The British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) held their May 2018 Event on 23 May – a panel discussion about music magazines, “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Music Mags”, chaired by John L Walters (JLW), at the citizenM boutique hotel at Trinity Square by the Tower of London. AJ Dehany attended. This is his report which starts by introducing the panel members in turn:
Jo Frost was Logistics co-ordinator and general fixer for the Jazz a Vienne festival, without coming from a jazz background. She worked for Gramophone for three years and since 2002 has edited Songlines. She noted the acknowledged problems of the term “world music” but that her publishers cleave to it for familiarity and marketing. The magazine is in the Mark Allen group alongside Jazzwise and Gramophone, so the group controls three significant specialist music magazines.
Phil Hebblethwaite spoke about starting and running the Stool Pigeon in the noughties, completely independently’ they didn’t even have distribution— they drove a van around the UK to deliver it. Crack Magazine and Loud and Quiet still operate on the same free model with the same level of creative control to put whoever they want on their cover and in their pages, but he had to fold the operation up because it was so much work. They nearly merged with Vice but couldn’t work out a deal. Now he works semi-freelance five days a week for the BBC.
Richard Williams related his extraordinary career including time as the editor of Melody Maker, and noted the amount of creative freedom he has enjoyed in his career. He started The Blue Moment which he does for love and makes no money from but finds hugely rewarding as he can do what he likes!
Asked if anyone in the room represented the redoutable Q or Mojo, a senior editor (Ian Fortnam is Reviews Editor) and a senior art director (Darryl Mayhew) responded. They were there from Classic Rock — representing also Prog Magazine and Metal Hammer. The circulation of these magazines tends to be steady; they typically serve an older audience with regular income more used to print. The circulation for genre magazines associated with younger audiences (even metal) is more fickle, but sales of these magazines tend to be flat regardless even of who is on the front cover. Regarding circulation, in the present day “flat is the new up”.
There were great contributions throughout from the floor. Jon Newey weighed in at several points, talking variously about the enduring appeal of tactile print, not just in what was a golden age of magazine publishing about 20 years ago when magazines like Q were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. He spoke about Jazzwise’s own early-to-the-game commissioning of an app. They couldn’t have afforded it but a company put it together without it necessitating the kind of £10k outlay these things usually demand.
Apps and other digital resources were a big theme. Who knew that the entire archive of the NME has been digitized? It’s not available because of licensing issues for both images and text; the text is mostly written by staff rather than by freelancers, but the images pose a seemingly insurmountable problem. There are also issues of titles changing hands and any number of other legal rights issues with online content archives, not just with the NME. Several staff of the Strad spoke about their archive, which is offered as a subscriber perk but only goes back within living memory. The full archive back to 1891 has not been completed, which has irked subscribers but logistically hasn’t been viable; the full-time digitalisation of the Strad and the NME wouldn’t and doesn’t have a budget at present. Rock’s Back Pages (RBP) is an archival publication, or really a resource, with an ongoing remit for this kind of work. Note subscriptions to RBP are at a premium rate because its primary clients are intentionally libraries and organisations rather than individuals (NB this last bit is not from this event but from talking to someone from RBP a few weeks ago).
In the context of subscriptions, distribution issues were touched on, what with the fees absorbed by Newsstand. In a predictable irony, very few in the room professed to having subscriptions to actual print magazines. Marketing is a complex matter in the streaming age with unresolved issues.
JLW asked “Phil, are we doomed?” Phil broadened the discussion into the wider one of changes in the wider music industry itself. Clearly the streaming revolution has happened, with the mp3 format as one of the shortest-lived in history. He noted that vinyl sales, while acclaimed as a booming blooming good news story, still only account for less than 1% of overall sales. This was intended as a note of realism regarding physical formats and nostalgia that was wildly or even stubbornly misinterpreted by Jon Newey who agreed to disagree with Phil about his beloved vinyl format, whose importance to Jon cannot be understated but whose importance to everyone else is negligible; let’s face it, it’s fun but bollocks.
Nobody really thinks print mags are doomed, needless to say. Furthermore, with regard to music magazines in particular, and with a consumer guide in streaming, JLW was also very optimistic about the future, noting: “Niche can work.”