Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rolling Stone: dead or stumbling?

Robin Davey at Kerascene is currently reading the last rites for Rolling Stone, based on how few 'likes' their current cover stars picked up:

What can a feature on the front of the most regarded and iconic musical magazine get you?

Over the two-week period that this particular issue covered, the band mustered up about 2000 Facebook likes. When I first looked it stood at a little over 10,000, now it stands and just under 12,000.

Is that really the weight that Rolling Stone has in the current market?

If so, it would appear that opinionated music journalism is certainly stumbling if not already dead.
Perhaps. But let's just hold off pushing the title into a hole and examine this a bit.

Rolling Stone still claims to sell just shy of 1.4 million copies an issue, so it's got a bit of a pulse. But that's not really Davey's point; he's suggesting that while people might still buy the magazine, it's not got any influence.

But hold on a moment - which band was featured on this cover?

The Sheepdogs.

Yes, exactly. The Sheepdogs. Who weren't on the cover of the magazine because the editors thought they were any good, but because they'd won some sort of contest to be there.

Here they are, look:
To be frank, given that they're on the cover of the magazine after winning some sort of raffle, and given how, if you'll let me judge a book by its magazine cover, they appear to be what you'd get if a Coldplay tribute band tried to turn themselves at short notice into a Doctor Hook tribute act, it's a miracle they picked up 2,000 likes.

Are we even sure that 'extra Facebook likes' is even a fair metric for judging the impact of a band appearing on a magazine cover? Isn't it quite a leap from going 'well, this band might be worth a listen' to liking on Facebook - there are bands that I have been passionate about, or dreamed of getting passionate with, for a generation who I haven't even visited on Facebook. Possibly, the cover has generated new fans who choose to mark their fandom in other ways; possibly, the cover has got some people mildly interested but whose interest has yet to turn into any form of commitment as permanent as a public click on a 'like' button.

Do we even know what proportion of Rolling Stone readers use Facebook in such a way as to interact with bands through the Like button? For all we know, 2,000 likes might represent all people who read Rolling Stone and use the Like button.

And, equally important: what Rolling Stone reader is interested in new music anyway? It's not 1972 any more; don't Rolling Stone's key audience approach new bands in the way Seinfeld approaches potential new friends - "thanks for your interest, but I'm not really in the market right now. I've got no vacancies." In measuring calls to action, wouldn't you be better off seeing how many people respond to a cover saying 'look, another Elvis Costello Best Of has been released'?

Rolling Stone might have lost its claims to cultural leadership. It might be stumbling into a long, whistling downwards plume. But all we've got here is evidence that if you put a rubbish-looking band on the front page, it doesn't generate much Facebook love for said band. It's interesting; I'm just not sure it matters at all.