GUEST INFORMANTS: Is Magazine Publishing Really Screwed?

March 16th, 2012 | guest informant

So, every now and then, I ask my friends and acquaintances, all of whom are eight times smarter than me, a very obvious, general, linkbaity kind of question, so that I can get a broad spectrum of their thinking.  A couple of weeks ago, I asked a few people this:

Is magazine publishing really screwed?

If you follow @themediaisdying, you might think so, as it’s really just a rolling obituary of print magazines.  And yet Cosmopolitan claims a hundred thousand paid digital subscriptions.  And people are talking about a resurgence of niche magazine publishing.  Is the latter just the dead cat bounce of print magazines?  Is the former statement just PR bullshit?  How does this shake out?

And this is what they said.

MARK MILLAR is a writer, producer, and the editor of CLiNT magazine:

I think every industry has a death fetish. It’s the same reason we watch hospital dramas and cop shows. We’re fascinated by the concept of our own extinction and so we flirt with it, writing and hypothesising it into existence even when it usually fails to show up. It’s happening in papers and magazines right now and e saw it happening in comics twenty years ago. When I first started kicking around on the fringes of the 90s scene, everybody was convinced that video-games were replacing us. They saw an industry downturn and randomly selected a thriving, though quite distinct business as our evolutionary replacement and had something close to a cardiac arrest. I never really bought this theory. It made no more sense than Reebok replacing cheese, cheese sales going down in 1994 when Reebok profits were going through the roof. Decline was happening because of low quality books and over saturation of the market. You have to step back and look at the overall picture before anyone does a Chicken Little.

Twenty years ago you could sell every major magazine in Britain on a single news-stand. Now you couldn’t have them all into even the biggest WH Smith’s. There’s over-saturation and too many imitators of books we didn’t especially need in the first place. In the short-term, a cull looks like extinction, but step back and look at the broader picture and you see it’s just the necessary boom and bust of a luxury high-price product in the worst economic depression we’ve had since Hitler was tipped as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Is publishing evolving? Absolutely. I read everything I can get my hands on and half of what I read is on my iPad. But until they invent an iPad that can be safely perused in the bath without fear of a high voltage finale I’ll still be leaving through Empire, the Spectator, New Scientist and, of course, Clint in the dead-tree format we know and love. I think circulations will be smaller and more specialised in the future, just as High Street giants are tumbling to make way for the return of the lean, mean indie stores. But as a consumer that’s no bad thing. I like my niche being catered for.

VERONICA SO is the editor and publisher of L_A_N magazine:

I’ve been peer pressured into preparations of a digital release of the upcoming L_A_N 3 but in the end all I really want is the smell and touch of my content printed on paper. I’ve been made to feel like an idiot before for having to  deal with all the print preparation and fundraising, shipping, storage and other expenses involved, but I get mixed signals. People who are introduced to L_A_N melt with pleasure when they encounter the physical edition. ‘It’s huge," "it feels great" all sorts of orgasmic comment I’d never get from sending them a pdf. This tells me something but i haven’t figured out if it means I’m a zine dinosaur or even worse a nostalgic sap. For an editor of a magazine that’s supposed to write coverage for futurists, celebrate technology and cutting edge design, it makes me a little bit worried, but only like 0.3% worried. Also, I hear a rumor that Google has posters up in its offices that say ‘All My Shit’s Online." FUCK THAT!

WILL WILES is the deputy editor of ICON magazine and the author of the excellent CARE OF WOODEN FLOORS:

This is obviously a question I spend a lot of time thinking about and I have a lot of detailed opinions about it, which I’ll try to put as snappily as possible.

First, as William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” – this is all pure conjecture and handwaving seasoned equally with wishful thinking and fear in equal measure. What follows is all “I think”, “I suspect”, “in my opinion” etc.

