What I learned about the publishing business by listening to old records and reading music industry blogs
I stayed up later than I should have last night listening to music. It turned into a nostalgia trip, as journeys through the MP3 hoard so often do.
As a teenager growing up in a remote, rural area of Washington State, in a dial-up age before the arrival of Napster, my cultural lifeline was the U.S. Postal Service. There was not even a band called the Postal Service yet. Anyway, the old reliable U.S.P.S. delivered to my family’s P.O. Box a steady stream of cheaply printed catalogs from indie and punk labels around the country, and sometimes actual records from said labels.
My favorite subscription was the Kill Rock Stars 7-inch singles club, not in the least because it put the profoundly encouraging idea in my head that in a not-too-faraway place called Oly, young people were doing interesting, exciting things.
Last night I got to Googling some of those old labels. To my surprise and delight they all appear to still be in business: Not only KRS and K Records in Olympia, but Alternative Tentacles, Matador, Dischord, SST, 4AD and Touch and Go.
I don’t know what the balance sheets look like at these labels. I’m sure the bread-and-butter customer for any one of them is notably older than was the case two or three decades ago. I’m also sure there are artists signed to these labels who can’t afford to be full-time musicians, and so keep unsatisfying day jobs in bars, restaurants, offices and the like.
Everyone knows the music business ain’t what it used to be. Touch and Go evidently went through some deep and painful cuts a few years back. Here’s what the label’s founder, Corey Rusk, said at the time:
“It’s not coming to an end,” Rusk said, “but it won’t be the same company it has been for the last 20 years.”
He sounds just like a newspaper editor.
Surely I’m not the first person to make the connection between the music business and print media. The outside pressures on those industries are similar if not identical:
- Technological “disruption” (ugh) and a consequent devaluing of creative labor
- Fewer new customers interested in the product
- Fewer old customers with spare time and disposable income
The failures of the respective industry leaders are also similar. Foremost would be short-sighted, backward-looking and risk-averse management on the business side.
Neither industry has hit bottom. U.S. album sales are at “historic lows“–what could possibly change that trend? Daily newspapers will continue to fold until the majority of cities no longer have one. The magazine aisle will shrink. As for books… I’ll just say I had plenty of elbow room the last time I strolled the aisles of Powell’s.
This is the point where someone always says, “well, print is dying, but the internet is thriving–someone will figure out how to make money there,” or, “who cares about CDs and vinyl? Musicians will make money on iTunes and Spotify.”
That argument is callous in its ignorance. It’s faith-based, without regard to the numbers behind either business. It’s also quite often self-serving, a last-ditch argument put forward by people who stand to gain from the new media order.
Like this guy. Sure, it’s a “golden age” for journalism if what you mean by journalism is the mix of bluster and audience-siphoning aggregation that Henry Blodget has perfected at Business Insider.
Ask any experienced reporter if the nonstop online publishing cycle, combined with years of staff cutbacks resulting from the vaporization of advertising revenue, leaves time to do a proper job with every story. Buy that reporter a couple of beers first, so you get an honest answer.
I’ll save you some time: The answer is “no.”
At least two recent coinages describe the problem succinctly. They are “hamster wheel” and “churnalism.”
Ask a musician if their cut of the revenue from downloads or streaming could ever replace the income they would’ve made through equivalent album sales. The New York Times did earlier this year, and here’s the answer they got from independent artist Zoe Keating:
Even for an under-the-radar artist like Ms. Keating, who describes her style as â€œavant cello,â€ the numbers painted a stark picture of what it is like to be a working musician these days. After her songs had been played more than 1.5 million times on Pandora over six months, she earned $1,652.74. On Spotify, 131,000 plays last year netted just $547.71, or an average of 0.42 cent a play.
â€œIn certain types of music, like classical or jazz, we are condemning them to poverty if this is going to be the only way people consume music,â€ Ms. Keating said.
I think that also counts as a “no.”
The reason I’m rehashing all of this is to establish a couple of premises to my argument:
1.) The medium matters.
2.) The business model matters even more.
Now, finally, I’ll get to the point.
