Punk Planet, R.I.P.

July 22, 2007


  • Every few months for the last 13 years, Chicago-based Punk Planet magazine has arrived in subscribers' mailboxes or caught their eye at adventurous newsstands and record stores with one arresting and in-depth cover story after another.

    There was the issue devoted to the situation in Iraq published in 1999, years before other publications started looking at that country anew. There were the considerations of music, politics and culture in the underground after 9/11; the package of stories about the lack of health care afforded musicians signed to major labels, and the stories about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, to name only a few more standouts. But none had quite the impact of Issue No. 80, newly arrived for July and August 2007.

    Beside a photo of a stack of issues going back to No. 1, a headline simply and poignantly announces, "There's no easy way to put this, so it's best to simply say it straight: This is the last issue of Punk Planet. After this, the fight is yours."

    With a peak press run of 16,000 copies and an influence that spread far beyond what that number suggests, Punk Planet has been one of the best indie music publications in the United States since its inception, thanks to the contributions of dozens of committed and talented people, among them editors Laura Pearson, Anne Elizabeth Moore and Dave Hofer and columnists such as Al Burian and Sex Lady Searah. But like all of the best magazines throughout rock history -- from Paul Williams' pioneering Crawdaddy! through Barry Kramer's freewheeling Creem and Ira Robbins' super-fan Trouser Press -- Punk Planet was ultimately a reflection of the spirit and vision of one driven individual.

    Raised in Chicago from the age of 3, publisher, co-editor and art director Dan Sinker has been the key force behind Punk Planet since he started the mag in the early '90s, with the goal of covering a still-vibrant punk underground overshadowed by the then-recent mainstream success of groups such as Green Day (and, we could add today, Good Charlotte and their ilk). For the past decade, the mag has been Sinker's full-time job, though he's had to augment the meager income it provided with part-time work, including the last four years of teaching journalism at Columbia College. Now, he's in the unenviable position of having to pull the plug on his labor of love.

    "You definitely reach a point -- especially where we've been, literally fighting to stay alive for almost two years -- where you look at the fight that lays ahead of you, and you look at your wounds from the fight behind you, and you say, 'I just don't know if I can fight anymore,'" Sinker says. "That's 20 percent of it, definitely. But 80 percent of it is that even if we wanted to keep fighting, we don't have the money to continue forward with it, and that's the reality."

    A domino effect
    The immediate crisis precipitating the end of Punk Planet was the bankruptcy filing last January of the Independent Press Association, its newsstand distributor. When the magazine started, there were 12 independent distributors devoted to bringing underground publications to America's newsstands. That number steadily dwindled until there was only the IPA, and now it's gone, too, leaving dozens of publications months in arrears for revenues they'll likely never collect.

    "I would be surprised if there's an indie magazine that wouldn't say they're on the ropes right now; it's a horrendous situation," Sinker says. "I can't even conceive of someone trying to start something like Punk Planet today. Most small niche publications are supported almost entirely by their subscribers, and the newsstand presence is just viewed as a way of attracting new readers. We always tried to build Punk Planet's subscriber base, but for 13 years, no matter how hard we pushed, we were always the kind of magazine people picked up at the newsstand or in record stores. The IPA was the way we got there, and they just dropped the ball so hard that by the time the smoke had cleared, the damage was basically irreversible."

    Caught in the Web
    Of course, Punk Planet's failure comes in the wake of the booming success of countless Internet-only Web-zines. Also based in Chicago, the phenomenally popular Pitchforkmedia.com claims 1.5 million visitors a month scanning its exhaustive reviews of indie-rock CDs. But Sinker says the Web is only part of the story.

    "The music Web publications that are successful aren't doing what we did. They're essentially running reviews, and they're incredibly focused on a very limited thing. The controversies they kick up are about whether they gave a band a good review or not; they're not kicking up real controversies. Is Punk Planet's model possible on the Web? Well, there are probably two dozen Web sites that, if you combine them, would replicate Punk Planet magazine. But none of them are doing it on a single site.

    "The thing that's funny about all of these Punk Planet post-game shows is this idea that 'the Internet came along and kind of blew all of the fanzines away.' Well, we've been on the Web since 1996 or '98, and for what a Web site is, we're very successful. But I have a deep-seated belief that the Web is incredibly good at some stuff and not very good at other stuff, just as print is very, very good at some stuff and not very good at other stuff. I think the two should do what they're best at. The Web is incredibly good at community-building and instant communication. What it's not good at is printing a 20,000-word story. Even a general, normal-length Punk Planet piece is three times as long as a quote 'long story' on the Web. And as an editor or as a writer, an 800-word story on the Web is not always something that I'm satisfied with."


    Off to academia
    So like Crawdaddy! and Creem and Trouser Press before it, Punk Planet has come to an end (though PunkPlanet.com will continue and explore ways to extend some of what the magazine did on the Web). As for the 32-year-old Sinker, he's just won a prestigious yearlong Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, and he, his wife and their child are moving to California so he can study journalism and ponder its future -- and his own. But in the style of the magazine that's been his life, he's decidedly optimistic.

    "I feel the same way I always have: This week is more exciting than last week, because this week is the time when there's potential for something new and exciting to happen. There's no potential in the past, but right now is when anything can happen."



    Though the 13-year-old magazine is history, PunkPlanet.com will continue. On the site, publisher Dan Sinker offers a goodbye column, reader comments and even a short column on what will happen to his writers now. (He also asks for donations to help pay the writers who are still waiting for checks.)