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Clinging to a Zine

The pandemic further endangers indie music journalism

It started with the smaller festivals—Snowbombing, Rewire, the boutique weekenders that bridge the gap between winter and the big-time corporate music festivals of summer. But the mid-March nixing of Glastonbury—which regularly draws over two hundred thousand—only two weeks after the cancellation of SXSW sounded the death knell. With lockdown orders and travel restrictions settling into place, a nearly $28 billion industry went quiet: nearly every music festival vanished from the calendar, concert venues cleared their marquees, and clubs bolted their doors. It became clear that in the face of a global pandemic, the show would not go on.

The economic impact quickly rippled out from artists, vendors, and gig workers to imperil the music magazines reliant on ad revenue from the festivals, venues, and ticketing companies now without anything to advertise. “Festivals and events were at the front of the line, but we were the next ones back,” says Jake Applebee, the co-founder and creative/managing director of Crack Magazine in Bristol. For music magazines, a summer without festivals or live shows meant a summer largely without advertisers; for their contributors, a narrow field of clients grew even thinner.

To cut costs, the eleven-year-old print magazine furloughed several editors and slashed working hours along with the commissioning budget for regular writers, stylists, producers, and designers. They pivoted to digital-only for the summer, as did a number of other indies like DIY Magazine, Loud and Quiet, Kerrang!, and DJ Mag. It was a temporary move meant to staunch the bleeding, but as the pandemic continued, the prognosis grew more dire: at the end of June, the thirty-seven-year-old dance and club music insider Mixmag put their print edition on hiatus until at least 2021. Provisions for small business owners and freelancers in the United States and the UK were far from generous, and the trickle-down economy of a notoriously underfunded industry quickly dried up.

The crisis is all but certain to do the biggest damage to the smallest outlets, those invested in not only fostering diversity among their staff and writers but in what they cover.

The team at Crack had to move quickly, and on March 22, they launched a new subscription service to make up for lost print ad sales—as well as to bolster the magazine’s independence. In doing so, they took inspiration from the Guardian, which in 2016 launched a voluntary pay-what-you-want membership. Three years later, digital advertising and donations accounted for 55 percent of the British broadsheet’s revenue while print ad sales accounted for less than 8 percent. It also led to the paper’s first recorded operating profit in two decades. While Crack’s financial model previously depended almost exclusively on a print product, freely distributed to thousands of readers across Europe, monthly membership fees now convert long-time readers into patrons of the magazine. As Applebee notes, “This feels much more like a natural and cohesive relationship where our real aim as a business and as a publisher is delivering stuff that is—hopefully—what our followers want.”

But not it’s not only print ad spending that dried up: year-over-year record growth in digital advertising faltered too. Now largely mediated through third-party platforms like Facebook and Google—which had fewer campaigns to place and fewer places to put them, especially given explicit orders not to run ads on pages with coronavirus coverage—scant few digital ad dollars trickled down to publishers. As a result, a familiar occurrence even established media brands: mass layoffs, in addition to widespread furloughs, at outlets including Vox, Vice, BuzzFeed, and Bustle Digital Group. Even publishing powerhouse Condé Nast jettisoned at least one hundred employees across its stable of magazines, which includes Vogue, GQ, Wired, and Pitchfork.

These ostensibly “neutral” layoffs are often anything but: women and people of color are cut loose at a disproportionately high rate even in fields where white employees are already overrepresented. The results are particularly jarring in journalism, where in 2018 people of color accounted for just under 23 percent of newsroom staff and only 13 percent of leadership roles in the United States, even though we make up 40 percent of the population. A push to raise the general level of diversity across media in recent years has led to more representative hires at some institutions (Vox reported that 37 percent of their new hires in the last two years were people of color), but the long-term retention of these employees is still a work in progress, and the effects of the pandemic are likely to halt, if not reverse, these meager gains.

Case in point: Pitchfork, acquired by Condé Nast in 2015, laid off the magazine’s sole remaining senior editor of color in May, marking the second time a senior editor of color was let go in eighteen months. According to the publication’s union, subsequent calls for future job candidates to come from underrepresented backgrounds were met with derision: they were told that “for certain positions it’s hard to find qualified candidates from underrepresented backgrounds” and that “not all positions are created equal.”

That’s not to say concerted efforts to diversify the media are nonexistent: Bon Appétit pledged to prioritize candidates from underrepresented backgrounds while interviewing potential hires to replace Adam Rapoport, who stepped down after a photo of the former editor-in-chief in brownface circulated Twitter. For Rapoport’s successor—and future hires for now-vacant roles at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, Refinery 29, and Variety—success is measured against a steep curve. Their work is two-fold: to disassemble the structures that systematically exclude underrepresented people, while also weathering an unprecedented crisis in the media.

From venues and events to labels and mags, independent projects have bowed out en masse in recent years, with branded content opportunities backed by Amazon or Spotify taking their place.

And the crisis is all but certain to do the biggest damage to the smallest outlets, those invested in not only fostering diversity among their staff and writers but in what they cover. As Applebee notes of Crack, their lean, shoestring operation comes with a greater degree of autonomy: “We’ve often given our editors near enough complete freedom to bring in the coverage of a wide range of topics and artists that they want to.” While larger-scale publications focus on breadth and depth of coverage, there’s no pressure on Crack or its peers to be the definitive voice in a once-crowded field of criticism. Instead, these magazines focus on developing a voice, a beat, and a relationship with their readers, the kind of rapport that Applebee hopes will turn readers into subscribers. Independence, however, is a double-edged sword: Applebee tells me that even with a membership model in place, the return of print production is absolutely essential to the survival of Crack and other music magazines like it. That requires the resumption of live concerts, and the prognosis remains bleak: Glastonbury’s founder announced earlier this month the festival may not return until 2022.

In the short term, the furlough scheme of subsidized wages in the UK is set to expire at the end of October, which Crack has relied on to pay its staff. These interventions are short-term solutions for an industry-wide problem: despite the previous success of its subscription model, the Guardian announced in mid-July its plans to lay off 180 employees as the pandemic took more than $30 million off of the paper’s projected revenue.

“The pandemic and lockdown [have] further accelerated the trends already affecting the publishing industry,” said Chris Duncan, the CEO of UK publishing at Bauer Media, in May, as he announced that ten of the group’s magazines were to be merged, sold, or closed entirely. At the end of July, he confirmed that Q Magazine, a thirty-four year-old music monthly, would cease operation. It’s a common refrain in music journalism. As Aaron Gilbreath chronicled, the 2008 recession marked the beginning of the end of the American music magazine. “When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing,” he wrote in 2018. A once robust culture of zines and independent magazines has been decimated by the decline of print ad spending, the rise of streaming, and corporate consolidation. The same is true for the music industry at large: from venues and events to labels and mags, independent projects have bowed out en masse in recent years, with branded content opportunities backed by Amazon or Spotify taking their place. 

The pandemic will only accelerate this extinction. When I ask Applebee what would happen if indie festivals, music venues, and magazines continue to fold, he says that smaller stages are where artists get their first gigs, and smaller pubs are where writers can get their first bylines. I agree: Crack gave me my first assignment as a music writer. For me, and for many other writers, editors, stylists, and producers from underrepresented backgrounds, magazines like Crack were a launch pad; the question now is where is left for us to land.