(Above: One of Blender’s classier covers, believe it or not.)
By Joel Francis
It was hard to muster any sympathy for Blender magazine when it was announced this week that the musical offshoot of Maxim the issue currently on newsstands will be its last.
Maxim rarely added anything of value to the musical discussion. Its biggest claim to fame was the steamy photos that adorned most covers. Inside, most of its coverage focused on musicians propped up by the hype machine. The magazine’s most reliable features were absurd lists (The 40 Worst Lyricists in Rock!), ridiculous features (Ask a Superstar) and product placements masquerading as articles (Lars Ulrich Reveals the Secrets Behind Guitar Hero Metallica).
If Maxim’s pandering approach is old news, then so is the reason for its demise: falling circulation. According to Alpha Media group, which bought Blender, Maxim and Stuff for $240 million in August 2007, paid subscriptions fell 8 percent in the past year while newsstand sales dropped 18 percent. Ad sales also suffered.
It would be easier to dismiss Blender’s demise if it weren’t happening to so many other magazines and newspapers as well. The Rocky Mountain News ceased publication in February; the Seattle Post-Intelligence went online only in March and Christian Science Monitor will follow suit in April. The News and Post-Intelligence had been around for 150 years, while the Monitor boasts over a century of history.
As newshounds and defenders of the Fourth Estate wonder how government and civic news will be reported during this dearth of outlets, music fans should ponder some of the same questions. In the past, magazines like Crawdaddy and Creem connected fans to the music they loved. Some, like Down Beat, Sing Out! and Rolling Stone are still around. Others, like Paste, Spin and Vibe, have more recently joined the fray.
But niche publications are not immune to industry trends. No Expression, which was to art what Blender was to cleavage, folded last year. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, in the past 15 years, overall magazine readership has declined and the median reader age has risen.
Although more people are willing to write about music than would volunteer to cover a city council, planning commission or school board meeting, it is still disturbing to see the number of voices in the marketplace dwindle. Can we trust bloggers to provide accurate, impartial coverage of the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger, or the business woes and strategies of the major labels?
Music writing is more than album and concert reviews. Those are solitary experiences that only require some way to listen to music, taking notes and typing something up. True music journalism involves hitting the pavement, developing relationships with sources, forcing an interview and asking hard questions. Pazz and Jop polls, podcasts and running Motown commentaries are no substitute for this kind of reporting.
In other words, it’s one thing to know that the latest Radiohead album is amazing and that the tour is spectacular. It’s quite another to understand why the download costs $20 and the ticket “convenience fees” are 40 percent of face value (if you can find one the scalpers, er secondary market, hasn’t snatched up).
I’m not saying Blender performed or pretended to perform any of these functions. But when yet another outlet shuts down, it’s worth pondering the bigger questions.