The cover of NME was still coveted by bands right to the end – but for readers themselves, it was a different story. Ex-staffers, publishers and musicians tell the inside story of how a once-mighty media brand lost its cool
When the Manic Street Preachers formed in Blackwood, south Wales, in 1986, the band had three goals: “Top of the Pops, Radio 1 and the cover of NME,” says bassist Nicky Wire. Within six months of releasing their debut album, they had landed all three. “It felt so fucking easy!” says Wire.
The band’s history (and that of countless others) is intertwined with the magazine. Wire cites reading NME as a formative teenage education, and says he preferred the company of its journalists to his 1990s musical peers; in an infamous 1991 interview, guitarist Richey Edwards carved “4 REAL” into his arm. The Manics made their 25th and 26th appearances on the cover in summer 2014 – their last. It still felt significant then, says Wire. But he wasn’t surprised to hear that last week’s issue would be its final one, two and a half years after the magazine moved to a free publishing model. “For me, it died when it went free,” says Wire. “There was barely anything to read in it, and I like paying for things that have a certain quality. I don’t wanna go into Topshop as a 50-year-old man and feel like I’m nicking something off a pile.”
NME published its final print edition on 9 March, featuring rapper Stefflon Don on the cover. The contents contained no sense of ceremony – the magazine went to print on Tuesday, the day before staff found out the magazine was closing; the brand will live on online. Outside a central London station early on Friday morning, one vendor was almost out of copies – an unusual occurrence, he said – finding customers eager to obtain a copy of the final issue. “Last year I did one station, with 10 bundles – I sold out only two of them, and returned eight,” he said, offering a straightforward assessment of its demise: “Some stations go quite well, but the majority of the stations, it’s not moving, so that’s why it’s gonna stop.”
As a paid-for title, NME had spent years battling declining sales, with ABC figures from the second half of 2014 showing an average weekly circulation of around 14,000. So in September 2015, publishing company Time Inc revamped NME as a free magazine, bringing circulation up to a reported 300,000 copies per week. Now a mass-market product, the magazine shifted from its focus from alternative music to pop culture, with branches of Topman and HMV acting as key distribution points. It wasn’t to last. According to Paul Cheal, Time Inc’s UK group managing director for music, NME’s print edition was closing after 66 years owing to “increasing production costs and a very tough print advertising market”. (Ten days earlier, Time Inc UK was bought by private equity firm Epiris; editor Mike Williams left a week before the closure of the print edition was announced. Time Inc did not make anyone available for comment.)
How did the storied magazine’s second coming fail? The disappearance of NME speaks to the complexity of the free publishing model – trickier than just ripping off the price tag – and forging a new identity from a brand steeped in six decades of music history. Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, says its disappearance mirrors current publishing trends, citing the closure of free weekly titles Coach and Sport. “There was a time when those free magazines were the only way to access a young, hard-to-reach audience, but because Google and Facebook are so good at selling targeted ad campaigns, it’s really hard for publishers to compete.”
Phil Hilton, editorial director of leading men’s freesheet Shortlist, sympathises with NME, but tells a different story. Shortlist doesn’t struggle for advertising, which comes down to a fundamental difference between the two titles: “Shortlist was conceived as free from the start. We knew the audience, we designed it for the kind of advertisers that would find that audience relevant. It’s much harder to take [NME] and put it through a different distribution model and a different audience. Your dynamics with your readers are so different.”
Douglas McCabe, CEO of media research company Enders Analysis, agrees that free isn’t a means to an end, particularly when translating a niche product for the mass market. “In the end, its very soul seemed to have been lost somewhere. Think about how Stylist has become the kind of magazine that people take home. You flick through NME for 10 minutes on the tube, which isn’t a deep enough relationship to really work.”
Who was NME for? The magazine had been narrowing its remit since the 1990s, when Britpop – a scene it helped define – proved to be a commercial winner for editor Steve Sutherland. Britpop didn’t last, but NME’s glorification of guitar music above all did. That sound, and the magazine with it, found a second wind in the parallel early 2000s New York and London indie booms presided over by editor Conor McNicholas, who ran the magazine from 2002 to 2009. One leading British magazine editor pinpoints McNicholas’s tenure as the start of the end: aggressively positioning the magazine at teenagers when young people were abandoning print, and sloughing off older music fans. “You could argue that the internet would have killed NME anyway, but I do think sales numbers were never big enough to justify trying to shake off a sizeable chunk of their audience – a decision driven, of course, by the ads team wanting a younger demographic profile that would be more appealing to clients.”
