Q&A: DANIEL BENSON / THE ALBION

In the span of a few short years, print magazine The Albion gave us a lot of material to chew on. We caught up with editor Daniel Benson to look back on it all.

Click below for the Q&A with Daniel, and be sure to check out some back issues RIGHT HERE.

Daniel, thanks for taking the time to do this random Q&A about a beloved shuttered publication. What’s been keeping you busy since your time working in BMX?

I’m still working as a photographer, but shooting mainly fashion these days.

For those unfamiliar with the history, please give us a brief origin story of the magazine. How did it come about, what led to its creation, who were the players,  etc…

It was born out of a few things, but one of the defining factors for myself was a skepticism of the way print was going, or had gone. I was working as a freelancer for Ride UK at the time and the mag had just been bought out by a venture capital company, along with a bunch of other snow, surf and skate titles. It was during the pre production to a Ride to Glory trip that I was told that all freelancers would need to take a cut on pay as they’d be a lot of freelancers on this issue and the editorial budget couldn’t stretch to the usual rates. That didn’t bother me too much, although I knew it was high grossing issue, advertising wise, so I was a little unsure as to why we’d be getting paid less. Anyway, the trip happened and the winning team walked away with about £500 per rider, maybe even less. I later found out that the main sponsor, some sweet company, had thrown about 50k at that issue. It didn’t really balance out that riders would be getting paid so little whilst the shareholders at the publishing house reaped all the rewards. I suppose it was my first tangible experience of the murky world of free market capitalism. I think at the time I was probably pretty apathetic to politics on a global or even local level, but the left wing views of my parents had probably had enough of an effect on me to see this encroachment by big capital in BMX was something to be skeptical about. I’d look at Dig too and I’d become a little dubious about it’s associations with Nike. Not so much because it was Nike getting involved in BMX, but because it was in Dig, which seemed, at the time at least, a bit antithetical to what I’d grown up thinking Dig was all about. I think I’d have been fine if they’d put a bunch of  ads in Ride every month, which seems hypocritical in a way. Maybe I thought Dig was too sacrosanct to be messing with huge corporations, that was for the Ride UK and US’s, if that makes sense? It’s weird to think that stuff even bothered me thinking back, but I’m glad it did. Anyway, there was that stuff and also, personally, just wanting a change, have a bit more control over things editorially and also work on something that I thought represented the people close to me a bit better. 

It was Banners (Steve Bancroft), the editor of Ride at the time, who came to me suggested starting something up. I had a lot of respect for Banners, both as a rider and a magazine editor. Ride UK had a habit of sending people mad and Steve (I think) managed to work his way through it a bit tortured but generally unscathed. He was really passionate about BMX, had an excellent bullshit detector and also owned a speedboat. He suggested George Marshall too, who at the time was sort of doing a similar job as me at Ride, as a senior contributor. George’s work was (and still is) pretty impeccable, so it was already sounding good. In the background was Tim March, 80s racer legend who I knew through Banners and also my mate Rhys. Tim had run the ads at Ride years back and Banners said he’d be doing the same. Tim had this amazing/weird rasputin-y vibe. There were rumours he brewed his own acid in a library at his house (although I think he actually lived in a bungalow) and would throw in the odd 13th Floor Elevators lyric in mid conversation during meetings. Tim would come to the meetings wearing some really out there garms. Once he turned up looking like he’d just been hunting in full tweed. The next time, a full Adidas Tracksuit, shell toe Adidas trainers, a red flex fit and this huge, grey beard. Run DMC meets ZZ Top. 

The Albion hit us with insightful long form material, broad subject matter and even stirred up the waters a bit. Was The Albion your vehicle to provide the content you guys always wanted to make, but couldn’t at previous publications? Or was it a completely different aggressive goal to shake things up?

