Industry Profile: Bill Werde
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Bill Werde, editorial director, Billboard.
It has been two years since a consortium of investors formed e5 Global Media and forked over $70 million for Nielsen Business Media’s eight media-entertainment brands—including the 117-year-old iconic music publication, Billboard.
Within a year, the e5 Global name was scrapped and replaced by Prometheus Global Media, headed by CEO Richard Beckman.
In Aug. 2008, Bill Werde was promoted editorial director for Billboard. Previously, he had been the publication’s executive editor.
In his role, Werde is responsible for leading the editorial strategy and vision for the Billboard brand, which includes the weekly publication, websites (Billboard.com, and Billboard.biz) and other digital content offerings, as well as conferences, and events.
He joined Billboard in 2005 as senior news editor, and rose quickly through the ranks, having been promoted to deputy editor in 2006 and later executive editor.
Based in Billboard's New York office, Werde oversees Billboard’s staff of 50 in offices also in Los Angeles, Miami and Nashville.
He is a graduate of the University of Delaware where he received a Bachelor's degree in English in 1997.
Werde didn't put forth much of an effort during his early days at university. He was in a fraternity and was more adept at drinking beer, partying, and skipping classes—including Biblical and Classical Literature at 127 Memorial Hall—than trying to make grades.
Despite his extracurricular activities, Werde—then president of the Interfraternity Council—found a path to journalism after an op-editor at the university’s student paper, The Review, asked him to write a column.
Werde began his professional journalism career as associate editor for the music industry publication CMJ. He later worked as a freelancer for numerous publications including: The New York Times, Washington Post, Village Voice, and Wired.
Prior to Billboard, Werde was an associate editor at Rolling Stone.
NOTE: Before I joined CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, I was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991 until I was fired in 2007 along with—it would turn out—numerous other veterans of the trade publication.
I treasure much of my 17 years at Billboard, especially the '90s, which were wild, intoxicating, and often frustrating, all in the same week. I did some of the best writing of my career at Billboard. I met some of the finest music journalists in the world there. I shared bylines and stories with some wonderful people, and left a considerable legacy of work that I am very, very proud of.
Bill Werde and I—as they say—have history. Some of it not so good, predictably; some of it respectful—from both sides.
This is his profile.
How did Billboard cover Amy Winehouse’s death?
Amy Winehouse, that was just awful. I was in a shopping mall, and got an email from Jem Aswad, our editor for Billboard.biz, that there were reports that she’d been found dead. Just to show you how fast news travels these days, just a few minutes after Jem sent me the email, I overheard two kids at the cashier talking about Amy Winehouse being dead.
Gail Mitchell wrote a great piece (“Amy Winehouse (1983-2011) — The Troubled Singer's Death Ends A Career Of Promise”) with some reporting help (from Keith Caulfield, Ed Christman, Tom Ferguson, Paul Sexton, Richard Smirke, Gary Trust and Ray Waddell) putting Winehouse’s talent and career in relief, and asking questions about her legacy. That’s sort of the prerequisite piece that we need to run. We also were able to interview Guy Moot (president of EMI Music Publishing for the UK, and Europe).
I think that’s a lot of what a great weekly magazine can do. You’re not going to break news on a weekly basis because that happens in real time now. But, in addition to plenty of other values, we can provide access to the people that are the newsmakers at a depth, and with an understanding, that few can match. The stories Guy shared about Amy were touching and honest, without being gratuitous or sensational. That’s some of what Billboard can be at its best: smart, evocative, incisive, true, but not sensationalist.
[The first mention of the tragedy on a Billboard platform came with Billboard.biz running an Associated Press wire story the day (July 23, 2011) of the British performer’s passing, “Amy Winehouse Dead at 27” by Sylvia Hui and Jill Lawless.]
When I mentioned to several people that I was interviewing you, they said I should ask how you see Billboard as being relevant today. Obviously you do, but many people don’t see Billboard as relevant as it once was.
My answer is going to be somewhat predictable, but hopefully I will ground it in numbers, and people can make their own decisions (about Billboard’s relevancy). Is Billboard less relevant? No, Billboard is not less relevant. I think that is a silly assertion that is largely rooted in—sometimes, I wonder—in ex-employees of Billboard because I have seen it surface here and there online.
People think of us as just this print magazine—or a lot of people do, particularly in the industry; music fans, way less so because of Billboard.com, and with our conferences. There are all of these different things that we do.
Billboard operates within an increasingly fragmented music industry. As a result, views differ over it being relevant.
I don’t know who these people are to be honest. Nobody tells me that Billboard isn’t relevant, anymore. Maybe that is just due to my position. I’m not naïve about that. But what I see is growth in our numbers. I see stories that once were kind of apologist for the major labels, and now really get to the core issues. People tell me Billboard is more important to them than it has been. The music business is smaller. I can’t change the size of the music business. But, if you ask me if I think Billboard is relevant, I think Billboard is way more relevant than it was five or 10 years ago. And, if you talk to people in the music business that subscribe to Billboard, I’d be surprised if you hear a lot of them say differently.
When it comes to the print magazine...
When I talk to my staff about Billboard, particularly, the print magazine staff—I tell people, “We’re charging people $300 a year at the top end for annual subscriptions to the magazine. You need to make sure that every story on every page is really helping someone figure out their business in a different kind of way.” If you deliver that value, I believe—and I have seen it again and again in our own models and other peoples’ models—if you deliver real value in content, people will pay for it.
Two years ago, you re-launched Billboard.com.
We went from being kind of an also ran consumer site to last month having 10 million unique visitors. Some of the major labels are paying to use that site to market to fans. Some of them have been repeat customers, which lets us know that we are really able to move the needle for people. We have built a healthy consumer business on that site, where one hadn’t existed a few years back.
Billboard.com has significantly upped its video footage.
We have a full video staff on both coasts, and we produce a number of series, from “Mashup Mondays” to live streamed interviews with most of the top stars out there. We are all-in on video. There’s a video tab right on the top of Billboard.com. Some of our stuff we let migrate to YouTube and we have videos there that have tens of millions of views. Listen, there’s no complacency from the people who are hands on at Billboard.com or from me. We want to keep growing and coming up with new great new (video) series. We’ve come along with video.
