In Which We Applaud and Worry for SPIN Magazine

As long as we’re taking a LATE PASS on this year’s movies, allow us to do the same for the publishing industry, and address what may already be old news to some. I dropped my subscriptions and quit paying attention to both SPIN and Rolling Stone years ago. But last week a friend and obsessive record-collector dragged me into a Half-Price Books, and upon finding that I could buy recent issues of both magazines at .50 a pop (as opposed to their $5 newstand price), I walked out with a stack of good old-fashioned mainstream music journalism rags.

In early February of this year, SPIN announced that their website would be undergoing a drastic redesign, and that the print edition would be reduced to six bi-monthly issues. Like many others, I was shocked to discover how doing so has allowed the magazine to re-haul the design and layout of its tangible form as well, beginning with the March/April issue (pictured above), but was equally pleased with the outcome.

The most obvious changes being size and texture; Whereas 2008 saw Rolling Stone shrink in format from its classic 10 x 12 to standard magazine size, SPIN (with the help of Brooklyn-based design studio the Everything Type Company) has gone bigger and thicker, with a retro look that recalls the past of both music magazines, as well as classic coffee-table fixtures like LIFE– complete with rough, matte-finish cover and pages that music blogger and past SPIN contributor Joel Oliphint accurately describes as feeling “special, artful, homemade and more than a bit nostalgic, but not cloying Instagram-nostalgic.”

So the gloss is gone, but so are the reviews. In a bold decision, the editors of SPIN decided to move “conventional album reviews” exclusively under the domain of SPIN.com. You’d think this would be upsetting news, but instead it comes as an informed decision in a time when most people look to the web for up-to-date reviews on the latest albums as they leak, before their official release. In their place, SPIN gives us “The Guide”– an even rougher looking back section with a Xerox-quality that offers “deep, long-view critical thinking and cultural analysis” in the form of comparative reviews of new albums and artists emerging from similar scenes– such as the rise of female indie heartachers adopting the woozy haunted 50s romanticism of David Lynch and Julee Cruise’s Twin Peaks soundtrack, or an investigative look at the futuristic “Township Tech” genre growing in post-apartheid South Africa. Best of all, the reissue column “Diggin’ in the Crates” and genre-recommendation “Companion Pieces” (featuring solid selections from the Lijadu Sisters to the Gun Club) survived the purge, keeping in the spirit of this new “Guide” section.

While an early run of the March/April issue bore the commonly overused SPIN title “The Now Issue,” newsstand editions read “RETRO/ACTIVE”, and both its opening editorial and feature “PASTPRESENTFUTURE” essay by Retromania author Simon Reynolds (whose culture writing we discussed back in January) focus on our cultural nostalgia of picking and choosing from past sounds, looks, and trends, something that speaks both to the magazines new retro-classic look and editorial mission of delivering content that is both “Timeless” and “timely.”

Joel Oliphint further drives home the advantage in his post: “While most Old Media monthlies have attempted to adapt to the New Media world by merely making smaller magazines and creating clumsy websites and/or iPad apps with the same content, SPIN deserves kudos for a creative, intuitive and risk-taking reinvention.”

Unfortunately, the self-summoned “Death of Print” argument may have gained the upper hand over SPIN’s innovative efforts, as the A.V. Club’s newswire today announced that SPIN has been bought up by digital media conglomerate Buzzmedia—a deal that should extend its online life, but may spell out the demise of its print ventures. SPIN now joins the ranks of Buzzmedia’s stable of online music sites and blogs including Idolator, Stereogum, Hype Machine, Brooklyn Vegan, Gorilla Vs. Bear, PopMatters, Pure Volume, Punk News, RCRD LBL, and, perhaps most tellingly, XLR8R, which also recently transitioned into an Internet-only publication.

It’s certainly frustrating to see a publication and culture outlet take one step forward, with such a sense of informed optimism in the face of industry trends, only to take such a giant step back, possibly falling victim and prey to those exact detractors and naysayers. Here’s hoping SPIN makes the right decision, and continues to cater to enthusiasts and collectors of tangible media. Or if the print edition is doomed to fold, may it be resurrected by some beacon of truth and reason piercing through the next executive board meeting. (What up VIBE, I’m looking at you)