How Online Advertising is Killing Music Journalism
Back in the mid-90s, I doubt Ryan Schreiber had any inkling of how successful Pitchfork would be. When Schreiber started out in 1995, his goal was simply to write about bands he liked that weren't receiving mainstream press coverage. At that time, blogging was a hobby. It didn't hold the same clout (or money) as music journalism. It wasn't until 2002, when BlogAds launched the first broker of blog advertising, that this would begin to change. Now, as music journalism is going digital, the method by which publications make money from advertising is affecting the type of content produced. This should worry you.
This shift began in 2001 in the wake of Napster's shutdown. Sites like Fluxblog and Stereogum launched a new type of music blog that shared and reviewed single MP3s. For music fans, these sites served as discovery tools and sources of acquiring music in the absence of viable P2P services. Then, in 2004, a crucial study revealed that readership of blogs was exploding, up 58% from the previous year.
With the growth in readership came an increase in online advertising. In 2005, advertisers spent an estimated $100mm on blogs. In exchange for high reach and low costs, advertisers invested in blind networks like Google's Adsense or IndieClick; but for bloggers, these networks paid poorly. In response, blogs formed networks like BUZZMEDIA, which offered advertisers highly targeted campaigns at higher rates. Recently, print magazines such as SPIN and Complex started pooling together blogs to create their own networks (further blurring the distinctions between bloggers and music journalists).
So why is this important? As print publications move toward blogging, online advertising is becoming the lifeline of music journalism. Herein lies the problem: Online advertising is very different than print. To achieve the same payout as a full-page ad, online publications need to generate an absurd amount of page views. (For the record, I realize CPM isn't the only form of online advertising.) As a result, sites like SPIN and Complex are increasingly more focused on content that will garner traffic.
Maura Johnston describes this issue as the "Darwinistic page-view coverage of anything." The former Village Voice music editor's statement suggests how music writing is evolving around search engine optimization (SEO) techniques and shareable content. In a phone interview, Maura explained, "Shareable content is not about finding new things. Shareable content is about reinforcing already held positions that you have." The concern here is regarding whose positions are being reinforced. In Maura's opinion, the "the neutral point of view" is being shared which "reinforces the hegemonic structure that is already in place," thereby marginalizing minority perspectives.
At the Village Voice, Maura chose to write from a feminist perspective and provide cultural analysis, rather than create lists, assemble GIFs, or publish galleries of half-naked clubbers. Her nonconformity got her fired. In a post for NPR, Maura explained how this trend is affecting the type of content created:
Think pieces and reviews still existed, but they were accompanied by other attempts to lure readers: Trifles like album titles and track listings treated as news items worthy of their own "stories" (to maximize the possibility of people tripping over their fingers and into a unique view); artists out of the public spotlight for more than six months unearthed as if they were creatures from another dimension; Tweets and other public statements by artists taken out of context and drained of their tone so as to stoke "WTF" headlines; Superlative-laden lists not even aimed at expressing an opinion in count-downable form; Posts with factual errors seen as hits to institutional credibility and opportunities to wring double the traffic out of one story.
Common amongst these types of posts is an abbreviated writing style that prefers lazily regurgitating details, without providing any personal input.
This type of content is a byproduct of blogs' emphasis on SEO tactics. Shorter pieces lacking substance are easier to produce and enable blogs to post content first, which in turn helps the post rank higher in Google searches. This is by no means a new phenomenon. Several music bloggers (including yours truly) have discussed the downward spiral of posting first. Another strategy affecting content is known as “content farming.” Rather than write about what's undiscovered, publications choose topics based on the keyword terms for which Google ranks them higher.
In addition, while Ryan Schreiber may have started Pitchfork to write about obscure bands, the site now also writes about many mainstream artists. In an effort to reach larger demographics, blogs are creating link bait with highly searched band names or keyword phrases like "best new music." For every obscure band that isn't heavily searched, a website will produce double that amount of content around a highly searched term. "Every piece of media has to appeal to 'everyone,' and everyone is 18-45 and looks like the people making media," Maura explained to me.
Charles Avison, publisher of the first work of music journalism in the English language, An Essay On Musical Expression (1752).
With more music blogs than ever before, it is increasingly difficult to sift through the noise. Bloggers are implementing the same SEO tactics to grow their audience, which creates an over-production of similar content and a divide amongst bloggers who feel blogging should be about passion or making money. Freelance journalist and Rawkblog writer, David Greenwald, described blogging simply to make money as "disheartening." For David, music bloggers should post "things they love, things they're cheerleaders for." Zach Hart of We Listen For You took David's stance a step further, stating a blog loses authenticity once it posts content for the sole purpose of generating traffic.
What is most concerning is the fact that publications like Village Voice, SPIN or Complex are following the trend of creating content for traffic. Sure, these publications are businesses, but for junior-level music writers, this pattern perpetuates a bleak environment to nurture their writing skills. Young aspiring writers are encouraged to reproduce the same style of content in order to move up.
David explained to me that professional journalism "is not about covering what you love, it's about writing about what people are interested in." By this definition “journalism” is merely content that drives traffic (because people are interested in it). This seems to counter Maura's (a senior writer to David) belief that journalism should also spotlight lesser known facts: "You have these features that get traffic and the pressure from the higher ups are saying 'Do it again! Do it again!' It pushes out of the spotlight things that aren't known."
As a music blogger myself, I'm not saying long form writing is dead or if that's exactly what's missing; rather, I'd say there's a scarcity of well-constructed content. It's encouraging that some optimists believe there is a place for long form writing and analysis. Two weeks ago, Consequence of Sound, a site more noted for its short news blurbs and track descriptions, added a long form writing section. Plenty of sites including VICE, Grantland, The New Yorker, and The Qiuetus continue to write interesting, well-produced content. Good writing is not dead (man is that word used too often). It's just diminishing.
I actually think the savior of music writing lies in VICE's model, and I'm not just saying that because I like to write for them. In 2006, VICE launched Virtue, a full service marketing and branding agency that connects advertisers to a huge market spread across multiple verticals including Noisey (music), VICE (news), Motherboard (technology/science) and The Creators Project (art/events). Each channel is consistent with VICE's off-kilter style (allowing it to retain its racy, informative, new age, and satirical content), while providing advertisers a highly targeted demographic over multiple verticals. Future success of publications like VICE will depend on their ability to produce quality content, thereby growing their readership and retaining their journalistic integrity.
Online advertising isn't exactly killing journalism - that's just a catchy headline that assured I'd get a pageview. The methods of payments are just messing it up. Ultimately, readers will decide the fate of music writing and, I’d like to think, that uncertainty leaves open the door for plenty of possibilities.