In 2002 a free counterculture music magazine, Arthur, came onto the underground scene and won readers in just about every city where young people (and some older ones) still flouted local noise ordinances. Edited by LA-based music journalist Jay Babcock and published by Philadelphia-based independent media veteran Laris Kreslins, it was distributed by volunteers across the nation who delivered issues to coffee shops, record stores and bookstores. With contributors like Thurston Moore of the legendary punk/noise band Sonic Youth; T-Model Ford, the elder blues statesman and Arthur advice columnist; and writer Trinie Dalton, the magazine specialized in long stories and interviews on wide-ranging subjects, from ’60s “White Panther” leader and MC5 manager John Sinclair, to ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, to novelist J.G. Ballard, to contemporary folk musician Devendra Banhart–each representing a segment of the counterculture.
Arthur‘s music coverage has been among the most influential of its era, but the magazine was never just about music–it was from the beginning fiercely political. Babcock, who studied political science at UCLA, had at one time worked for Congressman Henry Waxman and drafted Waxman’s anti-NAFTA position paper. As the magazine was launching, the war in Iraq was being sold, and Arthur defined itself as a virulently antiwar publication; the magazine dedicated its fifth issue to a critique of the war. (The cover of that issue depicted comedian David Cross as a soccer mom cheerleading the war surrounded by the words “Hooray for Empire” and “USA #1 with a Bullet.”) The editors never stopped questioning the war and military recruitment. In 2004 Arthur teamed with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to run a PSA for antirecruitment campaigns in its pages. Then in May 2006, in an issue of Arthur, Babcock challenged Sully Erna of the rock band Godsmack for licensing his music to the military for use in recruitment ads and for using military images at concerts. The magazine’s pages were a regular space for artists and writers like Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and Kyp Malone, of the indie band TV on the Radio, to speak out against the war and President Bush.
Earlier this year, Arthur announced that it would no longer continue printing. Not long after, however, Babcock reached a deal with Kreslins and is about to relaunch the magazine as its editor and publisher. The next issue will arrive in record stores sometime in August. The Nation recently spoke to Babcock by phone about publishing a counterculture magazine in the current economic and political environment.
What drove you to start Arthur?
I grew more and more frustrated with the limitation of subject matter, technique and the length of story available to me in the outlets that existed. I realized that many other writers were feeling the same way. I thought the only way to do what I wanted to do was to actually–instead of campaign for somebody to come to their senses, I would start my own magazine.
How did you get the magazine going?
I didn’t come from money and I didn’t have any money. Laris didn’t come from money, so we pooled our credit cards and were able to start to pay the printer and so forth. The publishing situation in the United States has gotten to the point where you really do have to be wealthy in order to publish. Everyone can have access to a printing press, but hardly anyone outside the wealthy has access to the newsstands. It requires a huge amount of capital to start up a magazine and print it, and then convince the distributors that it deserves to distributed, and then be able to wait for them to pay you. The newsstand distribution system in this country is notoriously inefficient and corrupt…. That wasn’t an option for us. So what we did was, we created essentially an underground, alternate form of distribution.