Jay Babcock, founder of Arthur Magazine (for which I once interned), made a surprise announcement last week that the longrunning music and culture periodical, perhaps best known for its dual embrace of psych-folk and radical lifestyle politics, is coming back into print after a four-year hiatus. Among other factors that made the magazine’s return possible, Portland, Oregon’s Floating World Comics is coming on board as a publisher, resurrecting the glossy of yore in the form of a broadsheet, part black-and-white, part color newspaper, which is available for pre-order for the very reasonable price of $5 of issue and hits homes on December 22nd. Babcock jumped on the phone with us from his desert home in Joshua Tree, CA to tell us why Arthur is coming back, and how, even if print may seem a risky prospect these days, the medium is kind of the message.
Why get back in the game after discontinuing Arthur? Arthur is an established brand. It may only be established for about 14 people, but it’s pretty established. We got in front of people’s faces over and over again from 2002 to 2008, and a lot of those people were pretty fucking loyal and bailed us out when we had a cash flow issue in 2008, because advertisers were paying us late. Our readers in pre-Kickstarter era gave us twenty-grand in three days, in July 2008. That’s how loyal they were. That loyalty still is there, and I still have the email databases of all those subscribers and our email bulletin subscribers and so on. So starting up again, I’m not starting from scratch, and also all of those people are a lot more open to buying stuff directly from us. We’re not an advertising revenue-driven model anymore. Our revenue was about seventy-five to eighty percent advertising in the old days. The other twenty, twenty-five percent was the readers, and that part was super significant and vital, but now we’re just going to be reader-supported. And when you go reader-supported, the economics can work in your favor, at least for an established brand like us. So what we’re doing is we’re making an analog product, which is what we always did, which is what our contributors and staff are only interested in doing frankly.
Then the other thing is, how do you make the best of the analog? How you do what can’t be done in digital? Why do analog if you can just do in digital for cheaper? Then it made sense. Well, do something that digital can’t do, something that takes up a big field of vision. We’re doing Arthur as a newspaper but a newspaper with only ads on the back, so that each page is gigantic, and each two pages is a spread. When you put that in front of your eyes, it’s much, much bigger than a computer screen. It’s so big the art director gets to take full advantage of that space. We can have things that are suitable for putting up on the wall, which is another thing you can’t do with your computer. The other thing is that when you’re done with it, you can compost it.
Or you might want to save it, right? Yeah, if you want to save it, it’s easily saved. It’s not going to disappear when Google fails. It’s not going to disappear when the power goes out because of a climate change hurricane. It’s there as long as you can keep it physically near you. With Arthur, we acknowledged that we live in a world that is being overrun by technology, and we use that technology for our own purposes, but we want to have as little to do with it as possible in everything we do. We use every tool that the tech world has put there, but you the know the tech world has been a really bad thing for the culture. I’m forty-two years old; I watched this happen in my lifetime. I watched [as] the tech nerds and the capitalists behind them always claimed, Just wait. Journalism would come back, everything would resolve, and they were completely wrong. Everything they destroyed has not come back. And that’s in all fields. That’s in journalism. That’s in art. That’s in music. That’s in every single artistic or cultural field you can think of. The internet nerds and the venture capitalists behind them, they said all the destructive work that they were doing was going to get rid of the gatekeepers and open everything up. What’s it’s done is replace the old gatekeepers with new, worse gatekeepers called Apple, Google, Facebook. Worse than ever.
What voice or perspective is missing from the cultural conversation right now? Well, I don’t know how to answer that question directly. What I can say is I’m not aware of any cultural conversation existing anymore. What’s happened is in culture, broadly speaking, technology has trumped the arts. We all talk about what platforms we use, what devices we have, what luck we’ve had lately with what app. Those are the subjects of our conversation. Those are the metaphors that we use, and in other times, our culture and our conversation [revolved more around] the things we have in common. The things we had in common had to do with the arts, the entertainment, and the culture that we were embedded within. The songs, the films, the books, the TV shows, whatever you want to say in the twentieth century, those provided the metaphors we could either use or rebel against. They gave us a common language that we could all use. We could rebel against it, but at least we had stuff in common that was derived from human, artistic expression. Now what we have in common are the tools that we use that have been made for us by nerds and venture capitalists that have made it hard for us to speak with each other in a meaningful way. We’re interested in continuing to do the work that we always did, but I have no idea how far the conversation that we do or the work that we do—I have no idea how far that will stretch. It might only be for a few thousand people, and that’s okay. If that’s the best we can do, and if we can just keep doing it, then so be it.