COLUMBIA — Ten pieces of paper bound together by two staples hold the keys to Columbia’s underground music scene, at least through the eyes of Boone Stigall.
Stigall is the writer, editor, interviewer, producer and photographer of the music zine, “The Trouble With Normal.” It's a one-man operation.
Inside issue No. 112, released this summer: An interview with a band called “The Nature Boys,” reviews of new indie albums and a fiery political rant.
October’s issue marks the 20th anniversary of “The Trouble With Normal,” founded in 1992. It will be Stigall's 114th issue.
Zines are self-published miniature magazines with small circulations, distributed for free or at low cost. Even when many of them migrated to the web, Stigall continued to photocopy his zine, usually at Ellis Library.
“The Trouble With Normal” contains reviews of local concerts and recently released local albums, as well as personal and political commentary.
Zine connects with local musicians
At first glance, the small black and white publication looks like a pamphlet you might get at a play or in church. But, despite the crude appearance of the zine, its writing, photography and local anecdotes provide an intimate connection to Columbia and the local music scene.
“That’s one of the things about this town," Stigall said. "There’s always been good music crawling underneath the surface. You just need to know where to look.”
Stigall is a mysterious guy; he keeps his age and other personal details strictly to himself.
Yet, he has been a connoisseur and critic of the city’s local music since the early 1990s. Stigall seems to know where to find Columbia’s musical gems.
“I always see him show-hopping and snapping pictures of bands,” said Sabrina Garcia-Rubio, an employee at Maude Vintage downtown where Stigall's zines are sold.
Over the years, he has watched the evolution of bands such as The Carters, Fugitive Kind, Arpae Leen and the Starkweathers.
"There's too many to mention," he said. "That's the sad part."
His reviews are usually in first-person, and he likes to write about the crowd and venue in addition to the band. His prose gives life to the concert scene.
From a review of a show at the Blue Note in issue No.92, Sept. 2008:
“The middle slot of the night was held down by local band California Raisins, whom I had absolutely no idea what to expect. They wasted no time kicking things into gear with a noisy garage rock built on a synth bass low end and abrasively distorted guitar.
"Their calling card are short fast songs dished out with a snide, in your face attitude. While I hadn’t heard the songs before this show, I find there’s something here that may become quite interesting as this band moves forward."
Publication began to fill a void
Stigall began publishing “The Trouble With Normal” in 1992 after he noticed an absence of coverage about the music scene in Columbia.
“I spent years seeing my friend’s bands play in Columbia that were basically getting little or no exposure in the local press," he said. "I realized something had to be done, and for better or worse, it was up to me.”
At first, he had no idea how to make a zine: “Everything I learned was trial by fire.”
After the first issue, which took six months to put together, he gradually learned the process and fell into a regular publishing groove.
The music scene in Columbia was different in the early '90s, he said. Back then, bands of varying genres and styles had to work together to keep local music alive in Columbia.
Now, Stigall said, he feels ambivalent about the state of music in Columbia and cautiously optimistic about the future. At least half of the independent record stores have closed in the past 12 years, he said.
“In some ways, the local music scene is getting better in that there are more venues,” he said, but added, "There is something to be said to actually going to a record store and discovering something you might not have heard before.”
Zine founder grew up with music
A musician himself, Stigall spent time growing up in St. Louis and Kansas City, where he developed eclectic musical tastes. He started listening to Frank Zappa and The Ramones at age 12 but says the best concert he ever saw as a kid was Queen with Billy Squire.
His experience in bands as a guitarist informs his writing and interviewing. He understands the nuances of the musician’s life, and he’s seen a lot of bands rise and fall throughout the years.
“Bands are a fragile thing, mainly because you’re dealing with a lot of different personalities and schedules," he said. "When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, it’s painful.”
The best bands out there usually have a certain passion about them," Stigall said. "They don’t have to sound like the rawest or heaviest thing on earth; they just have to have some sincerity to them.”
The commentary in Stigall's zine is subjective, but that is a quality of almost every zine. Self-publishing gives the author complete creative control.
Zines can build a fan base
Content in zines depends entirely on the interests of the producer. It can range from music reviews to comic strips to rants, creative writing and political commentary.
Garcia-Rubio said zines are an affordable way to build a devoted following around a defined topic.
“Zines are a little bit like records. You have pockets of people that are collectors, so it’s definitely a specialized thing. The people who like zines are really into zines,” Garcia-Rubio said.
But just as records might be antiquated in the world of MP3 players and streaming music, zines might be an antique in a self-publishing world that has moved on to blogs and websites.
“It’s just a different world. It’s hard to explain,” Stigall said. “I do think there is something tactile about it, though. There are some places you just can’t take a computer.”
“There is a lot of information that gets marginalized in this world. There are a lot of things that don’t get discussed in the mainstream media," Stigall said.
In light of recent government proposals for internet regulation, Stigall sees the importance of self-publishing in a modern context.
“There’s been a lot of concern that the more things get consolidated, more and more information is in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The theory is that the internet is a great democratizer, and I’d like to believe that. But, if we lose net neutrality, what’s to keep your service provider from possibly blocking access to a website?”
Boone does have a blog, but he plans to keep producing the majority of his band reviews, thoughts and political commentary on paper.
"I do miss the old days, but having seen so many changes in this town, some good some bad, it’s gonna be interesting. I’m wondering what’s gonna be up ahead. It’s gonna be really weird.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.