Yeah, before issue one we’d meet in a pub called The Albion by Winchester Train station and have meetings where we’d really work out what we didn’t want to be, more than what we wanted to be. We wanted to concentrate on the writing more as there seemed to be this shift to articles just been about nice photos and the writing was this boilerplate filler to sit around them. I think we just thought a magazine could be curated a little better, so that all the elements that went into it had a more consistent scrutiny. It obviously helped that we all enjoyed the writing part, but we spent a long time, possibly the most time, working out how it would look, rather than some overarching editorial strategy. Although we still spoke about it at great lengths, I think we all tacitly knew how we wanted The Albion to feel, editorially. The design was something that required a lot of scrutiny from all of us until we got it somewhere we were happy with.

Considering the content, I’d imagine the Albion had a mostly older audience, or young kids who really really enjoyed reading. Did you guys ever feel the need to provide more fluff in order to balance out the bigger features? What feedback have you gotten through the years?

I think we just thought if you wanted fluff you could read one of the many other magazines out there during that period. There was too much choice at the time to be putting out the same stuff as someone else, so we focused on the longer articles. The “quitters” feature always went down well and that was only a page or two. And road trip articles tended to be a little less text heavy and more focused on the photos. What was rewarding to find, was there were young kids reading the magazine simply because they were obsessed with BMX, in the same way I was when I was young. I’d read any BMX media I could get my hands on, cover to cover, internet page to internet page. There seemed to be this quite pervasive assertion that young riders didn’t want to read BMX magazines. BMX magazines had become visual, pictorial. I think we just wanted to address that, as we didn’t see it to be true.

The Albion’s main approach was to visit and spend time with your subjects. Were most people open to this and what was your favorite article/experience that you worked on?

Going over to stay with Eddie Cleveland was one of the best. I guess because it was my first trip for The Albion, but also because he was great to be around. Ratty as fuck, a bit of a scumbag but in the best possible way. I loved spending time with him. He was great. The first thing – actual first thing – he asked when I got in his car when he picked me up from SF was if I was old enough to drink. I think I was older than he was. Edwin was great too. Again, just getting hammered drunk in New York (see a theme here?). All the NY trips were good. Spending time with Bob in New Jersey and driving around in that van he had, showing me some of the most eye opening poverty i’d ever witnessed anywhere in the world. Argentina with the United team was great…. It was all good, I enjoyed every article I worked on. Riding wise, Garrett Reynolds was so fucking good it was scary. From a photographic point of view, it was a total gift to be able to spend one, two, maybe three weeks with a person or a group of people and just be able to shoot them all day and night. I really didn’t take enough advantage of that in hindsight. I’d love to have that sort of access again, I don’t really get that anymore. I was still really into BMX photography, as in the actual riding shots. I didn’t give enough thought to the in between moments – portraits, nights out, all that sort of stuff. I always tended to have a camera on me, I just wish i’d shot loads more, like ten times as much as I did. You don’t get that many chances to spend that sort of time with people and have this access to photograph their life, especially not with interesting, talented people going about their days. I think I was so involved in it, it just seemed normal when it was actually anything but.

Which was your least favorite or hardest article/experience?

Some of the more historical pieces we decided to do. Like the history of BMX magazines. That was a headache. Probably could’ve skipped that one. 

It wasn’t yours, but I remember the Steven Hamilton article had people talking and I definitely read it with my jaw on the floor. You guys definitely got some shit for that one, yeah?

Yeah I guess we did. Maybe not shit, but more, ‘I can’t believe you ran that’. It was a tricky subject for a BMX magazine to run with, maybe it could’ve been dealt with better, a little less partisan and a bit more objective maybe. I don’t think it would’ve read much different though. Regardless, it’s good to see Steven riding still. To be fair to Banners, he always wanted to try and get something that broke the mold a bit, which from a journalistic point of view is positive. He had no agenda going to meet Steven, but once Steven had agreed to it and Banners had visited, he felt compelled to write about that experience. It’s worth pointing out that Banners also did the interview with Ian Schwartz, another rider of equal talent who just packed it all in and turned his back on it. I really liked that article, but because it lacks the drama of the Hamilton piece – essentially Ian was living pretty much off the grid running a farm and having a nice life –  it never gets mentioned. I guess the obvious point to that comparison is people like drama. 

