Previously published in the December 2009 issue of WINE magazine:
The times they are a-changin’
Free is emerging as a fully fledged economy
In 2007, UK rock band Radiohead made their new album, In Rainbows, available for download on their official website, happy to accept whatever their fans were comfortable paying, even nothing. This was not simply to head off illegal file sharing; it was part of a broader business strategy that saw them marketing a deluxe box set (which avid fans had no problem paying top dollar for) but, even more fundamentally, it was part of their recognition of the audience-building merits of giving your product away for free.
The future business model of the music industry increasingly appears not to be based on transactional music sales but rather on other sources such as live gigs, merchandising, endorsements, digital licensing and broadcast.
I believe what’s happening in the music industry is instructive for both producers and consumers of wine media. The Internet with its free content becomes the means to attract large audiences, the print publication becomes an ultra-premium offering for the highly-involved consumer, and other activities such as wine competitions and led tastings provide the revenue that makes the undertaking viable.
Quality title run by a respectable media house that WINE magazine may be, the consumer receives wine information via an ever-increasing number of sources, such as blogs, email newsletters, Twitter and even the rather quaint means of dinner party conversation. A monthly print publication with its excessive lead times is, I strongly suspect, soon to be irrelevant.
Rather than desperately defending a declining position in the market, old media entities need to re-invent themselves and embrace the Internet. Easily done but for one rather large problem: the audiences might be shifting online en masse, but the revenues are not following nearly as quickly.
So what course of action should the commercial media follow? The problem with the Internet is that because no-one has come up with a workable business model when it comes to content generation and distribution, it is largely populated by amateurs, and the high level of reporting and analysis that old media used to provide is not as readily available. A big opportunity for the commercial media entities if they are prepared to let their trained journalists operate on the Internet, providing content for free but cross-subsidising it some other way.
And what are those other ways? Magazines, for one thing, could become deluxe collector’s editions probably including some advertising, which is never going to become totally defunct: full-page, beautifully photographed, well-integrated pages in print are always going to be more compelling than a banner ad online.
Wine competitions also have a key role to play, generating revenue for the media company via sponsorships and entry fees and useful to the consumer in terms of providing the information necessary to negotiate a massively over-traded wine market.
Finally, there is the opportunity provided by tastings and dinners, which allow the wine enthusiast to connect first-hand with the subject matter. With top winemakers and chefs in attendance to interact with their adoring fans, these become the equivalent of the rock star’s live gig (and are priced accordingly).
There have been persistent mutterings in recent times that local wine writing is too elitist, but I would argue that it is not elitist enough. The bloke wishing to know what to drink with his pizza has low-level needs easily satisfied by more generic sources. The true challenge is to attract and retain the biggest possible community of consumers highly involved in the subject of wine.
This is my last column in my capacity as editor and it is my pleasure to welcome Catheryn Henderson who will be publishing editor from the January 2010 issue onwards.