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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

A Magazine Treasure Trove

We should all support James Hyman’s amazing project to rescue the most ephemeral magazines from oblivion.

Earlier in his career, James Hyman used to put words into the mouths of veejays on MTV. This was back in the day when that needed doing, before the internet, back when you couldn’t simply open Twitter or BuzzFeed and take dictation. All those funny quotes and “did you know?” factoids about Prince or the Spice Girls which came tripping off the tongue of Davina McCall back in the day didn’t just write themselves, you know. People like James had to come up with them. “I used to get it all from magazines,” he remembers.

As a consequence, James accumulated an awful lot of those magazines, so many that his collection could almost be said to qualify as a sickness. So many in fact that in 2012, The Guinness Book Of Records officially declared James to be the owner of the largest magazine collection in the world. They estimated the quantity as 50,953 and counting. That’s a veritable mountain of publications covering pop, pop culture, fashion and related subjects, a mountain which is added to every time somebody rings him up and tells him they would rather their complete collection of copies of Blitz or Honey go to him than into a council skip and further expanded every time James’s wife is looking the other way and he goes hunting on eBay to see who’s preparing to part with their fast-decomposing archive of Melody Maker or Event.

He used to keep them in a lock-up in Southend. Then somebody gave him some space in Islington. That space is probably an entire postal code because the van drivers had to move fifteen thousand kilos of magazines between the two places. And now what began as a hobby and grew into an obsession is blossoming into a project and it’s a project which is bound to interest many of the people reading this column. This is because it involves digitising all these magazines with a view to making them available to those of us who have a head full of B-sides, small ads and vintage trainers where other people store the dates of their wedding anniversaries or the names of their children, and also to those people whose professional callings, in the worlds of advertising, film, product design and elsewhere deep in the uncharted forest of consumer desire, mean that they’re always on the lookout for one particular image of one particular shirt worn by one particular model in one long-lost issue of Vogue from the 70s.

How big this market is I cannot say but it certainly includes me and many people I know. Whether the project will eventually make James as wealthy as the current owners of the Kobal Collection, which also started as a hobby and turned into an indispensible resource, is impossible to say. For the moment the important thing is that it happens.

James and his partners have not been idle. They’ve spent the last year simultaneously proving the concept and talking to the stakeholders. The former involves tagging the material so that a database search produces something relevant rather than something with a similar-sounding name and investigating a way that spreads can be efficiently scanned without taking the magazines to bits. (James can’t bear to do that.) At the same time, with the help of the PPA, who are very keen to see this project come to fruition, he’s been talking to the rights holders, the publishers, the NUJ, the photo agencies and anybody else he thinks may have a view. “They’ve all been very positive and very helpful,” he says.

The rights issue

Of course, for years, the overwhelming majority of magazines were happily published with only the haziest notion of who had the rights to the individual items of material that made up their editorial and also the advertising. Much of that material was supplied free of charge for its promotional benefit. The actual ownership of the material may have changed since its publication. Publications fade away, change their names, are hatched, matched and inevitably despatched until nobody really knows who could claim the rights. Companies sometimes disown titles that they could reasonably have a claim to because they don’t want the aggravation. It’s only when another gold rush appears to be in the offing, as happened back in the last century when first the CD-ROM and then the internet appeared to be about to unlock some massive seam of value that everybody starts thinking about what’s in the archives and whether they should do something about it. They come up with a plan, the plan looks appealing and then the minute the potentially ugly question of rights raises its head, they tend to lose their enthusiasm and move on to other things. Having seen at close hand just how hysterical people can get in defence of “rights” that are theoretically nebulous and economically negligible, I don’t blame them.

If previous experience is anything to go by, there will be a wailing and a gnashing of teeth in Freelance Nation when word of James Hyman’s project gets out. Out in Freelance Nation, where I am a citizen in good standing, people are prone to thinking that their material should command a premium. No, it shouldn’t. They also think that big publishers sit there hatching plans to make fortunes out of secondary uses of material they have only bought first rights for. Not any more they don’t.

In fact, the big publishers are very happy to see bodies like the Copyright Licensing Agency getting involved with the Hyman project, knowing that any payments which are due will be handled centrally, much like the payments due to authors on the basis of how many times their books are borrowed from the libraries. Personally I don’t think they’ll amount to much. When you’re dealing with this much accumulated material, nobody’s slice of the pie is going to be that much bigger than anyone else’s. Hyman says he would like this to be a Spotify for magazines but in this particular universe, there’s no Beatles or Lady Gaga.

If tomorrow I could have the rights to everything I published over the last forty years it wouldn’t be worth anything. It doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to see it all in one place. The tiny sums of money that I might or might not make out of somebody in an American university happening to read a photo caption I penned for The Face in 1982 are as nothing compared to the satisfaction I would get out of seeing my contribution to that magazine preserved for posterity in a facsimile of its original context and the use I might manage to get out of being able to access all these riches. If James Hyman wants to use any of the work I’ve done over the last forty years, he’s more than welcome, particularly if his project is the only thing standing between this work and the ash heap of history. I would happily relinquish the entirely theoretical pennies I might be entitled to for just being able to look at it.

Talking of which, I was recently shown round the archive in the basement of the building occupied by Time Inc UK. Here steel shelves groan under the weight of bound volumes of Horse & Hound, TV Times, Woman, Melody Maker and many others. Ideas for what to do with this staggering treasury of material arise from time to time but tend to be put on the back burner as soon as the question of rights comes up. Many of these titles were produced on newsprint which means that no matter how carefully they are looked after, they inevitably decay. The publishers of these and other magazines are entitled to take whatever steps are needed to rescue them from oblivion. We should be encouraging them, not standing in their way.

Ads for Ads’ Sake

The latest report from the Tow Centre For Digital Journalism indicates that almost 50% of people are using an ad blocker when accessing newspaper websites. The other 50% will presumably do the same as soon as they realise they can. And the same report makes it clear that people don’t like the idea of the commercial messages they blocked returning in the guise of native advertising. All of which rather makes you wish there was a product where the advertising was a key part of the appeal of the offering, where the presence of ads added lustre to the editorial, their quantity increased the bulk, improving the value for money and flipping idly past them was a key element of the whole seductive experience. Wait a minute…