what went wrong?
you care about music? Of course you do or you wouldn't be reading
this. But do you care as much as you did when you were 16? Do you
care as much as you did when Top Of The Pops was cemented into your
weekly diary every Thursday night? Do you care as much as when the
metronome of your life was the weekly chart on Radio One?
probably don't think the music papers are as good these days, do
you? Back then the NME or Melody Maker, or even Sounds, was your
bible. These days you wouldn't use the NME to line your hamster's
cage (it might be fooled into rushing out to get the Coldplay album)
and the other two have disappeared. Not so long ago you could choose
from five (count 'em) weekly music papers: Melody Maker, NME, Sounds,
Kerrang! and Record Mirror. Sounds bit the dust in the early 90s;
Record Mirror folded in all but name four or five years ago; the
final Melody Maker was published at the end of last year and the
NME's circulation dropped below 100,000 for the first time in 1999.
So what went wrong?
asked five people that question. All of them have been avid readers
of the music press at one time or another and all of them have seen
it change over a number of years, either changing with it, changing
without it, not changing at all or ignoring the whole thing completely.
They are Colin Newman, Pete Bassman, Ant Chapman, Nigel Turner and
Newman has come full circle. Wire started getting press
coverage in the mid 70s. 25 years later, after numerous break-ups,
side and solo projects, collaborations, musical diversions
and indifferent press, the band are again playing their early
material and again filling column inches. But this time around
the band are also masters of their own propaganda through
the recently launched www.pinkflag.com
Bassman was a founder member of Spaceman 3 which he left
to form the ill-fated Darkside. He now plays in Alphastone.
With the best will in the world, his music has not changed
much over the last 15-20 years whilst all about him has been
Chapman's first loves were hip hop and electro, but his
first bands were very much indie. He promoted (and still promotes)
gigs at The Square in Harlow, is Bis' soundman, was in Collapsed
Lung and now records and DJs as Scissorkicks. In contrast
to Colin Newman and Pete Bassman, his musical evolution has
been roughly parallel to the broad change in music press from
"indie" to "dance."
Turner began by putting on gigs in Bedford, has been in
a handful of bands, including The Melons and now runs Pickled
Egg records. After starting out broadly in line with the NME's
taste, something went wrong for him in the 1980s and hasn't
got better since.
Dillon was just a punter who stopped reading the press
in the early 80s and didn't pick up another music paper for
the best part of 20 years. He has just released his first
single as The Fabulous Nobody and run Kitchen Records.
to IPC, publishers of both Melody Maker and NME, falling sales made
MM "unsustainable". The last available figures show that MM's circulation
had dwindled to just 32,000 and with that kind of readership advertising
was down and journalists were leaving. The final insult to the long
history of the magazine, first published in 1926, was to turn it
into a Smash Hits for 16-20 year-olds last October.
tactic failed miserably. The last stand-alone Maker was produced
at Christmas and the name was zombified by "merging Melody Maker
into the NME brand." According to IPC " [MM] was doing exactly what
it should have been doing but the readers were just not there in
sufficient numbers to keep it viable."
Lamacq in The Guardian: "if you go back 10 years, you would scour
the Melody Maker for singles reviews and think 'I'll buy that because
it sounds quite good'. But now if you go through the singles reviews
in both NME and Melody Maker, you will have already heard two-thirds
of those on the radio. Also, you can get gossip from the internet.
Many bands have their own websites that give you far more information
than the music press. [..] you are getting that info straight from
the horse's mouth."
radio and the internet are responsible for the two decline of the
Melody Maker, then? Possibly, but it doesn't take much effort to
come up with other suspects. Prime amongst all candidates is that
hardy perennial, when-I-were-a-lad. When I were a lad, the writers
cared about the music/ respected the readership/ weren't trying
to be trendy and post-modern/ insert own favourite here. We've all
heard it, and probably said it, about Melody Maker and the NME and
no doubt Sounds and Kerrang! too. But is it valid?