You maintain that the Billboard brand has grown significantly in recent years.
The Billboard brand is so strong. We have nightclubs in Japan, and we have Billboard in Brazil, South Korea, Russia and Turkey. There are so many different deals that we are working on internationally, beyond just licensing and media expansion deals. Taking the brand—which is so wonderful—and letting it shine around the world in ways that it can.
This year we brought back the Billboard Music Awards. This is an award show that our previous partners didn’t treat as well as they could have treated it. This year, with ABC, we won near critical praise, and we won the time slot. I felt that we were going to be able to put on a great show, but I didn’t know that we were going to be able to beat out the season’s finale of “The Apprentice” in the key demos. That is an indication of how powerful this brand can be. It was a distinct pleasure to tweet out that night to Donald Trump, and say “You’re fired.” We had a lot of fun with that and, we put on a world-class show.
Decades ago, Billboard’s stature was crystal clear. There were three music trade publications, Billboard, Cashbox and Record World. The topography in the industry was clearer. As staffers left Billboard in recent years, some have been critical about what they see as Billboard’s limitations today.
People are always going to talk. I don’t pay it much mind. The key people that we have in our key roles—and that I feel great about—have been here a long minute. And, they will continue to be here. We have great people here, I feel really blessed. Danyel Smith, the editor of the print magazine, ran Vibe, the entire media company. Jem Asward who runs Billboard.biz, spent time at ASCAP so he really understands the business. He also had a huge hand in running big parts of MTV’s online presence. (Deputy editor) Lou Hau, with his news background at Forbes as a media reporter, is now editing our news section. Tye Comer, who basically ran the biggest part of AOL Music, is now running Billboard.com. Andy Horton is our creative director. He did amazing covers while at Business Week. I could keep going. We have an A-list team.
We have let people go over the years. We have, sometimes, selectively made it clear to other people that, maybe, they aren’t part of the answer. But, there’s a great core of people here who were here 10 years before I got here and probably will be here, God willing, 10 years after I go. People like Ed Christman, Ray Waddell, Thom Duffy, Leila Cobo, and Gail Mitchell—People who have been here, in some cases, 20 plus years. I’m proud that Billboard is still a good home for them because they make substantial contributions.
The music industry was shocked last year with the closure of Billboard’s UK office after nearly a half century. Was that a cost measure?
Well, no. In the year that we closed that office, I wound up spending more money—not less money—on editorial expenses. So, it wasn’t a cost cutting measure in that sense. I had some decisions to make about where I felt the resources of this company were best placed. Obviously, this was a decision that was made by a number of people because closing that office involved closing that office also for The Hollywood Reporter, and I think that Adweek might have had some people there too.
It wasn’t a decision we took lightly. But at the end of the day, I hold every expense that we make up to the light of return on investment. As much as there was some institutional weight (there) that certainly gave me pause and, as much as there were some people there that I am very sorry are no longer with our company—I’m not happy anytime anyone has to lose a job—when I looked at it purely through the spectrum of, “Where can I put these dollars that are going to return the greatest impact?” It wasn’t a difficult decision. The UK office was not generating what it had in the past.
[Billboard's first international headquarters, established in London's Hanover Square in 1963, was headed by Andre de Vekey.
He supervised advertising sales, and initiated the creation of a roster of correspondents reporting from European territories as the magazine developed its international coverage.
De Vekey was a professional musician before World War II. After the war, he worked for Decca Records U.K., and then was recruited by Billboard’s then publisher Hal Cook to direct the increasing flow of music business news from Britain and Europe.
During de Vekey's tenure in the ‘70s, Billboard acquired U.K. trade paper Record Retailer, which later became Music Week, and the consumer weekly Record Mirror. Music Week and Record Mirror were both subsequently sold to British interests.
Billboard’s London office was later run by Mort Nasatir, onetime head of MGM Records in the U.S; and then by Mike Hennessy and Peter Jones during the 1980s. Hennessy was Billboard's correspondent in Paris for some years before moving to London and Jones was editor of Record Mirror when Billboard owned it. As well, Billboard London has been helmed by Adam White, Emmanuel Legrand, and Mark Sutherland.]
Do you remain committed to international coverage as a core part of Billboard?
Yes. I believe in finding great examples of smart people doing smart things in the music business and showcasing that wherever that may be. There are territories out there where there are artists, managers, labels, promoters and music companies of every stripe doing innovative things. The music industry is increasingly global. But, by and large, the CEOs of the majors are here in the United States; and a lot of the chief leadership of these majors are here in the States.
The largest majority of our readership is Stateside, as is the largest majority of advertisers, from a business perspective—not that this dictates how I think about content. Also, the largest majority of advertisers on the international side tend to advertise in Billboard because they want to reach the U.S. market.
So, (Billboard) as a business is—in all honesty—somewhat U.S. centric, or is a U.S. centric business. But centric doesn’t mean exclusive. I’m always interested in telling the best stories that will make people think about their business. If, and when we can find those stories internationally, I want them in the book. We still regularly have them in the (weekly) book. We still regularly have them online. There’s no part of me that wants to exclude international coverage.
Even though Billboard’s freelance stringers were recently taken off monthly retainers?
Billboard isn’t the only brand facing tough choices about resource allocation in 2011. There’s no one that we have taken off retainer that we have said that we didn’t want to write for Billboard or that we no longer value their territory. In every major territory, as it relates to the music business, we have someone on the ground that we will pay a reasonable rate to in order for them to file stories for us. It’s hard to find retainer-oriented contracts anywhere in journalism in the U.S. anymore. Generally speaking, it’s “Write good articles for us, and we will pay you a word rate for that.”
There are easier ways to make money than writing for a music trade.
It is a fascinating time in media. Everything is so fluid right now with the economics of (publishing). Huffington Post, for example, is declining to pay contributors. I have friends who write for this site or that site—and they are major brands—and the expectation is that they will write for free simply for exposure. Then people will do that. I feel good that Billboard is paying everyone who writes for Billboard for their work. I always wish I could pay people more than I do.
Your work experience has been mostly in America. How can you understand coverage of international markets?
