The Future Is Small

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.”

Hey!

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 “avant cello,” 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.

“In 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,” 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.

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.

Bookmark Black Hole 8-9-2013

Skip the first half of the first section if you’re sick of reading about Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post.

Disruption, cont.

Post reporters complained afterward that [Katharine Graham’s father, Eugene] Meyer “went over their articles and changed them so that their writers were all disgusted.”

Hmm.

“You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” said the Amazon manager. “It’s human automation, if you like.”

Jang is a controversial figure. He may or may not believe that he’s the second coming of Christ, according to an investigation by the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, but apparently many of his followers are convinced that he is.

Smart guy.

This is my favorite feature in Charles Pierce’s Esquire blog.

In an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog, Risen notes that Holder hadn’t responded to the request. That’s why Risen and his counsel decided to release the letter.

To call this anything but a political prosecution is naïve in the extreme.

The law won

The first story by my friend and former colleague Mariah Blake at her new gig at Mother Jones confirms what many suspected.

If you have to ask…

A book excerpt.

I always enjoy a Michael Lewis story.

Brave new world

Let us hope this technology is used for fun instead of evil.

Yet another reason to stay away from the City while in London.

Doom and gloom with a dose of defensive Baby Boomer self-exculpation from Dave Winer, the creator of RSS.

Over there

This BBC documentary is a good primer on the weird MEK cult and its American friends.

“In the early years of the fifties, the Communist Party always emphasized class struggle, and getting rid of feudal influences. Now they never talk about it. Instead they talk about national revival – the hundred years of humiliation under Western imperialism, and how the Party saved China from it.”

In 1919, Ho Chi Minh was a 29-year old Vietnamese nationalist living in Paris. Like nationalists across the colonized world, Ho was inspired by the words of Woodrow Wilson around national self-determination… He was not alone. Nationalists in Africa, China, and India also held onto Wilson’s words as a great promise. Of course what none of these people knew was that Wilson was a white supremacist…

Finally

Includes a video of Henry Rollins on selling out.

The second monkey attack happened after his wife locked him in a cage with one.

This argument does not seem very convincing, but there it is.

Heating with Radium.

Everything else is not too far from the mark.

In England we find dogs that were named Sturdy, Whitefoot, Hardy, Jakke, Bo and Terri … Purkoy … Colle, Talbot and Gerland … Troy, Nosewise, Amiable, Nameles, Clenche, Bragge, Ringwood and Holdfast.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland a list of 80 dogs that took part in a shooting festival in the year 1504 has been preserved. They reveal the most popular name was Furst (Prince). Other names included Venus, Fortuna, and Turgk. Some dogs got their names from the work being done by their owners: Hemmerli (Little Hammer) belonged to a locksmith, while Speichli (Little Spoke) belonged to a wagoner.

Ah, simpler times! Except for plague, famine, war, etc.

My favorite is “Nosewise.”

Introducing The Jeff Bezos-Washington Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon

A free tool for Washington Post readers

The Bezos-Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon, for short, is a browser bookmarklet intended for use on washingtonpost.com or anywhere Post stories can be found.

The bookmarklet highlights certain words, phrases and names whose presence may indicate a potential conflict between the Post‘s editorial integrity and the financial interests of its new owner, Jeff Bezos.

For example, on any given Post story the Crayon would highlight the following words:

  • Amazon” (Bezos’s other company),
  • books” (an Amazon product),
  • Walmart” (an Amazon competitor),
  • sales tax” (something Amazon actively lobbies around), and
  • Barack Obama” (the greatest individual beneficiary of Amazon’s political donations),
  • Batman” (the intellectual property of an Amazon partner, DC Comics, to which Amazon has exclusive digital graphic novel distribution rights).

Here’s what it looks like on the page:
Continue reading “Introducing The Jeff Bezos-Washington Post Conflict-of-Interest Crayon”

We Already Know What Kind of Newspaper Owner Jeff Bezos Will Be

Remember when Amazon pulled the plug on Wikileaks?

There’s already a great flood of commentary wondering whether Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Washington Post, will be a good king or a bad king.

