The long, slow death of print music journalism: Alan Cross
In preparation for finishing our basement last year, I had to commit to a major purge. The Dumpster that was dropped off in the driveway was soon filled to overflowing, mostly with all the music magazines that I’d been saving for … something.
When the truck came to remove the skip, it groaned under the weight of thousands of pounds of newsprint and glossy stock: Rolling Stone, Spin, Alternative Press, Q, Mojo, Record Collector, Music Express, Sounds, Melody Maker, The NME, Word, Creem, Circus, Select, Classic Rock, Uncut, Kerrang, The Face. I bought them all every month, spending thousands every year.
I loved going to Chapters and Indigo on a regular basis, browsing through shelves and shelves of music magazines. Writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Lester Bangs, PJ O’Rourke, Charles Shaar Murray, Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Simon Reynolds, Jon Savage, Jon Landau, Steve Lamaq and Stuart Marconie not only helped me with my music education, but also with my view of the world.
Then the Internet hit and my magazine addiction began to lessen. Around five or six years ago, I stopped buying music magazines almost entirely.
By that time, though, even the best magazines had grown thinner. With the collapse of physical music sales — CD sales are just 10 per cent of what they were in 2000 — record labels stopped buying ads. With that crucial revenue stream gone, deep cuts were implemented. Staff was laid off, and magazines were sold off or merged with other companies. Other publications disappeared entirely, crushed by cratering circulation numbers.
There was another casualty this past week. On Friday, the last-ever print edition of The New Musical Express — The NME — (est. 1952) hit the streets. Time Inc. (UK) Ltd., the magazine’s owner, says the property will continue by “focusing investment on further expanding NME’s digital audience.” Translation: The company has gone all-in on the website, which first appeared in 1997.
It’s impossible to overstate how powerful and influential the weekly music magazines used to be in the U.K. Because commercial radio was so late coming to Britain (and because the stuffy and proper BBC wouldn’t stoop to playing pop music for decades), the music weeklies, led by The NME and its mortal enemy, Melody Maker (est. 1926), were how people kept up to date with what was going on.
The music weeklies took it upon themselves to dig up (and tear down) new artists, trends, and sounds, becoming a tremendously powerful and feared force within the music industry. A single review (let alone a cover) could make or break a career. They were loved, loathed and feared in equal measure.
At one point, The NME had paid circulation of over 250,000 every week. It seemed that everyone bought a copy to read on the Tube on the way home from work on every Friday. Meanwhile, anglophile music fans overseas anxiously awaited delivery of the latest issues, which, of course, could be weeks out of date. But it didn’t matter. It was a kind of music writing they couldn’t get at home.
Problems for all music magazines began in the late 1990s when the Internet started flexing its muscle. Music news, reviews, opinion and music itself (hello, Napster!) starting pinging around the planet at light speed. Melody Maker was especially hard-hit, electing to close down and merge with The NME in 2000.
While The NME managed to hang on for another decade-and-a-half, sales dropped to less than 15,000 issues a week by 2013. A switch to a free model in September 2015 boosted circulation to around 300,000 — the highest since the early 1960s — but advertisers balked at buying space. This week — 66 years to the day since the publication of the first issue — the plug was pulled.
There have been many other casualties at the magazine stand. Along with Melody Maker’s disappearance in 2000, Select (d. 2001) and The Face (d. 2004) were among the first to be shuttered in the Internet age. Spin went bankrupt, ending its print run in 2012, and now exists solely online as a shadow of what it used to be. The Word died in 2014. New York’s Village Voice stopped its presses last September and exists entirely online now.
Even the venerable Rolling Stone has struggled to adapt. Like many of its peers, its physical dimensions shrunk from a newsprint tabloid to a glossy magazine. Now, though, founder Jann Wenner has had enough. He sold off 49 per cent of the company to a Singapore concern called BandLab Technologies whose plans for the magazine remain unclear. Meanwhile, the remaining 51 per cent is apparently going to Penske Media Corp., owner of such websites as Deadline.com, Boy Genius Report, and Variety.
Some fight on. When it looked like Metal Hammer, Prog and Classic Rock magazines were doomed by the bankruptcy of Team Rock, their collective parent company, they were purchased back by an organization that originally had sold them for 10.2 million pounds back in 2013. The new purchase price? Just 800,000 pounds. Print publication continues.
Kerrang is still with us, but with circulation at a dismal 20,000 or so. Q soldiers on — its tablet version is actually quite good and makes for excellent airplane reading — as does Record Collector, which is the only physical music magazine that I still buy with any regularity.
This is truly the end of a glorious era in music journalism. But to everything there is a season, right?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.
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