My answer is that I don’t know how to fix my car, but I know how to drive one. I trust the people around me. We’ve got an amazing team of people here at Billboard. I really trust my people. Lou Hau, our deputy editor, is a former bureau chief for one of the wire services in Seoul, Korea, for example. He has the largest hand in overseeing our international coverage. This is a guy who has been around the world, and certainly has thought about news from an international perspective. I trust his news judgment, and his ability to do these things.
I have been to San Paulo because we have Billboard in Brazil. That was an amazing trip. But that said, I don’t speak Spanish, but we do an amazing job covering Latin music. Leila Cobo, who is probably the first person I’d want to speak to about Latin music, anchors our incredible coverage, along with Justino Aguila, who is relatively new on staff. He’s a really smart guy.
You went to Japan in February, your first time in the Far East—an eye opener?
It was an amazing trip, personally and professionally. Professionally, meeting with our partners over there. We have some nightclubs in Japan. Hanshin (Hanshin Contents Link) is our partner there, and I got to visit these clubs, at least the one in Tokyo, which is a beautiful club. I saw Chaka Khan perform there. It was a great night.
We also had the second year of a Billboard Japan Music Awards which was televised and reaches a fairly substantial audience.
There was all this great talent there, and all of these great people from the Japanese music business. There I was in my “Lost In Translation” moment. Onstage speaking three or four words of Japanese, and switching to English and having someone behind me translating, in real time, (me) saying how important the business and the music of Japan is to Billboard and to the world.
It was one of those moments that makes you realize that we’re part of something much larger than just our circle of friends or our city or country. As Billboard, we are part of this universe of the business of music.
You obviously enjoyed Japan.
I couldn’t have had a better time. I discovered new music that I love. I made new friends in the music industry, and at Hanshin that I will always cherish. The downside was that I came back, and a couple of weeks later the tsunami hit there. I was devastated. I had just been there. I was so openly emotional, and attracted to the Japanese people, and then this happens. I sent out emails and I’ve called people there. I have tried to stay in touch. We have continued to report from Japan at a time that a lot of people have moved on from that.
According to global music sales figures, the importance of U.S. repertoire has decreased worldwide in recent years. There’s been a greater growth of domestic music in foreign markets, particularly in the U.K., and Germany. There’s a lessening American presence globally. This could be due to lessened staff, and shifting priorities at multinationals.
I think that is only healthy. Music is strongest when it can build from a regional story. If these territories are producing their own artists, that is only to the strength of music business everywhere.
Billboard recently lost its relationship with Reuters that covers music news from Europe.
The Reuters deal has almost nothing to do with (Billboard’s international music coverage). We have licensing deals in place with Reuters and with AP. We might get some top line business coverage from the wire service but, in terms of really getting some of the nitty gritty and understanding the ins-and-outs of the business, that is not going to come from AP or Reuters. That is going to come because we see or hear about something, and we want to put a writer on it.
We still have phones (with contributors) that work in London, and all over the world. We still have international stringers that write for us in almost every major territory, and we will continue to do that.
[TheWrap, which struck a partnership with Reuters last year, has become the global news agency's main entertainment news provider as of July 1, 2011. This new partnership replaced a long-time alliance between Reuters, and Billboard, and The Hollywood Reporter.]
Do you regret the public exchange at MIDEM this year with Billboard’s former London bureau chief Emmanuel Legrand that was picked up by the New York Post?
I have said pretty much everything that I probably should about that.
I will say this. It’s not the way my parents taught me to deal with a disagreement. So I regret that part of it. It also isn’t how I want to represent the brand or myself on a personal or professional level. The people who know me best know that I am a passionate advocate for my team that works hard every day to make Billboard a great brand. I love my team, and the people at Billboard. I felt that certain people had dramatically misrepresented what my team does; and what my team represents. And frankly, some of the people doing the misrepresenting we’re talking about, are former co-workers.
When I read someone misrepresenting and disparaging the work of the people that work at Billboard in a semi-public forum, it kicked a paternal, very protective part of me into gear.
Still, that’s no excuse for bad behavior.
I learned a lot from that episode; about how the media can distort things, and about the importance of, and the maturity involved in not letting a short-lived moment of satisfaction trump my greater goals or the goals of the brand that employs me.
[Werde took aim at Emmanuel Legrand at MIDEM this year for his assertion on his blog Legrand Network (“Billboard Shrinks”) that Billboard had declined in impact. When the two crossed paths at MIDEM, Werde confronted Legrand, and the two had a heated exchange that was reported in the New York Post.
Billboard’s senior correspondent Ed Christman later blasted Billboard’s detractors on Legrand’s blog site, saying: “You guys can wax poetic all you want about your romanticized notions of how you view Billboard past, and eloquently state your incorrect assessments of Billboard present, without—as near as I can tell from your comments here—even bothering to read the magazine, but all I hear is a bunch of miserable, how-can-Billboard-be-relevant-without-my-insight, has-beens.”]
For years Billboard was graced by the long shadow of (former editor-in-chief) Timothy White who abruptly died in 2002. A difficult legacy for you to follow?
No. I never really thought about it that way. In part because I didn’t know Timothy personally and, in part, he had sadly been dead for three years by the time I got here. Billboard had to go through that whole other period with the other editor (Keith Girard) in the middle. And Tamara Conniff had been here for a year as well before she hired me. It just felt like a different place.
[Timothy White died in 2002 at the magazine's Manhattan offices. He was 50. The cause was a heart attack. As the editor-in-chief Billboard from 1991 to his passing, White kept the magazine largely independent of the music industry it covered.
After his death, UK scribe Chris Salewicz wrote in The Independent: “In the United States, (Timothy White) was revered as the last of the great personality writers on Rolling Stone magazine; and as the man who took over the editorship of Billboard, the weekly American music-business trade magazine, and turned a moribund, unreadable publication into a vital, stimulating and moral force. "He was a one-off, completely unique, old school Ivy League in the rock'n'roll industry," said the singer Sting.]
I have never thought about (this job) as “I am walking in Timothy White’s footsteps.” I have just focused on the tasks at hand. I still do that today. When I got (to this position), it was just the job Tamara had been in. Everybody leaves shoes to fill. Maybe one day, I will leave my own.
[Werde succeeded Tamara Conniff, editorial director, and associate publisher of Billboard from 2004 to 2008. She left to join Front Line Management Group as president of music services. She is currently the founder and CEO of social music platform The Comet, and writes for Oprah.com and The Huffington Post.]
