The pointless desire to reinvent and complicate the concept of the magazine for 1980s and 1990s hipsters.
You might think that the magazine, as designs go, is a bit of a classic. You can adapt it to various sizes, page counts and layouts, it can offer a visual feast or in-depth information and is completely adaptable while remaining immediately recognisable. More to the point, it works.
But this hasn’t stopped various people over the years from having to try to reinvent it, usually as a gimmicky effort that attempts to transpose the content of a magazine to another medium. All these attempts have been ultimately pointless failures, sold only on a novelty value that rapidly wore off.
Foremost amongst these gimmicky affairs was SFX, which we should not confuse with the long-running science fiction magazine of the same name. Oh no. This SFX was a music magazine that came on C-60 cassette and was launched in November 1981. The tape came twist-tied to an A4 card backing that acted as the front cover and offered an hour of interviews and reviews, the odd bit of music and occasional forays into fashion and film. It was a furiously hip affair, edited by NME journalist Max Bell and positively oozed with the sort of petty self-importance and misguided fascination with flavour of the weak indie-pop acts that readers of the printed music weeklies would be only too familiar with. Of course, it’s one thing to sound cool as fuck in print; quite another when your sycophantic simpering is caught on tape for all to hear. And unlike a magazine, the cassette format made it rather more difficult to skim features on bands you didn’t care about.
Being a sucker for a novelty, I bought the first edition, even though the line-up of Madness, Spandau Ballet, Linx, Human League and – of course – Bow Wow Wow (who had recently released their tribute to home taping) was about as appealing as an enema. It was predictably awful, if memory serves – certainly, I didn’t buy another copy and the tape was quickly repurposed as a blank for recording something more interesting. At 50p, it seems now oddly cheap – I can’t recall how much blank tapes cost in 1981, but it can’t have been less than that surely, even for a cheap brand.
SFX was the place where Jools Holland and Paula Yates got their presenting break, apparently, which hardly endears it to me more but perhaps you may think differently. The level of production throughout was not, it must be said, up to radio standards and it’s hard to imagine who would be buying this on a regular basis. It did, somehow, last for nineteen issues, being published on a fortnightly basis before vanishing, unnoticed.
Blender appeared in 1994 when cassettes were very much on the way out, and this attempt to reinvent the magazine instead came on a CD-ROM. CD-ROMs were all the rage at the time, the hip new way of sharing information before the internet became mainstream, and plenty of books – encyclopedias, movie guides, reference volumes and other more esoteric tomes – had made the jump to the format, so why not a CD-ROM magazine? Like SFX, Blender positively oozed cool, and yes – I bought the first edition. But while the nature of the CD-ROM at least allowed the reader to explore in the same way that they might with a regular magazine (unlike SFX‘s decidedly linear experience), the content remained pretty weak – and the quality of CD ROM video in 1994 was not great – you’d be watching content on a tiny screen because that was as good as it could be. Like SFX, Blender came in packaging that allowed it to sit in the magazine racks – in this case, a magazine-sized cardboard sleeve that contained a CD jewel case.
At $15 a copy, it wasn’t cheap enough to justify buying unless you were really into it, and there was little in the publication that couldn’t also be found in the various music and lifestyle magazines already out there. In the end, Blender managed fifteen CD-ROM editions before going online and then returning as a print magazine in 1999. Ironically, the once futuristic Blender, like many a CD ROM of the time, is now too dated to play on most computers.
The problem with these ‘magazines’ is that what they offered didn’t seem worth the money, given that plenty of magazines were offering cassettes and CD ROMs as cover mounts anyway. Both SFX and Blender felt like gimmicky promotional items that ought to have come free with a proper magazine.
Today, the desire to reinvent the magazine hasn’t died. Look at how many online magazines there are – is there a good reason for these digital publications to not simply be websites, you might ask? Clearly, the magazine format appeals enough for people to want to recreate it online, and the difference here is just that – the digital format is being made to recreate a physical publication, rather than the magazine itself being pointlessly reinvented. Print has, oddly, triumphed against all the attempts to replace it. Perhaps there is something about the tactile nature of the magazine that speaks to us on an emotional level, and we should stop trying to replace it with inferior reinventions.
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