Monday, November 17, 2003
By DAVID BAUDER
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
NEW YORK — Publishing executive John Rollins, who witnessed the infancy of Vibe and Spin magazines, had a revelation one day when he dropped a Buena Vista Social Club album into his CD player.
“The type of music I was listening to at home over the weekend was not the music that could be found in the pages of either of the magazines I helped found,” he said.
So he decided to start a new one, aimed at the burgeoning market of adults over 30 who buy music. Tracks makes its debut on newsstands Tuesday.
Sting’s blue eyes stare out from the cover, which promises that Tracks is about “music built to last.” Besides Sting, there are articles about Cassandra Wilson, Robert Plant and R.E.M. A lengthy and eclectic CD review section features pieces on Dolly Parton, Rufus Wainright, Al Green, Van Morrison, Death Cab for Cutie and Basement Jaxx.
Over the past decade, music buyers over age 30 have become the majority. They accounted for 56 percent of the music purchased in 2002, up from 46 percent a decade earlier, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
The joke – one with a bitter ring of truth for the music industry – is that older listeners are the majority because so many younger people are downloading music for free online.
Older listeners wield formidable purchasing power. Rollins, who joined Spin two years after it started in 1985 and helped found Vibe in 1993, enticed investors with statistics showing people aged 30 and over bought $7.5 billion worth of music in 2001, up from $3.2 billion a decade earlier.
Billboard’s current Top 50 album chart contained 21 discs by artists who arguably appeal most to this group, including Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Bette Midler, Norah Jones, Toby Keith, Sarah McLachlan and Barbra Streisand.
That doesn’t include discs by Ryan Adams, the Strokes or John Mayer, whose music – if not the names – should be familiar to older listeners.
“We’ve clearly seen that there is a very large, very significant part of the music-listening and music-buying audience that is not being spoken to by any of the existing music media – not just magazines, but TV channels and radio stations,” said Alan Light, Tracks’ editor-in-chief.
Rolling Stone is the magazine that resonates most with this audience, but it has kept its focus squarely on teens and young adults. Jessica Simpson, vacuuming in her underwear, graced the most recent Rolling Stone cover.
Blender, The Source, Vibe and Spin are all successful reaching groups with different tastes, but are also aimed at young people.
Still, there are plenty of places outside of music magazines, such as newspapers, where artists can reach their listeners, said Bill Flanagan, senior vice president of MTV Networks.
“It would be misleading to base your business plan on the assumption that people who read music magazines only read music magazines,” said Flanagan, former editor of Musician magazine, which sought this audience during the 1980s.
Tracks’ success depends in part on convincing artists that the magazine is a place where they can talk more in depth about their music than they can elsewhere, he said.
Despite the void of U.S. magazines trying to reach this audience, it’s a thriving business in Britain with publications like Mojo and Uncut. Mojo is more focused on nostalgia and appeals to fanatics instead of casual fans, Light said.
“When I read Mojo, I come away thinking that music used to be really cool, and that’s a very dangerous place to be,” he said. “Music is still very cool.”
Tracks’ start coincides with a severe music industry sales slump. But although 60 percent of new magazines never make it through their first year, the climate for start-ups is better now than it has been for several years, said Samir A. Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi who publishes an annual guide to magazines.
Tracks has a good business plan, but it’s unclear whether the people who are buying this music will want to buy a magazine, Husni said.
Many of the discs successful with this audience, like Jones’ debut and the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, started slow and built by word of mouth, Light said.
Tracks is trying the same approach with a conservative business plan.
Although the goal is to be a monthly, it will publish only five issues next year. Advertisers have been promised a circulation of only 100,000; Hollins said fewer than 3 percent of people over age 30 who buy music regularly would have to buy Tracks for the magazine to reach that circulation goal.
Flanagan said this is wise; many new magazines promise huge circulations “and collapse under the weight of trying to achieve that.”