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Meet Fader's Naomi Zeichner, Editor in Chief of Music's Most Important Magazine (Q&A)

"We have a real audience that respects us, and artists know and respect that."

Ryan Muir / Fader

On tour in the United Arab Emirates during the end of 2014, DJ Esco was arrested at the Dubai airport for possession of marijuana. Esco, real name William Moore, is the DJ for one of rap music’s biggest names, Future. Ultimately, DJ Esco spent 56 nights in jail, returning to the U.S. in January 2015.

When he got back, Esco gave a definitive interview to the Fader, a small, prestige music publication known primarily for two things: In-depth profiles of A-list musicians, and Fader Fort, probably the most high-profile party of SXSW Music.

"Fader told my story better than I could ever tell my story," he told a crowd at SXSW a few weeks ago.

This is the reputation of the Fader. A Fader cover has become coveted real estate in the music industry, and unlike Rolling Stone covers of yore, Fader photos are often set up as viral grist for a musician’s Instagram followers.

Its cover feature stories run the gamut from hip-hop and pop stars like Drake, Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna to country music rising stars, like Kacey Musgraves. The magazine was founded in 1999 by ex-label promoters Jon Cohen and Rob Stone, and it is owned by their ad agency, Cornerstone.

Fader’s audience is small, but growing; it has an average print circulation of 115,000, and Quantcast says it had around two million global unique visitors this month. Traffic has increased around 40 percent across Web and mobile in the last year, and its video views have gone up by 400 percent, according to the magazine.

Naomi Zeichner, Fader’s editor in chief, is the person responsible for directing editorial strategy, picking who gets on covers and tying it all to Fader’s events business. She was named one of Forbes’ 2016 30 under 30, and she has spent most of her career working for Fader. After a yearlong stint at BuzzFeed, she returned to run Fader in early 2015.

I caught up with Zeichner at SXSW to talk about her interests, SXSW and managing a small print publication in a media environment that is more and more unforgiving for such efforts. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Noah Kulwin: Musicians can now tap into their audiences directly through services like Snapchat or Instagram, and they don’t need to go through a middleman in the media like they used to. Approaching an artist, when they have less and less incentive to talk to a magazine like the Fader, what makes them want to do so?

Every cover story we do has its own quirks. But across the board, we approach them with the same core principles that the Fader started with in 1999. We ask for a lot of access, during someone’s down time. We do intimate photo shoots that don’t involve huge budgets or lots of styling. We don’t give photo or story approval. And absolutely, we’ve seen artists get increasingly anxious about all of that. But ultimately, we have a real audience that respects us, and artists know and respect that. We follow our gut over release schedules or sales numbers or what publicists want to happen. And we make our magazine to live beyond its issue cycle. To have a Fader cover is to join an elite squad of people who actually mean something to our readers and to culture, and — in a lot of cases — have gone on to have real staying power in music.

People like Chance the Rapper or J. Cole or Kehlani are really good storytellers. That’s how they’ve built such strong fan bases. And I don’t think the stories those artists tell are necessarily inauthentic. But I do believe that two perspectives are better than one.

 Fader EIC Naomi Zeichner
Fader EIC Naomi Zeichner
Alex Welsh / Fader

Is there a clear digital-print division at the Fader like there is at other print publications?

No. And that was part of the selling point, even when I was an intern. I sat in a room with editors, and there was exposure to the everyday print magazine process. And as we grow, a huge part of Fader’s DNA still is that everybody should get to touch everything. And that we all should know how to make the product that we’re making. And that’s part of the reason I hope that it’s more valuable to work at Fader than somewhere else.

After a while, I moved up a couple title changes, and I left and went to BuzzFeed, where I edited the music vertical. I had a really positive experience there, and I think if anything, learned a ton about analytics and what different music audiences were interested in.

Could you talk a little bit about the lessons learned at BuzzFeed before you came back to the Fader at the end of 2014?

Something that [BuzzFeed Editor in Chief] Ben Smith is obsessed with is scoops, and I think that I came back with a real fire under my ass to make sure that Fader was known for its news and its reporting as well as its tastemaking. I wanted to really form our news operation, and Fader didn’t really have a news arm. But it’s been really important to have aggregation like other sites, as well as original reporting.

A big takeaway for me at BuzzFeed was focusing more than ever on what you might call pop music and focusing on fandoms more than tastemakers. I think BuzzFeed has such a populist approach to a lot of things, and that was my approach at BuzzFeed Music. I think what I learned there is that pop music comes in a million different forms.

How did you get involved with the Fader?

I grew up in Athens, Georgia. I went to school at a college out in Oregon called Reed College. I studied art. I sort of aspired to be an art teacher or an arts educator. I moved to New York to do some of that work and in that time started interning at the Fader. I was sort of a lifelong music fan, college radio DJ or whatever, just really was a huge Fader fan as a kid.

Shortly after interning, I started to realize that I was really liking the work a lot. After interning, I believe I first started as an online editor and started blogging. I came in around 2010, and left four years later.

So how small was your staff then?

These are fuzzy numbers, but like around six. There were a couple of video people, an events team, a marketing team, but absolutely on the edit side it was a smaller crew. We had one edit meeting a week and we all fit in a small room, and now we don’t. At the time we had this one office, and now we have like four.

I was very focused on the Internet. I don’t know if that’s exactly why they hired me. I wasn’t doing a ton for the magazine, and was initially just writing for the website every day.

The Fader has a pretty small staff. On the Internet now, there’s an an incentive for publications to scale incredibly fast to a large digital audience because that’s the only way they can sustain themselves. Is scale something that you’re chasing, or do you want to keep Fader at a certain size?

We don’t feel precious about keeping our audience small. We want to be a definitive music magazine that gets as big as possible, but I think a right way to do that is to keep the trust that people have in us, so that we can do really big impactful stories and that people know that our shit is always dank. That’s the way to grow, that is scale to me.

It’s not just that we’re housed within Cornerstone — we have founders who believe in us and have reinvested resources in Fader in the last couple of years.

 The crowd at Fader Fort 2016 in Austin
The crowd at Fader Fort 2016 in Austin
Ryan Muir / Fader

And you’ve been adding more and more staff with those resources, right? What has your hiring looked like over the last year and a half?

The biggest story in our hiring is that we totally revamped our video operation. I see what we’ve been doing in video as a Phase One, which is really doing what we do in the magazine — long-form, in-depth profiles of artists. The next push is continuing with our long-form video and thinking about what does short-form, Internet-friendly video look like for the Fader.

You’ve said that you don’t want to play the aggregation game, and that you’re investing in original, deep reporting, and hiring original writers is a core part of your strategy. Simultaneously, I don’t know of a single place that’s been able to sustain that and really scale it without support from an existing revenue model. How are you working with the business side to make that possible?

I can’t speak to overall business strategy; it’s not what I do. A huge thing for us is internationalization. We’ve opened an office in London, and we have a new office in Toronto. If we think about scale — more posts, more coverage — that’s sort of happening organically. We have people on the ground to do more aggregation, more reporting, more premieres and to touch base in those communities.

But listen, our strategy isn’t just because we think that it’s the right way to do things, it’s because the numbers support it. When we have a story that other people don’t have, that’s what makes people read us.

Media companies are increasingly crowding into the events space, like my employer, for example. You’ve been at SXSW for 15 years now. How do you stay competitive?

We were on the early side of any brands or publications coming down here. We’ve stayed and really committed to doing this, and it’s not like year-to-year we wait to see if somebody has some money and "Oh, then we’ll do an event." This is a core part of our DNA.

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