Slugging it out – SLUG Magazine speaks up for Utah’s underground

The Salt Lake Tribune - June 2005

By Rosemary Winters

June 26, 2005

A tall guy in black pants jumps off the stage and shrieks indecipherable lyrics into the microphone clenched in his fist. He staggers back and forth among a sparse, but rapt, crowd. The bar – filled with smoke and the swell of electric guitars – is an unlikely environment for a CEO.
    But Angela Brown blends in better here than in a boardroom. She wears black, cropped pants, ballet flats and her signature brooch: a yellow sunflower with a skull at the center. A thin, silver ring hangs from her nostrils. A fire-breathing dragon is tattooed on her arm.
    She’s 29, young by executive standards, but not when you consider her job. Brown owns, edits and publishes SLUG Magazine, Utah’s standard-bearer of underground music and culture (SLUG stands for Salt Lake Under Ground). She organizes dozens of SLUG events each year, including this one, the monthly SLUG Localized band showcase at Urban Lounge.
    The magazine is more than a job to Brown. She thrived on the magazine as a teen. It helped her find a community where she fit in.
   SLUG "was like this whole other world I had no idea existed of underground culture," Brown says. "That’s also why I’m so passionate about the magazine: I know from experience how it can affect young kids. [SLUG] played a part in who I turned out to be."
   
    The underground gets a voice: SLUG was started in 1989 by J.R. Ruppel, who once played pinball with Nirvana guitarist Kurt Cobain. Ruppel reportedly saw the magazine as a way to trade advertising with private clubs and pay off his bar tabs. He also was tired of watching good music come through town and not get any attention from the mainstream news media.
    Since then, SLUG has secured interviews with nationally known musicians and groups, such as Tom Waits, Slayer, Daniel Johnston, AFI, Guided by Voices, Fugazi, The Flaming Lips and Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys. And its pages have dished out liberal politics, scathing music reviews and profiles of local bands.
    Ruppel, who plays bass in Jerry Joseph & The Jackmormons, sold the magazine in 1994 to Gianni Ellefsen, music director at KRCL, who sold it to Brown in 2000.
    The mission has always been to build a strong local music scene and to rattle Utah’s conservative establishment, Ellefsen says.
    "Pissing people off is kind of the deal," he says. "Sometimes you’ve got to bloody someone’s nose to let them know they can bleed. Utah’s kind of a sheltered little bunny of a town, and there’s a monster out there who eats little bunnies."
    The magazine doesn’t censor its content or its language, and keeps up its street cred with readers by being just as mean to its supporters as its detractors.
    "They slam us and then we slam them. There’s a large amount of jest involved," Brown says. "Some people don’t get it. We’re not really saying we hate our readers – obviously."
   
   A misfit fits in: Brown was 14 when she started reading SLUG. She picked up the second or third issue and was hooked. A few years ago, she uncovered a virtual SLUG archive in her parents’ basement of copies she’d diligently saved as a teenager. She also discovered a "zine" she made as a Churchill Junior High student called CHUG, Church Hill Under Ground.
    At the time, she felt stifled by her conservative Mormon upbringing. The youngest of six kids, she more readily identified with the music of The Cure and Bad Religion than the Tabernacle Choir tunes her mom liked to play at home.
    As an eighth-grader, she walked into Hair Cuts Plus and queried stylists until she found one willing to shave the long, blond locks off one side of her head. In high school, she would tack safety pins and band patches all over a trench coat. She wore blood red, Dr. Martens steel-toed boots and Christian Death band T-shirt, the front of which showed Jesus shooting up heroin.
    She was not allowed to subscribe to Rolling Stone – her mom called it "Satan’s magazine," she says – but Brown would tuck SLUG inside her history textbook and read it during class.
    And although the link to Utah’s counterculture made life in the Beehive state more bearable, Brown was always plotting her escape to a bigger, more diverse metropolis.
   
