Music Journalism Faces Shake-Ups, Shake-Downs and High Tech Show-Downs in 2010

Jason Gross

2010 was a time of changes for big publications and known writers plus experiments in new media and technology, as everyone goes on groping for possible solutions within the ever-changing tech world.

So it's been another year to fret about the future of music writing and what'll look like after the dust settles. 2010 was a time of changes for big publications and known writers plus experiments in new media and technology, as everyone goes on groping for possible solutions within the ever-changing tech world that media has been dragged kicking and screaming into. Though some general trends show that the ugliest part of the recent wave of bloodletting may have subsided, the industry's nowhere near its pre-millennium heights and it ain't likely to get anywhere near there soon, if ever, truth be known. There are still some faint glimmers of hope but to be honest, a lot of the prospects that are getting leaned on and prayed for all look kind of sketchy, even if that's mostly the nature of new, burgeoning technology anyway.

Don't call it a comeback, but the news was at least better this year for publications. Slowly, good news crept in as first quarter ad sales improved, then the same happened for the 2nd quarter. Also with ad pages, there was an improvement from last year where 2009 saw a huge dip, while 2010 saw a bit of growth. And though new magazine start-ups were slow early in 2010, there was also a sizable halt to the number of magazines closing down in 2010 too, down from 596 to 176 according to Folio. Though newspapers saw their ad spending drop, Advertising Age (an excellent source for media trends) number-crunched and found out that magazines' ad income actually went up 5%. There was even an encouraging report that magazine readership held steady in the same period. In another heartening story, Ad Age also revealed that outside the U.S., there's actually a 'newspaper boom' going on, which out to be some chow for thought for Yankee media types. All of which isn't to say that it's all rosy (best headline: "Another Bad Year, But the Bleeding Slows"), but at least the prospects are looking a little better, unless you're a freelancer looking for your pay check.

But there was also some bad news for Rolling Stone. When Will Schenk left as publisher last April, he was out the door almost as quickly as his two predecessors and, as Mediaweek pointed out then, the ad pages for Rolling Stone had also dropped almost 20 percent in 2009 and were at a no-growth rate for the first quarter of 2010. Rolling Stone was pretty active otherwise too... more on that later.

Meanwhile, some decidedly mixed news came from a pair of veteran magazines and a newcomer. Femme culture chronicler Venus Magazine was re-launched in April under new management and some other big changes, as explained by publisher Sarah Beardsley in an e-mail exchange (also confronting the controversial move to showcase a dude on the cover):

"We've redesigned our whole look and broadened the type of musical genres we cover, to include more than indie and singer/songwriter artists. Our Summer 2010 issue featured a male artist on the cover for the first time ever: Jack White, who's been instrumental in breaking down barriers and supporting other artists, many of them females. Venus (also) has partnered with many other media and special event outlets to bring our message to more young, hip, creative women. And we've beefed up our digital and email content substantially."

Then the news came out in early December that Venus was finished in its print format with the editor-in-chief stating: "despite our best efforts� -- and we have done AMAZINGLY well this year on the editorial side, both in print and online� -- it's become an issue of finances, as always in media." Venus will continue online, but will have to do without its editorial personnel.

Another well-known entity in the magazine world, Paste Magazine had an impressive fund-raiser in 2009, but still fell short financially and had to cut the staff down to the bone, leaving itself with only three employees by September and going online-only. Editor-in-chief Josh Jackson said recently that the number of stories has been cut back, but expects that to pick up in 2011. Ad revenue and web traffic have already picked up at the end of the year and Jackson is optimist about the future: "We've got work to do to repair our brand and relationships, but I think 2011 will be a great year for Paste." 

Also, in September, L.A. radio legend Nic Harcourt teamed up with blog mavens Buzzmedia to start LiveBuzz, featuring local show clips, interviews and studio sessions. By December, they'd amassed a library of over 150 performances, mostly focused on indie bands, but also including classic rock, R&B and rap, making for an impressive start. However, the fact that the online word hasn't been talking it up so much means that they gotta work more on marketing.

Less heartening mag news came this past spring, when Bauer Media (which includes MOJO, Kerrang! and Q magazines) tried put the squeeze on their freelancers to get them to sign away the rights to their work in a new contract. Many of the writers and photographers involved (disclosure: I was one of them) managed to organize themselves well and though Bauer mostly got their way in the end with a new contract, they were forced to scale back their demands a bit.

A trio of noted writers also had a pivotal 2010, with each of them changing up their game. All three of them weren't happy with their long-term work schedule but found new ways to indulge their passion for writing.

Last April, after 15 years as the pop critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim DeRogatis packed it in to become as a full time lecturer at Columbia College and took up blogging for WBEZ, where he continues to co-host the nationally syndicated program "Sound Opinions" with Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot. DeRogatis told me that even now, he had no regrets ("hell no" to be exact) about leaving his newspaper gig, relishing the freedom of covering whatever he likes on his blog, which happens to include not just his favorite music but also current issues in the industry, also a favorite topic of his column.

Similarly, Newark Star-Ledger's Jay Lustig saw it was time for a change. Also in April, he wrote that he was leaving his job as pop critic for the paper to take up a new job as an editor there. In the article where he discussed this, he was grateful for the opportunity to be a critic, but didn't have the compulsion to keep up with the all of the latest trends and stars:

"... if you're the only full-time pop-rock writer at a daily paper, you have to be a generalist. That means writing about Justin Bieber, or whatever other pop sensation comes along. It means knowing what's going on, throughout the state, on the nightclub level."

