You can now read the NME online thanks to this handy link: http://tinyurl.com/yc53sgm
So what for the NME? Its initials might stand for New Musical Express, but over the past decade it’s simply become a byword for decadant lad rock, boring indie-pop and all those tags entail. Rather than providing promising artists a chance to shine, it largely offered the same few cover stars the opportunity to add to their collection of front pages. Through 7 years under the leadership of Conor McNicholas it slowly became more convinced of its own self importance even as readership levels dipped. That’s not to say there weren’t huge successes – the magazine almost singlehandedly built megastars, with Kasabian, The Killers and The Libertines all owe a large proportion of their careers to the rag, with countless second string stars making an ample living thanks to the throng of covers the magazine seemed eager to throw their way. It didn’t just provide the words, it also provided the stage for a large portion of it, thanks to various tours it would put on.On 29th July 2009, Krissi Murison was given the reigns to see over a vital few years in the magazines life. Following his departure to Top Gear magazine, McNicholas’ legacy will be that of diversification, with the magazine currently plugging two tours and the first inception of a ‘NME weekender’ festival, whilst its radio station can be streamed directly through its website. However, the desperation to get away from those years of excess could scarcely be greater. Previously the lifeblood of the magazine, indie-pop is now being labelled as ‘landfill’, whilst Murison herself was quick to acknowledge the flaws in her predecessor when she took over his role. When asked about a 2006 editorial by her predecessor regarding Beth Ditto, hailing her as “living proof that you can still rock a crowd whilst wearing stilettos”, she quipped ““Someone please fire me if I ever so much as joke about a women in rock feature,” but was otherwise eager to defend her predecessor.
Up until now most of the changes have been going on behind the scenes. However, this week’s NME (dated April 10th) is the first that could really be called the dawn of a new era, with redesign of the publication finally coming into force. The implications are much more far reaching than a new logo, with much of the actual content either tweeked or brand new. It’s a bold statement of intent, severing itself from the bloody wreckage that its recent history seems to have ended in.The sheer clout that the magazine still holds is obviously simply through its selection of cover stars. Rihanna is probably the biggest global superstar to be involved, but there’s quality throughout, encompassing nearly all the genres relevant to its readership. Kasabian were last on the cover claiming to be the UK’s biggest band, but they’re not even close to being the most respected artist involved, with MIA, James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem), Jack White, Biffy Clyro and Foals being amongst the names involved. It’s a startling show of strength, especially considering the cost that must’ve been involved in interviewing and having a photo shoot with each. If the intention was to make a big bang (and it certainly was), then it’s definitely mission accomplished. Whilst clearly impressive, the interviews themselves still show the cracks at the core of the magazine. It’s standing on incredibly shaky ground – a music magazine being published in a time where the print industry is going to the dogs and record labels can barely afford to make ends meet.
In the interviews with cover stars, the most interesting questions asked are those about the internet and how it has shaped the industry. Jack White opens by describing the web as “a nuisance… it is direct opposition to the art of music being treated with respect,” before moving on to claim that the industry’s greatest enemy is “The internet. The internet. Your mom, and the internet.” It doesn’t get much better from there, either. Tom from Kasabian carries on by stating “the internet’s massively took the shine off rock’n’roll. It’s fucked it up. It might be good for some things but it’s massively fucked music over.”
It’s a worrying sign when some of the biggest music makers in the industry still see the internet as an adversary. There are a few good points, with Laura Marling expressing how she got signed mainly due to her online activities and James Murphy confessing that LCD Soundsystem probably wouldn’t be where they are today without the help of the web. The fact is that most of it is just pissing in the wind, with the industry absolutely furious with a behemoth that isn’t going to change. The Digital Economy Bill may now be law thanks in no small part to the exasperation of record labels, but in effect it’ll likely change nothing. The top few percent of file sharers are likely to be punished, but it’s the culture itself that will remain. It’s wrong that people won’t pay for music anymore, but being angry won’t change that. Yannis from Foals came closest to hitting the nail on the head. When asked about the future of the industry, he answered, “Having opinions on these things is irrelevant because the march of technology is irrelevant. It’s like being in one of those room they have in cheesy cartoons where the walls start to crush you – it’s like sitting there and having an opinion on what the wall’s doing. All you’re actually thinking about is how you’re going to be paste in two minutes.”For the NME itself, it’s almost makes no difference whether the bands in between the covers are making money or not, as long as they’re selling magazines and, at the minute, they’re not. After the heavily reported journalistic decline that’s taken place there in the last 10 years, it’s facing a similar uphill struggle to the industry it documents, desperately trying to turn backthe clock. It’s clear where the battlegrounds lay – to shy away from the comic book tussles and tabloid aping nonsense that’s has become ubiquitous with the publication and move back towards proper, interesting journalistic work. Changing the letters page into a discussion and moving it towards the back is a good start, as is the obvious expansion of the news section, but that’s not going to win back readers. The process is going to be slow, and it’s the letters page itself that shows the current demographic – youngsters complaining about a teacher claiming “guitar bands are dead” and wanting to swear in retaliation, whilst the compiler openly invites Libertines supporters and detractors to argue.
The fact is that the true battle probably won’t be on the pages of its magazine, but on the HTML of its website. Pitchfork and, nationally, Drowned in Sound have quick become treasure troves of respected, opinionated review and feature, with the ability to react quickly and decisively upon news. Whilst the NME’s own website will undoubtedly draw a fair amount of traffic, it still feels cumbersome and static. The layout would’ve been cutting edge in 1998, but looks archaic today, whilst it seems to bank on a frankly sub-standard, copy and paste selection of news articles to garner hits. That it’s Europe’s biggest music website is more a credit to the strength of the NME brand, whilst the fact it won ‘Interactive Consumer Magazine of the year 2009′ at the PPA simply indicates how far away the print industry is from being viable.
There is good content on there, but it’s a fight to get through to it – a link from the magazine’s Radar pages to a downloadable mixtape of recommended new acts is an inspired decision and the promise to make it a monthly feature should turn out to be a new highlight. Murison’s next move will surely to for a similar redesign to the magazine’s online arm, and the sooner the better. At the minute, it’s incomparable to the amount of good quality features even on a medium level site, despite the huge streams of traffic.
As far as new eras go, this is a pretty good start, but one that only serves to emphasise the enormity of the task ahead. The main struggle at the moment is the band’s mise en scene, a problem which sadly has no clear solution. Focusing on the big bands will lead them down the same fruitless path they’ve been on since the turn of the millennium, whilst focussing intently on smaller scenes and bands will inevitably lead to an even steeper decline in sales. It’s a tightrope and one that it currently looks uncomfortable walking. The internet hasn’t only fractured the musical landscape, but splintered off the journalist scene that surrounds it. Whilst bloggers might be criticised for helping bring about the premature death of many magazines, for most of the bedroom writers who spout their spiel about music, it’s down to desperation to see their name in the pages of the NME. The impending death of BBC 6music is going to be a blow for music lovers, but if Britain’s longest running music weekly somehow managed to go under, it’d be a catastrophe. You might love it, you might hate it, but for the sake of British music, you’d better hope that this new dawn proves not be a false one.