The decline of lads' mags: Unloaded, and now the party is over

They were the publishing phenomenon of the 1990s. But sales of magazines aimed at hedonistic young men are in rapid decline. James Brown, founding editor of 'loaded', mourns their demise

I am at a party in Long Island, Cindy Crawford is ruffling my hair. I am with an SAS sniper learning how to shoot. I am being photographed for Vanity Fair, someone is documenting it for a book. I am snogging, snorting, drinking, laughing, crying, I am on a plane from Peru to Columbia to buy cocaine, I am in Australia hosting an awards ceremony, I am in Japan as Paul Smith gets mobbed, I am sleeping with five different women in five days as we finish the first issue of Loaded. Howard Marks, Irvine Welsh, Dennis Hopper and Nick Hornby are writing for me, as are a generation of new talent I have unearthed. I am opening sacks of fan mail; bottles of champagne are mounting up in the office; my colleague Tim, who I start the magazine with, is in Hawaii dressed as Thomas Magnum. Every day is like this for three years. I do not have a boss I have a handler, Alan Lewis. I like this because "spies" have handlers, and then I remember, so do dogs.

I am 28 and my magazine idea Loaded has become the most irrepressible, irresponsible publication to rock the world of the mainstream media since Rolling Stone over 25 years before. I am in a dream. Some say a fantasy. But it is my reality. An explosion that created a market. A market that some now say is dying.

Most people have to go to university to get drunk, shout a lot, watch a lot of bands, go to festivals, nightclubs, football matches and live on a diet of alcohol, crisps, drugs and drunken sex and not worry about the consequences. My colleagues and I at Loaded not only got paid for it, we were given awards for it. We created a genre that not only gave a lot of people a lot of jobs, it gave the readers a magazine they still talk about today, and it gave fragrance and fashion and entertainment advertisers, for the first time, a place where they could reach young men en masse. Oh, and it made an awful lot of money.

Now the doom-mongers are predicting the end is nigh, yet even though I've been out of the game for a while I won't be queueing up to carry any coffins.

The truth is the critics who felt alienated by the unexpected and unwelcome explosion of testosterone in 1994 have been sounding the death-nell for years. Even when we were selling half a million copies, there were people saying it wouldn't last.

To date Loaded's sold over 50 million copies, God knows the figure for FHM which, after my time at Loaded, went on to become market leader. Probably even Felix Dennis doesn't know how many copies of Maxim he's sold around the world.

Sitting here looking at the huge drops in year on year circulation figures for the big three I've been trying to imagine what we would have done back in the mid 90s had we been given the news - and the answer is, simply say go and get drunk. As our detractors so often said - from the Guardian feminists to our girlfriends who never saw us - that was our answer to everything, but not taking life too seriously usually worked.

No one ever gave Loaded a chance. Before it even launched, the Evening Standard ran a story where industry experts announced that men would never read lifestyle magazines like women did. In fact, the publisher, Andy McDuff, had a certificate on his wall given to him pre-launch by his colleagues "For the launch most likely to get you the sack." Even though Loaded really was very tame in comparison to today's weekliesNuts and Zoo, before launch we had to reassure the board of IPC magazines that we wouldn't be getting them into trouble for being too lewd. I had to put together a huge mood board of headlines and articles about sex pulled from women's magazines, many of which IPC itself published. At the centre I placed an article giving details on "How To Give A Blow Job" from Cosmo.

When Emap held a seminar at a conference named "Why didn't we launch Loaded?" they were hugely aware they - as the trendy younger publishers - had been caught off guard by a company considered to be so staid they were nicknamed "The Ministry of Magazines".

It really was luck though, to me luck is when ambition meets opportunity. The NME wouldn't let me edit it, so I went off in a sulk and then IPC gave me the chance to start my own magazine. Many of the guys who worked for me on Loaded hadn't really worked before; come to think of it, many of them haven't worked since either.

Emap's reaction was to buy For Him and very carefully go about producing a calmer, more accessible take on Loaded. If Loaded was Animal House meets Apocalypse Now, FHM was Porkies meets Top Gun, it's strength was in recognising that after the first 300,000 customers we'd bring to the party, there'd be their less hip, less confident, even more everyday friends that would want to read something too. We felt like the Sex Pistols, they seemed like the Boomtown Rats.

I believe any business analyst could examine the market today and identify reasons for the decline of the monthlies. Because of the success of the weeklies, men are still buying huge numbers of magazines a month, but you'll see little variety. The same names crop up as subject matter - Paris Hilton will be on the cover of both GQ and Nuts this month. The big three - Loaded, Maxim and FHM - simply haven't responded to the change in frequency. They lack clear brand definition, they haven't done anything significantly new or interesting. In many ways they've been living under the hangover of the success guys like myself and Tim Southwell at Loaded, and Mike Soutar and Ed Needham at FHM, bought a decade ago.