How did you come to work at Billboard?
I was on a panel with Ken Schlager (then Billboard executive editor), and he called me (afterwards), and I agreed to meet with him. I didn’t want to come to Billboard, I was at Rolling Stone, a magazine that I loved and read religiously growing up. And when I picked up the magazine….
You weren’t impressed?
Listen, I had reported on the music business beat for four or five years on-and-off, for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, the Village Voice and other publications. I didn’t read Billboard. I can count on one hand the number of times that I looked at Billboard. In reality, I think that number was zero.
Suddenly, I had to look at it through the scope of whether I wanted to work here, and I was unsettled by what I saw. I didn’t think that the journalism was that quality. I thought the writing was a little challenged. I thought it was apologist on a number of fronts. Some people were like, “Come work for Billboard; it’s an awesome place to be.” Tamara’s position was more nuanced. More that, “Billboard has its challenges. I clearly understand who you are as a journalist. I think you could really help me revitalize this brand.”
That would be appealing…
That was when I started thinking about (taking the job). At least one of the leaders there is not ga-ga over the brand. She loved the brand clearly, but she saw it as a brand that needed some work. That was a situation I was more interested in stepping into.
What bothered you about Billboard?
I felt Billboard had gotten really stale. The business had been shrinking rapidly at that point. I think that the readership was really hemorrhaging. So when Tamara brought me in, we had some things to do. A lot of what I’ve tried to see through started with Tamara’s vision, and some of the conversations that she and I had. Tamara and John Killcullen, the publisher at the time, really saw the vision for this brand. They said, “This brand is in need of some re-focusing. We need to take a real hard honest look at what we’re doing and how we are doing it.” Howard Applebaum was here too and gave considerable input from a licensing perspective.
When Tamara was still running the magazine, we sat down and did a content analysis on a vertical by vertical basis. We really looked at what parts of the business were robust; what parts were likely to remain robust; what parts were likely to grow; and what parts were not as robust as they once were or, perhaps, were shrinking.
Looking back at that analysis, how close were you to being right?
We were pretty dead on, but that’s not shocking. The business is always changing. But five or six years ago, the story was, “Okay, investment in publishing, and publishing, in general, that’s seems like area that will retain its value in the live music space. There’s a lot of development and activity around that. Mobile and digital, obviously, that hasn’t generated a lot of revenue that people hoped it would still even today but, clearly in terms of innovative and constant change, is going to affect the dynamics of business. That’s a space that we need to cover.” Branding, licensing, film and TV, these spaces were spaces then, and are still for the most part, that we felt were bigger opportunities than smaller.
At the same time, looking at a space like physical retail, “That’s a space that, maybe, we don’t have to put the same amount of resource into.”
You have been at Billboard now for six years—a time of upheaval in the music industry.
Never a dull moment.
In the first half of 2011, music sales picked up. Meanwhile, “the sky is falling” attitude within the industry seems to be lifting.
A couple of things have happened. One, if you did say that the industry had bottomed out, you wouldn’t be alone these days. I have had conversations with some very high level investors in the past six months, and they are interested in music again in a way that they haven’t been for awhile because they feel that now is the time, finally, to buy low. Not to buy low on a business that is going to go much lower, but I think that there is a perspective—at least with some in the investment community—that, maybe, we are near the bottom.
What are they looking for? Joint ventures?
It runs the gamut. There are equity guys. There are VC guys interested in investing in properties. A couple of years ago, between the credit markets freezing up, the lack of clarity and the inflexibility around rights issues, if a new product had exposure to major labels or major publishers, investors just wouldn’t touch it. This is following the Grokster case, right, for example. It was like, “I don’t want to go anywhere near that. I’m not going to invest in a company, and it is going to be shut down, and get sued. (The music industry) just seems like a snake pit.”
And rights have (since) become untangled which, I think, in part because of the fiscal pressures to untangle them helped. The deals that were on the table once upon a time, that the labels wouldn’t touch, suddenly became touchable.
[Grokster Ltd. was a privately-owned software company based in the West Indies that created the Grokster peer-to-peer file-sharing program in 2001. Grokster was rendered extinct in 2005 by the United States Supreme Court's decision in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. The court ruled against Grokster's peer-to-peer file sharing program for computers running the Microsoft Windows operating system, effectively forcing the company to cease operations.]
iTunes presented universality, and a template for other digital businesses offering music.
Yes, there are some really smart things happening right now. You recently did an interview with Rio Caraeff (CEO, Vevo). Vevo might work or it might not work, but it was absolutely the right idea. It was one of the first times in the digital age that the music business took a proactive role, as opposed to a reactive role, to a change that they were facing in the digital space. I really have to stand up, and commend (former Universal Music head) Doug Morris and his team, and Rio for saying, “This is the opportunity. We’re licensing these things off of different rates, different labels, all across the board to all of these different partners, AOL, CBS, anyone who wants video. Why don’t we control the channel? Create the pipeline, set the pricing on the pipeline, and that will create a higher CPM (cost per thousand impressions).” It’s the right idea. Whether or not they can get the CPM values. You spoke to Rio about that. That will be the litmus test whether or not that right idea ends up being doable. But I love that. I remember when Doug Morris insisted that the Zune (music license platform) was going to be properly licensed, and that the labels would have an ownership position—have equity—in that. My gawd, if someone had had the foresight to do that with the iPod.
[Vevo has just added to a growing list of syndication partners: ArtistDirect.com/Rogue Network (music news); Batanga (Hispanic music news); Gorilla Leak (indie music); MeFeedia (video recommendations); and Canadian TV properties, “Entertainment Tonight Canada,” and AUX.tv (Glassbox.tv). Synacor, a white-label entertainment portal, will reportedly add Vevo shortly.]
Or if they had the foresight to do it with Napster. BMG was the only one in, and got hammered.
Not a good situation. I root for this business. Some people say that Billboard only prints bad news. That is completely not true. They really need to read the magazine. We focus on what are the smart ideas that are working and how are they working because that is the number one way that people are going to take actionable information from what we are doing.
Why do you root so strongly for the music business?
