Some time in the future we'll give a full history and explanation of why we do this but for the moment content yourselves with the knowledge that we are not professionals or even full timers. Active has always been a voluntary not for profit affair that may be best described as a "hobby gone mad".
In the meantime you may care to read the interview below, done a few years ago.
By Noah Eber-Schmid
Fierce independence and a do-it-yourself ethic are the core values of any punk endeavor. They are the key ingredients for the perfectly punk band, artist, or writer and they spring from an idealism that seeks to nourish the individual as a unique person. But along with the multitudes of creative individuals and perspectives that emerged from punk, there has always been the problem of how to share the products and perspectives of punk rock creativity. So alongside the DIY approach to music, art, and literature, there evolved a DIY approach to the dark and dreary "business" end of distribution in the punk rock realm. Sometimes, the often-overlooked job of distribution has as much of the idealism, romance, and thirst for change as that which witnessed in bands and artists who speak of change and hope for a better tomorrow. But staying punk and sticking to punk ethics can be a difficult task for an inherently business operation.
“We provide information, that’s why what we do is so important to us. We do the punk thing but we’re about spreading alternative ideas. So many kids today don’t read and don’t ask questions and that’s why what we do is so simple and so beautiful.” The high-rise flat in Hackney is overstuffed with cardboard boxes full of merchandise: badges, CDs, books, pamphlets, stickers, posters, placards, and other assorted paraphernalia. The walls are showcases where a multitude of concert posters, album promotions, and souvenirs of political activism cover the halls and hide the standard apartment complex veneer beneath a pictorial history of radical politics and punk music.
Walking down the crowded hallway (fighting for space between a couple of bikes and a trail of boxes that frames the path), I notice that there is a room off to the left, dark, but the contents edge their way out into the hall, clearly making their presence known. I move toward the end of the flat and there is a small ubiquitous compact apartment kitchen and an open room with a lofted shelf, couch, computer, and windowed nook that looks out over the backdrop of North London. It is in this cluttered apartment (which doubles as a storage facility) where Jon and Marta Active reside, each composing one-half of the devoted workforce of Active Distribution, a small but well-known grass-roots and not-for-profit punk music and radical literature distributor based out of London. From their high-rise fortress, a towering apartment complex, Jon and Marta run their distro (that delicious bit of cut-down punk parlance for distributor.) It is there, amongst the stickers, CDs, piles of punk magazines, and mountains of books that they spend a tremendous amount of time sorting, packaging, labeling, filing, and accounting for this plethora of material that makes up their inventory—actions in-keeping with their purpose of fertilizing the already sown seeds of discontent.
Jon Active is a lanky man with long tattered hair and pasty-white British skin. Perpetually casual, he has a preference for black trousers and sleeveless t-shirts with band logos scrawled across the front. It’s doubtful that Active is his true surname, but if nothing else it serves as a more than adequate description of his life for the last twenty-something years. When he was young, the Cold War and the grey skies over Britain did little to hide the ever-looming threat of total nuclear annihilation. These happy thoughts raged through the mind of the young English schoolboy who read too much and had too many opinions: “I started getting leaflets and badges from the local CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) contact. Back then we were all pretty sure we were about to get blown up by the evil Americans and Russians who were talking about having a tactical nuclear war to decide who was going to rule the world, and that meant us getting blown to smithereens. Mutually assured destruction meant mutually assured European destruction.” For Jon, the possibility of perishing in the blaze of a nuclear holocaust provided more than enough impetus to engage in political discourse, even if it landed him in hot water in school and at home. The heat could be scalding at times, like when his loving parents readily turned him in for his participation in a painstakingly detailed guerilla campaign of political graffiti. It was the looming threat of destruction that launched him into a life of politics, literature, and punk music. “I got into the political stuff by reading books and coming across all sorts of literature and new ideas. Even when I started listening to punk music, I had already started by reading books. The music was like ‘Wow, these guys are fucking angry’, but it was reading the sleeve notes and what they were singing about that ‘called to me,’ that recognition of someone vocalizing and writing what you’re feeling, that’s very powerful and that’s what punk did for me.”
In 1985 when he started attending University at Swansea in Wales, Jon began the first incarnation of the distro that would come to consume his life. At school he became involved with establishing an animal rights group, Swansea Hunt Saboteurs. The group would organize to oppose the controversial English tradition of fox hunting and advocate a general program of animal rights campaigning. At the same time, Jon, a major in anthropology, became more and more involved with the politics of anarchism, starting an anarchist group at school and eventually opening a traveling bookstore under the Swansea Hunt Saboteur name. At the time, Swansea lacked an outlet where hungry minds turning to the Left could go to digest dense radical anarchist theory or find books with alternative historical and contemporary perspectives. Having nowhere to turn to get a Left-wing fix, Jon took it upon himself to find the books and spread the word, so just like when he was fifteen, he started handing out flyers and getting into trouble.