Many magazines continue to make money – others make losses that entirely acceptable to their owners because either they’re on a non-profit/charitable footing or because there are other, indirect benefits to owning that magazine. So a lot of magazines are fairly secure for the time being.
Somewhat more troubling is the decline of distribution outlets – IE shops that sell magazines. But that can be compensated for by the marketing potential of the internet.

On to your actual question – is magazine publishing screwed? – I think yes, the business model itself is increasingly subject to an existential threat. That business model is the advertising-driven print magazine, and the number of those is going to drop. But there will continue to be magazines, there will continue to be print magazines, there will continue to be money to be made in magazines and there will still be jobs to be found in magazines. What we don’t know is how many/how much of any of those things.

First, there will be those magazines that endure in the “traditional” magazine form – these will mostly be prestige items, they will be individually pricey (£5 and up), and will exist because they are luxury objects that look good on coffee tables. So that’s fashion magazines like Vogue and design/lifestyle titles like Monocle. There will also be print news/analysis titles that will endure on sheer quality of content – The New Yorker, Private Eye. There will be print titles that endure because they operate on a philanthropic basis – Cabinet, Harpers.

There will also be boutique, superniche & one-off magazines and zines made by people using services like Magcloud just for the sheer pleasure of making something, an object, with no thought of profit. Some of these will make money almost despite themselves. Like Strange Light.

But the “mainstream” of magazine publishing will move online, mostly to tablet devices, e-readers and smartphones. Indeed the future definition of “magazine” might be a periodical formatted to those devices – as opposed to desktop computer & laptops, rather than as opposed to print. This is because I think revenue will have to come increasingly from subs rather than ads – when people buy a print magazine they expect to see ads in it, but people are I think less happy about seeing ads on their ipads, kindles whatever. And when the mainstream of magazine discourse is digital, titles might move digital-only simply because that’s where the action is, not because they have to for commercial reasons but just because that’s where the action is, that’s where the agora is.

(Relevant to this: As recently as three or four years ago, people I spoke to as a magazine journalist wanted to be in the print edition above all and were a bit let down if they found their story or contribution was online only. Now people are miffed if they’re not online. The prestige is shifting.)

Another emerging field is standalone works of (generally longform but also data) journalism being sold individually, outside the “magazine” frame – the Byliner.com or Kindle Single business model. This is a wonderful development, a potential boom in quality and quantity waiting to happen, but one that challenges magazines as a concept. Is this magazine publishing? No, not really, but it’s publishing for journalism that until now has mostly appeared in magazines, and it has prosperity ahead. (Where it falls down is artfully combining words with photos/illustrations, one strength that mags in whatever form will a lock on for the time being. And a prominent reason why people buy mags in the first place.)

And the barriers to entry are lower. There will be Amanda Hockings in Nu Publishing and longform journalism. Which is exciting.

The biggest real danger is the emergence of monopolies – Apple and Amazon will hopefully soon realise that monopoly doesn’t serve them well in the long term.

So the magazine publishing business is going to be transformed, maybe beyond all recognition, and household names will continue to go to the wall, but afterwards there will still be magazines, there will still be publishing, there will still be livelihoods to be earned and there will still be quality journalism. A few years ago I felt really pessimistic about magazines – now I feel quite optimistic, even excited, and keen to try some of these new tools.

(I think. I suspect. In my opinion.)

ABRAHAM RIESMAN is a journalist and web strategist.

The Importance of Sweatshop Employees (Like Me)

I’m probably not the most qualified dude to talk about the magazine industry’s cost curves and price points and economies of scale and whatnot. However, I can give a grunt writer’s perspective and say the following: there’s always a place for magazines in a struggling writer’s heart.

That may sound simply romantic, but it’s not. Writing a cover feature for a magazine remains one of the — if not the — brass rings for a freelancer or young staff writer. Like, for real.

The blue-chip publications are, of course, ideal — your New Yorkers and New York Times Magazines and Wireds. And I don’t suppose anyone has little fantasies about writing for the official Amtrak magazine (although, y’know what, I really shouldn’t say such things in this economy). But even a spot in a smaller-market title is an insane boon to one’s career/prestige/wallet, when one is starting out.