I want it to succeed. I love to see aggressive smart thinking. One thing that has happened over the past year—now that this industry has a slightly lighter step in a good way—is that people are experimenting more. People are acting again. There was such a pervasive sense of fear (before). Fear that “I’m going to lose my job.” Fear that “I’m going to make a decision that is going to set the wrong precedent.” Fear that “someone is going to judge me in the press.” There was a sense of fear that was paralyzing in the industry.
Whether it’s because “we can’t live in fear forever” or because things are getting a bit better on the margins, I see decisions that are being made that are not as fear driven as I once did which is so good for the business. It is such a relief to see that.
People are looking for solutions. We are getting there.
We are. It is improving. You know the image of George W. Bush standing on the aircraft carrier (USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003) in front of the banner saying “Mission Accomplished?” I hope that no one is doing that right now. That said, the building blocks are there. The (recording) companies are leaner and meaner in a much better way. A lot of the past few years were about separating the wheat from the chaff; reorganizing these companies, and having the right people sticking around. A lot of the ego-driven, bloated salary type person is harder to find these days. It’s not a perfect industry. I don’t know one that is. But if you look at the people who work in and around the music business today, I think that they are smarter, more responsible, more courageous, and more open-minded than they were 3, 4, 5 or 6 years ago.
It seems now that consumers want to experience music on varied platforms.
I think that’s right. People always want there to be one answer but, in reality, there’s many answers right now, and it’s likely going to be that way for awhile. There is, right now, a new critical mass. It used to be that when you went from the LP to the cassette to the CD. Now, the critical mass does exist with digital music. Consumers have spoken, and the model that they have chosen is an ownership model. People want their iPods full with 60 gigs (gigabytes) of music.
But that’s not to say that will always be the case.
Right now, there are so many interesting services coming out. Spotify recently launched, and Pandora went public recently. There is so much happening. As much as album sales have been in decline, this year we are going to sell in the neighborhood of 300 to 350 million album range. People will say, “Well, album sales are cut in half; the album is dead.” But, the reality is that, it is still 300 million albums. It’s a lot of albums, right?
And a big percentage of those are still CDs.
It is interesting to note five or eight years ago people would pronounce the CD dead and we are still selling millions of CDs. My point is that these (distribution) platforms take awhile to roll out. I think that is why we are going to see a fragmented marketplace for music for the next five, 10 or even more years. There are still going to be a lot of people that have CD players, and want to buy CDs; and there will be a lot of people that want to own digital music, and have an iPod with 60 gigs; and there will be people who don’t have a need to own music; who are happy with Spotify or Mog or some of the other cloud experiences out there that are great. There is just so much diversity now. It's going to be an interesting three to five years from now to see which of these services gain a real foothold.
Are you encouraged by the emergence of such high-caliber artists as Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, and Adele that may be sustainable superstars?
Absolutely yes. If you look at our Half Year issue, and at the top sellers of the year, the top six artists were: Adele, Lady Gaga, Mumford & Sons, Jason Aldean, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber. These are artists that four or five years ago, you would not have known their names.
Critics argue that Justin Bieber won’t be around years from now.
How many people were saying the same thing about Justin Timberlake when he left 'NSync? If we are being honest today, how many people looked at Justin and said, “That guy is going to be a power broker in the music industry one day”? Everybody assumed because he came from a teen pop background, that he was going to be here today, and gone tomorrow. Yet, if that guy put out an album or decided to tour, he’d sell arenas all over the place.
Adele, Mumford & Sons, Jason Aldean, these are artists that are making really good music; what I think that any good critic would call “credible music”—whatever that means—and it’s nice to see this infusion of talent.
The downside though, is that in this day and age, as much as there has been a proliferation of all of these new services—including Spotify, Pandora, satellite radio, iTunes, all of these different things—it is still very difficult to achieve a critical mass of audience so that you can create a hit for artists that we consider legacy artists.
Where does Bruce Springsteen get exposed on the radio these days? Bon Jovi goes to country radio to have a bigger impact. It’s a shame that a lot of the music business has come to focus on—and a lot of the radio business, a lot of terrestrial radio business, in particular, which is still a kingmaker—has come to focus so heavily on just the new.
If you went and grabbed the Billboard charts from 15 years ago, there are a lot of artists on that chart that are either still making music or we’d like to see still making music. It’s just so difficult because of, “Well, where do I fit in to the current machinery of the music industry?”
There are artists that we root for.
For me, that would be Pink. The whole music business had written off Pink. She had her moment in the sun. She had that time when she was that new artist. Then, as you are supposed to do (after being a new artist), she was supposed to go away. But Pink didn’t read that script. So now here Pink is, and she’s been on a tear. I just think that it’s wonderful. It’s great to see artists who build that up—even in a different way. Like Britney Spears’ comeback that a lot of people would have thought was improbable. And there are artists like Rhianna who just keep going, and that’s great to see.
It’s not just about the new.
You are seeing artists that can build meaningful fan bases, and play good sized arenas, and big clubs. That’s what the music business needs. At the end of the day, I still think that it’s largely a star-driven business.
Many people say today’s music is second-rate.
Every Sunday night or so I go to Billboard.com, and go to all of the different genre charts we have, and I will click and listen to what I haven’t heard before. There is so much good music out there. People will say, “The reason music doesn’t sell is because music is pap today.” If that’s the only thing you can say to me, well, that makes me turn off in my head to you. It might be the same 20 songs you are hearing on FM radio that are crap or it’s not your style of music, but, there’s so much great music out there.
What do you listen to?
I listen to so much. It really runs the gamut. Right now I have the Theophilus London record (“Timez Are Weird These Days”) on repeat. I’m a little obsessed with it. Right now, in my player, I have a Chalie Boy mix tape with Rapid Ric. I’ve got the new Eminem with Royce da 5'9" ("Hell: the Sequel”). I’ve got Joss Stone (“LP1”) which I think is a really good record. I hadn’t realized that I had missed Joss Stone’s voice until I put it on. The Head and the Heart song “Lost In My Mind,” I can’t stop playing that on repeat.
