An open letter on behalf of Independent Media as our publication turns 12

This month, our little publication turns 12. A website born out of nothing but a desire to write about the industry I loved. I’m now employed elsewhere, and oversee other projects – like the National Live Music Awards (which returns October 20th for the 5th year). But I’m lucky enough to still write from time to time as an Editor-at-Large, and still find as much joy in it as I did when I first started.

We started in 2008 with a focus on music, launching at a time when Hype Machine was the rising voice of a new generation of independent media: “the music blogger”. In Australia, a site like FasterLouder was doing great work, but operating as much as a message board as it was a publication – with its writers using their usernames rather than their actual names. “How were they supposed to have a career if no one knew their names?”, I asked myself, when I considered applying as a writer.

I wanted to write for a site that championed the writer, not the reader – do away with comments and bring back independent journalism to its core principles. In essence, I wanted to create a zine. One that would launch careers – both for those writing for it, and for the people we were writing about.

So I did.

It’s a story I’ve told a million times, but one I have to tell myself often, because it’s something truly unremarkable. It’s something that had no money behind it (not much has changed there after all these years!), had no long term plan, nor intent to be anything more than it was. Yet 12 years later, even after I stepped down as editor and went on to pursue other endeavours, the site still stands.

So few of those publications that were around in 2008, and emerged in the years that followed, are still around today. With a couple of exceptions, those that are have been renamed, or have found new ownership, at home or abroad. We see it all the time – especially in music media. It’s an ever moving entity, that ultimately relies on the passions of those behind it to keep it going, no matter the difficulties.

And that’s nothing new – Richard Branson went through the same trials and tribulations with Student Magazine in the late 1960s. Living in squalor to try and make it all work, only giving up when it eventually became clear for the umpteenth time that funding absolutely wasn’t possible – which, for a print magazine, was absolutely essential.

Producing digital content over physical content eliminated the overheads that would have pushed me down the same road. A road which did work out well for him, but I do like to think he would have pushed on with the project if it weren’t for the overheads.

But this leads to a common misconception to running digital media: it’s still not cheap to keep the wheels turning. Even before paying anyone involved in a publication like ours, there’s still a multitude of monthly costs. It’s an expensive endeavour to keep a site like the AU going, no matter how much fat you trim. And when you want to keep the integrity of your site – as the team have worked so hard to maintain – that often means it’s running at a loss.

To survive, many of our counterparts (I never use the word “competition”, though others may wish to) are shells of what they once were. Publications that once supported young bands and produced great content have focused in on tabloid fare – still doing their best to squeeze in the odd piece here and there of their former glory, but the need to focus on “Native Advertising” – that is, advertising disguised as editorial – is what takes the priority. After all, they often employ more advertising people than editorial.

Native Advertising is usually terrible clickbait, but thanks to common practices like adblockers that strip away at the income of a site – not to mention to ever falling Advertorial cost (CPMs) in the first place – it’s become a necessary digression for sites big and small. We’ve certainly had to do it here and there over the years – and the content is clearly marked as such – but we’ve said no to 98% of opportunities in that arena.

Other publications have started record labels, set up marketing agencies, or focused on the event space and used their brand to buoy the work they do there – which is profitable – and one feeds the other. It’s a fantastic strategy if you can make it work.

But most people I know in the industry have other jobs outside the sector, and that’s certainly a boat we find ourselves in today – where I have employment outside of the constructs of the site, as do the entire team. From a financial aspect, it’s the only way the site continues – and the only way we eat. It sadly means no one is able to work on the site full time, but the team at the AU, and many other sites out there like us, do a truly incredible job in the circumstances. You wouldn’t believe the amount of e-mails we get a day.

Beyond this, our strategy has seen us move from our musical origins into other verticals like travel, film, books and gaming – which for me has been nothing but a positive. It’s given us a more unique voice in the industry, while giving our writers and photographers some incredible opportunities. And we have been doing it while not losing sight of why we started the site in the first place. 12 years on, music remains the lifeblood of it all. But travel continues to fuel the passion, and the work the teams do across verticals continues to inspire me, and in recent months in particular has led to some of the best content this site has seen in years.

The truth is, the media landscape is one that’s broken, not because there’s not quality content there, but because the infrastructure has evolved to rely on idiots like me to persevere in spite of it all.