I dream of the day that I can write a cover story — or even just an internal feature. I want to go glossy. I’d literally do it for zero money, because it brings with it a hope that dollar-signs will be in my corneas in the not-so-distant future.

And I’m not alone. Journalism is an increasingly slave-labor-like process, but kids keep coming up hungry for it. I’m not saying that population can save magazines, but we’re an important factor to remember in these discussions. As anyone at Foxconn can tell you, a cheap, desperate labor force is helpful for any industry.

NEIL CLARKE is the publisher of CLARKESWORLD magazine:

Using body count to determine the future is a sensationalist approach to analyzing the field. In the last decade, I’ve seen the same tactics employed in discussions about online publishing. The overwhelming majority of the online genre magazines that existed when I launched Clarkesworld (five years ago) are gone, but today, online/digital magazines are stronger and more respected than ever. In a sense, those early days were the Wild West. It was a new frontier with no one right way to succeed. It was evolution in action and the better approaches survived.

Courtesy of market pressures (increasing printing and postal costs, migration of advertising to the web, a broken distribution system, the convenience of digital publishing, etc.), traditional publications are being forced into a situation where they must adapt or wither. This isn’t an industry that is culturally disposed to change. To survive, they must embrace the web, social networking, digital editions and all the associated expectations that come with them. Many are struggling. Many more will fail.

Do I think magazine publishing is screwed? No. It’s evolving and that keeps things very interesting.

JEAN SNOW is the executive director of PechaKucha and the editor of THE MAGAZINER:

Is magazine publishing really screwed? This really depends on how you frame it, or what aspect of publishing you examine. Is print dead? No, it’s certainly not, but it’s in a state of flux. Anything that is disposable — think newsweeklies — becomes more and more unnecessary, faced with the speed and distribution of digital. But the explosion in indie titles shows that there still is a place for print. Think more in terms of a magazine issue as an "object," it needs to be something you want to experience in that way, whether it’s because of an odd shape/format, the paper stock, etc. You’re seeing the same thing with books — a lot of people are getting used to reading text-focused books in electronic form, but you’re not yet seeing this transition happen (in any big way) with art and design books. You know, the kind of books that you want to enjoy on a visual level, and that you want to show to others.

On the digital side of things, there’s never been a more exciting time to be a fan of magazines. Sure, there are certain platforms (like the Adobe digital publishing tools) that have taken off, but there’s no set layout or format that rules the magosphere, it’s still the Wild West. And you also have a growing set of easy-to-use (and cheap) tools that are popping up to give any budding creator the ability to create something that can look just as good as anything put out by the Big Boys.

Are magazines screwed? Fuck no. It’s a virtual no man’s land right now, and it sure is exciting to have front row seats on the whole thing.

###

Thanks to all.


GUEST INFORMANT: Leah Moore

March 14th, 2012 | guest informant

 

 

Yeah, it is a really creepy song, isn’t it?  Sorry, the title just seemed to fit, to be honest.

 

Normally I steer a wide path away from the personal blog, just because I am likely to bore you all to tears about my son’s milk allergy, or needlecraft techniques (I shit ye not), but today I will make a special exception for dear old Warren Ellis, who has pickled his remaining skull-tripes in cheap bourbon, and thus has asked me to guest blog.

Everyone knows fangirls rule the world, they pay for most of it. Drifts of Twilight cushions and Harry Potter scarves, Legolas action figures, obscure game character cosplay outfits, nyancat lunchboxes and kitten mittens. The world is literally awash with Things Girls Like. We are surely never further than 2m from a Hello Kitty.

So what is it about comics that’s different? What makes comics suddenly this great thrusting phallus of masculinity?

