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27 July 2020

The music press isn’t dead

The closure of Q magazine has highlighted a troubled media landscape and the serious effects of a pandemic on music journalism. But many smaller, independent music magazines are thriving.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

News that Q, the self-titled “world’s greatest music magazine”, is closing after 34 years has renewed conversations about the UK print music press. For many, the closure of Q confirms it: the music press is dying.

It’s a narrative that has been on the tips of tongues since the development of digital media and advertising in the early 2000s, one that has seemed inevitable following reports of declining print sales year on year since 2007, and was deemed near enough certain when NME first became a free title in 2015 and then ended its print edition entirely in 2018.

This narrative “varies between being frustrating and being terrifying,” says Tom Johnson, founder and editor of Gold Flake Paint: a music journal which this summer celebrates ten years online, and launched its first print edition 18 months ago.

“They’ve been saying that blogs are dying, and then magazines are dying, and albums are dying, and labels are dying,” Johnson adds. “The worry is that it becomes self-perpetuating. At the level we work at, it still feels like there’s so much going on, so much to cherish and support.”

The truth is there are an awful lot of music magazines still in existence, both online and in print. They include the free monthly magazine DIY, which has a circulation of 40,000, and Bristol-based Crack, which launched a Berlin edition in 2015 and an Amsterdam edition in 2017. They nurture new bands and herald more established ones, sharing interviews and reviews of new records and live shows. But they go about things – from practical decisions such as distribution and staff, to stylistic choices such as design, tone of voice and the types of artists they cover – a little differently. 

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“When people say ‘print is dead’, they are thinking about a specific type of magazine, what they consider a ‘newsstand title’,” says Stuart Stubbs, editor of Loud and Quiet. “Bizarrely, it’s quite nice that it counts as news. For all the talk of magazines being irrelevant or not needed anymore, it’s funny how when one stops printing, everybody talks about it. If it really didn’t mean anything, you wouldn’t even have registered the fact that Q had closed.”

In 2005 Stubbs founded Loud and Quiet, then a free music publication printed on newsprint nine times a year. “This won’t last,” people told him. Fifteen years later, it’s still going, though in a different form, and has featured artists as genre-diverse as Yoko Ono, Holly Herndon, King Krule and David Byrne on its cover. At the beginning of 2018 Loud and Quiet went glossy but remained free, and continued to be stocked in select record shops and music venues. With just three full-time staff, overheads were low, but as a free title, the magazine relied on advertising revenue to turn a profit. 

The pandemic is a forceful second blow to an already struggling industry. The issues that led to Q’s closure have caused similar problems at smaller titles. As events were cancelled, advertisers – already few and far between for print media, following the pivot to digital – stopped taking bookings. Loud and Quiet was forced to halt publication on its next few issues – as were other free titles In Stereo, DIY and Crack, as well as paid-for magazines MixMag and DJ Mag – and in late April it launched an emergency appeal for subscribers. Stubbs says he aimed to reach 1,000 paying subscribers, signed up to a 12-month, six-issue deal, and has now exceeded that with over 1,200 paid readers signed up. How long these subscribers will keep Loud and Quiet alive depends on when advertising returns. 

There is a ceiling to the number of people who will subscribe to Loud and Quiet, Stubbs realises, but “we don’t need to be reaching hundreds of thousands of people to stay afloat. To be the biggest is no longer the ambition. I think there’s been a shift in recent years to people realising that the quality over quantity of your fanbase is actually more useful.”

In Stereo, a publication comprising three iterations (London, Bristol and Berlin), will remain a free publication when it resumes printing after live shows and advertising returns, says its founder and editor Jess Partridge. She founded London In Stereo in 2013, when “it was clear that the city really needed someone to be active in bringing together listings in a curated, cared-for way”. It continues to offer gig listings, as well as interviews and reviews with a focus on new artists. 

Like pre-pandemic Loud and Quiet, In Stereo too relies on advertising and is stocked in bars, venues and music shops, and as of March had a circulation of 16,000, 10,000 and 8,000 in London, Bristol and Berlin respectively. The free model works for In Stereo, Partridge says, because it is a location-specific title. You might not be able to find London in Stereo in a Soho newsagent, but, she points out, “you’re more likely to come across it in a bar than you are an issue of Q. It’s a more specific audience: the type of person who is going to be interested in In Stereo will find it.”

