Christopher Phillips '93

Who's the boss
November 30, 2004
Christopher Phillips '93

When Christopher Phillips shows up to work, he's the boss--sort of. At his magazine, he's the art director, writer, circulation manager, mail clerk, receptionist, publisher, editor in chief, and sometimes the janitor. But when you're putting out a magazine called Backstreets, an authoritative quarterly devoted to all things Bruce Springsteen, you can't throw around a title like "The Boss" lightly.

The magazine has some 16,000 subscribers across the U.S. and as far away as South Africa and Taiwan. And the fan base is always growing. Phillips remembers a letter from a sixteen-year-old who had spotted Springsteen on The Late Show with Dave Letterman. The kid was over the moon with excitement, waking up his parents to rave about the rocker he had just discovered.

Ten years earlier, Phillips had been branded a "bandwagoner" for waiting until the mid-Eighties, at the age of thirteen, to worship at the Boss' altar. He wasn't on board with Asbury Park in the Seventies. His dad hated Springsteen. But Phillips persisted, traveling an hour from his hometown of Thomasville, Georgia, across the state line to Tallahassee, Florida, on "a kind of pilgrimage" to buy records--and, more important, he says, copies of Backstreets.

Upon graduating from Duke with majors in art and English, he threw his life into a U-haul and headed with friends to Seattle, drawn by the city's booming music scene, populated by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam.

After "living on rice and beans for three months" and bombarding potential employers with copies of his rÈsumÈ, he got a call from the magazine--"just at the moment that things started to get scary" financially, he recalls.

It was a rare break. Those who already worked there jealously guarded their jobs, and they didn't welcome outsiders. Phillips became assistant editor--the first hired "from outside 'the family.' " The operation was small, and he advanced quickly, becoming managing editor and then, in 1998, owner, publisher, and editor in chief.

After he wrested the Web domain Backstreets.com from the clutches of pornographers, the magazine's online community flourished. Before then, he had to leave concerts early to hand out flyers and sample issues of the magazine as fans exited. "Now, we're just a quick Google search away from any fan around the world," Phillips says. In 2000, he moved the operation to Washington, to be with his girlfriend, Laura Prochnow '93, now his wife. This summer, they moved to the Triangle--"something we've daydreamed about for years"--and Laura Prochnow Phillips has also begun working at Backstreets.

At dinner parties, when he tells people what he does, their response is usually a double take--disbelief that a fan could make a living editing a fanzine, he says. "A magazine all about Springsteen? Okay, but what do you do for a living?" Yes, there are grueling hours and dozens of hats to wear, but, he says, there are moments when he's in the office late at night, longing to be home, when he realizes that he's listening to his favorite music and writing a review of a concert by his favorite performer--and getting paid for it all.

Twenty years after discovering the music legend, and ten years after joining the magazine, he is still a fan at heart--and an evangelist of the gospel according to Bruce. Phillips' nephews, Jack, four, and Evan, two, are his latest disciples-in-training. The last two Christmases, they got Springsteen T-shirts. Even his father has become a convert, attending three shows of a recent Springsteen concert tour.

Of course, like any employee, even Phillips needs time away from The Boss. His home is barren of Springsteen fan paraphernalia, and he enjoys listening to other bands to clear the aural palate. Like who? Who else: The Replacements.