At home I’ve been on an old-school hip-hop kick. That was some of the first music I fell in love with – I was in the 4th or 5th grade when Run DMC, Fat Boys, UTFO and some of the other early rappers started breaking big, at least on the playgrounds of Wilmington, Delaware. I go through those phases all the time. Most recently, my nephew, who is 13 and loves Eminem, asked me if I liked any hip-hop, so I went to YouTube and put together a playlist of all the classics. I can’t listen to KRS-One’s “9mm Goes Bang,” enough. It’s sick, just an ultra-stripped down beat and a great story.
How many iPods do you own?
I only have one iPod, and I don’t tend to use it much. I don’t like the way digital sounds. Those ear buds, you’ve got to be kidding me. My wife inherited a substantial vinyl collection from her father. He had every major record been 1963 or 1964 to 1978. It is such an amazing collection with the Beatles, Cream, and David Bowie. I spend as much of mornings as I can with my two sons. Max is 4 1/2 now. And a lot of mornings I will put on a piece of vinyl. I love that. The act of putting on a piece of vinyl—the sound of it—I really love it. I sound like a Luddite.
Lately, on the turntable at home, I’ve been playing a record I bought in San Paulo by Caetano Veloso. It’s the self titled “69” album.
How hands-on are you with Billboard’s editorial content?
I try not to be too hands-on because a lot of my job is interfacing with the (music) industry, and the industries that want to interface with the industry. Then, a lot of my job is management. We have a team of 50 people that create our charts, and create all of our content and our programming for events, and what’s in the magazine and on all of our websites. So a lot of my job is working with them on a strategic level to make sure that we are covering the types of things, and in the types of ways—and on the right platforms—of what we want to be covering.
That said, I’m very hands-on with the cover of the magazine. I’m very hands-on with launching new products on Billboard.com, and I’m hands-on with the execution of new strategic initiatives. If we are going to launch something new on Billboard.com or Billboard.biz then I will be pretty hands-on out of the gate, at least in a management role. Then, I try to pull back.
I don’t have a role in assigning specifically on page four of the Upfront section but I might have a conversation with Lou (Hau) who runs Upfront or with Danyel Smith, the editor of the weekly magazine. I may have a conversation with them, and say, “I feel that we should be having more stories that are going to appeal to investors upfront. So can we make sure that we focus on that?” Maybe, we will brainstorm a few story ideas there.
Billboard has had some niche acts on its cover, like hip-hop collective Odd Future.
With a weekly magazine, you can be responsive to some of the big (trend) cycles out there. Odd Future is a perfect example of that. It was awesome that we were able to jump on that. Danyel Smith championed that. I checked it out a little bit more. I am always trying to quantify the buzz. I know that I’ve heard this and that about Odd Future, but let me dig into it, and see how they are showing up on some of our charts. Where are they being buzzed, and who is buzzing about them? Let me see if they are playing shows and if they are having some success in the live space. Really understand whether it is just hype, or if there’s something going on there that is of larger interest to the music business. Around the time of our cover story, they wound up with a distribution deal with a major label. So I feel that we play a role there.
[Odd Future have partnered with RED Distribution/Sony to form their own label, Odd Future Records. The deal covers all acts associated with the group and allows them creative freedom.]
Other than acts, you often highlight trends on the covers.
Always. About five or six years ago, we started putting covers on the magazine as opposed to having the news front. When we started doing that, it was a different time in the music business. The music business was already in a little bit of a free fall. But, on most weeks, it still felt like that there was still a big blockbuster artist that you could tell a business-related story about.
In this day and age, the number of albums that will sell a million copies, the number of albums that are going to sell multi-million copies, it is way, way down. What a blockbuster artist looks like now is just very different. It doesn’t always have the scale (it once had).
So the way Billboard needs to deal with that is just to not be reliant on, “Who is the biggest star we can put on the cover each week?” But, “What are the best stories we can tell that can deliver the greatest value to our readers?” A lot of time, (covers are) based on the feedback that we get from our readers—either through surveys or from my own conversations. A lot of the time, that’s consumer trends. A lot of times, that’s business trends. A lot of time, that’s new bands that (people) need to know about.
So I do think that we do have permission to step away from that iconic monolithic superstar treatment, which is still great in the mix when it’s appropriate, and we can really focus on what are the new winds (of change); what are the new trends, the new bands and helpfully deliver that to people in a way that they find serviceable, and actionable.
How do you prioritize a story? The weekly Billboard and Billboard.biz are aimed at the industry; and Billboard.com is aimed at the consumer. If a story is breaking, does it go to Billboard.biz whereas a second-day story will go to the weekly magazine?
News just doesn’t wait. As a student of media, I find this really interesting. I reported on media for a number of years for the New York Times, and the Village Voice. Part of taking the job at Billboard that was really attractive was the opportunity to put some theory into practice.
When I got to Billboard, we were still, by and large, printing next day’s news in a magazine that sometimes people wouldn’t get for 7, 8 or 9 days after the news happened. If your business depended on that, here we were giving you even a lesser written version of a story that you probably had read in The Wall Street Journal nine days earlier. It’s kind of hard to argue that there’s a strong value proposition in that.
So what we stopped doing almost immediately was printing next day’s news in the magazine.
There are some funny stories—I can’t name names because I don’t want to be mean—but there was a history of printing some of these (vanity type) stories in the magazine on a fairly regular basis, upfront. (As news editor) I would get calls from the assistant of the fill-in-the-blank of iconic or super important record label executive. The call would go something like, “Mr. X took a dump last night, and we’re calling because Mr. X would like to make sure that is a news story next week.” I would just say, “It’s not news.”
We figured out quickly that news needs to go on Billboard.biz; and any analysis and trends and such need to go in the print magazine. By the time we got to that point, what had happened was that there were companies emerging like All Things D (the digital-focused Wall Street Journal product) and TechCrunch that does a great job of doing this as well.
When news breaks now, you not only have to get the news online minutes after it happens but, within an hour of a big development in the digital music space or when things happen that will affect the music biz, you can go to places online, and find trenchant analysis for free. And, it's all over the place within an hour of that development happening. People move fast online.
With any news cycle, you have about 30 minutes to respond nowadays.
Yeah, that’s right. What the true value of media is on different platforms is always evolving; or it has been constantly evolving. The notion six or seven years ago that you could put news online, and analysis in a magazine was perfectly fine—today, that’s just not good enough. It is not the real value proposition. You can get a plenty of analysis, and if we are being honest, pretty good analysis, about some of the developments of the day—almost in real time.