3.) Publishers and practitioners of literature and journalism have a lot to learn from the indie rockers I grew up listening to.
It’s my sense, based on an extensive reading of journalism and publishing trade sheets over a period of years, combined with casual eavesdropping on music industry jawbones, that musicians are well ahead of journalists and writers in coping with the collapse of their industry.
This is counterintuitive. Musicians are supposed to be dumb, especially when it comes to business. This Is Spinal Tap, remember? And writers, they’re paid to be on top of things–they’re the intelligentsia! (I don’t buy into those particular stereotypes, but I would grant that you’ll find fewer advanced degrees in a room full of musicians than in a room full of writers… not that advanced degrees offer any reliable indication of intelligence or savvy.)
So how is it that Jeff Tweedy, a serial college dropout, beat the music industry?
He wasn’t just lucky and talented, as this great profile of Tweedy the entrepreneur makes clear. He was smart.
Realize, before I proceed to pile heaps of praise on Tweedy, that I am not even a Wilco fan.
It’s taken more than 20 years for [Wilco frontman Jeff] Tweedy to build the needed industry expertise and a devoted fan base. Forging independence has meant learning to fire friends, eschew hefty advances, and build out infrastructures for touring, marketing and merchandising.
When Tweedy signed Wilco’s first record deal in 1995, with Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records, he refused big cash advances for tour support and recording, preferring to keep the band’s debt obligation low. It went against the prevailing wisdom of the day…
After signing with Nonesuch, Tweedy’s operation took on more and more of the duties traditionally handled by a record label. His team…began handling the band’s marketing and publicity. They used the Wilco loft to record songs and warehouse merchandise. All they really needed from Nonesuch was distribution.
Contrast Tweedy’s astute navigation though an uncertain period with that of the typical newspaper executive. The Typical Newspaper Executive failed to grasp that free online syndication meant giving away the store to Google and Yahoo!, proceeded to let Craigslist roll into town and vacuum up the classified ad market, and finally shouldered mountains of debt to buy a new printing press and headquarters office, a decision which forced him to decimate his company’s employee headcount when faced with a sudden cash flow problem called the Great Recession.
In every instance cited above, Tweedy eschewed the easy money, dove into the details and found his own solution to a problem. Publishers took the opposite course.
- Learn to fire friends? That would interfere with the industry’s time-honored tradition of cronyism.
Eschew hefty advances? The dollar figures seem to keep getting bigger for a chosen few, even as the readers continue to flee.
Build out infrastructure? Newspaper execs have known that the future was digital since, oh, before I was born, but most didn’t consider hiring full-time programmers and developers until a couple of years ago.
There’s another anecdote in the article where Tweedy sacrifices Wilco’s contract with a big label rather than make changes to what would become a gold-selling album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
How many publishers and editors have that much faith in their product, these days? To trade money in the bank for some possibly misguided notion of artistic integrity? It basically never happens. Even storied titles like The Atlantic have sacrificed their reputations in the desperate frenzy for pageviews. Good work has become incidental to the primary mission, which is attracting attention. Who wins here? Not the readers. Definitely not the writers. Only the suits win.
This is what Tina Brown was talking about when she said there’s no respect for content anymore. People laughed at her, because that’s what people do on the internet, and she made it easy for them, but she was absolutely correct: The number-crunchers have killed the soul of her craft.
Paying customers respect integrity
I suspect Tweedy had a reasoned basis for the confidence he demonstrated in ditching his old label. I’ll bet he knew his audience a hell of a lot better than the suits did.
There’s a reason indie musicians in general have a better understand of their audiences than mass-market writers, editors and publishers: The musicians have no choice. They’re stuck in tiny clubs with the audience for hours at a time. Writers and editors, by contrast, tend to be reclusive and antisocial. To them the audience is largely theoretical, even as analytics enable a second-by-second analysis of reader behavior.
That tendency is less true within the small indie publishing scene. The McSweeney’s mini-empire, with its quirky storefronts, its virtual T-Shirt booth and its extensive tour calendar, is probably most successful at cultivating its audience. There are others. I was at an n+1 event in London not too long ago. The audience was very eager to make a personal connection with the writers and editors on stage. My former employer, Willamette Week, tried to build a personal connection with its audience through events like Candidates Gone Wild and Music Fest Northwest, which also created an opportunity to sell tickets.
