[Diatribe] Why Paste Magazine Died

I wasn’t planning on blogging this week, but I just found out that Paste Magazine, based in Decatur, has ceased its print publication, and I’m guessing there won’t be much else left after that. I hate to see this mag go, because at one time long ago it was fairly decent, but I have to say that I’m not very surprised this happened, and from my perspective, it was nobody’s fault but their own. I didn’t want to pile on them when they were struggling, because as much smack as I talk to other music journalists around here, I don’t want people to actually lose their jobs or anything. But now that Paste is done, I’m going to explain exactly why they have sucked so hard recently. I have absolutely no idea what their monetary situation was, but I’ll outline the reasons I feel Paste failed, and if other print mags happen to come across this, they might want to pay attention because they could be next.

Top 3 Reasons Why Paste Failed:

1) Old People shouldn’t be in charge of covering music for kids.

Now, I’m sort of slitting my own throat on this one as I’m not exactly getting any younger, and I’m sure people who want to make music journalism a career will hate this, but it’s true. A few months ago I received a promo email from one of Paste mag’s high-up dudes, shilling for some local band. I listened to the band, and they played the most cliche’ hard rock garbage, which no one has actually cared about for at least twenty years. I thought, if this guy that helps run Paste really believes in this band, if he is willing to spend his own time backing this particular group, just exactly how out of touch with what’s happening in music today is this guy and Paste Magazine on the whole? And that was their biggest problem; Paste had become so out of touch with the music scene it was covering. They were evaluating music based on ideals that were obsolete and anachronistic. As much as they were pioneers in a lot of different ways, they were cavemen when in came to gripping the current music climate.

Now, there are certainly logistical problems to letting kids run a mag. For instance, it is difficult to find people who possess both the knowledge of current styles and sharpened writing skills. But that’s exactly what talent scouts should be looking for, and as soon as they find them, they should be looking for the next ones to replace them. Instead, these institutions are typically run by a small handful of people, lost in their own bubble, slowly racing towards inevitable irrelevance. Sure, there are exceptions, really great music writers who have weathered plenty of eras well, but for the most part, people who are getting paid the most for music journalism by older institutions are by and large older journalists who could easily be outmatched by a kid in his pajamas in his parent’s basement.

The heart of it is this: If you are not putting an immense amount of effort in keeping up with current trends, you will be left behind.

2) Inconsistent voices will be ignored.

Even when Paste was more in tune with what was going on, they were always terrible at discerning the good from the great. Nobody could possibly count on Paste’s numerical values of reviews, because there was no cohesive rhyme or rhythm to them. It felt like there was a whole bunch of different people all tossing around opinions randomly. It may seem that in theory being democratic about the many voices inside your institution will reach an even-handed, median voice, but in practice it doesn’t work. That is one of the biggest reasons blogs have taken over, because most of the time they contain a singular voice. There are lots of music journalists who I read regularly that I rarely agree with in terms of music taste, but I can always count on them being consistent with their evaluations, and thus I can make sound assumptions based on their work. Just having a hodgepodge of opinions is beyond useless for the end user. One of Pitchfork’s biggest achievements is managing their writers and numerical grades. Even though hundreds of different people write their reviews, you can always count on Pitchfork to have a reason for their tone and number grades, whether we disagree with them or not.

The only big institutions that will survive this print-tumbling era will be the ones who develop and maintain a consistent voice.

3) Music journalism isn’t as important as it used to be.

This is another one that my many music journalist friends won’t want to hear, but you ignore it at your own peril. Before anyone with the slightest bit of resourcefulness and access to the Internet could download any record they wanted, there was a need for gatekeepers to inform the masses what was worth their dollar. But now, aggregators and torrent site’s top lists do a better job of efficiently communicating the best new music then 99% of music journalists out there. With so much music being created, and attention spans of readers diminishing, there just isn’t that much demand for long-winded, deep-digging album reviews. People want to know whether they’ll like the record or not, plain and simple. Now we may all want to harken back to a simpler time when music journalism came with it a certain amount of status and honour, but today most paid music journalists are nothing more than concealed publicists, pandering to their ever decreasing amount of ad revenue. We may all wish that people couldn’t steal music, and that everyone who wants to could stay employed, but you can’t operate a business on wishful thinking.

The economics is this: Demand is shrinking, and supply is growing exponentially. If you don’t understand this, your music mag will fail, and even if you do understand this, your mag will still probably fail.

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19 Responses to “[Diatribe] Why Paste Magazine Died”
  1. elvis Says: September 1st, 2010 at 7:57 pm

    I just wish those CD clubs from the early 90′s would come back. Good piece.

  2. Clay Duda Says: September 1st, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    Words of wisdom.

  3. Mike Says: September 1st, 2010 at 9:10 pm


  4. melysa martinez Says: September 1st, 2010 at 11:42 pm

    On point!

  5. Caroline Cox Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Maaan, I love print! You can’t compare holding a magazine in your hands and being able to dog ear and rip out the pages and save them and go back to them later. I know it’s dying, but I’m still gonna miss it.