Hiking up the road and hitching rides along the motorway, Jon would journey north to London with empty bags and small wads of cash. There, he’d make his way to Freedom Books and a few other shops and buy up boxes of the sorts of books he wanted to read and share with co-conspirators and inquiring minds in Swansea. Once his pockets were empty and his bags filled to the brim, he’d head back to the motor-way and hitchhike all the way down to Swansea, hopefully in time for class the next day. Out of boxes in his room, much like today, Jon started distributing heaps of literature to inquiring minds. It was in 1989 after finishing school that he found himself living in London and still distributing books. That year he met up with a punk woman from Italy who had been running her own distribution catalogue called Perjury from a squatted house in North London, distributing punk rock records and t-shirts out of boxes in her room. Though the relationship only lasted a year, it gave birth to Active Distribution which has now been around for more than fifteen years. “She was very strong on the whole Do-It-Yourself punk ethic and I had just been doing the literature thing and not making any money. It took a long time to sync everything but it all blended together—the literature and the punk element.” From its humble beginnings out of bedrooms in a dormitory and a squatted home, Active Distribution is the product of hard work and the marriage of literature and punk rock.
“I’ve always felt that it’s better to affect the mind of one person, to open up one person to different ways of thinking and looking at things…The revolution might not come in my lifetime, you might not be able to change the world, but if you’ve shown someone something new and different and good, then I’ve done my job.” For Jon, since day one, it has always been about the books. Active is primarily known to its customers as a foremost distributor of punk rock wares and as a notoriously anti-capitalist oriented non-profit organization. But for Jon, as much as he obviously loves punk music (“I don’t know where I would be without my punk rock tunes” he readily admits in mocking tones), the punk stuff, the pins, the badges, the t-shirts, CDs, etc. are more of a tool to attract the attention of people to the books, books that might change the way someone looks at the world, like they did and continue to do for him: “The way I look at it, you have to attack on all fronts and one of the most important fronts is in the mind. Your own consciousness, and your own abilities to think for yourself…to act in a way that is revolutionary.” Amidst the black clothing, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and cynical punk rock veneer, one can find a man of subtle tones. Jon loves to talk and his subjects are legion: the astute political observer decries the barbarism and horrors of war in Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the philosopher preaches the illegitimacy of the State and the capitalist system, the hippy sings of animal rights and protection of the environment, and the punk just sneers, spits, and wages a daily war against any authority in his path. But, all these thoughts unite under his love of literature. When he talks about books, he shows a child-like awe in his eyes as he throws up his arms and raises his brow, ‘wow’s abounding in his speech.
When I walk through the door of the apartment headquarters of Active Distribution, Jon’s arms reach out to invite me in and he continues down the hall to set down some boxes and offer me a drink. Peering around the corner I find Marta hard at work and hovering close to the wall of the apartment’s home made storage room reading off an inventory list in the dim light. Copies of classic texts from the anarchist cannon by Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin take up shelf space with the latest sociopolitical releases from AK Press (an international collectively run anarchist publishing group and a main supplier to Active Distribution), while books on animal rights and revolutionary struggle are scattered on the floor. Marta looks up from the lists and checks the writing to the bookshelves that line the walls and the center of the room (shelves Jon makes himself, a display of his own brand of rugged individualism). “Sometimes it’s hard to separate the personal space from the office, from Active. This flat is basically a storage space where we live,” Marta explains in a tired tone, exhausted from packing with hours still to go. Jon emerges from the kitchen with the courteous glass of water in hand, typically English, he also offers tea (and in England, sometimes even the punks offer “a spot of tea.”) Tonight is a quiet Thursday evening, which John jokingly laments, “Thursday night in most houses; go to a movie, no. Go out for dinner, no. Play a game of chess, no. Here at the Active household, we’re taking inventory and preparing shipments” all in the hope of nourishing the skeptic minds of obstinate punk youths the world over. Tonight, Jon and Marta are busily packing and counting in order to get a shipment of CDs and books ready to be picked up and transported via Punk Post, a term Jon mockingly takes credit for. “It’s simple really; bands crisscross all over the world on tours and a lot of them are willing to help out and support the punk community, so basically the idea is that bands and people whenever they travel take a shipment and drop it off wherever they’re going where someone will pick it up.”