I were a lad, Sounds, Melody Maker and NME coexisted as the "indie"
press for years by, broadly speaking, divvying up the music between
them. Steve Lamacq: "Editorially, the magazine was really about
jazz in the mid-70s and prog rock. It got into punk slightly quicker
than the NME and evolved during the 80s into something that was
more left of centre, indie and alternative rock." The really unique
aspect of the Melody Maker was the musician's section. Band-members,
studio engineers and the like would all turn to the classified section
for a review of the latest gear, or to peruse the ads looking for
that elusive drummer/bassist/electric autoharp with b/vox selling
their wares in the musicians available section.
was more left-field. Ant Chapman: "I was about 17-18 [late 80s]
when it was really good even though it wasn't selling many copies.
[Sounds] were giving a lot of coverage to mad American bands, the
Amphetamine Reptiles stuff and Sub Pop and things like that." According
to Nigel Turner, the NME was always "the 'serious' paper, catering
for your art school/intellectual crowd. Melody Maker was pretty
conservative by comparison, covering prog type stuff well into the
80's. [..] But if you were into stuff like Joy Division, Postcard
Records, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire.. the NME was the only serious
paper." Bassman agrees: "NME [..] could be entertaining and factual.
Look back to the late 70s, Joy Division period, there was a lot
of intellectual stuff, it was very dense and coming from a much
rose-tinted premise of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous is that rock
music (and, we must therefore believe) rock journalism a quarter
of a century ago was somehow better by virtue of being more naïve.
Stephen Dalton, of the NME, doesn't agree "This is utter wank. Almost
Famous is a funny, tender film, but all the fuzzy-thinking, sanitised
Hollywood revisionism in the world will not convince me that music
was better when rock stars had bumfluff beards, routinely abused
women and measured spiritual depth in guitar solos. As for the 'Golden
Age' of Rock Journalism - believe me, I routinely read old NMEs
for research purposes, and that theory sucks cheesy dick. If you
think today's rock writers are ill-informed, self-important jerks,
you don't know how lucky you are."
one of today's rock writers, Dalton's view is not altogether surprising.
Reading old NMEs, it's obvious that the style has changed over time.
But who would expect it to stay the same? In one respect, Dalton
is right. Be thankful that you don't have to read the equivalent
of a pre-war BBC radio announcer any more:
to meet the challenge of Bill Haley and Pat Boone, RCA Victor have
signed former truck driver-cum-rock'n'roller Elvis Presley - known
around his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, as "The Hillbilly Cat."
(NME, November 1955)
Beatles performed before the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and
Lord Snowdon at this year's Royal Variety Command Performance held
at London's Prince Of Wales Theatre. Midway through the group's
performance, Lennon rose to the occasion by requesting: "On the
next number, would those in the cheap seats clap their hands? The
rest of you rattle your jewellery." The House of Windsor did the
latter. (NME, November 1963)
in the New York Underground scene, something's stirring: a thriving
club scene centred around venues like CBGB's, Max's Kansas City
and the Bottom Line which present acts like Television, The Heartbreakers,
Talking Heads, The Ramones, Blondie, The Shirts and Patti Smith.
At the moment the record companies don't know what to make of this
outburst of nervous energy; they've been lulled into complacency
by their mega-buck superstars. But the noise is getting too loud
to be ignored. (NME, November 1975)
other respects, Dalton is severely wrong. Today's hacks may not
be ill-informed, but self-importance is a charge less easily dodged.
For a long time, music journalists were subordinate to the bands
they covered, and that coverage was restricted to the specialist
music papers. Colin Newman: "You didn't have, until about 1977,
even the starting of the biggest pop stars being in national papers.
If you wanted previous to that to read about John Lennon or Rod
Stewart or whoever, you had to get a music paper. When I think about
it now, the notion of the NME being even slightly underground now
is completely absurd but it wasn't then. You had to be a really
special person [to read it]."
emergence of writers like Lester Bangs in the States and Nick Kent
here eroded the dominance relationship between the artist and journalist.
Frequently, the journo turned out to be more interesting than his
assignment and interviews and record review turned into postcards
from the edge. Punk music necessitated punk writers, and it got
musical memory: Telstar by The Tornados; Sealed With A Kiss
by The Everly Brothers.
music paper: Melody Maker in 1964 with Yardbirds front cover.
Subscribed to NME aged 7.
about music: Always.
with the press: "read NME, MM and Sounds on and off through
the 80s. Bored of them in the 90s."
thing: Wire (band; 1976), Swim (label; 1992).
