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.