Better Badges: Image as virus

Joly MacFie

New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—A brief personal history of the premier maker of punk badges, 1976–82.

[0.2] Keyword—Fan community

MacFie, Joly. 2014. "Better Badges: Image as Virus." In "Fandom and/as Labor," edited by Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 15.

[1] In 1976 I founded Better Badges, a publisher/marketer of promotional button badges based in London, UK. I had a background in the British underground, and I was very much inspired by "people power" campaigns—the principle, embodied in the protest movement, of bottom-up change—which I wanted to apply to music. It happened to coincide with the first stirrings of punk rock, and badges became a mainstay of that movement, especially in the early days when little else in the way of product was available.

Button badge depicting a newspaper clipping with the headline 'Punk Rock Rotten Razored' with 'No Future' superimposed in blue ink.

Figure 1. A rare Better Badge, part of a batch that sold for $500 at Christie's in 2008. [View larger image.]

[2] My founding principle was "Image as Virus, Elitism for All," suggesting that fans could wear and support whatever they liked, without either (a) being at the mercy of promotional largesse, or (b) being gouged by merchandisers. The idea was that fans, rather than industry gatekeepers, could dictate trends.

[3] Some designs I created; some were supplied by bands; some by fans. I had a stall at the London Roundhouse concert venue, and mail order took off. I ran a Top Ten of the most popular badges in the weekly music newspaper, NME.

[4] I attempted, after a fashion, to pay royalties, to designers, bands, or both, but it was patchy and impossible to administer. The reality was that if, say, Patti Smith needed help with her hotel bill, or The Clash needed to get their van to Europe, I coughed up. Others, like the Sex Pistols, took payment in kind. The acts that did demand accounting were somehow never those that had wide support, so it was never an issue.

[5] However, things came to a head with Joy Division—not over money, but over the Factory Records policy of treating all output as fine art. In the early days, they had supplied designs; later I did them. They were in a dilemma whether to give the badges FAC numbers like the rest of their catalog. Eventually, after a sit-down, it was concluded that the badges were, like fanzines, outside activity. It was not, as Stiff Records, another close associate, termed it "dumping on the people" but a form of feedback and back-channel promotion. So I threw out royalties and established a fresh system. Any new design accepted would get awarded 200 free badges to the band and samples provided to the designer. This worked very well.

A collection of twelve 'Joy Division' button badges with various logos.

Figure 2. The original Joy Division set. [View larger image.]

[6] I was successful enough to purchase a printing plant. As badges became more common and commoditized, I turned to printing fanzines as a way to maintain street cred as an underground medium. I settled on a similar deal for fanzines. I would cover setup, plates, and camera work, and finance the print run. There were flat rates for publisher, wholesale, retail. Rapidly, we were producing a steady stream, three or four titles and 10,000 copies per week.

Fanzine cover with overlapping images of young adults in blue, green and rust, reading 'CHAINSAW, no. 10, august 1980, 25p, AU PAIRS DISQUE ATTACK

Fanzine cover reading 'Jamming! No. 11, 25p' featuring four stylized images of television screens depicting four bands: The Shout, Dead Kennedys, The Beat, Zeitgeist.

Fanzine cover reading 'Toxic Grafity, no more than 70p, inc. M.R.R., A Reality of Horror' featuring an anarchy symbol containing the letters PE CE to spell out 'peace'. Typewritten text of fanzine contents visible but difficult to read in image.

Figures 3–5. Fanzines produced at Better Badges. [View larger image (3). View larger image (4). View larger image (5).]

[7] The economics were always peculiar, in that one could print 24 badges on one sheet and sell them at 20p each, or print one fanzine on 12 sheets double-sided, which still sold for the same 20p. The badges subsidized the zines with ads and a distribution avenue, and the zines did practically break even.

[8] Of course, and this addresses the fandom as labor theme, the fanzine publishers were never paid beyond what they made from hawking a few copies. I used to good-humoredly mock them when they would arrive breathless from Rough Trade (the music store a block away) clutching a couple of promo 45s. "Oh look, they gave me review copies!" The fact was the rapidly growing UK independent record business had established itself almost entirely via peer promotion, seeded by cassette swapping, fanzines, and badges.

[9] There is a wider truth that it was new technologies, widely available dual-cassette decks, cheap "instant" printing, and Xerox (especially for resizing graphics) that enabled all that pioneering p2p, the sum of which led to a hijacking of the cultural agenda beyond my wildest dreams.

[10] At the end of the decade, just like notes being passed round at the back of class eventually becoming adopted as curricula, the underground became overground, and thus beyond such activity. The most egregious example of this was Adam and The Ants, in 1980 the top-selling badge act and fanzine subject. Overnight, they suddenly went from cult heroes to genuine chart toppers. The result was that the punks dropped them like a stone. Badge sales stopped dead. Kids everywhere were painting out the Antz logos on their jackets and replacing them with Theater of Hate or Killing Joke.

Advertisement for nine Ants badges labelled 'Ants No. 1, Ants No. 2, Ants No. 3, Ants Valise, Ants Phy-si-cal, Ants No. 6, Ant Music, Ants Dirk (2)' also reading 'Available by post from: Better Badges, 286 Portobello Road, London W10 0K, 20p each + 10p max P&P'.

Figure 6. Ants badges. View larger image.

[11] So the other truth, which I learnt early, was that it is not fame that drives fan support but leverage—coolness over hotness.

[12] I gave it up in 1982, having made around 40 million badges, maybe 100,000 zines. I could see the future was online, but that took another 12 years to arrive …