Ska, as a whole, doesn’t get a big share of mainstream press coverage. Sure, magazines like Spin and Alternative Press will do the occasional cursory coverage, but more often than not they’ll limit themselves to whoever the record sellers of the moment happen to be, often lumping in bands like Sublime, No Doubt, Rancid, and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who just barely fit the genre. Coverage of the real artists driving the movement is generally limited to alternative media sources, such as Ink Nineteen, and the ‘zine community. One publication is striving to change all that, though. Ska-tastrophe, published out of Winter Park, Florida, is a young magazine devoted solely to ska music, and is starting to make its presence felt on the newsstands of America.
Ska-tastrophe, according to editor/publisher/founder Jamie Bogner, started in October 1995 as an outgrowth of his work as a DJ. “I started DJing in high school,” Jamie says. “I first came into contact with ska as a DJ, but I really hadn’t gone off the deep end in terms of focusing on it. When I got to college, I got a radio show at a community radio station. When I pitched the idea for a show to them, I had several different kinds of music that I wanted to play in the show. One of those was ska, among other things like indie rock, and punk, and hardcore. They really liked the ska aspect of the whole show. With the community format, they did a lot of different varied kinds of music, not really college-oriented, but blues, soul, rockabilly, and various other shows like that. They liked the idea of doing a ska show, so they talked me into doing one hour of ska, and one hour of everything else that I was doing. That’s how I got into focusing on ska, through having to do that radio show. Initially, I had to research and figure out what was going on with ska, back in 1993. So, I did that radio show for about a year and a half. Then I came back for my senior year of college and they had decided to replace me with another DJ doing a girl-punk hour. They didn’t like me leaving over the summer, so I lost my radio slot. Not having my radio slot to get my normal ska fix, I decided to go into publishing. My junior year of college, I was editor of the school newspaper, so I had a publishing background. I knew a way that I could put out a ska publication that would look good, and that was on a more critical level, which was where I was at. Reading your average ska publication(s), I wasn’t really getting anything out of [them] that I wanted to. I had the resources with the printer, I knew how I could get the stuff printed pretty cheap, and print a lot of them, and write on a level that people weren’t really used to. So a friend of mine and I put it together in October of 1995, and got it out in December.”
One thing that set Ska-tastrophe apart from the start was its large print run. “We did about 1,500, 2,000 copies of the first issue in a tabloid newsprint format,” says Jamie, “and that’s what really started everything off, the fact that we did so many of our first issue, and it was something that, back in 1995, nobody else was doing.”
The tabloid format stuck around for the first four quarterly issues, but recently, Ska-tastrophe has switched to standard magazine dimensions, with a full-color glossy cover. Jamie reveals, “the magazine format is where we’re staying. The tabloid format was great because it was cheap, that’s why we started out doing it. If I wanted to make any money off it, or at least lose as little as possible, the only way I could do that was to put it out in a tabloid format. After a while, it got to the point that if I wanted to take it to the next level, and get paid newsstand distribution in book stores and record stores and that kind of thing, and actually sell individual copies to people, I had to go down to a magazine format with it. It’s not really convenient to put a tabloid on a magazine shelf. People pick it up and look at it, and they can invariably never put it back in the condition it was in before. That kind of thing is not going to survive on a newsstand. In order to make it flashy, to make it stand out, we have to put a color cover on it. The public is fickle, but the magazine distributors and buyers are even more fickle. They know what sells, and they really don’t pick stuff up if it doesn’t have a color cover on it. So we had to make the adjustments towards that format, which I like. It’s easier to lay out, and I think, easier to read.”
