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How Music Magazines Are Changing to Stay Alive

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How Music Magazines Are Changing to Stay Alive

By Jem Aswad

The internet may have destroyed the old music business, but its impact on the music media industry has been even more lethal. As magazines shifted to the Web, overall U.S. print sales dropped more than 56 percent between 2004 and 2014 (according to trade publication The New Single Copy) and advertising moved to online units that sell for a fraction of the price of an old quarter-page. Rolling Stone boasted an average circulation of more than 1.4 million in 2014, and of course Billboard remains the industry bible, but Blender bit the dust in 2009 after a 30 percent drop in ad pages in 2008; Spin‘s print edition held on, before being discontinued in mid-2012; most others have moved to online-only iterations or, like musicians, found new revenue streams, including awards shows, tour sponsorship and branded content. Yet several publications are finding ways to make print work — following is a look at three of them.

SET IT FREE

On July 6, Britain’s music paper of record, New Musical Express — whose weekly circulation has spiraled to 15,000 from a 1970s peak of 300,000-plus — announced that its print edition will become free in September, loading train stations and campuses with more than 300,000 copies. This counterintuitive approach bets that the Time Inc.-owned, 63-year-old publication will have greater success selling its audience to advertisers than papers to readers. “Going free gives us scale and big numbers, which we already have on the digital side,” says editor Mike Williams. “It’s no secret and no exaggeration to say that [print] has waned over the years, but there’s a huge appetite for advertisers to reach people through the pages of the magazine.” The endeavor will compliment the publication’s strong move into the live space in recent years. “Live events have been huge for us, whether it’s bringing revenue and brands into existing propositions such like the NME Awards and the NME Awards Tour or our new music showcases, or creating live events for brands who want to come and work with us, or other ways of us acting as a sort of conduit between the brands and the talent to create content.”

nme cover -- amy winehouse 2015
Cover of NME, July 11, 2015.

REGENERATE YOUR AUDIENCE

Mike Shea, publisher/founder of Cleveland-based Alternative Press, says the magazine’s print edition is still its biggest source of income — even though its audience has remained in the late-teens/early20s range since the punk-emo monthly’s 1985 inception as a free two-page fanzine. “We never really grew older with our demo,” he says. “Every year we lose a senior class — they grow up and get into college and Radiohead or whatever — and bring in a freshman class, so they’re 14, 15 years old and want to rip stuff out and post it on their wall, make collages, start Tumblr pages with pictures and sayings and lyrics. That’s kind of what’s insulated us — our kids still want to hold something. But then, we deal with a very specific crowd of suburban kids who feel alienated. Once you start getting into mainstream music, that’s a very different type of consumer.” The magazine, which recently saw a sales spike after it scored distribution in Target, also sees solid income from its merchandise (which is solidly promoted by many of the artists it covers) and its events: the magazine is presenting its second (and 30th anniversary) awards show on July 22, which takes place at Cleveland’s 20,000-capacity Quicken Loans Arena, with performers including Weezer, Panic! At The Disco, Taking Back Sunday and New Found Glory (featuring Hayley Williams) — and tickets ranging from $62.99 to $202.99.