Monday, December 13, 2010

Billboard shrinks

By Emmanuel Legrand

There was a time when Billboard represented the ultimate reference in the music business.
It wasn’t a hit until it was in Billboard’s charts. It wasn’t a worthy story until it got the Billboard treatment.
If there was one trade publication that did merit to be called ‘the Bible’ it was Billboard. You read the magazine religiously. You needed you weekly doses of gospel. You became part of a cult. You were devoted to the colours in the logo.
And you weren’t part of the business if you weren’t in Billboard.
If you wrote for Billboard, you had made it. You were at the uppermost end of the trade. People in the biz at the highest level would take your calls at any time of the day and the night. PRs would stalk you for a story about the acts or the executives they were representing. You got invited to the best gigs and after-parties. You were part of the music biz establishment.
Some happy ones in our journalistic profession did have a stint – yours truly included – at Billboard and for many of us it remains the best gig in the world.
Of course, it sometimes meant you had to work under crazy deadlines for people based in New York who would call you to check facts in the middle of the night.
Of course it meant to sometimes work for some not-so benevolent tyrants who wanted things their way or the highway.
But the rewards were high, and the gratification to work for such a biblical institution meant the world to those in the cathedral. You knew you were read by the most influential people in the biz – and you had influence.
But that was then.
That was when there weren’t many other sources of information to figure out what was going on in the music biz.
That was when a weekly printed magazine, even reaching the other side of the world two weeks after print, was still relevant to read.
That was when the business had some form of coherence, pre-digital disruption.
In today’s world, Billboard’s reach and influence has suffered the same fate as the industry it covers. The brand is still strong, but its reach (in print, at least) has shrunk, by the effects of the simple mathematical formula that each time companies merge or close down, subscriptions go through the window.
Even online, despite the creation of two platforms, .com (consumer) and .biz (B2B), its impact is fading in the loud white noise of the internet. There are so many more sources to get your information from, especially when it comes to music.
And its charts, that for years ruled the world, have lost some significance and are challenged by new entrants, such as BigChampagne’s ‘Ultimate Charts’.
For the past few years, Billboard has been very much A&R driven (at least in its print version), in some sort of a obsessive drive to compete and catch up with all the glossy music magazines by putting artists on the cover, preferably good looking. Let’s call it the Rolling Stone syndrome (its current editor comes from there, and its new publisher has a background in consumer, not trade press).
As a result, the business side seems to almost be an afterthought and is getting less and less thoroughly covered, and since many of the magazine’s “veteran” writers have left, the publication has lost a sense of history and is capable of putting news in its context.
It has to be noted that in the 1990s, when the magazine was edited by the late Timothy White, who himself came from RS and who had had serious issues with the magazine’s founder and publisher Jann Wenner, Billboard held on to its mission to be the business paper of reference for the industry. Of course, we all remember some of Tim White’s over-long and over-written “White Papers” often focusing on irritating artists (Don Henley, Alanis Morrissette, to name but a few).
But he was a man of passion who understood the business and he would challenge his troupes to provide the best stories before anyone did. (Yes, he did also edict a memo instructing his journalists NOT to attend press conferences and report from them or face the sack on the grounds that Billboard reporters had to get the stories first… As a result Billboard ended up missing out on a few important stories. Another Tim White rule was that you could only publish in the magazine pics of people that had been interviewed directly by a Billboard reporter. Needles to say these rules were dropped after his untimely death.)
During White’s tenure, Billboard status as a global publication grew, not only in its reach but in its coverage, with a network of about 40 correspondents around the world, coordinated out of London, the magazine’s biggest outpost. Under the guidance of Adam White in the 1990s, and with the support of Tim White and then-publisher Howard Lander, Billboard had a mission to really reflect the world of music in its global diversity.
I had the privilege to follow Adam in the job, and it very soon became evident, in the wake of multiple changes in editorial leadership at the magazine, that “global” was more and more and more of an afterthought (even though the head of the London office was bestowed with the pompous title of ‘Global editor’ for Global probably meant the world outside of the US…), almost a nuisance, taking widely treasured real estate in the magazine away from US-driven stories. It created a lot of frustration among non-US writers and editors.
Last week, Billboard has gone one step further in its global = USA vision by simply scrapping altogether its London operations, letting go by January 1 all its UK staff.
It is sad, firstly because some good people will lose their jobs in the process. But also because it says so much about the state of the business, as labels who used to provide Billboard with the bulk of its ad dollars have almost completely stopped advertising in the mag. As I had to close down not one but two magazines in the past decade (Billboard’s sister publication in Europe Music & Media, and music publishing quarterly Impact) due to the rarefaction of ad revenues, I know how difficult the business is.
The idea that Billboard will no longer be represented in the world’s second largest music market (not in size but in creative terms) and will significantly reduce its international coverage is painful to those who think the music business deserves a global publication.
But is it surprising? Not really.
There is only one reason for that – cutting costs. Since it was acquired a year ago from Nielsen by a private equity group, the magazine, and other publications like The Hollywood Reporter, have been re-tooled (editorially for the best in the case of THR). But mostly the job of the new owners has been to get rid of fat wherever they could, outsourcing many of the admin operations, but also cutting into editorial resources, where little fat was left.
How far will the trimming go? Billboard’s editorial team in Los Angeles has been reduced to a minimum, and more people in New York are said to be under threat (unrelated to the fact that editor Craig Marks is leaving to join a start-up company after just a year in the job).
How long will it take before the print edition will be confined to the history of trade press? At this stage of the evolution of the music market, it is an option that cannot be ruled out. And if this happens, it will definitely mark the end of an era. But let's hope we won't get there.
As Woody Allen once said, "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
That could quite nicely sum up Billboard's future...


