"Hey, uh, do you have chickfactor?"
I walked into Other Music in New York's East Village, and asked the bearded, plaid-ed clerk, hoping he had the iconic music zine's 17th print edition in stock.
His Beardedness pointed me to a shelf with several other too-cool-for-school publications, and there it was: in all of its horizontal, blue, Grass Widow-covered glory, "legendary indie nerd bible" chickfactor.
Started 21 years ago at the height of popularity for zines in the US, chickfactor has pulled its dedicated fanbase forward and survived even in the face of the all-powerful internet. The zine is a living archive, a primary source, a distillation of indie music culture that we can hold in our hands.
Zines, those small-press, paper booklet expressions of fandom probably handed to you by a very dedicated individual at a concert or protest, had their height of their popularity in the pre-internet days of the late '80s and early '90s as cheap, easy photocopying and personal computers became widely available.
chickfactor itself began in 1992, when co-founder Gail O'Hara interviewed David Gedge of British indie band The Wedding Present for another publication—O'Hara was so smitten with Gedge that after she turned in her required tiny blurb, she and friend Pam Berry decided to start up a zine to run the entire interview.
Both of the women worked in publishing—they met at the Washington City Paper in D.C.—and used their skill sets to make the zine that would come to be known as chickfactor.
"We really didn't know what we were doing," laughs O'Hara. "We weren't really that good at it. It wasn't a time when everyone had a computer at home."
The first issue came out in fall 1992 and featured an interview with underground pop band Small Factory on its cover.
Working at monthly magazines, O'Hara saw chickfactor as passion project that livened up the slow pace of the publication cycle.
"Chickfactor woke up a creative surge that I had and it made me feel like I had a lot of control over something," she says. Each issue brimmed with interviews and articles about (and written by) the endless stream of indie artists coming through New York on tour. Contributors included none other than Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields.
"I wasn't really going through the publicists. It was just walking up to bands and talking to them and saying I want to interview you," O'Hara says.
chickfactor, of course, had a focus on the women of indie rock. "There were so many bands at that time that had one girl in the band, like four, three guys and one girl or whatever, and we would often interview the girl. You know, it seemed like they never talked as much," O'Hara says. "[Other publications] would interview like Mac from Superchunk but they would not often interview Laura from Superchunk so we would just take advantage of that. We interviewed plenty of guys, too, but we tried to interview the girl a lot of the time."
Though Berry left chickfactor in the mid-'90s to focus on her career in music (she is a veteran of indie darlings Black Tambourine, among many others, and a co-founder of Slumberland Records), O'Hara continued on. chickfactor would go on to feature a number of artists who are well-known today but were unknown at the time. chickfactor featured Liz Phair in Spring of 1993 (the year before she was on the cover of Rolling Stone), Cat Power in 1997, Neko Case in 1999, and many more before they got their big breaks.
While the founders initially handed out chickfactor #1-3 informally at concerts and house parties, issue four began the series of chickfactor shows, one for each issue that came out. "We would send out faxes on like a Friday afternoon about the show," O'Hara says. "Faxes! How absurd. I don't think I ever put up a poster, maybe in a record store." Even so, the chickfactor community ("indie rock dorks" as O'Hara lovingly calls them) kept growing.
For its 21st birthday, the publication held anniversary shows all across New York, with a three-night festival at The Bell House in Brooklyn. Artists included HoneyBunch, Future Bible Heroes, True Love Always, and many more who had crossed chickfactor's path throughout the years. Many of the bands are good friends of O'Hara's, some of whom came together for the first time in years just to play a chickfactor show.
Chickfactor zines at their 21st birthday party—from a photoset by Impose Magazine.
The zine now has an online presence, but keeps up with the print editions as of the end of last year. "It's really not about the size of your audience, it's about the people who are there. I don't really care if there are 10 people looking at the website or 200," O'Hara says. "Everything is better when there are fewer people paying attention, in a way. It's great that Belle & Sebastian play in stadiums now but I wish they still played at little places. I'm not really hung up on success, obviously." But success could be characterized by being a part of the rare book collections at New York University, Duke, and Barnard, as chickfactor is.
Keeping the print edition of the zine alive is key for O'Hara, who still believes there's something you get from holding text in your hand that you just don't from a screen. "The internet is going by really fast and no one remembers it. Do you ever save or print out an article from the internet? Do you remember what you read last week? It's kind of like a fact-finding train this point," she says. "A small thing that you can take with you and read in a park is different. I'm just not interested in reading on a little screen, I like to read paper. I'm really old school."