Daniel Sinker

Punk Planet founder talks why it's better to be CREEM than Rolling Stone

The name Punk Planet has always been a misnomer. Even when it began as a newsprint zine in 1994, the Chicago-based publication treated punk rock as an idea, not a sound. Using punk's antagonist spirit as a guiding principle, Punk Planet transcended stereotypes to chronicle the progressive underground community, from thoughtful band interviews to exceptionally thorough investigative features. Over the course of 13 years, Punk Planet became heavily influential beyond the increasingly small world of independent publishing. As that world shrank, and the music industry began its downward spiral, the magazine faced declining subscriptions and ad revenue (which was small to begin with, thanks to the magazine's artificially low ad rates). The final blow arrived early this year, when Punk Planet's non-profit distributor filed for bankruptcy, essentially killing the magazine and seriously wounding others like Bitch and McSweeney's. The timing was surprisingly fortuitous: Just as Sinker and co-editor Anne Elizabeth Moore decided to close shop, he was awarded a journalism fellowship at Stanford University. Punk Planet will live on through its book imprint and website (not to mention the massive debt Sinker accrued), but the magazine ends its run with issue 80, out now. Sinker recently spoke to The A.V. Club about indie publishing, the necessity of eras ending, and what 50 cents will get you.

A.V. Club: When Punk Planet started, did you think about the future much?
Daniel Sinker: Not at all. When Punk Planet started, I remember when we got to issue five and it was like, "Oh my God! We've made it five issues, that's incredible!" I think one thing that's been a constant at Punk Planet is actually never really thinking particularly far into the future. It's always been this thing that's like, "Oh my God, I can't believe we've made it another issue! Let's try another!" [Laughs.] Certainly as the magazine became more entrenched in underground culture, it became not this incredible shock that you could make an issue, but the novelty of being granted another year never really wore off for me. But no, there was never really any kind of thinking about like, "What kind of massive paradigm shift could mesh all of this—not just us, but everything—in the next 10 years?" I think that caught everyone by surprise, even though it shouldn't have.
AVC: Because it was coming?
DS: As the end kind of came into focus, we started looking beyond the simple answer—which is we were killed by distributors that went bankrupt—and started looking at the larger issues that were also affecting us. Things like, "Hey, wow, record labels are going under because no one is paying for music!" And, "Hey, look at this, people are going to these Internet sites because people can pick up a record review the same day the record came out!" At a mainstream-press level, these are issues that people were wrestling with five years ago—and five years ago, all of us in the underground pointed and laughed and said, "Ha ha, that won't be us." [Laughs.] But why we thought that is anyone's guess.
AVC: Punk Planet was never a moneymaking operation. Could you explain its business model?
DS: As a business, Punk Planet was destined to fail from day one. [Laughs.] Our business plan was, "Let's set our ad rates as low as possible, so that the smallest record labels can afford a good-size ad space, so that they can have a national outlet to let people know about their releases." At the same time, we said, "You know, if there even is any money coming in, let's turn that around, at least in part, to the writers that are writing these pieces and give them a little something," and "Let's sell this on newsstands," which is, you know, a money-losing proposition.
AVC: How much has this shaken your faith in the independent-publishing world and its support structures?
DS: It's hugely shaken it. I don't know how you could start a magazine like Punk Planet today and do it in print. The distribution just isn't there, and the distribution that is there is fucking evil. Talking about distribution is about as exciting as talking about weather-stripping, but the reality is, when Punk Planet started 13 years ago, there were 12 national distributors that dealt specifically and exclusively with the independent and small press—and today there are none. Back then, distributors worked as your advocate, they argued in your favor against demands that chains were making, they tried to negotiate good prices for you, they did everything they could to help you and to make a buck for themselves. Now, it's 180 degrees from that, you know? Distributors are basically the slaves of the major book retailers.
AVC: Your editor's note in the final issue said it's the end of an era in more ways than one. Is that necessarily a bad thing?
DS: No, eras end, you know? It's horrendously sad, and I wish it didn't have to end with us, but things come to a close. Chapters are supposed to end. I got an e-mail yesterday from one of the few rock critics who I really respect a lot, and he said, "You know, it's horribly sad, but look at the rock magazines that never ended—they're terrible." Look at Rolling Stone; it's a piece of shit now. Compare that to Lester Bangs-era CREEM. Those are the magazines that people remember and respect, and those are the magazines that signified that something that was amazing and incredible came to a close when they closed. If I had to choose between being CREEM and Rolling Stone, I'd choose CREEM every time.
AVC: As you've had this press deluge since the announcement, have you had any epiphanies?
DS: I would say the main thing that trips me up is this realization that, "Oh my God, people cared." When you're doing something at the level that we're doing, coming out every other month isn't as rigorous as coming out weekly, but for a tiny staff like we have, that's constant. The minute you send an issue out to the printer, you're immediately thinking of the next issue. You're not sitting back and going, "I wonder what people are saying about that last issue." For me at least, and I think for a lot of other people who work at the magazine, you forget that the magazine takes on this whole other life once it leaves the office. And certainly talking with people for the past week and reading what other people have written, you're very much faced with, "Wow, people really read this"—and they didn't just read it, they really cared about it. That's pretty awesome in the literal sense of the word.
AVC: Yet there's this disconnect: All these people loved it, but the magazine can't continue.
DS: Yeah, well, you know, love and 50 cents will by you a candy bar.