Now we’re here in 2011, the pre-Internet era seems rather quaint. It’s also frightening to look back and see how quickly the technology has progressed: Google started life as a research project fifteen years ago, Facebook celebrates its seventh birthday this year and Twitter is barely out of short trousers. For the music fan, the Internet is an invaluable resource in terms of listening, discovery and information. The days of waiting for a magazine to hit the shops so you could find out the latest news from your favourite band are long gone; nowadays you’d check their website, find out from a social network or search a blog. But is this an entirely good thing?
It would be easy to adopt a contrary viewpoint and fetishise physical magazines but so far in the 21st Century former big names, Melody Maker, The Face and Smash Hits fell by the wayside. This may not seem like big news, but Melody Maker alone indirectly led to the formation of Depeche Mode, Suede and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s true that magazines used to go under in the pre-Internet era too, but magazine readership has been decreasing for a while now: last year, circulation of the NME fell by 17.3%.
Now the value of magazines as a source of news has all but disappeared, they’re more of a niche interest. David Hepworth founded Q, Mojo and The Word Magazine, and has observed a sea change in the role of the music magazine: “The economic basis of the music magazine used to be: readers who needed to buy them to keep up and advertisers who needed them to reach record buyers. Both groups have gone away. In their place you have: readers who like to read and advertisers who need to reach this valuable minority. It's not the same.”
So, how do music magazines buck that trend and get their readers to stay loyal? Why should people pay for writing when the Internet is full of music websites offering their content for free? One idea is that of the brand extension; you’re not just purchasing a magazine, but buying into something much bigger. For example, as well as a monthly magazine, The Word gives away cover mounted CDs with each issue, releases a weekly podcast and has a thriving online readers’ forum. These extras don’t bring in any money, but they make readers more likely to continue to buy the magazine and this in turn will hopefully lead to the holy grail for magazine publishers: subscription. David Hepworth explains: “We really value the site, the podcast, the Twitter feed and all the other means of interacting with the readership but the only one we can get any kind of revenue for at the moment is the magazine. I think they make people feel closer to the magazine, which is good.”
Another way to keep your readership loyal is to offer a consistently high standard of professional journalism which can’t be found anywhere else. It’s no accident that the biggest music magazines don’t make all their content freely available online. In a world where information is widely available for no cost, it’s going to be difficult to persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash for your work.
One area which seems to be in a state of flux is the newspaper industry. Most UK newspapers make all their content available for nothing on their websites while simultaneously expecting people to fork out for the physical edition too. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look to be a sustainable business strategy, and advertising revenue isn’t filling in the gaps either. Add this to widespread music piracy and we’re in severe danger of future generations growing up believing that all recorded music and quality journalism should be free, not taking into account that people need to make a living and should be financially rewarded for their endeavours. Eamonn Forde is a freelance music journalist and is worried for a future where everyone expects everything gratis: “I think people need to know that it [art] has to be paid for, whether that’s by handing over money in a newsagent’s or a paywall payment every month. But the culture of free, where everything’s free and everything’s going to be paid for by advertising, what you’re going to get is that all culture’s going to be like Metro.” For the uninitiated, Metro is a free newspaper distributed throughout the UK, particularly in London where it’s typically found in train and underground stations. Thanks to the fact it’s free, it’s advert-heavy and tends to feature lots of lighter news items, rather than hard-hitting, factual reporting. We can assume Eamonn Forde isn’t a fan: “It’s going to be this say-nothing, kind-of-press-release, unquestioning, uncritical smug culture and that’s bad for culture overall. I think quality products should come with a quality price tag. I think Metro is like an early warning from history and there is the thought that we get the culture that we deserve. But if that’s culture, then creatives will go somewhere else because they have to make money.”
In June 2010, The Times - a British newspaper founded in the 1700s and with a circulation of over half a million - put its website behind a “paywall”, meaning anyone wanting access to the online content would have to put their hands in their pockets first. The words, ‘stable door‘, ‘horse’ and ‘bolted’ probably spring to mind, and reports suggest the amount of traffic to The Times website has, unsurprisingly, plummeted. However, Sunday tabloid, News of the World has also announced plans to put its site behind a paywall, so maybe this is the future. However, it should be noted that The Times and News of the World have the same parent company, News International (proprietor: one Rupert Murdoch).
These newspapers and magazines have to make money to stay afloat, but they also want their stories to be read by as many people as possible. As a reader, what’s the incentive to pay the money, asks Eamonn Forde? “You might like the writers, but you can find all the information from The Guardian or The Independent.” It’s true, you may like particular writers, but many of them are freelance, and could end up in the peculiar situation where some of their work is available online for free and some isn’t. From a personal perspective, how do they feel about something on which they worked so hard being given away?
Jude Rogers is a freelance journalist who writes about music for The Word, The Guardian, The Times and pop culture website The Quietus. She recognises not everything can be free, but having your work widely available certainly has its advantages: “Everything can be linked on Twitter, which I do do, which is really helpful to spread your work around. I love the fact my stuff’s on The Guardian and people can read it and also, if you want to pitch your work, you can say, ‘Look, here’s my stuff on The Guardian‘.” She also has first-hand experience of The Times paywall: “I did an interview, for instance, this summer with a Tory MP called Louise Bagshawe who also writes trashy, holiday, chick-lit novels, and she came out with some really juicy stuff and I thought everyone would be talking about it, but it was behind the paywall. It’s frustrating when people can’t read my stuff; in a professional capacity I’m more than happy for people to read it online.”
It looks like it would be premature to read newspapers and magazines their last rites in 2011, but the facts remain that the current trend is alarming and needs to be addressed. Currently, a combination of professionalism, goodwill, advertising and innovation is helping the industry muddle along, but how long can that last? The answer could lie with the bloggers and ‘citizen journalists‘ who may give the industry a shot in the arm while simultaneously posing the most dangerous threat.
Part 2 - Blogging
If you’re ever in the locality, you really must visit No Ripcord Towers. Situated in London’s leafy and exclusive Kensington, the building is festooned with original Renaissance artwork and marble statues. Each writer has their own office with a view of the city, antique writing desk, butler and Jacuzzi. We hand out free gold discs to visitors on arrival, and if you don’t see us sauntering down the corridors flanked by swimwear models, we’re probably drinking Cristal and jamming in our state-of-the-art, underground recording studio.
It’s easy to be blasé about it now, but the fact you can walk round with thousands of tracks stored on a miniature gizmo is an incredible thing. What would have seemed space age little over a decade ago has become commonplace. On top of this, the Internet has completely changed the way the public at large purchases and consumes music. The vast majority of single sales are now from digital stores such as iTunes and piracy is rife. It’s all too easy - not to mention an enormous temptation - to find a torrent of a new record, and although it’s difficult to visualise a direct link between your actions and an artist struggling to make ends meet, professionals need to be remunerated for their work. It’s a familiar theme, and one that’s already been discussed with regards to journalism.
In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell makes reference to what he calls the ‘10,000 hour rule.’ That is, to truly succeed in your chosen field, at least 10,000 hours of practice are required. Gladwell mentions The Beatles in his argument, citing their residences in both Liverpool and Hamburg as the period during which they perfected their craft. Although less well-trodden, the path to the top was much more rigid in The Beatles’ day: relentless touring and a canny choice of cover versions would build you a fan base, then release records as often as possible and tour some more. Of course, The Beatles broke the glass ceiling that had restricted all those that came before, and ended up re-writing the popular music rulebook, but their initial route to fame was still fairly conventional.