The Death of the Great American Music Blog

writing1

We’ve all been taught to believe the Apocalypse will be one big cataclysmic event measured in time by hours and days instead of weeks and months. But another theory is that it will happen slowly over time; so slowly in fact we may not even realize it’s happening.

That’s what’s happened with the great American music blog over 2015. The body count has been spread over so many months, and with other potentially more important things to occupy the mind, few have noticed.

And contributing to the apathy of what is happening is the thought that it may not even matter. With the advent of music streaming, consumers can peruse the entire canon of recorded music on their own and make their own choices when it comes to what to listen to. Artist profiles, live reviews, and long-winded think pieces? Many people are too busy for that these days. Many newspapers went the way of the dinosaur—with blogs partly to blame—and society kept functioning along just fine. So perhaps it will be the same for the blog. Except blogs don’t appear to be getting replaced by anything, except maybe direct interactions between labels, publicists, artists, and the consumer, with no 3rd party to check the validity of the information being delivered, or to offer any perspective or opinion.

On Tuesday (11-17), a small, one-man blog called Country California announced it would be ceasing operations after seven years. Though this development may not affect many everyday country fans, the site fulfilled some very necessary functions within the music community that in all likelihood will not be replaced by anyone else now that it’s gone. Country California had taken up the function of aggregating news from around the internet—a function a site called The 9513 fulfilled for many years before it went defunct. Then Juli Thanki, now a staff writer for The Tennessean stared Engine 145 which fulfilled the same function before she moved on. Country California also rounded up quotes from around the country realm on a weekly basis, which resulted in original articles on many of music sites, including Saving Country Music.

Country California was at first an ad-based site, but then switched over to using the donate-style Paetron model. Though the site’s revenue increased with the new model, the time one must put into maintaining a blog or music website always becomes the hurdle unless the pay somehow becomes enough to justify the effort expended.

And that’s the biggest problem with many music-based websites and blogs. It’s not that they aren’t fulfilling a necessary function in the music community to where they deserve to go extinct, or are not beloved, or even creating enough attention for themselves that they’re worthy institutions which deserve to survive. The problem is there’s no significant revenue source for many such websites, and the problem has become significantly worse with the wide proliferation of ad blockers being used by many web browsers.

Think about picking up a newspaper, or a magazine with absolutely no ads and no cover price. It may be a less cluttered reading experience, but there’s no way to generate revenue for the publisher. That is the new world of web publishing many music sites, and other blogs and websites are facing in 2015. In October, NPR’s On Point explored how ad blockers, mobile users, and bots are “gutting the economic viability of the internet.”

“Apple’s latest mobile operating system invites Internet users on iPads and phones to skip the ads,” says On Point. “Block them. Less wait for what you want. Less data consumption. Quicker loading. But also another blow to the economics of a whole lot of big players on the web. For many, it’s no ads, no money.”

PC users, especially Google Chrome users have been using Ad Blockers for years. As Investopedia explains, “Blocking ads can make or break a website, and even threaten the online business industry as a whole. Ads are the bread and butter for websites. They pay for the website’s infrastructure, operations, content and the payments to associated staff. Free content is accompanied by ads. That’s the implicit and undocumented deal between the visitor and the website. Blocking ads can force your favorite websites out of business. You may no longer continue to be able to access its resources. The site owners may move to new ventures, but you as the end user will lose your preferred resource.”

All across the internet, were seeing the dissolving or downgrading of sites that appeal to niche audiences, offer longer-form content, or that assume an intelligent audience, while sites that focus on viral content, such as Buzzfeed, thrive. Other legacy news-based sites like CNN must focus more on viral content, and celebrity-based stories as well. Only sites that are able to generate massive amounts of traffic can fulfill simple economic needs to continue to function because so little revenue is being generated from each user. Meanwhile the loss of revenue is forcing some website owners to double up on ads, or to use video streaming ads or pop ups to help recuperate lost revenue, cluttering up the internet even more for folks who choose to not use ad blockers. Too many ads becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In 2015, we’ve seen a dramatic reshifting in the web publishing space. Major legacy blogs like ESPN’s Grantland have closed down. Though labor issues with the writing staff was the specific reason cited for the site closing down, it all started with a concern from the staff that they were being under-appreciated in the ESPN family. Since viral content is the only economically-viable content on the web, Grantland and it long-form think pieces were seen as expendable.