Were there other articles or features that had the crew conflicted and didn’t make it to print for one reason or another?

Nothing like the piece with Hamilton, but a couple caused us grief. We sort of threw Robbie Morales under the bus by interviewing him first about the whole acrimonious break up from S&M and the starting of Cult. Even back then, a year or two in you could tell Robbie knew what he was doing and Cult was going to be massive, so Robbie was just keen to focus on the future and where Cult was going. Fair enough. Moeller went the other way and used it as a mouthpiece to vent on Robbie.  Obviously we ran it but in hindsight we could’ve had a bit more journalistic foresight and realized it was probably Moeller who might be angry, given Robbie had left FIT, so maybe let him go first. Robbie was always understandably skeptical of us after that.

The covers were also always a headache as we had given ourselves license to do whatever we wanted, which sometimes made it difficult to work out exactly what that was. Some looked great though, the jacket, the illustrations. Others, not so good.

I was so into the look and layout of The Albion that I interviewed Robert Loeber (art director) back in 2011. Did you know he would be the right person to nail the aesthetic you guys were after?

Rob made it looks great. It was a tough task for him as the articles were often so text heavy that it’d leave him little room to work with the design. We must’ve been really hard to work with too, very passionate about every detail and all terrible on deadlines. George was so bad. He had this inhuman ability to just stay up for about three nights straight on deadline ‘day’ finishing stuff off that should’ve been done ages ago. But to be fair to George, he was the glue that held a lot of the mag together I thought. Rob made it look good, we sorted the articles and then George would post produce it all and send it to print. He’d done it before for Nature magazine so those skills were so helpful when we came to do it.

One thing I always remember looking forward to was the covers. The Albion always had unique cover art/imagery for a BMX magazine, even though no actions shots ever graced the front. Was this on purpose?

Yeah, I can’t remember exactly how or why we came to that decision, but I thought it was nice move. I guess it was another thing that set us apart from the crowd a bit. Like I mentioned before though, they were very hit and miss. 

The Albion adopted the “free” business model, which I’m sure relied heavily on advertising. How was industry support for the magazine?

It seemed like the only way to go at the time as everyone else (bar Case) still had a cover price. Everyone was really supportive. All the distros, shops and individual brands that advertised I can’t thank enough. Most supported it through every issue, give or take. It seems like BMX just hit a rut after the first year or so and people tightened their belts a bit with print advertising.

Did support wane over time with the internet becoming more of a monster?

Yeah of course. We never really worked out how to approach our presence on the internet.  None of us really came from that background so we always felt one step behind with how to do it successfully without taking the focus too far away from the print magazine. Maybe we were just too precious with print and didn’t see that it could be done well online. A friend sent me THIS ARTICLE – a great read, but I also loved the format. We’d always talk about the smell, the tangibility and finiteness of a print magazine, but it all seems a little anachronistic these days. I think people who are around my age, mid 30s and older, it just took us a while to realize print had become the niche market.

Media seems to be ever changing, what are your thoughts on the BMX landscape these days? 

When I stopped doing the magazine, I was so burnt out with BMX in general I just turned my back on it, so I don’t know too much about what’s going on. I’ve gotten into a habit of following trails riders on Instagram. Maybe because watching somebody blasting through a set of jumps looks as good now as it did when I started riding in the late 90s. I doesn’t change much so I think I still understand it. As far as the media goes, professional riders are so good at selling themselves on social media that it’s almost rendered any media destination like a website or magazine a little purposeless. I don’t mean in any way that they shouldn’t be around, it just must be very difficult to compete with the sort of gratification on demand that places like Instagram provide. I think the things that have massively affected BMX are more symptomatic of youth culture as a whole. I’m careful not to say it’s a change for the worse. What happens is we don’t change and things move past us, and that lack of understanding of something we thought we knew well creates this dissonance. When we see riders pushing their personal ‘brand’, it’s born out of something much bigger than riding, or even action sports. There’s a touch of solipsism to it that I find a bit unnerving, especially in something as collective as riding, but it’s still good that kids are getting into BMX in the first place and not sitting talking through a computer headset all the time. Spending time outside, exercising, socializing, travelling. Essentially that part is no different. 

