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Miscellaneous - The Decline and Fall of the NME

  by Admin

published: 28 / 8 / 2011

Miscellaneous - The Decline and Fall of the NME


With circulation figures at a low, Jon Rogers, Mark Rowland and John Clarkson discuss the reasons for the decline and fall of the UK's only surviving music weekly, the 'NME'

The following on-line discussion between three Pennyblackmusic writers, Jon Rogers, Mark Rowland and John Clarkson, evolved as a result of an article published in ‘The Guardian’ about the dramatic fall of circulation figures at the ‘NME’. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/aug/18/nme-circulation-falls?CMP=twt_fd JON: The weekly circulation of ‘NME’ is now below 30,000. It must be loss-making now and, on the face of it, I can't see it lasting in its current format. Perhaps IPC will chop it back to a monthly (but then you are faced with even more direct competition from the monthlies - and the likes of Mojo, ‘Uncut’ and ‘Q’, do that pretty well already) or perhaps just go online. Or they could just pull the plug altogether. Which would be a great shame. The name still packs a punch and has kudos, and is still an opinion former. In part, yes, the mag is rubbish nowadays, and has lost sight of its core audience. In a vain attempt to boost readers it went more populist (Lily Allen on the cover? Really? And I rather like Ms Allen, but not in the’ NME’). and so has lost the loyal 'indie' readers it mainly catered for. To be fair though, market forces are taking hold too. Severe changes are going on in the music industry and its fundamental business structure is really under review. People just aren't 'consuming' that much music nowadays, as compared with years ago. There are more alternatives for leisure activities - computer games et al, so less disposable income is spent on music. Plus, people just download music. They don't have record collections any more. Music isn't that important to them nowadays. But the question remains, really, just why is it that the ‘NME’ is in such decline? Why is it worse than the others? Simple answer: it's shit. JOHN: I would agree that it is rubbish. It looks awful, like a student rag mag, and it lacks focus- It can't make up its mind at the moment whether it is promoting the latest hip new act or bands of yesteryear. I was interested to see the Clash on the cover the other week. Either of those would be fine, but it writes about both badly. The problem is more deep-rooted though than people simply don't like music anymore. A lot of people don't expect to pay for very much. The recent riots were an extreme example of that. With an overload of information of the last twenty years, the attitude of many people (and especially the young post-internet generation, although not exclusively) is why bother to pay for something when you can get the same information elsewhere? Magazines like 'NME', which have always relied on providing cutting edge and front line news, are inevitably going to suffer. 'Uncut' in contrast will always survive, even though they recycle the somewhat repetitive Beatles and Stones anecdotes every few months, because they essentially trade in nostalgia (a growing industry as Simon Reynolds rightly points out), and they also give away a free CD every month. THE PIAS warehouse fire has proved I think, and in the record industry's genuine and rightful concern about it, that the CD market, while in a bad way, might not be in quite the same dire straits it sometimes is portrayed. JON: I'm not 18 or a student and so not really in their ideal target audience but you think they'd be trying to attract my attention at the very least. Basically, there doesn't seem to be much in there that interests me, apart from the simple aspect of 'information transference' i.e. a news story (aka re-written press release saying person X has a new album out) and letting me know what's coming up. Simply the standard of journalism is worse than terrible. The reviews amount to little more than a tick or a cross (for good or bad) and it contains just as much insight. So bad journalism. And bad editorial direction too. It doesn't seem to know or understand its core readers. When it (in)famously put the Spice Girls on the cover it seemed to be going for the more pop end readers, those sort of disaffected by the likes of ‘Smash Hits’. Perhaps now it has realised that those readers just aren't interested and now (maybe) has decided to chase the nostalgic reader wanting to relive their glory days of jumping up and down the front at the Roxy whilst X-Ray Spex blasts out. Hey, who knows; perhaps the mag might even get to champion some great new band called the Doors or the Rolling Stones next issue (honestly, I'm telling you those two bands are going to be huge, mark my words...) In part, journalism and music (at least in its current form) is rather fucked to say the least. As John describes it, no one wants to pay for it any more. They view it as a free commodity like air. [And I am partly guilty of that myself... copy music? Hell yes and I do it all the time. A friend wants a copy of an album, I make a copy for them] There is a lot to be said for that. And if you go somewhere like Morocco (and I've been several times), actually try and buy a legitimate album. Anywhere. Just try it. It's impossible. There are lots of stalls in the markets that have loads of discs with about five or six CDs of an artist on each one for the princely sum of about 50p, so you get about six albums for about 50p. So, if you want the entire output of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, that will cost you about £1. All duplicated and all highly illegal in a copyright sense, but nowhere could you actually find a place that sold legitimate copies. It is simple market forces though. Why pay for something when you can get it for free? Would you pay for a new Aston