For Publishers, A Lesson From Rock Music History
I'm about to confess something that reveals a certain level of geekdom and will also make many of you think I am older than I actually am. The other night, I attended a concert featuring legendary rock music producer Joe Boyd and postpunk acolyte Robyn Hitchcock, a British musician who grew up listening to the artists Boyd discovered and gave to the world: Fairport Convention, The Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Pink Floyd. Boyd, a key figure in the psychedelic whirlwind of late-'60s London, sat at a podium reading from his memoir, and the mischievous Hitchcock cracked jokes and played quirky, reverent cover versions of the songs mentioned.
(Note to book publishers: the memoir sold briskly in the lobby afterwards. The event was both a legitimate artistic event and multimedia promotion, and unlike so much marketing today, truly respected its audience.)
Enthralled, I almost managed to not think about magazine publishing for the entire evening. Boyd made one comment, though, that struck me as pertinent to the challenges faced by legacy print publishers today. Though an ex-pat for many years, Boyd grew up in New Jersey and learned to love rock and roll watching Bob Horn's WFIL Bandstand, broadcast from Philadelphia in the mid 1950s. In the early years, the music show that would one day be nationally syndicated by Dick Clark was devoted to doo-wop and rhythm and blues, the urban soundtrack of Philly's Italian and black neighborhoods.
As Boyd noted, major music companies didn't get it—hated it, in fact, because it "[put] them at a disadvantage with buccaneering independents" like Atlantic, Chess, Imperial, and other smaller music labels.
We, of course, are more savvy today. In a world where upstart bloggers with attitude (e.g. Mashable's Pete Cashmore) are lionized in boardrooms, there's little danger of entrenched media turning up its nose at early adopters. If anything, corporations have been too eager in recent years to embrace anything that seems to be trending up the hip scale (Rupert Murdoch and MySpace being a well-known cautionary example).
But that doesn't mean they necessarily understand it any better. Witness the epic story of once-cool Microsoft being blindsided by one after another market trend, from search to smartphones. And what does it mean when even Google scores a 90 percent neutral rating among attendees at last week's cutting-edge South By Southwest Interactive 2011 conference in Austin?
When Bandstand finally went national, it watered down its content and message. "In a year or two," Boyd writes, "the rock and roll era was over, replaced by chirpy corporate pop." That worked OK for a while, and the money flowed in even as rock music lost market share (and cache) to other forms of popular music. By the early sixties, pundits were predicting the death of the genre. Then, the industry was blindsided by the British Invasion.
It leaves me wondering what will happen when media companies feel they have fully integrated themselves into new media. Will they water down the message, ride the swells for a while and get swamped by the next wave coming from somewhere else?