Conor McNicholas: NME's editor has the best seat in the house

You can't really complain if you're the editor of the 'NME', and Conor McNicholas wouldn't dream of doing so.
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The Independent Online

"It is utterly exhausting. There are a lot of rewards to it, and being an NME person at Glastonbury is quite a cool thing to do, but it's fucking hard work," he says. "The advantage that we had was that when everything went tits up in a flood of mud on Friday morning - because we are forced to operate independently, we can't get any official help as Q has got the official sponsorship - we had an independent electrical supply as well. So why other people, specifically the BBC and Q, were watching their generators float off down a freshly formed river, we just turned the engine on on our bus and got on with it."

With the best seats in the house, the best results possible and one of the best jobs in publishing, how could Conor McNicholas ever complain?

Three years into his tenure as editor of the world's most famous music magazine, and things for McNicholas are looking distinctly rosy. He has won the praise of his peers (picking up the industry's Editor of the Year award at May's PPAs) and, more importantly, the approval of an expectant public. Weekly sales are now in the 70,000 bracket and the NME regained market leadership within 12 months of him assuming control - which he'd been told by IPC upon taking the job was an absolute priority. He is still only 31.

Graduating from Manchester University with a degree in philosophy that perhaps explains his "constant optimism", at the dawn of Britpop in 1994, McNicholas, after a chance meeting with then editor Steve Sutherland while working on dance music magazine Ministry, got his first taste of the NME as a freelancer on its news desk for a fortnight in 1997.

"I thought it was pretty grim, to tell the truth," he says. "There was this Britpop hangover and I was astonished the people in the office weren't even playing music, or barely talking to each other. It all seemed a little bit sad. A reader reads NME and thinks 'fuck me, that has got be the best job in the world'... it wasn't."

It was while editing IPC's Muzik in 2002 that he was asked to apply for the editorship of its superior sister title, and wiser for his previous experience of it, he did so "knowing what had to be done".

His task was to drag the magazine from the doldrums to without upsetting its fervent fanbase. To be caught between rock music and a hard place. His approach was unapologetic. The format became smaller and the content more tabloid in its outlook, but in doing this he was sure to upset that most hardcore brand of music fan, the "snob".

"When each issue of the NME comes out, to the readers it's almost like a band delivering a new song. It's that same connection," he says. "Sometimes they like their new stuff; sometimes they don't. There are an awful lot of people, the vast majority, that are very positive about the NME, and there are a small minority that aren't. But they are a small minority, and they are like disappointed Oasis fans - they still go out and buy the album."

It is also riding the wave of a rejuvenated indie scene, characterised by NME "discoveries" such as Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian - a scene that for the first time since Britpop unashamedly courts the mainstream audience. Gone are the days of punk-style exclusivity, and this, it seems, is another hurdle. People will always talk of the wild days of the title -the gunslinging of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons - but McNicholas believes that he knows who those people are, and that he knows that they are wrong.

"It amazes me how some older music fans, and some older fans of music journalism, who let's not forget tend to be old music journalists themselves, like to paint this fantastic golden age with the assumption that the NME should now look exactly the same as it did in 1976," he says. "They end up sounding like readers of the Daily Mail, frankly. The world moves on. Our responsibility is to go after whatever the next kind of punk is, and if that means talking about the characters involved in it and what they are doing and the way they are dressed, then I'm utterly unapologetic - we will always do it."

Under his watchful eye, the NME brand has also branched out into places

punk might have spat on if they'd known they existed. Its annual touring show, the NME Awards (which, given the ubiquity of angular haircuts on display, is aptly sponsored by Shockwaves hair products), is a key event in the music calendar.

And as the musical landscape has changed, so too have the magazine's inner workings. The office, a notoriously tricky place to ply one's trade, is now, McNicholas adds, "buzzing, a good place to be". But no matter how well things might be going, the pressures of the job are telling. It is one of the most coveted positions in British publishing, one of the few that most magazine editors would love to do. His seat may be warm now, but he can't rest upon it too comfortably.

"The minute you start to relax then you can guarantee that everything will go tits up. Now it's about different priorities. It's about maintaining the momentum," he says. This momentum is, in part, propelled by some unlikely sources. Its key proponent is former Libertine, Babyshambles front man and current beau of Kate Moss, Pete Doherty, a man who sums up the ethos McNicholas has injected into the NME like no other. If Doherty sneezes, then his magazine needs to write about - such is the level of obsession among young music fans about everything he puts out on the shelves, and indeed into his body. This raises another long-standing criticism of the NME, that it is no longer the daring soul it once was.

However, one could argue that it isn't the NME whose bravery is in question, but rather the somewhat relaxed attitude of the general public towards the risks they take. After all, naming Doherty, a violent smack addict, the coolest man in the world as the NME did this year could barely have been more daring from a commercial point of view. But hardly an eyelid was batted, and proof was had, as he puts it, that "the gap between the subversive and the mainstream can be bridged".

So while things for the NME may be looking good right now, it's by no means time for McNicholas to rest yet. He hopes to be in the job "for ever", yet he acknowledges that for many years the industry has "loved to bitch about the NME and even see it take a fall", and so he'll need to keep his friends around him, or, he concludes, at least let them keep him away from the office jukebox.

"If I had final say over the office jukebox, then the NME probably wouldn't be selling as many as it does at the moment."

'Inky Fingers: The Story of the NME' will be broadcast tonight on BBC4 at 9pm