Martin if you could easily get one at no cost (or very little cost)? And those points go for journalism too. The decision of ‘News International’ to put its content behind a paywall is, in my opinion, myopic. Unless you have specialist content like, say, ‘The Financial Times’ that no one else is going to carry, then for general newspapers you are always going to be up against the BBC and its great website. With the license fee they will never charge the UK customer for its content and so why pay for a news item in ‘The Times’ when you can read pretty much the same thing on the BBC for free? Basically, as with music, people no longer want to pay for their news. They want it free online. And as for the death of the CD, and music buying in general, I think its passing has been greatly exaggerated, mainly by the music industry concerned that it is losing revenue. But ever since the invention of recorded music, hasn't this been the case, especially the cassette player. I'm not a huge fan of Clinton Heylin but his book on bootlegs ‘The Great White Wonder’ is really the best thing he has written. He has a lot to say on the likes of 'home taping is killing music' and various campaigns to try to stop people copying music illegally, either copying recorded music or selling live bootlegs of gigs. The point he makes well is that actually the very people who will record and trade in these live tapes and outtakes and 'lost' studio recordings are the actual avid fan who probably has every legitimate recording anyway. The casual fan, of say, prog rockers Rush, isn't going to be interested in purchasing a poor-quality recording of that famous gig at Earl's Court (say). Or a similar thing with Suicide; who wants to hear a recording of a riot at one of their gigs (well, I do, actually!) unless you're a big fan and will happily shell out for that rare import? So, no, I don't think 'home taping' is killing music at all. In fact, I would suggest it perhaps encourages more music buying. Supply creating its own demand. Plus, this might be an urban legend but isn't there a bootleg of The Glitter Twins (Mick 'n' Keef) actually buying Rolling Stones bootlegs from a bootlegger? I've not heard it but if it does exist I'd love to hear it. MARK: Back in the 70s, arguably a high point for music journalism, the cultural revolution of the 60s had shaken the entertainment industry to its core – no one knew what sold any more. This left the creative types with a great deal more freedom than they’d had in the past. This was reflected in the journalism of the time. Pop music was considered important, therefore pop music journalists were considered important. Music weeklies were also pretty much the only option that the music industry had in terms of journalistic coverage for their artists. With a few notable exceptions (the very earliest newspaper rock critic was Jane Scott of Cleveland’s ‘Plain Dealer’, who died this year aged 92), newspapers weren’t that interested in pop music. They felt it was beneath them. There were no blogs, and fanzines didn’t really take off in any real way until the late 70s. It meant that music journalists could get away with puncturing the egos of rock stars without fear of damaging repercussions on ad sales. And besides, people wanted to read funny, interesting, relevant content. Otherwise, what was the point? Things started to change slightly in the 80s, with the arrival of new publications like ‘The Face’ and ‘Smash Hits’, but generally this was positive – a little healthy competition kept music magazines, and their writers, on their toes. But it sowed the seeds for what was to come as slowly, gradually, the balance of power started to shift in the advertisers’ favour. The emergence of the internet and the rise music television paid a part in this, but I think that it was the national press and the newer music monthlies that hurt the old music papers more – that and the maturation of the music market to the point when it was comprised of a number of distinct genres and sub-genres, each with its own projected demographic. Those genres are essentially pigeonholes designed to make the lives of marketing executives easier by placing everyone in neat little boxes, though ironically many of the genres, particularly the later ones, were christened by music journalists. This essentially meant that writing about a diverse range of artists and musical styles were no longer prudent – advertisers started to see it as ‘diluting the market’. More targeted, ‘genre’ magazines tended to be favoured, and so magazines started to adapt accordingly. In the process, old weeklies such as ‘Sounds’ and ‘Melody Maker’ were lost forever. The rot really started to set in over the last decade, as music blogs and MP3s took another chunk of market share and influence from the remaining music magazines. MP3s in particular have had a massive and currently detrimental effect on the music industry, which has tried to fight the tide as much as possible, rather than trying to find a way to work with it. As a result, the industry has become an endless hype barrage as labels pick up and drop mediocre acts in an attempt to make a quick buck. Short-termism rules the roost, with acts barely given enough time to develop before they’re shunted aside in favour of another possible ‘next big thing’. The politics has also practically disappeared from music in the process (no-one wants to upset the apple cart). Today’s music writing reflects that. There is, in truth, a web of many reasons why the ‘NME’ is declining. In some ways, it’s amazing that it’s lasted so long when its weekly competitors fell by the wayside so long ago. It is aimed at a distinctly different audience than the monthly music papers (people in their teens and early 20s, as opposed to lifelong music obsessives), a market that tends to get arguably better articles and information on the newest music through blogs and