There’s a good chance that by the time you read this piece, however this turns out (give me a chance, I’m just a sentence in), issue twenty of Comes With A Smile magazine (pictured, and CwaS henceforth) will have been printed and bound, ready for distribution across this country, the States and beyond. Sadly, issue twenty will also be the magazine’s final appearance. Like so many similarly praised outlets for adventurous and creative writing, inspired design and professional production standards, it simply can’t continue, such is the market dominance of a select few publications (‘so many’? Like what else? I’m an idiot…). Then again, like Careless Talk Costs Lives, which faded in circumstances equally as frustrating, the aim of CwaS never was to compete head-to-head with the IPC and EMAP big boys, but to educate and entertain, to provide a voice for the bands ignored by those magazines who perenially chase trends down dead ends. It was selective for a select crowd, firm in its opinions and steadfast in its editorial stance.
Unlike Careless Talk Costs Lives, the writing was never on the wall for CwaS from the very beginning. Whereas Everett True and company’s admittedly brilliant magazine prophesised its own demise with an accuracy so precise they elected to count down to issue one, rather than beginning with it (what else do you do once you reach said magic number other than call it quits?), CwaS stuttered along, offering issues at irregular intervals and attracting scorn and love along the way (although considerably more of the latter). Regular readers didn’t mind the occasional delay in an issue’s release date, it being the nature of the beast, as the beast never really adhered to any rules. Not once over its eight-year history has CwaS chased after the same prize as the glossy monthlies; not once has it bent over to an artist’s or label’s ridiculous requests in exchange for coverage, exclusive or otherwise. It has been the very best example of cottage industry publishing, with a lifetime in the red, run out of the editor’s bedroom in Chiswick until the very final spell check came back good; Esquire even saw fit to call it “probably the best independent music magazine in the world” despite its meagre budget.
Drowned in Sound, too, is the product of inspiration, of a desire to do something to match whatever was at the top of this game when a young man tried to express his love of soul-searing rock and roll music in vibrant words on a computer monitor; to emulate in some way the great writers that informed each and every one of this site’s own, from its earliest incarnation as a bubbling fountain of possibility to this, a website that has both an established audience and enjoys a high level of insider and outsider respect. Personally, I can point to the first few issues of CwaS that I read for helping me get where I am now; granted, that’s not particularly high on the ladder – I’m not about to swagger into an EMAP boardroom and demand they make me editor-in-chief of their latest monthly – but the words of Stav Sherez and Craig Taylor, and later of Mia Clarke and Adrian Pannett, and the brilliant layout courtesy of designer-slash-editor Matt Dornan and co-founder Paul Heartfield, have stayed with me ‘til this very day; I’m continually inspired by the superb writing in CwaS, basically. The first issue I bought was number eleven; by twelve I’d wormed my way into favour at the magazine, and contributed a number of reviews. Reading them back now I’m shocked that Matt took me on – the quality of my appraisals of The Bloodthirsty Lovers, Pretty Girls Make Graves and Mono, among a handful of forgettable others, is debateable to say the very least – but the range of acts within the magazine’s covers made it essential reading regardless of any personal involvement. Those three bands alone should give you, should you be totally in the dark about CwaS ‘til this article, an idea of just how different the bands featured could be. Accompanying cover-mounted compact discs allowed newcomers a great aural insight into the acts speaking silently through the pages of their newfound favourite magazine. Through these compilations I’ve fallen for dozens of acts – Bright Eyes, Nina Nastasia, 90 Day Men, Cat Power, Damien Jurado, Royal City, Jim White, Spoon, Calexico, Death Cab For Cutie, et cetera – many of whom were first introduced to British readers through CwaS, and many of whom are now household names.
For issue twenty I submitted a pair of features and a single album review – commitments elsewhere made contributing to the magazine in its later issues tougher and tougher, but I still found time. I always found time. Unpaid the work was and always had been, but it didn’t matter – being part of CwaS is something I’ll always be proud of, and its founders, Dornan and photographer Paul, should look back in amazement at the last eight years, whatever pitfalls they nearly tumbled so ungracefully into along the way. I felt brilliant when I saw my name in issue twelve back in 2002, and picking it up now, the magazine still feels like something ever so slightly out of time, permitted to exist in parallel to the ‘real’ world of publishing, the cutthroat and brutal reality of pounds and pence over reason and sense, passion and heart. But, I’m not the man to tell this tale – Matt Dornan kindly agreed to answer some questions (ha! The tables turned, finally), and a handful of contributors old and new have offered their thoughts on one of the last truly brilliant music magazines, a stranger from a pre-internet age that maintained a following and a quality that’s unlikely to ever be bettered.