Chapman: "You can understand why someone like Lester Bangs is a
celebrity and a rock journalist but I can't really say the same
for.. erm, I was going to try and reel off the names of some NME
journalists.. ha ha!" And there's the rub. While Bangs had the capacity
to enthral with lengthy bastardised prose describing his ongoing
spat with Lou Reed, many other writers (then and since) simply don't.
Filling a page with vapid musings on some banal event vaguely featuring
a band, but more often featuring the author, is no substitute. As
Pete Bassman says, we've all read those interviews where there's
"loads and loads of text by the guy who was writing it and a little
bit by the people he's interviewing. I stopped reading the press
because I was sick of trying to read interviews that were just non-interviews."
Famous, for all Stephen Dalton's criticism, has a point, even if
it does hide it under an elephantine bushel by claiming that 70s
stoner rock was some kind of musical high point. But that's an easy
trap to fall into, I mean pop music really was better 30 years ago.
We've traded Goffin and King for Daphne and Celeste. Who would you
choose: The Supremes or Atomic Kitten? But how would a 15-year-old
answer that question?
today, pop music today especially, is essentially post-modern and
trial and error in the past (Upside Down, anyone?) has shown which
buttons need to be pressed to get the right result today. Colin
Newman: "It's not rocket science; you get someone who looks nice,
put the right kind of production on it, market it the right way,
you spend a certain amount of money and there'll be a certain number
of people to buy it."
reflect these cynical, media-savvy times. Journalists are post-modernists,
immersed in popular culture- hence sarcastic and jaundiced - and
they are aware of the power of pop culture's commentators. Pop music
has existed for long enough now that behavioural trends are obvious.
A movement develops in the underground, creates a following, the
cannier hacks pick up on it, it slowly grows, it becomes mainstream,
every record company on the planet tries to buy bands with the
sound, the originators disown it and the cycle starts again (think
punk, hipppies, beat, acid house, independent record labels, the
first wave of heavy metal.)
a long time, this organic process was the accepted natural order.
But then, flushed with their own self-importance, or short of ideas,
or just plain lazy, the music papers started trying to force the
pace. Ant Chapman: " I think that the press trying to invent the
next thing has caused so much damage. If you go back even 10 or
15 years scenes would just develop and the papers would go look
at this! I think that's really healthy, but now because everyone
knows what they're like - the New Wave of New Wave and New Grave
and all that crap - people are more cynical."
Colin Newman says, even indie, now a marketing department
in all the major labels, was once taint-free. "In the 1970s, the
idea of 'indie' was tightly defined. It meant independent labels
with independent distribution. [Then] labels like Mute and Beggars
Banquet were having records in the top five. The majors started
to shit themselves: 'What's happening? We need to get some indie.
But indie's a sound isn't it? That's it. If we say it's
a sound then we can have our own indie bands.'"
rich irony is that while the weeklies were straining to think up
every more ridiculous scene names (Camden Lurch anyone?) biggest
music phenomenon in the last ten years passed them by. Chapman again:
"[The NME] stopped covering dance music by the time that rave music
was turning into hardcore and drum'n'bass came out of that. By the
time that they woke up to it, drum'n'bass had shattered into 20
different sub-genres and they desperately tried to latch onto it.
They had the press darlings like Goldie and Alex Reece but they
were too late." Colin Newman agrees: "That was the big thing that
NME especially didn't do. They had their two pages or whatever of
dance music but in '94 or '95 you shouldn't have been able to read
about anything other than drum'n'bass because that was what was
happening. The whole problem was that they got trapped by indie."
musical memory: I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin
Gaye, probably about '68 or '69
music paper: NME.
about music: Aged 15 (1978).
with the press: 1981, "because it was part of the current
music 'scene' which was wrapped up in fashion, style and image
thing: The Fabulous Nobody (band; 2000), Kitchen Records (label;
not fair to lay the blame completely at the door of the music papers.
