Can The Andrew Sullivan Effect Work For Music Blogs?

Posted January 4

When blogger Andrew Sullivan made the decision this week to take his leave of the Daily Beast and strike out on his own with subscription-based site The Dish, the Web looked on impressed. Not only was Sullivan attempting the impossible — asking folks to pay for blog content — he was (for the moment) succeeding. Pundits immediately began wondering: “Could this be the future of the Web? Can Sullivan actually succeed in the long run?” We would add to those queries: “What does this mean for music writing? Can the same model be applied?”

The same week that Sullivan decided to leave the Beast and strike out on his own, that he decided to ask readers to shell our $19.99 per year for content, that he told the New York Times that he was on track to rake in $400,000 this week, a promising — and similar — Kickstarter campaign failed to reach its goal. Its moniker? UNCOOL.

UNCOOL was conceptualized by music journalists David Greenwald and Daniel Siegal, who met as editors at the Los Angeles Times‘ former alt-weekly, Brand X. A kind of utopian ideal of journalism, UNCOOL would have produced longform, in-depth articles about music each week and — here’s the kicker — it would have paid its writers to produce those articles. That’s a pretty enticing prospect in a world where music writers are either paid nothing or a few paltry bucks for their troubles. Take it from me; I’ve been on both sides of the coin, 1). Apologetically asking writers to pen copy pro bono for a magazine that had very little cash, 2). Dejectedly cashing my meager checks for lengthy music stories while pals who write for lifestyle mags raked in the money.

Siegal and Greenwald aimed to remedy this situation, turning to Kickstarter and a projected subscription model to keep UNCOOL afloat. No ads here — just content penned by a stable of established writers already moored to the cause. The only issue? The duo needed to raise $54,000 to make UNCOOL a reality. They only scored $9,229 — and in Kickstarter world, that means: “Do not pass Go! Do not collect 200 dollars! It’s over, kids.”

So what went wrong? And how could something like UNCOOL achieve the Sullivan Effect?

It Would Need A Solid Base

When asked why UNCOOL failed to catch on, Greenwald replied, “I think the main [reason] was that the journalism projects that have gotten funded already had a really strong core audience. We were trying to start a little bit more from scratch.”

Yes, both he and Siegal have their share of fans from other projects — Greenwald has been running his Rawk Blog for nearly eight years — as do the writers that they tapped to participate in the project, but they don’t have a Sullivan-like following.

Former Atlantic co-worker Conor Friedersdorf describes Sullivan’s readership was “massive, highly educated, ideologically diverse, employed in a stunning array of fields, and spread out across the world;” Sullivan calls them “an unofficial [staff] of around a million unpaid obsessives.” No matter how you describe them, though, they are many — and they take action. Hence that $400,000 already in Sullivan’s virtual coffer.

In order for the Sullivan Effect to work with a music publication, it would need to have an already established audience — a fanbase rabid enough to fund the content themselves. That state of affairs has already been made manifest in the music world with what we may call the Palmer Effect. Yup, remember when Amanda Palmer raised more than one million dollars for her new album/tour/book, etc via Kickstarter? Same deal. Her loyal fans were investing in their future by investing in hers. And they were willing to invest a lot, which brings us to our next point…

It Would Need A Track Record

As Greenwald said, UNCOOL was trying to build an audience from scratch, so perhaps asking for $54,000 to launch a full-fledged online publication was a little ambitious. Look at this way: Amanda Palmer can ask for $100,000 for an album tour, book, etc and exceed her goal because she has more than 700,000 Twitter followers and years of content under her belt. Smaller bands, like The Limousines, can ask for $30,000 to fund their new album and exceed their goal because they have a medium-sized following and a lengthy career. They have proven themselves by creating quality content. A newer band — sans an EP, LP, or singles — might have issues raising any money (aside from via friends and family) if they have nothing to show for it.

A project that does not have Sullivan-like street cred (dude has been doing this 12 years) needs to find a way to get readers hooked — to make them want more. Therefore, for a subscription-based service like this to spring up, it will need to be a little more established first. Perhaps put out a few free issues. Set a modest goal to fund a few months’ worth of stories. UNCOOL raised more than $9,000 — which isn’t a small amount of money. That demonstrates that there is a need out there for the content that they’re hoping to release — however the public at large might not realize it yet.

It Would Need Patience

Emphasis on that word up there — “yet.” We’re obviously in a tenuous time when it comes to the journalism industry. Spin magazine recently went online-only, iPad-only newspaper The Daily folded — the list of tragedies marches on. However, the need for the content that UNCOOL hoped to provide is there. As Greenwald pointed out to us, Pitchfork recently rolled out its magazine-style “Cover Stories” feature, and online ‘zines like Ad Hoc have successfully raised funding. We might also add that Paste’s subscription-only Web publication mPlayer — replete with long-form stories — has been chugging along for more than a year now.

There is interest — now all the Web need do is create a product (and consolidate an audience) to tap it.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Stuck in Customs