  1. Good analysis, Emmanuel!
    Marc Maes, Belgium

  2. Emmanuel, you have beautifully stated what every former staffer -- and longtime reader -- of Billboard, has come to recognize.

    I realized it had lost cred when I saw an online article earlier this year that highlighted the fashion swimsuits of top artists in the summer of 2010... not to mention so many other mileposts... when I, as singles reviews editor, was given a mandate that I could no longer write anything negative for fear of record labels taking away ads... and today, interns are becoming editors, bloggers are in charge, staffers barely know the history of industry pre-Britney Spears.

    When I began in 1995, Billboard was the ultimate "arrival," when you had proved you had the resources, knowledge, history in writing about music to MERIT a place on the staff of Billboard.

    Sadly, the readers are as well aware of this as the many veterans that were laid off in the past couple years, replaced by cheaper, inexperienced green "writers"

    The brand simply carries no weight anymore, especially in light of the BigChampagne Ultimate Chart, which makes the Hot 100 feel like it's soaking its dentures. Bless Billboard's wondrous heritage, since that's about all it has left to do the brand proud.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Wonderful memories and amazing friends; I feel so privileged to have spent 5 years there. Thank you for your smart commentary, Emmanuel. Sending you all my best always.

  4. Well told Emmanuel. I treasure much of my 17 years at Billboard, especially the '90s which were wild, intoxicating, and often frustrating all in the same week.

    Timothy White could drive us all mad but, as well, he would let us run with stories and he'd defend all of us to the hilt.

    I did some of the best writing of my career at Billboard. I met some of the finest music journalists in the world there.

    And I shared bylines and stories with some wonderful people.

    And left a considerable legacy of work that I am so very, very proud of.

    Larry LeBlanc

  5. A slice of the History.
    The end of a century when music biz was hype and when the printed press was a big deal.
    Today you are blogging alone - me too some times - but at that time there was plenty of people in the press each one doing what he has to.
    A real team. A dream team ?

  6. Well said, Emmanuel. Sorry to see the London office close. David Sinclair, London

  7. Sad times indeed, there's been a huge pan-Euro gap for years since the demise of M&M, and now this. Just hope Tom et al get sorted elsewhere. See you on Friday? Cheers David.

  8. Thanks Emmanuel. I agree and cannot emphasise enough how criticial it is for media organisations to have an actual office; meet people, exchange ideas and work together.

    The digitalisation of media causes too many people to work in solitude, which in turn influences/reduces our view on the world. Journalism turns into churnalism.