Part of the problem is that we, the readers, are just lazy. Paul
Weller might have said that the public wants what the public gets,
but consumerism is a two-way street. Laurence Dillon: "In the past,
'new' music movements were associated with social change and the
younger generations of the time where a prime force driving this,
most particularly in the 60s. At the moment, things appear to have
reached an equilibrium where consumerism is the major factor. The
wind of change is a mere whisper of a breeze now and this may be
reflected in the mainstream music scene."
might seem like the mass media and the major labels suck the life
out of any vibrant scene within minutes of it appearing, but they
do it because the public (but not you or me, obviously) want to
read about it and listen to it. Newman: "The underground is perpetually
in the state of being watched like a hawk in case something comes
up that can be grabbed, manipulated into a package and then be sold.
I mean, look at drum'n'bass going in two years from being a vibrant
scene that totally defined a city to being 'buy this Goldie record.'
Your average person who's not that interested in music just wants
one thing. "What? I've got to buy a record player to listen to this
music? Fuck off. Just gimme the one thing." Then they'll say it's
not very good. Well, of course it isn't because you don't get anything
out if you don't put any effort in."
is the music business just reflecting a general apathy? Maybe, but
it's a chicken-and-egg affair. Pete Bassman: "British music has
been about youth movements and collective consciousness, about people
moving en masse since the 1950s. Like the huge Manchester thing,
y'know? The press do help to build these things up but when they're
bored of them, they just pull them down and leave people feeling
"well, if that's not the big thing, what is the big thing?" That
bred a kind of insecurity and people didn't trust the press any
the boy who cried wolf, we've been suckered too many times now and
the papers have to resort to ever more desperate tactics. They're
like Wile E Coyote running off the edge of a cliff and not falling
until he realises that however fast he's running he's not going
to make it to the other side. Trying to force a scene or to push
bands as the 'next Radiohead' or whatever is an ever-diminishing
return. As hyperbole becomes the norm, ever more wild claims are
required to keep the reader's interest, or get them to part with
independence followed hot on the heels of diminishing circulation.
It becomes obvious after a while that the band on the cover usually
has a big advertisement in a prominent position inside the mag.
You begin to wonder what the agenda is, and who's driving editorial
policy. Of course, magazines have to have money to exist and some
of that money should come from advertising but should the advertisers
drive editorial? Nigel Turner: "I'm certain that subtle and maybe
not so subtle pressures are applied - or enticements offered - to
music editors from those labels and pluggers able to afford such
things. How else can you explain this situation? Even The Wire seem
to operating an 'ads for reviews' policy, which totally stinks in
never anticipate coverage in most of the glossies: "We'd never expect
to be reviewed in Q and Select and their like because we'd be competing
with the mainstream. The mainstream is very much set up to, not
exactly keep people like us out, but we're just not in those channels;
a small band on a small label like Enraptured, against the Manic
Street Preachers? I mean there's some much demand from the majors
to fill the paper up with their bands and their adverts, their plugs,
Newman is more cynical still: "I know how stuff gets into papers,
I know what levers get pulled. It's not absolutely true that every
single piece of information in there gets bought, but if it's not
to do with money then it's to do with influence. [..] If you want
to get a feature in the NME you have to take the journalist somewhere,
pay for his flights and so on. That's as an independent label. As
a major label, you also have to supply the coke. Or whatever else
musical memory: Beatles
music paper: NME/Sounds
about music: Aged 11
with the press: Late 1980s
thing: Spaceman 3 (1985), The Darkside (early 90s), Alphastone
Pete Bassman, press coverage of his post-Spaceman 3 band, The Darkside,
was confusing. "I think the press had got to a point where they
knew that they could mould what people listen to, they could influence
them very directly. Sometimes we'd play bad gigs and get great reviews
and sometimes we'd play great gigs and get terrible reviews, and
we couldn't understand it. [..] They were doing it all the time:
knocking a band down, building a band up, it all depended on who
they liked that particular week. They were playing God."
God? Melodramatic perhaps, but our celebrity panel all agree that
the papers took their readership, the bands, the music and their
own invulnerability for granted. But still, that might not have
been terminal if their twin monopolies on music coverage and the
disposable income of the nation's disaffected youth hadn't been
is now ubiquitous. Quite apart from the growth in music channels
on satellite and cable, you can't turn on the telly without hearing
tracks from a recent Top 40. The Holiday Programme is half an hour
of bikinis and banging house, Watchdog has S Club 7 playing them
out every week and even Gardener's World uses Bentley Rhythm Ace
as a bed for Alan Titchmarsh's pruning tips.
ubiquity extends to the non-music press too. Every newspaper has
a regular music column, every magazine, especially the proliferation
of style mags, seems to review a few discs on the side and interview
bands on a regular basis. Laurence Dillon: "I think that there is
a lot more choice in WH Smiths of magazines and other publications.
