Talk to me about BBC Music Magazine

As often as possible, on Fridays I will post interviews with
colleagues from the field who are far more knowledgeable than I am on
various marketing and publicity topics. In honor (-our) of all the gray days we’ve been having in New York, this week we have an interview with a Proper British Person! Here’s BBC Music Magazine editor Oliver Condy on not bringing computers to the beach, Tweeting about the World Cup (…not), and how American journalists need to toughen up.

OliverCondy.jpgOliver Condy has been the editor of BBC Music Magazine for over five years, before which he was deputy editor at Classic FM Magazine. Now living in Bristol, Oliver sings tenor with the Exultate chamber choir and gives organ recitals from time to time, most recently as part of the 2009 City of London Festival. Oliver has an MA in organ performance studies from Cardiff University and a Premier Prix from the Conservatoire at Rueil Malmaison, Paris. 

Right, so: a glossy print magazine on classical music in 2010. How’s that working out for you?

Glossy magazines about anything are having a tough time of it but, yes, music magazines are very vulnerable to the onslaught of the web. Blogs, downloading, streaming and free online newspapers have made it hard for commercial journalism to survive in the way they have for hundreds of years. BBC Music Magazine, however, is a strong brand, and I honestly believe that the more electronic our age becomes, the more people are going to cherish the printed product. But there’s no denying that, at the moment, classical music magazines are seeing a drop in readership. The UK ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) figures were published in early February and all three major British classical music magazines (BBC Music Magazine, Classic FM Magazine and Gramophone Magazine) marked a fall in circulation. The good news for us is that, despite the fall, we saw the lowest percentage drop and actually increased our market share of the UK market by one per cent from 39 to 40 per cent. We’re still the biggest-selling classical music title in the world.
A magazine, as many a New Yorker reader will testify, is a browsable, abusable, flick-through-able thing of monthly solace. Every four weeks, it thumps reassuringly onto the doormat, and never crashes, never breaks down and never runs out of battery. It’s bath- and beach-friendly too. I’m not sure your MacBook Pro is terribly fond of sand, is it? We’ll be ok, although I think we have some stormy times ahead.

What’s the breakdown of web-only content vs. print-only content, and have you been under any pressure to go web-only? If I can play The Lorax Advocate for a moment, what’s the benefit of having a print magazine at all? Advertising dollars? Erm…pounds?
You’ll have to bear with me on this one. Hindsight is a wonderful thing in print journalism. This is how I see it: when the web became an unavoidable presence in the mid to late 1990s, newspapers leapt at the advertising dollars that were dancing before their eyes. Giving content away free was acceptable because, so the thinking went, the internet was a huge, limitless, brand spanking new pool for advertisers to dive headlong into. Papers gave away their content bit by bit and, for a while, falling revenues from newsstand sales were compensated by online advertising. Now look at print journalism. Internet advertising isn’t as expensive as it was and papers are closing in the US at the rate of one every couple of weeks. Now UK papers are starting to wake up to the prospect of charging for online access and hiding themselves from news aggregators.
So – given everything that I’ve written so far, I honestly think that we’d be foolish to contemplate going web-only. There are still over 11 million people in the UK who aren’t yet online, and probably never will be. Many of them are old, less privileged than you or I, or simply afraid of technology. And since we’re dealing with classical music, you can guarantee that we’re read by quite a few older members of society, many of whom won’t want to log on.
We make far more money with our magazine because we’re a magazine company – we know what we’re doing and we do it well. And we know our competitors. Our advertisers also understand the nature of a magazine – a trusted source that they know is put together by knowledgeable people using the words of highly specialised, educated critics and writers. I see no point in going web only.
But, and I know I’m tackling the first part of your question last – for which apologies, our web presence is hugely important to us. Most of what we do at is written specifically for the site. We do have reviews up there from the magazine, but all the features, news and opinions are tailored for our site. You won’t find, say, the cover feature from the February issue up on our site free of charge. That’s unfair to the subscribers and unfair to journalism. Quality writing costs – and we can’t simply give it away. We take a lot of pride in our audio clips, updated news items and new release info which we think complement the print version. But if you want the ‘real’ BBC Music Magazine, we’re on the newsstands…