  6. Stickfigure Distribution Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 10:17 am

    hey davy,

    good points were made, but you do remember that at one time Paste was bought by DC3 Entertainment correct?

    there is not much on the web about this – however here is one post on paste magazine’s website from 2005 confirming this (it’s in the article): http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2005/07/lost-coast-live.html

    however, i tend to think that paste selling themselves to another company had more to do with their demise then anythingelse. The original energy & ideas left to be replaced by what became paste.

    take care,

    gavin / stickfigure

  7. gray chapman Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Hi Davy,
    You’ve brought up some interesting and valid points here. I think that what you said about the inconsistent voices is pretty relevant. Paste’s reviews are written by people of all levels, from freelancers with decades of experience to still-in-school interns. I was an intern at one point, and then stayed on as a contributor, and I always found the number portion of the review the most difficult part to deal with.

    However, I do think your point about age is a little off. Yes, the guys in charge of Paste are older dudes with families. But the editorial staff, who are in charge of the vast vast majority of content in Paste (whether through writing it or assigning it) are all under 30 and some of the coolest people I’ve ever met.

    I think their demise had much less to do with the editorial content of the magazine and more to do with the business model. They seemed to rely more on ad revenue than subscriptions. Compare Paste to Mental Floss, a great mag that has very few ads but a higher subscription price. Since they rely on subscription revenue and don’t do the “$2 for a zillion-year subscription!!!” stunt, they’ve been able to rock steadily. Just a thought.

  8. jonder Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Response from an old geezer: to paraphrase your #1 reason why Paste died, “Talent scouts should be looking for (kids) who possess both the knowledge of current styles and sharpened writing skills. As soon as (telent scouts) find (these kids), they should be looking for the next ones to replace them.”

    Ugh. In this “Logan’s Run” vision of music journalism, how does one maintain a consistent voice (as you advocate in #2)? I’ve got a kid in pajamas in my basement, but I don’t know of anyone who would pay for his opinions on music.

    You say that “If you are not putting an immense amount of effort in keeping up with current trends, you will be left behind.” I think everyone will eventually be left behind regardless of our efforts to stay young, hip and relevant forever. Being left behind isn’t as bad as it sounds — there’s a lot of good music back there. The “immense amount of effort” required to separate the wheat from the chaff in the music scene is only occasionally worth it. Ultimately it makes you look pathetic, like Rolling Stone and Spin magazine chasing after Katy Perry. And the next Katy Perry. And the one after that.

  9. jonder Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Rereading what I just wrote (and noticing that I misspelled “talent”), I would like to add that I enjoy reading Ohmpark in general, and this article in particular. But I think you are mistaken in assuming that Paste wanted to be as cutting-edge (for lack of a better term) as Pitchfork. Paste wasn’t advertising itself to the kids who shop at Criminal Records and go to 529. I think that Paste was aimed at music fans in their 30′s and 40′s (like me) who shop at Decatur CD and go to the Variety Playhouse. Unfortunately, we don’t buy music magazines anymore either.

  10. chuck Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    I agree with the summation of your post, but not the age issue. Not only is the music spectrum wider that most under-24 year-olds understand, but frankly, all “kids” get older. So unless you have a transient publication, turning the staff like a modern day Menudo, you’d constantly be out of touch.

    That’s to say nothing of the business-side of the operation which needs relationships, deals and corporate dollars to survive.

    Bottom line, it doesn’t work. A revolving door of teenagers/college age kids can’t run and operate a company.

    That said, you did nail the problem of being out touch. That’s a two fold issue:

    First, the pressure of advertisers pushing products (in this case bands/artists). This is, and always has been, a horrible issue (and dirty little secret) of the magazine industry. When times are tough, advertisers get tougher. When you have, as is purported, millions in debt – you can’t really say no.

    Second, music should filter from the bottom, up. Not from the top, down. But, you have to have the right people at the bottom. In this day and age, having those people willing to work for free when they could write their own blog … that’s a recipe for disaster.

    I’ll be honest, I got a subscription a few years ago as a gift. I was disappointed. It felt like Paste had become CMJ light.

    I feel bad for the staff, and everyone involved. It’s the sad reality of running a business in an arena with such a fickle audience.

  11. Adam Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    This is a great piece and I like the conversation it got going. I always thought of Paste as the “thinking man’s” music mag. The articles tended to be more in depth and well thought out than many of your edgier mags (not to say they don’t get deep sometimes). I guess that would be the “age” showing in their writers. People bring up good points though, especially Gavin and Gray. I tend to think as you get older you would move up in the company and younger kids would move in to take your position…a natural progression in any business. That would keep the voice consistent and fresh all at the same time. But in the end, no matter how old you are, its really all about going to shows, listening (not just hearing) to music and talking to bands. If you got workers out there going to shows every night and writing everyday, and their decent at recognizing what people want to hear…then you’re going to gain fans and readers.

    That said…I’m sad to see Paste go.

  12. Adam Says: September 2nd, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    I wanted to add…as far as music journalism goes….I think it will always be a key part of the music experience. It will just change faces and morph with technology. You just have to figure out what folks want in their experience now adays, and then provide it for them.