Girls read comics, not just Manga either. Girls read superhero comics, indie comics, autobiographical comics, historical comics, literary comics, horror comics, romance comics and even just plain terrible comics. Girls are comic fans. They want comics aimed at them, or aimed not at them, or just comics that are good. They want all the same things male comic fans want. They want to be sold to, they want to buy the cold cast porcelain model of Rogue looking badass and put it on their shelf. They want Wonder Woman underwear sets and Wolverine stationery for the new term. Women are just as whimsical, gullible, romantic and fanciful as men. They are capable of grasping the finer points of all the weird freaky made up stuff that we all commonly know to be “ACCEPTED CONTINUITY.”  They will talk about costume changes and characterisation.

I know this because I have been around comics and comics fans for my whole life and I am also a woman. I have done nothing but sit at (largely empty) signing tables for ten years, watching all of the comic loving world go past, and at least half of those convention-going money-spending awesome-t-shirt-wearing people were women, if not more!

Times are hard all over, and nobody likes to point this out more than your average comics professional. We all know that work for hire is the best we can get. Creator Owned a delicious dream we might dare have if maybe a spouse won the lottery. We see characters rebooted at lightning speed, properties revamped, relaunched and resold-with-added-sketchbook-section. Comics is eating its own tail to try and survive the economic storm. We are all broke and wondering how to save our ailing industry, rescue our beloved characters and pay off our huge millstone-like mortgages which seemed such a safe bet at the time.

Is it just me that sees a possible idea forming between the last two paragraphs? The fan-girls, hell bent on spending millions on anything related to their chosen fascination. The ailing industry full of sad fan-boys, empty cash registers, and stories about big strong men staring at large breasted women through their ridiculous costume cut outs. No? Nothing?

Okay, well, let’s say, instead of jumping in and writing comics designed to attract women readers (Minx comics discovered this is harder than it looks), how’s about writing comics which don’t actually put women off? How’s about a bit less objectifying, a bit less sexualisation, a bit less pervy gusset shots and tit windows? Just a bit? Make some of the regular mainstream big name books everyone enjoys reading a bit less eyewatering and weird about women. That would be a great start.

If comics is to survive the financial turmoil we are all suffering under, it doesn’t matter if it’s paper comics or digital, trade paperbacks or floppies, it’s about “ARE THE COMICS ANY FUCKING GOOD?” and “ARE WE SELLING THEM TO AS BROAD A MARKET AS POSSIBLE OR ONLY 50% OF IT?” If we continue to try and sell crappy comics to half the population based purely on what they keep in their underpants and nothing else then we are totally doomed.

What is required is an all hands to the pumps mentality. Action stations! Let’s find some new blood, let’s find some new ideas, new characters, and most importantly new readers kind of plan.

I honestly think that anyone who doesn’t see women as a rich untapped potential source of ideas, or labour, or cold hard revenue must be delusional. Why should comics sit in a sweaty locker room of ignominy when novels and films and games skip about hand in hand with wealthy teenage girls? Doesn’t that make comics feel a bit sad?

Even if all of this is not true, and that no amount of sprucing up our beloved industry can save it from oblivion, I know I’d rather have had a go at it first. Let’s see if we can sort out more women in comics, or make the ones there are more visible and so induce more girls to get into it. Let’s look at the content we are putting out, and see if we can do it better. Let’s stop using the past as our only reference point and look forwards. Let’s make whizzy super future electric digital comics, and deluxe overpriced editions, and dinky little collectible books and comics on all kinds of subjects, and educational comics, and controversial comics. We already know how, we are already doing these things, but let’s try and do it better, and be less misogynist and prickish about it.

Right. Off to practice my French knots.

Leah Moore
Liverpool
March 2012

Leah Moore is the co-author, with husband John Reppion, of many excellent graphic novels, including RAISE THE DEAD, THE COMPLETE DRACULA and THE COMPLETE ALICE IN WONDERLAND (from which the above image was taken), and also the groundbreaking online comic THE THRILL ELECTRIC.  You can learn more at their website.  You can find Leah on Twitter @leahmoore.  Thanks for this, Leah.


