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CMU@TGE 2017: New music media business models – Vice

By | Published on Tuesday 6 June 2017

Alex Hoffman

Look out for more reports throughout June on key sessions that took place at the CMU Insights conferences at The Great Escape last month. Today, another of our interviews from the Media Conference looking at new business models in music media, this one with Vice’s Head Of Music Alex Hoffman.

As part of the CMU Insights Media Conference at The Great Escape this year, we looked at how a number of music media are surviving, and even thriving, in a difficult marketplace. As discussed in this CMU Trends article, making money from music media is challenging because print sales are – in the main – declining, while big audiences online don’t necessarily equate to decent revenues, because people expect online content for free and banner ad income is generally pretty modest unless you have tens of millions of readers.

Over the last decade or so, Vice has emerged as a major new media company. Initially a magazine, it has since grown massively online, and more recently moved into TV. The company also stages events and owns a number of venues. Music cuts across all of that, as Hoffman explained.

“It can be a bit confusing”, he admitted, running through Vice’s music activity. “Maybe the first thing to say is that Vice started [in 1994] in Canada, and it was more or less a punk zine when it started. It wasn’t just a music magazine, it was about culture, but it has always had a big music heritage”.

“Now, the main thing is Noisey – our music platform”, he continued. “Noisey started around six years ago. We also have Thump, which is for dance music, and we also cover music on the Vice site itself, usually in a more cultural way. And we have ID, which has been part of Vice for three or four years following an acquisition”.

Today, “video is front and centre” at Vice, Hoffman said. “It doesn’t seem such a crazy innovative thing now, but I guess it was”, he added of when Vice first moved into video, sometime before he joined the company. “When online video first started to take off, they really poured a lot of money into that. A lot of people thought ‘no one’s going to sit at a laptop and watch longer pieces, documentaries – that’ll never happen'”.

“I guess it was just a complete gamble”, he went on. “They were just like ‘what else is nobody doing? Let’s throw loads of money at making documentaries’. At that time, people weren’t watching [more long-form] stuff [online]. You might watch a couple of clips on YouTube but you weren’t sitting down and watching documentaries on the computer. So it was probably a mixture [of gamble and foresight]. They probably thought that this would be a good business model – but I’m sure they never expected it would be as big as it has been”.

A key part of Vice’s video strategy – and the firm’s wider business model – involves branded content, working with brands to create bespoke content for the Vice audience. For media, brand partnerships of this kind are generally more lucrative that old fashioned advertising and sponsorship. Again, Vice was something of a leader on this, though it’s a business model being adopted by numerous other media now.

The brand partnerships side of the business is run out of a marketing agency that sits within in the Vice empire. “We have Vice and then we have Virtue”, Hoffman said, introducing the agency side of the business. “They are pretty separate. Most of my focus is on the original editorial content, written and video. But at Virtue they’re talking to all the biggest brands in the world and having all sorts of conversations, finding different ways of doing things”.

How does it work when a brand decides it wants to collaborate with Vice on a music project? “We ask ‘does this idea sound decent'”, Hoffman explained. “‘Does the talent sound good, or have we got ideas that we could pitch to them?’ It varies – sometimes a brand comes with a really fully formed idea of what they want, or others time they’re coming to us simply because they want to reach what they see as ‘cool young people’. Normally they like the video stuff that we do and therefore think we can help them reach their target audience”.

“How it works is different every time”, he continued. “I wouldn’t be involved day to day, the agency people talk to the brand people and start setting something up, hear what they’ve got to say and concoct something. Then they’d come down to me and we’d start to work on it”.

A common criticism of branded content is that it allows brands to become directly involved in the creation of editorial, rather than simply placing a logo or advertising next to existing content. “We’re fortunate in that we’re not doing cheesy product placement things or endorsements”, Hoffman said of Vice’s various brand partnerships. “It’s mainly more documentary stuff”.

“Brands sometimes come with quite specific objectives”, he added. “For example, with Nandos, one of their things was they really wanted to bring South Africa into it, because they didn’t think enough people knew about their South African heritage”. That theme provided a solid steer for the content the two companies then collaborated on.

“Normally when I get involved, it’s because they want to talk talent”, he added. “So we’ll give them some talent suggestions. Then I might reach out to some people. [But generally] the editorial and the creative teams are pretty separate. A lot of the team I manage, they wouldn’t really get involved, and wouldn’t really know about it, apart from I might swing by their desk and be like ‘what do you guys think of this person as a host?’ or ‘who should we feature in this kind of documentary?'”.

Also, Hoffman insisted, branded content has to meet Vice’s quality standards. “It has to be a very high standard for us to put it out across our platforms”, he said. “And it needs to look like something that would have our name on it”. Though occasionally brands use Vice’s talents to create content for their own platforms. “We sometimes also do white label stuff”, he said. “People just like the way that we make things”.

Another benefit of getting brands involved in content projects is it provides bigger budgets, which means people featured in videos can get paid. “I see it as a positive that, sometimes when these brands deals come through, [it means] we have an opportunity to put some artists that we like into a video on our platforms that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do otherwise. We wanna pay them. Artists should be getting paid – and the music publishers obviously expect more money when a brand’s involved – as they should”.

As well as its online platforms, Vice also now operates its own TV channels in various countries around the world, including the UK, offering a further outlet for its different types of content. “In the UK now, we have music shows on there that are not things that have been online already, that are specifically made for TV”, said Hoffman. “Not really the sort of traditional performance interview type things, it’s more documentary-based”.

Check out all the reports and resources CMU has published around this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conferences here.



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