Tambourine and the State of Independent Magazines
Sara Arroyo and Sylvia Perez are the dynamic duo behind Tambourine: An online platform promoting the publication of independent magazines.
Based in Madrid, we had the chance to talk with the two of them about their creative community, the current state of independent magazines, and the historical importance of print as an artistic medium.
Tambourine: How are you guys doing?
Mouthwash: We’re good. Just trying to stay busy. All of our photography work has stopped because we’re not allowed to go outside. But our design work has really picked up because of that, so it all balances out. But trying to keep the ship alive, you know? You guys recently started shipping again right?
TB: Yeah we have. The first weeks of confinement we decided to stop shipping, because we wanted to avoid any risks. Especially for the postal workers. But we were still accepting orders, and are preparing them the whole time. So now they’re all on their way out. Luckily, our clients have been really understanding and are happy with that decision on our part.
MW: I’m really interested in hearing about where Tambourine started and what roles you two play within it.
TB: Well Tambourine started a couple of years ago. It was a bit different than what it is now. We started as a distributor for bookshops and libraries in Spain and a little bit in Portugal. The energy has always been to bring publications that we had a hard time finding normally in bookshops in Madrid. That has remained the same even though the means has changed over time. But before we were mainly working with books, whereas now we deal with independently published magazines. We noticed a few years ago that the independent magazine scene was really exploding. You’d see great initiatives taking place with really high-quality materials. It was really something special. And it still is. Now people are really paying attention to it. Maybe they’re seeing the same thing we did. But it wasn’t really something we paid attention to until we travelled outside of Spain and saw all this amazing work that wasn’t in our backyard. We felt like we needed to show others the things we had discovered.
MW: Do you think Madrid is lacking as a creative scene?
TB: I think Madrid has historically always been lagging behind Barcelona. But I think we’re starting to notice that shift, where in the past few decades Madrid is suddenly exploding onto the scene. The sudden burst of creativity also aligns with the demand for these independent magazines. As more people are exploring and making new work, they need sources of inspiration to keep the fire going. And not just a demand for independent magazines, but independent everything. We’re noticing a lot of people pushing away from the center of Madrid, and starting their own projects on the outskirts. Galleries, design studios, agencies. You name it. It’s a really exciting time to be here.
MW: Do you two think you could move to a bigger city? Or are you committed to building and being ingrained in the Madrid community?
TB: It’s tough to say. We’ve always had the idea of going to London or New York. We could just see ourselves working there, and there’s definitely more money. But there’s a big emphasis on building on a local level and contributing to your community right now. And that’s for the best, we think. We really feel like Tambourine is here in Madrid and we have something to give to the people around us. And that might not be true if we weren’t in Madrid.
MW: Where are most of the magazines that you guys are carrying coming from?
TB: We have a lot coming from the United Kingdom, and then I would say the Netherlands, and maybe Germany. Spain has a few really, really good ones, but that’s about it. It’s tough because we’re limited by the resources of our distributors, so we’re sourcing mainly from Europe.
MW: Yeah, it’s something we’ve been trying to figure out as well. All of our favorite distributors and stores are in Europe. And it’s just hard to get anything to them in a cost-efficient manner. It’s also hard to order anything in a cost-efficient manner as well.
TB: And you also have to take into account language barriers as well. I’d say most of our copies are in English, but at least in Spain, there are a lot of people that cannot read in English. So we’ve been trying to consider how we can cater to groups of people who might be left out. And sometimes that is something that is within our control, and other times it’s the choice of the author, and it’s out of our hands. But we have a question for you guys: Being in America, do you guys look to design inspiration from places like the Netherlands or Switzerland?
MW: Sara, I think I was talking to you earlier about Spector books. They’re one of our favorites, and they’re in Leipzig. They just have such an amazing collection. So does WTP-PP. It’s a publishing project by Simon Merz in Austria, I believe.
But to your point, I think we’re all pretty used to and familiar with the designers in America. So discovering design studios and publishers like you guys, and others in Europe, and Japan even, just feels so much more interesting right now. And even to that point, I’d say no one views America as having any real design history. Not in the same way they might consider Germany to have design history with movements like Bauhaus, or figures like Dieter Rams.
TB: Yeah, we think it’s all related to history and what has been around longest. But I think for Madrid, and probably for a lot of Europe, there’s a romanticism around American design. We’re really big fans of what Actual Source is doing. They’re pretty well-known over here. And their aesthetic feels different than what everyone is doing around us. So to see something like that currently happening in the United States definitely shows that the environment is changing.
MW: Yeah, they’re awesome. Some of the best. They’re friends of ours and we interviewed them a little while back. And just some of the nicest people. They’re not pretentious at all, even when they might have some right to be. There are a few hidden gems, but I think for the most part, the American design scene is still kicking off. I think it’s just easier to be more interested in work that might seem foreign or new. So we always get excited to see new work coming from studios in Copenhagen or Japan, for example, even when really amazing work is being made right in our backyard.
TB: Things aren’t always better just because they’re farther away. It’s really easy to get caught in that train of thought. If anything, we feel like the work in our backyard is much more important than something going on across the globe. It goes back to building on a local level. It might not be as interesting or foreign, but we really believe it’s more rewarding in the long run.
MW: I think about how much good work there is in the world that never sees the light of day, or maybe doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Do you guys ever feel like you’ve found everything there is to find, in terms of independent magazines? Or are you constantly finding new things that blow you away?
