[29 July 2009]
If you’re a music and writing nut, you’ve no doubt combed through Jonah Weiner’s Spinning in the Grave article at Slate about the recent ongoing death of music mags. It’s a good, thoughtful article (disclaimer: he used to edit me at Blender), but it’s also incomplete, missing out on some fundamentals of why these magazines are crashing and burning.
Mulling over print-based magazines’ demise has been going on for years now, with some thoughtful pieces popping up recently. Culled as an except from his book Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg’s How Blogs Changed Everything (Salon) talks about how blogs not only reshaped the whole media landscape, but also how they’re akin to phone technology in their reach, influence and social capacity. One point that comes up briefly there, and is worth exploring more is that blogs are part of Web 2.0 media. In other words, instead of the static pages that dotted the early web landscape, they’re interactive with the user.
The whole idea of an interactive web is passe because we’re so immersed in it now, but when you think about it, it’s really a big break from the old model. It’s not just the way that users can participate in it, but the way that it’s constantly updated, even by the second (which you rarely saw in the early days of the web). Print media is closer to the old web model and for that reason, maybe more than any other, it’s dying out now.
The root of the problem is that we’re so attuned to the web model now and so used to having instantly updated information that print media seems old and frozen in time, even if it’s the recent past. The permanence they offer is mostly lost on a readership that doesn’t mind clearing out their shelves of magazines and papers. Content-wise, it’s tough to keep a news scoop long enough before somewhere on the web breaks it first. That leaves think pieces and investigative work as some of the last bastions that print have to offer, but even there, the online world is making headway (i.e. Talking Points Memo). That’s not to say that print is necessarily doomed but that it might become a niche, localized market more and more.
But the key for publications’ survival is the online world and the problem that Vibe, Blender, No Depression and other brands had was that they weren’t serious enough about their websites (though No Depression is trying to make up for that now and admitted off the bat that their lack of web presence hurt them before). It’s not impossible for publications to live in online and offline worlds—Ad Age had a good article about Complex Magazine and how they’re leveraging their online presence but not giving up on print—but it ain’t easy either and there’s not a lotta time to make up for it now or race to find new ways to do so (Spin and Rolling Stone are trying to play catch-up now but it remains to be seen if it’s too late and it doesn’t help that Rolling Stone ain’t blog friendly).
Despite the surrounding bloodshed, another music pub that’s doing just fine is Pitchfork, as a recent Forbes article noted. It isn’t just that they found a good niche (indie rock) and exploited it. They definitely did, but there’s another big difference between them and the print pubs that recently tanked. Pitchfork‘s secret of survival is that they were already equipped to handle the online environment—that’s all they’ve done. As such, Pitchfork was better equipped to figure out staffing requirements, budget/costs, etc. for their site because they never had anything else to work with—compare that to print-based mags which constantly struggle to figure out these things. That also meant that it was easier for Pitchfork to expand to suit its own needs while not having to work about balancing any offline version of their work.
Back to Weiner’s article, he does make a good case of what’s missing now in the music world—an abundance of super stars and access to them—but misses the point on what the web can and can’t offer. As far as the gatekeeper model goes, he’s wrong to say that it doesn’t exist in the brave new 2.0 world just because everyone downloads music for free now (which isn’t actually true). If you wanna punish yourself, listen to every single album that All Music Guide and Pause & Play lists coming out every Tuesday. I’ve done it before and it can be REALLY painful. On other hand, you can also find out a lot of gems that you might not have known about otherwise. Most consumers don’t have the time, patience and commitment to sit through all of that so that they still rely on music nuts who do take the time to listen and note the good stuff that’s out there. These nuts aren’t just columnists but also bloggers and DJs (on Pandora, Last FM, etc..) who can lead you to aural goodies. And even if you don’t need someone to tell you want to buy if you ain’t paying the case, you’ll more than likely want to hear what’s downloading, if only because you don’t have time to download and listen to everything that’s out there (no one does actually but some do more than others).
Weiner’s point that music magazines don’t offer the connectedness of social networking is kinda true, but also misses another point. The magazines have, so far, been dumb not to take advantage of social networking, instead giving up and letting Facebook dominate and not making enough of a presence there and elsewhere. But you wanna know what else has little/nothing to do with this kind of interactive online community? The music taste makers that are out there now. Blogs, by their very nature, are controlled by one or a few people and you the outsider mostly (or usually only) get to participate in the comments section. How interactive is that? Ditto for Pitchfork was better equipped to figure out staffing requirements, budget/costs, etc. for their site because they never had anything else to work with—compare that to print-based mags which constantly struggle and other online publications (like PopMatters). So why are these places still hubs of influence and web traffic despite that? Most likely, it’s because they’re good sources of material and can point you to (and let you know download) goodies, which goes back to the still-necessary gate-keeper model mentioned above.
So what’s the answer for music magazines to stay afloat? Close up their online shop and reinvent themselves as an online destination? That might be kinda harsh but at the very least, the lesson is to work the web as hard as you can, even if you think you’re doing that now. The online world ain’t a place that stands still for anyone, not even venerable, long-standing publications. If you’re not innovating, making waves, drawing in users, trying new ideas (and occasionally failing), then you might as well be looking for another job.