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

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.

Online content farms, social media and iPads…

Another new online wrinkle being tested out is the so-called “content farms”. These sites, like Seed (through AOL) and Associated Content, seek out writers to cover trending/hot topics, with the pay scrapping in as low as $5/article. Needless to say, a number of writers have cried foul about this, noting that these sites are making good money while forcing writers to settle for less. Even though professional journalist groups are fighting back against these ‘content mills’ (specifically about the pay, quality of the articles and degradation of their work), how effective can they really be if these sites are raking in money? In the end are they fighting against the future of the industry?

I had my own experience with Seed in early 2010, writing for them for their big SXSW 2010 experiment where they tried to get writers to cover some 2,000 bands playing the festival. It was easy to sign up, get the assignment and make arrangements for it. I wound up writing about a Georgia metal band called Blacktusk. The interview was peachy and I got to learn something about a local scene I wasn’t aware of before, but the editors were kind of picky about the format and made us choose a set of mostly predetermined questions to ask the band, which took some of the fun out of the work. In the end, I got the princely sum of 50 bucks for my work. That doesn’t seem like much at first, but truth be told, that’s not much less than I’ve made from articles I’ve done for a number of other publications I’ve written for recently (as for $5 jobs, I’ll pass but I worry about writers who have no choice but to bunch up on them to earn some income). As for their overall SXSW mission, Seed fell way short of covering all the artists, later explaining that they didn’t think that they could get every band covered. Don’t be surprised if they modestly scale back their expectations and plans for 2011’s festival.

Two other big players made their own online moves by recognizing the growing and growing and growing importance of social media. Billboard announced in early December that in addition to their regular albums and singles charts, they were also going to have a social media chart to track the music action there. Not to be outdone by that magazine’s Social 50, MTV also announced that they would have their own social media chart, called the Music Meter, though they position theirs as a place to discover new artists as well. Obviously, both places have to try to keep up but how much traffic can they draw from the popular social sites themselves (i.e. Facebook)?

Along with these individual publication ideas, there were also a trio of wide-ranging tech solutions that many in the scribe biz were pinning their hopes on, including the new iPad, apps (applications for mobile devices) and what the Independent calls “expertly written sites”. 

The ever-savvy Steve Jobs and his minions at Apple had the media eating out of their carpal-tunnel-ridden hands again with their latest gadget the iPad, which was meant to steal thunder from the Kindle and other digital reading devices. After they were unleashed April, millions of iPads were sold in the first few months and it was estimated that by the end of 2011, 30 million of them will be added to the tally. A pair of media moguls were also bullish on the not-so-little device’s future. Ol’ Man Murdoch tried again to keep up with the Net buzz (especially after News Corp’s 2005 purchase of MySpace looks like a disaster now) by launching a new iPad-specific publication called The Daily. Part of the attraction here is that the publication is boasting noted contributors like the New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones, who’s been hired as cultural editor. Richard Branson also announced plans for an iPad publication called Project, which will include a number of Bauer faces as part of it. Judging by its blog, they look to cover high tech and pop culture items there, though the content right now ain’t exactly what you’d call fetching.

As sexy as Job’s not-so-little device seems now, it’s also got its problems. Despite the seemingly strong sales at first, the overall sales of iPad were still less than expected and also soured in the following months. Also, a number of magazines, who were worried about their publications seeing their purchase price degrade on the device, managed to wrangle pricing concessions for their iPad versions which made them no cheaper than their regular subscription rate. Another problem is that, as Mediaweek and Business Insider point out (the latter’s headline: “Print Publications Hallucinating That iPad Will Save Their Asses”), the publications don’t offer up their goods at a cheap price and the material there is generally not thought out very well, offering little that’s more appealing than a regular media website now. If that wasn’t bad enough, a year-end report said that sales of magazines on iPad were dropping now too.

Some of the same problems apply to “apps” or applications that you can download for your smart phone. The idea here is that magazines and/or individual issues can (and have) be turned into apps. Since they’re being gobbled up quickly by users (Wall Street Journal estimates 2010 sales at $6.7 billion), apps are also seen as possible saviors for the media world. Brand Week nicely summed up the apps problem: where they’re not easy used with all mobile devices, different versions have to be developed for each phone system, which gets expensive very quickly. As Forbes also notes, the publications also have to pay for development and bandwidth associated with the apps. On the subject of when media businesses might make money back from their app investment, Brand Week‘s assessment is pretty grim, saying that it’ll happen “…not in the near term and, perhaps, never”. With many apps offered for free, companies must rely on sales from ads to make money but as the Wall Street Journal article points out, that only accounts for “5% of the $23 billion in annual Internet advertising”.