The staff structure of contemporary music titles is also different from days gone by. Niche magazines with smaller staffs are unlikely to have the means to cover the breadth of genres that a 30-strong team working on a mainstream title would have, meaning that some artists and styles get left out the loop. Fewer permanent, full-time writing jobs means that music journalism is an ever-more exclusive industry, with many freelance writers relying on other work to flesh out their income.

But for those who run these small titles, their size can sometimes be a positive. Partridge doesn’t work full-time at In Stereo – no-one does. Firstly, this means there is not so great a pressure for the magazine to turn over a huge profit (helpful at times like these, when it is turning over no profit at all). 

More so, it gives Partridge the time to work on other projects, which in turn help her develop In Stereo. She used to run Keychange, a campaign which addresses the gender imbalance of festival line-ups, and she recently booked and produced a conference for the DJ Annie Mac. Rather than being a distraction, these other roles, Partridge says, “were opportunities for the publication. With Keychange, I travelled all around the world talking with loads of people that worked in music, who were able to find out about my magazine. I’m so passionate and care about the magazine so much that I get it out and show it to people that I meet at festivals around the world. If you were working in a big publishing house, you might not have the impetus to do that in the same way.” 

Q started, David Hepworth writes, when its founders noticed Live Aid had “dragged rock from its catacombs and brought it blinking into the daylight of prime time”. Though the most recent editions of the magazine looked quite different – a recent cover featured Nadine Shah and Christine and the Queens alongside Dave Grohl and Liam Gallagher – a reliance on rock’s old-timers was at the core of Q’s ideology. 

Both Loud and Quiet and In Stereo were founded on the exact opposite principle: that new bands were not being given enough coverage elsewhere. Partridge listens to every new track she is sent and puts her favourites into a playlist every week. “It gives me a really good understanding of what’s coming up, what’s out there and also what I like, which allows us to curate a magazine which is reflective of our actual tastes and something we’re excited about.”

Little Simz, Loyle Carner and Ms Banks are just some of the artists whose first cover feature was for In Stereo, at the very beginning of their careers; now, they’re huge. Cheerleading artists who haven’t yet scored broadsheet coverage is a long way from the Blur vs. Oasis sparring music magazines encouraged in the days of Britpop.

“The disposable weekly/monthly music press of days gone by was very news-led and almost tabloid-y,” says Johnson from Gold Flake Paint. “There was a very irreverent style of writing, quite cocky. I get that there’s a place for that, but I see us much more as a platform for sharing stories than the objective pulling apart of music. We only want to exist to push the things that we think are worth people investing their time in. It’s always going to be a smaller market, but it comes from a place of honesty.”

The 130-page print iteration of Gold Flake Paint is available to buy online for £10 a copy, or for a three-issue subscription, and currently has a print run of 1,200. It features long-form writing, interviews and personal essays. Johnson writes a lot of the content and takes many of the photos himself, as well as managing marketing and distribution, so overheads are low. Just recently, he tells me, he was able to double the rate he pays freelance writers. The latest June issue, which has Phoebe Bridgers as its cover star, sold out much quicker than Johnson expected.

He flirted with the idea of printing more, but decided to play it safe and move on to the next issue. “You have to be sensible these days!” he says. “That’s how it’s shifted from buying magazines in newsagents. In that time you would print more copies than you expect to sell because you want them to be at the front of every shop. We don’t print to order, but it’s close. We’re trying not to get ahead of ourselves, while still building up a following. It’s a delicate balance.”

But a more exclusive magazine is also a more coveted magazine. “We want to make each magazine almost like an event. We look at it in the same way as a record is released. Rather than a churning of material, it’s something more considered.”

Would-be readers have to stumble across Gold Flake Paint online or have a friend recommend it, rather than coming across the magazine in a local supermarket or newsagent. Rather than seeing this as a limit to accessibility for the average reader, Johnson recognises that “the internet has opened up so many doors. We sent the latest issue to 25 countries. We sent a copy to the Faroe Islands! That’s something that never would have happened if we were just dealing with newsagents in the UK.”

To view the music press as “dead”, Partridge says, is “short-sighted”. “Things constantly have to change. Everyone has to react to what is happening now.”

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