A brief history, a blink in the face of the future: a Q&A with CwaS’s Matt Dornan
DiS: CwaS started small but grew rapidly over its first few issues – a look at the number of pages from issue to issue (look at the magazine’s excellent website for an issue-by-issue guide). Did you ever expect it to take off in such a way?
Matt Dornan: We’re going back eight years, so it’s unclear to me exactly why and how things happened. Without going into a full bio, I remember that CwaS was begun almost as a calling card for the design skills of myself and Paul Heartfield, as well as for his photography. So, ironically, the writing was deemed to be secondary, as we didn’t expect it to be widely read. Despite the small numbers of CwaS number one (pictured, right) that got out, the response was favourable from the ‘zine community’. I remember that Stevie Chick was an early supporter. Stevie and a handful of others were doing zines at the time and, once we’d decided to do number two, his writing was an inspiration, as was a desire to marry good writing to an aesthetic that wasn’t the cut ‘n’ paste photocopy stereotype. In many ways that signalled the beginning of the end: this ongoing struggle to present something visually appealing on a shoestring budget. Neither Paul nor I had any capital, at the outset and lost money from day one. I think we grew simply because we had to, and thus the writing began to take equal billing with the visuals and the interviews became longer. PR companies started sending us records to review, so that section grew, too.
Were there any music magazines covering the acts you went on to promote early on? Did you spy a gap in the market and aim to plug it, or was CwaS’s unique content merely a happy accident, created by its authors’ tastes?
In the US there were similar magazines, but not in the UK, with the exception of a few zines like Stevie’s and Easy Pieces. US magazines like Puncture, Magnet and The Big Takeover were where I turned to read about music that I liked, and was thus turned onto stuff to investigate. Of course, now I had my own magazine I could find out which labels the interesting bands were on and hassle them for review copies.
And what was the turning point, where a fanzine became a ‘proper’ magazine? I notice on the website that issue four never made it to print – was it therefore issue five that marked the beginning of CwaS as we know it now?
For me it’s been a continuation, but in the eyes of the public I’d say yes to that. The ‘lost’ issue, number four (pictured, right), was put together against a backdrop of broken promises. It’s worth clarifying that the first three issues were paid for by Paul and I, although to this day we haven’t paid the printer of issue three more than a fraction of what was owed. It remains a dream of mine to walk in there with the rest of the money one of these days. After issue three we were skint, but a casual conversation with a band’s manager gave us hope of some funding. With that in mind we pressed on with the doomed issue four, but it took over a year for the funds to come, by which time most of the content was out of date. Paul had had enough and we didn’t talk for a while. When the funds came through I had to sign to this questionable outfit that eventually put out issue five – the first issue with a CD and real distribution. I was amazed to see it racked in HMV on Oxford Street, and even more amazed when it sold out. So, to many people, CwaS starts with issue five.
And is the next issue – well, up until now – always a certainty, or does one issue have to sell a particular amount of copies for the next to be published?
Oddly, sales have made no discernable difference as we’ve never made a profit on one single issue. The one advantage of working with my first backers was that they were obliged to print whatever I produced, as long as I delivered on schedule. Another condition was that I wasn’t paid, so they could hardly argue with me. But there were delays, excuses, all kinds of attempts to suck every last penny from me before they relented and printed the next issue. It’s always been a stressful operation. Sales increased but so did production costs (the magazine switched to full colour at issue seventeen, pictured, right); the magazine was perfect bound at issue nine by which time it had a new backer. After issue eight the company that was funding CwaS collapsed and left me dangling.
If that’s the case then – increasing sales and greater respect from peers – why call it quits at issue twenty? Is there no way it’s financially viable?
It’s a classic Catch 22 – the magazine has grown but not at a rate that can sustain it. Nobody, as you know, receives a penny for their work on CwaS, myself included. People have had a hard time believing that since day one, and even certain contributors think I’m rolling in money because they see CwaS in Virgin Megastores. My current, and third, backer has been with me since issue twelve and has lost in the region of £40,000. And that’s without paying any salaries; it’s simply losses based on production and distribution costs. It’s the result of expansion to get the magazine into the US and Canada at an affordable cover price. To a lesser extent, it’s the price of advertisers reneging on deals, and some shop owners misplacing receipts. We would lose less money if we were an elitist, 2,000-copy mail order publication. But I’m not an elitist. Bigger sales and better distribution have only meant bigger headaches.
