Music writer and author, Richie Unterberger, was an early critic of the DIY movement. From his days at OP Magazine continuing through to when he helped start (and edit from 1985-91) Option Magazine with Scott Becker, he remained a vigilant and outspoken voice elevating home recorded works to equal consideration and but also equal critical review. He has gone on to author several books, the latest being a fascinating look at the inner workings of The Velvet Underground called “ White Light/ White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day By Day”. Richie was kind enough to answer a few questions about his experiences at Option Magazine and views about underground music culture.
What was your involvement with OP magazine and The Lost Music Network? How did it come about? What excited you about being involved?
I was a reviewer for Op magazine from early 1983 until the time it published its last issue at the end of 1984, and also did a few brief articles for it. Although the Lost Music Network was described in the Op masthead as “a national non-profit clearinghouse for information and ideas about music,” as far as I was aware, it didn’t have any activities other than publishing Op.
I got involved with Op magazine when a staff member of a college/public radio station on which I had programs showed me an issue and suggested I contact them to see if I could contribute, as she thought it would be a good outlet for my talents and interests. I sent them some sample reviews, and they quickly published them and took me on as a free-lance reviewer. I was excited to be involved because it gave me my first opportunity to publish music writing in a widely distributed publication, and also to write about music that interested me, not just music that a publication was looking to have covered. I was also glad to be involved in a magazine that was covering a lot of underexposed music in general, even if its scope was so wide that not all of it was to my taste.
I was not involved in the editorial/administrative side of the magazine in either a paid or unpaid capacity, though I did meet the staff members and some contributors on a visit to Olympia, Washington in the summer of 1983.
When OP ended it split off into two groups. Scott Becker and you started Option and David Ciaffardini began Sound Choice. Is this correct?
I don’t think it’s quite correct to characterize the inception of these magazines as Op splitting off into two groups. Neither Scott Becker, David Ciaffardini, nor I were staff members of Op magazine (which had a tiny staff anyway), or involved in it other than Scott and I being contributing writers. To my knowledge, Ciaffardini was not a contributor to Op. None of us were living in Olympia, where the magazine was based; we were all living in California at that time.
In 1984, Op magazine announced that it was ceasing publication at the end of the year. None of the staff members of Op went on to work at Option or Sound Choice. They did hold a conference in Olympia in the summer of 1984 at which one of the main topics of concern was whether anyone was interested in starting a publication with a similar focus. That’s where I met Scott Becker and a few other people who were involved, to varying degrees (but not nearly as heavily as I and Scott were), in starting Option.
The Op staff encouraged others starting a publication or several other publications with a focus on independently produced music, but they did not give an official blessing to anyone, although they were helpful in answering questions. I also believe they sold Scott their mailing list, so that Op subscribers could be notified that another publication with similar content was starting.
Although David Ciaffardini was part of the group of people that were very interested in helping to start an Op-like publication, it quickly became apparent that his ideas of how this should be done were not similar to those of most or all of the others. He started Sound Choice, and Scott Becker started Option. Scott was the publisher; although as an editor I was more involved than anyone except him in starting Option (and was the only other person working on it full-time for a few years), it’s more accurate to say that he started it than that he and I started it.
There was talk of acrimony at the time and disagreement between these two camps. Is this even true? and, if you don’t mind, what was that about? I don’t want to bring up anything negative so pass on it if it feels weird or inappropriate to dwell in that way. I’d just like to know the philosophical differences not personal ones.
Of that group of people (most of whom had met at the summer 1984 conference in Olympia) who were interested in starting a magazine, most of them worked on Option rather than Sound Choice. I’m not sure that anyone from that initial group worked on Sound Choice, though I can’t vouch for that. Generally I think it was felt that Scott had a better vision for what the magazine should be, balancing its independent/underground aesthetic with some appeal for the general independent-minded music fan, and better organizational skills. Ciaffardini also wanted to be based in Ojai, which I and others did not feel to be nearly as effective a base as Los Angeles, where Scott was living. I moved down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area in September 1984 to work on the magazine, though it wasn’t until early 1985 that the first issue was published, and not until mid-1985 that I was able to work on it full-time.
Option had a very professional look. Was there a conscious effort to avoid a Maximum Rock and Roll, punk rag, type of appearance? Was there a guiding philosophy behind the magazine?