GUEST INFORMANT: Chip Zdarsky’s WATCHMEN 2

January 24th, 2012 | guest informant

Comics creator Chip Zdarsky — dimly related by birth to Canada’s National Post cartoonist and thwarted Toronto mayoral candidate Steve Murray — is currently writing his autobiography, and has very kindly shared a chapter of said tome with me.  Herein, he relates the story of the time he was offered the job of creating the WATCHMEN comics sequel.

You may not want other people around while you’re reading this.

(more…)


GUEST INFORMANT: Ian Hodgson’s Six Records Of 2011

January 12th, 2012 | guest informant

As I did last year, I asked Ian Hodgson of the mighty Moon Wiring Club to write about his favourite “Most-played and/or Puzzling Records” of the year.  Here’s his top 6 for 2011:

01 Araabmuzik ~ Electronic Dream

This is an arcade-game hot-house of a record. Brash, hard, colourful, wrong in many ways but exhilarating and joyful. To start off predictably, Electronic Dream takes you… on a journey. So you wearily pack a Thermos and slouch. But wait! After skilfully plotting through a familiar terrain of neck-snapping MPC beats, you find yourself veering off course into the quagmire of Trance at break-beat speed. ‘Follow me’ say the ghosts of Jam & Spoon ~ you’re mere moments away from plummeting down the ravine of Cheese, happily shrugging. Puzzlingly, at the last moment, you’re expertly kept on course. Quite often favourite musical moments are made when predictability is taken away, and while it now seems inevitable that Electronic Dream had to exist, the mixture of Euphoric Trance and MPC beats created an excitement missing from the perimeters of safe genres. By several furlongs my most-listened to record of 2011.

02 2NE1 ~ Can’t Nobody

If you’ve always had a love for electronic pop-music, 2011 was the year that repeatedly delivered joyful, daft, sonically inventive, sometimes appalling, often deranged catchy tunes week after week. That a large chunk of the vocal content sloshed around an endless vortex of ‘shots’, ‘the club’, and ‘partying’ put me in mind of being trapped in a pleasure space-liner from a late 1970s sci-fi programme (something like the casino-world of Freedom City from Blake’s 7). There was something old-futuristic about this hedonistic maelstrom trapped in a loop of enforced enjoyment, and the sheer amount of it, where stylishly robotic singers became interchangeable, all had my ears in ghastly/delightful rapture/rupture. My pick of the bunch was from the K-pop/hip-hop quartet 2NE1, where the ultra-styled Can’t Nobody provided a double-chorus of double-pleasure. If you were in 1979, imagining what pop music of 2011 would sound like, then this would, I fancy, hit the nail on the head and deliver. It’s always a party.

03 Laurel Halo ~ Hour Logic

Sometimes a record arrives bringing with it a satchel-full of ‘Lost’ posters. Hallo? Has anyone seen Beaumont Hannant? Reload remixed by The Black Dog ~ where are you? My Yellow Wise Rug ~ re-rolled back into the attic? Listening to Hour Logic brings back the thought of many wonderfully distinctive electronic records, but it isn’t a pastiche, more like a clean Knife in a world reasonably obsessed with filleting an ever-decreasing stockpile of 1980s pop. It’ll be interesting to see where Laurel Halo goes next, as this is too good a record not to invest in further.

04 James Ferraro ~ Far Side Virtual

Listening to this record, always in the background is the sound of soft laughter. Whether it’s coming from an old PC in the attic, or leaking from a cracked laser-disc of Freejack is unclear, but if you’ve ever found yourself wanting to hear what the Lawnmower Man’s ‘hold’ music sounds like ~ now’s your chance. More than anything else this record reminded me of exploration computer games, such as the Aquanaut’s Holiday, not just as music, but it captures the very motion of gameplay, with the constant chiming-in of gentle pseudo-exotic piano invoking menu-select options or inventory screens, while the plastic-orchestral synth-washes indicate you’ve failed to photograph a giant squid. It also captured the mood of the Brian Eno records that nobody talks about, such as the deeply superb The Drop. Listening to Far Side Virtual on clear vinyl is a throughly enjoyable confusing amusing experience. Now excuse me while I check my inbox.

