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Black Sky Thinking

Bauer Failure: Why Stuart Williams Is Wrong To Blame Music For Mag Decline
Luke Turner , August 17th, 2010 11:53

Publishing exec Stuart Williams reckons that a dearth of good music is to blame for the decline in magazine sales. Luke Turner counters by arguing its the like of Williams himself who are responsible.

It's been a tricky year for the shrinking violets in the boardroom at German publishing giants Bauer. They've had their writers in open revolt over a draconian new contract that, among other things, left them liable for errors in articles, even if they were inserted by the company's sub editors. Now their executive director Stuart Williams has, like a smithy finding fault with his hammer over some square horseshoes, blamed the decline in music magazine sales on the state of the music industry - and, more bizarrely, on the fact that music in 2010 is piss poor.

"It's been a really quiet year for music releases", Williams whined to Music Week. "Apart from Lady GaGa there have been very few bands coming back into the limelight. Readers want to find out about new and exciting bands and if there aren't any out there for us to cover then we can't blame readers for not wanting to spend money on our titles."

As The Quietus' list of the best albums of 2010 thus far proves, Williams is clearly talking out of his executive exhaust pipe - and that's not counting forthcoming LPs from Swans, Salem, Of Montreal, Killing Joke, Grinderman, the Manics, Klaxons and so on and so forth. Just as we said in 2008 and 2009, we're currently enjoying one of the most creative and fertile periods for music in decades.

What Williams means, surely, is not that there is no good music out there, but that none of it is easily marketable. His comment about Lady Gaga speaks volumes: what he thinks his magazines need to thrive are easily recognisable figureheads, musical Princess Dianas for a celebrity-obsessed age. Then there's the lack of coherent scenes around which magazines can drive sales - the habit of whacking Muse on the cover at any given opportunity is no doubt largely to do with their being the closest thing we have to the kind of mass-selling 'indie' group last seen in Britpop, 15 years ago.

The Quietus is not out to attack the editors and writers at the monthly and weekly magazines. They have talented staff, many of whom also write for us and, tellingly, many of whom will bring pieces to The Quietus because they're considered too outré or difficult to be published in the mainstream press.

This, it seems to us at The Quietus, is the crux of the current crisis in print music journalism. It is not that music is letting down the likes of Williams - more that he and his bean-counting, middle management cronies are the people who have stifled creativity. When the internet began to emerge as a powerful threat to established print media, the latter did not play on its strengths - the look and feel of paper, brilliant design, knowledgeable writers having the time, space and budget to craft in-depth editorial - but instead tried to play the internet at its own game: offering bitty content, minute capsule reviews, and choosing covers as if the magazine rack in WH Smiths was Google.

Meanwhile some of us online have ignored received wisdom about the internet (keep it short! Clickclickclick!) and taken up the mantle of the dying monthlies, offering the kind of journalism that celebrates the diversity of new music that currently surrounds us. If Williams truly wants to save the magazines owned by his German bosses, he ought to speak to his writers and editors about what music is truly exciting them, and allow them to follow their passions and instincts, rather than trying to second guess what their readers want.

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