There wasn’t a conscious effort to avoid the Maximum Rock and Roll style specifically; I certainly don’t recall that, or magazines/fanzines with similar layouts, being cited as examples of what not to do. But we didn’t want it to be a funky fanzine, and wanted it to look as nice as it could with our modest resources. Op itself hadn’t been a raggy fanzine type production. Option was neater and slicker in the layout and illustrations than Op, but hardly glossy.
There was no official or unofficial guiding philosophy behind the magazine. But I think the general aim was to cover as many kinds of deserving non-mainstream music as possible, emphasizing music being made on independent labels, though that emphasis decreased as time went on. We also wanted the articles and reviews to be interesting, professional, and of a high quality both in terms of the standard of the writing and the merit of the music being covered.
Many people I know used Option as an essential resource for contact and exchange. At the time, were you aware of the impact Option was having on home recording artists?
Yes, though there was no way to fully gauge the extent of the impact. Judging from how many tapes and records were submitted for review by artists who recorded at home (or with modest independent means), it was apparent plenty of people viewed Option as one of the few places that would take such music seriously, and publish information that would help such music makers get in touch with each other.
Was there really a “No Daniel Johnston” reviews policy at Option? (a rumor I heard).
There wasn’t a “no reviews” policy for Daniel Johnston or any other independent artist in Option, as far as I know. Looking through an Option index, I see that an album of his was reviewed in the November/December 1989 issue. That index doesn’t cover the entire span of Option’s publication (and I left in mid-1991, seven years before its last issue), so I don’t know if anything else of his was reviewed.
To me, the home taping community of the 80s/90s was as much a social movement as a musical one. Your thoughts?
I think that’s about right. There was some good music made on home cassettes of the time, but (and I know some people disagree) not a whole lot of great cassette-only music, to my ears. Its best effect was enabling people without access to conventional means of vinyl music distribution – even on small independent labels – to put out the music themselves, in the DIY tradition, even if the medium ensured that the distribution would be pretty small. Inevitably in the course of doing so, a lot of musicians and listeners with common interests came to know each other in more personal ways than would have been possible through standard vinyl (and, later, CD) releases. A lot of those people are still friendly and in touch with each other, which I think is a good legacy to which Option made some contribution. For those people who frankly are never going to land a record contract, it gave them a way to feel good about doing music and being creative in general that wasn’t available in other media.
In a strange way, Option ( and other mags such as Sound Choice and Factsheet 5) were predecessors of the whole social networking craze. Now, it is easy, then it was more effort, you know, get the addresses out of the reviews, write the letter, send a tape to trade, mail it off and wait. What’s the impact of today’s ease of communication? It seems to me something is lost. Less comments on work, less critical evaluation, even less sincere congratulatory thoughts. Some kind of community spirit seems lacking even though it is easier than ever. Your take?
Most of the increased ease of networking is due to the Internet, and I too see it as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it’s easier than ever to record music independently and put it on the Web for billions of people to hear, whether it’s on a personal website or myspace or something else. But I do think there’s a loss of personal connection, both because the medium of the Internet is less personal than a handwritten note and envelope, and also because there’s just so much of that kind of stuff floating around. If you’re a discriminating listener, it must be very discouraging to try and identify what you want to hear through the Internet, there being so much material – much of it, frankly, inept and mediocre – to wade through. With so much clutter and so much more electronic media competing for people’s attention than there was even in the 1980s (though there were similar complaints then!), people are less inclined to take the time to listen in the first place, let alone express thoughtful feedback. That applies to other forms of media besides music. Look how many useless blogs are out there, for instance; I think a quality fanzine, whether in print or on the Web, doesn’t stand as much of a chance of having a significant impact as it might have in the 1980s.
When all is said and done is there any lasting legacy of cassette culture of that time or was it just a self referential, back patting, lo fi bunch of wannabes?
It was kind of both, to be brutal. Sure, there was a lot of self-indulgent, mediocre (and even poor) music being made on cassette that was distributed that way simply because there was no other way for the originators to issue it. But as I said previously, if for no other reason than it got a lot of people with non-mainstream interests in touch with each other to share ideas, create lasting friendships, and build a sort of community to validate their aesthetic, cassette culture had an enduring positive impact. People (whether from that generation or subsequent ones) might have an easier time distributing their music with better fidelity and packaging through the Internet and on CD today than then. But there’s an attitude similar to the cassette culture at work in disseminating ideas that aren’t possible through mainstream media outlets, which is always a good thing.