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The xx Alasdair McLellan zine
The xx’s It Could Be Love zinevia @The_xx on Twitter

Why are so many musicians releasing zines all of a sudden?

Artists from The xx to Frank Ocean to Rejjie Snow have all been dabbling in DIY recently – but is this a genuine creative expression or just the latest fad?

In 2017, it feels like zine culture is bigger than ever. Titles like Born N Bread, gal-dem, and Skin Deep have turned small, self-made ventures into widely read, sought-after publications and increased the size of small press and zine fairs held across the UK. Alongside this, there’s been a noticeable surge in musicians dabbling with DIY too: the first half of 2017 alone has seen the publication of zines by Sampha (Shy Light), The xx (It Could Be Love), Irish rapper Rejjie Snow (The Moon & You), US bass producer RL Grime (NovaZine), and LA punks Bleached (Can You Deal?), to name just a few.

But what’s fuelled this sudden influx? One catalyst that immediately springs to mind is Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry. The free magazine was announced in 2015 and released over a year later in four pop-up shops around the world – it promptly disappeared from shelves, and those who missed out ended up paying painful sums of money to second-hand sellers online in order to get a copy.

But while eBay pirates may have profited from the magazine, it’s unlikely that Ocean himself did, at least directly: Boys Don’t Cry was released both for free and with a physical copy of his album Blonde, and given the quality of both the product (the embossed cover, the three types of paper it was printed on, the design by respected art directors Zak Group) and its contents (its contributors included renowned photographer Wolfgang Tillmans and stars like Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator), it’s probably safe to assume that it was neither cheap nor quick to produce. Giving the zine out at no cost seemed to be an act of generosity with little commercial benefit for Ocean, although the hype it created around Blonde would have no doubt boosted album sales in the long run. 

While other artists have sold their zines as loss leaders (like Boys Don’t Cry, RL Grime’s NovaZine was initially sent to fans in the mail, before later being sold online for just $3), some have treated theirs as luxury objects. The xx’s recently released It Could Be Love, for example, costs £25, more than much of their other merchandise and significantly more than their first zine And We’ll Be, Us, which was freely distributed with Urban Outfitters back in 2012. Touted as a “photo book zine” in its press release, It Could Be Love features shots by British photographer Alasdair McLellan of the group’s trip to Texas. The high quality book is fitting given The xx’s sharp, stylish aesthetic, but it’s also important to remember zine culture’s lo-fi, low cost, radical roots.

South London collective Born N Bread, who have been releasing zines since 2014, believe there’s more to it than clever merchandising. “We think there’s definitely a commercial gain for musicians releasing zines,” the group’s Chika Wilson explains to me in an email, “but also a functional reason. With some of the musicians, they’ve seen how communication or connecting with their fans is not just at surface level anymore. People want more than just stickers, a signed CD, or a poster. It’s nice to see artists using zines as they provide a big platform to showcase such creativity to new audiences. But zines are not just a cool trend for everyone to jump on the bandwagon – they have a function which is not to be devalued or overlooked because someone is trying to get more followers on Instagram or Twitter.”

“People often give too much of their power away by relying on authority figures to give them the go-ahead in making their voice/art public... with zines, you don’t need anybody else’s approval” – Amy O, Yoko Oh Yes

Since their emergence in the 1930s among sci-fi fans, zines of all types have existed primarily to allow marginalised voices to be heard without censorship or advertisers dictating who or what should get attention. The music-related publications that became prevalent in the 1970s punk rock scene, such as the feminist fanzine riot grrrl, were more than just keepsakes or cultural artefacts – they created a conversation between overlooked and undervalued artists, writers, and publishers and their audiences. Several decades later, zine-making continues to be a way of freely expressing oneself, and for musicians, to get creative without the pressure of PR, sales statistics, and critics.

“I think people often give too much of their power away by relying on authority figures to give them the go-ahead in making their voice/art public,” says Amy Oelsner, the Indiana-based frontwoman of Amy O and author of the Yoko Oh Yes zine. “With zines, you don’t need anybody else’s approval, so it teaches you a lot about being in charge of how you want your life to be.” It maybe shouldn’t be surprising, in that case, that zines have enjoyed a resurgence at a time where both mainstream and underground artists are increasingly having to work with brands, PR, management, and the whims of social media and streaming platforms to make money.

Zines additionally offer a level of freedom over design that the one-size-fits-all layout of Facebook and the all-too-familiar look of most websites can’t. Zak Group designers Zak Kyes and Grégory Ambos, who both worked on Boys Don’t Cry, told us last year that their capture and distortion technique “resonates with ‘chopped and screwed’ mode of editing” of Blonde track “Nikes”. Likewise, Sampha’s Shy Light offers another visual insight into the themes of his debut album Process and its accompanying Kahlil Joseph-directed film, with soft-focused photos of young boys in Sierra Leone (the country Sampha’s family emigrated to the UK from) that echo both the zine’s title and the delicate, haunting quality of the singer’s voice. The curation of album, film, zine, and music videos transform the record into a multifaceted, multimedia project that gives listeners a new level of understanding to Sampha as an artist and “how (he) sees the world”.

“(Zines are) an expression of your own personal/political views,” says Chika Wilson. “Nobody wants a carbon copy or an always well put-together person or magazine anymore because that’s not always realistic. It’s hard to identify with something or someone who doesn't seem real.”

Although some artists somewhat negate the original spirit behind zine-making by being well-known and/or signed to big labels, this insight into the ‘real’ musician is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why zines are so popular with both artists and listeners. Authenticity has more appeal than perfection, and just as recent years have seen ‘visual albums’ and surprise releases come and go, it’s possible that the industry will look to zines as its next favourite trend – it just depends whether you’ll buy what they’re selling.