Regular readers may feel that I am forever poking and prodding at manufacturers and distributors while ignoring the holes in the press, gaping at us like the ‘before’ adverts for cosmetic dentistry. If I’ve mostly left my side of the business alone it’s not because I think it’s without its flaws. So I won’t mince my words: the MI press in this country is in a mess. There are exceptions, and I’ll come to some of them later, but right now it is at its weakest since it began to gain real traction in those post-International Musician days of the 1980s.
As if highlighting the plight of printed media generally, this month came news that Yellow Pages will, from 2019, no longer be disturbing the moths in our carpets when it drops through the letter box. That once giant tusker of an advertising medium has been brought to its knees by the Internet and the same fate lies in store, most pundits agree, for the legacy press. The reasons why are simple. Print, paper, distribution costs and the hideous retail near-monopoly that has plagued magazine publishing in the UK for decades, are all combining with t’internet and a huge fall in advertising revenue to create the perfect storm.
Though I’ve played my part in this, I don’t take any pleasure from it as I’m one of those who misses both the reading experience of printed magazines and the way that in the hands of a good writer, articles convey information and entertainment in a way that nothing online matches. Sadly, the rest of the world doesn’t agree and as advertising gets diverted to social media, the loss of advertising and falling circulations encouraged by ever higher cover prices means the end is, if not exactly nigh, then pretty inevitable.
Unfortunately, as the squeeze has tightened, so the quality has diminished. There are exceptions, as I say. Sound On Sound sails serenely on with long, detailed, articles written by experts and much loved by its readers and advertisers. Anthem’s Guitar magazine (though why it dropped ‘and Bass’ from its title is a mystery) seems well regarded and its rival Guitarist, looks steady enough. Elsewhere, though we have some signs of chaos. Last month, for example, Acoustic magazine boasted an interview with Richard Thompson (surely one of the most important guitarists in his field?) yet opted instead to grace its cover with Carla Bruni, the Italian French singer songwriter, better known in the UK for being married to Nicolas Sarkozy, than for her prowess as a guitarist. What were they thinking? Meanwhile, titles are closing (Drummer and iDrum among them) printed MI Trade magazines are already extinct and who knows how long the rest of the consumer sector can hold on?
But the fact is that reviews sell products, while interviews and articles encourage readers to play, so the industry needs reliable, impartial, publications to help gets its messages across. Poor reviewing, whether from a YouTube box opener, or an amateur or commercially compromised online reviewer, isn’t going too persuade someone to splash out on a new PRS or a Ludwig kit, nor are weak interviews or lacklustre features going to encourage them to play. In short, the industry needs healthy media.
Sadly, there is almost certainly no saving most of the dead tree press. In any chosen field a single good publication will probably survive but it will need to be better than ever, not weaker, to justify its sky high cover price to readers. I hope publishers understand this (though my experience of the breed suggests they won’t) and will strive to increase, not reduce, the quality of their offerings. The stark choice for publishers is going to be improve your game or perish – and if they do the latter, the MI industry will feel the consequences, at least to some degree.
A final thought. Aren’t you glad you aren’t one of those investors who in 2001 handed over £2.1 billion to BT for the privilege of buying Yellow Pages? That’s a lot of value to have vanished in 18 years. Investors in the dead tree press generally might want to take that as a hint.