Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Dumbed-down Death Of The NME

Once-influential music magazine the NME has died aged 50. It had been suffering from ill health for a while.

When i was a young kid in the 90s I used to buy Smash Hits magazine. When Britpop happened, it led me to lots of great indie and alternative bands, and suddenly I'd grown out of the bubblegum teen pop gossip that Smash Hits specialised in. So i upgraded to buying the more advanced NME instead, where informative, well-written articles would introduce us to important musicians that would go on to become legends. There would be insightful reviews of the latest albums, and NME journalists would dedicate their time to watching gigs up and down the country and make the effort to discover exciting new artists. For about 5 or 6 years, the magazine was like a bible to me. I bought it every week. The Evening Session and the John Peel show would be the places to hear the best new music, and the NME would be the place to read about it. If one of my favourite bands had new music coming, this was the magazine that made you aware of it.

But by the 2000s they seemed more interested in dedicating time to only the most mainstream indie bands. Sales dipped. I stopped buying the magazine in about 2003. As time went by sales dropped further. The price went up, the amount of pages went down, and the magazine thought that the solution to their decline was to start featuring more mainstream pop acts. If they wanted more variety, a good idea would have been employing experts in certain fields, like electronica, hip hop and metal. Their staff could've earned their pay by actively searching for new bands and artists to promote and support, rather than just following the most lowest-common-denominator trends. 

In time, the only indie bands that were popular enough to include on the front cover were all getting older. The magazine didn't think the likes of Teleman, The Hosts and Superfood were big enough to attract readers, so they kept on relying on veterans like Blur, the Manics and The Stone Roses for cover material. Brilliant bands obviously, but people were beginning to complain that the NEW Musical Express should be showcasing new acts rather than the same bands who had graced the cover in the 90s. The magazine faced a dilemma: continue their reputation as an indie rock based publication and be limited to older, more successful bands, or abandon their ethics and chase popularity by featuring new acts who were big. But by that point, the only acts enjoying mainstream success were pop singers and commercial rappers. Gradually more manufactured acts began appearing in the pages, and the NME started to look very shallow in comparison to the growing number of independent websites that championed lots of new alternative and underground music. 

Music enthusiasts felt like the NME had turned its back to them, so they turned their backs on the NME. Eventually last year, sales had become so bad that the magazine became a free publication. And if that wasn't desperate enough, suddenly the most mainstream of pop acts began featuring on the front cover. Having Rihanna on the front is one thing, having Justin Bieber was just a depressing low point. It became increasingly obvious that a lot of their "articles" are now in fact just paid-for PR pieces. Record companies are desperately trying to find ways to make their manufactured pop acts look important and they know that as well as lacking talent, they also lack the credibility needed for well-informed music enthusiasts to take them seriously. The record companies know that the NME used to be a publication with influence and credibility, so they're now using the magazine to try and convince people to lower their standards and accept the same generic pop that's been boring people to death for the last 15 years at least. How do they do this? By sending cheques to the NME in return for the magazine to write about their acts in nothing but a blindly positive way. Overlong adverts cunningly disguised as journalism.

The magazine's Facebook page now seems to post more showbiz gossip rather than important music news. Recent "music news" stories have included a pile of clothes that supposedly resembled Michael Jackson, some gossip about Rihanna dating Drake, the latest items in Beyonce's fashion range, Justin Bieber's latest girlfriend being insulted on Twitter, and attention-seeking shitbag Robbie Williams getting wanked off by a fan decades ago. While its readers expressed dismay at the lack of credible music articles, the NME's Facebook page thought it'd be a good idea to use their time to write an "article" about three women on the Jeremy Kyle Show arguing over who took a shit in a fridge. Seriously.

Then there's the pathetic attempts at trying to stir up controversy. Noel Gallagher made a great point about the mentality of people who are prepared to pay £5 for a cup of coffee while downloading music for free and seeing no reason to pay for it. You'd think a music publication would encourage its readers to value music. You'd expect them to support not only musicians but record labels and of course the vitally important record shops. But no, not the NME. Instead they published a blog with the title "Come On Noel, If People Could Get Coffee For Free They Wouldn't Pay For That Either". Amongst the content in this ridiculous article, there's the line about "moving with the times" as if stealing music and giving the artist nothing in return is OK because paying for music should be a thing of the past. It seems that if something is new then it must be "progress" no matter how bad or damaging it is. And disagreeing with it is a "entitled, freeloading attitude". My local record shop is now reconsidering whether it should continue stocking their magazine or not. 

