In a typical day, Bill Werde ponders everything from Justin Bieber’s pot smoking to Robin Thicke’s topless women, with hundreds of ear-worms along the way.
The editorial director of Billboard.com joined the company in 2005 and rose quickly to oversee one of the most-visited music-magazine sites on the Internet. The company tracks the best-selling songs and CDs in genres such as rock, pop and classical. A chart-topping song commands prestige for the artist and fuels record sales.
A vegan, Werde spoke to me about the state of the music business over a lunch of tofu and leafy greens at Bloomberg News headquarters in Manhattan.
Cole: What’s the most-played song on your iPod?
Werde: Oh, I hate this question. I like Bright Eyes, the White Stripes, U2, Pearl Jam, Tom Waits, Alabama Shakes, Velvet Underground, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Ocean. I was born in ’73 so the late ’80s and early ’90s and the post-punk, early-dance scene and the places where these meet are dear to me.
Cole: Billboard was known as a trade magazine. How have you changed its focus for the digital age?
Werde: We’ve created a footprint in the consumer space. We relaunched Billboard.com in 2009, and in 2 years we expanded from 4 million unique visitors a month to about 11 million, and now we’re at about 15 million. We get more traffic than Rolling Stone.com and Pitchfork.com. A lot of people don’t realize that.
Cole: What’s the most popular spot on the site?
Werde: The Hot 100 Chart, which lists the biggest songs in America in any given week, all the big stars -- Justin Bieber, Beyonce -- and biggest songs that you wish you could occasionally get out of your head.
Cole: What’s Bieber’s appeal?
Werde: Dating back to the days of Elvis and the Beatles, a phenomenon that was fueled largely by the frenzy of teenage and slightly older women is something pop music has counted on.
What’s starting to make him a bad boy is the weed smoking and the monkey. The people around him would greatly prefer that he not have stories written about him and weed and monkeys. He’s had five No. 1 albums. He’s a big, big business. Monkeys and marijuana threaten that business.
Cole: Which artist grabs you right now?
Werde: I had coffee this morning with the manager for an artist named Matty B, a YouTube phenomenon. Matty is really getting old because he’s 10.
Cole: Why did he capture your attention?
Werde: He tells the story of the new music business. Matty B is one of the many paths to getting yourself positioned to have a shot at the brass ring.
Cole: What’s the song of the summer?
Werde: It’s Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” It’s on track to become the most played song in radio history.
Cole: How did that happen?
Werde: This song wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it wasn’t for the naked video. No one would have paid attention. Then they saw it and said: Oh, topless women, which is a tried and true marketing technique. People like to look at topless women.
You have to understand how radio works. It’s a format game. If you have a hit that crosses into all formats, your hit is like a mushroom cloud, and that’s what Robin Thicke is doing. Robin Thicke wasn’t even in the conversation, and now he has the biggest song of the summer.
Cole: Do you think the song is, as some have charged, “rapey”?
Werde: I don’t. My wife minored in feminist studies and she loves that song. That in itself is not proof of it not being rapey. Rapiness is in the eye of the beholder.
Cole: Will people continue to pay for music?
Werde: As far as commodities go, music is a pretty amazing commodity. It’s up there with narcotics. I believe music has a value and lots of people are paying for music every day, but the way they’re paying for it is changing.
Cole: You spent your younger days going to raves and staying up all night listening to music. Is that the best preparation for a career in the music industry?
Werde: Ha. I’ll tell you one of the best moments of my career. I failed out of college, and I went back and got my degree. All the things that led me to my career were not necessarily beneficial to my academic pursuits.
So I got called by the journalism program at the University of Delaware, where I graduated, to come back to speak. The way I started, which is the God’s honest truth, is: “I slept through so many classes in this room, and I failed so many classes in this very room!”
It was this wonderful moment, I would have to say. My parents thought it was hilarious because, God bless them, I don’t think they really thought I had much of a shot at anything outside of like prison-slash-unemployment checks.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater, Mark Beech on books.