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What does Blender's demise mean for the music biz?

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Sunday, Mar 29, 2009

By now you know Blender has joined the unfortunate ranks of music magazines that have gone under. I had pretty mixed feelings about this myself. I’d written for them before, plus I knew people who worked there and liked some of the list-making and funny/snarky features that they’ve done. On the other hand, like Rolling Stone, I usually hated the covers (the subjects and the photos) and didn’t think some of the wild energy matched say Creem in its heyday. Nevertheless, its passing is a big event, with lots of ramifications in the music business.


One sign of that came from a missive that Signal to Noise magazine (“Journal of Improvised and Experimental Music”) sent around to its writers this weekend. Signal to Noise, as the editor noted, is about as far part from Blender, in terms of coverage and tone, as a music magazine could be. Nevertheless, the editor knew that this was an important moment in music journalism, wondering aloud ‘if it could happen to a powerhouse like that, are we gonna be in trouble too?’  Good question. 


And the sad answer is yes, this does spell trouble all around. Part of the problem is online strategy. No Depression readily noted that this is what killed the print edition, even though they’ve been able to revive themselves online. Harp pretty much acknowledged as much too, though they were also reborn now as Blurt (and coming out in print now too).


Similarly, when I stopped by the Spin offices a few weeks ago, a big meeting was going on where they were talking about their online strategy and how they could best target their audience nowadays. It’s obviously a conversation that needs to be had but I was also kinda worried that this kind of talk needs to accelerate or have happened a while ago.


And what about the writers involved? Some of the staff at Blender will go to Maxim but others won’t. Similarly, freelancers will have to find other gigs in a market that’s rapidly shrinking. Sure, they can blog to their heart’s content (like here), but for many of them who rely on it as their first income, this is pretty troubling. We as readers stand to lose some important, thoughtful voices in this field or will have to hunt around to find where they land elsewhere.


(As a side note, this also poses an interesting problem for Press/PR people. Where they’d once know to include a big dog like Blender on their list to work with, they’re gonna have to turn to online sources more and more. You might think “that’s great for blogs and more sites are gonna get taken more seriously!” Not quite though. Even online, there’s hierarchies and favored destinations so basically, what’s gonna change is that a new set of noted gatekeepers are gonna rule the roost on the Net)


Let’s go back to Signal to Noise‘s worry about Blender and think about this—if Blender can collapse, who might be next?  We think of magazines like Rolling Stone or Vibe as the government did about AIG—they’re too big to go down. One big difference is that if the magazines are able to go under, there’s not gonna be any bail out for them.


“So what?” you might say about publications. “They can just go online.” After all, the Christian Science Monitor‘s done that and after closing their print edition, Seattle P.I. did the same. That’s all good and well but the fact of the matter is still that the ad dollars (aka the life blood of a publication) are much less online than they are in print. So while the publication would save money with printing and distribution by going online-only, they still stand to lose much more when their revenue shrinks in ad dough. Not surprisingly then, Seattle P.I. will be much smaller online than it was in print.


The other shrugging argument is that with Blender and other publications disappearing, the action will just go on elsewhere online as it has been going on anyway. The problem with that is that it’s a half-truth. By design, music nuts will have to look elsewhere for music news, recommendations and such, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s online will take up all of the slack from the publications that disappear. Pitchfork doesn’t and can’t and neither can zines like mine—we each fill our own niches and though that sometimes intersects with the work of other magazines, it doesn’t take up the slack all the time either.


We can hope and dream that the patchwork of sites, blogs, zines and such will be enough to cover the bases in the music world (or we can even try to make it happen ourselves) but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t always and it can’t. Other publications will eventually pop up in their place but they’ll face the same problems of how to stay alive in a Net age. And as you might have heard, there’s no reliable model for that yet so there’s no guarantees for any of the up and coming pubs to survive either. That’s what’s kind of unsettling to me and if you’re a real music fan, it might just creep you out too.

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