SpinMedia's New CEO Focused '100 Percent' on Editorial: Q&A with Stephen Blackwell

SpinMedia CEO Stephen Blackwell.

Spin Media Group Inc.'s troubles have been public and ongoing. Formerly known as SpinMedia (and before that, BuzzMedia, which acquired it in 2013), the media conglomerate -- which includes music publications SPINVibe, Idolator, and Stereogum, and celebrity websites Celebuzz and the Frisky -- entered a liquidation earlier this year when its lender, Silicon Valley Bank, was unable to find another buyer for the company, which owed the bank $12 million. As Re/code points out, the process is not unlike filing for bankruptcy; in this case, the transaction allowed SpinMedia to work out its debts with previous vendors.

In addition to several rounds of layoffs, the company has also gone through four different chief operating officers in the past year. Following the exit of former CEO Dale Strang, who was responsible for the aforementioned deal, Spin Media Group Inc. acquired men's lifestyle site Death & Taxes, whose founder, Stephen Blackwell, took Strang's position. As he told Billboard, Blackwell, 32, intends to leverage SpinMedia's position by focusing on its brand strength and on digital (the reason behind Vibe's move from a print publication to solely online, much like SPIN magazine). "I was focused not on what SPIN was," he says. "I was focused on what it was becoming, and the brand strength." 

It seems like you've been tasked with an impossible job. How are you going to do it?

SpinMedia has some incredible brands, and we have an incredible footprint in the music entertainment space. This is not a small operation. We have a 20 million ComScore. Google Analytics on all our properties are 60 million [views] a month. It’s a big audience, it’s an active audience. We’re able to partner with awesome marketing partners across the board. We do great stuff in experiential, in native, in rotational, so we’re going to keep charting down that path. One thing we did want to change over here is we’re going to be 100% focused on digital -- growing our editorial properties and making sure we have an incredible content strategy in place. I’m working very hard to make sure SpinMedia operates more like a second-stage startup than a monstrous organization. 

When you say 100% focused on digital, does that mean Vibe is going to cease being a print publication?

Vibe is not going to stay a print publication, no. The quarterly publication schedule has ceased. Vibe’s doing great on the digital side -- we’re doing six or seven million a month and I’m sure we could make it bigger if we focused all our resources on the .com. That’s the direction we’re headed in.

What about the layoffs announced Tuesday?

They affected about 14% of current staff, related to some position eliminations only. The positions eliminated were things that were directing resources to faciliate things that were legacy or print-minded, freelance expenses, people that negotiate with printers and things along those lines; as well as photo editors or designers that may have been producing stuff for print or digital versions of print. The main reason I’m here is to make sure we’re 100% digitally focused. 

Who's going to fill the positions left by departing employees, like those from SPIN?

There had been changes in the workforce on a property-by-property basis. Acquisitions are delicate, and when there’s an acquisition, a lot of times that can lead to people leaving because values might change or missions might change. When I came here and looked at the scope of what our workforce is actually doing, we’ve got an incredible team here. We’re a little light on the editorial side in my opinion, so I'm treating our brands as best as I can; how do our brands function in the market and with our audiences. The way that I’m building the team back up is with a focus on that, and making sure we have an agreeable split between how many editors and people not on editorial. We’ll be hiring eventually for people to fill those positions, and creating new positions. 

How has the transition been from running Death & Taxes to running a larger media empire?

Death & Taxes was fantastic and I’m trying to bring that type of enthusiasm, mindset, and model over here. There are great people at SPIN. There’s a lot of passionate, enthusiastic people here who believe in our brand. I see that same type of passion and enthusiasm in an operation of 110, 120 people that I saw at D&T, which is an operation of about 10 people. It’s a multiple of 12 in terms of personnel, but the core tenets are all there. These people are passionate advocates of music and entertainment. These people, walking the halls, represent what SpinMedia is all about. It’s a big part of why I took the job. A lot of that had to do with the people.

How was Death & Taxes acquired by SpinMedia? 

First of all, I never founded Death & Taxes to be an acquisition target. I want to clarify that as much as I can. Death & Taxes was a print publication initially, and we really wanted to pair our music tastes with what we considered social and viral content. In terms of traffic, we had about 300% growth in the first half of 2014 as compared to 2013, and were scaling revenue by 25-50% per year. Because of that high growth, Death & Taxes were consistently top 10, top 25 fastest growing properties in the music protocol, so we had multiple acquisitive conversations going on throughout the first two quarters of 2014. Out of the five or six conversations we were having, we kept circling back to SPIN. We knew that Death & Taxes was a vibrant, growing brand, and we needed Death & Taxes plugging in with SPIN and Vibe and the Frisky and Stereogum

Did it ever concern you that SpinMedia did not seem to be thriving? 

When we were moving forward with the acquisition process, we were focused on making sure D&T would be with brands that were similar. I knew from being someone who, on the independent side, could fill 750,000 to a million a year in revenue, if I were to come over into something that was really massive in scale, and had brand strength, we’d be able to drive those same revenue numbers. And the people here were so great, and so welcoming, and so smart, that it was ended up being a very easy decision for me and [editor-in-chief] Alex [Moore] to make.

Are you going to be relying mostly on ad sales versus investors going forward?

A big source of revenue comes from experiential marketing. We have some great institutions in place like SPIN at Stubbs, the Vibe awards -- those are some big tentpole activations, but obviously we do smaller activations. As for native content, you’re going to see a lot more of that coming. those are our focal points in terms of revenue and how we’re looking a the business and market partnerships. in terms of funding, i’m happy to let you know that we just raised 7.5 million from M/C Partners, Anthem, Focus, TDF Ventures. Of course we are bottom-line-focused and working towards that, but the raise has multiple reasons behind it -- we’re looking at making other acquisitions, and we’re 100% focused on strategy and growing as well as on the bottom line. 

What are you planning to do with ticketing platforms Wantickets and Jambase, which you recently acquired? 

SPIN is primarily premium content brands, and Wantickets and Jambase have a bigger scope on the digital side. Wantickets is a super EDM-focused ticket listing platform, and Jambase is covers a lot of different styles of music. What’s really cool about Jambase is they have a forum structure, which adds a little bit of spice to our layout. It's not something we have on our owned and operated sites. They do a good job with audience engagement, entering their forums and speaking their mind. There's a great scale of people active on jambase. We're really excited dot work with them mostly on rotational media, and ad delivery; partnering with them on media partnerships provides an additional audience for our brand partners. That’s basically it.