A lot of these do overlap into what was previously music press territory.
[The music has] certainly been absorbed into the corporate consumer
culture more than before."
Maker, especially, suffered at the hands of the explosion of music
monthlies. They started to undermine the MM's position; Q offered
broad coverage, Mojo targeted older readers and Music Maker, Future
Music and others went for the studio/instrument angle. Without these
differentiating factors, MM was seen increasingly as the poor relative
of the NME.
strange thing about the extended music coverage is the homogeneity
it promotes. Nigel Turner: "There may well be more outlets for music
but by and large the choice is more narrow than it ever was. You
find that the mainstream media cover the same narrow spectrum of
music, fed by the record companies who as often as not are run by
the same companies who own the media. [..] I think there's also
more of a tendency for the music papers to conform than there ever
was. You only have to scan through a selection of the press each
week or month, to find that the same handful of releases are covered
in almost every single publication."
internet is stuffed to the gills with music sites run by the bands,
the record companies, the paper press and the fans and is free.
If you're into space rock bands playing Dexy's covers, there'll
be a web site about it and you don't need to buy the NME every week
for a year to find the one paragraph of coverage. Ant Chapman: "
it's all there if you look. Once you get the knack of spotting a
duff page, it can be a veritable mine of useful info. Everything
from fan sites, to official sites, to genre-based sites, even on-line
stores with mp3 previews of all the tracks."
also now possible to sell your music to the punters without using
the press at all. Pete Bassman: "Nowadays, you can be independent
of the music industry if you want to. You can set your own web site
up as my friend Will Carruthers has just done. He's done a very
good album and done a web site to sell it. I think that's great.
It's bypassing everybody who could possibly do you harm and going
direct to the people who want it."
this is ideal for the artist, opening up a massive potential audience
at low cost, it is death for the print media who have to either
ignore the internet or search very hard through the dross for the
good stuff. It's similar to the early days of dance music where,
as Colin Newman recalls, "..people would press up a few hundred
white labels and take them round to the shops by hand. [..] They
weren't servicing records to the NME. I think that was the point
at which [the NME] became lazy because the NME doesn't buy its records."
is no also longer the pocket money siphon that it used to be. Teenagers
and Tweenagers dispose of their income in increasingly complex
ways: DVDs, mobile phones, cheap cocaine and video games have all
cut into the previous demand for illicit cigarettes, cider and 7"
vinyl. Kids are still into music, but only the music that is placed
before them. In many respects, music is just another fashion accessory
these days: Colin Newman again: "Everyone has a stereo and everyone
should have some things to play on it. Those people who really don't
have any taste or any interest in music just have to get stuff like
that because that's what everyone else has got."
musical memory: Mom's Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash records.
music paper: Aged 11, NME.
about music: Since first heard Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren.
with the press: Aged 16, when started putting on gigs in Harlow.
thing: Gig promoter (late 90s), Collapsed Lung (band; started
early 90s), Junior Blanks (band; late 90s), Scissorkicks (solo,
are the kind of people that Ant Chapman is referring to when he
talks about mainstream club punters. " In terms of the time when
Sounds went down, I think perhaps that was the beginnings of the
recent changes in the music scene in Britain. I'm 29 now and even
I find myself thinking 'oh yeah, there was a time when dance music
wasn't the mainstream.' It's a crazy thing because it's everywhere
now. Every provincial town in Britain has got a club, a mainstream
club that plays dance music every weekend and probably through the
week as well [..] but the music is way down the list of priorities.
It's just a soundtrack for pulling. Mixmag cover a lot of that as
if people care about it, but they don't so long as they cop off
at the end of the night."
the audience shrinks, or fragments into special interest groups
best catered for by fringe mags, fanzines and internet web sites,
how long can the NME carry on? Kerrrang!! has broadened its appeal
from Heavy Metal by co-opting any band with a guitar and is seeing
a resurrection in its circulation as a result. The same recipe could
work at the NME, Laurence Dillon: "If it takes a lead from some
of the new magazines that've sprung up in the last few years and
broadens its coverage/format then it may regenerate itself but then
it would be something completely different to what it is now."
are they willing to do it? Ant Chapman, on the last big chance they
had to diversify: "NME were trying to have their cake and eat it.