A CD comes with every issue of the magazine, correct? How did that get started, and who’s in charge of the content? It seems logical for a music magazine, but I can imagine there are all sorts of rights/political challenges involved as well.
The CD was the magazine’s original USP (unique selling point). No other magazine was giving away complete works on a cover CD when the magazine launched in 1992. BBC Music Magazine started producing them from issue one and has done so every month since. For those readers not in the UK, it might be worth mentioning that the BBC license payers support eight BBC ensembles: the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony, the BBC Big Band (to an extent), the BBC Singers and the Ulster Orchestra (again, to an extent). Most of our CDs showcase one of these wonderful ensembles – and they are truly wonderful. We’re lucky to have them.
We also tie in with Radio 3’s New Generation Artist scheme and, from time to time, we collaborate with non-BBC artists.
Who’s in charge of content? We have a CD editor, Alice Pearson, and she and I come up with content. She then sources it from new performances, gets orchestras to record the pieces or delves into the BBC’s enviable archive – and battles heroically through the copyright minefields. Politically it’s not a problem – artists are thrilled to be involved by and large, and we’re thrilled to be able to have them on our discs.

We recently had a week-long discussion on this blog that involved some disagreements about how “human interest” stories affect the concert experience. As a magazine editor, where do you come down on that? The more we can tell people about artists-as-people the better, or the more potential and existing audiences are encouraged to focus on the music itself the better?
Yes – I saw that. Most people come to a concert to hear music and don’t give a stuff about whether a musician likes, say, making cheese as a side-hobby. But it does no harm. We’re dealing with a fundamentally human art here, and to deny musicians their ‘other’ existences is to dip classical music in aspic and make it irrelevant to our modern lives. Again. Why should knowing that Hilary Hahn likes pottery or baking stop us from enjoying her electrifying performances? Because we’ve been trained over the years by the likes of Mutter and Haitink to treat musicians as demi gods.
Everyone knew that Britten played tennis, or that Shostakovich was a football referee. Did audiences react less seriously to their music? Of course not. Knowing that Lorin Maazel likes ten-pin bowling or that Krystian Zimerman is partial to a spot of ice-diving only makes me admire them more.
I’m not saying that we should force artists to disrobe if they don’t want to, but if they reveal themselves as a little more human, we may be able to understand them more clearly as artists.

Be honest: is an artist being attractive at all a factor in their getting a cover? 
attractive? Have you seen some of our great musicians these days? Let’s
not get libelous, but some of the great musicians on our recent covers
haven’t exactly been oil paintings. Attractiveness has to be coupled
with utter brilliance – readers aren’t stupid. Our best-selling cover
of the past few years was Elgar. Phwooar.

Perhaps more
pressing in everyone’s minds than artists’ looks being a factor for
coverage is how important being on a record label is in getting the
attention of a magazine like BBC Music Magazine. Do you consider all
records–self-produced or on a major label–equally? Are you pressured
by your advertising department to cover artists on major labels more
frequently? Do you review digital-only releases?

forget that we cover live music, broadcast music and recorded music in
equal (ish) measure. Of course, we heavily support the record industry
which I think is, artistically, in better health than it ever has been.
But we sometimes never mention as artist’s disc – if he/she has one.
So, no. When we do review discs, our criterion is they have to have
distribution so we can point our readers to our online shop/mail order
shop/other outlets without them having to go to untrusted sources and
hand over credit card details online willy-nilly.
Our advertising department has no say at all in the editorial content of BBC Music.
If there was pressure from advertising and I had to bow to it, I’d
leave tomorrow. Our editorial integrity is our most valuable asset. Why
are we trusted? Because we’re a BBC publication and our readers expect
– and receive – independent opinions.

