Here’s why print music journalism is far from dead
Ok. It can’t be denied that traditional journalism, particularly print, has been greatly affected by the rise of new media. Music journalism hasn’t been immune to those changes. New media, using the internet, can source content from non-traditional sources and operate on different models. E.g. bloggers and influencers who bypass traditional publishers and platforms to build up followings and leverage advertising for revenue, rather than relying on the old-school models of employed and freelance journalists. We’ve looked at parallel developments in independent music publishing and direct-to-fan marketing and distribution.
Consumers can access music journalism online from bloggers’ own sites, from music journalism and media websites, they can listen to podcasts, or watch vlogs on YouTube and the like. Often such content is free to access, and supported by advertising. Sometimes there may be subscriptions or paywalls.
There’s no denying that there has been a steady, progressive decline in music press circulation. That trend has claimed some major scalps, including the iconic NME which does continue successfully online but closed down as a print in March 2018, despite valiantly attempting to adapt by becoming a free magazine, supported by advertising and advertorial content.
Various hammers nailed NME’s coffin shut, including changing demographics and market, an ageing (and thus dwindling) readership, weakening influence and rep, and falling circulation. The final print issue came out on 9th March 2018.
When NME’s once-mighty cadaver hit the forest floor, some pundits and punters saw it as a sign of the end times for print music journalism. But if you look around, especially in the aftermath, you’ll find a diverse, thriving and healthy menagerie that’s repopulating the landscape. Walk into W.H. Smith, or large newsagent, and you’ll find shelves filled by dozens of titles; far more than was the case in the heyday of NME, Melody and Sound et al.
Now these latterday titles may have lower circulations than the giants of yesteryear, which used to command circulations in the hundreds of thousands, but there’s more diversity, often because these new titles are more genre- and niche-oriented. Arguably, NME’s demise was in part a failure to adapt to the new, more segmented and specialised marketplace; instead, it continued to try to pitch to a general audience, being everything to everyone, but sadly failing to hook loyal purchasers and subscribers as the more-specialised titles have done. Even going to the free price model wasn’t enough to save NME’s print form, despite the brand’s iconic standing.
So what strategies and tactics ARE working in today’s brave new world of print music journalism? First off, adapting to expectations of smaller circulations, such as thousands or tens of thousands than hundreds of thousands; also to more competitive markets, with competing titles, both in print and online, including free content. In order to survive and prosper, publishers and titles need to be lean, lowering overheads and using smaller teams. In terms of focus and content, they need to identify core specialisms. In terms of writing, prints tend to benefit by offering quality, long-form journalism, with engaging writing style and depth, to set them apart from the more ‘disposable’ acres of free content online.
Established old school titles like Mojo are working to avoid NME’s fate by adapting and evolving. John Mulvey, for instance, editor of the 63,000 per month-selling title (stats from Bauer Media) believes that music press has to realise that they are now specialist publications, not mainstream ones. He’s also worked to add coverage of newer artists into the magazine’s remit, so whilst the ongoing stories of veteran rock and pop artists, traditionally favoured by Mojo’s readers, continues, new performers, material and trends also gets reported on.
The WaterBear interviews
As usual, we’ve gone out into the field to ask for first-hand, expert insider insights and advice.
Our first interviewee is Jonni Davis, Head Honcho of Hard Rock Hell, a.k.a. HRH: Europe’s most successful residential festival provider. HRH incorporates its own in-house media arms, including HRH Mag, HRH Radio and HRH TV. HRH Press also provides access to these straight-to-fan channels. They’re actively using multiple media and channels of communication, and (as Jonni tells us) are far from ready to write off print media and journalism.
Our second interview is with Christian Brown, editor of Maverick Magazine: The leading independent country magazine and website. Based in Kent, in the UK, and dedicated to country, folk, Americana, bluegrass & roots music, Maverick has published for over 13 years and puts out 6 issues a year, with over 20,000 circulation in UK, USA and Scandinavia.
WB: How do you see the current state of play of print music journalism and press? What’s the landscape like and how does your title fit into it?
Jonni Davis: Some say print has had its time: it hasn’t; it has just evolved, and funnily enough the fans know exactly what they want. HRH Mag was created by fan demand, as well as frustration from what was currently available.”
Christian Brown: “Generally speaking, very positive. I firmly believe there will always be a place for print based music magazines, so long as they are meaningful. For example, you can pick up an old copy of Q and the features inside will still be as interesting to read now as they were then. Given that Maverick is also bi-monthly, that’s the goal we’re trying to achieve.”
WB: How does print music journalism and publication differ from the online equivalents or alternatives? What advantages does it offer over its online competitors, such as bloggers, websites etc?
Jonni Davis: News travels fast. If it’s hot, it should be put out via a ‘push notification’ strategy and not be put in a mag that will be 4/6 weeks out of date, even before it’s printed. Mags are about creativity: thinking out the box and delivering stories that are not available elsewhere.
Christian Brown: “It’s having something physically in your hands that you can read. Something that you can put down and pick up again with ease, rather than scrambling around to find a link on a website homepage that could be pushed down a fair way due to new content being uploaded. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with digital – NME for example have (very) successfully rebranded themselves online and it’s working out brilliantly for them, but people will never get tired of being able to hold something. Especially at a time where people are looking to cut down on their phone screen time, so having something in print form is a good alternative!”
WB: How would you describe the relationship between print and online music journalism? Are they bound to be rivals or competitors, or can they complement or enhance each other? How does your title, for instance, make use of the web and social media?
