published: 22 /
In his latest 'Condemned To Rock and Roll' column, Ben Howarth asks what the imminent transition of the 'NME' to a freesheet tells us about the state of modern pop music
Danny Baker said at the time of the fortieth anniversary of 'NME', "Everybody thinks their time at the 'NME' is the best. We all think it goes downhill after we leave." Danny, you are spot on, except you can forget Baker and the 70s; the team at the 'NME' at the start of the 90s was one of the all-time greats. "OK, we disagreed at length, usually once a week, and we tried unwisely to launch a ska revival at one point, but were were good honest” - Steve Lamacq, 'Going Deaf for a Living' (2000).
Alas, very few people will look back on the last decade as a vintage one for the paper. Sales have dwindled to less even than 'Melody Maker' had at the point it shut down in 2001. With such a small readership, it is no longer in a position to make or break new bands. With the announcement in early July that it would soon be available free of charge, its anticipated readership will soar from 15,000 to 300,000. But, while this will be a paper with the 'NME' logo on it, it's hard to see many aspects of the paper Lamacq and Baker wrote for surviving. Indeed, references to "curated content" and "lifestyle" in the announcement of the "move to free" give the game away – this is the 'NME' in name only.
Another way to look at it is that it is somewhat remarkable that a publication called 'New Musical Express' still exists at all, so anachronistic is that name. You could argue, as many do, that it only clings on because of its history. And yet, that didn't save 'Melody Maker', 'Top of the Pops' or the Sunday-afternoon chart rundown.
In that context, the 'NME' has clearly been doing something right for the past decade – it has somehow survived. And now, with established free-sheets such as 'The Fly' and 'The Stool Pigeon' having folded, it may be well placed to capitalise – as 'Time Out' has done in the last two years. But, when the re-launch comes, it will also have to weather the inevitable criticism from those who wonder what might have been.
The perception that the 'NME' has lost its way stems, in fact, from a rather curious form of nostalgia – an angry wail from the no longer young that today's youth have rejected their youthful rebellions. There remains a perception that today's youth - no longer wedded to reading the reviews on a Wednesday, hunting down obscurities in a dirty record shop on a Saturday and then getting angry at the lack of this week's 'NME' darlings in the chart rundown on a Sunday – are somehow having it too easy. Witness also the constant misguided feeling among forty-something music journos that the 'new punk' must be around the corner or that no new pop music is valuable unless it is part of a "revolution"'.
Here's another quote, this time from veteran hack Charles Shaah Murray - “I can't see pop ever mattering again the way it did then. Pop is now another part of the entertainment industry. Maybe it always was, but there was a time when it seemed to mean so much more, and that was the time in which I was fortunate to be part of the circus.”
It's a curious thing that 'pop culture commentators', who made their names commenting on youth culture movements they were a part of, seem unable to recognise that younger generations are perfectly within their rights to reject not just the content of earlier generations, but the forms of delivery as well. There are, I am sure, new strands of youth culture that – while they will be observable to future historians – those of us who are no longer teenagers and therefore simply have no reason to notice. Pop may not matter in the way it mattered to Charles Shaah Murray, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter at all – though it may well "matter" in a completely different way.
Implicit in the editorial style of 'NME' in its heydey was that you couldn't tell if a record was good just by listening to it. Certain bands, who when interviewed came across as well meaning and likeable, were dismissed off-handedly. Others became the victims of a journalistic vendetta. This allowed the 'NME 'to create a narrative around music of bands jostling for position and scenes reacting to one another – trends that actually were merely coincidental and often completely imaginary. Now, when you've probably heard a stream of the album and posted your own views on Twitter before even reading the review, such a theoretical approach simply isn't feasible.
In the days when I read it (sporadically between 1997 and 1999, and then every week for the next couple of years), you had to really want to like the 'NME'. So obviously modelled on 'Private Eye', the cynicism, in-jokes and obscure references meant you didn't really feel like an established reader until you'd been buying it for at least a year. If you missed a week, it would often take a month or so to really catch up. Even before social media, the alternative and instant access to music writing on the internet made such demands on the attention span too great for all but the most determined reader.
That all said, the brutal, opinionated rants were fun, though, and it helped contextualise a music scene where far more records were released than anyone could ever actually hear. They've just had their time – the 'NME' going free is the final confirmation that the music scene you grew up with no longer exists (except in memory and, of course, on record). No wonder it feels a bit sad.