Arthur Magazine is a free bimonthly news/music/culture magazine that shows up all over the country in record shops, cool bookstores and coffeehouses. Unapologetically anti-war, nerdy and a bit hippy—Arthur eschews the irritating faux-irony and snarkiness of most American lifestyle/culture magazines. We got all frightened because Arthur looked DOOMED—but this summer it is back!
How did you come up with the name Arthur?
Around the time that the project needed a name, sometime in 2002, I was baking bread and the flour I was using was King Arthur.
What is Arthur's editorial mission? What made you put in so much effort to produce an independent national magazine?
Arthur's editorial mission, at least at its inception, was to give writers the freedom to write about what they wanted, in the way that they wanted to, at the time that they wanted, and at the length they wanted, in a magazine that would reach an audience they wanted to reach. Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. We don't accept the work of just any writers, and we have to balance subject matter in each issue so that the magazine will offer a compelling mix. In practice that means articles sometimes get commissioned and then held for publication. In some cases, writers have waited for up to a year to see their piece in print. Our guiding principle has been 'writer knows best.' When writers ask me for advice on how to approach a piece that they are working on for Arthur, I often tell them to do what the piece requires. Serve the piece. Serve the audience. If it demands 12,000 words, with first-person narration, so be it. So, the writer, now freed, shoulders a responsibility that's been usurped by house editors in American publishing in the last 30 years. The result, hopefully, is more engaged writing that cuts closer. Remove the rules; ratchet up the responsibility; see what happens. Same goes for photo essayists, cartoonists and columnists: they all, pretty much, have carte blanche. And they deserve it. These people are very, very smart. The readers deserve it, too, of course. What we're going for is highest common denominator; nothing gets dumbed down at Arthur, but at the same time, everyone is aware of their responsibility to communicate, not simply self-express.
I came up with the idea for Arthur because I (and many of my cohorts) was frustrated by the trends in American publishing that was both reflecting and driving the culture at large. That is: shorter, dumber pieces, shallow subjects and a general snarky attitude. Writers had little room to roam, difficulty in getting their voice through the great meatball homogenizer of NYC-based glossy editors. Hunter S. Thompson, whose books (along with those of Lester Bangs, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe) line the office shelves of every hipster editor of every music mag, spent the final (quite productive) years of his career writing a hard-to-find column for the ESPN _website_. If that isn't a self-evident condemnation of the devolved state of post-millennial American magazine publishing, I don't know what is.
How do you pay for Arthur? Can you comment on any of the recent drama with your ex-publisher Laris Kreslins?
I couldn't start Arthur by myself. You need capital. You need know-how. Laris Kreslins came in and said he had the know-all, and so we pooled our credit cards and came up with the $12,000 or whatever it was to get the first issue of Arthur printed. We didn't pay ourselves, we didn't pay our contributors; we paid our brilliant art director W. T. Nelson a third or fourth of market rate. Why? Because it was a labor of love. When you're doing that, all you need is time. If everyone—from the on-the-ground distributors to the contributors who write for free in between their paying assignments—pools their labor-time, and you pay close enough attention to what you're doing, you can do something like Arthur with almost no start-up capital. If you keep doing it, every two months, for two years, things start to happen. By the time we reached Arthur's fourth year, the magazine was in the black each issue and we were actually paying down the debt we'd accumulated during the first three years—not the brightest way to spend our income, but that's what Laris chose to do, and I was powerless to stop him.
Arthur does seem to have some of the early energy of Rolling Stone - presenting subjects it is truly enthusiastic for, not just what the market demands. I think the best magazines do exactly what they want, do exactly what they believe in, whatever that may be. However, there is a fine line between being true to your original intention and being exclusionary. Arthur has a healthy injection of comic book enthusiasm, chaos theory, magic and a focus on experimental, folksy music. Is this focus entirely on purpose, or does it just happen that way because of the camaraderie of like-minded people? How do you find contributors, and how important is it for you to maintain a focus and/or to branch out?
There is no underlying aesthetic agenda in what Arthur does, other than we're trying our best to find the musicians, poets, artists, writers, thinkers who deserve (perhaps even need?) whatever heralding/support/enthusiasm we have to offer. It's important, though, that our coverage is not redundant—that we're not covering the same artists in the same way at the same time as anybody else.
