prints not dead: what launching a print magazine taught a digital native

Print is dead, right? Maybe not. On the day the NME became a free sheet available at train stations and TopMan, Louder Than War expanded from their success online and launched as a glossy magazine. Editor of Sarah Lay shares her experience of growing from digital to include print.

by Sarah Lay

The first issue of Louder Than War magazine featured the Stone Roses on the cover and was titled ‘I Wanna Be Adored’. In truth it could have carried another song title from the band, ‘I Am the Resurrection’, and been just as fitting for Louder Than War’s bold move into print.

That’s right, as the increasingly hysterical cry of ‘print is dead’ resounds and on the day that stalwart of the music press NME moved to become a free sheet given out in train stations, Louder Than War made the dauntless move to swim against the tide and launch as a glossy, paid-for, magazine. While that sinks in let me introduce you to Louder Than War properly.

Launched by music journalist, author and musician John Robb back in 2010 made a definite decision not to conform to the established rules of the music press but to cover without boundaries, championing new and established artists across all genres from all around the world.

Having written about music since I was a teenager, mainly for myself or on a freelance basis, as soon as I read the manifesto I knew I’d found my home. I joined in 2012 and have worked closely with John and our fantastic team of writers as we’ve become one of the fastest growing music websites in the UK.

And as of September 2015 the Louder Than War name graces the front cover of a magazine too. Produced in partnership with Big Cheese Publishing, who already run another couple of niche music publications Louder Than War is a 112 page glossy magazine, published quarterly and the first issue had a run of 25,000 copies distributed through WHSmith and independent newsagents. I’m delighted to say that save for a handful of copies (last time I checked there were less than 50 left to buy online) they were all snapped up within a couple of weeks.

Still think print is dead? We disagree.

Maybe it’s just about looking at it in a different way and accepting that we don’t have mutually exclusive channels but rather need to find the strengths in each. This is just one of the things being part of the team launching a magazine has taught me. What else did I learn? Glad you asked:

Know your niche

The internet means that music genres are even more meaningless than they were before and that every artist, every album, every track occupies a niche of its own. People can find that on their own, sometimes supported by an algorithm (you like this, listen to this) and sometimes signposted by those sharing views about music they’re passionate about. More music than ever is available to more people than ever and we just provide starting points - it could be a search engine, it could be a streaming service, it could be Louder Than War.

In the physical world that amount of information is overwhelming so we’ve needed to be more specific about what we are. The magazine sets boundaries for itself where the website has none. It is explicit about what it is (classic indie, alternative, post-punk and experimental) so for the casual browser of newsagent shelves it gives them something to identify with.

Too much print tries to be everything to everyone in order to compete with the volume and availability of information online. This is wrong in my opinion, print needs to be ever more specific and clear about what it is and who it’s for. Don’t make your potential readers think too hard about whether you’re the right magazine, leaflet or brochure for them; make it clear.

Evolution is just as hard as revolution runs mainly on the basis of collectivism. Everyone who contributes to it and publishes it is a volunteer, giving their time and finding ways to work together to get each article out and in front of people. It exists because we want it to.

The magazine is a different proposition and is run on a more traditional set-up. When you bang these two operating models together you get sparks. But we’re not trying to make one format a winner over the other, we’re trying to find a way for them to co-exist and support each other. That’s actually much harder than going down the Highlander route of believing there can be only one because it means compromise in the face of bottom lines and moral stances.

Your team is everything here - you need people who know both channels inside out and are passionate about your ethos (or in corporate terms your brand values), people who know your audience and your voice and who aren’t afraid of challenging themselves and each other. You need a team who is bold and quick to learn from failure, an honest team where trust and passion are the common currency.

We live multi-channel lives

When the magazine was published I made my way to a newsagent, ran my eyes along the shelves and picked up a copy of a music magazine. For the first time in 20 years I felt the thrill of what might be contained as I handed over my money and went to sit and pour over the words. Then I went online and listened to some tracks the magazine had recommended, read the alternative words about them on Print and online can co-exist with neither being a lesser medium.

I stream music but I also buy vinyl. I’ll continue to get most of my words about music online but I also love the package of print - the design, the smell, the ceremony of acquiring and consuming. It seems I’m not the only one.

When you make something for your reader or your customer don’t assume they are constraining themselves to one channel. See their experience as a messy wibbly-wobbly journey between channels and design and produce consistently across them all.

Work is what you do, not where you’re at

The last time I saw my editor John Robb face-to-face was in the summer of 2013 when we were both covering Kendal Calling. I have never met most of the people who write for Louder Than War, nor any of the editorial team of the magazine. There is no physical office for the website.

It doesn’t matter - we use the tools at our disposal online to work together as a remote team. The editorial team talks by email most days. The writers all talk to each other in a private Facebook group. We use Google Drive to share all the documentation and updates needed to keep things ticking along.

For Louder Than War work is what we do: co-ordinate as a team to individually create articles that collectively come together into one of the biggest music websites in the UK. We don’t need an office to do that, we make our spaces online.

Increasingly it makes sense for more organisations to work this way to - allowing their staff to work in ways and at times that make them the most efficient while cutting the overheads and (quite frankly) the madness of pulling everyone to a specific geographic location for the same set of hours each day.

It’s early days for the magazine, with the second issue due out in December but we’ve been pleased with the initial reaction. We’ve seen that we can be nostalgic and new in both what we cover and the channels we cover it through. We’ve seen that we can adapt as a team to a different way of working and an alternative view of ethos and brand. We’ve seen that print is not dead but that traditional publishing and the mainstream press are ready to be disrupted by some digital upstarts.

Sarah Lay is editor of John Robb’s and associate editor of Louder Than War magazine. Issue 2 is out on 1 December and available through WHSmith and independent newsagents. She also works in digital for local government and is co-founder of LocalGov Digital as well as boss at music PR and promotions agency Noble and Wild. 

Picture credit.

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