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An Unconventional Option for Fans of Far-Out Music

Times Staff Writer

Here’s another good reason--besides kidnaping, blackmail, loss of privacy and public humiliation--for not being famous: Renown practically guarantees that you’ll never make the cover of Option magazine.

At Option, celebrities are a moral quandary for the editors, says publisher and executive editor Scott Becker. They’re just too well known, Becker says seriously, explaining that putting a familiar face on the cover of the Los Angeles-based bimonthly is tantamount to a sellout.

Option’s mission, he says, is to go where no other music magazine has gone before, seeking out underground rockers, blues bands, avant-garde and ethnic groups, jazz ensembles, almost anyone who has put out an independent label tape, album or disc without finding fame, fortune and mega-gobs of fans.

“We really wrestled a couple of years ago when we put Frank Zappa on the cover,” Becker said in an interview, referring to the iconoclastic but depressingly well-known Southern California rock musician. The first thing editors ask themselves when considering a cover subject is: “Are they too big?” he added.

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The latest cover person, Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees, presented a similar dilemma, Becker said. While Siouxsie and the Banshees may not be household words, they have made dangerous forays from the depths of obscurity with their albums, tours and appearances on MTV, he said. Siouxsie passed the test partly because editors decided “it’s time we had another woman on the cover,” Becker recalled.

Somehow, the magazine has survived for four years with this rules-violating formula that, by conventional wisdom, is a recipe for cyanide. True, the magazine hasn’t set any records for circulation, which currently hovers at 14,500. But that’s fine with Becker because Option is reaching the audience for which it’s intended, he said. No more than 1,000 subscribers live in the Los Angeles area with the rest mainly in the other 49 states, plus a sprinkling in Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands and 26 foreign countries, including a handful in the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Malaysia.

“You get the sense that it’s getting out there if there’s one (subscriber) in Malaysia reading it,” Becker said of the far-flung fans of far-out music.

Option’s nonconformity runs more than cover deep. Becker himself had no background in journalism before starting the magazine. Nor do most of the contributors. The majority of stories begin as suggestions from free-lancers and none of the magazine’s 40 to 50 record reviewers “are rock critics or writers professionally.” The only qualification for becoming a reviewer is the ability “to write a few coherent sentences about a record,” Becker said.

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These capsule reviews, about 300 per issue, are the backbone of the magazine, he said. It’s easy to see why. The mini-critiques of albums, compact discs and cassettes are often funny, pithy and skewering. For instance, this is what Bob Sled thought of an album called “Free Range Chicken” by the Country Rockers: “Behind the generic moniker is a slap-dash rockabilly trio, average age 61, stumbling their way through a collection of vintage rock and country chestnuts. Frontman Sam Baird, 68, ‘sangs’ and plays guitar with an abundance of spirit and a minimum of competence, while Gaius L. (Ringo) Farnham, 75, drums with a totally erring sense of time and a naif garage-minimalism that could bring tears to your eyes.”

Allen Green had this to say about an album called “Lite Fantastik” from The Prunes: ". . . this band brought several metaphors to mind--Skinny Puppy on (sic) Quaaludes, dance music for funeral parlors, etc. Slow and plodding rhythms, dank and dingy garage guitars, quirky electronic filigrees . . . these are the things that mediocre industrial dirge music records are made of.”

Finding out about music like this before other publications has gotten tougher recently, Becker said, noting that mainstream music labels are becoming more eclectic. The challenge in the future, he said, is to find ways to “stay that much ahead of the pack.”

Already the magazine has had one challenge to its existence. A Glendale printer refused to publish the magazine because it contained a couple of album covers the firm considered pornographic, Becker said, vigorously disputing the allegation. Now, the magazine is published on slick paper in Denver, where there have been no complaints about content.

Slowly, the magazine seems to be developing a sense of self-promotion. Subscribers are offered a choice of four albums for forking over $15 for a year’s subscription. One of the albums, “The Forest Is Crying” by the Trio Bulgarka, is “a hot number” from three members of the Bulgarian State Radio Choir.

Recently, Becker had 100,000 subscription fliers printed up for insertion into records by two different companies. “I got the idea from seeing USA Today subscriptions on the back of a cereal box,” he said.

To subscribe, write Sonic Options Network Inc., 2345 Westwood Blvd., Room 2, Los Angeles 90064.

People Turns 15

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On the other side of the magazine universe, People magazine has finally reached mature adolescence with the current issue. To celebrate its 15 years--in celebrity journalism a period roughly equal to, say, the first billion years of life on Earth--People has dug through its files to come up with a cornucopia of trivia, “factoids,” statistics, anecdotes and what seem like a zillion other bytes on the weekly that has sold 1.8 billion copies since 1974, when actress Mia Farrow was picked for the first cover. It’s also the biggest issue ever, with 284 pages, 152 carrying advertising.

The enduring quality of the magazine, which apparently never saw a famous face it didn’t like, may be illustrated by the tally of best- and worst-selling covers. The all-time best seller, dated Dec. 22, 1980, featured Yoko Ono and John Lennon out front and was pegged to Lennon’s death at the hands of a gunman. The death of another celebrity, Princess Grace of Monaco, in 1982 gave the magazine its second best-selling issue. Other best sellers included two covers devoted to Great Britain’s Royal Family, Olivia Newton-John and singer Karen Carpenter (and her fatal struggle with anorexia).

Princess Diana has been on the cover most, 17 times, and her appearance there guarantees the magazine a 20% jump in newsstand sales. Other frequent cover personalities have been Elizabeth Taylor and Cher, with 10 covers each. Interestingly, all but one of the best-selling covers were published in 1983 or before. The 10 worst-sellers, however, have all appeared since 1984 with seven of the 10 bad box-office issues coming out in 1987 and 1988. Worst selling of all: a July 18, 1988, cover story on American hostages in Lebanon.

People’s circulation is pegged at an average of 3 million weekly. The magazine did not provide specific sales figures for its top- and bottom-selling issues.


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