But the accolades have come rolling in. The Esquire one must’ve seemed a little weird, albeit nicely so?
I think they’d mean more if there were some negatives to offset them – in eight years I’ve had one negative e-mail, I kid you not. Oh, and one member of staff overhead a Rough Trade employee calling us boring, but he was wearing a death metal shirt so I guess he’d know. I think CwaS is easy to praise because what we do we do well and it’s very simple – there’s little to criticise beyond our tastes. I don’t write an editorial column because I’m not interested in influencing people any more than we do already by putting a certain array of artists in the magazine. That’s biased enough, surely?
And many an act you’ve featured has gone on to bigger and brighter things since. It must be nice to say that you interviewed a band two years, or something, before magazines with a higher profile latched on to them…
I guess so, although not if that popularity has meant a dip in the quality of their music. I’m proud to have given Nina Nastasia her first interview, but I suspect John Peel might’ve had more influence on her reputation than CwaS. I doubt that Death Cab For Cutie would have struggled, either. But yes, there’s a smugness the comes from referring people back to old issues of CwaS, to see interviews with Bright Eyes, Rogue Wave, and Currituck Co, when they come running to me enthusing about this ‘new’ band they’ve discovered.
Since you’ve invested so much time, and money, in CwaS, you must’ve been offered some extra work along the way? There must be additional perks to running such a high-quality magazine? Would you accept freelance work after CwaS?
Paul’s had some nice work as a result of being spotted in CwaS – he’s shot for The Telegraph, Beggar’s Banquet and Mute, among others. He’s just back from his dream job: five days with Throbbing Gristle in Berlin. Some might call that a nightmare. I’ve had a little design work from it, but the magazine has to take priority for me or else it’d never get done. (After CwaS) I need to investigate my options – I rather foolishly reviewed a few books for Clash magazine, foolishly because they don’t pay either, which makes me some kind of idiot. And they chopped half of one review, so that was the end of that.
Clash eh? They won the award for best magazine at last year’s Record Of The Day awards, although I think their MySpace spamming might’ve helped them just a little. What do you make of the music magazines widely on offer now?
I really don’t read too many UK-based magazines, and when I do I’m usually unimpressed. There are good writers out there but if they’re writing about bands I have no interest in then I won’t read them. Uncut is too male and one-dimensional for my tastes, and Mojo isn’t much better. They lack passion. I haven’t even looked at the NME in years – I picked one up a couple of years ago when they interviewed David Cross, but his feature amounted to a huge picture and two paragraphs. Generally, I’d rather read a good film magazine or a music biography. Stalwarts like Magnet and The Big Takeover remain favourites.
What about the magazines that CwaS would be racked with today, the likes of the Careless Talk offshoots: Loose Lips Sink Ships and Plan B?
Plan B and Loose Lips… are worthy but I struggle to find much to read in them – our tastes overlap by about ten per cent per issue. I also find some of the writing in Plan B too horrible for words, so if our tastes coincided I’d say Loose Lips… was the best thing out there.
And what about online? You’ve expressed to me before a desire to keep CwaS’s website active even after the magazine disappears from store shelves…
I’m not a big web reader – I tend to Google what I’m looking for and follow the links – and I can’t get passionate about a web-based music magazine as I can by something in print. I’m not able to design my own site, which is frustrating – I need to think like other people and earn some money once in a while before devoting more of my time to something for nowt. The CwaS site isn’t great – it needs an investment of time and energy to get the archive up to date. I like the idea of interviews and reviews appearing almost immediately… but beyond that I can’t raise my enthusiasm, at least for now. I know there is good writing to be found online, but there’s also a lot of crap. Like making music, it’s become too easy to start a webzine, hence there’s lots of bad writing about lots of bad music, all made on the same computers by people with insufficient talent to make it in the ‘real’ world.
Thanks Mike. I rambled, so feel free to edit the editor
I have, believe it or not…
Memories traced: a collection of contributors’ thoughts on CwaS
Jane Oriel, Drowned In Sound writer/editor and CwaS contributor to issue twenty…
“I had been aware of CwaS for some while and had noted the way it was spoken about amongst friends and musos – in hushed tones. It had to be something special. It was the product of a pair of designers that just happened to live and breathe music, so whatever filled its pages, they would be beautiful pages.