In some sense, the Punk Post sounds like an ingeniously childish and clever attempt at cutting costs and doing business, but for Jon and Marta, this endeavor is a genuine example of the ethics and purpose of Active Distribution. For them, the Punk Post is an expression of the punk ethic of Do-It-Yourself—the closest thing resembling a code that guides the work of Active Distribution. On the most basic level Do-It-Yourself (DIY) is about problem solving. Good ole’ rugged individualism comes into the mix when people choose to directly solve a problem or endeavor to satisfy a need themselves without shifting responsibility for the solution to other people. Most of the time the reasoning behind choosing to do something yourself stems from a cost-benefit analysis where its more efficient to do something yourself than to mete out the task to other parties. But DIY as a punk ethic (though not uniquely punk) is more about philosophy than it is about building your own shelves to save a little bit of pocket change. DIY as a choice can be out of necessity or efficiency, but as punk ethic, DIY is about self-empowerment and a vehement rejection of authority, a “don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of it” attitude. The basic point of the DIY punk ethic is the notion of taking control of your own life and having a direct impact on decisions that affect you and your community. DIY is a rebellious spirit of democracy in action and it’s an ethic that’s been guiding the Actives and punks around the world for years.
From the romantic idealism that pours from his mouth, it is obvious that Jon looks at Active Distribution as a small part in a revolutionary struggle to affect the minds of individuals and masses alike. But ask him outright what the point of Active Distribution is and a more muddled uncertainty comes through. Regardless, the closest approximation to the purpose of Active Distribution is simply to distribute radical literature and punk culture to as many people as possible. But aside from the standard online and mail catalogues, Active Distribution also helps build up other small, independent, and DIY distribution groups across the globe. The Punk Post grew out of a necessity to reach small groups and individuals willing to put in the time and energy necessary to run a distro, without falling into the traps and pitfalls of everyday small-businesses. For those of us who didn’t study economics, a basic explanation: Active Distribution buys radical sociopolitical and punk rock literature, CDs, etc. at cheaper wholesale rates, then sells them for little to no mark up (usually between five to ten pence or ten to twenty US cents) to customers. It is a non-profit take on basic capitalism, except in capitalism, the goal is to make a profit off of the selling of commodities in order to increase the capital invested to purchase products and continue the cycle (polemical blahs and intricacies aside). With Active, the goals are to keep prices as low as possible, make absolutely no money, hope to break even, and help in getting progressive and radical books and music out across the world to people who might have no other way to get their hands on it. “We only mark up the wholesale prices in order to cover shipping, boxes, and other expenses. We take no money from what we sell and remain a truly volunteer run non-profit organization” Jon proudly proclaims. From the beginning, Jon, and now with the help of Marta, have endeavored to keep the prices of everything Active sells low, all for the purpose of getting the literature and material Active distributes out, not for passive consumption, but active meditation and inspiration. “We’re not here to make money, but even though we don’t make a profit off of anything, we’re still constrained by money; we may not like capitalism but we still have to pay for things.”
I’m sitting atop a makeshift chair in the nook of their crowded room; there are noticeable rows and piles of unmarked silver bags strewn about the floor all around me. Some of the bags are packed neatly in a pile of large boxes, which Jon continues to add to in a seemingly endless stream of cardboard and coffee. The squared silver bags are just another part of the political activism and pseudo-consumerism engaged in by Active Distribution. Tightly packed in each air-tight silver package are two-hundred and fifty grams of the finest ground coffee beans, direct from autonomous coffee growing collectives in the Chiapas region of Mexico, home to coffee, bananas, and indigenous insurrection. With a small pile of the unmarked silver coffee bags in her lap, Marta sits on the couch carefully and attentively placing colorful labels that portray scenes of indigenous Mexican life or cartoon depictions of Emiliano Zapata on each of the silver bags that grace her hands. Sunday afternoons in this Hackney household are reserved for catching up on the nitty-gritty of the home-grown distro. Without a workforce and almost exclusively maintained by Jon and Marta, the workload of Active Distribution, from accounting and technical issues to the act of assembling, falls entirely on the shoulders of these two committed people. Today (and everyday), the task of unpacking, shipping, and labeling each of the silver bags of ground organic “fair trade” coffee (coffee beans certified to meet relatively higher standards of equitable wages and prices paid to third world producers) is the work of both Jon and Marta on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Selling coffee might not be politically en vogue this revolutionary season, but as Jon (and any Third World Latin American or African activist) would be right to point out, coffee, next to oil, is one of the world’s most traded commodities. The coffee distributed by Active Distribution is no ordinary bag of chic organic fair-trade coffee. Rather, these beans trace their direct lineage to the insurrectionary region of Chiapas, Mexico, and are produced by autonomous collectives of coffee growers in conjunction with the social and community projects of the well-known Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or Zapatistas (EZLN). Active Distribution began selling the coffee in support of the Zapatista movement, picking up the distribution after an anarchist group, The Wombles, left off. Their website proudly proclaims their support for the Zapatista insurrection: “We have supported the EZLN indigenous struggle in Mexico ever since hearing about it on the BBC World Service on day one…We have no doubts about the value this coffee plays in supporting the revolutionary struggle both in Mexico and worldwide.” But Jon’s coffee comments also betray a softly awed opinion: “I don’t actually drink coffee. My personal interest isn’t that strong. But the coffee is something really cool and I feel really good that I can be involved with this project and help out. The Zapatistas were and are a really strong source of inspiration for me ever since they sprang out of the jungle and began issuing communiqués to the world.”