Jonni Davis: “It can have too much red tape, which end totally tangles up and takes away the parallel creativity and vision. That’s why I’ve got Print, Online, app, Radio ‘n’ TV working to the same agenda and timeline.”
Christian Brown: “It needs to be strong and I would say that it is at this present moment. Competition is always healthy as it spurs you on to do better with your platforms. At Maverick, we make sure every upload is tweeted out and put on Facebook with the topic of the story tagged in the post and if that’s retweeted/shared by them, it really helps us with traction etc. We also make sure that with every gig we go to, an image is to be put on Instagram and that every picture we get with an artist goes up as well. As always, more could be done, but it’s something we’re working on.”
WB: What makes a music newspaper or magazine relevant, appealing and successful today?
Jonni Davis: “Talk to your fans. Understand them, then go above and beyond to stimulate and excite. It’s not rocket science!”
Christian Brown: Honestly, not having it too accessible. Take NME as an example – in its heyday, it was probably the most important magazine in the UK. If a band/artist was on the cover, they were guaranteed Radio 1 coverage and at a time where we couldn’t discover things so easily at our fingertips, a weekly magazine was a godsend.
“It’s no coincidence their downfall came at a time where social media/online was on the up and for a magazine so broad in their coverage, perhaps the writing was on the wall. Kerrang thrive as a weekly mag because the genre they cover is quite specific, whereas s had fingers in many pies and while that was a fantastic thing, it ultimately played a part in how things panned out for them.
“I personally believe being bi-monthly is the best approach for a print-based music mag – people will pick it up six times a year if they like it, they probably won’t 52 times. It makes it more appealing having six issues a year as well, as what’s inside the mag gains more relevance and appeal on the basis it isn’t going to be forgotten about in a week.”
WB: We’ve seen several iconic titles like NME fold or pull out of the print market, but smaller, more niche-titles have appeared on the shelves and are selling. What’s your take on the niche-market model for print music titles?
Jonni Davis: “The model has changed and boutique stories are the beauty of a niche market, hence why they sell: they have the fan affinity and reward their loyalty by giving them what they want.”
Christian Brown: “I think it’s great and I hope those fledging titles stick around and are passed down by today’s generation to tomorrow’s. So long as brilliant content is being produced, they have a chance. Our title is aimed primarily at country music, but also Americana – so you could say those are niche genres in the UK, despite their rapidly growing popularity in the country. Mainstream titles will do well if the content is there – a front cover with a major mainstream star is always going to shift magazines if it’s done right.”
WB: Do you believe that that print music journalism will have to continue to change in order to survive and prosper? If so, how can it best do so?
Jonni Davis: “Absolutely! But more importantly, in 5th gear, no time for prisoners: ‘Ready, aim, Fire!” is the currency!”
Christian Brown: “I don’t think it necessarily needs to change as such – more to adapt as and when required in the future. People have been saying for years that print is dying etc, but we still live in a time where print publications in the music world are thriving due to how they’ve adapted with the times, not shoved things into your face on a regular basis, and reward those who choose to pick the mag up with the content inside.”
WB: How important is it for an artist or band to be getting coverage in print music media? What can they gain from it, especially what can they gain that they can’t get from other outlets?
Jonni Davis: “If it’s done from a new angle and not the same context, like all good stories, it can really help a fan connect with the tone and personality of the band and the individual. We shouldn’t have to wait for the autobiography when they are dead.”
Christian Brown: “I would still say an awful lot. Cover stories are still a huge deal and the written feature element goes a long way as well as it’s far more interesting than a generic Q+A. Generally speaking, the ones who buy magazines are the ones who consider themselves to be core members of whatever genre the mag sits in, so to be introduced to that crowd is big for a band/artist.”
WB: What kinds of thing are you looking for that’s help get the band or their stories on your RADAR?
Jonni Davis: “Anything out of the box, strong personalities, common sense, cool image, signature sound and a great big set of balls.”
Christian Brown: “New releases, press releases, upcoming releases and tour dates are the big ones as you can see who is currently super relevant and who will be in a few months. These are the main things.”
WB: What’s your advice for someone wanting to make a career in music journalism? What are the best moves to make?
Jonni Davis: “It’s changing that fast that I feel any individual should express their style from their own perspective via their own site/blog and then, if it fits the mag’s strategy and vision, they fuse together.”
WB: Do you cultivate contacts and long-term relationships with agents, PR specialists etc? How might an aspiring music pro go about building up such contacts and relationships? What are the good things to do? What mistakes do people make?
Jonni Davis: “It’s always good to keep all your doors open and networking professionally can only help broaden your musical spectrum. It’s only after your first few meeting you’ll find out who talks any real sense.”
WB: The Guardian reported that new music prints are proving successful by adopting business models with lower overheads and smaller teams. What’s your opinion about that kind of leaner model?
Jonni Davis: “Absolutely! HRH has a HUGE audience; our mag is free and high quality; its reach is ruthless, it’s curated by the fans and delivered with the HRH tone and personality. We have managed to make it work and it’s expanding every few months. All about the fan, band and market affinity.”
Thanks to both Jonni Davis and Christian Brown for their informed and valuable insights, and for the success stories of their respective publications, disproving the naysayer for print’s prospects. Proof that print music journalism still has a bright future, from which artists and bands can benefit.
The world’s changed, but print music journalism is far from dead and still offers value and opportunities for artists and bands. Jason Tanz, editor at large for Wired magazine put it this way: “…the answer is not to pine for the days when a handful of publications defined the limits of public discourse. That’s never coming back, and we shouldn’t want it to. Instead, smart news operations… are finding new ways to listen and respond to their audiences—rather than just telling people what to think.” (Wired magazine)