Feature: SWAMPLAND MAGAZINE AND THE FIGHT FOR LONG-FORM

Words: James Frostick
HTMLflowers banner image: Shannon May Powell

The arrival of Swampland Magazine marked a defining moment in Australian music journalism. An independent publication had been built from scratch, declaring intent to revitalise interest in long-form analysis of music from Australia’s cultural fringe. Four issues on and the magazine is staying true to its founding goal, reigniting a passion for print and the opportunities it can provide.

I think it’s safe to say that most music journalists that consider themselves lovers of the craft have an affinity for long-form writing. Those around the age of 25 and above are old enough to have been credibly influenced by printed music press, and have subsequently seen the formerly iconic music magazine diminish in prominence as the digital realm encroaches on, and eclipses, print media. Weirdo Wasteland started as a platform for lengthy music pieces – ones where time (and word count) was given to unearthing the smaller details that were intrinsic to a musician’s story. You can still read some of them out there online. Before kicking off the blog I was heavily influenced by the (now defunct) music rag Skyscraper, and it was in those pages that the idea of music journalism as a creative outlet first clicked in my brain. The site in the early aimed to bring a bit of depth to local music coverage, slowing the transition to banal listicles by whatever small amount I could. Although my own writing habits as they pertain to Weirdo Wasteland have changed, my love for a lengthy article remains. This is why I simply adore Swampland.

It’s a gutsy move to start an independent print publication in today’s media climate. It’s also a costly endeavour – one with an unfavourable risk-to-reward ratio. The team behind Swampland threw caution to the wind when they began the process that would become the first issue, planting a flag and declaring that space for considered and in-depth music journalism remains. Swampland sets itself apart from other music publications thanks to a few key factors – it draws in passionate and able writers whose values align with the publication’s interest in keeping long-from alive, it pairs the words with a gorgeous design scheme that blends imagery and body text into a complete tapestry, and it seeks to look further into the margins and cover musicians that are defying convention and making truly innovative sound.

A publication that ardently commits to quality output is exactly what Australian music press needs, and Swampland looks to partially fill a gap that many would say is expanding beyond control. Although the digital realm makes music consumption easier than ever, thoughtful analysis and critique will always have a place. Attention spans are lessening, so perhaps that place doesn’t properly exist online right now. Magazines were the home of insightful thought (at least as far as music is concerned) for decades, and it still can be. Swampland seems to have things well in hand, if the latest issue is anything to go by. As a consumer of music journalism, I unequivocally hope that the publication grows and flourishes, and recommend anyone with a passing interest in Australia’s vibrant underground music scene pick up a copy.

I caught up with Swampland’s founding editor Kimberley Thomson to discuss the magazine’s origins, its founding ethos and thoughts on the importance of music journalism in 2018 and beyond.

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WW: The story of Swampland started after discovering the abysmal state of the major music press in Australia. What was it about the state of music journalism that you found underwhelming enough to take action?
KT: We started Swampland about two years ago. At the time, I had recently started playing music within the live Melbourne music scene and was also starting to write a bit about Australian music. I looked around — wanting to learn more about the music that was being made now and that which had been made previously in Australia — and there was not much in-depth coverage at all. One of my main aims with Swampland was to give music writers a platform to explore ideas about Australian music that might not fit within the major press — and still get paid for their efforts. 

Building a print publication from scratch can’t be easy. How did you go about establishing Swampland at first?
Yep, independent media can be a very difficult and fickle child. We did quite a bit of research initially and reached out to writers who may have been interested and got a pretty good response. We crowdfunded the first issue (and fronted up a bit of our own money too), which galvanised the idea that there was an audience for a magazine like Swampland. From there, we have been pretty damn lucky in getting funding for subsequent issues. 

What is Swampland’s founding ethos?
In many ways, we try to do what community radio stations do, but in a print format. That being, to celebrate the music that is made in Australia — in all its forms, across all genres. We are not so much interested in demonstrating how much we know about music or savaging artists, like some music journals have done in the past; we are more into opening up this world and letting people fall down the rabbit hole with us. And, documenting what is happening now and the cultural conversations that are being had.

What spurred you towards the decision to produce a physical document as opposed to digital mediums?
Well, I wanted to make something that you could read in the best place to read good writing — the bath. Or that you could carry around in your bag and read on the tram. The whole team — me, creative director Alan Weedon, and deputy editor Kelsey Oldham — are all big magazine nerds. We met through a literary journal called Voiceworks, which taught us about the process of print.

How do you feel a physical product bolsters the impact of the content compared to that of fast-paced Internet publications?
I think people place more value in a tangible object as you can see the care that has gone into its production. And, print is beautiful and smells good and looks great on your shelf.

What was some of the early feedback you received from readers that you found encouraging?
People just really appreciate that somebody is pushing back against the downward tug of online, click-baity coverage and trying to create a place for considered, lengthy writing. 

Swampland is dedicated to covering Australian output, but its content predominantly looks beyond the mainstream. What propelled you towards not only documenting purely Australian stories, but also those that occupied spaces closer to the margins of music culture?
This has really just happened organically. We cover people that make interesting music and have an interesting story to tell. We get pitched quite a lot of stories about artists that happen to exist on the margins — we think they’re just as valid to cover as artists that have broken through to a more mainstream level. 

Australia has a vibrant community of musicians creating across a vast array of styles and genres. Swampland does a great job representing a cross-section of these artists, but what would you say is a unifying element that connects them?
The most interesting thing about them as a group is that there might not be much connecting them aside from the fact that they are making music in Australia. We are interesting in dispelling myths about what ‘Australian’ music is. 

The magazine also places emphasis on considered and well-written pieces. What place to you feel the long-form article has in the attention-deficient Internet age?
Long-form forever. We are long-form, but not incredibly long-form. It used to be quite normal for magazines to run 6000+ word pieces. The time and amount of thought that goes into this kind of writing means that it’s much more compelling to read, perhaps when you’re in the bath, for example. 

Do you have any editorial guidelines for contributors when they express interest in being a part of an issue?
Yes, get in touch and we’ll let you know! We are seeking pitches for issue five. 

Swampland’s approach to visual story telling is a signature aspect of the magazines design and appeal. How do you go about piecing together text and visuals into an easy to digest package?
Our creative director Alan is a visual wizard. As is our designer, Hayden Daniel. Sometimes we get pitched images first and then match the writer to the story. Mostly we match images to the written pitch. We give photographers quite a lot of freedom to stretch out and approach a brief however they want, which generally works out very well. 

Let’s talk about the upcoming issue. What are you most proud of in this issue?
Our cover story on Sampa the Great, written by Maxine Beneba Clarke is a bit of a dream pairing. I have been keen to get Sampa in the magazine since issue one. She’s amazing. We’ve also got a powerful piece from Patrick Marlborough on HTMLflowers. I got to write a couple of pieces this time, which was nice: an essay on Mere Women’s Big Skies and how it fits in to a lineage of art that examines rural and urban Australia; and a profile of Tom Lyngcoln. There’s profiles of Gussy, Various Asses, UVboi, Shoeb Ahmad. A great historical piece on Hobart and the 90s band Little Ugly Girls. So much good stuff!  

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Swampland Magazine’s fourth issue is out now. The issue will be launched this Friday June 29 at The Gasometer Hotel with performances from HTMLflowers, Various Asses, Tom Lygncoln and No Sister. Click here to order a copy.