of three-chord punk into the mainstream. Maximum Rock 'n' Roll--long the town crier of the punk community--responded bitterly, and an escalating on-line bitchfest about its increasingly reactionary coverage prompted Sinker to suggest the start-up of a new cooperative publication. Less than two months later, when 2,000 copies of the first issue rolled off the presses, the masthead listed mailing addresses in Chicago, San Diego, Hoboken, and Leeds, Alabama.
"Somewhere there's a landfill full of the first year of Punk Planet," says Sinker. "The entire first year is really, really bad, with these little glimmers of what could be good." By the end of that year, Sinker, an Evanston native who was studying video at the School of the Art Institute, was doing the lion's share of the work, and the zine was more or less his. He stuck doggedly to a regular publishing schedule--a big draw for record labels seeking to advertise new releases in a timely fashion--and slowly but surely Punk Planet began to look better, read better, and, to a certain extent, sell better.
But Sinker could barely appreciate it. His apartment was crowded with bundles of thousands of magazines, both those that needed to be shipped and those that had been returned unsold, and he had to fight to get paid--although from the second issue on he had wisely budgeted so that ad revenues covered all production expenses. Distributors of independent music and periodicals often have trouble getting stores to pay them, and when cash-flow problems arise the best-selling magazines get paid first. Punk Planet wasn't one of those. "All I was doing was spending my time finding distributors," says Sinker, "and once I'd found them all I did was scream at them on the phone trying to get money."
In March 1997, in time for issue 17, Mordam Records came to the rescue. The venerable Bay Area punk rock distributor, noted for paying its clients on time, took over the distribution process, including the bill collecting. Punk Planet was suddenly in the black. Sinker used the extra money to begin paying writers, which he says resulted in better articles. Nowadays, though band interviews and record reviews command a fair amount of space, Sinker runs at least as many nonmusic features as music ones. Among the best have been the tale of a woman who disguised herself as a boy and infiltrated a Promise Keepers gathering, an expose of how major labels deny health insurance to recording artists, and a firsthand account of the effect of the UN embargo on Iraqi citizens. Sinker has also organized theme issues, including the one about female skaters and another about the effect of heroin on punk rock.
"I was 19 when I started Punk Planet, and I certainly couldn't articulate this very well then, but I didn't want it to be a music magazine," he says. "I didn't get into punk because I liked aggressive music. I got into it because I was into politics, and punk's politics matched mine." To reach the broader audience he thinks might share his views, he's conducted a few unorthodox experiments, like taking out ads in the Nation. Nevertheless, Punk Planet's sales plateaued this year at about 8,000 copies per issue, and as Sinker was pondering how to do better, Mordam began badgering him to raise the cover price. (The 28th issue, a 154-pager with a four-color cover, cost the same $2 as the 56-page first issue.) Though Punk Planet was still covering its own expenses, subdistributors were losing money on shipping.
Issue 29, due in late January, will cost $3.50, but Sinker says he thinks readers will get their money's worth. For one, he's switched from newsprint to a nicer--and 100 percent recycled--paper stock, a change he says doubles printing costs. In order to cover the added expense, he has raised ad rates for only the second time in the zine's history and decided to become more aggressive about getting it into new stores--hence the retail promotions rep. There are now four people working on Punk Planet in Chicago; he rented the new office in part to spare his two roommates the extra hustle and bustle. It also serves as headquarters for the Collection Agency, a graphic-design company he started with Josh Hooten, a longtime Punk Planet contributor who moved here from Boston in January.
"If in December of 1999 my credit record isn't fucked, I haven't filed for Chapter 7, and Punk Planet is still publishing, that will mean that the corporatization of America isn't the end of it, and that there's still the possibility for independent voices to continue," says Sinker, a little melodramatically. "There'll certainly never be a level playing field by any means, but we'll still be allowed to play T-ball over in the corner while the Super Bowl is everywhere else. That's got nothing to do with punk music, but it's got everything to do with punk."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dan Sinker photo by Nicole Radja.