Over the past four months I’ve been interviewed by a handful of newspapers, magazines, radio shows and podcasts about the effects of the pandemic on Loud And Quiet. There was one question that they all asked without fail: “When throughout all of this did you realise you were in real trouble?”. Each time, my answer was: “Instantly.” And each time I felt as though it sounded like a lie. Or that I’d not impressed just how instant this
Lockdown officially began in the UK on March 23, but most of us saw it coming weeks before, having watched coronavirus shutter northern Italy and continue to spread across Europe. We closed our office on March 17.
On the same day I emailed the companies that advertise with us on a regular basis, who confirmed our fears. As a free publication, 95% of our income was reliant on advertising, with two thirds of that coming from live promoters and festivals. Those companies were definitely out; all tours pulled; all festivals looking at a fallow year following the cancellation of SXSW on March 6. The independent labels we work with looked extremely uncertain too, although by this point we were already done. It was costing us £15,000 to produce each edition of Loud And Quiet, with almost no margin of error. There was no difference between being two grand short or ten. In the end, it just happened to be the full fifteen.
Two days later, twenty-five Hollywood celebrities tried to kill the virus by singing ‘Imagine’ in a way that was impressively out of time, tune and its own mind. Experts are still unsure if COVID-19 fed off of the unintentional hilarity, or if it was a coincidence, but either way the virus raged on. But I can hardly talk: on March 18, the day between speaking with our advertisers and ‘Imagine’ calling for the complete destruction of the Internet, I uploaded ten old copies of Loud And Quiet to our online store, priced them at £10 each and promised to send a drawn picture with every order, of whatever the buyer liked. What can I say – I panicked too.
Forget the fact that I cannot draw. Fifteen years after the start of Loud And Quiet, we were fifteen thousand pounds short of being able to make another magazine, and my answer was to upload ten old copies to our online store. Ten! Even with the inflated price for this worthy cause, at absolute best we were still going to end up £14,900 shy of what we needed.
Like many others spinning through those first days, I was busying myself. And the following week, too, when I uploaded another ten editions (remaining goal: £14,800). I knew it wasn’t a viable way to keep Loud And Quiet alive, but the 51 people who ended up buying a ten-pound newspaper from us that month vindicated our later decision to try to save what we do.
If I’d been asked when I realised we were in real trouble outside the confine of the pandemic, I’d have struggled with such a concise answer. But it was a long time ago, for us and many others operating within independent music, publishing and the arts as a whole. Coronavirus has acted as an indiscriminate killer, of businesses as well as individuals, most tragically of all. But it’s also played the role of accelerator and spot operator, blowing out rocky foundations and unearthing our flaws. Perhaps it’s because we’re hanging in there, but for us, at least, COVID-19 has felt like a stomach ulcer that got us rushed to hospital, only for our test results to return bigger problems that we’ve been trying to ignore for years.
Figures from German data company Statista show that magazine advertising in the UK peaked in the year 2000, at a yearly spend of £1.7 billion, five years before Loud And Quiet began. It held reasonably steady until 2009, when it dropped to below £1 billion, a trend that would accelerate with the rise of social media marketing and Google Ads, projecting a 2020 total of £4.9 million, just 0.49% of what it was in 2009.
For a long time, these numbers remained too huge and abstract to register with a company as small as ours. In 2005 we were making 150 copies of each issue on a home printer for fun, with no thought of attempting to fund it. Even by 2010 the mounting swathe of Print is Dead articles didn’t make sense to how well this little project was going, supported in earnest by independent labels and promoters who liked what we were doing.
The turning of the screw was slow as those big millions turned into small ones, but if I had to guess when we started to really feel it, I’d guess at around 2015. Since then, or before, we’ve been acutely aware of advertising being our sole income, of that income only moving in one direction, and how vulnerable we’ve been to forces completely outside of our control. The pandemic pushing it all off a cliff within a day gave us the courtesy of a quick death. Or at the least the option of one.
Once I’d drawn “David Lynch nonchalantly riding an Irish wolf hound” and “Ian Beale crying”, the three of us who work full-time on Loud And Quiet started discussing a more stable way of funding this magazine, our website and the podcasts we make.
The advertising-only model was long broken. The extreme drop in revenue for what are called ‘display adverts’ coincided with the development of social media targeting and the emergence of influencer culture. For better or worst, the advancement of advertising has caused brands to become increasingly dissatisfied with paying X amount for their advert to simply be seen, regardless of scale, hence the closing of free magazine ShortList in 2018 despite its print-run of over half a million copies. And so emerged the age of paid-for features, sponsored content and “extra value” trade-offs, all with smaller fees paid to the titles involved. Pages are filled with nods to brands and tie-ins, readers are turned off and curb their support, which only greatens the need to photograph Jamie Oliver in a Fiat Punto talking about his favourite songs to play on his way to Jumble Sale in the Park
In protecting jobs and their very survival, most publications have had no choice but to agree to the terms, however unfair or detrimental to their reading experience and reputations, a fact often omitted from the stories of a “lost” magazine in trouble, especially bringing to mind people’s furious glee at the eventual closing of NME’s print title in 2018. The same has applied to websites for a while, who arguably have it even harder.