In addition to Ska-tastrophe, Jamie does freelance graphic design. This has led to what some may consider to be conflicts of interest, since he occasionally does work for some of the bands the magazine features. For example, Jamie recently did the package design for the new Animal Chin release All the Kids Agree, and even ended up doing some backing vocals on the disc. Coincidentally, Ska-tastrophe number 5 features a piece on Animal Chin written by Jamie. “The funny thing is, I didn’t decide to do that feature on Animal Chin until I was up there,” Jamie reveals. “I was visiting some friends on my road trip through the Midwest. I stopped in Chicago and hung out with the guys from Greenhouse, and did a little socializing, and then drove up to Minneapolis to see the guys at Kingpin Records [Animal Chin’s label]. I was a little skeptical of the whole Animal Chin thing, but I heard the tracks and was really impressed with them, I thought they were really good. So, I decided to do an interview with them, because I was really impressed with what I heard, and while I was down there, it just so happened that they needed some “gang” vocals as a backing track for one of their songs. I figured, while I was there, I might as well throw down some background tracks with them. It was just kind of a fun thing. I was there to do an interview, and it was just convenient that I also got to help them out. On top of that, though, I really do try to maintain some critical distance, whenever possible. I don’t write reviews of things I’ve worked on, I try not to write reviews on things where people have thanked me in the liner notes. There have been a couple of cases where I’ve made exceptions to that, but on the whole, I try to stay a bit withdrawn from the stuff that I choose to review. At the same time, that’s really not possible completely, in a unilateral way, because ska is still such a small thing. The main people involved, the bands, artists, and labels, are all kind of involved in keeping it together, and there’s a lot of overlap, and there’s no way, as in larger journalistic circles, to remain completely unbiased. On top of that, it’s just not fun!”
Of course, a big part of any journalistic bias is going to be shown in what the publication chooses to cover in the first place. Jamie agrees, saying “we try to be honest about the fact that we cover what we like, and that the vision of ska that we portray is one that’s based in what the writers of Ska-tastrophe personally like to listen to, and what we consider to be good ska music. I try to be flexible with that, and let the people who are writing for me have reign in who they interview and such, because that way we get a broader picture. On the whole, there is no way to go in and say ‘we objectively cover ska.’ At some point, someone has to make a value judgement and say ‘no, this is what’s good, and this is what’s not good.’ We try to do this in an honest way, but at times, our bias does get shown. We try to be blatantly obvious about that, we don’t try to cover it up by claiming to be some objective, outside source for information. We try to be honest and up front about the fact that these are our opinions, and you’re welcome to disagree with them.”
Publishing the magazine has been very rewarding in several respects for Jamie, but he says the best thing about it is “being able to do something that people haven’t done before, and then watching, with pride, people’s faces when they actually see it. The best thing is hearing, ‘wow! I didn’t expect this! We never knew ska could produce this kind of thing.'” Jamie adds, “there are a lot of bands that, while they love to play ska, have never really thought of ska in that way, as something that merited something like this. I enjoy being able to help give ska that kind of credibility. I think it’s a wonderful musical form, and it definitely deserves a high-quality publication. It’s a credibility issue, to show that it’s not just a bunch of sixteen-year-old kids that are involved in this, it’s not just a youth phenomenon. It is a valid musical form, there are plenty of sophisticated and creative artists working within the genre, and I enjoy being able to cover them and show them for what they are.”
One of the most intriguing things about the magazine has been its ability to generate controversy within the ska community. Jamie laughs, “just about everything we write leads to controversy in some way or other. I really don’t think there’s been anything yet that we’ve published that people haven’t commented on in some respect or other.” In particular, Jamie brings up some of the more interesting ska stories of the last two years. “In issue two,” he begins, “I did an interview with the Dance Hall Crashers, and at the time they were embroiled in a big debate with Moon Records, and of course, they made comments on that situation in the interview, with which the Moon Records representatives were not pleased. I heard from them in a letter, and printed their letter as a reply in issue three, and of course gave them equal space to express their concerns. Also, in issue three, we did an interview with the Siren Six! from Minneapolis, in which they came out with harsh comments about a couple of things. They had some harsh comments about the Pietas… well, towards an East Coast ska band with a particularly sexist stage show, which everyone assumed to be the Pietasters. I can’t put words into their mouths, they were actually talking about a couple of different bands, but I think it was probably the Pietasters who were first on their minds. That generated some controversy. My position was, if the shoe fits, wear it. If you assume that the band was you, and you get offended by that, then think about why you’re getting offended. If you assume that that criticism means you, if they’re criticizing your band as a sexist East Coast band, then think about why people would make that criticism and what you’re doing wrong. In issue four, Marcus Geard of the Slackers made a mess of comments which were directed as a reply to that. I heard from Steve Jackson of the Pietasters, and thought that the situation was taken care of. [The Siren Six!] also made some comments about ska labels in that interview, that certain people were just out to make money by releasing records and not promoting them, just letting them sit there and sell 5000 copies to the ska kids and nothing more. I think every ska label assumed [the Siren Six!] were talking about them.” Jamie refused to name the label the Siren Six! were talking about, but did say “it wasn’t the larger label that people assumed they were being talked about.”
