Friday, 9 October 2015

THE NME

Like lots of the best things from the 20th century, the glory days of the music press were based on what now seems like a weird anomaly – namely, that until about ten years ago it wasn’t particularly easy to track down a lot of music. So instead you just read about it. In this world – which started eroding at a positively Larsen B-esque rate in my late teens – music had to be obtained physically (meaning a lot of it was extremely hard to track down) and was – as a rule – heinously overpriced, limiting the amount most people could buy. So instead you spent a couple of quid a week reading erudite/informed/unfair/hysterical/biased coverage of popular music, which in many instances was considerably better than the prosaic reality of the music (NB at this point a bit of early levity by inserting my fave ever Fast Show sketch, ‘Indie Club’).

I think probably the main thing to say about the decline of NME is that it’s difficult not to view the jig (I wonder if they ever covered jigs back in the ‘50s?) as being up regardless of its quality: the MOJOs and Uncuts of this world just about battle on as monthly magazines with a heritage bent, but I would think even a weekly of equal quality to that of the music press’s golden age would struggle to find a foothold in 2015, where all music is a click away. The music press – but NME in particular – has been battered by not only a loss of gatekeeper status, but also another byproduct of streaming culture, namely the fragmentation of the national musical conversation that’s resulted from streaming. Both NME and its erstwhile rival Melody Maker dipped in popularity in the late ’90s, because indie rock had fallen out of fashion, something that shuttered Melody Maker in 2000, while NME limped on for a few months before being saved by indie becoming cool again in the summer of 2001 (an event I remember with fondness as normal people – some of them female – suddenly started going to indie discos). But it’s hard to imagine any one scene could now command the nation’s collective attention again, and since 2008 or so NME has floundered around without a zeitgeist to attach itself to. In its last years as a paid publication it sort of meekly attempted to get by as a 90s nostalgia mag rather than making a go of it as a new music magazine.

So anyway, after its circulation dipped way below that of Melody Maker in its final days, NME was shuttered and then relaunched as a free magazine, going where my own dear employer has gone so successfully. General reaction to the cover stars of the new look free NME from the awful snapshot of society that constitutes the people I follow on Twitter seems to have gone from a sort of respect for its chutzpah (Rihanna) to slight confusion (Robert Pattison) to an actual full-on deluge of hatred (Chris Moyles).

In my own sort of detached way I was broadly in agreement without all these points without actually having read it, but then I flipped through the Moyles issue and yeah, it’s a total disaster, though not necessarily in the way I expected. The thing is that the Chris Moyles interview is pretty decent read. It would be the perfect cover story for any weekend mag supplement. But instead it’s in NME, not only feeling inappropriate generally, but more so because everything else in the magazine is unmitigated shit. I follow NME’s newsfeed on twitter, and there are stupid, clickbaity listicles they churn out, because that’s what everyone does these days, but I didn’t think they made it to the mag. Now they basically are the mag - new NME is mostly made of dashed off blogposts (‘the 10 best Simpsons characters to only appear in a single episode’, ‘everything we know about the new Twin Peaks’ [not a lot, it turns out]), a flaccid news section, some half-arsed lifestyle features clearly written by people less good at writing lifestyle features than Shortlist or Stylist and the worst bit, a dementedly incomprehensible reviews section (two album reviews, a recycled listicle ranking Drake’s album, a guide to some E4 show, two film reviews, and another recycled listicle, ’the 10 most important gigs this week’, that stretches on for an incomprehensible five pages despite the fact you could fit the content plus decent sized picture into two pages tops). And in many places it’s HORRIBLY designed, not decision that haven’t paid off but just rushed-looking.

My first thought was that its editor, a chap called Mike Williams, is hugely out of his depth, and probably I’m not wrong. But on reflection the he must have a microscopic budget to work with - it smacks of a cheap rush job, a last roll of the dice from publisher Time Inc rather than a statement of great belief. And on further reflection, three of their now four cover stars – Rihanna, Taylor Swift and R-Patz – were probably not especially easy interviews to land. So after all that effort, why is the rest of it so terrible? Given how expensive it must be to nationally distribute a free magazine, the lack of the further investment required – a couple of new writers, a couple of new designers – to make NME reasonably good is pretty depressing - the model simply seems to be one primo interview, done well, plus whatever other crap they had lying around. I know some people have taken great delight in seeing 'loyal' NME readers dismayed by the pop stars on the cover, but given it's such a generally shoddy product now, with the only bit done well the bit not aimed at the magazine's fanbase, you can hardly be surprised. Christ knows what the answer is, and as far as I know it could be performing incredibly well against all commercial targets, but it just seems so moribund. Do they care? Are they just out of their depth? Might it turn around? If these are the terminal days of NME – and by extension the weekly music press – then they seem not to be spent raging against the dying of the light, just lazily waggling a fist and hoping nobody notices they don’t really care.

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