Cool Enough To Get Off The Couch


In the early days of a writer’s career, nothing beats the buzz of seeing your name in print. It gives you a sense of legitimacy, of having produced something tangible, of having — almost — made it. Every by-line or published credit becomes a milestone, and intractably weaves its place into the body of work that becomes your career.

Years ago, I volunteered as a subeditor at a culturally influential media group’s first magazine project. It was the stuff of every journalism student’s dreams: the opportunity to get a foot in the industry door while getting some practical on-the-job experience and expanding the all-important portfolio.

After putting in weeks of work at the magazine, the only time they actually used my name was in an email — when they glibly apologised for forgetting to credit me. There was a file mix-up, they said, and they were sorry, they loved my work anyway and thank-you-very-much!

It would be unreasonable to think mistakes don’t happen, and maybe naïve to have expected much better, but the whole experience left a really bad taste in my mouth. The more industry experience I got, and the more I spoke to peers in similar positions, the more it seemed that ambitious, hardworking and talented young people were getting the short end of the stick. And they were getting pretty sick of it.

The crux of the matter is that there are just too many capable young individuals who are running around picking up dry-cleaning or ordering coffees for the office under the guise of work experience, all because there just doesn’t seem to be enough industry experience to go around in the first place. They tell you to grow your portfolio first — but how on earth do you do that if no one will back you in the first place?

That’s not to suggest that there’s naught to be said for paying your dues: there’s probably nothing that could make you appreciate your hard-won success more than a long, hard slog to the top. But in an increasingly competitive industry, what happens to the little guys who are written off for just not having the chops?

They go off and just do it themselves, that’s what.

This is the ethos from which Happenstance magazine grew. A couple of friends and I had a running joke about how creating our own enterprise seemed to be the only way to get any practical experience. The joke picked up steam over the years and grew into a dream, and the dream eventually spilled over into reality.

It’s hard to separate dreams from business. When you’re running a project off just blood, sweat and tears, there’s a lot more invested than just the cash — if you’re even lucky enough to find an investor. Happenstance is completely independent from the ground up, so that means production, distribution, marketing, finances: you name it, we do it.

We started with a core collective of three people, and if we weren’t such good friends, we might have killed each other long ago. None of it would have been possible without the help and support of our friends, family, housemates and colleagues from whom we called in favour after favour in the early days.

For independent projects, there’s plenty of collateral legwork which is decidedly unglamorous; for example, we personally screen-printed 250 tote bags — by hand — for our launch party. Sounds alright, until you think about heat-setting each screen-print by ironing it for 10 minutes, but when I see a stranger on the street carrying a tote, I forget how taxing that process was.

Sending out the first issue of Happenstance was a sweet relief — and it was also nauseatingly terrifying. Oh sweet merciful crap, what have we done? Who the hell do we think we are?

Thankfully, we were overwhelmed with positive feedback, and we’ve grown into a much more ambitious collective with a wider circle of contributors and supporters. We saw a niche in the market for an honest, home-grown magazine willing to take a gamble on up-and-comers, and get work that deserves to be seen out there. And what we’ve been hearing most is that people haven’t seen anything like it before — "well, at least in Sydney, anyway".

Tall poppy syndrome is part of the mythology of Australian cultural identity, but in my experience, it goes even further in Sydney: there is an almost palpable sense of forced apathy, of people being too cool to give it a proper go. In the arts crowd, there’s conventionally been a cringing discomfort that comes from being compared (somewhat unfavourably) with Melbourne one too many times.

But it’s just too easy to complain that Sydney and other Australian cities don’t have as vibrant a focus on arts and culture as other international centres — and really not that constructive. What seems more productive is to realise that Sydney — or Australia as a whole — doesn’t need to be better. In fact, it doesn’t need to compete at all. Instead, we could celebrate and encourage what we do have, and from that point, cultivate a culture of continued improvement.

And thankfully that’s exactly the spirit that’s quickly been gaining popularity, with more and more independent start-ups sprouting all over the place. Locally, there’s a real return to cultural grassroots principles, but we’ve upped the ante: DIY doesn’t necessarily mean lo-fi anymore, and independent collectives are churning out professional quality work across the board in fashion, music, art and design.

For example, the ladies behind art and design initiative Finders Keepers were recently named in the Sydney Morning Herald’s 100 most influential people list. Online shopfront The Grand Social provides a mixed marketplace for smaller local fashion houses and allows global access to one-offs and samples. Meanwhile, independent publishing has picked up speed, with titles like Das Superpaper and Forth Thread providing exciting, quality writing for niche readerships.

Like almost every other recent change in cultural trends, the tech age probably has a lot to do with it. Online shopping has made distribution a breeze. Without the worries of a physical shopfront, products become more widely accessible and getting the goods out there is more realistic. The press-to-publish platform of the web and the pervasiveness of online social networking has made it very easy to publicise a new brand or upcoming event. The internet has made the old dream of starting your own business seem downright pragmatic.

Indeed, Happenstance has been marketed solely through the web. Our highest selling stockists are web-based, and all of our parties and exhibitions have only been publicised online. In fact, before we were based out of a studio, we organised and executed the production of the first issue and much of the second issue almost entirely over Skype and email. (Yes, it got tedious pretty quickly, but hey, we survived.)

It seems crazy, then, to start a print magazine in this kind of environment: why try to sell a product that can be viewed for free on the web? It’s because we truly believe that there’s something worthwhile about picking up a magazine and reading it, or tearing pages out to stick on your wall, or passing it along to a friend. It’s a tangible experience that cannot be replicated and one that people will always savour.

And of course, there’s also the buzz of seeing your work in print for the first time: the excitement, the pride, the marking of a milestone, the beginnings of a career. We want others to experience that too.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.