Countercultural publishing has never lacked for diversity, but there aren't too many periodicals where you can find a 16,000-word essay on yippie exorcism of the Pentagon side-by-side with a matzo ball soup recipe from the Black Keys, a piece on filmmaker Haskell Wexler, and relationship advice from Mississippi bluesman T-Model Ford. That's where Arthur comes in. The exuberantly eclectic free magazine, based in Los Angeles and Gaithersburg, Maryland, is distributed all over the country, in parts of Canada, and even in the UK, and it's established a strong foothold in Chicago. The bimonthly publication's usual print run is roughly 40,000 copies, of which about 3,000 end up here--only New York, LA, and San Francisco get more. And many local labels advertise in its pages, from longtime institutions like Drag City and Touch and Go to newcomers like Locust and Flameshovel.
When the first issue of Arthur hit the stands in autumn 2002, the publishing industry was in a slump and the magazine seemed unlikely to survive. In the words of its editor, Jay Babcock, Arthur was entering the fray with "a counterintuitive editorial approach, a pretty untried business model, and no start-up money"--in other words, contributors could write about whatever they wanted to, but they wouldn't get paid. Volunteers would also handle almost all the distribution chores. "We'd send boxes of the magazine to them," says Babcock, "and then they would decide where to put issues in their city."
Presently those volunteers get Arthur into about 800 different locations in more than 120 cities, and the two dozen or so Chicago stops currently include Quimby's, Earwax, Schubas, and the Heartland Cafe. The magazine's ad sales have nearly tripled since its debut, and all 40,000 copies get snapped up so quickly that Babcock and his publisher, Laris Kreslins, have surveyed their distributors to try to gauge the real demand for the magazine; their best guess is almost 90,000 copies per issue. In April Arthur launched a record label, Bastet, and a book-publishing division is its likely next step.
The 34-year-old Babcock, an LA-based freelance writer best known for his music criticism in the LA Weekly and Mojo, decided to start a magazine of his own in early 2000. "As a freelancer I felt this creeping homogenization of voice in magazines and papers," he says. "This snarky ironic tone was everywhere. Word counts were getting shorter for pieces, and there didn't seem to be room anymore for consistently in-depth writing."
For inspiration Babcock turned to late-60s countercultural touchstones like the San Francisco Oracle, the Realist, and even early Rolling Stone. He studied mid-70s issues of NME, Melody Maker, and New York Rocker and soaked up the spirit of classic punk zines like Slash. He decided that he wanted his magazine to rely on long-form coverage of underground music and art but also cover politics, philosophy, and fringe culture.
Babcock didn't have any trouble lining up contributors, but he'd been struggling with the business half of the enterprise for nearly a year, unable to get Arthur off the ground, when he got a call from Kreslins, editor and publisher of the zine Sound Collector.
Kreslins, now 29, was working as a content manager for the online record retailer Insound in New York City and had been publishing Sound Collector since 1997. He was preparing to launch a spin-off called Audio Review and wanted to know if Babcock would write for it. Preoccupied with Arthur, Babcock begged off, but the two kept in touch and soon realized they shared a lot of ideas. In early 2002 Kreslins lost his job at Insound, and he and Babcock decided to pursue Arthur full-time.
"I think we set out to prove that people actually read," says Kreslins. "We were going against stuff like Maxim. Our thing was, 'If the whole culture seems to be headed toward short-attention-span thinking, who's gonna fund a magazine that's going in a fundamentally opposite direction?'"
Babcock and Kreslins figured they knew the answer to that question--no one--and decided to scrape together the money themselves. Kreslins moved into his parents' basement in Gaithersburg and took a part-time office job at a private school; Babcock lived off his credit cards between freelance checks. Six months later, when they put out the first issue of Arthur, they still hadn't met face-to-face.
That issue set the tone for the magazine: its contents include a long excerpt from BMX biker Mat Hoffman's biography accompanied by Spike Jonze's photos, a profile of late Texas filmmaker Eagle Pennell, an interview with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke, a comic by Silver Jews front man David Berman, and articles and record reviews from former Forced Exposure editor Byron Coley and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore.
One of Arthur's most enthusiastic supporters from early on has been Chicagoan Steve Krakow, editor of the zine Galactic Zoo Dossier and front man for Plastic Crimewave Sound. "People saw Arthur as something like the East Village Other or even like old-school Creem magazine," he says. "I couldn't even think of the last paper that filled that sort of niche." Krakow contributes illustrations to the magazine regularly, and lately Arthur has been returning his support: it cosponsored his annual Million Tongues Festival at the Empty Bottle this summer, and Bastet released a CD he compiled of rare or exclusive tracks from festival artists.
Arthur seems to be filling a void not just for readers but for writers--even though it still doesn't pay them. Author Daniel Pinchbeck, one of the founders of the journal Open City, has been published in the New York Times Magazine and Esquire, but he says his column in Arthur is one of the few places he can explore the topics that most interest him--like Kali Yuga, a kind of dark age in Hindu cosmology, the current iteration of which is supposed to end in 2012. Though Pinchbeck is used to being well compensated for his efforts, he says the free hand Arthur gives him is worth sacrificing a paycheck. "The subjects I've been following . . . there's basically no fitting them into the mainstream media."
"At first, no one could figure out what we were doing, because it was such a weird mix," says Babcock. But Arthur's mix turned out to have its own appeal to readers tired of publications that were clearly calculated to reach narrow, predefined demographics. "There's about three generations of people who're reading the magazine, three generations of counterculture," he says. "We're interested in the beatniks and the hippies and the punks, and the ravers and the metal guys as well--all of them. Essentially, we're coming out of a community of the head."
Next year Arthur plans to put out eight or ten issues, not six, and Kreslins and Babcock have recently started to entertain offers from investors. Soon they hope to expand the magazine's distribution network into new cities and start paying contributors. "Mainly, though, we need to print more copies," says Kreslins.
"In the end, we want to be considered in the lineage of American underground culture," says Babcock. "We want to try to continue the aspects and values of the counterculture that stretches back to the jazz age and even farther back. We're not there yet, but we're off to a good start."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brad Miller, Darrow Montgomery.