Music in print. Will it last?

Maud Webster and Sara Nigohosyan debate the future of music journalism in print

multiple writers
29th July 2020

In defence of music journalism in print

Print music journalism, along with the music industry as a whole, is transforming; but whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated declining print magazine sales for major magazines, changes were bound to occur anyway.

When it comes to consumption of music-related content, habits have changed; the rise of new media means that readers have a deluge of options for music commentary, review and advertisement. Now, a huge chunk of the market can source their information and entertainment from blogs, YouTube, social media and other online outlets. This, however, doesn’t mean there is no space for print magazines; it just means how they are marketed and distributed will change. 

We’re already seeing the most established and well-known titles lose their dominance. NME were left in 2018 with little choice other than to host their operations online (which admittedly has been rather successful for them), and now Q magazine has also announced it will cease their print magazine. Whilst this may seem like a rather jeopardising, dire signal of a potential end for the print music magazine, I’d argue this is leading to an organic rise of smaller-market and independent magazines and zines, as traditional big brand music magazines take up less space.

These smaller magazines may have a diminished circulation, but garner a more dedicated audience interested in the specific niche or genre focused on by the publication. Publishers will need to adjust and remodel their business strategies to ensure they can compete in a saturated market. Titles may have to resort to producing free content, and working with the less lucrative advertising deals less readily available for print thanks to new media. Editorial teams must rethink both their employee size and overheads, perhaps leaning towards using freelancers as opposed to many permanent members of writing staff. 

Despite the challenges and a shift in how we view and consume media, a demand will continue for more meaningful, longform pieces that are hard to grab people’s attention and distribute online. Instead of pitting print and online against each other, publications need to harness the collaborative power of both mediums. You can draw parallels with the expected decline of books when the Kindle came about; yet books in print still staunchly exist - just supplemented with e-books and online material. There will always be an appeal for print. The tactile engagement, the sensation of turning pages: it is an experience. Successful magazines recognise this, differentiating between the type of content they can offer online and the type of content they can offer in print. 

You can draw parallels with the expected decline of books

As the country went into Lockdown, it was estimated UK magazine publishers would lose a hefty £200m in advertising and £52m in copy sales.  Gigs and festivals, a source of both distribution of print and subject content, are beginning to resume as lockdown measures are reduced. Magazines may respond to the long-term impacts of the pandemic by pausing print temporarily, or taking the time to review their practices and rebrand themselves to fit a new market dynamic. Just because lockdown made it trickier for people to access print media, the fanbase is still present, ready to support magazines now we are exiting lockdown.

Dave Simpson commented in 2018: “to walk into any major newsagent in 2018 is to be greeted by a dizzying array of titles – far more than there were when Melody Maker, NME and Sounds shipped hundreds of thousands of copies. Today’s circulations are lower, but there are magazines for every niche or genre”. Whilst the world may have encountered a lot of unexpected cultural and economic changes since then (you know, like a pandemic), the music press (from small zines to big names) still see a strong audience which will propel them through the inevitable challenges music journalism will have to deal with over the next few years.

Maud Webster

Against music journalism in print

Nostalgia can certainly be considered a selling point when it comes to magazines, but how many times would people choose nostalgia over convenience and accessibility? 

Print magazines will always hold a special place in readers’ hearts, but the truth is that there is no room for them in peoples’ pockets, financially and physically. Seeing such an important and influential giant in British music journalism, Q Magazine, close down after 34 years can serve almost as a wake-up call, reminding us that things are constantly changing. Our environments are now more dynamic than ever, forcing us to adapt and appreciate every way in which we can save time and money whilst benefiting from comfort. Consuming magazines in print requires all of those things: each issue costs money, takes more time to purchase and consume, and cannot be read anywhere or at any time - you need to carry the issue wherever you want to read it, and it normally is not small, weighs in your bag, and takes up space. All of this can be avoided by opening the digital versions of those same magazines on your phones - free, quick, and easily accessible anywhere.

This demand, or lack thereof, can be seen in the statistics regarding how print magazines have been doing in the last few years. In the UK alone, the annual magazine sales have plummeted from 1.2 billion to less than 482 million in the span between 2005 and 2019, according to the Guardian. 

If the losses are so large that big names in the music industry such as Q Magazine are closing down, then it probably means we should embrace this change, as it is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. The industry’s struggles have also affected leading names such as NME, one of the most popular British music magazines, which has stopped printing last year after 66 years of traditional music journalism and has fully gone online. 

We should embrace this change

Falling out of love with old industries and concepts is nothing new and should not be scary or make us long for the past. Change is good and it means that we are growing and improving. By leaving print in the past, we are allowing for new things to come into our lives. Just like vinyl, print will always be a respected format, and it will perhaps even become more valuable after disappearing from the mainstream market. Following the footsteps of vinyl, it would probably be found in vintage markets or bookshops, coming to hold a sentimental value and even being collected. 

Our appreciation for traditional journalism, and in this case, traditional music journalism, should not make us hold onto the past. While the experience of holding a physical magazine copy and turning through its pages is nice, nothing can compare to the convenience of easily opening anything you would like to read anywhere at no cost and with minimal effort.

Sara Nigohosyan

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