I met Derek when I was at a a talk by rock and roll photographer Jill Furmanovsky in London’s Rockarchive space. Back in 1985, Derek Barker set up a zine specifically designed and printed for Bob Dylan fans called ISIS. The publication, which comes out every two months and is sent to subscribers worldwide, is a collection of news stories, photos and open-sourced articles all about the ever-touring, legendary man himself. Fanzines and fan-related music content has changed a lot since the 1980s, and so we decided to ask Derek some questions about why he makes the magazine, and how his audience and the general concept of a fanzine has changed over the years. Here he is.
What does the ISIS aim to do?
In the early days, it was a mainly a news magazine. For the second half of its life, especially since the internet explosion, ISIS has featured more in-depth articles and interviews. We also feature book reviews and CD and vinyl reviews, first-hand concert reviews, rare and exclusive photographs; you name it. As it says in our advertising blurb: “ISIS is everything you will ever need in a Dylan magazine.”
Has it changed much since the first issue in 1985?
It has changed hugely in presentation over the years. For the first 18 months ISIS was typewritten and then photocopied with a staple in one corner! It was a newsletter, really. It was sent out free of charge to anyone who asked. Problem was, too many people asked! There was just too much copying involved. I was doing this at work! Also, it was simply costing too much to mail out. So, the only option was to get it professionally printed and to charge a cover price. Issue 18 was the first proper “magazine” issue. For the next couple of years it was black and white and had a card cover. We then changed to a glossy cover and later still to a full colour cover with a two-colour inside. In actual fact, the next issue, ISIS 175, will be full colour throughout.
“For the first 18 months ISIS was typewritten and then photocopied with a staple in one corner! It was a newsletter, really. It was sent out free of charge to anyone who asked”
How do you tend to collate the content and get all the text and images together, do you have a lot of help?
It’s a lot of hard work. We have five regular columnists who contribute to most issues and we encourage readers’ contributions. I write a fair bit myself, and I edit the whole thing. My wife Tracy is the IT expert. She does the layout and design. We are the only two who work full time on ISIS.
You’ve got to be quite a Bob Dylan fan to make a magazine about him – what do you personally love about Bob Dylan’s music?
Oh, wow, where to start? I guess the first thing to say is that I’m a huge lover of lyrics. It’s mostly about words for me. Over the years, Bob has done and said it all: the incredible surrealism of the mid-1960s, the personal observations, some might call them “protest songs," songs about life, including in later years ageing and mortality. I have lived through many of those same changes myself and so like thousands of Dylan fans it seems like we’ve been Together Through Life.
What’s been your best memory of producing ISIS magazine?
Wow, 30 years is a long time. That’s a lot of memories. It’s just occurred to me that I’m 60 at the end of July. That means I’ve been producing ISIS for half of my life! You would serve a lot less time for murder!
Is Bob aware of it?
Oh, yeah, we were asked by Dylan’s manager if he could subscribe to ISIS. That was more than 20 years ago. I told him there was no need to subscribe, that we would send him a copy free of charge. He requested two copies and I naively asked “why two?” He replied that one was for the office files and the other was for somebody who would remain unnamed. Bob actually liked one of our cover photos of him so much that he had a tour poster made from it. The photo was taken by our then-staff photographer, the late John Hume.
“It’s just occurred to me that I’m 60 at the end of July. That means I’ve been producing ISIS for half of my life! You would serve a lot less time for murder!”
Fan culture, I believe, is dying out a little due to a lot of things. Do you think the culture of fanzines and die-hard fans are going to keep going for eternity?
I don’t think it’s just fan culture that is declining; young people aren’t listening to music anywhere near as much as we used to. And when they do listen, a lot of the time they don’t listen properly. There’s a difference between “hear” and “listen.” So often it’s music on the move or maybe playlists on some internet service like Spotify. They don’t give themselves over to the music anymore; it’s either playing in the background while they’re doing something else or it’s very poor quality.
These days, it seems people are more than happy or pay £2.75 or whatever for a latte from a supposedly trendy coffee shop. Add a pastry to your double-shot tall latte with extra foam and caramel drizzle and you could have bought an album that might have taken someone six months or a year to construct and could give you a lifetime of enjoyment! They expect and are happy to pay for the coffee, but not the album!
Hardcopy fanzines will disappear, of that I have no doubt. The harsh reality is that nothing lasts forever. It’s already moving to the internet. I have a love/hate relationship with the internet. On the one hand it has made research so much easier, but that’s the problem, it’s too easy. People can look up “facts” effortlessly and then cut and paste them into their own webpage. The big problem is, often the information they gather is incorrect, but the lack of an editor or proper cross-checking means mistakes are now proliferating on the net to a point were it has become worrying. You can find a supposed “fact” and then “confirm” that information via half a dozen websites but the problem is, they have all cut and pasted the same erroneous information.
Finally, what’s your favourite Dylan song?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked that question a thousand times. It’s impossible to answer though. There are just so many and the answer changes both with time and mood. For the record though, it’s not Isis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really great song, but definitely not my favourite. I chose the name ISIS mainly because it looks good on the page, a sort of logo, not because, as many people think, it’s my favourite Dylan song.
Art + Music
This month we will be looking at the infinite, somewhat holy connection between art and music in all its different genres. Spanning an enormous amount of ways music and art come together, this feature will take a closer look at stage design, record sleeves, music videos, zines, rock star painters, band merchandise, music at fashion shows and much, much more. Now put your hands together for Art + Music.
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