At one point Alan Lewis, who had previously launched Kerrang!, asked me what I thought of going fortnightly. I was all for it, having grown up on Smash Hits!, and aware that we did all the work in two weeks anyway. Nothing ever came of it though.

The other day I looked at a couple of the monthlies and weeklies as my ex-girlfriend was promoting her record in them in her pants. I was amazed by how narrow the editorial content was. At Loaded in it's growth period I tried to assemble editorial content that covered all areas of entertainment interest for men and was aware that it should appeal to men of all ages from their late teens to late 40s. Oasis could sit next to the then unhip Ozzy Osbourne, The Furry Freak Brothers alongside Beavis and Butthead, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman alongside Kevin Keegan and Stan Bowles. A typical issue could feature bacon sandwiches, warships, rally driving, house music, cult TV, girls, cartoons, the fledgling internet, the Conservative party conference, a beer festival, boxing and on and on. Diversity was key. Doing different subjects at length meant you brought in readers of all sorts of backgrounds and interests, and everyone can be won over by a healthy sense of self deprecation.

Nowadays you can of course create your own magazine simply by clicking on line, so there is a genuine suggestion that younger potential readers aren't even bothering with the trip to the newsagent. When Peter O-Toole rode a camel onto the set of David Letterman and then got the animal to drink a can of beer we put it on the cover and people read about it a week later. Nowadays you'd instantly be able to watch it on YouTube.

Like an ex-footballer kicking every ball, you naturally pass your sell by date but still have all the tactics in your head. I never thought I'd be answering questions or writing about this magazine 14 years after I wrote the first pitch for it. And yet for the last six months, after my marriage ended last year, I've been living something close to Loaded gold, seeing a beautiful model, flying first class to Cuba, working like a private eye for clandestine organisations. And balancing that with being an alcohol-free dad who loves being with his young son. Sometimes when I'm sitting doing grown-up work for big corporations I think I'd like to dust down the original Loaded Dirty Dozen, throw in some new blood and put together Olded - For Men Who Didn't Know Any Better Then and They've Stupidly Come Back For More. But that only happens in Hollywood doesn't it?

'You know exactly what you're going to get'

Geoff Pearce 23

EDUCATION WEBSITE BUSINESS MANAGER, DEPTFORD, LONDON

"I never read lads' mags - they are too expensive and I find them to be out of touch with what's going on. It's neither fantasy nor real current issues. I find them shallow and I would be embarrassed to be seen holding one. I read newspapers every day, and I'm subscribed to New Scientist."

Chris Visser 23

JOURNALIST, BARROW-IN-FURNESS, CUMBRIA

"I don't read lads' mags. They just don't appeal to me. I think one of the main problems with lads' mags is there are limited regulations on content. With women's magazines it seems there are professionals with credentials giving advice in Agony Aunt columns. In lads' mags it's someone like Jodie Marsh. They advise young men to have sex with as many women as possible, and make them feel stupid if they haven't."

Jack Hart 19

STUDENT, CLAPHAM, LONDON

"I think lads' mags haven't really changed much over the years, except they're more expensive. I still like lads' mags, I'll buy one if I have change in my pocket and a long journey. They are very similar every month, so you know what you are going to get. I'd rather go on Bebo, it's like Myspace, it's a good way to keep in contact with people."

Matt Bolton 23

STUDENT, BURNLEY, LANCASHIRE

"I have been reading magazines since I was about 15 or 16. They are an easy escape from reality and are fun to read. If I have cash I try to pick one up a month. I read FHM and newspapers and books. I am surprised to hear that sales have dropped, but I can see why because of the internet. I think lads' mags can get away with a lot more than women's magazines. The jokes are slightly racier and would probably offend some women."

Mark Senn 21

STUDENT, GLASGOW

"The content (or rather the lack of) reflects the fact that magazines such as FHM and Loaded exist only for the sake of being men's magazines. They struggle to fill up pages. In my opinion, 'men's magazines' are something bought by boys in order to make them feel older, in just the same way a 13-year-old girl might buy J-17."

R J Peach 19

ESTATE AGENT, HAMPSTEAD, LONDON

"I think lads' mags have become a bit too blokey, there are more pictures of women and less writing than before, and they are trying to use the shock factor with bizarre stories. There are too many lads' mags out there, they're all trying to increase their sales. I'd prefer to go on MySpace or surf the net, because there is a lot more choice in what you can read."

By Elisa Bray, Kate Watkins, Toby Clarke and Helena Crow

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