How 'Billboard' Returned To Top Of The Charts

Billboard is a print institution; the music-focused brand will be 123 this November.

John Amato, the 30-something president of The Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group, has led the company for just a fraction of its history. Yet during his four-year reign, the publication has seen revenue double. 

His dream is to morph Billboard from “the biggest b2b publication for music” to “the biggest music media company.”

To achieve that goal, Billboard took several key steps. It acquired Spin, Vibe and Stereogum from SpinMedia to “consolidate the music media business” and introduced a digital video series. Amato also landed a partnership with Instagram to provide exclusive access to content from the Grammy Awards and oversaw an initiative with Spotify to create the streaming service’s first music charts.

Those moves, coupled with strategic brand extensions, put Billboard on a trajectory to reach Amato’s goals.

But its resurgence as a power player wasn’t easy. From 2000 to 2013, the music industry suffered a 50% drop in sales of recorded music. “It was the biggest decline in the history of modern music,” he said.

And it hit Billboard’s staff and bottom line. Amato, previously chairman and CEO of Backstage and co-founder of Show Media, a transit-based OOH company, won't cite stats before his tenure, but said Billboard’s business was negatively affected by monetary declines in the broader music business.

But by 2017, the brand, which he calls the only remaining big publisher to “cover music and music only,” had recovered.

How did Amato keep Billboard on track?

He put Billboard “into the brand business.” The company’s music festivals and awards shows, such as Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival and Billboard Music Awards, became licensing opportunities for ad revenue. 

In fall 2016, Billboard also launched its first daily video series, called “Billboard News.” The show releases four 60- to 90-second episodes every day across 10 platforms, including Billboard.com, Facebook and the new "Billboard News" YouTube Channel.

The multi-pronged strategy clicked and revenues rose.

That’s especially true for the magazine’s digital advertising, which has grown more than 380% over the last four years, according to Amato. Video and licensing also witnessed strong growth.

Billboard’s rise was aided by its access to a “distinct, influential and affluent” audience in the music industry that cares about its chart rankings.

Billboard’s proprietary charts, like the Billboard Hot 100, which ranks the top songs in the U.S. every week, gave it access to music titans that vied for the No. 1 spot. They don't mind paying the $200 subscription price tag. And they engage with huge fan bases, especially on social media, where they share their ranking with millions of followers, extending brand awareness.

These influencers, such as record producer Jimmy Iovine, check Billboard’s charts. Iovine reaches rapper Dr. Dre, who then reaches “the world.”

“This is why our print product is thriving,” Amato said. “Because we were a business-to-business publication, we didn’t have a huge circulation, but a really strong brand.” (Billboard’s paid circulation has grown by 16% since 2013. The Alliance for Audited Media says Billboard had a total circulation of around 20,000 at the end of 2016.) Other businesses are built differently, he explained. They try to reach the world by putting Dr. Dre on the cover, then attracting advertisers.

Amato also points to several online successes.

Billboard has raked in 1 billion video views in 2017, already surpassing all views in 2016. Its social following, which includes Spin, Vibe and Stereogum, is around 25 million. By June, Billboard’s site was bigger than MTV and Rolling Stone

The Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group attracts 29 million monthly uniques, according to comScore, with Billboard accounting for about half that number. In addition, it was the No. 1 Twitter handle for engagements in the first quarter of 2016. At times, its account is second only to The New York Times.

Now Billboard is big enough, he said, to compete for audience, engagement and views with publishers native to those digital, social and video platforms. Not just in music but across categories.

Yet Billboard’s turnaround is thanks, in part, to the revival of the music industry. The magazine reported U.S. recorded music sales were up 11.4% in 2016. The industry brought in $7.65 billion in revenue, according to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), up from $6.87 million in 2015."

When asked about the challenges publishers face, Amato cited “reliance on other entities for distributing content” and problems of programmatic advertising, such as fake news, spammy articles and unsafe content, which threaten the media industry.

“On the one hand, it validates our existence. But it also undermines what we do,” he said. “Being a premium publisher, it creates an opportunity. When YouTube has problems with content safety and Facebook has problems with fake news, it makes what we do more meaningful.”

Next on his list is launching an edition of Billboard in Europe before the fall, a complement to the magazine's licensing agreements in Asia and South America. He also dreams of creating the Billboard Global 100, ranking the top 100 songs in the world each week.

Amato said his motivation to build on Billboard’s success is his kids. “One day, when it’s career day and it matters at school, they can say: ‘This is what my dad does.’ That’s important to me. If I just make money for a living and I didn’t love what I was doing, I wouldn’t be a complete person.”

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