Hunting a pop hit? Radio pluggers are the people to chase

Once upon a time a good word from the 'NME' was all wannabe stars needed for success. Not any more, reports Sophie Heawood
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The Independent Online

The NME Awards usually attract plenty of headlines for the antics of their pop stars. A celebrity-studded event, they make bands look cool and their antics even cooler. A year ago Kate Moss was chucked out for getting overly amorous with Pete Doherty. Last Thursday it was the drunken behaviour of Agyness Deyn, the supermodel girlfriend of Josh Hubbard from The Paddingtons.

But the magazine's sales figures, released last month, spell trouble. While rock and roll might be as big news as ever, the selling of that news is a trickier business, with the NME's circulation down 12 per cent in a year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. With average weekly sales of 64,033 in the second half of 2007, the magazine is unrecognisable from the 1970s bible of cool that sold a quarter of a million at its peak. Those sort of sales figures now belong to Heat magazine, although it is now beginning to experience sales problems of its own.

The internet is partly to blame as music fans increasingly get their music news via online news feeds, MySpace and blogs, as well as the magazine's own website, But it seems the magazine has also lost its way as a taste-maker – and that the music industry no longer considers the music press to be influential.

Where once Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, the NME's "hip young gunslingers" in the 1970s, could change the fate of a new band overnight, it is now the job of radio to break new artists, and the job of radio pluggers to make that happen.

As one record label press officer puts it: "The whole point of my job now – of getting a band in the press – is just so the band then have a press pack that can be given out. For example, if an artist has been written about in the NME, that can help unlock Radio 1 for you."

It's not just any old Radio 1 show the pluggers want, either – the holy grail is Jo Whiley. If you're a radio plugger with a hotline to her lunchtime show, you can easily earn a six-figure salary, as your efforts spell make or break for the record companies.

One such successful man is Eden Blackman, who used to work in sales at EMI but now runs his own radio-plugging company, ish media. He claims you cannot overestimate the significance of the Radio 1 playlist meeting, at which it is decided which songs will make it on to the airwaves.

"On a Wednesday lunchtime 14 people meet and publish the results on a Wednesday afternoon, at which moment you'll hear all the record companies in west London either cheering or gasping in wonder at how to keep going for another seven days," he says.

"And Jo Whiley is the most important DJ. She will play a record and talk about it with some sort of awareness about where it's come from. Even if you're going for a Scott Mills or an Edith Bowman record of the week, it's better to give them the carrot of Jo already having played it – it's got that seal of approval.

"And she runs such a broad church now that you can't say there's a genre she won't play. If Jo has played a drum and bass record, then it will become the drum and bass record that a non-specialist can play."

He recalls plugging the American band The Gossip last year, whose lead singer, Beth Ditto, rose to fame after the band's song "Standing In The Way Of Control" became an unexpected hit. "It sounds crazy now, a year on, but when we took it into Radio 1 we frightened the life out of a number of people with that song. It starts with really aggressive guitar and then Beth's amazing loud vocal – it's not exactly Dido, is it? But Jo got it, and she played it, and so that softened the way for others to play it. It was a niche record that went big."

Eamonn Forde, editor of music industry strategy magazine Five Eight, wrote a doctorate on the history of the music press, and believes the NME's own editorial direction is to blame for its decline.

"People criticise record companies for not keeping up with consumer behaviour, but the same accusation could be levelled at the NME. It's like a pensioner waving his teeth in the air, saying 'I was young once too'."

He claims that in the Seventies and Eighties, each writer had opinions and was allowed to express them as they saw fit. "There was no consistency as such. You had Steven Wells banging on the table, David Quantick being weird, and you could instantly tell a Stuart Maconie piece from anyone else's.

"Now there's an increasing homogenisation of the copy. With the possible exception of Mark Beaumont, you're struggling to identify the writer."

Yet Martin James, a music journalist turned lecturer who has just launched a popular music journalism degree at Southampton Solent University, feels those strong voices are coming back through blogs.

"What I find interesting when I read music blogs is that a lot are going back to that Gonzo style that you used to see in writers from Hunter S Thompson to Everett True in Melody Maker.

"It's all about living the experience; being a part of the music – looking back to the Sixties in a lot of ways. The way I see it now is that the taste-makers are part of online communities. The good journos are aware of how these blogging communities work and they're involved.

"The critics are part of the taste-making process again. In terms of standalone taste-makers, I don't even think Jo Whiley is that any more. A few thousand like-minded people round the world, talking to each other, is far more powerful than 24 hours of Radio 1.

"You don't know what's going to happen next. In terms of industry creativity it's the most exciting time it's been for decades," says James.

But not all music journalists are so thrilled by internet developments. Barney Hoskyns uses the internet to run Rock's Backpages, an online archive of classic music journalism – but the revered music critic is not convinced that other online resources are equally instructive.

He says: "The MeTube generation really just wants to consume without thinking or reflecting as to what music might actually mean or say about their lives. It's essential that 'taste-makers' – or just critics – continue to work in the media, because the good ones enhance and amplify our experience of music... and also call a spade a spade, pointing out when necessary that the emperor's taken his kit off."

Or that a supermodel and her rock star boyfriend have landed on the floor.