Beleaguered Spin Media’s new C.E.O., Stephen Blackwell, lays out a plan

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Spin Media. (Spin Media)
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Peter Sterne

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Last week, as Capital first reported, Stephen Blackwell was named the new C.E.O. of Spin Media Group—a collection of more than a dozen online music and lifestyle publications that together bring in about 30 million monthly uniques. The company owns the two longstanding brands SPIN and VIBE, as well as digital properties of more recent vintage like Celebuzz, The Frisky, and Stereogum, among other brands.

Blackwell is a relative newcomer to the company, which has spun through countless C.E.O.s, layoffs, pivots, acquisitions, and new names over the past few years.

He is the founder of the music and lifestyle site Death and Taxes, which was acquired by Spin Media Group in July. Shortly after he joined the company, Spin Media’s board offered him the C.E.O. position.

“When I first got to Spin, and I started talking to everybody about, we’ve got an incredible brand here and a lot of opportunity for growth, I saw nothing but upside,” Blackwell said in a telephone interview with Capital. “I started expressing my vision on how we could help the brand grow, and that's kind of when the conversation started about, well how does the C.E.O. position look to you?”

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Blackwell is the fourth C.E.O. in two years for Spin Media Group—previously known as SpinMedia LLC, and before that Buzz Media, and before that Buzznet.

His immediate predecessor, Dale Strang, was named C.E.O. less than a year ago. He had been an executive at Vibe Media, which Spin acquired in April 2013. According to Blackwell, Strang decided to step down as C.E.O. due to the stress of commuting from his home in San Francisco to the company’s New York office. He will remain with the company as executive chairman.

Spin has been through multiple rounds of layoffs. In early 2013, the company reportedly had about 250 staffers. Its current headcount, Blackwell told Capital, is “just north of 120,” plus freelancers. When asked in a follow-up email about the possibility of more layoffs in the future, Blackwell gave an evasive answer.

“I’m committed to optimizing the business at every level and certainly not only at the staffing level,” he said.

The company has also had to deal with major funding issues. In February, while Strang was still C.E.O., it underwent an “assignment for benefit of creditors”—effectively selling itself to its own backers—in order to wipe out its debts.

But Spin Media Group has finally put all those problems behind it, Blackwell told Capital.

“The board is committed to a long-term strategy with Spin Media. They see tremendous value in the brands and the people inside the walls of this company,” he said.

The change from Strang—a veteran of the print magazine Vibe—to Blackwell is evident in a shift in the way the company talks about its print strategy. 

In February, Strang told Adweek that Spin Media was committed to keeping Vibe as a quarterly print publication and interested in converting some of its other online properties into print publications.

“I don't think VIBE is the only print product you'll see from us this year," he said at the time.

However, Blackwell told Capital that Spin is a “digitally-focused company” that has no current plans to turn any of its other online properties into print magazines. Even Spin, once a prominent monthly print magazine, seems destined to stay online-only.

“We are 100 percent respectful of VIBE and SPIN’s incredible legacies as print properties. They had great readership, great audience competition, great reach,” he said. “[But] we’re 100 percent focused on digital...we’re a digitally-focused company, and we’re really excited about that as our main growth area.”

He is not entirely dismissive of print as a medium.

“From my perspective on how I look at print, I’m a huge, enormous fan of things like n+1 and Paris Review…if we’re going to do something in the print space, we want it to be something along those lines with the brands that we have,” he said. 

Rather than print, Blackwell wants Spin to focus on brand partnerships for digital advertising and live events.

Spin’s sites are entirely ad-supported, through both direct ad sales—which includes native ads as well as interstitial ads, homepage takeovers, and the like—and programmatic display ads.

“Brand direct and programmatic have settled at an 80/20 for us,” Blackwell said. “Our brand partnerships go far beyond rotational media—that’s where we can add social and experiential value to our partners, and where we’re seeing the most success and engagement.”

“Experiential” may be one of Blackwell’s favorite words. The term refers to live events hosted by Spin Media properties and sponsored by advertisers. Two of Spin Media’s brands—the legendary music magazines SPIN and VIBE—have been hosting events for decades, and Blackwell believes that it is a promising strategy for many of Spin’s other online publications.

“Advertisers see value in partnering with us for experiential because of our track record—SPIN and VIBE have been activating events for decades,” Blackwell said. 

“It would be amazing for us to branch out to other sites that don’t really have that. It’s great if you’re able to leverage sites like Frisky or sites like Stereogum and build those experiential platforms as well,” he added. 

Spin’s stable of brands are diverse, to say the least. The company’s largest sites, Blackwell said, are Celebuzz (about hollywood gossip), Death and Taxes (music and lifestyle), The Frisky (women’s issues), VIBE (music), and Stereogum (indie music). The only thing that unites all the company’s sites are their target demographic: 18 to 34 year-olds.

Blackwell believes that his experience running Death and Taxes, which blurs the line between a music site and a general lifestyle site, has prepared him well to lead Spin.

“We always reached out to the music audience in probably a much different way than something like a Pitchfork did...we thought, all these people—and we’re music people, too—that we’re contacting and communicating with probably care about some other things, too,” he said. 

It remains to be seen whether Blackwell can manage Spin’s brands in such a way to convince brands to advertise across multiple sites and sponsor events. If so, the company could finally escape its tailspin and achieve profitability. Otherwise, Blackwell could find himself the latest victim of Spin's revolving C-suite.