This week we take a look at the downfall of a legendary music publication and explore how changing tastes and technological progress have decimated contemporary music journalism in the UK.
News this week that the N.M.E., the UK’s longest running and most iconic music magazine, is to go out of print and exist online only was sad but hardly surprising. Having been reduced to a free, pamphlet-like magazine given away in libraries and such, the writing had long been on the wall, its demise as inevitable as that of the music culture it once championed.
First printed in 1952, it would play a key role in the music culture of the 60’s, its coverage of that decade’s music scene in the UK and US making it an essential read for pop music fans. However, it was during the 70’s that it really came of age, with writers like Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, and Ian McDonald helping to establish the magazine as a champion of the best new, underground bands and an indispensable source of interviews, reviews, gig listings, classified ads (many a new band was formed thanks to these), and music news.
Later in the decade, it would embrace the punk movement, and new writers like Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill arrived giving voice to this momentous time. By this time the N.M.E. was the biggest-selling music mag in the country, easily outselling its main rivals Melody Maker and Sounds, and had become firmly embedded in a strand of culture that was kicking forcefully against the mainstream, something it would continue to go through the next decade and beyond.
It was this that made the N.M.E. so valuable. In its heyday, it represented something truly alternative. In an age before the term ‘alternative’ became co-opted by the music industry and turned in to yet another generic tag, it offered a window into something that didn’t exist on daytime radio or Top of the Pops. Where else could you read about the latest record by Half Man Half Biscuit or find out where The Raincoats were playing that week? For more discerning and obsessive music fans it was more than just a music magazine, it represented them, offering them not just a window but a voice (indeed the letters page in these years was worth the cover price alone).
Unfortunately, the beginning of the end came during the mid-90’s when Britpop, which ironically had been germinated by N.M.E. journalists looking to champion British music after a few years dominated by American bands, took this alternative culture well and truly over-ground. Within a few years, indie had all-but moved away from representing anything truly independent and had become as much a part of the mainstream as the manufactured pop music it once stood derisively in opposition to.
It is no coincidence that in these years the N.M.E. started to lose its vitality and relevance. It was not just a cultural shift that hit it hard though, but a technological one too. The rise of the internet heralded new ways of consuming information, and the last 20 years has seen print media in all areas struggle against the easy and free access we have come to take for granted. Why bother buying a magazine for the latest reviews or gig listings when you can simply go online and listen or look for yourself? Why read new interviews or features about your favourite artists when you can easily find out what they are up to by following them on social media? The internet has given us much, but it has also helped to decimate contemporary music journalism in this country by rendering it largely irrelevant.
The problem with that is that such journalism was always about more than simply providing information. When the N.M.E. was at its best it offered a necessary critical stance. Unafraid of giving bad reviews or puncturing inflated egos, it existed in a time before the music press became the obedient voice of the industry. You’ll never read a truly bad review of anything in Mojo or Uncut et al, and that’s a shame because not only were they often the most entertaining reviews to read, they also served the more important purpose of acting against the establishment and for the music fan.
In Mojo everything is marked out of 5 and nothing gets less than 3, as if no-one makes rubbish music anymore (and all the best music was made years ago). Music journalism like this has become an exercise in professional nostalgia, serving a music business that endlessly recycles and repackages the past, and an audience hooked on rock n’ roll mythology and second-hand memories. This fascination with the supposed glory-days of popular music has become an industry-in-itself, happy to keep re-telling the tales and re-selling the music. The result is that the UK’s biggest-selling music mags tend to cover a world of music that begins with something like the early 60’s and ends somewhere in the late 90’s.
Of course, the irony is that sad feelings about the passing of the N.M.E. are rooted in that very same nostalgic drive. We’re mourning what it once was and what it can no longer be. And whilst it is fine to dwell on the illustrious history of this most important and influential publication we should maybe be mindful of getting too caught up in the past. At it’s best the N.M.E. was about now and the future. Turning in to yet another artifact in the museum of pop music would surely be missing the point.