Music Magazines Take to the Web

The changing state of the music industry is forcing changes in the publications that cover it, says reporter Joel Rose.

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Another casualty of the wobbly economy: small music magazines. The publisher of No Depression announced it will stop publishing come this summer. Now, this magazine is a widely respected and some would even say beloved publication that covers Americana and roots music. I like to call it the y'all alternative for you Wilco fans out there.

Niche music mags like No Depression are being forced to rethink how to do business as the music industry declines. And guess where they're turning? The Internet. Here's reporter Joel Rose with more.

JOEL ROSE:

No Depression took its name from a song by the Carter Family, a song that was picked up by the pioneering alt country band, Uncle Tupelo.

(Soundbite of song, "No Depression")

UNCLE TUPELO (Alt Country Band): I'm going where there's no depression, to a better land that's free from care.

ROSE: Uncle Tupelo's singer, Jay Farrar, was featured on the very first No Depression cover with his other band Son Volt. Thirteen years later, the magazine subscription base is as big as its ever been, and co-publisher Kyla Fairchild says newsstand sales are solid too.

Ms. KYLA FAIRCHILD (Co-Publisher, No Depression Magazine): There's definitely no lack of demand for the product. It's really just a function of what's going on in the music industry.

ROSE: Fairchild says the record labels that had always bought ads in the magazine just stopped buying them. She says the slide started last year, but it picked up speed in the last few months.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: It actually happened really pretty fast. We were putting our March/April issue together, and that's usually our biggest issue of the year, it's usually huge, and I couldn't even hit the ad number for that, that I had forecast for our smallest issues of year.

ROSE: Yet overall, ad spending on magazines has been stable for the last five years. Postal rates and printing costs have gone up. But Nick Purdy, the publisher of the music magazine Paste, says the real killer is the loss of advertising from record labels.

Mr. NICK PURDY (Publisher, Paste Magazine): If your business is dependent on the record industry to pay the advertising bills, there is a change there. The business of music is changing dramatically.

ROSE: CD sales have been declining for years, forcing record labels to tighten their belts. Bigger music magazines like Rolling Stone are more insulated from those changes because they have a larger readership and a more diverse advertising base. But just last month, the Christian Music magazine CCM announced that it's closing its print edition, so did the indie rock magazine resonance. If there's going to be a future for music magazines like these, it probably won't be on paper.

Ms. ANN POWERS (Chief Pop-Music Critic, the Los Angeles Times): The newer model for niche-oriented or community-oriented music publications is going to be something more online.

ROSE: Ann Powers writes about pop music for the Los Angeles Times. She said niche music sites could look very different from the magazines they used to be. They may have more in common with Web sites driven by fans and musicians.

Ms. POWERS: These kinds music communities are based increasingly on interactivity between musicians and the fans. And the writer or the editor has to find her role in that. What is our role as mediators, as critics, as journalists?

ROSE: That's a question the publishers of No Depression have asked themselves.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: As I sort of envisioned the Web site, it would have a radio component, it would have a record store retail component, it would have user-driven chat rooms.

ROSE: Kyla Fairchild says there's a potential downside to a site that's shaped by its users.

Ms. FAIRCHILD: When you open things up to the public you really can't complain when some horrible band from wherever puts something up. And so there were concerns that it sort of diluted the value and what the brand stood for.

ROSE: Nevertheless, Fairchild says she's determined to keep that brand going on the Web. Paste magazine publisher Nick Purdy says other niche music magazines should be following her lead.

Mr. PURDY: If you get out of print and decide to focus purely on online, obviously you can reduce your costs dramatically and potentially survive. And you'll, I think, see a number of niche music publications eventually migrate to the Web as purely digital publications.

ROSE: Because he says the alterative isn't going to be viable for much longer.

MARTIN: NPR's Joel Rose reporting.

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