Music blogs: The new wall of sound

They've been around almost as long as the Web, but lately they've made stunning gains in influence. Are they the new music labels?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read

Technology may have made it simple to obtain digital music, but it hasn't provided an easy way to sift through millions of tracks to find the tunes we like.

The Internet has, however, connected music fans to a legion of hardcore aficionados who help steer people to new music. Think of Barry, Jack Black's rock-addicted character from the film High Fidelity, with a blog.

Stereogum founder Scott Lapatine has had to fend off accusations that his blog is going corporate. Stereogum

The difference is that some of today's most popular music bloggers may someday be worth more than Barry ever dreamed of earning in that record store. Music blogs are nearly as old as the Web, but the past year has brought unprecedented growth, influence, and dollars to the sector as people look for help discovering new music. Now, the most popular blogs, such as Stereogum, BrooklynVegan, and Pitchfork, look less and less like Internet fanzines and more like tech start-ups.

Last month, Stereogum was sold to social-media site Buzznet, while Pitchfork made a splashy foray into music videos that spurred observers to call the site the "new MTV." Music blogs are organizing concerts, being quoted on television, and releasing independent albums--just like a record label. The changes have spurred some to declare there is no limit to how far the blogs can go. Others fear they might lose their edge if they go corporate.

"With success come changes," said Yancey Strickler, eMusic's editorial director and a longtime observer of the music blogosphere. "The way these things normally go is you'll start to generate a lot of attention, and it gets harder to just keep writing a music blog. It can become more of a managerial role and less about curation and finding interesting ways to discover music."

If some music bloggers are overwhelmed by success, it's because they never planned for it. Pitchfork was launched in 1995 by a then-teenage Ryan Schreiber, who wrote from his parents' basement. Stereogum was started in 2003 as a workplace distraction for founder Scott Lapatine.

Hardly any were trained writers or music-industry veterans. They lured readers through wit, encyclopedic knowledge, and a hunk-of-burning love for music.

The music blogs also didn't try to cater to mass audiences--at least at first. They focused on niches. For example, BrooklynVegan developed a reputation for being the must-read blog for concert information in New York. At Pitchfork, Schreiber was early in covering independent music; his site is now famous for spotting new talent, including the band Arcade Fire.

Another sign of how far the blogs have come: A year ago, some of the big record companies were sending "cease and desist" letters to blogs that posted unauthorized MP3 files to their sites. Now, Strickler said, many of those same companies plead with the blogs to host their music.

How big is too big?
Gerd Leonhard, the tech sector's self-described media futurist, argues that the top music blogs will use their popularity and influence to build empires.

"I'm kind of in the minority of my friends or anyone I know. I'm the only one who reads Rolling Stone or any of the music magazines."
--Scott Lapatine,
founder, Stereogum

"The leading music blogs will become what used to be called record labels," Leonhard wrote in a blog last month. "The people running them will be those sharp, tuned-in, hyper-networked and resourceful BlogJs formerly known as bloggers...these disruptors, thought leaders, and influencers will be our future broadcasters."

To this point, there's little chance Universal or EMI feel threatened. Pitchfork sees 1.5 million unique users per month, while most other music blogs only see a fraction of that. Regardless, Leonhard says there is nothing to keep the blogs from expanding into other areas such as signing artists, selling downloads, and promoting concerts.

Some of the blogs have already begun doing much of this. Last July, Stereogum issued a digital album, OKX, a tribute to the 10th anniversary of Radiohead's classic OK Computer. Pitchfork has hosted a music festival in Chicago every year since 2005. Schreiber has even made the jump to online video with the launch last month of Pitchfork.tv, which hosts music-related clips.

In the site's first week, more than 1 million videos were viewed and critics have given the site a thumb's up.

"The way Rolling Stone competes is we pick up the phone and bring original reporting. We take advantage of our access. Most blogs don't have the staffs to pick up the phone."
--Nathan Brackett,
deputy managing editor,
Rolling Stone

But if they grow too big or allow corporate America to hijack their editorial content, couldn't these sites lose credibility with their young readers?

Even before Buzznet acquired Stereogum, the blog had strong ties to big business. Among the site's backers was the Pilot Group, an investment firm headed by former AOL honcho Bob Pittman. The real trouble for Stereogum came after Buzznet bought it. That was when it was reported that Universal Music Group was a Buzznet investor. To some observers, this meant that one of the major music companies was now in a position to influence Stereogum's editorial content.

Scott Lapatine, the site's founder and editor in chief, didn't want to delve too deeply into such criticism but did say there's no way anyone except him is going to steer the direction of editorial content. "I'm still running the site," Lapatine said. "A lot of what was reported about the sale was inaccurate. Our editorial isn't going to change."

Should Rolling Stone watch its back?
The bloggers interviewed said they have absolutely no intentions of trying to replacing the record companies. But how about knocking off Rolling Stone as the big daddy of music publications?

Well, the truth is, the iconic music magazine doesn't hold much sway with the bloggers.

"I'm kind of in the minority of my friends or anyone I know," Lapatine said. "I'm the only one who reads Rolling Stone or any of the music magazines."

Nathan Brackett, Rolling Stone's deputy managing editor, doesn't blink. He says there isn't any blog out there that can rival his magazine's readership or level of journalism.

"I wouldn't call what they do as writing," Brackett said. "The blogs do the really quick 50-word update on what a band's doing. They'll write about (singer) Lilly Allen releasing a new EP or (that the band) Man Man is preparing an album. The way Rolling Stone competes is we pick up the phone and bring original reporting. We take advantage of our access. Most blogs don't have the staffs to pick up the phone."