Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Playing Taps for Music Magazines

Slate.com blogs about the difficulties that music magazines are having surviving (or not), and the author -- a veteran of defunct music rag Blender -- offers his three reasons for their demise:

  • Too few superstars, and all the magazines cover the same ones.
  • Music magazines have lost their access to the top stars and previews of music, so there's less reason for fans to read them.
  • Social networking has stolen the audiences.

I personally think his first and third reasons are minor and uninteresting. After all, music magazines that want to be mass market best sellers have to prostitute themselves to the flavor of the month to make sure they eet their rate base; but what makes a music magazine -- or any other genre-specific magazine, such as science fiction films or politics -- a must-buy for readers is when it helps find the up-and-coming or overlooked artist/film/book/thinker and puts that person on the cover. So stop whining.

But the second reason probably indicates more of what's wrong with the music magazines and how they've stopped knowing how to serve their audiences. They are not the only publishers who have lost their niche exclusivity; back in the 1970s and early 1980s, science fiction films and television programs were almost completely the purview of SF magazines, which could get all kinds of access to filmmakers and authors that fans could not find elsewhere. But as SF became more of a mainstream success and as traditional media chased pop culture to lure audiences, even mainstream publications were putting out special Star Trek issues and featuring Battlestar Galactica on their covers. That's great news for the fan; but it obviously created a big challenge to the niche publications that were selling their access and now had to start selling their unique outlook and any value-added content related to the media.

The same, I think, is true of music magazines. Rolling Stone has always mixed politics in heavy doses, as did Spin from its early years. But politics and artist interviews and concert photos and all the rest aren't enough to keep feeding big audiences.

Music magazines, in my humble opinion, are niche magazines and should be operated like such. The MBAs running them don't want to hear that their natural market probably limits them to 100,000 or 200,000 circulation ceilings, but, as I keep saying on this blog, that's a great opportunity for smaller, entrepreneurial publishers and investors to come in and play where the big guys no longer can.
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