Guardian’s record store lounge a prelude to launch of a U.S. culture section

November 27, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

At first glance, the Guardian’s new #GuardianGreenRoom space in New York’s just-opened Rough Trade record store looks like an intriguing – if foolish — marriage of two business models that the Internet has irrevocably doomed. But Guardian music editor Caspar Llewellyn Smith sees it as a mutually beneficial way for both companies to gain a foothold in America’s music scene as the Guardian launches its new U.S.-based culture section.

Just over two years after the Guardian embarked on its ambitious attempt to gain a foothold in the American market, the London-based record store Rough Trade is doing the same with a 15,000 square foot warehouse that sells music and books, has a stage venue for performances, and boasts a bar and a café.

#GuardianGreenRoom, an interactive digital lounge (yes, it has a hashtag for a name), will be housed in a repurposed shipping container.

The space would be a nice hood ornament for the Guardian if the music industry were in a boom time, but, as Dorian Lynskey pointed out in the Guardian-owned Observer pointed out just a few days ago, that is very much not the case: “According to Nielsen SoundScan, sales at US independent record shops have fallen 36.1 percent in the last five years, while rents have soared, causing New York to lose such cherished institutions as Bleecker Bob’s, Dope Jams and Fat Beats.”

And as Poynter’s Rick Edmonds predicts the American newspaper industry will lose $1.18 billion in advertising revenue this year. That’s on top of the $1.6 billion it lost between 2011 and 2012 and the $1.9 billion it lost between 2010 and 2011. The Guardian, owned by the Scott Trust (whose “core purpose is to secure the financial and editorial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity”), has been protected from some of the newspaper industry’s woes — but not all. While the Guardian Media Group posted a profit in fiscal year 2013 and the Guardian News and Media arm boasted significant digital revenue gains, it’s had to make cuts and reduce staff just like almost everyone else.

Inside the Guardian space. Photograph by Gennady Kolker

So, what would possess two so-called dying businesses to partner up, let alone launch large-scale U.S. branches? As the Economist put it last week, Rough Trade’s expansion seems “barmy” (Stereogum went with “insane“). Media analysts were similarly skeptical about the Guardian US’s chances when it launched in September 2011.

“There is certainly something slightly counterintuitive about it, I give you that,” Smith says. “I feel like the Rough Trade audience is our audience. We’re taking on doing more in the U.S., and it just feels like a nice partnership to have with them.”

And, he points out, Rough Trade’s 5,000-square-foot London store is a “thriving space which bucks every expectation of the health of a record retail store.” Part of its success, co-owner Stephen Godfroy has said, is due to the experience it gives its customers. It’s both a store and a distinct community – not unlike the Guardian’s “open journalism” ethos, which has given rise to a coffee shop and its Open Weekend festival.

Aside from being a way to promote Guardian’s brand to stateside music lovers and a place to interact with the Guardian’s culture coverage, #GuardianGreenRoom will generate content for the outlet, though Smith says it hasn’t yet “firmed up” plans for how that will work. All he’ll say is it will be a “tangible demonstration of some of the stuff we like to talk about” and that the Guardian is “looking to emulate” how it’s used its coffee space in London’s “Silicon Roundabout” to augment its tech section offerings.

Smith says the Guardian averages 80 million views per month. Forty percent of those views come from the U.S., and about a quarter come for the Guardian’s culture section.

“It’s a big audience,” Smith says. “We stack up very favorably against something like Pitchfork or against NME. But in America, we’re not primarily known for our cultural offerings.”

Indeed, while the Guardian sends staff to the big award shows and festivals, for instance, its U.S.-based coverage tends to be on the lean side, often relying on AP stories to fill the gaps. Not for much longer, Smith says. Smith is in New York now both to assist with the #GuardianGreenRoom launch and to interview candidates for its first-ever U.S. culture editor position. Smith says he or she will have the “opportunity” to build a team of American entertainment journalists and voices.

“You want to have people on top of what the conversation is in the U.S.,” Smith says. “We want to be part of that conversation.”

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