05 Woebot ~ Chunks

(some samples at Boomkat)

This is a very odd chicken-in-a-basket record that I consistently failed to get my head around all year, and wonderfully so. It has a weird mood of despondent Madlib/Dilla, with a forlorn grasping of breakbeats and grunting chiseled from a stockpile of 1970s mouldy rock records. It’s probably the most accurately named record of last year, and fills the mind with an image of musical pineapple/dog-food chunks, slopped out of a tin and sequencing into each other with a DIY MPC flex. It’s also worth noting that Woebot has recently released a tasty ebook on the subject of lost-rock. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B006TV1HKQ

06 Charli XCX ~ Nuclear Seasons

With post-80s quirk-murky-vocals and dark melodics now 10-a-penny, Nuclear Seasons took a little while to stand out a mile, but once it clicked it soon became an obsessional looping, mainly as it’s actually a pop song, with an emotive chorus, distinctive vocals, memorable melody, and completely killer Oo-Oo-Whop-Ahh! hook. It could easily sneak onto CD2 of Now 81 without anyone batting an over-loaded eyelash. Oo-Oo-Whop-Ahh! I’m I looking forward to a full-length Charli XCX album in 2012? Oo-Oo-Whop-Ahh!

There were many other splendid musical moments during 2011, from Funkystepz’ John Wayne to Julianna Barwick, and It would be amiss not to mention splendid turns from perennial favourites Jon Brooks, Pye Corner Audio, Tri Angle records, & Blackest Ever Black. And the Autechre EPs 1991-2002 box-set was most certainly the most enjoyable artifact of the year.

Making predictions of 2012 in 2012, isn’t a wonderfully advanced skill, but it’ll be interesting to see where the influence of 80/90s Industrial & Goth goes to, as something like the 1994 Laibach Satanic Techno offshoot Peter Paracelsus still has untapped potential, and it would be also lovely for someone to re-evaluate ISDN-era FSOL. I’m additionally poised in anticipation for five forthcoming records from: Grimes (now signed to 4AD because ‘Goth is sick’) Volume Three of Pye Corner Audio’s Black Mills tapes , Symmetry’s Themes For an Imaginary Film, Black Rain ~ Now I’m Just A Number: Soundtracks 1994-1995, and the hopefully triumphant return of Dead Can Dance…

 

The new Moon Wiring Club longplayer, CLUTCH IT LIKE A GONK, is out now.


GUEST INFORMANT: Joseph Stannard

January 9th, 2012 | guest informant

Joe Stannard is a music journalist (I first noticed his excellent work in THE WIRE) and the curator of Brighton’s monthly night of haunting, The Outer Church.  I asked him to write to you a few days before David Bowie’s birthday, and that’s what was on his mind when he sat down to type:

As I write this, it’s David Bowie’s 65th birthday. Cue hilarious remarks about pensions, bus passes, etc and perhaps the odd comment concerning the fact that the erstwhile Thin White Duke hasn’t released a new album in almost a decade. Me, I’m a fan, but I’m not holding my breath for a comeback. If Bowie chooses to spend the (hopefully long and happy) remainder of his life well away from the limelight, that’s absolutely fine by me. And y’know what? If he does return, I won’t be looking out for anything resembling Ziggy Stardust, or Aladdin Sane, or even the Duke. I’m more interested in the fellow who released an unexpectedly astonishing run of albums between 1993 and 2003. That’s my Bowie.

And here’s why.

