Sunday, 19 May 2013

Online media and the decline of the music magazine in print

ABC stats for the end of 2012: although some music magazines are declining at a slower rate than others, nobody appears to be growing their audience. Publisher Egmont’s We Love Pop has seen its sales drop by 10000 in a year (48,010 still reading), while publisher IPC’s NME is now down to 23,049 – a drop of 16.6% compared to the same period 12 months before. Q lost a fifth of its sales in a year but was only down 4.8% on the last figures in summer 2012, suggesting it may be slowly stabilising around its current figure of 61,485. As the magazine changed its approach in the summer of 2012, this could be seen as a positive sign for the Bauer published monthly. Even Kerrang! is down 8.4% on last year and now below the 40,000 mark.

Twenty years ago, the music magazine industry was healthy. Inky weeklies the NME and Melody Maker hoovered up the youth market as Suede, Blur, Nirvana and Oasis emerged and revitalised the alternative music scene. Q, a relative newcomer launched back in 1986, provided coverage of more established acts like U2, R.E.M. and David Bowie in glossier, monthly instalments for an older audience. Mojo arrived in 1993 offering long articles on the best music of the previous thirty or so years. Uncut emerged in 1997, occupying similar ground. The closest thing to a monthly NME was Select, an irreverent and opinionated magazine first published in 1990, which covered similar indie stars to its weekly rivals and was famous for being the first publication to cover the genre of ‘Britpop’. Kerrang! had grown from humble beginnings in 1981 to cover thrash and metal bands at the end of that decade, before joining other publications in turning the spotlight on grunge.

The teen market was dominated by Smash Hits, a fortnightly pop bible containing lyrics, posters and wilfully silly interviews with all of the day’s biggest stars. In 1995, a spin off from the chart countdown show Top of the Pops was launched, which gradually overtook Smash Hits, offering a similar diet of pull out pictures and gossip. It continues to this day, having outlived the TV show that gave it its name, but with music only one of many things covered, including beauty tips and fashion. Smash Hits didn’t survive the digital uprising and perished in 2006.

The Effect of the Internet

As the Nineties disappeared, Melody Maker (December 2000) and Select (January 2001) breathed their last, while others were obliged to offer free gifts and promotions in order to lure their readership into spending any money. Now that people could not only read about the latest music for free via the internet, but steal the tunes themselves if they were so inclined, there was an increased focus on value for money – most notably, this resulted in many magazines having free CDs as ‘covermounts’, glued to the front. Several magazines gained a foothold during the Noughties –The Word launched in 2003, also covering films and books, while Clash appeared in 2004, broadening its focus to include fashion. The Word closed in July 2012 having failed to make money, while recent reports suggest the NME is now selling fewer than 25000 copies a week, down from around 80000 ten years before. In a world of websites like Popjustice, Pitchfork, The Quietus and Drowned In Sound, is there actually any need for print media in 2012? The declining sales figures would suggest possibly not, with only nostalgia centred publications like Mojo and Uncut, which still offer long, detailed and well-illustrated articles, prospering. On the whole, magazines struggle to offer readers exclusive content in an online age, and the rise of online social media are making many of them obsolete.

Think what a website can offer – flash and streaming technology allows the audience to watch videos and listen to music; music can be downloaded, legally or illegally; sites can offer audio interviews, links to social network sites where reviews are posted straight after a gig or a listening session – or, indeed, during either thanks to smartphone technology – pictures cab be uploaded instantaneously; content can be continually updated – even by the second; AND flash technology offers a better platform for advertisers than the static print media. Music magazine websites, fan and critic blogs, band websites, social networking sites devoted to artists are part of Web 2.0 media. In other words, instead of the static pages that dotted the early web landscape (and the pages of the print magazines, of course), they’re interactive with the user.

For example, the editor of Kerrang!, James McMahon, went on Twitter to ask fans about who should go on the cover of their new music special. He’s also invited demos from new bands and applications from aspiring writers. This is a great example of how music magazines keep their audience by engaging them, infiltrating their daily lives and making them feel like they have a say in what happens.

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. 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. That’s not to say that print is necessarily doomed but that it might become a niche, localized market more and more.

A music publication that’s doing just fine is the American music site, Pitchfork - it found a good niche (indie rock) and exploited it, but 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.

The indie band My Bloody Valentine released a new album a couple of weeks back. Fans had been waiting 22 years for it and were beginning to think it would never happen, but around midnight on Saturday, it was uploaded for sale online and within minutes, the internet was quickly full of people raving about it.

In an age where acts like Radiohead and David Bowie can simply spring new music on us without any warning, we are seeing more and more instant music journalism. Writers are listening for mere hours before delivering ‘reviews’ of music they barely know. Print editions are always days, weeks or even months behind what the internet can offer music fans. Traditionally, music reviewers have weeks to get to know a record before finalising their opinion. But, when the music reaches the people at the same time it reaches the journalists, they have to speed up. This doesn’t necessarily lead to good writing.

Much of this was swiped from this excellent blog:

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