In many ways, Active Distribution is like any other distributor, replete with the normal ups and downs of an average entrepreneurial business venture. “There have been disagreements about keeping prices low and how to keep the thing [Active Distribution] going,” Jon comments. But while the everyday business does indeed mimic that of any other business, the organization is fiercely “anti-business,” a home-grown not-for-profit venture meant to contribute to the promotion of radical, progressive, and alternative viewpoints on culture, politics, and the world. Such a tightrope walk between practical business and punk ethic hasn’t always been the easiest course, and Marta can effortlessly call to mind the day-to-day problems: “The main problem is space. It limits us to the biggest degree. We’ve had various people help us over the years but there’s never been long term help; it’s basically just the two of us. Just making everything happen and trying to make everything as efficient as you can is the major problem; it’s too much for two people as it is.”
Marta is a diminutive woman with delicate features accompanied by an intellectual learning curve of self-education (an admirable proficiency in self-taught English and a childhood literary repertoire founded on early readings of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy) and a history of involvement with punk in Poland. She came to the United Kingdom at the end of nineteen ninety-eight and moved in with Jon. The loving relationship resulted in romance and an intimate involvement with the distro. “When I moved in and we started going out together, I think Jon spent all his time doing Active and if I wanted a bit more time with Jon to go to the movies or whatever, I had to help him out.” But Marta’s initially coy involvement with the entity that would come to take an enormous amount of her time is more of a logical continuation of her prior activities in Poland. In Poland, Marta helped to run a small distro named Malaria that sold punk records and t-shirts from mail order catalogues and stalls she would set up all across the country wherever punks were having shows. Her experience with Malaria made her an incredible asset to the development of Active Distribution but has also brought in some controversy. “In Poland I did this for a living, just scraping by, I never imagined it as a business, but I didn’t see anything wrong with putting all your time in and charging enough to pay for your living expenses. Jon and I have never agreed on this, I don’t see a problem living off this. Making a living out of doing what you’re already doing. The way I see it, on the other hand, when what you do doesn’t provide for you, you have to do something else. Jon and I both have jobs in addition to this job. If your revolutionary job or your punk rock job doesn’t pay the rent, you have to get a job for ‘The Man.’ I don’t see anything wrong with charging a bit more so I can devote even more time to this job and not have to work the other job. I’m not talking big money, just enough to get by. I don’t mind doing this voluntarily but I see both sides and I can argue it from both ways because I’ve done both. When I did this in Poland working with Malaria [the distro not the disease], the prices we had were not rip off prices, they were normal prices, and we worked so hard and traveled all over setting up stalls at shows so we were able to pay our expenses. Jon has a different point of view, not that I’m arguing that I should get more out of it. But it’s a constant fight about the prices and a struggle. I think the prices should be ten to fifteen pence more, I think people would pay it and Active could use a bit of generated income. I think we’re losing money and I don’t want to lose money.”
When Marta talks about the conflict over money, it’s a genuinely sincere conversation. When she speaks about price differences and just compensation for time and energy, it’s more reminiscent of the all-American dream of stable finances then a rapacious pursuit of capital and wealth. “I just think that my time is being wasted if I pour all this energy and effort into something if it’s losing money; I’m tired of losing money.” It’s conversations like these when commitment and interpretation of ethics comes to the forefront; Jon’s eyebrows raise and his jaw drops quickly, turning to a smile as he tosses his arms up; “But that’s inherently wrong.” The romantic idealist is making his rounds.
Marta sometimes feels pushed to explain what she means: “The money isn’t wasted, that’s not what I meant. What if we go bankrupt because someone we trusted couldn’t pay?”