How does Billboard deal with that speed of news?
We have writers here that are absolutely every bit as good as anyone out there, if not better at certain things, writing those things. It used to be the second day story. Now, it’s the second hour story. We’ve Glenn Peoples with his “Business Matters” column that is dedicated to analyzing the news of the day. We have Anthony Bruno or Ray Waddell when something develops. These guys know (their beats), and they are the smartest guys in the room. They’ll have (a breaking news story) on Billboard.biz very quickly.
There is apparently a plan to put Billboard’s online platforms into greater alignment—in essence getting the right stories on the right platforms, and making them attractive, and easy to subscribe to.
We are about to roll out a strategic rehaul of our business side content—pulling all of our successful conferences, print magazines, Billboard.biz and Bulletin and, probably, new mobile efforts into a proper strategic alignment so we can have the right content on the right platform with the right business model around them.
We gave Billboard.biz a little bit of a face lift. Billboard.biz right now is a good experience in terms of the content on it, but a bad experience in terms of the product.
Since January, traffic on Billboard.biz has doubled, and is growing month after month. I feel pretty good about that. That, ultimately, becomes one of the funnels of getting people into the print magazine. If they are reading that first moment instant response, and one-hour analysis piece on Billboard.biz, my belief is that we can present the value proposition to that group of (industry) people, for the print magazine.
(With coverage) that goes deeper on these issues; that goes deeper on the trends; that is investing resources, and discovering the real enterprises, and the trend stories around the music business in a way that I don’t think that anybody really is. That can go deeper on true access interviews—like, say, this news happens about Universal Music Group. While The Wall Street Journal may have an article about it, and even explains what it means, we can get the core players involved, and let them speak to the broader issues in a way that a lot of these places simply won’t give the space to.
Overall, how many subscribers does Billboard have?
Our BPA-qualified circulation for the most current period (ended Dec. 2010) is 18,911. According to Google Analytics, our unique monthly traffic on Billboard.biz has grown sizably for six months in a row; nearly doubling to just under 300,000 unique visitors a month. We continue to expand the focus and quality there, delivering more analysis, timely reports, chart-focused content, etc—and that’s just on the business side. I can’t wait to relaunch our business side in the coming months. We’re really going to fine tune our content in the magazine, on Billboard.biz, in Bulletin, and at our events and pull everything into alignment in a way that will be really exciting for anyone who needs to know what’s happening in and around the music business.
Would that mean giving greater access on Billboard.biz to stories in the magazine itself?
If we decide that the content belongs behind a pay wall, whether it’s paying for a magazine or logging into Billboard.biz, then I believe in that. But the value proposition must be delivering people content that is essential to them; and that will help them think about their business in a micro and a macro way. I believe that people will pay for that. I know that people will pay for that.
Then, also on the product side, we have to make it feel good. Right now, if you try to read the print magazine on Billboard.biz—and this is something that we are going to try and fix in the next month—the experience is not a good one. If you try to subscribe to the magazine on Billboard.biz, the experience is not a good one.
We relaunched Billboard.com two years ago; won a national magazine award, and grew traffic from four million to 10 million uniques. I saw that opportunity and the team of people—Joshua Engroff, and Howard Applebaum, and Lila Gerson, and Jeremy Levine, who was our publisher at the time—all saw this opportunity, and we executed on it.
I feel the same way now (with opportunities) with our business side (with Billboard.biz).
[Billboard.com, relaunched in July 2009, won the National Magazine Award for Digital Media for new design in 2010.]
Then there was the great decision to put Billboard’s archives on Google.
Yeah, I love it. We kicked the tires on what it would take to take 117 years of the magazine, and turn it into a searchable archive. Basically, those tires didn’t give much. It is such an expensive proposition (to digitalize archives), and it is, obviously, not our core competency. Google had their periodical program where they were interested in working with a lot of periodicals. We had the opportunity. Google basically does this for free. There’s limited rights (involved), so we analyzed it, and ended up thinking that the Google thing was pretty cool.
You’re a former frat boy slacker?
I wasn’t a very good high school student, and I was a terrible college student. I failed out of college. I eventually went back, and got my degree. I was an English major at the University of Delaware and, really, I majored in a lot of things that one shouldn’t major in. I was really distracted by some of the accoutrements that go along with really enjoying a lot of music at age 20. That didn’t necessarily bode well for my academics.
URB magazine was one of the first publications where you freelanced.
It might have been the first. It was this great magazine about the rave and hip-hop scenes – with a lot of the best young writers and photographers, and a real sense of purpose in covering what was arguably the most meaningful subculture of its time. I was pretty much a raver when I graduated college. That was the scene I most identified with. For the record, I wasn't the dude with the neon necklaces and 20 glow sticks.
Your first job in music and journalism came in 1998 with CMJ.
I was a copy editor for the monthly fan magazine they used to have. This was right around the time that all the labels were placing some bets that techno would be “The Next Big Thing.” Chemical Brothers had just won a Grammy. This was also right around the time that Prodigy sold a million records, and Moby licensed every song on “Play” for commercial use. So the labels wanted to advertise these artists, which meant the magazines they advertised in suddenly needed people who could write in complete sentences about techno. That was pretty much the bar I cleared. I could write sentences about techno.
Following the rave scene likely made you very tech forward for the time.
In college in ’94 and '95, we were using listservs and telnet chats to find parties and share funny stories—basically, just to have our community. Someone emailed me an MP3 when I was at CMJ, and I knew right away that that was a game-changer. I understood right away that this was exciting. That a friend could send me a song on the computer, that this was going to be revelatory.
This was around the period that Napster launched.
I was super early on Napster. I wrote one of the first major pieces on the MP3 and what it might mean for the future for a national music magazine, probably around '99. Now granted, if I went back, I’m sure I would be wrong on almost everything I said but I was sort of interested in, and was on it.
Like a lot of people, I thought Napster was going to be the biggest, best music store in the history of the world. So when it got shut down, I wanted to understand why. You start asking questions as a kid like, "Wait, there's something called 'publishing'? There are these things called 'rights'?"