Ultimately, what caused The Albion to pack it in?

Money, I guess. It got proper shady and bitter at the end. In all honesty I don’t really know how it all went to shit. People were owed money, everyone was in debt. I had a shitty phone call with Tim as it was all falling to pieces and after that I pretty much packed it in. I called the photographer i’d assisted intermittently between doing work for The Albion, but not for a good year or two, and asked if he had any work going. He sort of laughed as he was surprised for the call, but just said, ‘yep, put all next week in your diary’ and I just went straight back into assisting, almost like The Albion never happened. George was the sort of last one to ‘leave’. Banners saw that it was fucked and said he was done. George was still booking flights for what would be issue 18 I think, I don’t think he wanted to believe it was done. I didn’t speak to anyone for a long time after that. I stayed friends with George and Banners but never spoke to Tim again. I really resented Tim for a good few years after, as something didn’t add up with how it all broke down. We were always kept out of the money side of things, for better or worse. I don’t really care at all anymore, no hard feelings. I’m actually really glad I’m not running a BMX magazine anymore, or working in BMX for that matter. I love riding, it’s by far the most rewarding thing i’ve ever gotten involved in, but i’m happy to be doing something different these days. Still, not to make it all sound a bit stereotypical, but I still wouldn’t change any of it.  

The Albion was an interesting moment in time for BMX media. From my perspective, each new issue was heavily sought after, especially in the States where they were hard to get. I had to hoard my promo copy heavy and I still have every issue saved in a box. This is surely a testament to the work you guys put in. Its been about 6-7 years now since the last issue. What comes to mind as you look back on your contributions to BMX?

That’s nice to know, at least someone’s archived it. We really wanted to push it in the US, it seemed like the next logical step. We launched issue 7 there, which was a really good issue – Big pieces on Garrett Reynolds, Van Homan, Geoff Slattery, Jimmy Levan and some others, but it sort of fell a bit flat. George and I went to out to Interbike and put the feelers out for ads. Lots of people were keen, I remember Ron Bonner liked it that much his tooth fell out mid conversation whilst he was saying how much he liked it. He was in, FBM, Kink, Stu, Ian and Dean put ads in the US issue as well as the UK issue which was great. Animal…. But it wasn’t quite enough. A few brands we thought might be in, namely S&M, decided against it. That was tough because we’d given them a decent amount of coverage. Cult were still a bit skeptical of us, understandably. Joe Rich was too, for the whole Hamilton thing, so that wasn’t going to happen with T1. I don’t think we could sort it with companies like Vans either, although to be fair they were always in the UK issue. Things were going pretty well until issue 7 and it just sort of plateaued a bit after that, then started running downhill from Issue 9 or 10. Like I mentioned before though, i’m glad it didn’t take off in the US, or that we never got our heads around the digital side of things (although the digi reader figure via Issuu were always huge, something we never really pushed, marketing wise). I might still be doing the Albion now if those things worked out. An unsettling thought!

As far as contributions go, there was over a decade before The Albion where I was mainly just focused on riding and taking photos intermittently for Ride UK. It probably goes without saying, but the riding part of the 17 or 18 years I was involved in BMX were by far the most rewarding. Being part of the whole Hate House / Voices / Tomorrow We Work chapter in Sheffield probably felt the best. That was a beautiful time to be part of. 

Thanks Daniel, anything to add before we wrap this up? 

Nah, I think I’ve said enough.

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