Tuesday, October 05, 2010

With Guster Stream, Wall Street Journal Explores New Currents

Last Thursday, Sept. 30, the Wall Street Journal streamed its first full album, Guster’s Easy Wonderful.

It was, by all appearances, a resounding success, as various blogs linked to the page, although some were surprised that it was the Journal that was hosting the stream, as it’s still better known for its coverage of the music business, rather than pop. Nonetheless, over 1,000 people “liked” the article through Facebook, undoubtedly including some who never read the newspaper in print.

“We’re very excited about this opportunity with the Journal,” said Matt Hanks of Shore Fire Media, Guster’s publicist.

The early preview didn’t appear to hurt sales, and may very well have boosted the profile of the release. Today, Guster’s album debuted at No. 3 on the iTunes album chart.

The Journal joins a variety of radio stations, blogs and other newspapers that have used streaming as a powerful marketing tool in the modern musical landscape. Technology has made streams, both audio and video, a convenient and self-propagating medium.

“People prefer streams, because it's not a download that takes up space, and it's accessible anywhere,” said Jorge Hernandez, a music journalist and publicist who has worked with New York firms Magnum PR and the MuseBox. “So they can share them easily and not worry about downloads and watermarks.”

Furthermore, getting an exclusive full stream is akin to breaking a news story, setting off a cycle of linking, discussing, and ultimately, page views. It’s a mutualistic arrangement - the band enjoys the exposure to the publication’s audience, while the publication enjoys the scoop.

“With a stream like this, we’re probably boosting awareness of the Journal just as much as we are of the Guster album,” said John Jurgensen, the Journal reporter who posted the stream.

However, the proliferation of a particular stream is highly dependent on the existing popularity of both the streamer and the streamed. The Journal is, after all, one of the most widely read papers in the world. Guster has been active for almost two decades, and Easy Wonderful is its first album in four years. A collaboration between the two isn’t so much a revolution as a reinforcement of both parties’ popularity, and seizes the release’s momentum from rowdy bloggers and mp3 pirates.

“It reinvigorates the notion that there are major players,” said Jeff Meltz, a blogger and photographer.

The stream also represents the Journal’s evolution from a “second read” business titan to a more comprehensive paper. With the recent launch of its weekend section, the arts have become an integral part of the paper, and the paper’s Speakeasy blog is inclined to cover bands that are simply enjoyable, although the business angle is always a consideration.

“When it comes to the turf the Journal is staking out in music and culture, it’s gratifying when people take notice, because that area of coverage has really evolved in the last several years,” said Jurgensen, the Journal reporter. “The paper’s foundation in business journalism informs everything we do. I don’t mean that we only publish hardcore industry stories. We do plenty of features and profiles, simply because the subjects are interesting. But the business core gives us a mandate to tell stories that shed some light on how the music industry, as an example, operates now.”

He said that Guster’s accessibility made the band a good choice for the paper’s first stream, because of the diversity of the paper’s online audience.

“I’d say the Guster stream is an extension of our broader music coverage online,” he added. “Moreover, in the last year or so, it’s become routine for artists, labels and publicists to find ways to preview new releases. Obviously we weren’t the first to do this, so it became more a matter of finding the right fit.”

One of the most successful streamers has been National Public Radio. Yesterday, NPR debuted Belle and Sebastian’s Write About Love and Antony and the Johnson’s Swanlights, and it regularly has high profile album streams, and subsequently receives plenty of links from other websites. Again, it’s reasonable to think that part of the streams’ audience doesn’t actually listen to NPR on terrestrial radio, but the station’s nimble online adaptation makes it a musical force, both on the airwaves and the blogosphere.

(An NPR spokesman said the station was unable to comment on the streams by press time.)

Meanwhile, the New York Times, despite its robust music coverage, has avoided streaming albums, citing conflict of interest.

“As a general rule we do not run album streams, as a matter of journalistic ethics. As many of us here see it, that kind of thing crosses a line into pure promotion. We are not a radio station. When we run audio or video clips they are meant to illustrate news articles or reviews, and they are excerpted to qualify as fair use,” said a Times staffer. “Aside from the idea of us being a mere promotional vehicle, another objection is that it implies endorsement.”

Still, the Times hasn’t entirely avoided such content. The paper's weekly online Popcast has occasional live sessions, as well as on-air interviews, and its blog ArtsBeat will occasionally embed videos from YouTube.

Also, back in April, the New York Times Magazine posted a full stream of the National’s High Violet. (The magazine operates independently of the daily newspaper and the Arts desk.) But the full stream was quickly pulled, with "security concerns" cited. Presumably, the Times was concerned that unscrupulous listeners would rip the stream and disseminate it as a leak.

The Journal's Jurgensen is also wary of streaming spilling over into promotion, but he says that the distinction between coverage and no coverage is more important than streaming a clip and an album.

“I’m speaking personally here, not on the Journal’s behalf, but I see the option to stream as an extension of the decision to cover the album itself. Though I’m not a critic, I make judgment calls all the time on whether a project is compelling enough to warrant writing about it,” said Jurgensen. “As part of this, we (and almost every other news outlet) often stream a song or two to give readers a sense of the sound. Once you do that, I personally don’t see how streaming a whole album is dramatically different.”

The stream is a significant step for the Journal, and an effective way of boosting both band and paper.

“Still, we’re wary of the hype machine. I tried to make it clear (in the last two paragraphs of the Guster post) about how the Journal stream was part of the band’s broader promotional efforts,” said Jurgensen. “But it cuts both ways.”

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