And finally for the generalized tech-end solutions, there’s “expertly written webistes”. As noted in the Independent, a number of former print journalists are taking their trade online, continuing to cover their field on their own sites, specifically for “specialist audiences that are no longer being served… by more traditional media.” It’s an intriguing and laudable idea for sure and you might as well include DeRogatis and Christgau in this group too. Though some of the biggest sites are drawing advertisers, the article doesn’t pin down how self-sustaining these online destinations are. While the idea of writing what you like seems liberating, the future of these sites is far from certain — unless they’re attached to well known entities, they probably don’t generate a salary (ad money specifically) comparable to the writer’s old print jobs, which makes you wonder if they’re meant to be just a side gig to generate a bit of cash (if possible).

One intriguing idea to help the media boat float that’s tech-tied in a different way involves grad school students. As newspapers and magazines are forced to slash their staffs to cut costs and still somehow maintain the quality of their work (usually by pilling up more jobs on the writers left there), these budding scribes might be able to take up some of the slack. As this PBS article notes, some of this work is turning up in major publications too. Wired Magazine reported on Columbia University’s efforts in this area specifically with a New Masters in Science program which is “a combined engineering and journalism degree”. The students’ work could become a promising way to try out new media possibilities, not only benefiting themselves and the school but the whole media landscape in general.

There was a host of other intriguing ideas out there which may or may not pan out as journo saviors but at least deserve some scrutiny or maybe a good try. This includes, but isn’t limited to, interactive writing via digital reading devices, stories with paid links, non-profit grants though Google and the Knight Foundation (and hopefully others), federal support, plus selling subscriptions via Facebook.

But as much as we need to think about and worry about maintaining the business side of writing, we shouldn’t forget about the aesthetics involved too. One particularly interesting salvo that was fired off was from Christopher R. Weingarten at April’s 140 Character conference, where he spoke out about how nowadays, getting information out to the Web first is more important than good writing per se. Here, he also was right to say that aggregators like Hype Machine are probably harming the original sites they aggregate (at least in terms of web traffic), but the same thing’s happening in other media with sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Google News. So what’s going happen when the original sources start drying up and there’s no reviews left to gather up? Will new sources just spring up and will they be as good as they old ones they replace? Is this a trend worth fighting? But maybe you can’t fight this and it’s smarting to figure out a way to take advantage of it instead.

One thing that I’m hopeful about is how music scribes now see their own work and the potential for the future. In May, I interrogated over 100 music journalists to ask them what kind of advice they would have for any young, eager writers out there. Though it was surprising to hear a number of them take exception to be called a “writer” (maybe that term’s just being so abused lately and fallen out of favor), it was heartening to see that though many of them talked about the difficulties of doing their work nowadays, only two of them (Ed Ward, Richard Meltzer) said that the best thing to do was not to find some other kind of vocation. Everyone else expressed some kind of encouragement or at least advice to weather the up’s and down’s of their profession.

Along with advising readers to pick and chose the best pearls of wisdom from these writers for their own use, the best advice I can think of is still the same thing I said two years ago: don’t fear tech change, embrace it. Because the writing profession is tied to tech as much as the rest of the media landscape is, there’s not going to be any kind of long-term solution to the problem of keeping afloat and maintaining a job in this business that changes so quickly. Just look at November when Newsweek and the Daily Beast merged, the previously hot Guitar Hero franchise went up for sale and former Net search giant Yahoo had to make major lay-offs. That doesn’t mean that writing and publishing is hopeless, but instead that we’re all going to have to keep accepting, learning about and experimenting with all kinds of short-term solutions as the tech world keeps throwing curveballs and changing the game.  That means learning about and trying out all sorts of new technologies, sites, platforms, type of social media to connect with readers and get the word out. As a so-far nameless tweeter has proved by becoming the Village Voice‘s rock critic of the year, the evolving online platforms and mediums out there can provide a forum for a host of new and interesting voices too. For any writer, keeping with the tech side of things can be pretty exhausting work and you might think it detracts from your ‘real’ work of writing, but it can’t be ignored if you want to keep doing ANY of your writing work. In other words, you gotta be something of a tech geek to get by. Such are the wonders of the Net age.

For you fellow scribes, if it makes you feel any better, keep two things in mind: Facebook is eventually going get replaced by a hot new online portal (it happened to MySpace) and you could be a role model or even a hero (maybe just for one day) by finding at least a short-net solution to the tech/scribing puzzle or at least inspire others by your example. This has never been particularly glamorous work for most who do it and it’s definitely shaky now but it’s also wide-open, exciting and challenging. Maybe iPad, paywalls and apps won’t pan out now but there’s gonna be some techies that figure out ways to milk it. Any writer, magazine or publication that stares down the tech demon this way will stand a good chance at whupping its ass and maybe even get a half-day decent paycheck out of it too.