As you know, I love the BBC Music Magazine Twitter feed (@BBCMusicMag),
because you can tell that the person (you? your colleagues?) has an
actual personality. Let’s take a look back at some memorable Tweets:

We’ve just drunk all of Gramophone’s champagne
10:00 AM Jan 24th
from web 

advent calendar, Day 21. So, altogether now…
Glooor-o-o-o-o-o-ooooooor… O-o-o-o-o-o-oooooooor…
O-o-o-o-o-ooooooor… O-o-o-o-o-ooooor…  
1:52 AM Dec 21st, 2009 
from web  

The editor is agog with excitement at the forthcoming World Cup draw… not.     
4:53 AM Dec 4th, 2009 
from web  

Why are Minimalist pieces so long?
7:39 AM Nov 30th, 2009 
from web  

had a call from the Performing Rights Society, telling us that we need
a licence if we want to listen to CDs in the BBC MM office…  
4:41 AM Nov 24th, 2009
from web  

We’re in the Hudson Bar near Lincoln Center. Come and join us!
9:07 PM Nov 18th, 2009 
from Tweetie   

did you start Tweeting? You have an impressive 2,000+ followers. Has
using Twitter increased your subscribers or website traffic?

originally started Tweeting back in March 2009. It was something I’d
planned on doing before we were encouraged to do so by our Managing
Director in London. So we did and we’ve had enormous fun in the
process. We’ve increased our online presence through it, but I’m not
sure about subs. We’ll see. Using Twitter is great for businesses like
ours – but it has to be done in the right way. No one wants to read dry
links to news stories. They want to be entertained, diverted, amused,
maybe educated or informed. But they don’t want to be preached at. We
like the way Twitter opens us up to our readers in the same way that
performing musicians shouldn’t be afraid to admit to their love of

I’m curious how you feel about publicists
pitching you, the editor, versus pitching freelancers. I usually pitch
freelancers, because it seems like a good idea to have the writer “on
your team” from the beginning, but I assume you think it’s best to
pitch editors?

Pitching directly to me means that I have
control over the angle of the story and who writes it. Pitching to the
writer means that the editor is stuck with the writer who may or may
not be suitable for the job. I’ve had a few instances when the idea has
been great, but the writer has simply misunderstood the subject matter
or not got on with the artist. So an interesting story is more likely
to run if I can dictate the terms. A sensitive story needs a thoughtful
writer, and often I can’t take the risk with unknown quantities.

What do you look for in staff and freelance writers? How do you hear about possible freelancers?
do I look for in staff? Loyalty, dedication, humour, irreverence,
skill, efficiency and a willingness to party. As far as writers go, I
like deadline hitters. I also like those writers who can grasp a
concept without me having to bash out two pages of brief. I like
writers who can engage with interviewees and who can find that angle
that I hadn’t thought of. I dislike lazy opening paragraphs. Never
write a lazy intro. And avoid clich├ęs like the plague.
I hear
about freelancers either because they come knocking, or because they
have excellent references. I don’t take on that many new writers, but
if the subject is too good to miss, I’ll take a punt and cross my
fingers. I can always rewrite parts of their feature, if necessary.

Big picture final question: in what ways is arts journalism different in the UK and the US?
– not something I’d given a lot of thought to until now. I suppose
we’re a little more scathing over here, I think. Our papers like to
denigrate the high arts quite a lot. But then we have a government who
thinks that classical music is for the ‘elite’. Yawn. On the other
hand, I think US arts journalism is frequently too soft – conductors
are treated like aging admirals and concert reviews are too often
sugar-coated. Is that fair?
And, as an aside, it’s worth pointing out that there are no glossy American classical music magazines. None. Fanfare is an infrequent tome with a small circulation, Opera News is linked to the Met Opera and Listen is
produced by Arkiv Music for promotional reasons.And that puts us in the
odd position of being America’s biggest-selling classical music
magazine. How did that happen? That means that the only place to get a
decent number of monthly reviews of new CDs is through us and Gramophone, another British magazine.

Very small picture postscript question: In your expert EDITOR opinion, how’d I do as an interviewer?
Splendid job, Ameer.

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  1. says

    I totally agree with Oliver about the press vs web issue. There are plenty of people who don’t have a computer or simply still enjoys reading a newspaper. Great interview :)

  2. Rosalie O'Brien says

    Wonderful interview, very refreshing overall–it convinced me to renew my subscription. I like Mr. Condy’s recognition of fairness to print subscribers (not that anyone who relies solely on periodicals’ web presences gets the whole package). I know I risk sounding naive, but I dream that the decline in print subscribers will reverse as people recognize that over the long term, both directly and indirectly, you get what you pay for.