The tech crowd is predictably enthusiastic. Henry Blodget is excited about the “cool synergies.” Granted, he’s the beneficiary of a Bezos investment, as the billionaire-worshippers in the comment threads at Hacker News would also like to be one day.

Just as predictably, much of the commentary from traditional journalistic quarters, is of the hem-hawing, wait-and-see sort. That’s the only prudent response, and not just because no one really knows what Bezos will do with the Post.

Everyone writing about the Post deal must be aware that Bezos could be signing their paychecks in the not-too-distant future, if not as a newspaper properieter then as a seller and publisher of books. He is quickly becoming one guy you definitely don’t want to piss off in the media business.
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Bookmark Black Hole 7-29-2013

I’m trying something a little different this time.

Soothing miscellany

“He periodically ran for president of the world, always unopposed.”

Paris Review interview with Ken Kesey

Grey Lady, right on schedule, catches on to a scene many months after the ’60 Minutes’ segment

Biden narrowly avoids monkey attack

“On the ‘Hippie Trail’ through Afghanistan to India, 1967-1979”
Continue reading “Bookmark Black Hole 7-29-2013”

Can Congress Trust ‘Emperor Alexander’?


I’ve been fortunate (?) as a journalist to interview two directors of the National Security Agency, however briefly.

One was the late Bill Odom, who led the NSA for three years during Ronald Reagan’s administration, and died in 2008.

The other was Keith Alexander, appointed by George W. Bush’s first Defense Secretary, Don Rumsfeld. Barack Obama kept him in the job.

With NSA domestic surveillance in the news and Alexander putting in some serious face time before Congress, I took the time to dig up those old interviews.

What strikes me in retrospect is how both men spoke with conviction and candor.

Only one of them, however, spoke honestly. It wasn’t Alexander.
Continue reading “Can Congress Trust ‘Emperor Alexander’?”

Snowden Screws The Pooch

categories: [Posts, Politics, Intrigue, Foolishness]
published:
– true

– published

God dammit, Edward Snowden.

“He’s our age,” my confidant said proudly when we first learned Snowden’s name two months ago.

I shared that sense of pride. Snowden’s whistleblowing seemed, at first, so much less fraught than the Bradley Manning’s relatively aimless data dumps.
Continue reading “Snowden Screws The Pooch”

Bookmark Black Hole 7-21-2013

I got a lot more reading done this week, but only thanks to insomnia.

The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like [this] are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material.

Spot-on:

This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting.

“[F]ast forward a bit and… I think there is going to be a device in the ceiling with microphones, and it will be in my glasses or my wristwatch or my shirt. And like the Google Glass it won’t have a keyboard… you just say ‘OK Google, blah-blah-blah’ and you get what you want.”

A microphone in every room connected directly to the internet? Sure. Why not. (That’s Google engineering director Scott Huffman talking, by the way.)
Continue reading “Bookmark Black Hole 7-21-2013”

Bookmark Black Hole 7-15-2013

I figured that instead of just letting things vanish forgotten into my Instapaper account (the Black Hole), I may as well share some of the stuff I’m reading, or at least trying to get around to reading.

You don’t start an insurgency against a powerful beast like our NatSec state without knowing what the fuck you’re doing, without a politics and a well thought-out set of strategies and allies and such.

Too late now!

On a related note,

Also:

RIP Michael Hastings, A Genuine Journalist


This is terrible news.

I knew Michael Hastings only by email and Twitter and of course by reputation. I’d looked forward to meeting him one day. This morning I’m sad to know that won’t happen, sad for his family and friends and sad that we’ve lost another good reporter.

I’ve known some courageous reporters, who can get to the bottom of things, and some good writers, who can keep you reading to the end. Hastings had both talents going for him and that was enough to set him apart. But he had more to admire.

Few journalists seemed so eager to confront the real problems facing the United States—versus the distractions served up by the weekly war of talking points—as Hastings.

He had that rare combination of career success and intellectual honesty. So often one eventually snuffs out the other, but Hastings was having a great run, even after moving to Buzzfeed, which was a gamble at the time but probably a smart one.

Hastings was hated by Beltway climbers and establishment bootlickers because he wouldn’t play ball.
Continue reading “RIP Michael Hastings, A Genuine Journalist”