Louise Brailey

Amplified Publishing Category

Unfolding the Free Sheet

by Louise Brailey

Since starting out in Bristol over a decade ago, Crack Magazine has been invested in finding new ways to tell stories, engage our audience and move the needle in music journalism. In recent years, we’ve been drawn to the ways that this journalism can be elevated by groundbreaking technology.

For example, back in 2017, we launched a landmark Aphex Twin cover story which blended a traditional print profile with augmented reality and a rollout that included geotagged content in locations throughout the globe. It was a watershed moment, providing a route map for how best to apply technology in service to the narrative, making it accessible and building it out in new and unexpected ways – something that we continued to refine, carefully, as and when appropriate.

Then, the pandemic happened. Like so many publications, Crack Magazine was forced to halt its monthly print run and recalibrate as a digital-only publication. Our hand may have been forced, but suddenly concepts that had long existed in the abstract took on a tangibility: here was an opportunity to reassess our relationship with our audience, to create a subscriber-first magazine operating at the intersection of publishing and tech. Out of financial necessity, and like many of our peers within the creative and publishing sector, the magazine adopted a digital subscriber model, essentially a paywall. Something completely alien to us, a publication whose reputation was predicated on being a free magazine, accessible to all.

It perhaps isn’t surprising that one of our first issues of the digital magazine chose to spotlight rising artists from various undergrounds – from Berlin to Chile – and each visionaries with flair. Intentionally or not, the choice of covers echoed Crack’s suddenly new status, poised on the brink, launching into unchartered territory (you can decide on the flair). And while we weren’t quite sure what a digital magazine could be, we knew what it wasn’t. It wasn’t PDFs or design skeuomorphs, those design throwbacks that emulated the emulatable – the printed page. Platforms like Issuu, that once made magazine archives accessible, now conversely feel clunky and hard to use.

Instead, we began to think of a digital magazine in terms of a hub or testing ground: a space where we could integrate innovative technologies into features in a seamless way. Perhaps it was a place to build a dialogue, destabilising hierarchies of print media by staging a two-way conversation, or a conversation that didn’t include us – the editors – at all. Perhaps it’s vestigial magazine-ness, it’s essence lies simply in the fact that these cutting edge experiences appeared in one place, month after month, curated by Crack Magazine.

These were the ideas that were percolating when I joined the amplified publishing cohort, loaded with a question that I kept intentionally, perhaps naively, broad: How can we evolve our brand to incorporate new publishing mediums alongside our existing content?

As an Editor, I am fascinated with narrative and voice, and I love a clear brief. It was alarming, then, that as my own research threads and throughlines spin off into tangents and sidebars – all of them captivating but, ultimately, a little too ambitious. I finally found myself coming back to four core prompts:

  1. How can we use new and innovative publishing models to elevate the stories we tell and give value to our audience – with the ambition of winning their long term support?

  2. How can we personalise and tailor content/homepages for users within the Supporters hub, build community and make Supporters feel they have a stake in what we do?

  3. Is it really possible to create a space that reconciles accessibility with exclusivity – doesn’t the very existence of a walled garden undermine what Crack is?

  4. Is it actually desirable to use technology to redefine or explore the relationship between journalists and readers when, perhaps, that’s what readers of music journalism want: curation, editorial voice, expertise? Where is there room to play within these defined lines, and where are they fixed?

In exploring these questions I’ve encountered ideas that speak to what we’re doing, in direct and indirect ways. I’ve been drawn to the way that The Athletic not only customises content delivery depending on user preference but also the way the publication cleverly knits together editorial voice with community discussion. It certainly suggests that the phenomenon of digital campfires, a concept articulated by digital brand strategist Sara Wilson, is going to become more and more integral to publishing brands – seen most overtly in the wholesale embrace of group-chatting app Discord across a vast swathe of content creators eager to stoke discussion and foster community across niche topics. Relatedly, in realms adjacent to Crack Magazine, there seems to be a real drive to engage audiences by inviting them to shape the very content that’s being published – for example, the way platforms are inviting audiences to the be involved in the content they enjoy – for example, this recent callout for field recordings by NTS.

We’re only just beginning to parse all these ideas, sifting through the wealth of emergent concepts and trends that are applicable to Crack Magazine. The next stage is to take the temperature of the music industry – via a survey – in a bid to bring this out of the abstract. We also want to extend our dialogue with Supporters in the hopes we can work out how we can use our position as one of the biggest independent music magazines as a force for good, all while providing the music journalism and sense of curation that we’re known for. In short, the desire to tell compelling stories has always been at the heart of what we do – we’re still very much writing our own.