In the late 80s, inspired by the Pixies, Sonic Youth and the New Sonic Architecture conjectured by the adventurous, forward-thinking music press of the time (I’m mainly talking about Melody Maker, incidentally, not the NME, dear me, no) Bowie assembled a rock group comprising guitarist Reeves Gabrels, drummer Hunt Sales and bassist Tony Sales. Derided as a rich man’s folly and only sporadically any bloody good, Tin Machine nevertheless performed an important function for Bowie. While the music press sneered at what they took for the playing out of a midlife crisis, the artist himself was rediscovering the joys of spontaneity and collaboration. The catalyst this time – and there’s always a catalyst with Bowie – was his new guitarist. I realised something interesting was taking place when I first heard the still-outstanding ‘Baby Universal’ – a single from Tin Machine’s second album, released in 1991. Here, Gabrels’s technique picks up where avant-guitarists Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew left off in the late 70s, howling like a jet engine for the duration of the track, which sped along on the kind of manic motorik Bowie hadn’t touched since 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).

Tin Machine was the beginning of a process through which Bowie looked back over his career to assess what had been lost during the 80s, and what could be recovered. The band had exorcised his rock ‘n’ roll demons for the moment, and a return to Ziggy-era glam would be both undignified and undesirable. It would be more befitting and potentially fruitful to recall the lessons he had learned while working with musicians and non-musicians such as Eno, Fripp and Belew. When he reunited with Let’s Dance producer Nile Rodgers for 1993’s Black Tie White Noise, it was something of a surprise to find the resulting album, whilst obviously influenced by contemporary urban pop, more reminiscent of the Eno era and its immediate aftermath. Tracks like ‘Jump They Say’, ‘The Wedding’, ‘Pallas Athena’ and the gleaming, chrome-plated cover of Scott Walker’s ‘Nite Flights’ revealed a Bowie less interested in putting on his red shoes and dancing the blues than re-engaging with a future he had prematurely abandoned.

The Buddha Of Suburbia slipped out quietly in 1993, but offered still more striking evidence of Bowie’s creative renaissance. Expanding on his soundtrack work for the BBC TV adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, Buddha boasted bittersweet balladry, avant-jazz experimentation and Kraut-ish electronic buzzpop as well as Bowie’s first substantial forays into beatless ambience since “Heroes”. When I first heard this record, I had just developed a taste for the bathyspheric sounds of 70s Eno, Can and Sylvian & Czukay, and tracks like ‘Ian Fish, UK Heir’ and ‘South Horizon’ blew my mind. How could an artist rediscover his muse so dramatically, almost 20 years after the fact – especially when the largely empty spectacle (give or take the odd great song, like his theme for the 1986 animated version of Raymond Briggs’s When The Wind Blows) of his 80s career had left him a laughing stock? Fans such as myself, who appreciated his 70s glam racket for its tunes and flamboyance but were revolutionised by contact with the Berlin trilogy, found their hero restored after a decade in the glossy wilderness.

It was only a matter of time until Brian Eno re-entered the picture, which he did as producer of 1995’s audacious 1.Outside, the opening installment of an as-yet-unfinished neo-gothic dystopian hypercycle centered around the grisly intersection between murder and art. It really can’t be stressed enough that if you were too young to have witnessed Ziggy’s demise or the Berlin rebirth first hand and had become used to the sensible, conservative Bowie of the 80s, this gloriously gaudy, bloodthirsty exercise in mock-schlock industrial rock constituted an enormous jolt. But, confounding expectation, 1.Outside didn’t sound like the Berlin trilogy, nor indeed much like anything else in Bowie’s back catalogue. The influence of future tourmates Nine Inch Nails could be heard in the punishing machine beats and tortuously processed guitar of ‘Hello Spaceboy’ and ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ while the improvisations of pianist Mike Garson (last heard on 1973’s Aladdin Sane) lent proceedings an unpredictable, maniacal edge. Mood-wise, it shared something of the dank futility of Diamond Dogs, but wrenched sideways into yet another possible future. Bowie’s look at this point was just as striking as his music: gone were the stylish suits and immaculate coiffure in favour of a dyed-red spike cut, black eyeliner, bondage pants and tattered frock coat. Bowie became the Gallifreyan ambassador we deserved but knew we’d never get, a true leper messiah and a welcome riposte to the dimwitted flag-waving undertaken by the imbeciles of Britpop.