“Matt knows what he likes, and what he does not. Other aspirational papers or websites will periodically flex and bend to headline-grabbing acts who maybe lack a prerequisite gravitas, but Matt will not:
“‘Hey Matt, Ryan Adams is in town. Can I do an interview?’
‘Mr Adams has no need of us and we most defintely have no need of Mr Adams!’
“Preserving the magazine’s vital independence has occasionally made for tricky financial decisions. The editor has declined big-money advertising from at least one ubiquitous multinational because he knew that carrying it would compromise the magazine’s integrity. Of course, art and money too rarely mix harmoniously, and so it is this dilemma that has hastened its death knell.
“Although writing the lengthy articles means that it is the most work I have done for the least money, this has never been an issue.
“CwaS will be missed for its purity of intent in this perennially cheapening world where we know the price of everything but the value of relatively little. Not everyone featured will become national heroes, or even personal ones for the most part, but a good corner of my CD shelf has become the domain of those that have stepped directly from its pages and the cover-mount CD.”
Matt Thorne, CwaS contributor to issue twenty…
“I only started writing for CwaS in the last eighteen months of its existence, but Matt gave me the opportunity to meet and interview a few heroes – Steve Albini, Jennifer Herrema, Bill Callahan – and write about them at the length they deserved.”
Adrian Pannett, erstwhile CwaS writer, editorial assistant and envelope-stuffer…
“I properly became involved with CwaS just before issue twelve (pictured, right), having become a kindred spirit of Matt Dornan after meeting him a little while after issue five. With my fanzine, Under The Surface, having run its photocopied course, I was eager to get a gilded, professional-looking edge to my music writing. CwaS seemed the most logical platform without having to sell my soul to IPC or EMAP, not that they’d have me! Thankfully, Mr Dornan agreed.
“What makes/made CwaS so special? Its emphasis on encouraging musicians to speak for themselves, without editing them down to fit any ego-ridden writer’s prose. The inscrutable refusal to follow any music industry fashion or fads in order to be ‘cool’. Having such a stubborn but benevolent editor at the helm also must not be underestimated.
“What void will it leave? A gap where impassioned, informed writers could find room to stretch themselves, a hole where great original photography used to go hand-in-hand with imaginative design and a CD-shaped chasm where its compilation of frequently great – and otherwise unreleased – material could find a good home.
“Perhaps we should club together to buy Matt the CwaS equivalent of a carriage clock?”
Stevie Chick, early CwaS contributor and editor of Loose Lips Sink Ships…
“CwaS was an inspiration, because it offered the best of fanzine culture – opinionated, forthright and focussed on its own little world, excluding the hype-driven outside – mixed with production values so high some might describe them as ‘professional’. But they were more accurately of a higher standard, that of the Labour of Love.
“It maddens me that people don’t hire the CwaS design team to fashion their album sleeves. Magazines like CwaS are the sort that are hugely missed when they’re gone, but under-supported when they’re still around. Having known Matt for ages and having seen him at shows over the years, I can guess what a strain producing such a magazine for nothing more than the pleasure of doing it must’ve been, especially when financial realities increase those pressures tenfold.
“I imagine the musicians working in the fields of music CwaS so diligently covered will feel the loss the most, but so will the dedicated readership, who came (like me) to trust CwaS’s writers when it came to the music they so evidently loved. Enthusiasts debating the finer points of their specialised subjects is one of the joys of music writing for me, and the magazine’s tastes were singular and acute, which meant their recommendations were always worth chasing up. I guess the magazine’s passing marks the end of an era, marking the final death of the last pre-internet generation of high-quality zines (thinking also The Living Is Easy, Words That I Ate, 40 Different Shades Of Black and other unforgotten relics of the pre-blog age).
“I like to think that Matt might find back copies exchanging hands for premium rates on eBay at some point in the future. And I will love him forever for the two CDs of Posies b-sides he burned for me sometime in the last century, and hope that wherever his passions drag him next, the fun:drudgery ration is tallied more in his favour. Godspeed, Comes With A Smile.”
There are many more words of praise and bittersweet condolence, believe me – chances are that the CwaS website will run them, and they come from far and wide: other magazines, PR companies, musicians, readers – but for now, that’s that. Godspeed indeed: to MD and friends from another MD and friends.
Check the CwaS website for news of the exact release date for issue twenty, and to browse old reviews and photographs.