So what went wrong?
(February-April 2001)

Do 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?

I doubt it.

You 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?

I 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 Laurence Dillon.

Colin 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 website.

Pete 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 in turmoil.

Ant 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."

Nigel 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.

Laurence 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.

According 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.

The 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."

Steve 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."

So 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?

When 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.

Sounds 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 weightier angle."

The 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."

As 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:

Rising 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)
The 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)
Down 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)

In 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]."

The 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 them.

Colin Newman

First musical memory: Telstar by The Tornados; Sealed With A Kiss by The Everly Brothers.

First music paper: Melody Maker in 1964 with Yardbirds front cover. Subscribed to NME aged 7.

Serious about music: Always.

Disillusioned with the press: "read NME, MM and Sounds on and off through the 80s. Bored of them in the 90s."

Own thing: Wire (band; 1976), Swim (label; 1992).

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Ant 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."

Almost 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?

Music 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."

Writers 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.)

For 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."

As 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.'"

The 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."

Laurence Dillon

First musical memory: I Heard It Through The Grapevine by Marvin Gaye, probably about '68 or '69

First music paper: NME.

Serious about music: Aged 15 (1978).

Disillusioned with the press: 1981, "because it was part of the current music 'scene' which was wrapped up in fashion, style and image bullshit"

Own thing: The Fabulous Nobody (band; 2000), Kitchen Records (label; 2000).

full interview

It's 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."

It 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."

So, 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 longer."

Like 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 their cash.

Editorial 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 my opinion."

Alphastone 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, their reviews."

Colin 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 is required."

Pete Bassman

Fist musical memory: Beatles

First music paper: NME/Sounds

Serious about music: Aged 11

Disillusioned with the press: Late 1980s

Own thing: Spaceman 3 (1985), The Darkside (early 90s), Alphastone (mid 90s)

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For 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."

Playing 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 broken.

Music 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.

The 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."

Melody 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.

The 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."

The 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."

It's 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."

While 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."

Music 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."

Ant Chapman

First musical memory: Mom's Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash records.

First music paper: Aged 11, NME.

Serious about music: Since first heard Buffalo Gals by Malcolm McLaren.

Disillusioned with the press: Aged 16, when started putting on gigs in Harlow.

Own thing: Gig promoter (late 90s), Collapsed Lung (band; started early 90s), Junior Blanks (band; late 90s), Scissorkicks (solo, late 90s)

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These 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."

As 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."

But 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."

It's 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.

It 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?

A 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 listening."

The 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. Ker-ching!!

Nigel Turner

First musical memory: The Beatles, aged 3 or 4

First music paper: NME

Serious about music: Punk, aged 16

Disillusioned with the press: Started mid 80s

Own thing: Gig promoter (1983), various bands (late 80s), Pickled Egg (label; late 90s)

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CDs 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?

The 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.

As 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.

All 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.

The 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.

So 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 12 months."

It's 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 the mainstream."

I 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.

For 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.

Oh well.

(Thanks to all the interviewees and to Mark Brend for editing assistance and advice.)


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