Media: NME faces the music

Glossy magazines and the decline of Britpop has led to a fall in sales for the NME. This month it will discover if a redesign has stopped the rot.
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The Independent Culture
THE LAST word on music journalism was Frank Zappa's. It was he who said: "People who cannot write, talking to people with nothing to say, for people who cannot read."

Another truism is that the music press is always in crisis. In the next few weeks the latest sales figures for NME will be released. They will show whether a radical redesign, completed this month, has saved Britain's most venerable music newspaper. If not, rock journalism is set to disappear forever into glossy magazines.

The last crisis to strike was dance music. The faceless creators of house and techno tunes hardly lent themselves to long features and personality journalism. Instead, they spent their time in their bedrooms and let DJs become the celebrities of the scene. DJs are, in the main, businessmen who are Lear-jetted around the country making thousands a night playing clubs. They rarely throw things out of hotel bedrooms and give paranoid interviews while on drugs.

For some titles, like Q and Mojo, there was a living to be made throughout the dance music explosion by targeting older readers. These were the guitar- band fans who found themselves back in the music market because they wanted to replace their albums with CDs.

Then came Britpop. Oasis, Pulp and Blur should have been like manna from heaven to the NMEs and Selects of this world - because here were rock stars again. NME increased its sales eight circulation periods in a row. Britpop probably came too late for Melody Maker, which is now selling 41,000 copies. This is less than The Spectator and down from over a quarter of a million in the Seventies. However, the glossy end of the music market and the general lifestyle magazines, like Loaded and FHM, did even better out of the Britpop explosion.

IPC, the owner of NME, decided last year that it needed a revamp. After years as an inky newspaper, NME turned itself into a modern, review-section- type magazine last year. Unfortunately, the magazine's sales slide continued. It was selling 100,000 before its redesign and is now selling 92,000. In the next few weeks, the six-month sales figures for July to December last year will be available; music fans and IPC alike will be watching with interest.

The problem NME has hit this time is an upsurge in pop - which stands for everything the magazine has always hated. Where once Oasis and Blur dominated, now it is the turn of B*witched and Steps.

"It is machine-manufactured music for machines to listen to," says Steve Sutherland, the editor of NME. "These are lean times for music magazines and pop is not an area we can write about."

NME is now trying to actively kick-start the next phase of musical fashion through marketing. Rather than a conventional awards ceremony, it has a documentary about its readers' poll winners going on Channel 4 on 27 January and has just kicked off a 20-date tour of the kind of unknown bands it specialises in.

Yet ironically the doyenne of the pop magazine market is not doing well either. Smash Hits has recently appointed a new editor to stem years of decline as its teeny-bop readers have drifted into the general lifestyle magazines that serve them - titles like Sugar and It's Bliss.

"Almost every year I read a demise of the music paper article," says Steve Sutherland. "But it's a cycle. We will continue to find the bands that will be big. We will promote and encourage them. And at some point, we will kick off a whole movement, the way we did with Britpop. And we will grow again."