Lester Bangs, the wildman American gonzo music journalist who died nearly 30 years ago from a drugs overdose, is an unlikely pioneer of a successful internet paywall model. Nonetheless, from beyond the grave, Bangs and his distinctive "gutter poetry" is propelling the British-based site "Rock's Back Pages" (RBP) to commercial success.
For the price of a subscription, users can access classic Bangs, such as a 1973 profile of Iggy and The Stooges in Stereo Review in which he observed the emergence of glam fashions, or a 1972 write-up of Slade in the Phonograph Record which was broadly complimentary despite describing Noddy Holder's band as "the usual dull dorkoid pack of Limey jerks".
British music journalist Barney Hoskyns persuaded the Bangs estate to contribute material to the RBP archive of some 20,000 pieces of music journalism. Don't let the name confuse you, it's not just about rock. The home page this week was offering content on almost every genre you could name, with classic material on artists from folk band Pavement to rapper Notorious BIG.
There is an audio archive with scores of MP3 files containing interviews with the likes of Marc Bolan (talking in 1975), Morrissey (1989) and Jimi Hendrix (giving his last interview before his death in 1970).
You could spend hours here – but though RBP has the kind of "stickability" that advertisers crave, there is an absence of commercial messages on a site funded almost entirely by subs.
When Hoskyns founded RBP 10 years ago (with financial support from musician Dave Stewart) he thought its customers would be the mass global audience of music fans. It has turned out differently. The site charges a hefty £120 a year for a single subscription and is still viable. Who said the internet demands to be free?
RBP's success is based on its appeal as an academic resource. Two thirds of Britain's universities have taken out group subscriptions, as have dozens of institutions across North America, Australia and Europe.
Selling subscriptions to ordinary music fans was not easy but Hoskyns refused to give content away. "I still have a problem with the self-destructiveness of free. Everybody has gone over the same cliff holding hands and thousands of journalists have been laid off."
RBP's turning point came in 2005 when Hoskyns and his partners attended the American Library Association conference in Chicago. "That's where we learned how we could sell a product like Rock's Back Pages," he says. With the help of sales specialist Paul Kelly, who had worked at Oxford University Press, RBP began to realise the value of its archive.
As the site's reputation has grown, writers have sought to be part of it. Having started with 25 contributors, RBP hosts the work of 500 journalists – including big names such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray – who have the chance to earn money from its model. They make £125 when RBP licences one of their pieces to partners such as Yahoo! Music and to titles as far away as Germany and Japan.
Such sales are often driven by topicality. A classic John Robb interview with the Stone Roses in Sounds was popular with news of the band reforming.
IPC, the publisher of NME, which runs a highly-popular free website, objected to RBP building a business through content that included material from its famous music paper. "They huffed and puffed and tried to intimidate us and then they gave up," is Hoskyns's description of the legal tussle that ensued three years ago. The RBP founder hopes such wrangles are behind him. "It has been a long and arduous journey," he says, "but we have got to pretty healthy place where we are not making money hand over fist but we are afloat."Reuse content