This story could've been titled “Everything Old Is New Again,” but that isn't necessarily accurate. Still, when you look at what pop-culture aficionados are digesting these days, it's easy to think so.
Records. Cassettes. Betamax tapes. Typewriters. Rotary phones. Wristwatches. Something about our all-touchscreen, right-here-right-now, all-digital lives has people fetishizing the tactile and the physical, which is evident by the resurgence of vinyl (according to Nielsen SoundScan, vinyl sales reached $6 million in 2013), the fact that labels such as Burger Records are releasing new music on tape, and zines.
The stapled, photocopied, cut-and-paste products—a medium invented by sci-fi geeks, then co-opted by punks—were considered the best DIY way to promote new music, talk to up-and-coming bands, and unleash vitriol against the Man. You didn't need an editor (or even spell check!), and you could communicate with other members of your subculture, whether you were a new wave or Riot Grrrl fan—even though you were geographically spread out—to share ideas. Some were more sophisticated than others (Cometbus, Not Your Bitch), depending on the creator's skills. But they were all totally labors of love.
And they still are. They've been popping up in local music stores, comic-book stores and coffee shops. They may not all be about music anymore, but there's a resurgence in a medium that many considered dead when blogging became popular. Santa Ana's Santanero publishes 1,000 copies quarterly. Fullerton's Comic Book Hideout recently hosted a Zinefest night, at which people could swap zines and listen to local bands. Oddly enough, record shops say they don't carry as many zines as they used to, but alternative spaces are covering that niche. BookMachine in Fullerton is an independent bookstore and publisher for many local zines, and its proprietor, author and teacher, Jesse La Tour, actually helps people create their own labors of love.
So what gives? Last year, JWT Intelligence conducted a survey that found that while people use digital formats because of ease, speed, convenience and cost, physical formats have an emotional component that can't be replaced. This translates into a nostalgia for things from the past, especially for digital natives such as millennials and Gen Xers, who vaguely remember what it was like to hold on to media before digesting them.
Which means that these days, if you're an artist looking for a real counterculture, you're going to go way back to forms of expression that aren't readily available, downloadable or accessible anymore.
La Tour is the author of many zines, including such titles as Why I Ran for City Council and Other Essays and The Corporate Music Monster: The Story of Good Bands Who Now Suck; he founded BookMachine in 2010 when his Hibbleton Gallery moved to the Magoski Arts Colony. But even before that, he was an obsessive collector of zines—an obsession that, he says, corresponded with his late-in-life (at 30—he's now 34) discovery of hardcore punk and the DIY ethos. “It's a way to go around the traditional publishing models, where you don't need someone to bless you and tell you your work is good enough,” he says. “When I was writing my novel, I thought, Maybe it sounds crazy, but I'm just going to keep making my books, and one day, someone will be like, 'I like it, and I'll publish it.'“
Embracing the DIY mindset had other perks: It was inexpensive and tactile. “You could just have 25 copies of a book and be pumped if people got it,” he says.
Zines also foster the idea of localness and community. “One of my goals is to kind of spread the gospel of zines and show people that you can make a book right now,” La Tour says. “Finding the store is key—people come and hang out in BookMachine, and just finding out it exists inspires them to work on their own stuff. I'll even work with people to make one if they're interested.”
Fostering community is the same sentiment expressed by Eric Cocoletzi, founder and editor of Santanero. Unlike other DIY projects, Santanero has an actual staff and sponsors, which are concentrated in Santa Ana. “We'll talk about art or an artists' coalition or bands,” Cocoletzi says. “It's whatever we want, and that's the beauty of zines—you can do whatever the hell you feel like.”
Cocoletzi started Santanero in 2012 partly because he felt like Santa Ana was getting popular for all the wrong reasons. “People were coming to Santa Ana—especially downtown—to get fucked-up and party, and they were forgetting about the art,” he says. “When I was younger, we used to hang out in cafés with underground poets, artists and musicians. It was very underground, and that's what made it very cool. I felt like it was important for people to know about the other side of Santa Ana that's not looked at anymore and is underappreciated.”
He chose to publish Santanero as a paper product because, Cocoletzi says, “I grew up with an old-school mentality. I loved the physical feel of a zine, having paper in my hands.” Luckily, many of the zine's sponsors—merchants in Santa Ana's downtown area—were really supportive. “They said they'd back me up if it was about art and culture in Santa Ana from a real actual citizen's point of view—someone who actually lives here and was born and raised here.” The stories—on Santa Ana's gentrification, interviews with city intellectuals, profiles on musicians and random doodles—are also published online. “If it's time-sensitive, it goes online,” he says. “We like being a zine instead of a magazine because we can go crazy with it. We're not beholden to politicians or corporations. And it's all from personal experience.”
Ted Trager, a 28-year-old high school English teacher from Long Beach, sells his 20 Dudes zine at BookMachine. It features drawings of various men whom he finds interesting—from artists to musicians such as Ornette Coleman and authors such as Philip K. Dick.
Growing up in Visalia—where, according to Trager, nothing ever happened—he began writing zines as a way to make things happen in his town, as well as connect to the outside world. Sure, the Internet has surpassed zines in terms of music, he says, “but zines still have a place in culture. Sending someone a zine through the mail is more lasting and more meaningful than a blog post. Tangible media feels more studied.”
He adds, “Zine production is in the same ballpark as blogging, but like my phone.” He pulls out an old flip phone. “I love being able to touch these buttons when I'm calling someone. It's made counterculture a generational thing. I don't feel comfortable with an all-digital, screen-based life. Other people's lives are wrapped up in machines. I don't think it's good or bad; it just is what it is.”