Visual by Audrey Davis
If cities like San Francisco, Minneapolis and Montreal have recently become hubs of independent culture and media, it's because they foster thinking outside the mainstream. Vice, the most popular magazine among eighteen-year-olds, was started by three scruffy party boys in Montreal ten years ago. Seed, the new thing in science magazines ("Science is culture" is its nifty tag line), was started by Adam Bly, a young Montrealer with chutzpah to match the Beastie Boys. San Francisco's Kitchen Sink, winner of the 2003 Utne Independent Press Award for best new title (a runner-up? Maisonneuve), is published by a group of young Californians with no office and no advertising, but with what really matters: guts.
An independent magazine's circulation can range from 2,000 copies (Montreal's idiosyncratic Fish Piss) to upward of 250,000 (San Francisco's Mother Jones and the Minneapolis-based Utne Reader). An independent can be moved by hand in the subway-the way Dave Eggers sold hundreds of copies of the first issue of McSweeney's-or it can be sold in bookstores and on newsstands around the continent. Independents can write about anything from kayaking (Sea Kayaker magazine) to labour rights and the working class (Citizen Culture magazine). Thanks in part to the Internet, "independent" no longer means less reach; our own website, Maisonneuve.org, received close to twenty-five million hits last year. With so many bloggers, columnists and amateur correspondents operating worldwide, many writing directly from the heart of a story (such as Salam Pax in Baghdad), traditional obstacles like printing costs and in-store availability have been partially transcended.
Even the moribund days of public television are over. PBS has renewed itself as a source of independent news, joining newer creations like HBO and Bravo that provide fresh entertainment and perspective. Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, NOW with Bill Moyers, NOVA and American Experience are all examples of high-quality independent programming. For many years now, the best shows, the best news and even the best films have come from independents.
Being "independent" is ultimately a state of mind, and maintaining some stubborn, intrinsic difference from those around you is at its heart. In the North American media market, Canada itself has come to function as a de facto independent. Post-9/11, many Americans are valuing a second opinion, especially from their northern neighbours. Variety is essential for a stable society, in stories and ideas as much as in sources of food and energy.
Of course, the line between being independent and main-stream isn't always clear. The Simpsons is an independent program on a formerly independent network. Cheap, down-market products such as The Jerry Springer Show may be nomin-ally independent, but really they're all about ad dollars.
The proliferation of corporate "alternative" weeklies (such as New Times Media's string of papers across the US) shows there is money to be made in independent culture-or rather, in mimicking it. Unlike the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Vancouver's Georgia Strait and other true independents-bastions of a smarter culture and better democracy-these "faux" independents generally have zero political content, piss-poor cultural writing and no interest in fostering independent thinking and local culture. They cater to the omnimedia giants, funnel retail advertising dollars right out of the city and run local, home-grown competition out of business. They are a disservice to the nascent independent cultures they claim to serve. They need to be renewed from within or replaced by publications with more socially beneficial missions.
Independents are that replacement. And they are organizing themselves in ways they never have before. Organizing-the idea seems almost quaint. Yet, at the recent Independent Press Association (IPA) conference in San Francisco, there were seminars on free-market initiatives (strategic planning, marketing ancillary products, being a mission-driven for-profit magazine) as well as on more collaborative themes (how to create an advertising co-op with other titles, how to turn readers into donors, etc.). It all reminded me of Chicken Run, Nick Park's brilliant animated film, and Farmer Tweedy's suspicious remark about his poultry: "Those chickens are up to something. They're getting organized!" The evil Mrs. Tweedy can't even conceive of the idea: "Chickens don't organize!" Independents are like little stop-motion chickens-a loose conglomerate of tough, naive, visionary, reactionary, youthful and modest people.
Can the independents organize in twenty-first-century North America? They already have. The IPA and its distribution partner Big Top-along with many other independent associations, including the Canadian Magazine Publishers Association-are working toward finding the right niche for independents within the larger market, and are doing so by paying greater attention to where independents are sold and how they are promoted. These days, an independent media is more important than ever. There are things that consistently do not make it into the mainstream that only the independent media pays attention to. Just as rivers have eddy pools alongside the main stream, societies have eddies of independent culture. Let's keep them intact. They're worth fighting for.
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