   A SLUG to call her own: In college, Brown began writing for SLUG and Ellefsen made her assistant editor.
    "I taught her how to negotiate, which was the smartest thing I ever did but also the dumbest," Ellefsen says. "When I had to negotiate with her [to sell SLUG], she was eating me up."
    Brown was also working at Salt City CDs and as the Salt Lake City rep for Universal Music and Video Distribution. When she graduated from Salt Lake Community College, the record company offered her a job in San Francisco as an artist development representative. She finally had her ticket out of Salt Lake.
    But her father, who died last year, had been diagnosed with cancer, and Salt City CDs offered to make her a manager if she would stay. Plus, Ellefsen wanted to sell her SLUG.
    Brown applied for small-business loans and qualified for three-fourths of the amount she needed. Her parents were supportive and lent her the difference. At 24, Brown formed her own corporation, 18 Percent Gray, and purchased the magazine.
   
   Beauty, bands and buzz: Under Brown’s leadership, SLUG has established a regional presence; it’s distributed in small towns and cities throughout Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
    "We try markets similar to what Salt Lake was 30 years ago," Brown says. "Those are the kids who really appreciate SLUG."
    She’s increased the circulation from 15,000 to 25,000 and plans to add another 10,000 before she’s done. The look of the magazine has changed, too. Last year, she switched from newsprint to glossy and added color to every page. She also wants to expand the magazine by 16 pages to increase local music coverage.
   "SLUG is read by a lot of kids. If they see something highlighting local music, they pay more attention to it," says 21-year-old Mike Wright, bass player in His Red Letters, which has played a SLUG Localized concert. "It helps out bands a lot."
    In addition to the magazine’s two mainstay events, Sabbathon and an anniversary party, Brown added two local band concerts a month, SLUG Localized and Action Sports Night. She was criticized by some music purists when she introduced skateboarding and snowboarding to the magazine, which now gives a 20 percent focus to those "underground sports." SLUG began holding snowboarding and skateboarding competitions in 2000, at a time when there weren’t many amateur level contests, and the series have sold out the past three years.
    Brown believes skateboarders and snowboarders deserved more media attention, but she admits adding action sports was also a way to attract new advertising dollars. Digital downloading and the economic downturn following Sept. 11, 2001, have caused music industry dollars to dwindle, she says.
    But for all the controversy surrounding action sports, Brown created the most buzz with her SLUG Queen Contest, an event she started in 2001 and held for two more years.
   Contestants in the mock contest were judged on "alternative" beauty standards – "The whole idea of a beauty pageant is revolting and sexist," Brown says – and the top two contestants had to wrestle in a kiddie pool of applesauce to claim the title. It was SLUG’s most successful event – too successful, in fact.
    Bars that held the contest would sell out of alcohol and competing bars would call Brown to complain about their slow nights. Plus, losers in the contest were crying and fighting in the dressing room. One year, the winner’s prizes were stolen by the other girls.
    "Everything we were trying to make fun of, it somehow turned into that," Brown says. She cancelled the event after its third year.
   
   Less talk, more action: With all of Brown’s changes, the business is still far from lucrative. Her annual revenue is about $100,000 but most of that is eaten up by printing costs and other overhead. With the remainder, she pays herself and two part-time employees, an associate editor and an office coordinator. Her writers, designated in SLUG’s masthead as "monkeys with typewriters," are unpaid but get some perks, such as free concert tickets and CDs.
    Brown is dedicated more to promoting Salt Lake’s underground than making a fortune. Instead of griping about how lame it is to live in Utah, she’s become a hip ambassador for the state. While the governor’s office courts new business by touting Utah as a family-friendly place, Brown travels to big music festivals, including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, and tells people about the alternative music scene here, dispelling some stereotypes that Utah is boring.
   As for the future, Brown wants to sell SLUG in three years, move to New York and pursue photography, journalism or a career in the music industry.
   She also plans to use the proceeds from the sale for a down payment on a house in Salt Lake City.
    After all, she’s helped build it into a place she wants to be.
    "There’s this old punk rock saying: talk minus action equals zero," Brown says. "I finally took that to heart, and I realized if there’s something you really don’t like, you have the power to change that."