We see hundreds of thousands of readers a month, and sit competitive in the marketplace, but advertisers flock to Facebook and Google (and we welcome recent Federal Government decisions to push those outlets to pay news media for their content), instead of independent outlets. And now with the ramifications of the pandemic in full swing, advertising has dried up to record lows. Yet still, many advertisers scoff at the idea of the putting anything into a local music publication – no matter how big or small – even as their counterparts in Public Relations bemoan that there’s not enough support out their for their campaigns. That’s nothing new.

The reality is, they and all advertisers have to diversify their spend if they want to continue to see strong independent journalism – and especially if they want to see the sites they count on for support, continue to exist.

The PR landscape has to change, too, and encourage a spread of spend not just to a publicity campaign, but to a concerted advertising strategy that supports the outlets that supports them. This was a practice that was much more prevalent a decade ago, but has notably shifted as Facebook and Google spend took priority.

And what can non-advertisers do to help support fledgling media?

The truth is, quite a lot.

Firstly, take the subscription of any Murdoch newspaper you or your family hold, and hand that over to The Guardian, or a similar Independent news source whom you actually rely on for news, that offers a subscription or premium service. Their coverage in these times is essential, and if you are spending money on media, this is where it should go.

But we understand that not everyone is willing to spend money on media, so the rest of this list won’t cost you a cent.

Secondly – and let me reinforce this will cost you nothing but your time – turn off your ad blockers for sites you visit regularly. It’s a bit of a pain, and we all know advertising sucks, which is why you have the ad blockers in the first place, but having these on is damaging to the sites you love. Most sites do their best not to make it unobtrusive – but we know many have to go above and beyond just to circumvent your blockers through Native Advertising. It’s why you see so, so much rubbish content out there: the marketplace has had to adapt, we are all worse off for it, and if you’re using ad blockers you’re part of the reason that has happened.

Removing ad blockers is just one way to show you want to support the site – but even consider clicking on an ad here and there. You are directly giving money to that publication in doing so – even if it may only be a few cents. Don’t get me started on how low CPMs are now, but we take what we can get.

Thirdly, share the content you love with your friends. I’m not talking about Memes, I’m talking about actual articles, written by a writer you don’t know, talking about a great artist you just discovered. Or a travel idea you didn’t know you needed until you found it. Sharing content on social media is how publications thrive in 2020, and we are always thankful for anything we can do to help push us up the algorithm, that doesn’t involve paying more money to the social media outlets who have spent the last decade taking it all away from us.

Finally, subscribe to newsletters, if the site has one. That remains the biggest asset for a site, and whilst we know some sites take advantage of those addresses – the reality is most don’t, and you can always unsubscribe if you decide you don’t appreciate the quality or regularity of your inbox being spammed. We, for instance, only go out once a week, on a Thursday afternoon, with our new “LAUNCH Magazine”. Issue 13, out today. Subscribe via the pop up box or the prompt on the right hand side of the website.

The frustrating reality though is, whether you take these steps or not, idiots like me do persevere. We ride the waves of unpredictability and push on for as long as we possibly can. But the truth is, I jumped off many years ago, as did so many of my contemporaries and those senior. While I pay the bills – possible thanks to my employment external of this website’s pursuits – the existence of the site in 2020 is only because of the incredible team who donates their time to keep the site going.

As we celebrate our anniversary I want to thank the 700+ writers and photographers that have been involved in the website across these twelve years, as well as all those who keep our site going. Your passion is never forgotten and your time never unappreciated. Thank you to everyone out there that writes for a site unpaid, produces a radio show for a community network or sets up their own publication. You are the lifeblood of this industry and it couldn’t survive without you. But it is truly a pity it has to be this way. I hope it can change, and certainly there are steps being taken in that direction.

I want to give a particular shout out to our friends at Websites and Magazines from Australia and around the world like Something You Said, Stoney Roads, Pilerats, Purple Sneakers, The Guardian, May The Rock Be With You, The Music Network, Foldback Magazine, Amnplify, The Line of Best Fit, BMA and more who do such phenomenal work.

Also a shout out to our friends in community radio around the country: FBi and 2SER in Sydney, Edge Radio in Tasmania, Three D Radio & Radio Adelaide in South Australia, RTR in Perth, 4ZZZ in Brisbane and SYN in Melbourne.

Ultimately, we believe the work we do is important. We believe the work independent media does is important. We want to foster the next generation of writers, and help those writers support the next generation of artists you’ll soon come to love.

And we hope you’ll keep supporting it, in whatever manner that looks like.

Here’s to another 12 years, and the continued destruction of the “comments” section from websites around the world.

Sincerely,

Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review.

Photo Credit: Larry Heath at the 2019 National Live Music Awards, taken by Lachlan Douglas.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.