  9. You have given us an eloquent epitaph Emmanuel. You also provide an insightful analysis of the demise of not only Billboard, but many other music and entertainment publications.

    As a PR hack, who supports and promotes very green talent, I feel the music media has never been great at supporting the grass roots. I have often presented new artists, who only get coverage long after we have done our initial work and they have moved further up the food chain. It has made it difficult for me to even begin forging meaningful relationships with many gatekeeper journalists and editors. Don’t think I am bemoaning my lot. That is not the case. I love what I do at my level. I simply feel that in any other industry, businesses value 'research and development', which is not the case in the entertainment / music media. Whilst I am gutted at Billboard UK’s demise, I understand how such a publication can lose relevance over time, when the editorial is so fixated on only supporting content introduced at a certain, quite high, level. New artists have to be on major established labels or have a certain massive following, be backed by a decent budget in the hope that back-end advertising money will flow or simply be introduced by contacts who are 'trusted'. The fact is that music editorial has to be based in part on creative personal decisions, which is missing in our profit driven commercial media landscape. Not that I feel the online space is perfect - far from it. I already find it increasingly difficult to reaching out to bloggers for example. They too are making similar mistakes by only accepting material from their tried and tested sources and ignoring material that is simply worthy of coverage. I find this very worrying, as they have little commercial incentive keeping them from writing what they like.

    I hope all at Billboard UK find new positions quickly and continue to do what they are obviously passionate about. I would simply suggest that we revisit our motives for being in this industry and remember the creative element, so that ultimately we can have a richer, more valuable, interesting and sustainable future.

    Dave Holmes – Cover PR

  10. Fine stuff, Manu The Big.
    There's a great John Sebastian song that the Everly Brothers recorded back in the early ’70s. "The Stories We Could Tell"... Keeps running through my head. Ah well, maybe once the redundancy cheque has cleared, eh?
    (And... Tom Petty also covered the song on the "Damn the Torpedoes" tour in 1979 - did a great version at the Hammersmith Odeon with Bobby Valentino from the Fabulous Poodles on it which came out as a bonus single with "Don't Do Me Like That." See, in years gone by, I could have done a story on that in Billboard...")
    Tom the Ferg

  11. Stories to tell, indeed... Your style will forever be missed Tom. Too many other people have a culture mainly consisting of bacteria. ;-)

    The lack of historical perspective was forever immortalised when the Americans established this Facebook page ( "Founded in 1995." I politely hinted that maybe it should read 1894. Nope, someone replied: "Billboard's digital edition launched in 1995." My stomach cringed.

    I will be forever grateful to the courtesy shown to me by the editors in London. It never made fiscal sense to fly me to Geneva/Montreux to cover BMG's worldwide MD convention or a second time to Geneva to interview WIPO's Kamil Idris, but it greatly influenced my enthusiasm and made me invest more time than I got paid for and I actually also gladly spent my own money (traveling to Stockholm, London, Copenhagen et.c. at my own expense). Because I was proud.

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  13. Hello friends:
    I have been blissfully out of the music biz for more than four years now and can't say I've looked at Billboard more than twice in that time. Still, I hear it from my handful of friends still in the biz: No one reads Billboard anymore. Irrelevant. Lost. I've no doubt that's true. But I think we let Billboard and its current management down too easy when we attribute its fall to the overall decline of print. Circulation declines are not inevitable (as proven by many magazines, including the one I have edited for the past 2-plus years). In fact, in the music business, with all the torment and turmoil, there is likely a GREATER NEED for information today than ever. Further, the destruction of the old order cries out for community elements to share ideas/information and lend support. So many opportunities there -- including the need for intelligence on international markets. Why hasn't Billboard been able to fill these needs? I'm not close enough to understand it, although I do know that no publication is served by self-obsessed editors who think that their opinion is more important than the gathered intelligence of the audience(s) they serve.
    I am pleased and proud to have been in the Billboard wheelhouse in its glory days and will always cherish the hours of talking music with people who really cared. We were lifers, who lived and bled Billboard, who thought we were born to work there, who believed all personal road signs pointed to Billboard. My understanding is that today's staff is a revolving door. It's emblematic of a weak vision and a lack of leadership.
    Good luck to all the dedicated souls who've recently been set adrift. But as I and countless others can testify, there's life after Billboard.
    Best to all.

