Observing the inevitable

Although I now spend most of my writing time focused on publishing, I once wrote a fair amount about music. This was never professional pursuit; in some ways it was an accidental one.

I was an editor at my business-school newspaper. At least in those days, companies looking to hire MBAs placed ads by the bucketful, and we were always short of content. Some issues felt more like Sunday supplements than a weekly newspaper.

Although I was mostly responsible for assigning stories, editing copy and laying out the newspaper, the editorial staff was always pressed into service to fill gaps. I started out writing about albums I’d bought. After a while, I added concerts I’d attended.

I never asked why I was writing about music or who I hoped to reach. It might surprise you, but most business-school students do not represent the core demographic for punk, alternative and rockabilly music. I liked writing, but I didn’t think many people would get past the headline each week.

To me, much of music writing at that time fell into a bucket labeled “interesting to the writer”. Publications like Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy! cultivated music journalism and reviews, but their circulations were much smaller than the number of people actually buying music. I loved reading Greil Marcus’s books, but I have to concede that I’m kind of a music geek.

I invoke music often enough, but I haven’t written about it much lately. An exception is Greg Milner's book, “Perfecting Sound Forever”, that noted “if anyone can make music, then anyone will”. It was not a defense of the professional as much as an observation of the inevitable.

A variation on this theme came up again toward the end of 2012. I was reading an NPR post, “What happened to music writing this year?” In it, Maura Johnston tries to answer the a question whose tone is familiar to almost any text-based publishing business:

“Is the rise of social media, which has for many artists replaced pairing up with publications for the purposes of advertising new material, going to push writing even further to the sidelines?”

In an extensive think piece, Johnston concludes:

“As we go into 2013, there's almost too much context — from streaming albums to artist tweets to comments in the iTunes Store and beyond — and music writers become just another voice, shouting above the fray to be heard. Turning that chaos into a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists, and that connects people in surprising ways, should be a goal among writers and editors in 2013 — even if doing so means to first have a radical rethinking about the ways of building an audience and a media business.”

To be clear, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “too much context”. There might be too many silos of context, barely linked or wholly unconnected. That’s a big data challenge, and it’s also sign of a business model disruptor.

There may be too few meaningful filters. We’ve built platforms to emulate the way we have always categorized music, much as we’ve built ISBNs to describe how we have traditionally sold book content. These backward-looking approaches limit what we might do to foster “a conversation that spans fans of all genres and artists”.

But abundance of both content and context provides opportunities, ones that Johnston evokes in her call for “a radical rethinking”. That’s part of why I have been writing about networked publishing and the role of publishers as community organizers.

I wish I could offer greater clarity about the platforms that make sense. Goodreads, iTunes, the reinvented MySpace (to name three)… they all feel reasonably good and at the same time limited. In each, to the extent that communities exist, they organize themselves. That seems an approach with limited upside.

I guess that’s the difficulty in rethinking the ways we build an audience. We have to actually rethink it.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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