The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

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By Christopher Heine, Freelancer

February 24, 2021 | 9 min read

With new owners, and founder Bob Guccione Jr on board, iconic music magazine Spin is ready to press play on an annual membership offering exclusive content, launch new merchandise as well as debut a TV channel. The Drum spoke to its key executives about how Spin is working to regain its relevance more than three decades after its launch.

When nostalgic members of Generation X think of Spin, they likely recall hard-hitting journalism such as exposing the Live Aid financial scandal in the mid-1980s as well as iconic 90s cover photos of Sinead O’Connor, Public Enemy and Nirvana. Far from its glory days, the music magazine ceased printing a magazine in 2012 and its digital efforts have experienced some skips and scratches.

Now with new owners and the return of its original founder, can this 35-year-old brand win attention across generations today when teen spirit smells like deep-fried memes and manic TikTok clips?

Like any legacy brand that needs to grow anew, its leadership has had to look in the mirror and ask: why is what we offer necessary? “You need food, you need gas in your car, you need oil in your heater, you need a roof over your head, you need medical supplies. You don’t need a publication – any publication,” says Bob Guccione Jr, Spin founder.

“The only reason Spin should exist in 2021 is if we make it interesting enough for people to want to check it out. While there's an awful lot of excellence out there, it's only really 1% of the volume. I want Spin to be in that 1%.”

Guccione Jr is back in music journalism after a long break – in fact, he needed to write a piece on Steven Van Zandt, guitarist for The E Street Band and TV actor, after recently concluding his call with The Drum. While he sold and left Spin in 1997, he was invited to reunite with his brainchild last spring by its new owner, Next Management Partners, in a highly participatory advisory role to help the brand position itself for a new decade. And for every modern success story like The Washington Post, The New York Times or The Atlantic, there are thousands more legacy titles such as Spin figuring out how to build a publication in the digital age. And before it was acquired in 2020 by Next Management Partners, Spin appeared to be stalled.

Riffing on exclusivity

Now, there is an ambitious plan in place for reworking what Spin means to old-school fans and advertisers while introducing the brand to more millennial and Gen Z music lovers. The multi-year endeavor centers on paid subscriptions, merchandising, and a free TV channel that will span continents. While Guccione Jr has been the brand’s hands-on guru in recent months, Spin chief executive officer Jimmy Hutcheson, creative director Danny Klein and managing editor Daniel Kohn have been spearheading Spin’s next chapter.

Hutcheson tells The Drum that, in late March, Spin will launch a $100 annual membership program. Customers will get exclusive access to online concerts and – down the road when offline events become safe to attend — private parties the brand sponsors at music festivals. They’ll get to log onto Spin’s live video, AMA-styled ’Fans Ask’ series and throw questions at emerging music stars.

Every month, stars like Run the Jewels, Foo Fighters or Machine Gun Kelly appear on Spin’s digital covers. The covers link back to the title’s history in print and generate behind-the-scenes photo shoots and video content. With that in mind, only members will get exclusive access to limited-edition merchandise like clothing and bean bags that the publication develops with its cover artists. Spin-branded collectibles such as T-shirts, beach blankets and coffee cups will also be complimentary for members. A quarterly print magazine could be added in the years to come, Hutcheson says.

The membership club will be promoted via ads on Facebook, Instagram and other digital media platforms after its early spring launch.

“We're not trying to charge people for news or album reviews – those will still be free,” says Hutcheson. “We really think merchandise and experiences are what people want to pay for.”

machine gun kelly

Taking content over-the-top

In the coming months, Spin TV – which right now represents a video section on the publication’s website – will debut as a standalone, free-and-ad-supported (FAST) television channel in Japan. The goal is to bring it to the US in 2022. (Spin would not disclose the carrier beyond that it will include over-the-top partners.) The TV channel – and all of Spin’s text-based and online video coverage, for that matter – will have a strong focus on music, with the goal of differentiating itself from the pan-cultural TV and digital programming offered by Vice, Complex and MTV.

“That is kind of the lane we want to be in—relevant and highly sought-after, known in culture and conversation, but where people say, ‘Spin is just music. Oh, that's actually interesting,’” Hutcheson says. “Because MTV long moved away from music. Complex is sneakers, fashion and everything else, and then Vice is sort of all things to many people.”

Katie Thomas, a brand consulting lead at the Kearney Consumer Institute, says that Spin’s “shift back to its music-first roots allows it to engage directly and effectively with its core consumers“ via online video and social media.

That music focus also helps explain Japan as Spin’s first foray into TV. After all, Japan’s recording industry in recent years has totaled more than $2.6 billion annually, second only to the US and more than double that of third-place Germany. And Japanese consumers have historically loved American music brands and still do – consider that more than a dozen Tower Records stores are open to this day in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

“Asian markets love authenticity,” Hutcheson says, “and they like to be able to peel back different layers of what a brand actually is.”

Branding younger

Until last winter, Spin had been owned by Billboard-The Hollywood Reporter Media for the prior four years and suffered from being the lesser favored brand in a media family that boasted notable siblings. Spin needed a parent to prioritize its success in the digital era.

“We inherited a bit of an orphaned asset,” says Hutcheson, who is also CEO of Next Management Partners. “We had to go in, clean things up a bit and re-energize and reinvigorate what was happening.”

The brand’s modern-day Generation X crowd already knew about Spin’s digital offerings of album and song reviews, original reporting and video content. Nearly a million of them were following Spin’s content moves on Facebook, after all. But more interest among millennials and Gen Z consumers needed to be cultivated, so Spin’s marketing team last year started focusing on young-skewing digital video channels like Twitch and Instagram for owned content while working with influencers on TikTok and Snapchat.

”We live-streamed over 300 hours on Twitch last year, doing big interviews with artists like Deadmau5 and The Lumineers,” Hutcheson says.

So far, Spin’s appeal to young adult viewers appears to be going in the right direction: its year-over-year social media audience is up 25%, adding up to 1.5 monthly unique site visitors and 10 million page views. In turn, ad sales are up 26% year-over-year, Hutcheson says. Zeroing in on the publication’s 25-to-54-year-old audience that skews a little more toward male (60%) than female readers (40%), brands like Nike, Target, McDonald’s and Diageo have been running ad campaigns this month.

spin covers

Keeping it original

In the end, Spin will have to win on the music-minded-content front against corporate rivals such as Rolling Stone, Billboard and Conde Nast-owned Pitchfork as well as indie publications like Wire, PopMatters and The Big Takeover. Larry Woodard, CEO at GSA Digital and branding analyst, expressed doubts that Spin, or any other publication, could scale its brand effectively by leaning heavily into music and music culture.

“So much of what causes an artist or a group to go viral is not the music,” Woodard says. “Artists now have more control. There are direct revenue streams, and they try to develop and keep as much control as they can. Many of them can communicate with their fans with no intermediary. They are not as reliant on traditional or established media.”

Guccione Jr said he envisions an opportunity for Spin to build on its name and fill a marketplace void by delivering more unvarnished reporting and commentary. He pointed to the work already published by Kohn, the editor, and his writers, who have developed in-depth articles, such as how the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, has endured the pandemic and how three women are revolutionizing trap music with gore and fetishism in Romania’s hardcore scene.

“So, I’ve told the guys, ‘Let’s be the best music reporting site, the most fun, the most irreverent,’” Guccione Jr says. “We’re not going to get sucked into this vortex of the publicist controlling everything. We are turning people down every day, saying, ‘Pass, not interested, thank you very much.’ We do not work for the record industry or for the distributors. We work for the reader.”

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