NME.com recently experimented with an online paywall in September. Is this a smart move for journalism – taking into consideration it is so readily available online – in terms of music? The music magazine ran a trial charging for online access to articles for the first time, asking readers to pay 69p for their cover story on indie four-piece Haim.
As the first major UK music publication to introduce said online paywall, NME’s choice to do so represents a milestone for music journalism. The magazine’s dramatic decline in circulation in recent months prompted this reaction, and also sparked debate over whether publications have the right to charge for their content.
It is true that there is hardly any financial value in news. With the development of the internet and social media, one publication’s exclusive is immediately posted elsewhere with no reference to its origin. In many ways, the concept of paying for music journalism mirrors the debate surrounding illegal downloads.
So the big question is: what is the point of a paywall when sites like Rolling Stone, Q and even Twitter offer the same content for free?
From a business perspective, paywalls are not about getting people to pay for content. The aim is to attract readers who will be participate in offers and promotions, and are willing to pay to do so. But with a new generation growing up with a noticeable lack of interest in newspapers, and magazine’s which are becoming more online based, a paywall like this, that is meant to reduce losses from print decline, could eventually result in the downfall of both offline and online journalism.
Another proposed solution is the method of offering certain benefits to paying subscribers; exclusive mobile content though apps for instance. These apps would be free but a reader cannot access that content unless they are a paying subscriber. But if you are a passionate reader, is it unfair to ask said reader to support the publication as a whole?
Online paywalls could function in exactly the same way as rappers releasing mixtapes; both for free and on Itunes. As such people pay out of a sense of appreciation rather than as a consumer. Moreover, this allows readers to ‘try before they buy’, a concept not as dirty as people may like to suggest.
Interestingly, a successful music journalism paywall system already exists. In a 2011 article in The Independent, journalist Ian Burrell cites Lester Bangs, an American music journalist who died nearly 30 years ago, as the innovator of a prosperous paywall system. Today, British site ‘Rock’s Back Pages’ continued success owes much to Bangs’ work.
Editor Barney Hoskyns persuaded the Bangs estate to contribute almost 20,000 pieces of music journalism to their archive. When subscribed to the site, users can access this archive, including a 1973 profile of Iggy and The Stooges. The site offers content from a myriad of genres, with material on artists from folk band Pavement to rapper Notorious BIG.
While the £120 a year subscription is rather steep, RBP’s true success is based on its use as an academic resource. Two thirds of Britain’s universities have group subscriptions, as have dozens of institutions from overseas. So Hoskyns voices a concern that has been growing in journalistic circles, quoted as saying: ‘I still have a problem with the self-destructiveness of free. Everybody has gone over the same cliff holding hands and thousands of journalists have been laid off.’ IPC (ironically, the publisher of NME) disliked RBP’s use of NME content in building its success. The ensuing legal case came to nothing.
It has been said that online paywalls are not the solution because they fundamentally oppose the nature of the Internet. But they might be a necessary evil even if some newspapers have tried and dropped them due to dramatic losses in audience. In any event, publishers are entitled to charge for journalistic product, in that they shoulder the cost and risk of creating news and comment. If advertising does not provide enough revenue, they have every right to explore other means, including charging for access.
However, while certain sites see journalism as a public good and often lift their paywalls in exceptional circumstances, entertainment journalism is perhaps the exception to the rule. While many music journalists do their work out of love, that does not mean their work holds no value.
Even so, it seems clear that music journalism’s fate rests in the hands of the reader and what they are willing to do for it’s future.
Written by Jack O’Neill