Like everything, it’s all Facebook’s fault. Magazines were meant to be replaced by websites, and they have been. But the advertising revenue only went with them for a short period of time, initially giving the impression that an editorial site would be able to comfortably fund itself through digital display ads. As sites grew from 2006 onwards, so too did social media, with its superior powers of audience targeting. In 2019, Facebook recorded a global income of $69.6 billion made through advertising alone. And just as the closing of ShortList proved that scale isn’t necessarily enough to win the advertising-only model within the printed press, a reported 200 million monthly visitors to BuzzFeed wasn’t enough to prevent them from having to scale back their US team by 200 in early 2019. At least with a magazine you’re able to offer a different type of advertising, outside of the digital world and not in direct competition with Facebook and Google.
Regardless, we always knew that Loud And Quiet would eventually cease to exist as a magazine if solely funded by the adverts within it. So on April 28, after six weeks of planning, we announced a new Loud And Quiet membership scheme. An unmistakable SOS, and what we hoped readers would consider a fair and sustainable way for us to continue. The response on that day was overwhelming, to say the least. I wrote a pretty blunt statement outlining how we could no longer afford to give the magazine away without support from readers; how it had been a long time coming; how COVID-19 was a chance for us to re-assess how we value music and the arts; how if we didn’t reach our target we were done. It was powerful stuff, and we marvelled at how many of the great artists we’ve featured over the last 15 years rallied behind us and showed their support. I think I was too tired to cry.
For years I’ve looked to The Wire, a magazine I admire, and envied their loyal fanbase who almost eradicate the need for them to chase advertising deals at all. I’ve wanted us to have that, but our big problem has always been that we’re a free magazine. How do you get people to start paying for something you’ve given away for the last 15 years, especially in a world where everything is becoming more free, not less?
The simple, Business 101 answer of ‘offer great value’ isn’t much help. After all, what constitutes ‘great value’ after years of offering the greatest value of all – your work for free. This problem of undervaluing ourselves and what we do isn’t confined to the arts, but it’s been at pandemic levels itself within them for years.
A lot has been written about how my generation will be the first to be less financially prosperous than our parents’, and that that trend will continue without huge structural change. And yet, increasingly we are expected to be grateful that we have jobs at all, regardless of their long hours and the low wages. And that is particularly prevalent within the creative industries, the prevailing external (and eventually internal) opinion being: “You’re doing your passion here, what more do you want? Not paying, I hope.”
Acceptance of such a view has snowballed to an unsustainable level within much of the independent music industry. For a magazine like ours, it’s prevented us from saying enough is enough, in a large part due to our fear that others wouldn’t see the true value in what we do if we asked them to. (We are also not only susceptible to this problem but regrettably part of it, unable to pay our contributors what they truly deserve – something we endeavour to address if this new plan of ours works out.)
And just as journalism has largely become a free commodity, increasingly, so too has a certain level of live music. Over the last ten years, it’s been a countermove of many struggling independent venues to get people through the door by wavering the door fee of live events. Jamal Guthrie, Marketing Director of LNZRT, who book London venues MOTH Club, The Shacklewell Arms and The Waiting Room, feels that the pandemic is an opportunity for us to get back to a fairer way of valuing artists and the spaces they perform in. “It’s a case of diminishing returns,” he says. “If you’re giving away something for free or too cheaply in order to maintain volume while your overheads are rising, the margins keep getting tighter and there will be a point where the bottom will fall out. I think that’s something people are realising during COVID where so many businesses were in trouble almost immediately.
“The free entry model is one a lot of pub venues relied upon to help keep spaces full while business rates went up, but once we reopen I think small venues are going to have to move away from this and place the correct value on live music. If free shows do happen in the future, it’ll be like a giveaway rather than an expectation.”
To give us a chance of building a future for Loud And Quiet, we’ve been forced into publishing 6 issues per year instead of 9 (an awkward number in any case, and our issues will now feature more pages to ensure we’re still writing about as many artists as possible). Conditioning still played a part in it, but we launched our new membership scheme with some added extras. Extra extra value.
On April 28 we had no idea how many people would sign up, or if our announcement would even be noticed. We worked out a price that more reflected the efforts we put in – £50 for the year. It included (and still includes) our next 6 editions of the magazine in physical and digital form, a homemade 15-year anniversary zine, a brass pin, a leather bookmark and members-only monthly playlists, vinyl giveaways, offers and more. As you’ve probably guessed, the fact that you’re reading this means that people did answer our call. You were probably one of them. So thank you.
In truth, Loud And Quiet is safe for now, not forever. The support we’ve received has been incredible, and we now have enough members to get back to work with the confidence of making it to the end of the year. Any further than that hinges on our ability to put our case forward for new members to see real value in what we do, and if the percentage of returning advertising is high enough to make up any shortfall.
One of the interviews I gave over the last few months was with The New Statesmen, where the writer Ellen Peirson-Hagger asked me if I thought that the subscriber model was the only way to fund a magazine these days. I said that I did and echoed Jamal Guthrie’s views that COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to reset; to realise on how much of a knife’s edge so much of society has been; to rethink our relationships with our own work and that of others, and do something about it.
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