I get ideas for articles. Writers get ideas for articles. Often I get an idea for a writer to do a certain article—like, it was obvious that Erik Davis was the person to write the Joanna Newsom feature. So I pitched him the idea and he took it and hit one out of the park working for pennies on the word. That's how a lot of the mag happens—people are willing to work hard and for little money on something that really, deeply matters to them. Anyway, folks around me tell me stuff. From all those inputs, and based on what is available/possible, I try to figure out what a relatively balanced issue would feel like. "Balance" meaning a range/variety of subjects, and approaches, and story lengths.
We try to go where the energy in the underground/counterculture is. I think it’s pretty clear that the areas/artists we've been covering in the last few years have that energy. Unfortunately not all of the artists we have covered have reaped the financial success that they need to continue to doing their best possible work, and of course we haven't had nearly enough space to cover everyone we've been digging. You may ask how we sense this 'energy' and all I can say is, it's usually pretty obvious. I lucked out getting to be a copy editor on Rap Pages for 21 months, from sometime in '95 onwards, which was a pretty amazing period in hip-hop and I was able to observe firsthand what cultural energy feels like—and what it feels like when that energy begins to dissipate. But more importantly, I've got the best, ever-growing network of amazing, super-intelligent, generous enthusiasts there is. These people are RESOURCES who should be tapped—they just want to SHARE, to bring something of value into others' lives. They're rarely listened to in the way that they deserve. Paying attention to what they're sensing is the most important thing I do!
I think the last issue of Arthur was the best designed yet. The cover with Joanna Newsom was gorgeous. I have to say, also, as a designer myself - there was a higher standard of typography on the inside. How did you hook-up with the new design team?
Andrew Prinz and Ryan McGuiness, working with the brilliant Eva Prinz, designed Arthur 25. Andrew and Eva usually make books, so they brought a different eye to the design and typography (and to other things as well). I agree, their cover for this issue was a masterpiece of photo (by the fantastic Eden Batki), composition and lettering—AND it doesn't look like any other publications anywhere near Arthur's "categories," so it works from a marketing standpoint too. It's a stunner, a grand slam, I'm proud to be in any way associated with it. Andrew told me he couldn't afford to work on any further issues with Arthur. So, the new permanent design team is Mark Frohman & Molly Frances.
Are you planning on keeping the format of Arthur as it is, or would you like it to be full color and glossy? How important is it to increase the magazines distribution, and would you change the format specifically for that purpose?
Starting with Arthur 26, out August 9 or thereabouts, Arthur will be full-color throughout. 'Cuz we're working under new ownership (me alone) and I know we can afford it. We probably could've done it a while ago, but oh well. Glossy could be nice, but I'd need to look into the ecological paw print before doing it. At present, I'm more interested in increasing the magazine's print run—we haven't yet come close to meeting the demand out there for Arthur. So, at this point: circulation > paper quality. Of course, standard wisdom is that gloss helps you draw higher-dollar advertisers (esp. "lifestyle" advertising like clothes, cars, gadgets, etc), and those increased ad sales could finance an increased print run, but... that assumes that you can finance the period during which you wait for those ad sales to increase. And right now, we can't. We're in a bit of a catch-22 situation that only time's passage (or capital influx) will get us out of. So it goes.
I became familiar with Arthur because it was one of the first magazines that was available as a PDF. Any chance of bringing the PDF back?
What magazines, comics and newspapers do you always try to read? Does anything you see make you jealous?
You know how it is. Some places you read, some places you scan, some are in-between. So... The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Guardian, Harper's, The Wire, Mojo, LA Record, The Onion, ArtForum, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, The Stranger (they send it to me, very fortunate for me), 2600, NME, Uncut, Vibe, The Source, Shaman's Drum, New Scientist, Dream Magazine, National Geographic, Los Angeles Times, India Today, The New York Review of Books, Make, Decibel, Wax Poetics, The Believer, Fortean Times, The Economist, The Sun, The Independent, Signal to Noise, Kerrang, Scientific American, Lowrider, Murder Dog, Dwell, Mother Earth News, London Review of Books, XXL, Discover, Good, The Nation, Tikkun... but much of my time is spent following a huge host of websites.
To answer your second question: I am jealous of things I have no right to be jealous of.
Arthur re-launches August 9 and is available free in disparate locations all over the U.S and at arthurmagazine.com
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