Some digital-first nonfiction startups are also trying to make it work the indie way. Off the top of my head I can think of Byliner, The Atavist and NSFWCORP.
I might add the Maximum Fun podcast network to that list, although I’m not exactly sure what pays the bills there. There’s also the Authentically Local network — tagline: Local doesn’t scale — although it’s admittedly more of a branding campaign than an enterprise of its own.
Many of these startups follow a time-tested model that entails requesting money in exchange for a product.
That is also very indie. If I, as an unemployed teenager in a single-wide trailer in a town of 2,000 people, could scrape together enough money to join the KRS 7-inch singles club, then large numbers of college-educated yuppies who care about quality writing and honest news reporting must be willing to pay for it, as well.
Maybe that is a faith-based argumet. But I have come to believe that direct reader support is the only strategy that can ensure editorial independence in the digital age.
Which is not to say I’m super optimistic about the future of journalism and literature. I don’t think any of the digital indies will ever outgrow their print predecessors.
Really, though, who cares about scale?
Venture capitalists care about scale. The big, speculative money will continue to chase media startups that aim for the lowest common denominator, because that’s what scales.
Fame-seekers care about scale. That breed of writer who sees his or her byline as prerequisite to a television contract will never want for opportunity.
Writers and journalists who are truly concerned about the preservation of their craft should not obsess about scale. They should care about their craft, first and foremost, and about finding their audience.
That audience might be be smaller than the readership a writer might’ve enjoyed in bygone days through attachment to a mass-market publication–but those readership numbers were probably bogus, anyway. (Have you ever watched how people flip through a newspaper or magazine on an airplane? Short attention spans are not new.)
Under the traditional advertising model, greater reach meant more money for a publication through increased rates charged to advertisers. Those higher rates subsidized expensive, ambitious reporting and all manner of long-form wankery. Editors and writers never really knew how many people read a given article, so any attempts to pander were inevitably imprecise. It was a blissful ignorance that fostered creativity and courage.
That’s not how it works anymore. Going big means going dumb.
And just like there is a share of music fans who don’t want to hear Top 40 dreck, there are readers who yearn for more substance than a Top 10 list can provide.
The trick is to find them. And again, where publishers are just figuring this out, indie musicians have been at it for decades.
The blog that started me thinking about all of this is the cantankerous Lefsetz Letter. I found it months ago and got hooked by the author’s merciless and hilarious evisceration of the Rolling Stones anniversary tour. Despite his occasional tendency to write IN ALL CAPS, Lefsetz is persuasive and unsentimental in his assessment of the new media landscape.
Here’s one relevant passage from his blog, on the death of the major labels:
[T]he major labels aren’t coming back. Never ever. Don’t pay attention to the hype. Sure, they can make superstars of the bland playing to the masses, but most people just don’t care. And the action is in the rest of the morass, the amalgamation of all of the indies.
Another recent post on Spotify — he calls it “gasoline on embers” for the major labels — contains this revealing aside:
If you go indie, you get paid more. … Indies now make up a greater percentage of the marketplace than ever before. They’re gaining leverage.
Finally, and even more apropos, he writes:
Indie labels thrive because they’re a trusted source. …
Indie label owners are irascible. They’re more into music than profits. They’re opinionated. They cull through the options and then serve up music you’ll be interested in, if they’ve already gained your trust. …
Since we have no trust in the majors, they hype us, sell us, try to convince us. But we ignore them, because we don’t trust them. …
You start off with quality. Then you try to build trust.
Lefsetz’s whole post on trusted sources makes for an insightful read. If I were managing a big newspaper or magazine or publishing house, I’d tell the owners to hire this guy as a consultant. But that won’t happen and anyway it would do no good. The mentality of corporate media executives, and I include the new tech tycoons like Jeff Bezos in that group, is not receptive to the message Lefsetz is putting across.
The future is small. The indies are sherpas. They have survival skills. Watch what they do and learn.