A Town Cryar For The New Age
Inside the Christian music magazine's digital migration and the bridging of a long-standing divide [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper
The turmoil engulfing the mainstream print sector has taken a toll on several niche publishers, too. A number of Christian music magazines have been hammered hard along the way, but one Music Row venture sees opportunity amid the despair — and is helping bridge a deep traditional divide in the process.
HearItFirst.com is making the most of the rise of digital opportunities to grow its sales and promote its brand name by distributing multimedia and broadband video content. Its recent partnerships with Amazon, YouTube and Sling.com reveal just how drastically the times are changing in the entertainment business. In short, the perceived separation between music’s evangelical and secular worlds is shrinking.
Although focused foremost on Christian music, HearItFirst is also eyeing the gap left by the demise of many traditional music magazines, several of which went out of print in Nashville over the past 18 months. One of the latest casualties was Nielsen Business Media’s 36-year-old Radio & Records, which closed its doors in June. The independently owned Performing Songwriter folded the same week, joining No Depression, which had served alt country and Americana music lovers until last year.
CCM Magazine, the Rolling Stone of Christian music publishing, and Pray! also mothballed their presses in the past year. Nashville-based Salem Communications, publisher of those titles, still has one print music magazine — its 36-year-old Singing News, which is known for its coverage of Southern gospel music and its radio airplay charts.
A drop in advertising and falling subscription rates were some of the major reasons behind the folding of a lot of these magazines.
“We couldn’t justify the advertising dollars and printing costs were way too high,” said Lindsay Williams, editor of CCM Magazine, which is now published quarterly in a digital format.
CCM and its peers face the same demographic and purchasing trends as their mainstream brethren: Middle- and high-school students comprise a large part of Christian music’s fan base and they are all online, Williams said. Plus, consumers are buying even more products online.
“I don’t know that the physical product (of CDs) is necessarily on death’s doorstep, but more and more people are certainly buying digital today,” said Mark Moring, co-editor of Christian Music Today. “So it makes sense that they’d want to read about music online as well. And for the most part, it’s there for the taking. For free.”
Christian Music Today's parent company, Christianity Today International, also closed several of its magazines over the past year. Another publication, Today’s Christian Woman, will fold after its September/October issue, further proof of an industry in a wrenching transition.
“VIBE magazine just folded,” Moring said. “No, they’re not Christian. But when an industry music magazine giant like that shuts its doors, you know you’re in the midst of bad times.”
Mark Adkison, president and founder of HearItFirst, prefers to call his site a music magazine, which covers genres from rock and rap to gospel and traditional worship music, but where lyrics take on a particular meaning for the devoted. While still low in narrative content, it will increase over the next six months, he said.
HearItFirst was launched in 1998 as a part of EMI Christian Music Group but went independent last year with backing from Spinnaker Media, the local investment fund run by veteran investor James Ackerman. Since its foundation, the audience has grown to 204,000 registered users and 1.2 million pageviews a month. Traffic has doubled in the past year, Adkison said.
The company recently expanded its third-party store at Amazon to feature videos from HearItFirst.com library as well as expanded genre sections and special features such as pre-sale campaigns and an MP3 store.
It also has begun collaborating with YouTube on the new faith-based channel “The Word.” HearItFirst will manage the development, growth and operations of the channel while supplying exclusive and regular music-based content to the site.
Its third big partnership is with Sling.com, makers of the SlingBox unit that allows consumers to watch their television from any Internet-connected computer. Sling launched a HearItFirst.com channel that will feature clips from HearItFirst’s vault of more than 1,500 videos. These technological partnerships try to perform brand connection between artist and fans on a wider basis.
“We are trying to create a visibility where folks congregate,” Adkison said. “Something like a town choir.”
The partnerships also reveal a tendency in the Christian music magazine industry to seek mainstream sources for promotion and marketing. If the trend holds true, it will increasingly break down the popular belief that the secular and the evangelical worlds lead disparate lives. Fewer people are defining themselves as ‘hardcore’ Christian music fans who will only listen to Christian music or go to Christian magazines to seek lifestyle advice.
“Part of that may be because there’s less Christian music than there used to be — at least coming from the typical Christian labels,” Moring said. Another fact, he added, is the idea that “fewer people want to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Everything over here is Christian, and everything over here is secular’.”
That blurring is creating opportunities for Adkison and others in his niche — even those who not long ago were mere ink-stained niche wretches.
“Our world is seeping into the mainstream world,” Williams said. It gives more legitimacy to our genre and puts us on a more equal playing field, she said.