But last week's issue (September 23) marks a new low. It's officially come to the point where the NME now has no credibility to speak of. What has disgusted and disappointed me so much? This:

A full page article dedicated to what sort of pizza Tulisa from N-Dubz eats. This isn't even a spoof or a joke. THIS was actually considered fit for publication in the New Musical Express. 

It literally couldn't be more dumbed down. It's sadly symbolic of what happened to the magazine: sales dipped and it died. But not a dignified end where it could rest in peace. Instead it returned as a zombie, with a decayed appearance and no brain.

While they advertised pizzas and cheered on manufactured non-entities, that same week a superb, bizarre and innovative duo called Soccer96 released a fantastic album called 'As Above So Below'. It was great and hugely surprising to see an insight into the album on the NME's Facebook page, but this piece was pretty much the members of Soccer96 detailing the record themselves, saving the NME any hard work. Not that listening to and reviewing a new album should be hard work if you're supposed to be a music journalist. But the biggest issue here is the fact that this feature wasn't part of that week's actual magazine, and the pizza-eating habits of the woman from N-Dubz was. The term "backwards" is an understatement.

It seems like they're doing all of this out of pure spite because we didn't want to buy their magazine anymore. They might as well have just written "you get what you pay for, and this is what you get if you're not paying." And I'm not even going to begin talking about how I've been passionately writing about music for years and getting absolutely nowhere in terms of profile or a career. And all the countless other writers who do it because their hearts are truly in it and because they want to share amazing music with others to discover. We dedicate our time to promoting great artists while a bunch of overpaid clowns dedicate an entire page to a talentless chav's taste in pizzas and try to pass it off as "journalism".

All this is just part of a bigger problem that is dragging mainstream music further into the abyss, where "poptimism" goes way too far and becomes more like "popaganda". Thankfully I don't have the sort of ignorant hate i used to have for pop music. We've heard some amazing pop songs in recent times, and these songs are to be celebrated. However most pop music in this day and age is just excess, dead wood. The vast majority of the acts releasing these songs are only contributing vocals while others write and create the music. Trying to pass these mere singers off as "artists" and put them in the same league as the multi-talented geniuses of our time is degrading and reductive. The industry people seem to be doing all they can to fill the music scene with acts that the older generation can't stand, so they think "there's nothing good out there anymore" and give up listening to and buying new music. Which means less competition for the major label pop acts, whose audience are mostly kids and teenagers. Now the greedy pop machine wants to eat up every part of alternative culture too, to make sure they've completely stamped out the threat of indie and rock returning to the charts.

Certain people will miss the point and tell me to "get with the times", but talk like that is just a lazy way of lowering standards. Why should quality be a thing of the past? Some might even praise the NME for branching out and featuring a wider variety of music styles. I'm all for diversity, and the lack of it in the mainstream at the moment is partly due to the fact that we're not all tuned into the same radio station anymore, meaning there's no single place where a mass audience can hear a varied mixture of genres. So maybe a playform that encourages diversity is a good thing if people reading about Rihanna or Justin Bieber also have the chance to read about the latest albums from the likes of Toy, Jagwar Ma, Slaves and Temples. Problem is, it's not the same as a radio station. It takes a lot less effort to keep your ears open and hear a song than it does to commit yourself to reading an article. Pop fans will just get their quick fix of the acts they know, and then skip over everything else. It doesn't work.

I hope someone at the NME reads this and realises they've failed massively. And while you're here, here's some advice: just stop now to save yourselves (and the music scene that you're supposed to represent) more embarrassment. Change your name to Celebrity Pop Gossip Weekly and do whatever you want. Just don't call it the NME and destroy the memory of an iconic British institution. Hang your lazy heads in shame.

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