It’s not exactly the Kennedy assassination, but I expect I’ll remember that I was on a train out of Euston when I heard that TeamRock had collapsed. I got a Twitter message and I was genuinely shocked, not by the closure of the business but by the way it went.
I worked with the business for a while in 2014 – 2015 and made some good friends. To hear that they were suddenly without jobs a week away from Christmas was incredibly sad. To hear that none of them had been paid for December just made me angry.
I had a beer a couple of weeks back with Scott Rowley, long-time editor of Classic Rock and more recently TeamRock Content Director. He shared the mad frustrations familiar to anyone working in a hybrid print-digital business, but nothing that made me think the demise of the Rock & Metal publisher was imminent.
The closure has come as a total surprise to the team, The Scottish Sun reporting that stunned staff in Scotland were told they had been made redundant, “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices.” More than 70 staff have been paid off, nearly 30 in Glasgow and over 40 in London.
I’m sure no one planned the timing, but I’m hearing real anger about the way the business met its end. In a series of private messages, I’ve seen a variety of opinions expressed about the closure, from ‘utter shambles’ to ‘they’ve destroyed the best music mags in the world’.
One more poignant text said that TeamRock management should have ‘shown some integrity and admitted the truth a lot sooner and given people a chance to exit.’
Whatever the reason and whoever’s to blame, the business finally ran out of money: ‘… the constraints on the cash position of the business were such that administration was the only viable option’.
Accounts covering the year to March 31, 2015, show TeamRock posted a pre-tax loss of £8.8 million. The business ended the 2015 financial year with net debts totalling £11.7 million, up from £5.9 million the prior year. All of that on annual revenues of about £6 million.
It’s been over a year since I worked with TeamRock. I don’t claim any understanding of the recent financial situation and it’s way too soon, and probably a bit crass, to write up ’10 things we can learn from the collapse of TeamRock’. That said, TeamRock loved a bit of Crass, so here are a few early thoughts on the music publisher’s disintegration and sustainable publishing.
Respect your print products, even as you build out your digital offering
TeamRock acquired Future Publishing’s Rock music portfolio in 2013, for about £10 million. Although management clearly valued the expertise of staff that came as part of that deal, I wonder if they ever really valued the legacy products.
It’s a big mistake to see print as a burden to be borne until the digital revenues come rolling in. Established audiences have no sense of new digital offerings, but their loyalty to print magazines is the best bet you have to up-sell them to digital. See it as a launch pad, not a mill stone.
Communicate your reader offer very, very clearly
The long-term TeamRock proposition rested on digital membership revenues. The benefits of membership were real – online access to music journalism across a stable of magazines, and unique content, including video exclusives. But I doubt if Metal Hammer or Classic Rock’s readers ever truly understood the value of a TeamRock+ membership.
The development of membership revenues relies entirely on effective communication of added value. Publishers need to focus marketing efforts tightly on a handful of real benefits, driven by obvious value. The implied advantages of digital access are not enough.
Get your teams on the same page
I worked with some incredibly talented people at TeamRock – journalists, developers and commercial people – but it didn’t always feel like they were working for the same business. Development goals were incredibly ambitious, but imagined entirely separately from the day-to-day requirements of content management, distribution and monetisation.
Cross-departmental cooperation is a god-awful phrase, but crucial to the survival of any publishing business. Editorial’s deep understanding of the audience and it’s information needs. Development’s knowledge of presentation, profiling and distribution technologies. Commercial’s ability to monetise relationships with the market. Each is necessary for success and each relies on the other to succeed.
The distraction of bright shiny things
When I first heard about TeamRock it sounded like the perfect specialist media organisation:
Established magazine brands
A national radio station
A sophisticated digital membership proposition
All of those pieces looked like they would fit together to create something bigger and more beautiful than the individual parts. That never happened at TeamRock and while it wasn’t happening, new bits – specifically a gaming arm – were being bolted on.
It’s too easy for publishers to be seduced by possibilities, from partnerships to emerging technologies. The audience – what they want, what they will pay for – has to be central to any publishing strategy. ‘Build it and they will come’ blew up as an effective publishing strategy decades ago.
I think what saddens me most about the collapse of TeamRock is the wasted opportunity.
TeamRock set out with serious financial backing. It had globally recognised magazine brands, passionate audiences and tier-one access to the artists they loved. The group was staffed by some the best music journalists in the business and a team of talented developers. Over time, the brand developed an aggregated social media reach of over 4 million.
And still, it couldn’t turn a profit.
The pessimist in me wonders, if you can’t make a publishing success of what TeamRock had, then what can you make a success of? But the realist knows that TeamRock is a classic case of a great idea poorly implemented rather than a bad idea.
I sincerely hope a buyer can be found for the business, at least for the magazines. These publications serve an interesting niche, older, with money, passionate about their music and increasingly comfortable to have one foot in the digital future while keeping one firmly planted in the print past. Classic Rock’s archive alone has to be an asset worth buying.