Scott Becker started Option Magazine in 1985 and it was published until 1998. His efforts and publication were key elements of the independent and underground music scene of that period. I personally used Option for many contact addresses and information on unusual artists over the years.
Scott is also an accomplished visual artist and currently divides his time between Vermont and Oaxaca, Mexico. He kindly agreed to answer some questions in an email exchange.
What was your involvement with OP magazine and The Lost Music Network? How did it come about? What excited you about being involved? When OP folded and you began to think about the next thing, was there a guiding philosophy you took from the OP Magazine experience? What about advertising for Option? How were you able to secure it for the first few issues?
I got the first issue of OP in 1979, when I was the music director of WMFO, a college station in Medford, Mass. I thought it was pretty cool – a comprehensive guide to independent music, which was in itself a fairly unexplored concept. I started writing for OP about 3 years later, after I moved to California. When the Lost Music Network announced the OP Conference in the summer of 1984, I drove up to Olympia on a whim, mostly just to meet the people I’d been writing for. It seemed like a shame that they were going to stop publishing, and the whole idea of keeping OP going evolved organically – or accidentally, I’m not sure.
Option took shape as a continuation of OP. The first issues were just a creative clone of OP’s editorial ideas, without much thought given to the philosophy of it all. Speaking for myself, there was just too much practical stuff to worry about: computers, mailing lists, typesetting, graphic design, printing, binding, postal regs, money… always money. We sold enough ads to get the first issue out, then we were out of money, and we had to do it all over again. Advertisers and subscribers all took a huge leap of faith by sending us checks – I think a lot of it had to do with being familiar with Richie Unterberger and myself by name, just from our bylines in OP. That was a pretty thin guarantee of credibility.
Why did you agree to review cassettes at the time? Was this an offshoot of the review policy at OP?
To me, the home taping community of the 80s/90s was as much a social movement as a musical one. Your thoughts?
Cassettes were just another medium, like records or fanzines. OP had a cassette column, we expanded it into a whole review section of its own. But this was where OP and Option were about more than music – they were about a cultural moment in which people were using available technology, like copy machines or home four-tracks, to create and disseminate their own work… without asking anyone’s permission. It makes perfect sense to me that we passed through an era of ‘zines and indie labels on the way to the current world of blogs and self-distributed downloads.
Option went through a few design changes in its time but was always professional looking. What informed your decision to go in this direction?
I had been doing visual art, and was thinking about going back to school to study graphic design. OP had a nice, funky look to it, and I was hoping we’d continue to put out a magazine in an aesthetically pleasing package. But that was easier said than done when you have no experience as a designer. In the end, one of the most important things I got out of the whole venture was an education in design, print production (paste-up in the bad old days, digital pre-press after 1991), photography, photo editing and later on, a whole range of Mac-based creative skills. I learned to love technology, and I’m currently working for a software company… which ironically has limited the time I have for making art.
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 around the world?
That’s a good question, because I never measured how much direct communication Option actually engendered. I laugh now about how primitive this all was. We included contact addresses! So you could write to the artist! A letter! In the post! It seems so inefficient, but that’s what we were all working with. I mean, I didn’t check my email daily until what? 1998?
In the Option wikipedia page it remarks that you removed “alternative” from the Option tag line in 1995 because that term no longer meant much and equated being “watered down”. In a way, did this also signal the eventual end for Option? Option published from 1984-1998. Did it finally burn you out? Was it losing too much money? Did the original intent of the publication seem lost or derailed?
The truth is that the same creative impetus that drove underground or indie or alternative (or whatever) music in the 80s was going strong in the 90s. It never goes away – even if it ebbs and flows, culturally. And that was what inspired me, so Option’s original intent never changed: we wanted to provide exposure to music we cared about. Some of it became popular, some of it remained undiscovered. But inspiration is one thing, paying the bills is another. And personally, I was pretty burned out. Publishing is a grind of one deadline after another, inevitable as the tides.
Were there any competitive feelings toward Sound Choice, Factsheet Five or any other magazine of the time? Was there any communication between you and them? Indifference? Good music or bad, in the mid 1980s to approximately the mid 1990s, home tapers around the world had a sort of community supported by Option, Sound Choice and others. To me, the spirit seems different now and does not seem as supportive, congenial or critical. This seems odd to me because the tools that exist now are much more powerful and direct than they were then. Maybe there’s just too many resources and they are not centralized. What’s your take?
My attitude was always, the more the merrier. More bands, more labels, more zines! Everybody should make their stuff and the cream will rise. That’s only partly true of course, but I have to disagree with you about today’s community. Thanks to the internet, there’s never been more music or better communication among artists, among fans. But it’s not that things are decentralized on a logistical level – what you are sensing is that things are so balkanized culturally. No one seems to be drawing connections across diverse scenes and styles and cities. That’s what Option was good at.