Scott Lapatine has loved music since he can remember. In fact, listening to music is such a fundamental part of his being there isn’t a moment in Scott’s day that goes un-soundtracked (he has speakers in his tub for when he’s giving his daughter a bath). A devout student of music writing, Scott developed his chops as an intern at MTV when he was in college, and he took subsequent writing posts on the .com team at MTVi and VH1.com.
In early 2002, he started Stereogum as a hobby to champion bands he liked – everything from pop to the ultra obscure. Now, 13 years later, a husband and father, his passion for music has only become larger and Stereogum has blossomed into a deeply engaged music community of millions of fans a month.
Scott and I caught up a few weeks ago and he shared his candid thoughts about the rapidly shifting music and publishing industries, as well as what Phil Collins songs he thinks are truly essential.
“You should be sound tracking every minute of your life.”
How did Stereogum start?
In the beginning of 2002, I started Stereogum as a hobby. We didn’t call it blogging back then, it was LiveJournaling or an “online diary” - though I would never say “online diary.”
Going out to shows, reviewing music, posting music gossip… It was anonymous for a few years before I put my name on it, but I was just trying to distribute mp3s of bands I thought weren’t getting enough attention.
I was working at MTVi, specifically for VH1.com, at the time and I was giving 110% at my job but me working on Stereogum simultaneously was the worst kept secret at the company. I think it helped inform my work at Vh1 so it was OK - I created MTV Networks’ first blog, made their first ringtone… On-air, I’d have them throw to this extra online content. Back then, that was something new.
The time was right for blogs and small publishers to get more attention and I was starting to get some feedback that I could make some money through a third party blog ads company.
I was essentially working two full-time jobs for a few years at that point and was desperate for someone else to take it over, really burning the candle at both ends and working until midnight or 1am. No one wanted to acquire it without me staying on.
How did you make the jump?
I met with a few venture capitalists and flew out to San Francisco for another meeting with a company interested in the blog. I was about to sell Stereogum when I got a call from Jason Hirschhorn from MTV who introduced me to Bob Pittman, one of the founders of MTV. They believed in the site and wanted to invest.
I left VH1 in April and by the fall of 2006, I was incorporated and hiring a small staff.
What were those early days like? Were you scared?
I went from being a producer at VH1 to being the CEO of Stereogum. I was a CEO of something?
I had to learn about KPIs, making sure my investors were getting something in return and I had to learn a lot about content and how it worked.
When I have to fill out forms where they ask my job, to this day, I list a different one every time. I’m an editor, producer, music critic, blogger (though that doesn’t sound very cool)… it’s a little bit of everything.
Now that it’s your work, do you still love music as much as you did as a kid?
I was a kid who would spend a hundred hours making a mixtape.
My closest friends all stopped really listening to music 20 years ago, but the internet has afforded me this opportunity to reach other fans. I’ve also been able to hire people to keep me informed, maybe I’ve been lucky, but they’ve all been really great.
How do you hire? How do you ensure your voice and vision stay enact both in the past and now?
I hired a sales person and a writer and one operations guy and for many years, through 2010/2011, it was that small an operation.
The first writer I hired (editor’s note: Amrit Singh, now a filmmaker and on-air host on Revolt TV) was a lawyer and emailed me a review he’d written and it was solid. He also took really great photos and would even record parts of the show to make sure he could go back and figure out the set list. I’ve actually met a lot of my writers by them emailing me their work.
I have two senior writers in Virginia and Ohio. But in being remote, they don’t waste time commuting. And news is such a big part of our business now. My hours are 7am to 1am every day. It’s an insane workload but I love it.
Some entrepreneurs want to pass it over to a staff but it seems like you want to keep it yourself.
Some people might call it micro-managing (laughs). But yes, I like the details. My staff could totally handle it, but I enjoy being involved as much as I can.
How do you consume information?
There was something on a Buzzfeed writer’s Twitter a little while ago, people comparing their numbers of unread emails. I have over a half a million unread emails right now.
I’ve kept the same email address since early on so I get a lot… Pitches from publicists, pitches from bands, newsletters, it’s a lot to sort through but I have my filters.
If I was starting a music publication now, it would probably just be a playlist or an Instagram account. Between the dominance of Facebook and ad blocking on mobile, it’s rough out there on small publishers.
We’re small so we can be nimble as publishing changes but the blog format can seem archaic.
So no blog/site? Great, because that’s what I’m launching with By The Bootstraps! (Laughs)
It depends what your goals are. It’s difficult because young people may not use RSS but they are on Instagram or Snapchat… but right now those are not going to drive any traffic to a website that has advertisements on it. Banner ads are certainly starting to go away.
There is a revolution happening in both publishing in music. I’m happy to be writing about as well as observing it rather than working at a record label though.
Speaking of the music industry, where do you think it’s headed? What does a band have to do now to succeed?
Well, we started as an mp3 blog but labels don’t even put them out anymore. It’s all streaming.
Touring, merch, and syncs are how they make money and I think the most successful ones are those that engage with their audience every day and take fans on their journey.
Maybe that doesn’t turn them into superstars but whether it’s a patron model or fans are paying for exclusive content, they need to make that connection.
I think smaller bands can get more notoriety than in the past because of the big audience online. There is a huge opportunity there. It’s an exciting time and there’s more than one right way to do it.
From the publishing end, any thoughts on what the future is there? Clickbait for all?