They wanted to have Marshall Jefferson on the front cover and still
have features on, I don't know, The Parachute Men, on the inside.
The indie people, even to this day, regard dance music as the enemy
and the dance music people think that the NME is all about The Smiths,
so they probably shed some audience there. Then, as the audience
shrinks, its tastes become concentrated and it gets harder and harder
to cover anything other than their tastes."
a dangerous step to take, but not diversifying is probably just
as dangerous. Newman: "I think it was inevitable that the NME blew
it. It was a huge tactical error on their part. They could've kept
their Brit Pop connection but also covered dance music. The thing
is: what are they going to grab now? It doesn't make any sense for
the NME to have pages on dance music. They have to find something."
Recent one-off special issues on Hip Hop, pop music and a nascent
(to the point of non-existence) NY scene suggest that lessons have
not been learned.
used to be possible to listen to underground bands and still be
interested in the charts. In the 60s there was often no difference
between the experimental edge of pop and commercial success. Think
of 8 Miles High by the Byrds have you ever heard a more radical
guitar solo? Yet that was a number one record. In the 70s many of
the punk bands charted the Saints, The Adverts, Generation
X, X Ray Spex. In the 80s The Smiths and New Order charted; more
recently the fraggle bands charted, The Wedding Present charted..
But now the driver is in the other direction: the charts seem to
drive which bands the NME covers, hence the lamentable Hear'Say
issue recently. The NME defends its content in its letters page
from time to time. Their argument runs "we cover the music people
buy - if tens of thousands were grabbing the new one-sided flexi
7-inch by Mark Brend and the Hopeless Chancers we might give it
some coverage, but they aren't". As far as it goes, this is a perfectly
valid point. But if it is covering the music people buy, why don't
the people buying the music want to read their coverage? Why is
its circulation dropping?
wide range of music needs to be embraced, on a regular basis. Chapman:
"No amount of plugging Placebo is going to stop people going out
and buying Craig David." Just before Melody Make bit the dust, "the
letters page was all about 'our music' which consisted of anything
which had four white blokes playing guitars, and if it's miserable
then that's a bonus. Then the reviews, there's a few journalists
trying to hold a torch for other types of music. Neil Kulkarni,
who I've got a lot of time for, should've given up years ago - no-one's
record companies certainly aren't listening, except to the sound
of tills ringing. I was given The Beatles' 1 album for Christmas.
27 number one singles in chronological order, charting (with the
odd omission from double A-sides) the band's development from, as
producer George Martin puts it in the minimal sleeve notes, the
"fresh and sparkling" early tracks through to weightier moments
like Let It Be and Come Together, inventing and reinventing pop
music along the way. The Beatles are a cash cow for Parlophone and
whatever combination of huge media companies owns it these days.
There's a ready market for virtually anything they touched, be it
singles collections, out-takes, ghoulish beyond-the-grave collaborations
or just repacked versions of all the albums and the label are quite
happy to carry on satisfying customers by pumping out new variations.
Despite what Pete Bassman thinks ("Record companies are stupid.
They just hoover up cocaine and spend money like fools.") the record
companies can see that production costs are low and demand is high.
musical memory: The Beatles, aged 3 or 4
music paper: NME
about music: Punk, aged 16
with the press: Started mid 80s
thing: Gig promoter (1983), various bands (late 80s), Pickled
Egg (label; late 90s)
made a mint for the record companies with people replacing their
record collection on the new format. DVDs are doing the same for
films but at an even more ferocious pace - there are ten times as
many DVD players in British homes as there were CD players at the
equivalent time from launch. Why should multi-media companies, or
empires, invest in new bands, except for the safe bets, when they
can get massive return on tiny outlay by recycling back-catalogue
for a new medium? How can the music papers thrive in an environment
choked of new bands with the freedom to experiment that being on
a major label used to provide?
