It will have shocked nobody in the music business – and precious few people outside of it – when it was recently announced that the New Musical Express is set to become a free paper in September.
Sales of this once proud periodical have been in severe decline for the last twenty years, but when circulation was reported to have dipped to well under 20,000 in early 2014 the executioner was already sharpening his axe. The only surprise is that current owners Time Inc have offered the weekly a last throw of the dice as an advertisement driven giveaway rather than close the doors altogether.
Of course the NME has been through lean times at other stages in its turbulent history, but tended to find a way through. Having recorded record sales figures during the pop boom of the early sixties, the paper then lost its way within a decade as the rather staid and reactive writing staff failed to fully engage with the burgeoning prog/psychedelic movement and by 1972 new low sales of 60,000 saw publishers IPC give final warnings.
The response was to install a new editorial team of Alan Smith and Nick Logan who set about trawling the vibrant underground scene for the hippest young writers around. In came the likes of Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray (a contributor to the notorious ‘Oz’ magazine) and Mick Farren to inject – amongst other things – a vitality and irreverence which soon established the paper as the hottest ticket in town, unmissable for readers, bands and advertisers alike. Paid circulation soared to over a quarter of a million (with popular demographics suggesting that at least five times as many read each edition) as the mag filled a gaping hole in the media market.
In the seventies Radio One was chart playlist only, local radio barely existed and national media outlets rarely bothered with music features. An increasingly expanding and literate rock audience needed information and the NME provided it, wrapped in a bold and explosive package. The punk/new wave scene was embraced with gusto, sales remained healthy and the paper maintained a fiercely independent spirit in what is generally regarded as its golden period.
The eighties saw an inevitable, though not life threatening, drop in sales and a change of editorial attack. The ‘gonzo’ attitude of the seventies (Kent was said to have submitted copy way over deadline written on cocktail napkins) was replaced by the more earnest – but by no means humourless – approach of staffers including Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie, Steve Lamacq and probably several others now on the BBC 6Music roster.
Almost inevitably the advent of the internet age in the nineties saw a seismic shift in music media. For a paper which traded in opinions, it was now a time when its target audience could find a dozen of them at the click of a mouse. If the music itself could be limitlessly downloaded for free then the prospect of paying to read about it became an increasingly antiquated concept. The NME was on a steep downward spiral, now at the mercy of advertisers to keep afloat with its critical integrity increasingly compromised as a result.
Whilst recent developments are an obvious consequence of modern financial reality, it’s with a real sadness that many people of a certain age – mine, certainly – are now forced to witness the undignified demise of a once vital paper.