music streaming services. The internet and social networking now also gives a greater scope for word-of-mouth, which also helps to negate the need for a weekly music paper that you actually have to fork our money for. Meanwhile, advertising has succeeded in blanding out commercial music writing. In its heyday, the ‘NME’ wasn’t afraid to take pot shots at the bands they were covering. There was a very real sense that the journalists were in charge of the magazine’s direction, and that editorial quality was the most important part of a magazine. Now we’re in a situation where the marketers rule the roost. The competition between different media formats is so vast now that advertisers pretty much hold most, in some cases all, of the cards. At the same time, a combination of higher competition and consolidation has meant that publications cannot afford to lose any of their key advertisers. The people running publishing houses these days also tend to be suits, either working their way up through sales or, more likely, coming from completely non-media/journalism backgrounds altogether. They don’t understand editorial – they can’t measure it like they can sales. So they have cut down on editorial staff. Articles are generally treated as ‘the stuff between the adverts’ – this pretty much goes for all journalism across the board. Editorial quality then, of course, suffers, and readers – who aren’t idiots – know boring puff when they see it. Even the most dedicated subscribers will eventually jump ship, and circulation falls. So the suits make more cuts to editorial staff and bollock the sales staff for not working hard enough. The cycle continues. A similar thing is happening in TV, music, film and books. A lot of it stems from a lack of understanding about the internet or how to deal with it. Rather than try to engage with those who use the net to consume media and work out a way in which they can legally enjoy their products, these industries have chosen to fight them. It’s a fight that they cannot win. Quite excellent music blog The Quietus recently ran a piece on the state of pop music that reflects this perfectly: http://thequietus.com/articles/06073-a-plague-of-soars-warps-in-the-fabric-of-pop JON: Why cut a profitable sales person who can clearly be measured in a +/- way? Tricky with hacks, so they get cut first. Staff under strain and pressure. Don't worry about the quality, here's the quantity... And here comes along a 'friendly' PR with a ready-made press release/story. All the journo has to do is cut and paste, a bit of re-jigging et voila – one story ready to go. Who cares if you have just been fed a turkey, it's a story. Admittedly, that happens on all media outlets all over the world, even the nationals and the 'quality' nationals too. And the ‘NME’ suffers just as much as anyone else. Where the ‘NME ‘(and the monthly music papers too) particularly comes a cropper they give the PRs far too much power and don't stick up for editorial integrity. Big up a mediocre album by some unknown but whose PR also happens to handle Bruce Springsteen. Want access to Brucie when he next tours, just make sure this new band I'm hyping gets some good coverage... And the hacks fall in line. Similarly, all the music papers (not just the NME) overhype albums. If it's a big band, they get a big review and lots of stars as they don't want to lose access to them next week for the interview. To pick up on Mark's very valid point about mags being run by accountants nowadays and not people passionate about news and the media. The ‘NME’ has become vacuous and bland. There is no real 'voice' there. Either from an overreaching editorial standpoint or from 'named' writers who created their own voice. There were even as late as the early 90’s some great writers there. Educated people who could talk about lots of subjects rather then just a vacuous 'Oh, doesn't Person X look cool in that T-shirt'. OK I might have missed the heyday of the mag when people wrote long-winded pieces on scenes and had obviously read up on cultural theory (and got all pretentious). Still there were people like Steve Lamacq, Simon Williams, John Mulvey and many others who not only knew lots about music but could write well too. Last time I looked there was no one like that writing for the NME. That had all been washed out; no doubt the people in suits didn't like it much. And the editorial staff too scared of offending either their paymasters or their potential readers. And just to end on a very negative side... Just where did both Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill first start out as 'hip, young gun-slingers'? Yep, the ‘NME’. I rest my case m'lud. MARK: When new blood makes it to the top of these institutions, we’ll start to see a change. It may not seem like it now, but it will. OK, we won’t see the likes of the 60s and 70s again, but the media will settle into this new internet age. Publications will adapt in a way that suits the web, as will the music, film and television industries. And the beauty of the web is that the consumer rules all – if it’s not interesting, it won’t stand out among everything else ¬– well, at least when it comes to music and writing. Perhaps this will change in time and the internet will also be blanded out, but it’s hard to see how that’s possible, especially with DIY being easier than ever before. For now, however, these companies will keep listening to imagination-free accountants and sales and marketing bozos, resulting in risk-free, sure fire, lowest common denominator, bland as fuck product. The belief is that stupid sells, which is a real shame, because while it’s true to an extent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that smart doesn’t sell. Even the most conservative consumer can react favourably to interesting, three-dimensional characters, an unexpected chord change, a piece of work that has something to say.

