As today’s music culture is often considered a “singles era,” Volume feels like an appropriate new entry into the mix of music magazines. Created by Bloomberg Businessweek employees Alexander Shoukas and Devin Leonard, Volume is a new music publication that focuses each issue on only one artist. The first issue, in fact, is one essay and one photograph, but the results are impactful. The simplicity of Volume recalls early music fanzines (but with much higher production value), and allows the content and design details of each piece to standout. Beyond Volume‘s particular one-subject format, the publication as an object brings something unique. Volume comes as an unfolded press sheet that gives the reader the option to fold the piece down into pages or leave it flat to act as a poster. If Volume is print’s response to a singles culture, then its format is an invitation to the reader to create his or her own remix.
In this interview, I chat with Volume designer Alexander Shoukas about the intention behind the publication, the process of putting together the first issue, and how its DIY format was the result of a happy accident.
Ben Schwartz: To begin, what led you and Devin to start Volume?
Alexander Shoukas: Devin and I have gotten to know each other at Bloomberg Businessweek, where we both currently work (him as a writer and myself as an art director). Not long after I started there in early 2015, I was working with him on features for the magazine. We eventually started talking about and sharing music with each other, and noticed we had a shared enthusiasm for that, as an action. Given his experience in covering musicians (including Taylor Swift, Mike Will, Jay Z/Tidal, and Wu-Tang’s one-of-a-kind record) we thought it could be fun to start a project together, covering artists in a context outside of Businessweek.
Schwartz: How do you see it operating differently from other music publications?
Shoukas: I think that would have to be in its form, which acts as the determining factor for a lot of things. The idea of it started as a single broadsheet from my end, under the guidance that it should be something manageable for us next to our work at the magazine, easy and not too expensive to print (this would not be true), and something that doesn’t feel taxing on the reader. There are swaths of new publications out there, and something about it being concise would serve its approachability, in my opinion. It wasn’t about making something comprehensive, but rather, more gestural. Also, it being a large sheet, I had to think of this idea of the music poster—something that was much more present when I was younger, but I’m not sure if this is so popular anymore. Do fans still get prints of their favorite artists for their wall? Either way, the form was clear early on: a large image on one side (poster) and text on the other (publication).
Schwartz: Any publication is a form of collaboration, and in this case you had previous experience collaborating with Devin at Bloomberg Businessweek. What is the collaborative process like for Volume?
Shoukas: The initial idea, editorially speaking, was that it would cover a number of artists at a time, and the process of piecing together a lineup was a way for us to set the tone and get to know each other’s background and references. It was fun, almost like putting together a playlist, finding the right mix.
Making time is always the key to a self-initiated project, and we adjusted our thinking as the project progressed. I think the best ideas come out of constraints, and when time wasn’t on our side because of work, the idea of having just one subject for each issue emerged. This made a lot of sense not only for our schedules but also in aligning the form: one sheet, one photo, and now, one subject. It would give it further distinction as a publication, and further that idea of it feeling like a gesture.
Schwartz: You also worked as designer at Fantastic Man. Did that influence what you’re doing with Volume?
Shoukas: I think it would be impossible to develop a magazine project without giving a great deal of consideration to my experiences there. Working with Jop van Bennekom taught me to see in a lot of ways—especially when it came to working with photographers and understanding the subtlety images can have. The idea of Volume boiling down to a single subject naturally made me think of Jop’s Re-Magazine and his genius in letting absolute editorial logic dictate form. That thought made me feel like we were on track with something.
Schwartz: What are you looking for when you choose artists to feature?
Shoukas: I don’t think we’ve set a rubric for this, but at this point I would say they are artists that Devin and I share enthusiasm for, who lie in the peripheries of (but not unrelated to) popular music.
Schwartz: I’d love to hear more about how you chose BEA1991 for the inaugural issue? How did you discover her, and what was it like working with her? I know that she is based in Amsterdam and you attended school at Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Was there any overlap there?
Shoukas: In a way, yes. I originally met Bea while living in Amsterdam, but it wasn’t until last year that I had familiarized myself with her work. After seeing the way she gives consideration, and actively involves herself in every part of what she does, it was immediately intriguing to Devin and I, both in the sense that we wanted to learn more about her through the story, and to see what the visual outcome could be for an image.
