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When Drones, Brands, Bands, And Journalism Collide

Lessons from The Fader on growing a successful media brand in a tough market.

In an era when music journalism is in a great deal of flux–print magazines are shuttering or going web-only, traditional criticism is losing space to lists–The Fader has held consistent ground as a lifestyle publication with a music focus. Launched in 1999, the magazine is approaching its 100th issue, has seen a 78% increase in online readership in the past year, and has more than doubled its staff in the past six months.

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Drone’s Eye Point of ViewPhoto: courtesy of DJI

The Fader‘s relationship with sister creative agency Cornerstone has clearly benefitted the magazine, facilitating music and branding partnerships that support editorial and its visibility. Nowhere is that more evident than at Fader Fort, an annual multiday event at the South By Southwest music festival and conference in Austin, built from scratch every year over five city blocks. Over 14 years, the Fort has gone beyond the typical publication’s sponsored showcase venue, becoming a hub not only for performances, but for innovative tech demonstrations and buzz-worthy brand activations.

Converse has been Fader Fort’s primary partner for four years, and this year they used the Fort as the headquarters for its Made By You campaign, in which artists customize Chuck Taylors, turning attendees’ feet into something of a living art gallery. Cornerstone is also Converse’s branding agency on their music initiatives, including the Rubber Tracks studio and Three Artists, One Song program, so there’s continuity not only in message but in staffing.

The crowd at the Fader Fort, 2015Photo: Ryan Muir

“The Fader staff has in a way been built around staffing at events like this,” says editor-in-chief Naomi Zeichner, a former senior editor at the magazine who was wooed back to the top spot last year after a stint as BuzzFeed‘s music editor. “We have someone who works on Fort year-round, who works on the Converse partnership year-round. That’s a key staff member with a key team.”

In addition to Converse’s spread and four days of performances by critical favorite acts like Migos, Skepta, Bleachers, and Chance the Rapper, the Fader Fort hosted a livestreaming control room and lounge sponsored by Dell, and Vitamin Water’s Project Hustle, a pitch competition for entrepreneurs held in an actual custom-built elevator simulator (get it?). And in truly 2015 fashion, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI recorded aerial video footage of performances and the grounds, which you can see in the above slideshow.

The Fader Fort also orchestrated a surprise performance by Miley Cyrus, which was leveraged by the Fader’s site for traffic and social engagement. Year-round, the Fader Fort helps not only to generate revenue through closer brand partnerships, but to establish the magazine as a taste-making brand itself. “It’s interesting to see where the Fader reader is,” says Zeichner. “Our reader is New York, London, Atlanta, L.A., and Austin. Why is Austin our fifth city? I don’t think it’s Rolling Stone’s fifth city. That’s great to know. It’s great to know that over the 14 years that we’ve been here, we’ve kind of converted people. They’ve said, ‘Oh wow, these people do have good taste. They do bring in a new perspective that I was looking for,’ and know that they can come back throughout the year.”

While some may be uncomfortable with the cohabitation of a branding agency and a journalistic enterprise, it’s a model that many publications have had to adopt in some form to survive. “I think some people think the companies are much more embedded than they are,” says Zeichner. “There’s a lot of cooperation, but also everybody’s kind of fulfilling their own goals. For example, Cornerstone has a growing design department, and it’s awesome when those people can help us make gifs. To some extent, I think that the companies can work together more powerfully, in a healthy way.”

About the author

Evie Nagy is a former staff writer at FastCompany.com, where she wrote features and news with a focus on culture and creativity. She was previously an editor at Billboard and Rolling Stone, and has written about music, business and culture for a variety of publications.

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