2015 has especially seen seismic shifts in the music space, most notably in the sites and entities that cover independent music. In mid October, indie music blog Pitchfork sold out to Condé Nast, which owns Vogue and Vanity Fair. At virtually the same time The Village Voice, which owns many of the alternative newsweekly magazines in major cities in America—which also operate independently-minded online music blogs—was sold to Peter D. Barbey, through his investment company Black Walnut Holdings. The Barbey family ranks #48 on the Forbes’ “America’s Wealthiest Families.”

Though the verbiage coming from these independent entities being bought up by bigger companies is that the content won’t change, it still puts the power of publishing in fewer hands, and speaks to the economic weakness of these entities that they must partner or sell to others potentially to survive.

Jeff Weiss of the 10-year-old hip-hop site Passion of the Weiss said it best in an interview Smashd right before the sales of Pitchfork and The Village Voice went down in October.

“Music blogs are basically dead. With a few notable exceptions, most bloggers switched to increasingly shorter-form writing first Tumblr, then Twitter. Or they got hired to write at bigger established publications that could afford to cover their electricity bill. For a while, it seemed like Blog Ads and Indie Click could support the network of sites getting low six-figure monthly page views, but then once Facebook and Twitter and the Buzzfeed model entered the picture, it became clear either get a corporate patron, start making lists, or get out of the game. Those who stayed are mostly doing it because we’re obsessives and hate quitting but I think it’s also because we love music and writing about music, and helping to break new artists.”

As Jeff Weiss points out, interest in music sites and blogs is not necessarily what is causing the death of such sites. You can have websites with hundreds of thousands of unique readers each month, and page views nearing or surpassing a million, who cannot pay their basic utility bills. Meanwhile a print magazine with a circulation of 30,000 can employ multiple people because they can guarantee their ads will be seen. The problem is, many print magazines have gone out of business because of online outlets.

What this means is the American music consumer is left with no alternative except for direct communication with artists, labels, and the industry, with no third-party accountability. As Saving Country Music pointed out in the article “Music Journalism Is Dying at the Hands of PR Firms,” many of the journalists and writers who are losing their jobs working for web and print publishers big and small are moving into the publicity side of the music business. Many PR firms are setting up their own publishing entities so they can speak directly with consumers and cut unbiased journalism out of the equation. And “sponsored content,” where an advertiser will write an article in the same form of a journalist, only advertising an event, artist, or product—a way to circumvent ad blockers—is blurring the lines between ads and news like never before.

And all of this could hurt independent, and small-time artists looking to get noticed more than it will larger, major label artists. Same goes for the fans of these artists. As Jeff Weiss of Passion of the Weiss points out, independent music sites can be essential to breaking new artists. And as Investopedia points out, “Ad blocking may result in an uneven field of competition. For example, a million-dollar business can partner with a popular adblocker company and get its ads white-listed. A smaller publisher may not have that bandwidth, and continue to take the hit with eventual results of being shut down.”

Losing music blogs and websites for more economically-viable or technologically savvy replacements is one thing. Replacing them with nothing, and having the music industry itself fill in the void through bias, paid content could result in much bigger issues than no good place to read about your favorite bands.

– – – – – – – – – –

Editor’s Note: This article is not a solicitation for alms, support, donations, compliments, commiseration, or anything similar. This issue not only affects websites like Saving Country Music, but scores of sites that cover music and other topics that will fall to the wayside unless the greater economic issues can be resolved and resort in sustainable business models for all journalistic entities.