Maximum Rocknroll turns 40 next year. Surrounding the milestone, the long-running punk magazine has launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund the Maximum Rocknroll Archive and Database. It is an enormous undertaking, which will create an online database for the magazine’s record collection (physically located at their house in San Francisco), digitally archive every music review they’ve ever published, and digitize all out-of-print issues. At a time when web space is increasingly fraught with corporate conflicts of interests, carving out autonomous space online where the underground can document its own history on its own terms feels urgently needed. In conjunction with Katie Alice Greer’s Fan Club conversation with MRR content coordinator Grace Ambrose for this week’s issue, we also spoke with Shivaun Watchorn, who is currently at MRR working specifically as the Archive Coordinator. The campaign to raise $25,000 for this project ends June 17.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of the archive project and how it came together? How long has this been in the works?
To the best of my knowledge, the archive project has been progressing in fits and starts for a long time. Chris Hubbard, the former coordinator of the magazine, created a site called Kill from the Heart in 2000, with the goal of documenting punk and hardcore history until 1990. He sporadically worked on the website until about 2010. KFTH is the spiritual ancestor of this project, and I spoke to Chris and MRR’s web coordinator Paul Curran extensively when Grace and I were putting together a work plan for the archive project. Since I’ve been on board, I’ve found the info on KFTH invaluable in filling in gaps in our internal database.
In 2014, a group of shitworkers put all the 7”s into boxes and put poly bags on all of them. The rebagging effort came about at the same moment that the MRR website started posting old interviews and high quality PDFs of very early issues of the magazine. I’ve submitted a few interviews to the magazine over the years, but I hadn’t really felt invested in MRR until I started doing proofreading in early 2015. I met Grace in July 2015 when she was visiting Minneapolis, and she mentioned the archive project as something that MRR wanted to focus on once they were financially stable enough to support it. I started working on the project in December 2015 and moved into the MRR compound to work full-time as the archive coordinator in April.
In the interview that Grace also did for this issue, she made a really good point - "The vast majority of punk lyrics and zines are not explicitly political in content. What is political is the means." I'm wondering how this same political means that is considered when creating MRR, the magazine, will also carry over into the infrastructure of creating the archive project?
The means are political in that we choose to do it ourselves, without corporate money and outside of a larger academic or historical institution that would restrict access for our users. We are not beholden to donors’ desires or the variable priorities of a larger institution. We can focus our full attention on the archive, and we don’t have any bureaucratic red tape. It limits our financial resources, but it’s very empowering. Building the infrastructure for the archive project does require money and time, but punks have been extremely generous with their expertise in coding, UX design, proofreading, transcription, filing, archival knowledge, and every other possible need that has or will come up.
The archive project is very much tied to the production of the magazine and reflects the means by which we acquire and review records. Everything in the archive comes through the magazine first. Our record collection (nearly 49,000 records!), our photo collections, and the magazines (nearly 400 issues)--the bulk of the archive’s content--have been created by and for punks. We have records from over 100 countries. Every record in the collection has been entered into a database, had its edges covered with green duct tape, been subject to review, and had its review published in the same place in the magazine. Our collection is completely generated by donations. When we acquire rare records for the collection, it’s through the generosity of other punks, many of whom feel a psychic debt to MRR.
To what extent do you think it’s important for punks to carve out digital platforms in a way that is reflective of punk values?
The magazine’s most closely held value is independence and autonomy in the face of insidious corporations. I would not do this project if we had to compromise our independence in any way. No one will make money off the MRR database. There will be no ads. No products will be presented for you to buy. It isn’t Discogs--we’re not taking a cut of anything for our services.
The MRR archive is an institutional archive, so we’ll have all our holdings up, including a number of unsavory records that I personally wouldn’t choose to present were I to curate a digital archive of punk. MRR has its detractors and supporters, and our collection has been shaped by the ebbs and flows of sentiment towards the magazine. There are records in the collection by so many disparate bands, from GG Allin to Zounds, and the complete scope of the collection will be represented whether or not that space should or could be ceded to voices that reflect my personal values. We talk a lot about curation and how punk spaces and resources can reflect the values we want to uphold. In this case, my hope is that the means of creating the archive will complement (and sometimes absolve!) its content.
Why does it seem important to you to digitize the collection?
We’re cataloging the record collection and making it discoverable, not digitizing it. We are going to digitize every back issue of the magazine, radio shows tapes that we have (and are looking for old tapes we are missing--get in touch!), some demo tapes, photos, and other paper ephemera, but we won’t be digitizing any vinyl. The collection also needs some serious preservation work done. While we inventory the collection, we’ll also be rehousing and cleaning records, which is essential for their long-term survival.
It’s crucial to me that we have an accurate account of our holdings and that the public can access that information. The MRR collection is quite literally astounding. I’ve never seen a collection this size that is focused on punk that is free and publicly accessible. Anyone can and should come by the compound to see how we work, what we have, what’s missing, and what they can do to help out, but realistically most people will only engage with our collection through the database. More than anything else, I’m a lifelong punk fan and I am so psyched to see the connections yielded by this project, personal and musical!