But Jon doesn’t quit; “It’s not about the money in any way. We’re not going bankrupt; we’re not big enough to be going bankrupt. All the money in and out of Active is separate from anything else. We’re not loosing money.”
“Well what about when we owe people money, what if we don’t have it in the Active Account…”
“Then we find a way to pay it just like I’ve always done.” The fight is a lover’s quarrel and the idealism comes through, but beyond being a sign that the revolutionary Active couple is as ordinary as every other, the other meaning is clear; Active Distribution is a personal labor and a true commitment without monetary considerations, and if that means paying out of pocket to get books out to people that will read them then that’s a price well paid. “The DIY ethic is not just about doing it yourself. It’s about doing it yourself with an attitude that is anti-capitalist, anti-profit, an attitude that is ‘I do what I’m doing because I believe in what I’m doing,’ it can’t be about making money.”
There have been times when Active Distribution has indeed lost money, and as you read this piece, there are outstanding debts owed to Jon and Marta that will never be paid. “We try and help a lot of people out and sometimes it just doesn’t work” Jon mentions, as he recalls the tale of a young Croat who turned up at a show in France looking to start his own version of Active Distribution that could reach the contingents of Croatian punks. “A guy from Croatia contacted me and one day he met us at a stall we were doing in Dijon. This guy had hitchhiked form Croatia and he had a red old school army jacket on. He came with empty bags to get stuff and I thought ‘this was great’ and I gave him a lot of stuff without taking any money. I was basking in his youthful enthusiasm and the next time he hitch hiked over to London and took back even more stuff. He told us how he sold quite a lot if not most of our stuff and even started a record label, one that failed. He used the stuff from us to sell and fund another project that failed and to this day he owes us about two and a half grand. I actually met him in Croatia and he tried to give us some of the money but he just couldn’t.” The sour story isn’t lost on Marta, “The bottom line is that he spent our money on something else and we had to take the loss. We’ve often been there to help people set up stalls without having to pay for it up front. That [being able to pay up front] can be an issue for some people, the problem is when people rip us off, sometimes intentionally and sometime unintentionally. Not just small people but others like an anarchist collective in Majorca. It’s just the two of us carrying on, and some people have made it really difficult.”
The music and image of punk rock took the world by storm in the late seventies, flaring up and dying out like a free book of matches pocketed from a cheap restaurant. In the same amount of time it took to throw together a catchy three-chord song, punk as an expression of popular culture was dead and gone, but punk as a subculture and a community seems very much alive in rented back rooms and bedroom distros. Punk as a movement persists as kids come and go, and old punks stay devoted to the community that’s offered them so much. If you meet Jon on an overcast day at 56A, the south London anarchist bookshop he volunteers at every Saturday, you might mistake him for a lost cause, the kind of clichéd aging revolutionary sans the beret, but talk to him for a minute about what he does for “the revolution” and a surprisingly realistic romantic takes the stage. “One of the things that’s so crucial to me is learning lessons from the past…I don’t expect things to just happen like that, things take time and ideas take time…we haven’t managed to have the revolution yet and so some people give up, but it takes a long time and when you start reading the past you learn that things take time. That’s when I realized that for me, I’m not going to be unrealistic. I’m not going to be the one at the front of the revolution, but I can keep helping out. Some demonstrations, some actions, they don’t all change the world, but they are steps. From a punk rock perspective, it might be great to see a smashed McDonald's window but to others it just looks like vandalism.” You can see it in their eyes that Jon and Marta both have a soft spot for militancy and direct action of the occasional brick through the McDonald’s window, but talking to two people who devote almost all of their time to spreading literature as well as directly anti-capitalist action acquaints you with the more intellectual and concerned propagandist side of punk.
“We try to stay independent, getting the books and the ideas out there so people can strengthen their own knowledge and deepen their understanding. That’s as relevant or more important than many other types of revolutionary actions” Jon notes as Marta fights a word in. “The ideas and the self-analysis has to come first, you need to ask yourself why you’re acting the way you are in the first place before you can really have a grip on what you’re doing and what you think should be done and why… We don’t expect too much from the kids consuming what we sell them, we just hope that some of them will come to a better understanding instead of just getting into a mode or fashion…you can’t avoid that trend, there will always be people who just buy things or do things because it’s fashionable. You just hope that one out of ten get something out of it. It’s up to them.” They have no delusions of directly igniting the revolution through revolutionary prose and voluminous literature, but as long as they can physically do it, Jon and Marta Active will keep pushing the books, spreading the word, and well, staying Active.