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Name: Adam Bernard
Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States
About Me: Entertainment journalist with 15+ years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, fringe movies, & chicken shawarma. Part time ninja. Nerdy, but awesome.
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Why Music Mags are on Life Support
Friday, June 04, 2010

This is a blog post that’s been a long time coming. As many of you know I’ve been writing about music for close to a decade now (this December will mark ten full years). During that time I’ve written for a number of major music publications. When I first saw the downfall of music magazines coming I was still too new in my career to write about it - criticizing the industry that pays your bills is never a good idea. Now, however, I feel I’ve done enough to earn my stripes, and I see that the situation has become dire, so I’m willing to take a potential loss or two if it serves the overall good of our struggling industry.

A magazine is only as good as its written content, and writers and editors are judged on which artists they can get in their magazines. This is why publicists are an essential cog in the music industry. Now, I want to preface what I’m about to say by noting that some of my best friends work in publicity and do an amazing job. I have a great deal of respect for them. That being said, I think some of them may be doing too good of a job. How can a publicist be doing too good of a job? Simple, when they make the writer feel like they don’t have to seek out new music anymore.

The dirty little secret of many music magazines is that they’re now essentially controlled by publicists. I can pick up any hip-hop magazine, flip through it, and instantly know which publicists they’re working with. Why is this a big deal? It’s a big deal because when EVERY article is one that’s been pitched by a publicist it means a couple of things aren’t happening at the publication that need to be happening in order for music magazines to survive.

1) It means the writers and editors are no longer moving their butts out of their desk chairs to go out and find great music. I can’t tell you how upsetting it is to see writers only showing up at industry events. Yes, we get in for free and occasionally get some food and a drink or two, but is that why you started writing about music? If you’re writing about music it should be because you love music, and if you love music you should be out enjoying it at any show you can make it to and not mind paying the occasional $5 or $10 cover charge to get in. That $5 or $10 could mean hearing the next great artist and being the first to cover them, instead of having to wait to read about them somewhere else.

This is where the internet is truly showing the print world how it should be done. Everyone likes to talk about the immediacy of the internet, saying that’s what’s killing print publications, and while that’s part of it, a very large, forgotten, aspect of things is the fact that many bloggers started their blogs because they love music and enjoy going to shows and telling people about the artists they see. For all the mocking people do of bloggers, labeling them as shut ins who do nothing but hide behind their computers, many of them are at shows on a regular basis. They pay to get in, they enjoy the show, and they write about it and post it online... because they love music. This is why bloggers are currently destroying print magazines when it come to breaking new artists.

2) It means that there’s little difference between publications because there are a limited amount of artists being covered. It’s a publicist’s job to get their artist everywhere, and there quite a few publicists who are incredible at that job. As an editor or writer, however, when all you do is write about the artists publicists pitch to you, you have to get an artist to reveal something truly amazing to separate your magazine from the next one because when everyone works that way everyone has roughly the same content, just with different bylines. Hip-Hop websites suffer from this problem, as well.

3) It means the content of publications is limited to what’s going on right now. Publicists aren’t hired by artists to hype nothing, they’re hired to hype albums that are coming out, major shows that are coming up, or major news an artist wants to get out to the world. When a magazine limits its editorial board to what is being pitched to them it drastically limits the amount of time it will be relevant. People shouldn’t want to throw away your magazine as soon as the next issue arrives, there should be something in it that’s still relevant and worth reading no matter when someone opens it up. The term for these type of articles is evergreen, and while the kind of journalism it entails requires more work, it’s also much more rewarding, and as a writer you actually learn a lot from each evergreen story you do.

As an aside to all this, I know a lot hip-hop artists were extremely disappointed that neither XXL nor The Source had Guru on their cover after his passing. I’m going to give both magazines the benefit of the doubt that their issues that came out immediately following his death had already been laid out, and possibly even gone to print, when it happened, making it impossible to make such a move. That being said, both publications should do Guru cover stories, and those stories should be huge pieces that take up a number of pages. They would be evergreen stories that, in addition to memorializing one of the most important voices in hip-hop history, would give the younger generation of readers some insight into hip-hop’s past.

I know XXL and The Source might argue that Guru’s fan base is older and no longer reads the magazines, but doesn’t it stand to reason that if you put him on the cover, and did an extended feature on him that was too long to read on the newsstand, and didn’t do something stupid like also put it on the net, you’d gain those readers back for an issue, and maybe, if you have some other great content in there, you might even get them buying the magazine again on a semi-regular basis?

Now, let me reiterate I’m in no way saying cut out publicists. That would ridiculous. A number of publicists have great artists who are doing great things, but magazines need to stop their total reliance on them. Editors and writers need to get back to having minds of their own, and if they think they’re too cool to wait in line to see a lineup of bands or emcees where they may have only heard of one act on the bill, they need to stop writing about music, because it means they’ve lost their love of it, and we need people who still have that love to be running the show.

I’m sure quite a few writers and editors will be mad at me for writing this, but that’s tough. I’m tired of seeing an industry I love die and I really felt like if I didn’t speak up now, while there’s still a chance to save it, I’d regret it.

Let’s save print by loving music again.

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posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:55 AM  
  • At 8:28 AM, Blogger Crew54 said…

    i wont lie, i miss the days of getting those mags and having something to read through for a few days. You're right alot of it is online, video blogs and everything but those mags still hold that place.

  • At 8:40 AM, Blogger AngryGirl said…

    Right on. On all counts.

  • At 9:38 AM, Blogger Hex said…

    So on point with this. I would love to write for music mags, but getting the foot in that door even to just offer a different perspective is hard, especially when you're an unknown.

    And yet, all of this publicist driven quid pro quo content that they fill it with is so ..uninteresting and uninspiring that it makes me not want to read most of it at all.

    The web is where people are talking and arguing about things, largely because it's open access -- no one's telling you that your opinion doesn't matter because you don't have a certain kind of credit or the right references.

    And while that means every idiot has an equal forum on every topic, it does mean that you at least have the ability to make a choice, which is what we all used to do when we bought our music magazines back in the day.

    great article!

  • At 9:08 PM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…

    Crew54, AngryGirl & Hex,

    Thank you for all the kind words. Hopefully one day we'll get our magazines back.

    PS - Hex, I have always felt the most resistance when offering different perspectives, but always felt the most fulfillment when I found a way to work those articles into the given publications. Keep making the attempts, because the reward, even if it's just emotional, is awesome.

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