“Both journalists and musicians must spend a phenomenal amount of time nowadays maintaining a 360-degree cross-media relationship with their fan base,” says Aram Sinnreich, a visiting professor of media studies at New York University and a bassist in the band Brave New Girl. “Like a band on tour, journalists need to e-mail and Facebook readers to stay involved with them on a daily basis, to respond to their comments, to give more than just lip service.” By being accessible to readers—instead of explaining “what the song meant,” explaining “what that article meant”—journalists can deepen reader loyalty to their work. As Jonathan Karp, publisher of Twelve Books, an inventive new imprint that only puts out twelve titles a year, says, writing nonfiction books these days is “a form of conversation with your readers. Writers gotta talk back.”
In fact, Twelve Books is a good example of a second strategy—Going Micro—a method that has worked relatively well of late in the music industry and, to a lesser extent, has worked well in book publishing and online newspapers. Another good example of this is Merge Records, an indie label in North Carolina, which has done extremely well cultivating chart-topping acts like Arcade Fire and Spoon. Merge is a more manageable model than the larger labels, in part because a musical monoculture has been replaced by microcultures. The company is perceived as curatorial and selective, rather than sprawling. Such small and strenuously tasteful companies are positioned to cater to niches and special interests.
And as Jamie Proctor, at the indie label Thrill Jockey, puts it, ‘‘It’s easier to change your business model and methods when you have a company of six or eight people rather than six hundred or eight hundred.’’ The bigger a label is, meanwhile, the harder it is for it to survive in the digital era because its functions are being picked off by fans ‘‘distributing’’ music themselves, artists selling their own music, and bookers and managers organizing and profiting from tours and performances. Similarly, smaller publications, from Grist—the green-issues news Web site that correctly dubs itself “gloom and doom with a sense of humor”—to online local newspapers and granular news sites like Cityblock and fivethirtyeight, the electoral-projections Web site, are little doors to the future of media. These sites have a total commitment to their beats; they explore them with an élan and a thoroughness that larger publications don’t usually manage.
The third approach is what I call the Atavist Strategy. It’s used by successful musical throwbacks like Kid Rock, who, before October, didn’t offer his music as digital content. His new CD Rock n Roll Jesus went platinum in May—without the help of downloads. As Kid Rock’s publicist, Nick Stern, puts it, “Music labels are either conning people to pay for something they could get for free, acting like bottled-water companies, or they appeal to an older demo, like Kid Rock, to people who are not used to going on the Internet, at least for now, but do go to Wal-Mart.” The media equivalent of the Atavist Strategy? The Wall Street Journal’s subscription-only online presence, with its firewall. But tread carefully. You have to be very clever to get rich off being backward.
Another part of the Atavist Strategy is musicians getting by not on their recordings, but on live performances. Once, a band that was eternally on tour struggled daily with obscurity and/or poverty; now it’s par for the course for even the biggest artists. Similarly, authors these days try to cash in with speaking engagements. Like musicians, they want to build their brand first, as opposed to that of their company or label. Some younger journalists have learned these lessons already, and are benefiting from them (though one I spoke to compared the process to speed dating). Jennifer 8. Lee, a thirty-two-year-old New York Times reporter who recently published a nonfiction book entitled The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, tells me she has done fifty talks in support of her book in the last half year.
Music and journalism were once lodestones of both daily life and collective experience—the newspaper, unfolded and read on the way to work on the subway or commuter rail; the LP, spun in bedrooms and dens, or the cassette tape played in the car those nights when everyone sang along, back when everyone knew the lyrics. Those lodestones are going or gone. The music industry and the news industry were both once the foundation of mass culture. That monoculture is shattering, for better or worse, into “minor cultures”—many different and splintered communities, served by many different sources of music and news.