TB: I think we’re almost always finding new work that we’re experiencing for the first time. I’m not quite sure we’ll ever come close to getting to the bottom of the pile. But that’s the thrill of it. The discovery is surely one of the best parts of what we do. And it’s so exciting to be at that center of a practice that is just beginning to take off. When we worked with books, we were constantly asking ourselves: When is the next new thing coming? And that’s not something we even have time to consider now with magazines.
MW: Do you think independent magazines will share a similar trajectory as books, or are they on separate paths?
TB: It’s hard to say. The magazine is pretty accessible. That’s one of its strongest features. Traditionally, you would walk up to a kiosk and buy one for $3. Even if the magazines you buy at a kiosk, and the ones we sell, are inherently different, the same concept applies. We are concerned with the overproduction of these magazines though. That’s what happened with the books we were carrying, at least—the market became oversaturated. But I don’t think we’re there yet. What do you guys think?
MW: I remember when I experienced Kinfolk magazine for the first time, back in 2013, I think. The presentation, the matte paper, really helped propel it forward and escape this idea of a cheap product. It’s interesting to see magazines take off, as you guys mentioned early. They’ve gone from something that you’d keep in your bathroom to occupy someone, and transformed into a bookshelf staple. Something you’re proud to show off. And to be able to do that at a fraction of the cost of what most books are being sold at is huge.
TB: And we think that’s the secret to its success right now. It’s still pretty limited to the public because independent magazines are a pretty niche product.
MW: Do you hope it stays small and niche, or do you want it to blow up and grow?
TB: We have mixed feelings about it. One of the best things about independent magazines is that I can open one up and know that the author or artist is speaking about whatever they want, with no restrictions. And we’re not sure that can remain intact if it becomes more mass-produced. You start introducing advertisements and other opinions, and then slowly it becomes someone else’s product. It’s a really difficult balance. We see the value in the content, and want to make that accessible for everyone, and get it in as many hands as possible. But we also know that there’s an invisible tipping point where that value becomes diluted, and maybe it’s not worth finding out where that point is.
MW: And at some point in there, it stops being independent. If the project is being funded by someone else, it starts to become dictated as to what is being said, and how that is being communicated. We see it all the time in the agency world. While it’s our goal to inform a client what the best set of actions are, we can’t force them to make choices because they’re the ones paying for it. So there’s this paradox where independent magazines might only get so big if they truly stay independent.
TB: I don’t think anybody has created a magazine independently with the focus on making a profit. I think that’s another big strength of the medium. They’re doing so because they feel the need to convey a specific message, or they’re just having fun and experimenting with new processes. So I’m not sure the pressure to compromise is actually present or not.
MW: I’m sure you guys get asked this all the time, but what is it about print that keeps it around, despite the push to go digital on everything?
TB: Yeah. We’ve never really understood the question. It comes down to ownership. As humans, we like to own things. To have control over them, to touch and feel. It’s property. And this isn’t some new idea. You can own something digitally, but in terms of real ownership, it’s really lacking.
MW: Yeah, and I think about it in terms of documentation. Or historical record-keeping is another example. We know history as it is because of the documents and records kept over the course of time. If all of that was done digitally, who’s to say how we would perceive our origins. I think a lot of information is lost in URLs and code. But if I have something printed, that I can walk across a room and know exactly where it is on my shelf, that feels real to me. And not only real, but maybe more truthful.
TB: With your guys’ magazine, did you ever struggle with putting the content of it online for others? Some people make the entire magazine downloadable by PDF, others only do it partially, and some don’t do it at all, so that you have to buy it to see it. How do you balance that?
MW: Dang. Maybe you should be interviewing us. We didn’t mess around with making the PDF available. I think it’s cool when there isn’t always a price tag on information. It feels hypocritical saying that though since we didn’t do it. We’re still learning. But I don’t think making it free to view online will lead to less people buying it. I’d argue that if someone sees the PDF online, and decides that they’ve seen it and don’t need to purchase it, that they were never really going to purchase it in the first place. The intent just wasn’t there. What do you guys think?
TB: We think it’s always a positive thing to make it accessible. Even if you can’t afford to purchase the print, you can still use the PDF as a resource and guide to help your own practice. But it can be tricky. There definitely are dangers that go along with making everything free and available. I think you’re seeing that now in quarantine with free concerts, free live performances, etc. It can pretty easily diminish the value of the work if you’re not careful.
Painting by French artist Guillaume Bodinier
MW: I’m interested to hear about this project you’ve set up called Kiosko. Can you explain a little about what the intent was with it? You mentioned this idea of going to the kiosk a little while ago, and it sounds like an almost nostalgic experience.
TB: Yeah. So we’ve established Tambourine as an online store, and that’s how it’s going to be. Kiosko is a physical pop-up that we’ve done from time to time that serves as a magazine stand with some of our collection. We actually try and reinterpret what the traditional newsstand might look like. The concept is built around this idea that people can walk up and see our curated collection of magazines just like they would any other normal kiosk, and have a unique interaction with that experience. But it’s really exciting to constantly reimagine what that looks like and how it might function. Each time we do it, we’re working with new artists and collaborators, and the space is always changing. That helps keep it fresh for all of us. Over time, we’ve found that it’s really important for us to have a face-to-face interaction with our customers where we can. It builds trust and allows them to see that we’re providing a quality product. And more importantly, it’s just really fun. It opens up this collaborative conversation. It’s more enjoyable when everyone is involved and can come experience an activity that for us is usually only digital. And it evolves the relationship from something that is normally only transactional, into personal. And we can’t emphasize enough how rewarding that is for us.
If you haven’t already, check out the collection that Tambourine is always adding to. They have an amazingly curated selection of independently published magazines by some of the best artists and designers currently making work. Do yourself a favor and buy some new reading material. We know you need it.