The NME Within – Free But Shackled

First there came the rumours. Apparently, a surprisingly well-informed newsagent was now the preferred source for Time Inc to leak their big decisions. The NME was to go free from the next week. This was roundly rebuffed and things went quiet, despite the hunch that there was no smoke without fire rebounding across those still interested in print media. It was only a matter of time, surely, for a magazine with physical sales below 15,000? When the news came that the final paid for issue would hit the shelves in late July, it was rather less shocking because of that early false alarm. Still, it made headlines everywhere and a mixture of nostalgia and curiously narky bitching commenced. Bloated hacks of old dug themselves out of big chairs and narrow minds to proclaim their golden age while those who were still paying for the magazine – and I was one – were genuinely saddened to see such an iconic publication nearing its end.

The press release surrounding the news included predictably hyperbolic platitudes from editor Mike Williams, “NME is already a major player and massive influencer in the music space, but with this transformation we’ll be bigger, stronger and more influential than ever before.” This wasn’t an especially surprising comment to read. He was hardly going to say, “Aw, balls. We’re screwed. It’s all about the advertisers now,” was he?

The more optimistic amongst the audience hoped that removing the need to desperately chase disappearing sales might actually broaden the remit of a magazine that had increasingly been defaulting to heritage artist covers in recent times. Bigger and more influential, you say? A bit of risk, then, and more coverage of the music that might excite a generation. For that, anyone can put up with a bit of fashion coverage and a few more adverts.

The final issue was never going to please everybody. We all have ‘our’ era of the NME and one special edition couldn’t possibly do them all justice. That said, it brought back some lovely memories and provided a reasonably fitting send off for a maligned but still respected institution. So much of the great writing didn’t get a look in, mind you, with imagery the big focus. Perhaps we should all have taken that as a warning.

NME free

Friday 18th September marked the first day of a new dawn for the NME. The Rihanna cover was heavily trailed on Twitter and Williams even showed up on BBC Breakfast News and Sky to talk about the relaunch. He wore the benign facial expression of a man who had managed to make peace with difficult times, rather than the enthusiastic grin of somebody spearheading a revolution. Time Inc probably needed to spend a little longer coaching him on how to artfully avoid actually answering the question about how much sway the advertisers would have when it came to the final copy. The omens were not great and this was continued when my subscriber copy didn’t even arrive until Saturday. Should the people still actually willing to pay for a publication end up receiving it after the indifferent hoards queuing up in Top Man or HMV?

I think by this point we’ve established that I’m never going to be invited to write for the NME again, so let’s have a look inside the first of the free issues. Firstly, the advertising situation is entirely as expected. 32.5 pages of straight advertising, alongside three pages of ‘NME Promotion’ pieces and a full page version of the old ‘Things We Like’ feature with prominently displayed web addresses. Fair enough, though, as long as the remaining 39.5 pages are full of spikey, influential content, all is well.

‘Why The Big Bang Theory Is The New Friends’ quickly put paid to any optimism. Add in five pages of gig listings built largely around photos, the vintage ‘what’s in your headphones?’ vox pop page filler and a rebranded reviews section that seems actively at pains to use as little space for actual opinions as possible and the notion of a bigger and better NME had quickly evaporated. It’s a bit like Nuts without the boobs. It’s hard to say who it’s aimed at primarily because even in an age so prone to thundering great thinkpieces about an instant gratification culture plagued by short attention spans and endless stimuli, it’s hard to imagine any target audience quite so vapid and unambitious.

All of the talk of a 300,000 circulation is key to understanding the new NME. Until very recently, the NME was a sharp, informative voice driven by knowledgeable people for an inquisitive audience. Krissi Murison’s time in charge drew me back into the fold and it has produced a number of excellent writers in recent years. As much as it might make me sound like a fifteen year old scribbling band logos onto my folder, it still had integrity. The new NME has all the credibility and substance of a billboard in Piccadilly Circus. Being seen by lots of people appears to be literally the only goal for this publication now. The design is hideous, the content brief and lifeless and the brand is in tatters. Under a review of the new Battles album is the additional feature “The greatest battles in history”, including Alien vs Predator, Eminem in 8 Mile and, of course, Hastings. The endless list-driven sidebars are insultingly asinine and there’s almost nothing to actually read.

My love of the music press was built on words. I have always been thrilled by the power language has when manipulated in the right hands. It can be a truly brilliant genre and the review, in particular, is still relevant in a society beleaguered by option paralysis. The new NME seems so anti-language, so unenchanted with words, that it’s hard to imagine picking it up again. You can’t blame the writers as many of the old team are still there and their livelihoods depend upon it but, and I say this well aware of the old adage about glass houses and stones, it’s hard to imagine how they feel about what’s happening around them.

Wherever this new direction has come from, it seems a probable dead end. Those who have loved it in the past will surely hate what it has become. Those who weren’t interested are unlikely to be won over by what largely amounts to a poorly curated Twitter feed. The advertisers will stick with it for a while and the public rarely spurn anything that’s free, but this is not the NME. Whatever this weekly publication may become, it should never have taken that name in vain.

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