It has been a hell of a couple of years for independent media. Mainstay indie labels like Lookout and Touch & Go have barely been scraping by, and last year marked the final issue of the stalwart music magazine, Punk Planet. Lagging sales and poor business sense led to the collapse of much of the distribution network that was once so strong that places as culturally void as Tower Records could still manage to carry an issue of Hit List and a vinyl copy of the latest Sub Pop record. And while many have used this drought as an excuse to lay down their arms and retreat, Atlanta's Henry Owings is still firing away and God help you if you find yourself in his crosshairs. As the publisher and writer of Chunklet Magazine, a tell-it-likeit- is chronicle of the music industry, Owings has been calling people on their shit for fifteen years now. With the latest issue of the magazine hitting store shelves in late September, a new book and several record releases in the works, the Chunklet empire is set to take over the world. SLUG chatted with Owings about his new projects, and how it is that he manages to stay afloat in the competitive world of printed media.
It is true that Chunklet Magazine is prone to the same distribution woes and bullshit as any other publication. Where Chunklet differs, though, is in its reliance on the talents of very few people and almost no advertising to get by. The bulk of every issue, the newest being number twenty since its debut fifteen years ago, is written and compiled by Owings, on his own time and at his own pace. And where single issues of the publication have sold as many as 12,000 copies, the latest few have been more along the lines of 4,000. Owings predicts a similar fate for the newest issue, mostly because he's limited by the same death of distribution that killed Punk Planet. "In the last few years a lot of the distribution network has dried up," he says. "Punk Planet had to stop because they couldn't get any of their distributors to pay them." What's more, many of these same ma-and-pop distro firms have gone belly up while owing Chunklet money. Owings wouldn't give me a clear figure as to how much he was out, however, he confided that "it is enough to buy a really nice car." Chunklet is insulated a little from the effects of deadbeat debtors simply because the magazine goes to press so infrequently. Still, continuing to press forward takes a lot of balls. And Owings and company continue to press on a sometimes lone voice crying foul in the independent magazine community. Issue twenty promises to be an especially brutal tome with pages of content featuring interviews with Paul F. Tomkins, Zach Galifianakis and Subliminal Frequencies. There are also features involving Owings' obsession with the sport of Whirlyball (playing matches against touring bands as diverse as Arcade Fire, The Shins, and Mogwai) and the normal stabs at comedy, calling out assholes and keeping people honest. In short, content as thick as a diner milkshake free from any trace of soft-serve.
Finishing issue twenty would have been enough reason to pat Mr. Owings on the back, but it is only the tip of the multi-faceted iceberg. September also marked the release of the Rock Bible, a religious guidebook of sorts for the music world. Released through Quirk Books, and written with drummer Brian Teasley, this rock and roll Torah is a good example of the uncompromising nature of Owings's work. "I was offered a large sum of money for the book, but only if I made a bunch of changes," he says. The first publishing offer came with the requirements of a paperback release, a different title and the removal of all artwork. "I had a very specific idea of what I wanted the book to look like. It had to look like an actual bible. I wanted it to be leather-bound and to have illustrations." Quirk ended up as the publisher because their vision of the book matched exactly what Owings wanted right down to the page marking ribbon. The result is a volume of unholy scripture, sure to make even the most diehard metal-head laugh at his Dio-lovin' self. One more notch on Chunklet's bedpost of brilliance.
Another aspect of Owings' assault on the music world lies in his championing of quality music, and his attempts to make that music available to others. To get people to support his local scene, Owings started putting on local band showcases where audience members had to buy a local compilation from an Atlanta-area store in order to gain access to the show. He also inked a deal with French Kiss Records to release the latest Les Savy Fav record on vinyl (four different colors). He also worked with Athens, Georgia legends Harvey Milk to re-press much of their back catalog. And now, coinciding with the release of the new issue of Chunklet, Owings is putting out a split 7-inch record featuring Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and comedian Zach Galifianakis. It seems like the good news just keeps coming. And all of this adds up to prove one thing: when a man makes his living pushing his opinions on the world, he's a lot more successful when his judgment is sound.
For info on where to buy all things Chunklet, and to read one of the best musicrelated blogs on the net, go to chunklet.com