Warren Buffett once said, "The smarter the journalists are, the better off society is. For to a degree, people read the press to inform themselves - and the better the teacher, the better the student body."
Last week, Buzzfeed shook up the music industry with this big juicy piece of link-bait that turned out to be a lesson in bad journalism:
"Urban Outfitters Now The World’s Biggest Seller Of Vinyl Records." This was followed by the opening sentence, "Here’s a shift for the music industry: Urban Outfitters is now the world’s biggest seller of vinyl records."
Urban Outfitters the #1 vinyl seller in the world? That didn't sit right with a lot of people in the music community.
The problem is that there is no factual support for this statement. There is only this quote from Urban Outfitters' chief administrative officer Calvin Hollinger: "Music is very, very important to the Urban customer… in fact, we are the world’s number one vinyl seller." BuzzFeed presented this quote as fact instead of just something that was said.
Immediately, I began searching for the data that supported the eye catching headline. I emailed the author, Sapna Maheshwari, and to her credit she emailed me back pretty quickly. However, her response was exactly the opposite of what I was hoping for:
The writer knew that she had written an inaccurate article, and she had no interest whatsoever in setting the record straight.
Now, Sapna Maheshwari doesn't deserve all the blame here. There was a string that stretched from Urban Outfitters' Calvin Hollinger to Sapna to whoever Sapna's editor(s) are at BuzzFeed. I'm the Editor-in-Chief of Zumic, and I know that fact-checking is hard work. Occasionally, bad information slips through the cracks. There is an urgency to publish interesting content as soon as possible, because that helps get more web traffic.
Having said that, if you've been contacted because you published something that's either incorrect or unverified -- and then choose not to correct it -- you're failing your basic responsibility as a journalist.
Just last month, BuzzFeed raised over $50 million in investment capital, boosting their total valuation to $850 million. How could a publisher with these resources and this kind of size be able to publish such a half-baked unprofessional article? After getting the investment money and then mysteriously deleting thousands of articles in August, you thought BuzzFeed would be under stricter editorial control.
Urban Outfitters did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Zumic. However, Billboard's Ed Christman debunked Urban Outfitters' false claim in an article published yesterday. Here are his vinyl sales figures*:
At the end of the day, it's important to note that independent record stores still make up a vast majority of overall record sales. Forbes reports that independent record stores accounted for 64% of vinyl sales in 2013. Co-founder of Record Store Day, Eric Levin, told me on the phone that the number should be higher than 70% when you factor in the smaller stores and second-hand market, neither of which factor into official Nielsen SoundScan reporting.
It's still interesting and important that Urban Outfitters is estimated to be the #2 vinyl seller in the U.S. by Billboard, but it's just as interesting and important that they pulled a bogus statistic out of thin air. There's a world of difference between #1 and #2, and a fact is a fact. BuzzFeed got it wrong. Making matters worse, several of the most established music news sites had picked up the story within a few hours:
"Bow Down Before the World's Top Seller of Vinyl Records, Urban Outfitters... Thanks to a unique sales method, the clothing store comes out on top"
"The vinyl boom isn’t just because of the likes of Record Store Day and Jack “I Break Records” White. You can thank Urban Outfitters, too... That’s right: the place that sells you
ironicoffensive sweatshirts and this inflatable beer pong hat also sells more vinyl LPs than Amazon, Insound, or any retail record shop."
It's a problem when people say things that aren't true, and then don't correct themselves. It's an even bigger problem when other people mindlessly repeat sensational headlines, reinforcing the lie and embellishing it with non-information.
There is an echo chamber of hack writers who copy an attention grabbing headline and run the story without knowing what they're writing about. That's right, there's a cottage industry of "music journalists" who sit in front of their computers and attempt to rephrase someone else's article without doing any of their own research whatsoever (as you can see above). Shocking, I know.
This isn't the first story that's spun out of control, and it won't be the last. In March of this year, Billboard published an "exclusive report" that U2 wouldn't be releasing their record until 2015 -- which ended up being not exclusively incorrect. Rolling Stone, Spin, Stereogum, NME, Huffington Post, and several other websites ended up reporting the story with headlines that ended up being completely wrong.
Entertainment news will perhaps always be connected with gossip and rumors. Even so, this anything goes, irresponsible web blog culture for music journalism needs to end. People like me are sick of the publicity stunts overshadowing the music.
Getting back to Buffett's quote, as music journalists, we need to do a better job informing people about what's really happening in the music industry instead of copy-pasting stories that we think are click-worthy. Out of respect for musicians and industry professionals, Zumic's policy is to do thorough research and clearly describe what is fact and what is not. We encourage other news outlets to do the same.
*It should be pointed out that Billboard's numbers are by no means 100% accurate, but at least Christman explains his estimates: "Billboard surveyed music labels, their distributors, and wholesalers, accounting for about 80% of the U.S. music market." He does not address Amoeba Records, who have 3 stores in California and are actually partners with Urban Outfitters. Christman also doesn't address Third Man Records, who do brick-and-mortar retail in Nashville as well as online / mail-order retail and (presumably) wholesale for the #1 vinyl record of 2014, Jack White's Lazaretto.