Thursday, March 20, 2008

Last Death (For A While)

I don't want to get too obsessively focussed on this topic, and I'm going to want to post some stuff about my stay here in Texas, but one thing that happened after SXSW had already started was that Harp magazine died. The poor bastards had already paid for a SXSW party, too, which must have been like going to your own wake.

I'll admit it: although I wrote for them a few years back, I never really got a handle on Harp, which seemed to me to be a No Depression wannabe without any of the latter magazine's intellectual firepower. The fact that they paid a whopping five cents a word might well have had something to do with that. As an Austin-based colleague commented to me the day the news got out "My first review, in 1973, I sold to Circus (long-gone mediocre rock mag of the '70s -- ed.) for $15. My last review for Harp I got $15 for. Only difference is what you can get for that fifteen bucks these days."

But over on the Crazed by the Music blog, Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever has posted the official statement about the magazine's shut-down (one which, to be honest, is at a slight variant from other stories I've heard from trusted sources), and the money paragraph is here:

"However, according to Glenn Sabin, Guthrie’s CEO, the publication struggled to become profitable. 'We purchased Harp in 2003, and it quickly became a first class product that was highly acclaimed for its often irreverent editorial approach and strong graphical package. Unfortunately, Harp’s critical acclaim never translated into sustaining commercial success. Harp’s lifecycle was ill timed with the precipitous decline of the music software industry, coupled with the consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business and rising paper and postage costs.'"

I'm having a little trouble with that last bit. Oh, the "music software business" means "records" or "CDs" or whatever, and the paper and postage complaint was also part of No Depression's problems. But what does this guy mean by "consolidation of the consumer magazine newsstand business?" I'm not disputing him; I'd really like to know what this phrase means. Not living in the U.S., yet attempting to write for its readers, I don't necessarily see the same things you do.

And a passing thought: if Harp had paid people a decent wage -- not a lot, but up to what other magazines paid -- might they not have attracted a larger readership for better writing and stood out from the crowd a bit more? Because I have to say, I stopped reading Harp long before they stopped sending it to me. It just wasn't very interesting. More interesting, perhaps, than Blender (also rumored to be in trouble) or Spin, but that's not saying much.

Anyway, one thing that came out of the various discussions and panels at SXSW was that there really isn't a consumer music magazine left, at least not one that pays. Maybe I really am better off writing this blog for free. That's a chilling thought...


Scraps said...

He means that the independent newsstand system collapsed and consolidated into a very few distributors. This has led to a system that caters only to major sellers and doesn't take regional conditions into account, let alone local. Niche publications have a much harder go of it now. The same consolidation is a huge factor in the catastrophic decline of midlist book publishing and the mass market paperback; all they're moving into the non-bookstore markets now is bestsellers.

Ed Ward said...

Ow. That's insane. It amounts to intellectual mass-extinction, in fact. It's like the ultimate stacked deck: no way to win. And why don't I think the Web is the best way out of this quandary?

Bowleserised said...

Sometimes I'm glad the UK is too small for this. Then I remember that most books in the UK are shifted through supermarkets.

Ed Ward said...

Yeah, but that's books, not magazines. Aren't newsstands still fairly healthy in the UK?

It occurred to me that we may soon have to start thinking of magazines like the underground press in the '60s and find someone who can set up an alternative distribution network for them. The demand is still there, I think, but if you don't get the product where eyeballs can see it, you're doomed.

Also, without newsstand sales, you don't get subscriptions, and that's where the meat is: guaranteed circulation figures.

Bowleserised said...

Well, I care about the effects on books too.

Having worked on a magazine that was not permitted onto certain retailers' shelves, and knowing that second-class post is under threat in the UK (I think - anyone more informed than I?) you could say I understand.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Newsstands in the UK healthy? A decade ago, the distribution network was basically controlled by John Menzies (then also a high street news/books/records/confectionery/associated tat chain), and anything they took offence too basically had no chance on the market (if a particular issue of a publication fell foul of John Menzies' lawyers (the distributors being legally liable as well as the publishers/journalists) it resulted in an effective "ban".

Since then, their then main rival, W.H. Smith has taken over John Menzies' retail branches, leaving Menzies concentrating on distribution.

And Menzies' main competitor when it comes to distribution? W.H. Smith.

There are smaller newsagents, generally 'corner shops', but they don't have much choice, and are reliant anyway on the main distributors. Newsstands in main cities tend to serve commuters and only sell one or two papers - the equivalent of those people who walk round bars or hang around tube stations at night here, only selling the publications of one particular publishing house (i.e. Bild/B.Z./MoPo/Welt vs. Kurier/Berliner Zeitung/tip)...

Is this vaguely correct, b.?

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

To quickly elaborate:

The Association of Newspaper and Magazine Wholesalers (ANMW) is a trade association representing over 99% of wholesalers of newspapers and magazines in the United Kingdom.

The membership consists of the three large multiple companies – Smiths News, Menzies Distribution and Dawson News, which between them account for 97% and 86% of the magazine & newspaper markets respectively and the majority of Independent News Wholesalers.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that a triumvirate in such a monopoly position is not regulated, e.g., forced to offer a basic contract to all comers (the distribution equivalent of compulsory licensing).