I feel very passionate about this. Any decent online publisher is going to get accused of doing clickbait now, the way it is too broadly defined.
Stereogum has very high standards of what and how we share. Most people come to us from social. You see a lot of publishers there exploiting the curiosity gap -- “Kanye attended this awards show, you’ll never guess what happened next.” I’m not going to trick someone into clicking on a Grimes mp3!
I write all the headlines - maybe that’s why I don’t get any sleep - but it’s because I want people to know what they’re getting when they come to us.
We also have internal discussions about anything we think may not be right for Stereogum. There are a lot of things I can do to increase traffic, some unscrupulous things or just things that would be lame that would be good for traffic.
I also don’t make my writing team look at traffic at all. My managing editor and I are aware of traffic but my writers just have to write, listen to music and be critics. We don’t have a social media person, we all sort of do that. (Talk to me in a year and we might.)
It’s really interesting right now because it’s so competitive. You have a small window to get someone to click on your link before someone else’s. You just have to cross your fingers and hope your message works on Facebook. We’re not as dependent on Facebook as other sites are though which is good because no one really understands their algorithm.
We actually get a lot of traffic straight to our site; a lot of publishers don’t. Our traffic is higher than it’s ever been. If it wasn’t, I’d be worried and thinking that I should be doing something else.
Also, a lot of big sites these days don’t have comments. We have a community of people who genuinely like to talk to one another about music. I moderate it, get in the comments and engage. It would be boring without any feedback.
How do you do it differently?
We don’t have traditional meetings. Meetings are a waste of time. We’re just going to blog. We weren’t going to have an office initially. We have an office now but we still have remote people. We also did things differently content wise. We don’t really have traditional reviews. Everything is sort of a review. We don’t give scores or grades. A news story may have some opinion in it. We do long form.
We’ve also maintained a certain aesthetic, an irreverence and a core interest in certain types of genres. A lot of music publications have expanded into movies and pop culture, that is not part of the plan and I don’t have interest in that. There is still so much we can do with music.
We’re growing but we’re still a small operation. We compete with some of the big operations out there but they have ten times the number of people working for them so we really just have to hustle and focus.
What do you love about your job?
I have a 6 year old, so I don’t go to as many shows as I used to, but the excitement about discovering a new band has never gotten old for me. You hear a song that you love and you play it on a loop, you find out when are they coming to town, when you can get the album… How are we going to support them?
I don’t have any hobbies outside of music. I would be doing this sort of stuff on some level even if this weren’t my job. Even going back to high school, I would always have music on. We’d drive around and my friends would turn down the radio, like, ‘Can’t we talk?”
“No!, Why wouldn’t you want music on all the time?”
These days there are so many things that you can discover from reissues or things that you can find on streaming that you didn’t catch on to the first time around. It’s a great time.
You mentioned inefficiencies and taste earlier, what differentiates Stereogum?
We like to consider ourselves authoritative and irreverent but also interactive because we have comments. We get a lot of reader tips.
We also cover everything. The editorial intentions are very pure.
When I was starting Stereogum, there was a backlash against places like MTV and boomer music publications because there was a perception that the editorial was dishonest. Was it driven by sales or cronies of the publisher? I don’t socialize with bands or PR people, really. I go to work and then hang out with my family. If we endorse bands, it’s because we want to. I think people sense that and know they can trust us.
At the same time, Stereogum is a really small team. I haven’t taken a day off in 5 years and we work on holidays, but its ok because we’re passionate about it and I think people know that too.
It’s also different in a business sense. In so many other music publications, that’s just one sort of aspect of their business. Maybe they have a print magazine or a festival or they do marketing, but for us, we’re just a website. Again, that may change in the future but that’s where our focus is right now. On one hand, we’re limited in what we offer, but that also allows us to make it the best it can be.
Did you ever have any dark nights of the soul where you just wanted to throw in the towel? Either in the early days or even recently as you’ve grown?
Stereogum had a spinoff called Videogum for many years, a separate site and separate team dedicated to television, movies and online video. It was supposed to be funny, astute commentary about prestige TV dramas, viral videos … live blogging of award shows. People really loved it and the writers were great.
The unfortunate thing was Videogum was never supported by SPINMedia. It was a small operation down to one person and then they axed that one person. It was profitable and they shut it down very abruptly.
By the way, it’s OK for me to say this now because there is no one at the company now that was there during that dark period.
I’ve been with this company for 8 years, longer than almost anyone else there.
What’s the vision for Stereogum?
We’re reaching about 5M people per month now. We’re often first with news, early with our version of ‘reviews,’ but we were so late on a social network presence we don’t have the reach that some of our competitors have. There is a bigger audience out there for us and I’d like to grow the Stereogum community and empower the readers so that they’re contributing, have more of a voice and can share with each other.
We’re just at the start. I’d love to do more events, it’d be very cool to do a Stereogum festival at some point. We’ve produced original albums over the years, comps of bands covering classic albums – the Strokes, Radiohead, etc. and I’d love to do more projects like that.
I’ve been helped over the years by people who love what they’re doing and are so knowledgeable about music, I couldn’t do this by myself. I’d recommend surrounding yourself with intelligent people.
Favorite Phil Collins songs? [It is his Twitter avatar: twitter.com/scottgum]
“I Don’t Care Anymore” or “Take Me Home.” He’s due for a reassessment, he doesn’t get enough respect these days.