The Guardian broke the news. They announced the print death of the New Musical Express. Perhaps there’s some cruel irony in the fact that it was an online article that announced its demise. Perhaps that’s beside the point. The NME would cease to exist tangibly, save for dusty collections in lofts and garages where the now-obsolete magazine would be at home amongst other irrelevant, yet collectible, items: vinyl, maybe? Wait… even vinyl has made a ‘comeback’.
But the NME did make a comeback. The same Guardian article that announced the publication’s demise said so. Sure, sales had declined in the last few decades, but in 2015, when the magazine became free and sustained by adverts, it rocketed from a circulation of 15,000 copies a week to 300,000, merely 7,000 less than the magazine’s peak in 1964. But at what cost?
Glance at that first free edition, and you’d be forgiven for thinking nothing had changed. Rihanna adorned the cover; the absence of a price tag hadn’t debased a long-coveted spot on those hallowed pages. But the pages weren’t so hallowed anymore. Adverts crept in from the corners, taking over whole sides, whilst editorial was clumsily swapped for advertorial—Netflix have the best ‘university dating’ advice, after all. The NME wasn’t just selling spots on its pages, it was selling its soul.
This model could never sustain the New Musical Express. In its heyday—when it didn’t have to be given away for nothing to circulate in the hundreds of thousands—the NME had represented, shaped, and propagated an anti-establishment culture. The eminent Tony Parsons, who began his journalistic career at the NME, recalled that working there was like stumbling into a ‘drug-soaked Narnia’, where one of ‘two major concerns’ at editorial meetings was: ‘Which way is the joint being passed?’ With the 2015 relaunch of the magazine, though, the establishment culture it once challenged was supporting and shaping the NME—sometimes even physically shaping it. This would never capture the attention of an audience who read it back in the day, not with a betrayal of its values as significant as this.
Even for a younger generation, cover-to-cover adverts would be too much to stomach. We’re already stuffed thanks to targeted advertisements that understand what we want better than we understand ourselves. Why dig for new music in the ad-laden pages of the NME when even an unpaid Spotify experience would be less marred by marketing? It’s much easier to become one of the thirteen million unique monthly users of NME.com instead.
So, the NME is dead… in the offline world. But, as statistics reveal year after year, most UK magazines might be heading the same way. The NME may have lost the trust of its readers, but perhaps it had no choice to resort to ads, and maybe its fall from grace offers a glimpse of a wider problem facing magazine print.