The Zen of Zines: Small-Scale Publications and Modern Branding

When artist Frank Ocean released his latest, long-awaited album Blond this weekend, it coincided with a flurry of output, including a 45-minute long album-as-video titled Endless, and a limited-edition publication: Boys Don’t Cry, the zine, which was accompanied by a different version of Ocean’s album than the one made available on streaming platform Apple Music.

The humble tome was given out for free at a series of global pop-ups, and includes a variety of content, most notably poetry from Ocean, his cohort Tyler, the Creator, and even a poem about McDonald’s by Kanye West, who recently opened an impressive string of 21 pop-up shops himself.

Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry, the zine is the latest in a steady trend of artists and brands utilizing small-scale publications to flesh out a more intimate, authentic narrative in an increasingly connected world. Kanye West teamed up with photographer Jackie Nickerson for an upscale zine that retailed for $80, and cult brand Supreme released a limited edition zine to inaugurate the opening of its Paris store a few months ago. palace-skateboards-magazine-1 Just recently, London’s Palace Skateboards debuted the first edition of its own magazine, which promised “hi-grade dumb captions, zeo stinky deodorant adverts, no skatepark sequences of 7-year-olds doing inverts, and will be collectible.” The publication quickly sold out upon its release. But it isn’t just cult labels and multi-hyphenate artists getting into the DIY-inspired content game. While plenty of retailers and brands have long been creating in-house publications, Nike recently made its foray into the small-run zine game with On Design, an impressive, beautiful book limited to just 500 copies featuring works by artist Maria Kalman, Milanese design studio Studiolabo, and graphic designer Andrew Blauvelt juxtaposed with original essays by Nike CEO Mark Parker and Nike’s Chief Sustainability Officer Hannah Jones.   Nike-Design-Bible-2016-01   The company describes its content as “an insider look into Nike’s design ethos” that “places the company in conversation with other industry leaders across various design disciplines.” By combining Nike’s own narrative with respected voices in a high-art context, Nike succeeds in elevating its own brand messaging while zeroing in on the niche, super-informed audience that truly appreciates a special project like this. A zine, most commonly defined as a self-published work with a circulation of less than 1,000, came into subcultural prominence mostly through the punk movement of the late 1970s, when photocopying became widely accessible and DIY culture saw the rise of seminal zines like CometbusFactsheet Five, and Profane Existence. Each cult zine had a very specific, niche perspective, and stood as a sharp contrast to mainstream media and newspapers in a time before the Internet. Their small scale made them collectible, and the low-quality paper they were printed on meant they weren’t necessarily published to last, contributing to their lo-fi appeal. Indeed, artists like Tom Sachs have oft revisited the medium, creating handsewn colour copied publications like Satan Ceramics and Barbie Slave Ship, and the ongoing ATM zine, a profane acronym that’s also a double-entendre for the fact that the entire zine is printed on the back of a cash machine receipt, and purchasers have to assemble each issue by hand. At recent exhibitions like Sachs’ “Boombox Retrospective” at The Brooklyn Museum, a scissors and stapler were on hand as well as instructions on how to assemble each issue. Past ATM editors include Mark Gonzales and Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston.

excerpt from ‘ATM MAG Issue #5’ c/o @heronpreston & i – cost $3.00 A photo posted by @virgilabloh on

Part of the reason the small-scale publication works as a branding tool is our increasingly visual culture. Platforms like Instagram and Tumblr have gotten consumers used to seeing seemingly disparate objects juxtaposed together, whether intentionally or not. The highly-visual zine traffics in the same sort of cognitive dissonance, while feeling far removed from the impersonal experience of scrolling through a feed. In this physical context, that sort of narrative becomes more arresting.

The small runs give these publications a collectible aspect as well, making them feel more premium in a world of accessibility. And as print publications continue to falter, the quality on these types of niche media can be elevated, no longer relegated to shoddy photocopies, and feeling more like modern day coffee table books—status symbols that signify someone’s values and tastes while alluding to a certain subcultural intellectualism.

As subversive ideas from the past are repurposed into marketing tactics that contribute to a sense of authenticity and cultural fluency, brands can tap into this micropublishing movement to create complementary, deeper narratives that reinforce their relationship to a specific set of consumers.

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