Interesting piece in today’s Times – by my old NME pal Stephen Dalton (hasn’t he done well for himself, I gave him his big break etc.) – about exaggerated reports of the demise of the weekly music press. He asked me to contribute and caught me at a verbose moment. Of the reams of opinion I passed on to him, he only used two quotes. Hey, I know how these things work! So, for the record, this is everything I sent to him. It’s the Q&A that didn’t make the final cut (and his questions were really good). Nothing is wasted round here:
SD: NME has just announced its lowest ABC circulation figures ever, around 64000, 12% down on last year. Specialist mags like Classic Rock and Kerrang consistently sell more. Where did it all go wrong?
AC: Unfortunately, many of the indie artists it has hitched its wagon to in the last couple of years have become public property. Whether it’s Arctic Monkeys or the Killers or Kate Nash or the Klaxons or even Pete Doherty, acts who might once have been ring-fenced as “alternative” or “underground” are now so quickly and comprehensively snapped up by the nationals and the music monthlies – and in Doherty’s case, the tabloids and the gossip rags – it’s harder for NME to find any blue sky between them and their competitors. The only thing that separates the NME awards, formerly the Brats, from the Brits, is the constant swearing, and the indifference of the audience to what’s occurring on the podium. Indie is mainstream. They can champion someone like Lightspeed Champion, which is admirable enough, but it’s not commercial. Unfortunately, NME doesn’t really have a unique sales proposition any more. The very fact of being a weekly publication is now insufficient to keep up with developments in the world they seek to address. The kids can’t be bothered to wait seven days to find out if a new record is any good or not, and why should they? A magazine that offers more to read can sell itself on analysis, but the NME is more about pictures and enthusiasm now than beard-stroking intellectual copy.
SD: Alternatively, is NME just a victim of its own success? After all, several generations of ex NME types (i.e. you) now rule the entire media kingdom like vengeful Viking warlords, from broadsheets to radio to TV punditry. Once a fairly lone voice, its style has been copied and disseminated and diluted all over the place. It also still punches above its weight as a “brand” with tours, awards, Cool List etc. Are falling sales for the print version really a problem?
AC: The NME is definitely a victim of its earlier success. Its tentacles now extend not from the pages of the newspaper but from the branded awards and tours and one-off gigs and festival tents. Aside from the occasional controversial Morrissey interview, which actually sparks media debate, the magazine has morphed into what is effectively a paper souvenir of all the other activity carried out under its brand umbrella. You could be an NME fan and just click on the website and go to the concerts and watch the TV channel, without ever flicking through the magazine itself. This was not once the case. I was giving a talk to some schoolchildren yesterday and when I mentioned NME there wasn’t even a flicker of recognition. There’s no new generation of NME readers, or, I suspect, NME writers, coming through. When the paper advertised for “hip, young gunslingers” and ended up with Burchill and Parson, it was an attempt to connect with a new generation. I fear that a similar advert now would elicit little more than a trickle of interest. If you want to write about Bloc Party in 2008, you’ll have already set up a website and started doing it. You don’t need the permission of Time Warner.
SD: Has the time passed when one magazine can shape a nation’s music tastes? Does NME have a role now or has it simply been superseded by the proliferation of online critic sites and the MyTubeSpaceBookFace boom?
AC: Paul Morley once told me that his job at the NME of the late 70s was to provide a narrative. This narrative now comes from other media – especially the internet. If you want to know what a new single sounds like, you can go and download it, you don’t need someone learned and wise like Morley to describe it for you. What was once his role is now redundant. NME writers now are just music fans with moderately better access to Bloc Party than you. I continue to read the NME because of its heritage, and for old times’ sake, and because I’m actually too old to go to smelly pub gigs and sniff out the latest thing, and I’m certainly not going to loiter around MySpace at my age, so it offers me a shortcut to new stuff. But I am categorically not the NME‘s target audience, and I’m not going to keep it afloat on my own.
SD: What can NME do to save itself from oblivion? Could it? Should it?
AC: It is already doing the right thing: concentrating on the website. It could relaunch as an online publication. Its target audience don’t want to read 1,000 words on Does It Offend You, Yeah? – I’m not sure there are 1,000 to write about Does It Offend You, Yeah? – they just want soundbites, Q&As, video clips, downloads, all of which can be better served up online than on paper. I would be sad to see the paper NME go, however. When it sets out to educate its younger readers with coverage of Tony Wilson’s legacy, or even the heritage of the Manic Street Preachers as it did last week, that makes good use of trees, and should be available, lest entire generations lose touch completely with the ancient arts of reading and understanding.
SD: Optional question: Was it all much better in Our Day? (Arf!)
AC: An NME reader of 2008 would be astonished to learn that the NME I worked for in the late 80s was the size of the Financial Times and was mostly in black and white. It required a lot of concentration and time to get through. It was a literacy hour in paper form. Also, if All About Eve released some new tour dates and you didn’t buy the NME or Melody Maker or Sounds, you wouldn’t know what those tour dates were. And you wouldn’t read an article about All About Eve in the Financial Times, which you might do nowadays. It’s thus unfair to compare. Even though I think it was much better, yes.
Discuss. As ever.