  14. Thanks to all for the fantastic responses to this post. It shows how much people still care about Billboard.
    Like Ken I agree that two factors could have contributed to put Billboard back onto the "influential" map: one is intelligence (how do this business work in the current environment, and how can we as a global media help the business to be better?), and the other is people.
    The latter is an old scourge of Adam White. Yes, the music biz is a people's biz. If you lose that component, you lose the interest of the readers.
    Case in point: what has Billboard done to explain to the music biz in the US who is Lucian Grainge, how he operates, who does he work with, what is his management style, what drives him? I think quite a few people would like to read that. So instead of putting one more cover story of an act already seen all over the place, a good 10-page cover story about Grainge would have been the kind of piece everybody would want to read and would remember.
    Anyway, as Ken rightly says, many of us have discovered that there is life after Billboard. So keep on rocking my friends.

  15. Ed Christman

    You guys can wax poetic all you want about your romanticized notions of how you view Billboard past and eloquently state your incorrect assessments of Billboard present, without—as near as I can tell from your comments here—even bothering to read the magazine, but all I hear is a bunch of miserable, how-can-Billboard-be-relevant-without-my-insight, has-beens.


  16. Gosh Mr Christman, what a lovely man you are. People lose their jobs, wail a little but you can't find it in you to cut them any slack at all. For me, Billboard lost its way when that genius Sam Andrews stopped writing for it.
    Happy Christmas one and all
    Sam Andrews

  17. The ex-man will be able, but perhaps not interested, to explain more when he heads down to be a miserable has-been himself.

  18. Q: How many former Billboard employees does it take to post a blog about the mag?

    A: Thirteen. One to write it, twelve to reminisce endlessly about how great the old mag used to be...

    As the last day of my Billboard employment began winding down, I happened to return to M. Legrand's eloquent musings here and read the various comments they inspired. In my earlier post, I mentioned 'The Stories We Could Tell.' Obviously several of those who posted have a ream apiece of tales they could, indeed, tell and share. Maybe that's for the 150th anniversary issue, if we're all still around?

    Anyway, it's been interesting to see the reactions, and - as these things are wont to do - they prodded me towards pondering and a few points popped into my pea-sized brain.

    1. Big Ed Christman is a great man and quite probably the best music biz writer on the planet. I've shared beers with him on both sides of the Atlantic and feel better for the experience.
    However, I'd always thought of myself as a 'never-was,' rather than a 'has-been'...

    2. In several responses to EL's original post, I can't help but feel there's a 'rose-tinted glasses' approach to appraising the Timothy White Years...

    There may well have been encouragement for writers to be creative, but those years were spent under a dictatorship - benign to some, but a dictatorship nevertheless - when writers were barred from writing about specific artists or events. Yet there always seemed to be space for a multi-page article about little more than what snacks an ex-Beatle's wife served up to mark Billboard's visit. And the diktats issued in the latter years were increasingly bizarre.

    3. There's always a temptation to adopt a Panglossian attitude towards trade mags. After all, surely they reflect the industry they're covering... And if that industry is struggling to hold on to its own identity - as the record industry (as distinct from the music business) has been doing in recent years - then it seems inevitable that a publication which covers that same industry will suffer in a similar fashion. One could argue that Billboard as it stands is the best possible publication that the industry could have.

    4. I can't really be totally subjective about the decision to close Billboard's office. After all, that's brought an end to 16 years of constant employment, so it has to vex me somewhat. I'll keep my own counsel for the moment about whether that decision smacks of short-termism, driven by financial constraints. Time alone will tell.

    5. Regardless of how I might feel about them as a staffer and reader, I've absolutely no doubt that the decisions made about Billboard's recent and future editorial direction have been intended to increase the readership of the publication and its various web incarnations. And let's face it, it's that readership which will decide whether Billboard deserves to survive for another 120 years...

