Spinning in the Grave

The three biggest reasons music magazines are dying.

To the varied signs of the economic collapse we can now add a small but notable subspecies of urbanite: You’ll recognize him (or her) by the ear buds burrowing into his head, the freebie SXSW tote bag slung over his shoulder, and the unintelligible mutterings about “melisma” and “twee-core” crossing his lips. If you see such a person out and about—likely wandering a neighborhood rich with coffee shops or, even better, two-for-one happy hours—remain calm but keep your distance. This is a music journalist, a type never famous for social skills, and he’s in an especially bad mood these days. 

Late last month, Vibe magazine announced that it was ceasing publication. The next day, word arrived that Spin was laying off a half-dozen staffers. In late March, Blender folded outright, and a few months before that, Rolling Stone trimmed its masthead. (Blender hired me out of college in 2002, and I worked there until its demise.) For this strange moment, at least, many onetime professional music nerds share a common experience with many onetime investment bankers: whiplash.

Some of the problems that have beset music magazines are familiar from discussions about the publishing industry’s woes in general: Readership’s down, advertising’s down, the old guard has been slow in adapting to the Internet. But like newspapers and shelter titles, music magazines have proven especially vulnerable.

I’m going to leave aside the question of whether Blender and Vibe somehow deserved their undoing, via editorial missteps or poor business-side decisions, and whether Rolling Stone and Spin deserve their present difficulties. Criticisms attach to every title, and while such factors play a part in the music-mag death march, they’re negligible when considered alongside three bigger problems that cut deep and wide across the medium:

1. There are fewer superstars, and the same musicians show up on every magazine cover.

Say Beyoncé—or Kanye, or Kelly Clarkson, or any of the few musical acts that still command massive appeal—announces a new album. Rolling Stone may try to book her for a cover, but even if it gets a guarantee she won’t appear on the cover of another music magazine, readers will have plenty of time to tire of her face as it beams from the covers of “urban” magazines, women’s magazines, teen magazines, fashion magazines, and tabloids (to say nothing of gossip blogs, Access Hollywood, etc.). No matter how striking your cover is, it will popfrom the racks that much less thanks to the inevitable media saturation of its star. My former editor at Blender, Craig Marks, identified this phenomenon as “cover fatigue”: In trying to book covers with maximum reach, music magazines dunk month after month into the same shrinking pool of monolithic stars.

Different strategies for dealing with this have emerged, but nothing surefire. Not long ago, a Spin editor told me they’d realized that a cover featuring a multiplatinum rocker sold only slightly better than one featuring a critic’s darling like Vampire Weekend. Spin decided they might as well choose more acts they loved as cover stars rather than focusing on bands that sold millions. This niche-targeting logic drives the indie-music Web site Pitchfork, whose core audience is perfectly happy to read a 650-word review of, say, the new Black Moth Super Rainbow album. But it’s unclear whether the same thinking can sustain a magazine with a circulation of half a million copies a month—and it bears emphasizing that Pitchfork doesn’t need to draw readers in with a single image.

2. Music mags have less to offer music lovers, and music lovers need them less than ever anyway.

Time was, record companies sent advance copies of albums to music journalists. They, in turn, offered a distinct service to fans with timely, expert evaluations of new music. In the early aughts, labels, frightened by online leaks, tightened their grip on advance music, and listening sessions became the norm for most popular acts. Often held without the complete CD, these sessions encourage partially informed, snap judgments. They’re less than ideal in other ways, too: A colleague once reviewed a G-Unit album while 50 Cent sat directly across from him, nodding vigorously to the beat. Along the way, labels have tried other experiments. I’ve seen album advances come as preloaded iPods (the Pussycat Dolls), vinyl (the White Stripes), cassettes (Justin Timberlake), and a Discman glued shut (Tori Amos). As advances of high-profile records slowed to a trickle, Blender and other magazines working with long lead times were forced to run many big reviews several months late or skip them altogether.

Meanwhile, with the proliferation of online music, sanctioned and otherwise, music fans don’t need critics to play middleman the way they once did: If a fan wants to decide whether he likes a new album, there are far easier ways than waiting for a critic to weigh in, from streaming tracks on MySpace and YouTube to downloading the whole thing on a torrent site or .rar blog. The value of the music reviewer has always been split between consumer service (should people plunk down cash for this CD?) and art criticism (what’s the CD about?), but of late the balance has shifted from the former toward the latter—answering the question of whether to buy an album isn’t much use when, for a lot of listeners, the music is effectively free. It’s a valid point that the professional critic still wields an aura of authority rare in the cacophonous world of online music, but between taste-making blogs and ever-smarter music-recommendation algorithms like Apple Genius and Pandora, the critic’s importance is being whittled down.

