Following the announcement that Conor McNicholas is to step down as editor of the NME, questions will no doubt be asked about the future of the magazine. In their press statement IPC magazines state “Conor has made a great contribution to the ongoing development of the NME. Over the last seven years he and his talented team have garnered plaudits and awards in equal measure, consistently creating the most innovative and compelling new music magazine on the news stand today. We wish him all the very best after he leaves us.” However, what we think is more revealing than the usual “Good luck didn’t he do well,” rhetoric is a paragraph further down in the press statement which states “Last year NME won the coveted PPA Consumer Media Brand of the Year award. The judges were impressed with NME’s approach to brand development, setting the template for how a modern magazine brand can extend its reach and influence in a variety of ways and across a variety of mediums”. It's all about the brand you see.
Since youth culture existed the NME has for many teenagers and young twenties been a bible. Back when Breaking More Waves started reading the NME in the eighties it was a hotbed of anger, pretension and politics where hip young gunslingers of journalists mouthed off with exciting arrogant prose that really made you think about not just the bands it featured, but your whole life. It took a week to consume and every Wednesday was an exciting day trooping down to the local newsagent to pick up the latest copy of the rag that left ink on your hands. These days however NME has dumbed down. Much of the writing is not much better than your average blog, with the articles being soundbites of information that most on the case kids already knew anyway. It on average takes no more than half an hour to consume. Much of that is due to McNicholas, who has fundamentally changed the NME. These days the printed form is rather like an indie kids / Skins viewers version of the now defunct Smash Hits magazine but without the humour. (Popjustice have captured that niche.) And yet NME survives where Melody Maker and Sounds before it didn’t, even if it is not the beast it once was.
Laying aside the criticism of dumbing down, one of the reasons that NME has until now survived is because of McNicholas’s vision of developing a brand. In the wired up, instant, mass media world we live in, it is difficult for a magazine to sell enough copies on its own to survive. So the NME has modified and changed to become a globally identifiable brand. Now youth culture can buy into that brand, attend Club NME, buy tickets from the NME ticket shop, and listen to NME radio, all ways that NME can generate additional income. It is no longer just a publication. The magazine is simply a flagship for the brand.
But what if following the departure of McNicholas that flagship sinks? Could the NME brand continue without McNicholas? Time will tell what the future holds.
Despite our criticism of the poor quality of the magazine that the NME now is, it would be a sad day if it folded. It is still one of the only high street magazines that highlights new and unsigned bands, often giving them their first mass circulation exposure. That’s why we continue to subscribe to it, 25 years after first picking up a copy. Of course these days the speed of the internet means that the NME is always going to be lagging a little. Two weeks ago it featured Yes Giantess in its new bands Radar feature, a band that we first featured seven months ago, when they were known just as Giantess. This is not Breaking More Waves trying to get one up one the NME, but the context is that this is a blog written by an unhip, balding, middle aged man with a busy job and family to look after. It doesn't seem right that the NME can be so behind. Yet despite this NME currently remains as an essential stepping stone to radio play and more mainstream coverage. However with so many other media avenues for new bands to gain exposure, including the blogosphere, NME is fighting in a corner.
Whoever replaces McNicholas, we wish you all the luck. We suspect you will need boxing gloves.