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So long, Arthur, king of indie news

By Dominick Duhamel

Feb. 27, 2007 10:01 p.m.

For people involved in underground music, there’s been a death in the family.

I’m talking about Arthur magazine, the Los Angeles-based bimonthly that called it quits last week after five years in publication.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Arthur is shutting down due to financial problems, which, one would presume, come easily to a magazine that distributed almost 50,000 copies nationwide and made them available for free.

I would hesitate to mourn for most magazines, but Arthur magazine is one of the few exceptions ““ it was truly one of the most singular voices of our time, not only among magazines but among all forms of media.

Hearkening back to the late ’60s in more ways than one, Arthur magazine’s oversized pages ran everything from indie music coverage, lengthy political essays, cultural think pieces, columns by such notables as Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and aging bluesman T-Model Ford, and articles on art, photography, drugs and counterculture unlike any other.

Arthur magazine was also responsible for three incredible music festivals in L.A. (ArthurFest, ArthurBall and ArthurNights) and for starting Bastet, an imprint through which it released a variety of albums and compilations.

One look at that list and you can probably see why I’m so sad to see Arthur go. But anyone who’s a fan of Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vashti Bunyan, Vetiver or Six Organs of Admittance also knows the instrumental role Arthur played in the psych-folk revival of the last several years. The Banhart-curated “Golden Apples of the Sun” compilation, sponsored and released by Arthur, is thought by many to have defined the genre.

But, in my opinion, the thing that really makes Arthur magazine something to be missed comes from personal experience. I spent almost an hour on the phone with Arthur’s editor-in-chief, Jay Babcock, last quarter talking about his magazine and the feeling I left the conversation with was, more than any other, the love and devotion Babcock and his staff brought to the magazine.

Whether he was speaking tangentially for five minutes on how fantastic and underappreciated singer Josephine Foster was, expressing genuine gratitude for his writers (most of whom worked without pay), admitting to the incredible amount of work that the Arthur festivals required of him, or extolling the virtues of all-ages shows, I could tell that the magazine was, as he described it, “a labor of love” in every way.

Unfortunately, despite Arthur’s excellent coverage, definite influence and reputed festivals, its demise is a reality.

Its worth will no doubt be fully understood in time, but right now it seems that the end of Arthur has created a hole in music media: The magazine was the ultimate little guy, funded by investors going only on trust, covering artists and topics no other publication would cover, given out for free, and staffed by people working without pay simply out of love for the magazine.

And, as the ultimate little guy, its end speaks volumes.

The ideals the magazine embodied ““ trust, personal relationships in business, absolute dedication, the significance of art, equal accessibility and even idealism itself ““ still exist, but with one less voice to shout their importance.

I urge anyone who hasn’t ever picked up a copy of Arthur to head to its Web site, browse through its articles and see what I’m talking about. I also urge you to carry on these ideals in whatever way you can, chiefly by supporting underground arts and remembering that culture means little without counterculture.

Arthur magazine calling it quits without even attempting to put a small price on each issue to save the publication financially is a statement unto itself; for Arthur, it was essentially be free or die.

And, while its strict adherence to those ideals did not save the magazine, it does allow its admirable guiding principles to persevere.

Duhamel is still reading the 11,000-word profile of Joanna Newsom in the final issue. E-mail him at [email protected]

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