Earlier this week, the NME announced that it was preparing to go free, distributing the magazine at train stations, universities and retail partners. The move is an attempt to arrest the magazine’s plummeting circulation figures and increasing irrelevance amongst younger readers. Over the past decade the NME has gone from a bastion of UK youth culture to a shadow of its former self. But is going free really the answer? Are people not reading the magazine because they won’t stump up £2.50 or has it simply had its day?
To be fair to NME, it’s hardly the only magazine going through a rough patch. The internet’s been putting print publications to the sword for years. Why pay for a couple of articles you might actually care about plus a load of filler when you can get all the content you want for free online? In fact, you could argue NME’s done well to stay afloat this long. Most of its competitors disappeared into the void years ago.
But there’s something particularly sad about the dwindling fortunes of the NME. I’m not old enough to remember the magazine’s last britpop heyday but I do remember its revival during the Libertines/Strokes era. Back then NME still had some of its reverential status. This was the bible of indie rock, proudly carrying the torch into the new millenium. Right up too the mid-2000s, it felt like NME was still a magazine documenting a living breathing music scene.
But then things started to get harder. The indie rock scene that developed in the early 2000s stalled and started to grow stale. The arrival of the Arctic Monkeys provided some hope but it started to become clear that not much of the new music it was covering was actually that good.
The NME was still going same as it ever was but the indie scene it was married to seemed to be losing ground. The sound was becoming increasingly derivative and uninspiring. The magazine had little choice but to focus on countless sub-Smiths groups whose poetic pretensions far outmatched their musical appeal. Other than that they were left with various pale Oasis imitations pumping out Sunday league pre-match anthems.
This was the era of landfill-indie.
NME did its best to mould these scraps into something resembling a vibrant culture. It declared any new band with a couple of tolerable numbers as the new saviours. The front cover was alternated between waif-like public school boys doing their best Morrissey impression and variations on the mouthy northern upstart. Bless the NME, it tried, it tried really hard, but The Drums were never going to be Nirvana and The Enemy would never be the Stone Roses. A magazine centred around a certain type of music can only play the cards it’s dealt and unfortunately for NME it had some really shitty cards.
Faced with this dilemma, the magazine began leaning on a handful of bands. The blow of the Libertines split was lessened by Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s endless production line of solo projects. The Libertines always haunted the pages of NME, like a middle-aged ladies man who never quite got over his first love and now chases happiness through a series of doomed flings. The slightest pretence to put the band or any of its constituent parts on the cover was seized with relish. By the time I started buying the NME regularly the band was no more but that didn’t seem to reduce the coverage devoted to it.
More dated nostalgia was also embraced with frequent special editions devoted to Oasis, Blur, The Clash or other high water marks in the UK’s rock history. In fairness, these were actually pretty enjoyable issues. Personally, I’d rather read about Joe Strummer’s early years than the lead singer of Twisted Wheel declaring that dance music is a bit shite. But nonetheless, there was something distinctly Q about all this misty eyed reminiscing. There seemed to be less and less new about New Musical Express.
These days it’s hard to see where NME fits in. The indie scene doesn’t really exist. Even in Brighton, once a stronghold of the indie disco, no clubs really go in for the ‘Chelsea Dagger’ approach any more. The cool kids are listening to house or hip-hop and the stag dos and football socials are happy with chart pop.
It looks like the NME is going the same way as other once great British institutions now dumped on the scrap heap, like manufacturing or caring about poor people. Music moves on, culture moves on and NME is going to have to move fast to catch up with it.