    5. Whatever the current custodians of 'the brand' may or may not do with it, Billboard's a tough old bird - and clearly still capable of not only surviving but arousing some strong passions. Long may that continue.

    Now, where's that number for the dole office...?

    Tom Ferguson

  19. I've come late to this sad news as I've been out of the music journo loop for some years apart from buying Music Week (couldn't afford Billboard as well).

    I spent some years with the latter first in Welbeck Street after Billboard purchased Record Retailer and turned it into Music Week and later as a resident freelance staffer in the London bureau's Brewer Street days and later as a fairly regular contributor (thanks, Irv Lichtman). I longed for our American friends to invent the art of sub-editing and reduce the weekly screeds (beginning with a couple of pars on Page 1 and continued ad infinitum on inner pages)and also sometimes to acknowledge there was an important music world out there east of New York, but the irritations were outweighed by the pleasure of working with some wonderful people on both sides of the Atlantic.

    I hope those in the London office, especially Tom, find other gigs as soon as possible. And I hope Ed the Christman can find a little human warmth and charity especially at this time of the year while campaigning to preserve his own job.

    Nigel Hunter

  20. Tim White's birthday... a tribute. hope you'll share, e.

  21. Hmmm, I’ve been out of the Billboard loop since the delivery of my complimentary copies ended earlier this year. I just cannot believe things are so bad that they’ve had to close their London office. Simply because the last time the record industry had it bad – the recession of the late 1970s – the London office survived.

    Indeed, my memories of Billboard go back to the mid-1970s. As a greenhorn industryite, I placed a display ad that run alongside a UK spotlight. Though we did not get a single enquiry, it was fun to have paid to be in the international music industry Bible! Around the same time, I remember going to their Carnaby Street office to purchase a copy of ‘This Business Of Music’, then just about the only key text on the music industry. I got stopped at the entrance of the office by a policeman, who was insistent on seeing inside my briefcase, because apparently there had been a mugging nearby!

    Anyway, little did I know that years later I would end up writing for, and become a columnist of, Billboard. I wasn’t a staffer, so I seldom interacted personally with the London staff nor went into the office. I was on the outside feeding in my copy via fax, then email – I seem to remember we were told we’d get a higher rate once we switched to emails – this was in the days when you paid to have an email address!

    I’m grateful to Peter Jones, who without knowing me, accepted my first pitch over the telephone, which run in Jan. 1994. After he retired, Dominic Pride gave me several gigs in and outside of the International section. Thom Duffy was kind enough to continue giving me the odd “special” gig, even after he relocated to the US.

    Global Music Pulse provided my most regular work for a long time. I even scored some “double-whammy” contributions in the same issue when GMP was edited by David Sinclair. I used to also put through quite a few contributions on, until I was instructed to go through the London office.

    I had the odd gig through Dance editor Larry Flick. And I was flattered when I graduated from feeding some stories through Gail Mitchell’s R&B column, to becoming the international hip-hop correspondent. I must have made Gail pull her hair at times, when my copy came in late! I apologise for that here and now.

    Then a new editor came, and in re-jigging the magazine, decided to do away with regular international hip-hop coverage. Funny enough, I wasn’t sad – I felt privileged to have got a gig I did not canvass for. Although I wrote mainly on black music, save for a piece on pop duo Alisha’s Attic (thanks Dominic), my other interest was copyright. The only way I could cover that was to keep readers abreast with that was happening in Ghana.

    I’m sorry to see the London office and staff let go. My impression of Billboard from the outside looking in, was a good one. Especially when I recall how it kept one staff on whilst he went through a long period of convalescing. Pity, I wish Tom Ferguson was still at Billboard, because knowing he has a penchant for reggae, I would have been pitching for a GMP story on Zion Train’s upcoming tour and its ‘Dub Revolutionaries: The Very Best Of’ release. I would also have told him to watch out for ‘The Story Of Lovers Rock’ film.

    I picked up a copy of Billboard recently at the WH Smiths in Victoria. I was amazed at how thin it was. In spite of that, I’m optimistic that it will survive. Because in spite of Kindles and iPads, there are many who still prefer the look and feel of a physical magazine.

    Kwaku Music Congress

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