other afternoon I bought a copy of the NME. I don't buy it often
these days having read it avidly through to the mid-80s, with a
side-order of Melody Maker and more often Sounds. I always find
myself thinking morosely that if you could x-ray the paper you'd
find that its backbone had wasted away. The most irritating aspect
of the paper - apart from the fact that I am almost never been motivated
to finish reading anything in it - was a line about Starsailor being
the new Coldplay. Coldplay! A band whose sole appeal is that Travis
are worse than them and Radiohead have moved out of the NME's insular
orbit. A band who've had a couple of singles and an album and whose
members will be back in McDonalds when the second album is slated
and sells like soggy shit cakes. In the past, bands were the new
Beatles, then the next Smiths and latterly the new Oasis. These
days, if you're not the new yesterday you've missed your chance
cos tomorrow is too late. The cycle is speeding up, tighter and
tighter, faster and faster.
Ant Chapman said, for years the NME used to print a column saying
what was coming out the next Monday. As marketing departments started
using release dates as a tool to generate upfront demand for a single,
and hence a higher chart position when it was finally released,
the column disappeared, slipped away without anyone noticing. We'd
all stopped reading the rag by then. Ant really hit the nail on
the head with his suggestion that there should be "two versions
of NME: the full version and then, for half the price, the adverts
and the gig guide. I know which one I'd buy." Me too.
of the reasons given above for the decline in sales of the music
weeklies have got some validity to them. Yes, music writing has
changed, but why shouldn't it? Writing always changes to reflect
the times. Yes, there's more ways to spend money these days, but
people are better off than ever. Yes, music is more available, for
free, than ever before, but that should mean a bigger market for
music information. Yes, CDs didn't help new bands, but record companies
aren't so monumentally stupid as to think they need not invest for
the future at all. Yes, the internet is useful, but alternatives
to the mainstream press have existed for years and many internet
sites are just interchangeable.
most important reasons for the decline in sales of the music weeklies
are these: First, they either didn't foresee, or weren't prepared
to accept, the huge surge in popularity of dance music. Second,
increasingly desperate measures to keep readers only resulted in
the readers feeling used, cheated and taken for granted.
what's Doctor Possession's prescription for the future? The celebrity
panel's prognosis for the NME wasn't optimistic. Nigel Turner summed
it up neatly: "It's already been dead for a number of years, so
it's just a question of how long the life support machine - IPC
- can keep the thing going. My guess is they'll pull the plug inside
obvious that there is still a healthy interest in "alternative"
music, but that doesn't mean a healthy interest in white middle
class losers pretending to be Radiohead. As Colin Newman said, "look
at All Tomorrow's Parties. There's a lot of people interested in
[alternative music], but there's no place for them to go. There's
no centre any more because the centre is filled by the mainstream.
The only way that anything outside the centre can exist is by heavily
nichifying itself, so you get these little niches that are cut off
from each other by the mainstream. Divide and rule really suits
want the weekly press to survive because for all the great things
that are available on the web, you still can't stick it in your
bag and take it on the train. You can't hide behind a WAP phone
playing the mysterious outsider. You don't get the same sense of
zeitgeist with a monthly mag, full of either advance previews or
weeks-late reviews and you don't get a crossword like the one in
the NME anywhere else. I want the press to survive because I want
other people to have the same thrill and anticipation I used to
get from a review and the resultant impending purchase. From the
trip to Selectadisc and the warm glow of recognition when the music
and review meshed precisely. From the sense that somebody was looking
out for all the good stuff on your behalf, a benevolent elder brother
with a massive record collection.
the weekly press to survive, it's got to consolidate and broaden
its appeal again. Kerrang! has shown how, but the NME is just floundering.
It needs to attract the constituency Colin Newman was talking about,
to cater for all the niches without ever getting as clinical as
The Wire, and seek out the intersections, the crossovers, the areas
of mutual interest and, most of all, bands that people want to read
about. It needs to rediscover a respect for the readership, and
a sense of self-respect that were both lost a long time ago. It
needs to remember that the music should be what drives the paper
- that's what most of us bought it for, after all - and that coverage
of that music can have depth without being boring. Then it's got
to write about it all without shooting straight up its own arse.
to all the interviewees and to Mark Brend for editing assistance