Hova, doing alright

What Digital Media Companies Can Learn From Musicians

Four lessons from companies who are getting media monetization right

My first credit card purchase was “Lean Back” by Terror Squad and Fat Joe on iTunes. (It’s the one where they claim they don’t dance in the club, and then spend the entire music video dancing in the club.) “Mom, I have to get the album! I need a credit card!” Later, “Mom, what’s a CVV?” I was eager to spend $15.99 for an album. Now, I begrudgingly hand over $9.99/mo to Spotify for every album ever.

Data from Nielsen’s 2014 annual review of the music industry

It’s no secret that recorded music sales aren’t nearly what they once were. However, instead of musicians playing their sympathy violins from the rooftops (because, you know, they’re musicians), artists have learned to adapt. It’s not that fans no longer believe in supporting their favorite artists—they just choose to spend their money in different ways.

In the words of the widely-circulated New York Times article “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” recorded music has become a kind of marketing expense for the main event of live shows. Artists who have thought critically about the types of experiences that fans are willing to pay for have thrived in the digital age. The Internet has provided an unprecedented opportunity for musicians to develop direct relationships with their fans and present opportunities for patronage. The old revenue model, which was predicated on selling records may need some updating, but the industry is far from doomed. Sound familiar? The digital media industry ought to take notes.

The death of print media via This Magazine

I’ve looked at the digital media monetization question from three different angels at my last three jobs — from the content creator side (as a performance poet), the advertiser side (as a copywriter), and the media company side (as a journalist). And as much as the naysayers love to ring the alarm about revenue models (the Ad Blocking apocalypse! NYTimes digital subscription growth numbers!), time spent with digital media is growing at a booming rate.

Although the demand for consumption is booming, many digital media companies are still in a frenzy about how to support the supply. Whereas some companies continually iterate on “better” ways to shove ads into boxes and banners, others have taken a page out of the music industry’s book and thought about experiences that audiences are willing to pay for. Here are four lessons from digital media companies who are getting monetization right.

  1. People still spend money on media experiences that can’t be replicated. California Sunday is a magazine that is far from dead. They create innovative story ads on their digital site and partner with local newspapers to deliver a subscription-based print magazine on Sundays. But, their special sauce is their live-event series—Pop-Up Magazine. The concept of Pop-Up Mag is simple: what would a magazine look like live? With the help of journalists, artists, musicians, and actors, Pop-Up Mag brings magazine-style stories to the stage. The result is a multimedia experience, which is selling out shows across the country.
  2. People still spend money to support projects they believe in. Patreon believes that creators should be able to do what they love full-time. The Patreon platform helps comics, podcasters, and other creative types achieve sustainable incomes with recurring patronage from their fans. Think Kickstarter meets the Medicis. What’s great about the Patreon model is that it feels as good to give support as it does to receive support. As a fan, you can put your money where your mouth is by directly supporting the artists that you love. Creators get to engage their audience to help reach creative goals. Patreon is like a digital tip jar that’s always open!
  3. People still spend money (read: attention) on ads that don’t suck. Vox media, the parent of digitally-native publications like SB Nation and the Verge, has doubled down on quality brand content. Quality is the operative word. Brand content on Vox matches both the form and the function of native advertising’s promise. Many publications adhere to the form standards, creating ad units that match the look and feel of a site, but few master the function aspect of creating content that maintains a consistent UX and editorial voice. “The Pursuit,” Vox Creative’s ongoing partnership with Cadillac, exemplifies brand content done right because the content delivers value through storytelling, not sales messaging.
  4. People still spend money on physical things. GoPro is a digital media company that just happens to sell cameras. Their YouTube channel has 3.5 million subscribers and has amassed over 1 billion views. Every year, they award $5 million dollars to their best content creators. Their corporate blog, The Inside Line, reads like an extreme sports magazine. The best part? Most of the content is made for free by their users. The company’s adventurer ethos inspires fans to adventure—the mountable cameras are just an accessory to the dreams.

At the end of the day, I believe the answer for this digital monetization conundrum is diversification. No digital media company has it all figured out. Experiments are good. Varied ad formats, subscription models, eCommerce sites, premium upgrades, live experiences—different strokes for different folks. No model is inherently sustainable or broken. But to think that consumers don’t spend money on digital media is a fallacy. Companies just have to figure out how to create experiences worth paying for, and fans will gladly buy tickets to the show.


For more thoughts on the future of digital media, you can check out my articles on the problem with headline culture, and why I think the Internet should be more like a bicycle. Thanks for reading!

You can learn more about California Sunday, Patreon, Vox Creative, and The GoPro Awards on their respective websites.

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