Visitor Comments:-
479 Posted By: urs, Manchester, UK on 11 Oct 2011
"...the industry has become an endless hype barrage as labels pick up and drop mediocre acts in an attempt to make a quick buck. Short-termism rules the roost, with acts barely given enough time to develop before they’re shunted aside in favour of another possible ‘next big thing’." This has always been the case in the UK during my lifetime... and I'm 45. People put up with the NME in the past because it was one of the only decent sources of info about some types of music/interviews with artists/info about what was happening in America. Nowadays people don't have to suffer the NME's arrogance/self-referencing/over-intellectualisation (as it was in the past) in order to get basic information... they can find it elsewhere. NME "has lost sight of its core audience" Current NME cover - "25 Years of the Manics Special Anniversary Issue - Free Classic Richey Poster - Stay Beautiful - 25 years of Culture, Alienation, Boredom and Despair" ...begs the question - who do they imagine their core audience is? Middle-aged people who want to stick posters of self-harmers on their walls?
473 Posted By: Rich , Liverpool on 19 Sep 2011
Brilliant points all round. Maybe the NME will become a freebie, like The Stool Pigeon (which is way ahead in the ABCs) If it does it will have all the 'brand identity' of the New Musical Express, the name recognition and the history. Plus, they won't have to rely on those pesky kids having to buy it anymore.
471 Posted By: Andrew Sugden (YorkshireGigGuide0, Bradford on 16 Sep 2011
really interesting exploration of music journalism and our shifting society attitudes to music and its 'consumption'

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