Warner Bros. veteran Bill Bentley launches a music site for baby boomers with SonicBoomers.com
From the television screen to the magazine rack, music coverage generally skews young. It makes sense, given that the most rabid consumers are kids with time on their hands and cash to burn as they scour their sources for breaking artists. Eventually, though, an older generation of music fans gets included in the conversation. For every MTV, there's a VH-1. For every Spin magazine, there's a Paste. And for every Pitchfork, there's a . . . what? Now that the Internet has a dominant claim on schooling the tweens and the 20-somethings, older Web heads who dig Robert Plant but don't know their Cool Kids from their Black Kids want their own online community, too.
Or at least that's what Bill Bentley is hoping. After spending more than two decades in the trenches of the music industry — first as a music editor at LA Weekly, then as a publicist for Warner Bros., and most recently as Neil Young's personal PR man — he's carving out an Internet niche with Sonic Boomers, a new San Francisco-based Web zine aimed at his age group.
"Boomers come out of the late '60s and early '70s, a period when music became the social force of our lives," 57-year-old Bentley says. "[They're] still plugged into the same things they loved when they were young. Music was the currency of the culture, and I think it's still kind of the glue. It's just the companies that made the music quit looking at that audience as vital."
Bentley thinks that's a big mistake. He cites a 2007 study by online marketing group NPD as evidence that baby boomers shouldn't be ignored by the music industry. The study showed that 70 percent of boomers bought music in the previous year (although two-thirds of them bought CDs rather than downloads). In an industry where all the reports are of tanking sales, this sort of buying power is no mere pocket change, especially if you want to convert those purchases into Web hits.
Bentley came up with the idea for Sonic Boomers in 2006, his last year at Warner Bros., when it was clear to him much of the Web's coverage focused on young acts more than the industry's history-tested heavyweights. "I worked with a lot of the artists that were considered boomer artists, like Eric Clapton and Neil Young," he says, "and I realized it was getting harder to find places to promote their music. Radio had changed, video channels had pretty much gone away for these artists, and unless they toured, magazines weren't covering them like they used to. I thought there has to be a way to get the word out to the people who love them. I looked around on the Web and saw Pitchfork, but they didn't seem to take artists in this category that seriously."
Compared to the Pitchforks and the Stereogums of the Web world, Sonic Boomers feels a little static. Album reviews of Al Green and Joe Cocker share screen space with newer acts like Brit crooner Duffy and news items about an Americana Music Festival in Nashville and Columbia Records' photo vaults. There are no flashy videos or streaming audio. But the site just launched in late April. If it's going to compete, though, it needs to bulk up on the same quick content feeds its younger counterparts offer while boasting coverage other sites can't get access to.
On that last item, if anyone has the industry connections to make Sonic Boomers a successful Web zine for aging hippies, it's Bentley. Already, he has hired writers from the early days of Rolling Stone and Creem who, he says, "created the modern school of journalism." His Rolodex is also filled with names that would make music-related Web 2.0 CEOs envious: Bentley spent 20 years at Warner Bros. closely handling some of the biggest names in rock, including Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Green Day, and, once upon a time, The Replacements. He plans to use those connections a little differently in this phase of his career, though.
"I love doing press, but the labels got to be so hard to work at," Bentley says from Los Angeles (where he currently lives, even though Sonic Boomers' small office is in San Francisco, housed with its parent company, Fuzz). "The money got smaller and everybody just got mean. Labels are a battered bunch. Publicists just don't have as much fun as they used to. Each [record] that fails, it's like the [labels] hold you personally accountable for its failure. It's, like, 'Man, you guys put out the wrong records.' Warner was such a good label, though, for so many years."
His challenge in the days ahead will be to make money writing for an older audience online. Sonic Boomers will rely on sponsorships and ads, a tricky proposition since advertisers often want to reach a young demographic.
But Bentley is confident his timing is on the money. "Seven or eight years ago, the Web wasn't seen as boomer friendly," he says. Now his older buddies are poking around Amazon for recommendations, and they want online coverage to match the music they're hearing. And Bentley isn't solely skewing for graying heads. With Sonic Boomers, he'll also show Web-scouring kids a little something about the artists who paved the way for the new school of rock.
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