NME’s subsequent editors, Krissi Murison (2009 to 2012) and Mike Williams (2012 onwards) hugely diversified the magazine’s contents, expanding its coverage of hip-hop, dance and music made by women. They simultaneously drew on the magazine’s history in archive features and cover stories in an attempt to attract the previously neglected older readership, with their fondness for the brand and enthusiastic spending power. But the magazine’s consumer base, diminished by McNicholas’s guitar-heavy focus, balked at covers featuring people of colour and women, leading to a preponderance of guitar-wielding white boys and their vintage peers on the front page.
This strategy caused tensions among staff. Lucy Jones was deputy editor of NME.com from 2012 to 2015. “By the end of my time there, it felt indefensible, embarrassing and myopic,” she says of the cover strategy. “Eventually, all the brilliant female staffers left. I wonder if the editorial direction in the final years had been stronger, bolder, more willing to take risks, to tussle harder with what the publishers were saying, and represent the best of popular music no matter what the gender, skin colour or instrument, things might have been different.”
When the free magazine launched in September 2015, having Rihanna on the cover looked like an encouraging embrace of the possibilities afforded by scrapping the price tag, and with it the financial dependence on a close-minded readership. But alarm bells started ringing two weeks later when radio DJ Chris Moyles – a man whose boorish attitude had never previously had a home in NME’s pages – appeared on the front cover. Radar, the previously vibrant new-music section, had shrunk to a spread.
“The clock has been ticking ever since it became a freesheet and stopped doing what it did best, opting for something light and fluffy,” says publicist Barbara Charone, who works with artists including Madonna, Foo Fighters and Depeche Mode.
NME was now reliant on advertising and commercial partnerships, which often appeared so ill-judged that they attracted online notoriety. In October 2015, a Foals cover was concealed with an advertising wraparound for the Netflix animation BoJack Horseman, which featured the Oxford five-piece redrawn as cartoon horses. In March 2016, the magazine changed its logo to NMD in association with Adidas’s Generation Nomad campaign. Earlier this year, Time Inc halved the paper’s dimensions to advertise the film Downsizing. Still, the editor claimed in interviews that he had never done anything for a brand that he wouldn’t have done as editorial.
These clumsy advertorials tarnished the brand. The magazine now relied on a distribution network that included a number of independent record shops, many of whom found it hard to shift. London’s Rough Trade East stopped taking NME shortly after it went free, as did Manchester’s Piccadilly Records. Brighton’s Resident record store asked distributor Marketforce to reduce its order from 50 copies a week to 10, but were told 50 was the minimum order. “Whilst the copies of DIY and Loud & Quiet get picked up eagerly, the NME pile would remain untouched in the main,” says Resident’s Natasha Youngs. “We kept it to the end, but only because we couldn’t reduce our allocation without refusing to stock it altogether, and that felt morally wrong.”
Despite antipathy towards the brand, appearing on its cover retained its cachet. Adrian Read is co-director of Inside/Out, an independent publicity agency that works with Lady Gaga, Lily Allen and Alt-J among others, and had nine NME covers during its free incarnation. “Like so much print media, its value in 2018 wasn’t solely based on the number of people that read it and its direct consumer impact. A lot of its influence was about positioning artists to media and the industry, and it still had a knock-on effect to an artist’s fortunes in other areas. An NME cover was still a badge of honour and few artists would tell you otherwise.” Barbara Charone agrees: “When Foo Fighters headlined Glastonbury [in 2017], I really wanted that cover, and when we got it, it really meant something.”
Read sees the magazine’s demise as bad news for the music press. “Whatever your thoughts about NME, it helped put value and interest in music – which is something that has gradually eroded in the past decade. While there have been a number of brilliant online music media outlets founded in recent years, there’s not yet enough in breadth and depth – especially in the UK – to replace what good print music media delivers for reader and artist.” Charone disagrees: “The end of music journalism? Hell no! Q has been completely revitalised in the last year, while Loud & Quiet – run by ex-NME staffers – has relaunched this month.”
Popjustice editor Peter Robinson is cautiously optimistic. “NME closing isn’t the end of music journalism, and I’d say the music writing I’m seeing these days from the UK and abroad is sharper, broader and brighter than anything I can remember. But I don’t think many people realise just how precarious even prestige titles are financially. When you see the Fader or Buzzfeed laying off staff, when they’re supposed to have this whole modern publishing thing figured out, it’s pretty scary.”
So where does the blame fall? “Every staffer from any era as far back as the 1970s can pick several moments from their tenures when it all went irreversibly wrong, until the next golden age rolls in with a fresh generation of young geniuses to clean up and save the mag,” says Q editor Ted Kessler, who got his start at NME in the 1990s. “The margins for error just got slimmer and slimmer until the margins ran out.”