Brave New World

This morning’s email served up a surprise announcement from Gino Robair that he has been laid off as editor of Electronic Musician. “Due to a corporate restructuring,” he says, “my position was eliminated.”

Let’s see, now … the corporation publishes magazines. And they restructure a magazine so that it has no editor. This makes sense how, exactly?

Keyboard did exactly the same thing a couple of months ago. Laid off Ernie Rideout, leaving the magazine without an editor. For now, Steve Fortner is functioning as Keyboard’s editor, though without the title, the pay raise, or the staff he would need to do the job.

Last year Virtual Instruments had to close its doors. My most recent word from Markkus Rovito at Remix (which is owned by the same company as Electronic Musician) was that he would be able to pay only a small fraction of his former rates for articles, because Remix has gone online-only. And of course Kylee Swenson had already been laid off as editor at Remix. Gossip (totally unconfirmed) is that while Craig Anderton continues at EQ, his pay has been cut rather drastically.

This is all very discouraging if you’re in the music magazine business, but ultimately it’s musicians who suffer.

Three factors have combined to bring us to the present state of affairs: a worldwide economic depression, corporate stupidity, and the Internet.

The Internet nibbles away at magazines from both sides. On the editorial side, readers can get huge slabs of information for free, so why pay for a subscription? Plus, the Internet is blazingly current; a print magazine is always six weeks behind the times. On the advertising side, manufacturers all have websites now, so they have less need to buy print ads to tout the virtues of their products. It’s a deadly combination.

Corporate stupidity is a separate topic. I’ll save it for another time. Let’s just observe that a dinosaur can run downhill at a pretty good clip and still look like it’s in control — but when it has to change course due to a fallen log in the path, expect to hear a loud crash.

Here’s a perspective from an industry insider. I won’t reveal this person’s name, but it’s someone who has looked at the numbers. Magazines are paid for by advertising, and that has become a big problem: “The advertising-supported business model will not be able to sustain print magazines much longer,” says my source. “With ad revenues at an all-time low and magazines being distributed for free to ‘subscribers’  (not to mention the newsstand problems of printing copies and throwing away 80% of them), magazines do not generate nearly enough revenue to cover the costs of being produced, printed, and distributed.  Subscriptions and advertising rates have been discounted way too much over the years, and too many copies are given away for free — all to sustain rate bases that advertisers have insisted on but never wanted to pay for.”

Musicians still need good solid information about all sorts of things — technology, career-building, musicianship, current events, other artists to keep an eye on. The trouble with getting your info off the Web is that it’s unmoderated. You’ll be subjected to all sorts of bias and blather, and weeding through it will become an endless time-sink.

That’s what magazine editors are for: to sort out the bias and blather. In recent years (since the late 1980s or thereabouts) bias has started to creep and ooze into the magazines’ editorial pages, due to unremitting pressure from advertisers and corporate cowardice in resisting that pressure. So I’m talking the theory of magazine editors here, not necessarily the reality in all cases. (If you’re an editor, past or present, please try not to be offended by that observation. I can back it up with facts.)

All the same, editors perform a valuable social function: They figure out what’s important, they fact-check information to make sure it’s reliable, and they package the results in a way that’s easy and convenient for readers to absorb.

Maybe I ought to start a music magazine. The idea has crossed my mind a few times. I can think of a few talented people I’d hire, and I’m pretty sure they’re all looking for work.

What does anybody think? If you were starting, not a print publication but a timely magazine-like information source that employed editors to prepare the content, what would you include? What would you leave out? Tell me a story.

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3 Responses to Brave New World

  1. I’ve been mulling this over as well, thanks to a chain of events. Last night I read Clay Shirky’s pointed “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” and got the point that it’s journalism, not paper journals, that needs saving. This morning, I read Gino’s latest editorial about making music, not excuses. And then I opened my email to see his restructuring letter.

    (Oh, this is spooky. UPS just dropped off a package addressed to Gino at my address. It’s a product I’m reviewing for EM.)

    I’m thinking the role of editors in the future will be more as community leaders, gathering and focusing the work of many to provide near-realtime help for all. Like reference librarians who don’t have to whisper. How that will be paid remains to be seen.

    I ran a Web audio magazine the last four-and-a-half years and thought it worked better than print in several ways. Being able to play audio examples in the context of the article, pop up images as large as you need, and get instant feedback from readers was great. Less expected was that the material became easier to find, save, and share; coming out of the print world, I’d thought of the Web as ephemeral.

    Reading long articles online remains a pain, but future display technologies should solve that.

    So for my next magazine? I’d do it as a forum, with content driven by readers and moderated by accomplished, encouraging teachers. How that will be paid remains to be seen. Sponsorships? Affiliate links? Spinoff projects? I suspect that the knowledge editors gain by working directly with readers will make them even more valuable as consultants. So perhaps that’s where the funding lies — along with some new ethical challenges.

  2. Kermit says:

    This is an issue that has been eating at me for a while now too. I am a subscriber to EM but when the time comes to renew I am on the fence as to whether or not to do so. The magazine has gotten really thin and a good portion of the pages are advertisements or pseudo-advertisements in the form of “product news”. I can not trust the product reviews as I know that there is a good chance that they clouded by all sorts of biases and pressures. This hurts the products that are good and deserving of praise because it is hard to tell what is legitimate. The last issue featured a review of Sonar 8. I highly doubt that the magazine would have panned it had it been worthy of such (not saying that it is) because EM can hardly afford to rock the Roland boat. Many of the tutorials also have the feel of serving as a form of advertisement as in, “Look at this neat trick that you can do with Drumagog!” Sometimes these tutorials are useful and are actually something that the magazine should be doing, but sometimes it can be hard to tell what the real motive behind such articles is.

    I say all this not to impugn the motives and integrity of the writers whom I have never met but rather because the entire business model is so full of conflicts of interest and competing agendas that it can not produce a quality magazine that I can trust. Overall, the magazine just feels cheap. The layout is fairly gaudy and to be honest, the whole thing feels like one semi-big brochure.

    I do however love magazines. Throw one in the backpack and there will never be a dull waiting room in your future. The model that seems to make the most sense to me would be to go towards the subscriber supported route. By this I mean an expensive subscription rate that would preclude the need for any advertisement revenue. At the moment EM costs about $30 a year for a subscription which comes to $2.50 per issue. I think many people would be willing to pay double (if not more) for a magazine that were chock full of articles written by experts in the field without the blatant deference to the advertisers. A magazine that would be responsible to only one interest group; the readers. I for one would be willing to pay for this and I am willing to bet that many others would be as well. Getting something like this off the ground would not be easy but I definitely think that there is a market for something like this. I would subscribe in a heartbeat.

  3. midiguru says:

    Thanks for your comments, Kermit. I’ll respond briefly.

    On product reviews: Biases, probably not. Pressures, constantly!

    Tutorials that are thinly disguised ads: Definitely true.

    A magazine paid for entirely by subscribers … this idea comes up from time to time. I don’t have any hard numbers at my fingertips, but my best guess is that you’d be paying not twice as much per issue, but at least ten times as much. Would a high-quality music technology magazine be worth $300 a year to you? Do you have 50,000 friends who feel the same way? If so, let’s talk….

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