Music Lessons

What journalists could learn from Kid Rock, Lil Wayne, and Bon Iver

He takes the stage clad in a black turtleneck. his famous line is, “Green is the new red, white, and blue.” Tonight, and other nights, he is paid tens of thousands of dollars to perform. He spent a year touring America, adding China for good measure. When he returns home, he lands in an 11,400-square-foot house.

He’s not a rock star, although his life resembles that of one. He is Thomas Friedman, author, newspaperman, star commenter. His ascent is part and parcel of a period in which newspapers may train even their lowliest reporters for media appearances. Journalists these days grin under pancake make-up, speak in emphatic and punchy sentences, and videotape themselves for YouTube. In short, they sometimes succeed when they tear a page from performers’ scripts.

It got me thinking: Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?

I think the most resourceful strategies of musicians can help us. The first thing that writers might copy from musicians—even more than they do already—could be called the Free Culture Method. In music, one prong of that is mixtape giveaways. Despite recent miseries in the music business, Lil Wayne, the rap artist, sold more copies of his CD in one week than anyone this year, having built an audience by sending free mixtapes into the ether. Mixtapes, at least these days, are pressed CDs or downloads containing demos or raw mixes of tracks, as well as collaborations. Lil Wayne’s mixtape method is the musical equivalent of writers who give away original material on their blogs, writers like Alan Sepinwall, otherwise just another television reviewer at a mid-size metro—The Star-Ledger in Newark. Sepinwall writes an elaborate, trenchant, and heavily commented-upon blog (check out his 2,023-word analysis of the television show Mad Men’s “Maidenform” episode) in addition to his print column, and the blog has extended his reach. Or consider Andrew Revkin’s sharp New York Times blog and vlog on global warming, through which Revkin made himself a brand.

For Lil Wayne, says Scott Plagenhoef, editor in chief of Pitchfork, the tastemaking Web 2.0 music site, “it was like, ‘If the mixtape stuff is so good, imagine how good the real product will be.’ He’s given so freely to his audience, they feel very free to give back with their dollars.” Another variation on the Free Culture Method: musicians who figure out how to build an audience by appealing to their desire for the rough-hewn and personal, the mark of the human hand in a mechanical world. A good example of this is Bon Iver, a recent indie-music success story. The label rep tells me their story: Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon started without a label, a manager, or a girlfriend. He locked himself in a hunting cabin in rural Wisconsin for three months and finished his magnum opus, and then put it on a Web site, streaming for free. It was a rusty, dusty, snowy, and angrily melancholy record. His many performances were incredibly spare and earnest. Fans gathered and downloaded his lovelorn music via Virb, a new social-network site. His friend did the artwork, and Vernon pressed five hundred CDs himself, giving them away to Pitchfork and to not-so-major press outlets. Soon, critics raved and, ultimately, his work was distributed online and through small music stores. Vernon was not made by EMI or Atlantic but by music bloggers on HypeMachine and others. He sold fifty thousand copies on a small record label, mostly through word of mouth.

Part of what he did—that the new tribe of unmoored bloggers and journalists can do as well—is create a community based on personal authenticity, a reason that your readers must support your work by buying your book or going to hear you speak. Part of the Free Culture Method is cultivating an audience around your giveaway content. The indie band Deerhoof, for example, regularly blogs and posts covers and works-in-progress on its site, and also posts its monthly “top ten” tracks from other groups. Of course, in nonfiction, there are plenty of writers who start out as bloggers and transform themselves into authors, succeeding by way of the Free Culture Method.

“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.

Both industries have lost buyers. Yet both have gained audiences in the last five years. While there was a total CD sales decline of 15 percent between 2006 and 2007, the sale of digital tracks increased by 48.5 percent in that same period, and God knows how many illegal downloads there were. And while people may not be buying newspapers in droves, many more are reading them online. The print circulation of the daily New York Times, for example, is down to just over a million, but online it has risen to around 13 million unique visitors each month. Both industries, and the individuals who work in them, are looking for ways to draw income and support from those expanding audiences, and maybe journalists can look to musicians for a move or two.

There is one place, though, where the similarities between reporters (i.e. shy egotists) and rock musicians fall apart. Bands have always engaged in adamant self-branding—think David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Madonna’s many incarnations. Journalists, on the other hand, have been more diffident and willfully depersonalized. With the exception of New Journalists—those ancestors to the bloggers and the multiplatform authors of today—journalists aren’t usually full-on peacocks. They put the story before themselves and attempt to render others as if with invisible hands. Journalists have been taught to erase the individual—remember the Unbiased Media ideal that was hammered into us as young journalists? (We are also unlikely to go on “reunion tours” during which we discuss our long-forgotten “hit” features.)

Yet some journalists certainly know how to promote their names and personae, and their bylines appear to have multiplied. Images of their faces bob seductively beside their names. In the Too Much Information Age, journalists’ biographies—once not supposed to intrude on the story—have moved toward the center of it. And for better or worse, all of us in all the culture industries not only have to go back to the premodern storytelling mode, but also learn how to give our work away without getting ripped off and how to have fervid e-mail relationships with our audiences. We must also at least pretend we have interesting personalities and act like we are a little larger than life. 

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Alissa Quart is a CJR columnist and contributing editor. She is the author of two books, Branded and Hothouse Kids. Her third, about American outsiders, comes out in 2013. She is also senior editor of The Atavist and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.