  13. Taylor Says: September 4th, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Davy, you made some good points and I can agree with where you’re coming from. I especially agree that music journalism is not as paramount as it once was, many music journalists have become pr people in disguise.

    However, I will say this – Paste Magazine is dying because all print media is dying. Nobody wants to hold 100 pages of print where only 25 pages is content you’re personally interested in. Magazines pile up all over the house, your work desk and usually just end up being scrap pieces of paper for chores.

    Nonetheless, that still doesn’t make journalism any less important or efficient, it means consumers’ priorities have shifted in terms of how paper they want to lug around everywhere lol.
    I can give Paste credit for being mostly neutral and professional with their articles. I didn’t like every group in there, but so what.

    The music business has shifted to relying on these “power blogs” such as Gorilla vs Bear, your site, etc. for legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the fans. The big problem I have with this is that often the writers are unprofessional and they don’t need to stick to a journalistic style or code of ethics when reporting. It just brings everything down a level.

  14. Kristin T. Says: September 7th, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I interned there and quit literally days before they announced they were going out of print. The only thing you have right about Paste is :

    ‎”Most paid music journalists are nothing more than concealed publicists, pandering to their ever decreasing amount of ad revenue”

    And even that was partially incorrect as it is now obvious that Paste doesn’t put much effort into actual music journalism and the unbiased aspect journalism is suppose to bring with it. Which was my reason for quitting. This is the reason for their irrelevancy in regards to music journalism. They’re so wrapped up in catering to demographics (i.e. ad people) that they don’t have the opportunity to find, discover, review, and interview good music acts that aren’t already pre-screened for them by record labels and ad agencies.

  15. Taylor Says: September 8th, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    “They’re so wrapped up in catering to demographics (i.e. ad people) that they don’t have the opportunity to find, discover, review, and interview good music acts that aren’t already pre-screened for them by record labels and ad agencies.”

    Kristin, I feel this is the reason many music fans have become disillusioned with the bigger music mags and print media in general. You can open almost any magazine and around 40% of the content is ads.

    From a business perspective the publications need ad revenue and I can’t blame em. But as a consumer, I don’t want to sit and sift through 50 million ads. I remember when Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 dropped, XXL had a huge cover with him on it and around 15 ads of just Jay-z, no lie. You could tell they were pushing an agenda.

  16. Fleurdumal Says: September 10th, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    You lambaste Paste for promoting a cliche band, but you commit the worst cliche of all: claiming that only kids have their finger on the pulse of what’s cool in music. First of all, WHICH kids are you referring to? The ones that like shallow, hollow emo music? Cuz there are a gazillion of those kids. Or are you referring to the minority of kids who actually listen to music with substance and sonic integrity? Either way… you just made a really lame statement. There are plenty of erudite maniacal music lovers in their 30s, 40s and 50s who can discern good music from shit… and indeed, in many ways such “oldsters” are more attuned to good music because they grew up in the 60s 70s and 80s when there were a glut of good bands, bands that pioneered the sounds that are commonplace today. A lot of these 20 somethings have a lame grasp of pop music history. Sure, they may listen to sounds from the past, but they didn’t grow up listening to it, and it didn’t become as entrenched in their psyches as it did for the 30-50 year olds.

    So, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.

  17. Fleurdumal Says: September 10th, 2010 at 7:01 pm

    Furthermore, are you going to stay true to your ethos and retire from music journalism when you hit, say, 30? Or have you already passed that landmark? Cuz if so, then you are certifiably OLD and therefore not qualified to talk about cool music.

    But your “logic” anyway.

  18. SFCritic Says: September 15th, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I find this interesting because at heart the central issue is what is journalism. Everyone has raised some good points defining journalism:

    1. It’s informative
    2. It’s on the cutting edge of criticism

    Then after these two essential points the debate becomes blurred with the notions that distinguish the importance of blogging and print.

    The only thing I care to add is that I agree with those that say it’s more nuanced than simply old and new, or journalist and blogger. Simply saying its the result of “the model,” I believe omits the inherent socio-characteristics of how we learn, read, and consume music.

    Before the creation of the internet, fans were dependent upon music writers to learn about music. Whether fans purchased Paste or Rolling Stone for the lengthy feature, or the several album reviews in the back–is hard to argue one way or the other; but, if there anything to be said on the issue, the introduction of the internet has changed fans’ ability to access, discover, and interact with music.

    While the old vs. young seems trite–the only thing I would argue might be true is that the old tend to not understand the new models, and adjust their marketing strategies accordingly (subscription costs / viral videos / mp3 downloading / etc.).

    “The model” for which we discovered music (A&R–>Radio–>Print–>Buy CD) is no longer true. Accordingly, there is no demographic reason for which this is the case–it’s simply a matter of the mediums for which we have readily available to discover.

    -David “SFCritic”

  19. Ohmpark » Blog Archive » [Diatribe] The State Of Music Journalism & The Fallacy Of The Cost Of Free Says: February 21st, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    […] previous diatribe, a response to Paste Magazine’s demise, elicited many different reactions and started a bit of a conversation on music journalism, so I […]

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