For Robert Christgau, his change of pace wasn't entirely voluntary. For 40-plus years, he kept his trademark monthly Consumer Guide running, first in the Village Voice and then when he was fired there, took it to MSN in 2006. That is until this past July when they made the decision to end the column. Though he had plenty of writing gigs elsewhere to keep himself busy, by November, he was back grading bands again, at MSN no less. His new outpost is "Expert Witness," a blog where he plans to post two reviews twice a week.  Here, as he works at a new pace, he's been able to concentrate more on albums he really likes rather than iffy ones and stinkers.  In an e-mail exchange, he spoke about his new platform:

"Expert Witness isn't the Consumer Guide. I always figured that I might want to do something of the sort even though I was content enough that the Consumer Guide as such had ended, and was talking specifics with my MSN editor by the second half of July. I'll continue to do it as long as both parties find it to their benefit. I have a lot to learn about what it will be like, especially as regards non-A records, and will act accordingly. Right now, I'm still playing catch up so it's hard to tell."

What's interesting about DeRogatis' and Christgau's cases aren't just that you had two well-known print entities moving their work to the online world, but that they were also part of a recent trend in the larger journo world. Later in 2010 in the political world, Howard Kurtz made the move from the Washington Post to the Daily Beast and Howard Fineman moved from Newsweek to Huffington Post. You might say then that Jimbo and Bobby were early adapters. Meanwhile, Nitsuh Abebe took the opposite route, going from Pitchfork writer to New York magazine pop critic, which makes you wonder nowadays if that's actually an upward or lateral move.

In this ongoing tussle between print and online media, one sector of the music business knows for sure which one they prefer. In early December when I interviewed several publicists about how they saw each medium, they were unanimous in what they preferred. When they ask a writer if a story on one of their artists is gonna appear in print or online, what they mean to say is "we want to see it on paper". Ironically, since print is shrinking and disappearing, it's become more of a valuable commodity and they see that there's more prestige in having a review appear in print.

But still in the middle of this online tussle is a bigger problem -- with almost of the action shifting to the internet, where are the answers about how writers and publications can survive? Of course, the same question's been asked for the last few years so what are some of the answers now?

First and foremost in the trick bag of magical solution to save scribing as we know it is the paywall. This January, the rubber is gonna hit the road when the New York Times' long-planned pricing scheme finally goes into effect. Last summer, media despot Rupert Murdoch stuck two London publications, The Times and Sunday Times, behind paywalls for starters. The end result was spotty at best, with one in five readers digging into their pockets to read the  material. Techdirt called it "a disaster", while Business Insider went further to proclaim "newspapers are screwed". Mind you, News Corporation isn't not stupid; they didn't expect to make tons of money off this gamble (and neither does New York Times). Part of the plan is getting readers used to paying for online news. The problem is that in this early stage, this idea's been as successful as the major labels trying to get people to pay for online music. What's worse is that even if the New York Times and News Corp. do manage to nab more and more readers as paying customers, they're still going to kill off their bottom line because online ad money is still a fraction of what they've been getting for print ads, A.K.A. the life blood of publications. What's even worse that that is that a vicious circle starts when a paywall goes up and scares off users because less web traffic means less ad money.

And yet there's even a huger problem that publications face when they use paywalls: they're easily scooped on their own stories. In others, the kernel of news that a paywall paper comes up with as an exclusive can easily be transported to non-paying sites (as I explained in this blog post) who quote or refer back to the paywall paper.

In June, Rolling Stone provided a useful cautionary tale about being scooped in another way when they had a bombshell interview with General Stanley McChrystal -- that ultimately led to his ouster -- and had to fend off questions about their sources and ultimately blew their own exclusive scoop by hanging on to the story too long. By December though, Rolling Stone seems to have learned their lesson, as they carefully let out news of their exclusive of the full and extended last print interview that Lennon did just before the print issue appeared and got maximum mileage out of it.

Rolling Stone also made news with another sort of media experiment involving a paid system. In April, word got around that they were offering their entire archives of 40-plus years online, just not for free: $4 lets you have a one-month peek while $30 lets you do it for a year (if you have a subscription already, you'll still have to pay for access to the archive). So how's that archivey thing working out for them? Rolling Stone hasn't made any follow-up announcements about it so far and there was no word back from Wenner Media's publicist about it either.

Another interesting media idea tried out in 2010 was Scribner's sale of essays from pop culture author Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) whose work was available for 99 cents a pop from a variety of big-name online sources. Though it seems easy to make the comparison, Klosterman rejected the iTunes comparison in an online interview I did with him, saying that song purchases were much more likely to be revisited than articles. Also from his perspective, the project wasn't necessarily intended as a money maker per se. Royalties being what they are (he'd get 12% of the gross), he'd have to sell a hell of a lot of essays before he gets a return on the price tag for each of them.

Alleged indie king-maker Pitchfork also weighed in with a different kind of online strategy. Taking a virtual page from Huffington Post and Buzzmedia, they announced last June that in addition to their regular publication, they were also going to become a blog aggregator, where the other blogs would help to provide comprehensive coverage of underground music while they raked in ad dough. How well that's done so far in terms of web traffic or ad money remains a mystery so far since like Rolling Stone and their archive experiment, Pitchfork hasn't made any announcements about it and they didn't provide a response from their publicist about it either. It's interesting to see that the online and offline giants have something in common along with their love affair with Kanye West.

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