Reviews are one thing; what about features and interviews, where music journalists get access to stars that their online counterparts can only dream of? Unfortunately, the days when Cameron Crowe could spend months reporting a story from Led Zeppelin’s tour bus are long gone. Tabloids have helped make stars wary, if not scornful, of journalists of all stripes, print doesn’t fill artists’ coffers (many high-powered publicists have repeated the mantra to me that press doesn’t sell albums), and so artists big and medium give music magazines less of themselves than ever. Yes, a music-magazine cover can contribute to credibility and prestige, but the best access is often reserved for a title beyond the music ghetto, like Vanity Fair, GQ, or, should it come calling, The New Yorker. When I profiled Beyoncé for a 2006 Blender cover story, I was granted one hour to interview her and one hour to observe her at a video shoot. I stayed on the set for three hours, hoping to wring some lively detail from the mundane proceedings, until a bodyguard showed me the door. Beyoncé’s mother, Tina, gave me a warm goodbye, then called a publicist to chew her out for letting me hang around so long and accused me of “going through Beyoncé’s underwear.” (I’d quizzed a seamstress about a pair of hot pants she was mending.) The writing that arises from situations like these invariably suffers, and readers notice.

3. Music magazines were an early version of social networking. But now there’s this thing called “social networking” …

Many readers who are otherwise passionate about culture have little time for music writing, irritated that it speaks in abstract, jargon-stuffed language about ostensibly mainstream entertainment. Movie and TV reviewers can talk about plotlines and acting; video game reviewers can talk about graphics and game play. Music writers are charged with describing more ineffable things, and the frequent result is a pile-up of slang and shorthand references, purplish gushing, and tedious emphasis on lyrics. Even when the writing crackles, for every reader who is confronted with a culture-moving enigma like the Jonas Brothers and hungers for someone to come along with a magnifying glass and fine-toothed comb, there are those who insist that pop just isn’t worth the effort—there’s dancing about architecture, you see, and then there’s hyperventilating about crap.

This has always been an issue for music magazines, but traditionally they’ve been able to make it an asset, too. One of the most important historical functions of music magazines has been precisely to speak in a semisecret language that separates in-the-know us from square them. Rolling Stone, Spin, and Vibe made their names on the backs of outsider music movements that were storming the mainstream: ‘60s rock counterculture, ‘90s alternative, and ‘90s hip-hop, respectively. (Blender aligned itself with a less oppositional, “poptimist” perspective.) Picture that mythical orange-haired girl walking around a nowheresville suburb in 1994 with a rolled-up Spin in her back pocket—it’s not just a magazine but a badge, an amulet, a pipeline to a world far removed from her local food court. At least since the ‘60s, music has been more integral to youthful identity building than any other part of popular culture, and, at their most successful, music magazines have institutionalized, codified, and made themselves indispensable to that process. Teens trying to hash out (sub)cultural identities today have message boards, fan sites, and YouTube diaries to turn to, not to mention Facebook groups and musicians’ MySpace pages. And that’s perhaps the greatest crisis facing music magazines: They’re being phased out, to a significant degree, by social-networking media, too.

So should we mourn dead music magazines or simply shrug as we pass the funeral? If they were to disappear entirely, people would still find out about new music, after all, and criticism would doubtless live on, online and in general-interest publications. It’s the more costly reporting that would be harder to find, and this shouldn’t be taken lightly. Although people are buying music at record lows, it’s likely that we’re listening to more of it than ever before. For every artist profile reduced to a charade (my hour with Beyoncé), there’s a piece like David Peisner’s fascinating 2006 Spin article on the role of music as torture in the war on terror or 2008 Britney Spears stories by Michael Joseph Gross in Blender and Vanessa Grigoriadis in Rolling Stone, which offered engrossing, intelligent reporting into Spears’ nadir without a smidge of “access” to the star herself. In the absence of the great feature writing that music magazines do underwrite (and unless Web writing, video interviews, artists’ blogs, and other new forms fill the void), we’ll be hearing only part of the song.