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
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
"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."
STAYING ALIVE ON THE WEB
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