It quickly led me on this path, where I started being as interested on the platforms around music—the notion of how it could be delivered and what that could mean from a societal, and a technological and business perspective—as I was in the music itself. I got really into the notion that technology was going to reshape culture and that it was going to require a rethinking of rights and IP law. If that hadn't happened for me, I'd have been just another hack critic. And to be honest, I was a lousy hack critic.
Anyway, I left CMJ after a year or so to become a freelance writer, and a lot of my work focused on that intersection of culture, technology and law. If 99 people wanted to review the new Jay-Z record, I was the one that wanted to understand the rights issue around the “Grey” album that Danger Mouse put out (in 2004 combining vocal performances from Jay-Z's “The Black Album” with instrumentals from The Beatles' “White Album”).
I wrote about an artist down in Austin who released a cut of the Harry Potter movie with his own hilarious dialog dubbed over the original; and I wrote about a case where Mattel sued an artist for taking photos of Barbie Dolls in compromising positions.
It was tempting to look at this stuff as frivolous, but I thought the common thread of cultural re-appropriation, if that's a word, was important.
What life lessons did you learn as a freelance journalist?
I realized that I had carte blanche to call the smartest people in the world. If I wanted to know about real estate because I was going to buy an apartment, I could get somebody to assign me a story on mortgages, and then talk with the smartest people in the world on getting mortgages. If I was really interested in this or that cultural thing, or this science oriented idea or technology, whatever it might be—by my association with journalism—I had carte blanche to call experts. For me, a lot of (journalism) became a continuing education.
Music trade journalists in an Internet age. We’re a dying breed.
I speak at schools sometimes, and I joke that I am in the intersection of the two worst industries in the world, between music and journalism. But, I really don’t think that is true.
You jokingly tell them to go to law school if they say they want to write about music.
That’s true. People will sometimes ask, “What should I do if I want to be a music journalist.” (I tell them), “You should get your head examined.” But I don’t really believe that.
I feel that I’ve been really, really blessed to be able to live this life in music. If anybody else is lucky enough to be able to follow a similar path or a different path to the same end, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. I love what I do every day. It has it challenges, but I do love what I do every day.
I feel blessed every day to live this life in music. No joke. I feel blessed all of the time to have this job. My worst day…when I’m having a bad day, I have to keep reminding myself that my worst day is a day that a lot of people would kill to have. Not, maybe, in the music business because many of them are lucky in having these great jobs. But there are a lot of people, “Oh you poor guy. You have to suffer through a concert and have Kanye West make fun of you to your face.” That sounds rough. I get it. I try to remind myself of these things.
The music business has had its challenges; the media world has its challenges; and really they are the same challenges at the end of the day. Trying to figure out how to get people to pay for content, for music, and pay for good journalism. How to take advantage of this new (Internet) access to consumers on an unprecedented scale.
The problems are very similar.
I get to learn from the missteps, and the good guesses of the music business and apply some of that to the content side of things. Sometimes, hopefully, some of the thought that has gone into the content side of things has helped inform some of the coverage in Billboard that hopefully helps people figure out the music business a little bit.
A business filled with colorful characters.
It’s amazing the stories, and experiences that we have seen fly the coop over the past five or 10 years. The people that really deeply understand this industry, I turn into a fan boy when I can sit down, and hear whoever it might be. And, it’s not the people you might think. It’s great to hear Clive Davis or someone who has really been there and done it at that level. It’s amazing to hear those people speak. But when you talk to an A&R guy who has done it for 30 years, those are ones that like, “Wow. There’s a lot of history there.”
How many people get to overhear Yoko Ono saying that they are a good kisser?
(Laughing) Again, I feel so blessed by the life that I have been able to lead in music. Sometimes it’s about those crazy moments when people walk into the room or Yoko Ono makes a joke about you being a good kisser.
[The 77-year-old Yoko Ono visited Billboard's New York offices on Dec. 15, 2010 to receive a plaque commemorating her fifth consecutive No. 1 song on Billboard's Dance Club Songs chart, for "Wouldnit (I'm a Star)."
After speaking to Werde, Ono prepared to move on. Werde couldn't help but listen in when her assistant and publicist came into the room and asked her how things had gone. "He was a good kisser," said Ono.]
Sometimes, it’s that secret show where you are lucky to get into. I saw Paul McCartney play for 500 people at the Highline Ballroom (June 13, 2007). It was like “Wow.”
I saw Yusuf Islam play one of his first shows in the United States, and he was very generous and played all his iconic Cat Stevens’ songs in a little room for Jazz at Lincoln Centre (Dec. 19, 2006,) overlooking Central Park at night. He was in a good mood, and chatted about these great songs.
When you find yourself in the room with some of the real greats, the true musical icons, people who made all of us in one shape or form get into this crazy business, there are moments there that make the hair stand up on my neck.
But it's also the day-to-day. I’m doing some job interviewing for candidates for a senior writing position here. Some of the people have asked me what I will miss the most if I didn’t do this job. I’m a big baseball fan, and I remember reading as a kid a lot about players when they retired or coaches—anybody that was part of the game, what they missed. It was never one specific thing. They would say, “When you are not in between those foul lines anymore, you can go back and visit, but you just are not part of the game anymore.”
That’s kind of what I love. I don’t mean that in a Machiavellian way, like, “I’m 'part of the game'"—but I feel that Billboard—and by virtue of extension, me—that I have this little part carved out. I have my role to play, and I feel lucky to be able to do that.
I was recently at a party commemorating the one millionth sale of Kid Rock’s current album ("Born Free")— an achievement these days. It was on a rooftop downtown. I went with some friends, and I had a great time. It was a beautiful night. But the highlight was not that I wound up standing about a foot away from Kid Rock for a good part of the night. I didn’t bother him because, frankly I don’t think that Kid Rock really cares much about me. But I wound up in a fascinating 10 or 15 minute conversation with Julie Greenwald (co-chairman and chief operating officer, Atlantic Records) about religion, of all things.
Those are the moments, I have to say, that I believe that when I look back in 30 years or whatever; those are the moments that I will miss as much as anything else (about my job). Understanding that we are journalists, and while we are apart from (the business) a bit, we are Billboard, and there’s a bit of camaraderie in the business. It’s kind of a tough love proposition, right?
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.