Casually dressed employees type away at their cubicles. The phone rings continuously over top droning, anxious coworkers. Posters of prominent Canadian artists like The Tragically Hip and Sam Roberts decorate the walls of the spacious studio loft. At first glance the UmbrellaMusic.com offices at 30 St. Clair West in midtown Toronto resemble its print magazine competitors more than the modest music web zine it is.
Scott Kaija and Jacquelyn Francis stand among the casually-dressed employees. With Kaija in a red cap, navy canvas jacket and blue jeans, and Francis sporting a black mesh top, frayed denim skirt and black stockings, the duo don’t exactly come across as corporate suits. They look more like people you’d find working behind the counter at an independent record store. Suddenly, Francis clarifies the situation about the spacious digs: “Not all of this office space is ours. These two desks are where Scott and I work,” she says, pointing to the two tiny cubicles littered with paperwork, CDs and office supplies. Ah, now this is more like the dot.com office one might have expected.
Francis explains that UmbrellaMusic.com shares its offices with its owner, Canadian music label Maple Music Recordings. Founded five years ago by Jamie Stanley, UmbrellaMusic was initially designed to promote artists recording at his Umbrella Sound studio in downtown Toronto. Over the years UmbrellaMusic.com has shifted its focus from promoting a few isolated acts to covering a wide range of international, national and local artists.
Stanley hired Kaija to be editor in 2000, and the site was purchased by MapleMusic shortly after. By the time Francis came on board, the site had built a small but loyal following. Today, the music Web zine is established as one of Canada’s most popular music sites, attracting some 80,000-90,000 unique visitors a month and garnering over 2,000,000 hits a month.
Drawing a substantial audience is one thing, but turning a Web zine into a viable business is a whole other game. Under the print business model, a magazine publisher can generate revenue from three reliable sources: subscriptions, newsstand sales and display advertising. Unfortunately, neither subscription nor newsstand sales transfer well to the World Wide Web, leaving ad sales as the only potential for revenue.
And selling ads has proved to be a challenge. The cumulative evidence that shows Web advertising actually works is inconclusive. This makes many would-be advertisers hesitant about buying ad space on sites. Jesse Ohtake, president and editor-in-chief of TheCyberkrib.com, doesn’t seem concerned. “With a niche area like music,” he says, “the whole dot-com boom-bust doesn’t really matter much to the key advertisers,” says Ohtake from his one-bedroom apartment/office. “Music will always have a following, unlike some other forms of business that operate online. Music resources like us will always have a demand.”
Fortunately, both UmbrellaMusic and Cyberkrib have been able to find willing volunteers. Each site has a contributing staff of ten to fifteen loyal writers who donate their time. “That’s the great thing about our site,” says Francis. “The people who are working for us love music. They’re not just in it for the money, because there is no money. I mean, we’re barely getting by.”
Francis is not exaggerating – UmbrellaMusic is currently “in the red,” struggling from a lack of ad revenue. Similarly, TheCyberKrib’s sales only cover Ohtake’s monthly operating costs and his own salary, while the majority of its revenue comes from other services the site provides, such as artist management and promotional concerts.
Ohtake first got the idea of TheCyberKrib five years ago while attending Queen’s University. Working with a collective of DJs who would put on regular hip-hop/R&B jams, Ohtake compiled an email newsletter distributed throughout the Queen’s community. After realizing the coverage of Toronto’s urban music/culture magazines was predominately local, Ohtake realized an online magazine might help to showcase Canadian hip-hop coast to coast.
Additionally, Ohtake felt that by providing American content, TheCyberKrib would help educate its U.S. audience on what was going on in Canada. It is this balance of Canadian and American content that has made TheCyberkrib stand out from its competition.
Ohtake states that other Canadian-based urban music sites like HipHopCanada.com provide mostly Canadian content, while the Winnipeg-based HipHopDx.com “has a one hundred per cent U.S. mindstate.” Now, two years after launching, TheCyberKrib.com has become Canada’s leading hip-hop site, with over 40,000 unique visitors and 1,200,000 hits a month.
Despite developing good reputations, both TheCyberKrib and UmbrellaMusic find difficulty in garnering the same level of respect from the publishing industry. “The publishing world doesn’t seem to take the Web seriously,” Ohtake says. “However, some of the best resources are online, since there is so much more you can do.” Ohtake says there are many obvious advantages, including the ability to update content more regularly, less time constraints and enhancing text with streaming audio and video. Both TheCyberKrib.com and UmbrellaMusic.com feature video interviews, new music downloads and exclusive web casts of concerts.
Francis wouldn’t have it any other way. During interviews, musicians have suggested publishing a print version of UmbrellaMusic.com. “That’s a great idea,” she says, “but it’s kind of taking a step backward, right? Why would you take a rich media site and turn it into flat media?”