Schwartz: As you mention in the article, BEA1991 has gained quite a bit of attention as a result of her videos. There is this very visual, very designed aspect about her that includes not only her videos but her fashion as well. Do you see that as being a point of emphasis for Volume, highlighting artists that are tuned into the more visual aspects of his or her work?
Shoukas: With our focus being on music, I think finding an artist as widely versed as BEA1991 would be a difficult standard to set for all of our subjects. I also think her total approach is specific to her work, and not necessarily something we would be looking for in every musician.
Schwartz: Beyond the subject matter, I’m curious as to what role you see artists playing in the creation and production of the publication.
Shoukas: Ideally, the image is an opportunity to bring more from the artist. It should be the counterweight to Devin’s story—and offer just as much insight. This worked out extremely well for the first issue. Knowing BEA1991 was based in Amsterdam, I immediately considered the possibility of pairing her with photographer Qiu Yang, who also happened to be a mutual friend. Part of this project is defining a photographic component, which in a way is being a matchmaker between subject and photographer. This was as far as my role went in creating the image, which was a conscious choice, knowing that what would return would be considered and carefully made.
Schwartz: Could you tell us a bit about the production process? Were there any particular ways that the content influenced the printing and finishing?
Shoukas: We had originally planned for this to be produced in newsprint, as the format was based on a standard broadsheet, but things quickly changed after seeing the results of Qiu and Bea’s work. Based on the color and the quality of the image, I realized the production would have to take on a different form in order to produce the best result. This is where my expectations of a quick and inexpensive print job would go flying out the window, but it was also where the project put me in one of my favorite working scenarios: conceiving new production specifications that are defined through their own logic, and advance my understanding of a particular process. Put simply, because of the composition Qiu had decided on, and the way he distributed color through his incredibly considered lighting configuration, it immediately evoked the idea of printing the image in a different color space, so that I may try and reproduce it most vibrantly. After much research, testing and failing, the image would be printed in three spot colors.
Schwartz: At the release of issue 1, I was especially struck by the DIY fabrication of the publication. I liked the fact that you could roll it up as a poster or fold it down as a reader. This sort of DIY ethos has played a large role in various music genres and subcultures. Was there any specific inspiration for choosing this format?
Shoukas: It’s funny you say this because, though it may have appeared to be the idea, it was the byproduct of an intense run-up to the event, wherein we had to reprint the paper just two days before going to Los Angeles. My first attempt at printing the image went horribly wrong (my fault), and the only way I could convince the printer to do the job again in time was if I requested the sheets unfolded. While it made sense in the end to give people that choice—ultimately giving equal presence to both the image and the text—that’s not at all how it was planned. I’m happy we kept them flat!
Schwartz: I also see a relationship to Volume being a single-subject publication and music fanzines. Is that a culture you were ever into? Would you consider Volume a sort of highly produced fanzine?
Shoukas: I’ve never been directly involved with zine culture—though close enough, you could say, having worked on smaller independently published book projects—but I could see how Volume would fit into that universe, it being so concise. I like that stipulation of “highly produced,” though. I think subconsciously, that would be my approach to zine making.
Schwartz: At the Walker we’ve been talking a lot about Businessweek’s strength in generating cover graphics that both get to the heart of the story attached and evolve into an online poster of sorts. I’m wondering what have you learned from Businessweek that you have carried over into Volume?
Shoukas: Working at Businessweek is like accelerated experience in communication design. Working so quickly, and constantly, directly with others on a weekly publication has been this intense exercise in editorial understanding and effort. I think we both have the ability to quickly discern whether something is working—Devin especially, since he is more experienced. While Volume is a departure in style and purpose, I think the idea of producing it came a lot easier because we’re used to handling a lot more on a regular basis.
Schwartz: To finish things off, what’s next for Volume?
Shoukas: That initial work we did in putting together a lineup appears to have set up something of a roadmap for future issues. I’d say we have plans for at least the next two or three, just based on that. What I find crazy though, is the rate at which music comes in and out of focus now, both albums and artists. At this point, every week presents a new batch of people and their work—most streaming services frame something for their users literally every week—so I’m interested in thinking about how Volume could react, counter, or anticipate this expectation of rapid content.