Why I buy music, and what it means for magazines

June 22, 2011

I admit it – I used Napster back in the day. Downloading music was so easy, fast and painless compared with travelling to the store to buy a CD that you might not end up liking. Being able to listen to an endless mix – rather than investing in and organizing a big CD-changer (remember those?) or (gasp!) listening to one disc at a time – was liberating. It wasn’t just free that Napster was giving us, though that was certainly part of it. It was a brand-new model of media consumption, part of the overall shift from information scarcity to information abundance. Before, when I was in high school, new CDs (and cassettes!) were treasured, shared, listened to over and over again. Then, all of a sudden, we shifted to having too much to listen to, to downloading something and forgetting about it. For better or for worse.

Then Napster was shut down, and other sharing tools after it, and while it’s still not exactly difficult to download (illegally!) just about anything, between jumping through hoops and ISPs throttling bandwidth, it’s a lot more work than it was in those early years. And frankly, I can’t be bothered.

Apple, of course, was the company who really paid attention to the new consumption ideal – not free so much as simple and convenient. The iTunes store has changed the industry, and offers the entire package of browsing, previewing, buying and consuming, all from wherever you happen to be. I can buy an album on my iPhone from the bus (I did it just the other week), listen to it immediately, and then, next time I sync my phone, it magically appears on my computer as well, as well as on other devices I choose to sync. Apple’s genius lies in making it easy for customers to give them money no matter where they are – or when. Store hours and location are no longer a limiting factor, and impulse buys are easier than ever. Apple makes the whole experience of buying music so easy and pleasurable that I haven’t stolen music in a very long time, nor have I bought a physical CD in at least five years, though probably closer to 10.

What does this have to do with magazines, you ask? Well, magazines have always been more about the experience and the packaging than the product. People subscribe to be part of a group, to have something to talk about and to have the magazine on their coffee tables as much as to read the articles. And newsstand purchases are the ultimate impulse buy.

Our digital strategies, I think, need to catch up quickly. The web is often denigrated as a “snacking” means of content consumption – people looking for quick tips to pass away their lunch hour rather than long, immersive stories that educate and challenge. And this has been quite true, because (to repeat myself yet again) most people’s computer-reading environments just haven’t been as conducive to proper reading as a magazine is. Uncomfortable chairs; small, flickering monitors; interrupting coworkers… you get my point.

But this is changing fast. The shift to a living-room computing environment means internet readers are more open to immersion. The iPad was intended first and foremost as a consumption device. And whether it’s through iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere, consumers are now well trained in spending money online with one click or tap.

The time has come to find the best way to present magazine content to consumers in the Apple model. Make it easy and pleasurable. Focus on the packaging and the experience. Appeal to both the bored in-transit smartphone user and the lying-on-the-couch evening reader. Give them something good enough that they want to pay, and to subscribe.

Will this happen through Apple’s upcoming Newsstand app, or tricked-out digital editions à la Condé Nast, or National Geographic-style repackaging? Will it come through web apps that work on multiple platforms and are managed internally by the magazine? I don’t know – I’m really not the best focus group. But they’re all worth a try – above all, we need real numbers, not just imaginary and untrustworthy research of intent. And I do think Newsstand is worth pursuing. A 30% cut to Apple might seem like a lot, but they’re the ones bringing people into the ecosystem, and ready to spend, and auto-renew. If your magazine isn’t there, consumers will find something else to read.

But above all? Make it easy and make it pleasurable. And if the magazine is worth reading, the readers will come.


3 Responses to “Why I buy music, and what it means for magazines”

  1. Rob Brooks Says:

    interesting read, and yes the publishing industry can probably learn a few things from what we in the music business have gone thru the last 12 years. There is a fundamental shift from “owning” content. It’s all well and good to develop apps for the iphone & ipad, but do not get caught up in that exclusively. Android is gaining, FAST! – so 75% of your consumers are not into Apple products. They do it well, but….

  2. Kat, I agree with most of what you say except that I don’t think consumers will be so willing to continue with the subscription model.

    What the iTunes store did, more than anything, is to break music down into the smallest saleable unit, the single track. Similarly, I see initiatives like longreads.com, longform.org, The Atavist and The Byliner breaking down magazine journalism into easily digestible (and reasonably priced) units. I predict that this atomization (and the accompanying changes to how we buy text-based content) will be the real future of publishing online.

    But yes, music is definitely the model for this.

    • Kat Says:

      Good point, but I’m willing to be the majority of sales in the iTunes music store are of albums, not single tracks. There are two things here: magazines as a package, and magazine journalism as a style/form of writing. The latter works excellently with new tools. The former is what the magazine industry (as opposed to writers and editors) has to offer and is good at and I think there’s a place for that, too.

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