The beat goes on

The NME publisher Neil Robinson tells Chris Gray how he transformed the ageing music title into a global brand
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The Independent Culture

The most famous music publication ever to come out of Britain has, in recent times, been in an even more precarious state of health than some of the rock'n'roll stars on its front pages. But somehow NME has climbed off its sick-bed with a vitality that would be the envy of any client of the Priory clinic (this week's cover star Pete Doherty of The Libertines, for instance).

The paper's circulation went into meltdown after Britpop, which NME championed as strongly as it did punk, and hit a low of 70,000 in 2002, its 50th-anniversary year. It looked as if the former New Musical Express was going the way of all the other old music "inkies", such as Melody Maker, Sounds and Record Mirror. Now, after NME's transformation last September into a revamped glossy, the talk on the 27th floor of publisher IPC's headquarters is of morphing it into an international multimedia brand. The future strategy is likely to include digital distribution, cross-platform promotions and legal music downloads.

It's a long way from the days when two editions of the magazine were given over to Paul Morley joining The Clash on tour. But that was 25 years ago, and NME's world has changed. When it celebrated its 50th anniversary, the other inkies had disappeared, killed off by competition from dailies, specialist titles, monthly magazines, the internet and a post-Britpop musical void. Many thought NME would go the same way. The move to a glossy format has seen its sales climb back to more than 72,000. It is a modest turnaround given that it sold nearly 50,000 more in the mid-Nineties and well over 200,000 in the Sixties, but the recovery has earned NME publisher Neil Robinson this year's Periodical Publishers Association's Consumer Magazine Publisher of the Year award.

As well as the redesign, Robinson has overseen a chart-show tie-in with MTV2 and a series of NME Originals magazines, which reproduce everything written about some of the paper's favourite bands. He dismisses the predictions of NME's demise as "perennial pieces of lazy journalism" but is realistic enough to say that, barring a new musical movement to rival Britpop, the magazine's circulation will stay much as it is and future growth will be around the website. About 1.2m people now visit NME.com a month, 40 per cent of them outside the UK. "NME.com is the most valuable tool we ever created. This magazine could not now come out without NME.com," says Robinson. "There are pages every week that are dedicated to the research done and the information given to us via the readership of NME.com. We get fantastic insights and it fits the brand strategy, which is about connecting with music fans. NME is much more than just this magazine."

The NME brand includes the annual awards, as well as website services such as a ticket line, a record shop, ringtone downloads, and an auction facility. Within a few months fans will also be able to download music, which will add to the £1m turnover Robinson says has put NME.com into profit after it initially lost "millions". Robinson is talking to both iTunes and former download outlaw Napster about a possible partnership. Further in the future, options being considered include potential NME radio or television programmes. Digital versions of the magazine are likely to appear before that, targeted at website users abroad, who would be given something that "looks like NME but is not in a paper format".

The magazine, like print media generally, Robinson believes, "is going to struggle to be anything other than what it is".

It's a hard-headed realism he employed when he became publisher of NME and NME.com after working for IPC in circulation and advertising for magazines including Loaded, Melody Maker and Country Life. His first task was to "drive the conversations" that involved telling NME journalists who successfully rode the Britpop wave that they were too old and no longer in touch with the magazine's core 19-year-old male student reader. "One of the problems was that we let the team stay there too long. A good lifespan on NME might be three to five years. NME went off the boil because people stayed there too long."

Under new editor Conor McNicholas, the magazine was redesigned and reoriented to give the 19-year-olds what they wanted, making it less of an exclusive club and embracing a broader range of music, while championing new talent. What emerged was a glossy NME, in some ways a tamer version of its inkie ancestor. Robinson sees that as the magazine simply being more honest about where it lies in the "supply chain" between record companies, retailers and fans; but former writers like Paul Morley insist such language had no place in the NME world they inhabited.

"I would never have considered there was such a thing as a supply chain," says Morley. "NME then was coming out of the Sixties and Seventies and it had a radical spirit. It is now an odd combination of a commercial enterprise with a fanzine level of enthusiasm. It has lost the idea that it was about writing. Now it is more like a weekly guide." Morley accepts that may be what the readers always wanted. "We did polls when I was there and the gig guide was always number one, the features were about number eight. Ultimately we were just a gig guide even then, though people like me thought we were being Tom Wolfe."

Robinson says there is still "great writing" in the magazine and it is facile to criticise it for losing its anarchic edge. "It's not NME's fault that the world has moved on as it has. We can't stand out there and be alternative; commercially that would be suicide now. The irony is we are still more alternative than anything else. I can still annoy the managing director of EMI."

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