Having successfully re-established himself as a live act, Bowie set about recording what might just be his most divisive album to date. His first wholly digital recording, 1997’s Earthling incorporated a big, bloody chunk of Drum & Bass alongside moves mimicked from Underworld and The Prodigy. Songs like ‘Telling Lies’ – arguably the first ever downloadable single from a mainstream artist, with remixes by A Guy Called Gerald and Adam F – and ‘Little Wonder’ were constructed upon lightspeed syncopations built from samples of Zac Alford’s live percussion. Many sneered at the idea of a fifty-year-old demonstrating his love of Jungle, but the album stands up remarkably well fifteen years later. I have a particular fondness for ‘Looking For Satellites’, ‘Dead Man Walking’, ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’ and ‘The Law (Earthling’s On Fire)’, which find then-voguish influences colliding with Bowie’s signature songcraft to create something engaging, unusual and defiantly futuristic. Lyrically, the songs communicated a playful, plaintive English melancholia, evoking Syd Barrett and, again, Doctor Who – the most English alien of all time, with the possible exception of The Man Who Fell To Earth’s Thomas Newton. To these ears, Earthling is too weird to have significantly dated. For what it’s worth, it’s the Bowie album I return to most frequently.

The three albums that followed Earthling weren’t as batshit bizarre, but each had its merits. 1999’s Hours… encased the bittersweet balladry of Hunky Dory within an airtight, uber-slick production yet sounded like the most natural and relaxed Bowie album in years, intimations of mortality and regret notwithstanding. ‘Seven’, ‘Thursday’s Child’ and ‘Survive’ were standouts, rueful reminiscences which at least sounded heartfelt, even if Bowie was, once again, indulging in his customary roleplaying, while ‘Something In The Air’ shamelessly plundered its ring-modulated vox and climactic descending chord sequence from Annette Peacock’s gut-crunching 1972 jazz-rock confessional ‘I’m The One’. Despite a couple of unimpressive ‘rockist’ moments, Hours… was a graceful, understated record, tinged with sadness. 2002’s Heathen welcomed back 70s collaborator Tony Visconti – an underrated factor in the brilliance of Low, “Heroes” and Lodger among others – to produce a set of songs which, like Hours…, suggested that Bowie had found himself at last… or at least arrived at a satisfactory facsimile of his ‘true’ persona. It was a slightly bolder album than its predecessor, bookended by two songs, ‘Sunday’ and ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, which occupy their own solemn space within the oeuvre, neither rock nor ambient, effectively haunted by both. Bowie’s voice on Heathen was perhaps the best it’s ever been, rich, sonorous and romantic. His final album to date, 2003’s Reality, sounded like the work of a man with little left to prove, and it’s my least favourite of the post-Tin Machine releases. Given the strength of its predecessors, however, that’s hardly damning, and it was also blessed with one of his finest songs, ‘The Loneliest Guy’. Elegiac barely covers it – just recalling its beatless, oceanic swell and devastatingly bereft lyric (“Steam under floor/Shards by the mirror’s frame/Clouds green and low/No sign, no nothing now/But I’m the luckiest guy/Not the loneliest guy”) brings a lump to my throat. It’s the unsettling sound of the emotional entropy awaiting us all.

Since then, there has been little in the way of new recorded output save a few guest appearances here and there. Bowie’s been spotted leading a relatively normal life in New York – the life of a father and husband. Given his legacy, and the unexpected manner in which he rallied and returned to full strength as an artist between 1993 and 2003 – not to mention his recent health issues – who can begrudge him? A recent (possibly fake) tweet intimated that a return to the studio may be on the cards, inspired by his newly notorious contemporary, Lou Reed (now of Lou Reed & Metallica, apparently). But if this comes to naught, I won’t shed a tear. Naught is precisely what he owes us, after all.

Many happy returns, Mr Jones. Or not. It’s your call.

The next Outer Church night in Brighton happens on January 20th.