The Economics of Paste Magazine and the Long Tail in Music Journalism

Lynne Kiesling

In my music post from Monday I mentioned that I had purchased a Mute Math. In fact, of the 6 CDs I’ve listened to (the other two are still on backorder), Mute Math is the one I like the best thus far.

They are really, really below the radar screen, and I admittedly do not spend many (or any, really) of my waking hours searching out new music, but instead listen to WOXY or Soma FM or Xfm Manchester and figure out over time what I like and what I don’t.

I found Mute Math through Paste magazine. Our friend Diane gave the KP Spouse a subscription to it for Christmas; she figured that even though her tastes and our tastes differ, we might appreciate its eclecticism:

We pride ourselves in being the premier magazine for people who still enjoy discovering new music, prize substance and songcraft over fads and manufactured attitude, and appreciate quality music in whatever genre it might inhabit–indie rock, Triple-A, Americana, folk, blues, jazz, etc. …

We’re happy to bring you thoughtful analysis on the best in film, books and other aspects of popular (and alternative) culture. PLUS, every issue of Paste gets you a FREE sampler CD (packed with 21+ songs), or a FREE “Signs of Life” DVD Sampler (with music videos, short films, and trailers) — sometimes BOTH! The Paste Sampler CD is an invitation-only CD we treat as a glorified office mix-tape, not something to listen to once and rip the two or three good songs.

And that’s exactly how we treat each sampler when we get it; we rip it onto the server and listen to it before and during dinner. I like that the magazine is multi-genre, I like that it covers film and books, and I like that it does long-format detailed interviews with artists broadly defined. And I’m a tough customer: I have always disliked music journalism in general and music magazines in particular. Too much insufferable self-absorption and attitude for my taste; I prefer to be Protestant-ish in my music enjoyment, with nothing between me and the music. But magazines like Paste draw my attention to different artists in different genres, and I find the attitude in their writing appreciative and unobtrusive. In fact, Grant McCracken posted about music magazines yesterday, with recommendations from a reader named John. John’s experience of Paste differs from mine (although I think we have similar tastes and are the same age); he finds that it’s got a hipper-than-thou attitude. I don’t have the same reaction, so your mileage may vary.

Paste has an online radio channel and sub-channels through AccuRadio. Sadly, AccuRadio requires Windows Media Player and Internet Explorer (what a troglodyte technology choice), but it’s there if that works for you. But more interestingly, and actually the way I found Mute Math, they have a podcast called Paste Culture Club. The podcast features some of the songs on the sampler, has interviews with various artists, and is a good listen.

So what’s the economics of this? From the point of view of independent artists that are not signed to a label, something like being featured on the Paste sampler and podcast can begin the buzz that then travels around to places like this; you read my post, you go check out Mute Math (their web page is a MySpace site, for goodness sake!), and word of mouth spreads through viral social network processes. Such critical attention and commercial success can put a band in a position to negotiate better terms with a better label.

I believe that magazines are experiencing the same type of long tail phenomenon discussed in my previous post. Think back to the 70s, when Rolling Stone and Billboard were the music magazines. They were the arbiters of taste, and if you didn’t like what was on the Billboard chart or who was featured in Rolling Stone, you were not hip. Then in the late 70s through the 80s, I remember NME and Spin. Now, the Yahoo music directory lists 139 magazines, some online only, some with multiple channels, some in specialized genres, others more general in content. The proliferation of music magazines is a manifestation of the long tail in music. It also reflects the change in culture that Grant McCracken and Virginia Postrel have noticed in other contexts, like fashion and Lucky magazine: no single source is the arbiter of music taste. Technology has enabled specialized content and commentary to emerge, and those outlets have found audiences.

Another important feature of the economics of music magazines is what I think of as the multi-dimensional delivery platform. Take the Paste example: a dead-tree magazine (with CD/DVD), a website, an online radio station, a podcast. Even though we get the magazine at home, I tend to listen to the podcast, while the KP Spouse monopolizes the dead-tree version. A multi-dimensional delivery platform gives a lot of content bang for the cost buck, both from the point of view of the consumer and the magazine.

A few years ago during the heady dot-com-ness, we all talked about “mass customization”. In fact, music publications indicate that what is customized is not just the content, but also the delivery platform choice. Innovative, entrepreneurial music journalism is taking advantage of the platform portfolio concept, and attracting readers/listeners like me that have disdained music journalism in the past.

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