by Carter Maness
A couple of months ago, I pitched a feature on the music industry that I was totally qualified to write. But the editor questioned my experience: What exactly had I published about the music industry? By my count, over two thousand blogposts since 2009. But the links to my author pages bounced back because the websites had disappeared. Five years of work apparently evaporated from server racks somewhere in New Jersey, as if I had never written anything at all. Come to think of it, had I?
Despite the pervasive assumption that everything online lasts forever, the internet is inherently unstable. Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker story on archive.org’s Wayback Machine notes the average lifespan of a website is “about a hundred days.” Sites vanish with no explanation, or get overwritten without any traceable history. Media outlets, even those with salaried employees and editorial budgets can and do suffer the same fate.
When a website dies, it’s usually the editorial that goes first: writers, both freelance and staff, then editors. Marketing and ad sales go next. Unlike print, where archive editions get filed away or become recycling, a website can be scrubbed out of existence because a company pulls it down or simply stops paying for hosting or domain rights. Modern Farmer went from National Magazine Award to pasture in a year. (Despite some assurances it will still be around, check back in six months.) Hipster Runoff owner Carles, rather than pull his dormant site down, just sold it to an Australian investor for over twenty thousand dollars. Remember The Daily? The internet doesn’t.
Most of the media outlets I’ve written for have folded and then were flat-out deleted. In 2009, I had started blogging for AOL Music’s Spinner and The BoomBox, averaging three posts per day about indie rock and hip-hop. By 2010, I was writing approximately two print features and twenty blogposts per month on local music acts for New York Press. After that, in 2011, I joined the boutique MP3 blog RCRD LBL as the site’s lead editor/writer, publishing five posts per day. None of these outlets exist in 2014 beyond stray citations, rotten links and Facebook apparitions.
Freelance writing for AOL Music in 2009 felt like a con. For two hundred words of music blogging, I earned fifty dollars per post. It was my only job, even though I was self-employed. I pitched my posts at Spinner, AOL Music’s rock and indie vertical, and The BoomBox; interviewed Ghostface a few times; and earned a relatively decent living without ever going to the office. In February 2011, AOL purchased The Huffington Post, which already had its own successful music section. Budgets were slashed and, in April, almost every permalancer writing for AOL Music, including myself, was laid off and replaced by in-house editors who were tasked with publishing five to ten stories per day. The salaried model, despite hitting twenty-five million monthly visitors in 2012 and apparently costing less than paying dozens of freelancers on a per-post basis, did not generate enough ad revenue, and a 2013 hiring freeze foreshadowed the ultimate closure of all AOL Music properties on April 26, 2013. Spinner was its most-read music blog. But after shuttering AOL Music, the site, which averaged six million monthly visitors, was deleted entirely in August 2013. Spinner.com now redirects you to an AOL Radio homepage that won’t even load in my browser. And its Twitter account had been silent for so long enough that, in 2014, it was reset and claimed by a Japanese person named Sora, who has six followers.
When I talked to Dan Reilly, former editor of Spinner, about the disappearance, he told me, “I assume that Spinner’s archives exist somewhere, but they’re definitely not readily accessible online anymore. AOL never gave us any explanation, but it seems obvious that they wanted to wash away any trace of AOL Music and promote AOL Radio instead. I’m not sure what the pros and cons are, but it’s definitely a shame that all that content is lost, even just for reference purposes. There have been times when I’ve needed to find a quote or information from one of our pieces, but they’re just not there anymore.” AOL continues to “simplify its portfolio of brands.” Tomorrow, it will shut down both TUAW, the well-known Apple site and Joystiq, its pioneering video game blog. For now, the company says it will archive the sites as channels under its Engadget umbrella — one of AOL’s few remaining flagship properties, but arguably its most precarious.
As my AOL income evaporated in early 2011, I focused on freelance work for New York Press, which, in turn, suffered the fate of most alt-weeklies: Shrinking ad revenue lead to a smaller paper with smaller budgets and eventually, total collapse. With no meaningful online footprint, Manhattan Media, its publisher, had started focusing on growing its under-read blogs. I’d been writing sporadic music features for the paper since 2008, but this new online focus earned me and a few freelance writers promotions to associate editors and a weekly paycheck of a hundred dollars. I interviewed local bands and wrote about homophobia in rap. In July 2011, my longtime editor took a better job and they stopped paying me for months. Six weeks later, a new twenty-two-year-old “executive” was hired. She offered me a hundred dollars per month for the same amount of work.
The paper, whose circulation peaked at a hundred thousand in 2006, published its last edition in September 2011 to a circulation just twenty thousand. That’s when I quit. The online archive stayed up until a redesign went live in February 2012. Developers must have forgotten about the blogs, as all of New York Press’s online articles disappeared and large swaths of the paper’s history either got lost or were migrated into the new CMS with broken copy and unreadable line breaks. Somehow, in January 2013, Nypress.com was sold to Straus News. The URL now redirects to Straus’s community newspaper site, which has nothing to do with the storied alt-weekly besides owning its domain name. The music blog, along with over three hundred posts from my nine months on the job, is offline.
In June 2011, as I sensed the New York Press was crashing, RCRD LBL offered me a full-time editor position publishing blog posts that featured MP3 downloads and a few sentences of copy. I was tasked with leading a staff of four freelance writers. RCRD LBL — and MP3 blogs generally — began shriveling that same year as fans transitioned from downloading tracks to streaming them. Why deal with downloading and managing files when you can just click a link to play nearly any song in existence? Why bother wading through wordy recommendations from a dude who secretly just wants to listen to Pavement all day when your real friends constantly share music you actually like on Spotify and Soundcloud? With operating costs around three hundred thousand dollars per year on top of hosting for fifty thousand songs, RCRD LBL’s business model quickly became untenable. In September 2012, freelance budgets were cut, and in October, the entire staff, other than me, was laid off. I reduced the posting schedule to one piece per day, and revenue from the site’s ad network, SpinMedia, flatlined.
On May 14, 2013, I published an interview with Austin, TX haze-rock trio Pure X and an MP3 by French post-punkers Le Femme, knowing those would be the blog’s final posts. They stayed at the top of the site for five months. Even though I felt an obligation to the readers, funding had dried up, so I just stopped. Hardly anyone noticed until October 2013, when the entire six-year archive, including my roughly eleven hundred posts, disappeared from the internet altogether. Facebook and Twitter provide the last evidence of blogs like RCRD LBL. Like profiles of dead friends, fan pages and reader messages sometimes float into my feed as ghostly reminders that my work once existed.
We assume everything we publish online will be preserved. But websites that pay for writing are businesses. They get sold, forgotten and broken. Eventually, someone flips the switch and pulls it all down. Hosting charges are eliminated, and domain names slip quietly back into the pool. What’s left behind once the cache clears? As I found with that pitch at the end of 2014, my writing resume is now oddly incomplete and unverifiable. Ex-editors can provide references, but I have surprisingly few examples of published work to show beyond scanned print features from my early days, so I’ve started backing up my work.
For media companies deleting their sites, legacy doesn’t matter; the work carries no intrinsic value if there is no business remaining to capitalize on it. I asked if RCRD LBL still existed on a server somewhere. It apparently does; I was invited to purchase it for next to nothing. I could pay for the hosting, flip the switch on, and all my work would return. But I’d never really look at it. Then, eventually, I would stop paying the bills, too.