Ska-tastrophe has served as something of a role model for a legion of ska ‘zines that have popped up in its wake. Jamie says he has “tons of advice” for aspiring publishers. “My biggest piece of advice,” he says, “is read, and read a lot. If you want to put out a magazine, then go read magazines. I spend probably $30 or $40 a week at newsstands buying other magazines. I’m trying to see what other people are doing, how other people do it, and how I can use it to feed off those ideas to come up with something that’s right for me. That’s the biggest thing for me, trying to immerse myself, and figure out what works, and what doesn’t work, and what I like. That’s the advice that I’d give to them, go ahead and read everything you can.” Jamie cites a few magazines that have been an influence. “One of my favorite (magazines) to read is No Depression, which is an alternative country bimonthly,” he says. “One of our goals is to be the No Depression of ska. Others I like to read are Grand Royal, Details, DJ, Mixmag, Alternative Press, Spin, Punk Planet, tons of music magazines, and then design magazines like Émigré, How Magazine… I try to pull these visual ideas from lots of different sources.” As to other advice, Jamie adds, “look for the advice of people who have been there and done it already. Check out all the resources you possibly can, and learn about what you’re doing before you do it.”
Because of Ska-tastrophe‘s unique position in the ska community, they’ve been able to get access to just about anyone they’d like. Still, Jamie has a few artists that he hasn’t been able to make a connection with on his wish list. “The first one is Gaz Mayall of the Trojans,” he reveals. “I love Gaz, I love the Trojans’ music. They’re really a fascinating group. He’s a really colorful person. Dr. Ring-Ding, out of Germany, is another one I’d like to cover. I talked to him last week, and he’s coming to Orlando on vacation in November, so maybe I’ll actually get a chance to interview him, and make sure that’s not just a dream any more. There’s some Japanese bands that I’d really like to cover more, the Determinations, the Ska Flames, the Blue Beat Players. The one big thing that I don’t think has been covered well in Ska-tastrophe is foreign bands. In America, we’re very bad about viewing ourselves as the center of everything. There’s a large amount of ska going on outside the United States, whether it’s Australia, Japan, South America, or Europe, that doesn’t really enter into the American ska fan’s consciousness. Take, for example, Desorden Publico, in Columbia, who are huge. Los Fabuloso Cadillacs are the same way. Giant, giant phenomena in their respective countries. For all their fame and fortune in their home country, they haven’t been able to break in America. America has a larger scene, but it’s more spread out.”
No matter who Ska-tastrophe is covering, the magazine’s future looks bright. The next issue will once again double the print run, to an all-time high of 10,000 copies. The magazine will also be coming out more often, stepping up from quarterly to bimonthly status, and distribution is getting better every day. For his part, Jamie says “I love it, and I want to keep pushing it and see how far I can take it. I can’t tell you how many people are jealous of me. People ask me what I do, and I tell them ‘I publish my own magazine’ and they want to kill me! The paycheck isn’t great, and you never know if it’s actually going to come or not, but it’s one of those things where I’ll sacrifice for the freedom. I have complete integrity in what I do, I don’t have to jeopardize my moral standing for anybody else, and I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. It’s a great situation.”
If you can’t find Ska-tastrophe at your local newsstand or record shop, it’s available by subscription for $18 a year at Ska-tastrophe, PO Box 2102, Winter Park, FL 32790-2102.