NME: How a Music Magazine Took Indie into the Mainstream

From punk in the 70s, the indie explosion of the 00s, to Chris Moyles peeping out from underneath a bank worker’s train seat, NME Magazine has changed beyond recognition.

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Oct 16 2015, 12:24pm

Flick to the twenty-second page of last week’s relaunched NME and you’ll anchor on an article that answers the “The Big Questions” about The Libertines. For those who have followed the magazine over the past decade, the piece is routine - we relearn about Pete and Carl’s volatile relationship, hear of Pete’s desire to compose new songs, and there’s a customary reference to the Good Ship Albion sailing on once again. Nothing out of the ordinary. The real surprise comes when you leaf through the issue and arrive at less expected features - a write-up on a book that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Back to the Future films (headline: Book To The Future), or the week’s “objects of desire”, which are essentially a pair of mittens, an iPhone app, and two different brands of winter coat.

Ex-NME journalist Charles Shaar Murray once described NME's mission as follows: to “burst some fucking balloons, BBQ some dinosaurs, go out there, find the future, and when we find it - praise it to the skies.” He was referring, specifically, to the magazine’s remit during his employment there in the 1970s. At the time, politically enthused scribes like Murray, Nick Kent, and Julie Burchill would hurtle readers into lurid backstage areas and narcotic-fuelled carouses in four-star hotel rooms with The Rolling Stones, punk scene luminaries, and Led Zeppelin. As a result, the inky-fingered rock paper maintained a circulation of around 300,000 - then a record high for the brand.

Since that era, which many look on as a revered golden period, the NME has provided what Pat Long, ex-NME journalist and author of a book chronicling the history of the weekly magazine, called “a vital cultural lifeline to the bored and disaffected around the world” - a statement that feels especially fitting for those who read the NME when either an internet cable or a rock band was an exotic entity in their provincial hometown, miles from the artistic savants covered within the magazine’s pages. It's that extended access, photography, and knowledge that made the magazine feel unqiue; perhaps the reason why so many journalists and music fans still slightly obsess over it today.

Whether it’s the pivotal role the magazine played in punk in the 70s, its relationship with Manchester in the late 80s, or its championing of the New Rock Revolution in the early 2000s, the NME has often been at the vanguard of youth culture - not only covering scenes, but owning them, letting the cast of characters play out in its pages. Which is why, despite a year-on-year dip in sales and a record-low circulation of 14,000 last year, many felt hopeful about the prospect of a newly re-launched free NME – to be given out across the country with a circulation matching its 300,000 peak in the 1970s.

The free NME launched a month ago and the first four editions showcased a varied array of cover stars: two monolithic pop artists in Rihanna and Taylor Swift, the actor Robert Pattinson, and radio DJ Chris Moyles. With perhaps the exception of Moyles, these are globally renowned entertainers, on the cover of a free magazine, and they feel like massive coups for the brand. The lack of posturing white men with guitars seems to have upset NME’s fans on Facebook and Instagram, who have ruthlessly slated the magazine’s recent covers. But perhaps that’s the shake-up the magazine needs. And besides, the NME has historically featured non-rock acts or causes on their cover - from the May Day riots, cannabis law reformation, and Napster in the early 2000s to the Anti-Nazi League March, "British Football" and "Stonehenge" covers going back to the late 70s. Even celebrities as inharmonious with guitar music as Robert DeNiro, Page Three Girl Samantha Fox, Tony Blair, Simon Cowell, and The Inbetweeners have graced its cover.

Despite rarely selling as many copies, NME’s front-page splashes without a rock act were often illustrative of their daring desire to connect with youth and political culture. Perhaps the most famous of these covers, though, is the Youth Suicide Issue by Lucy O’Brien, published in 1986.

Seeing a link between the recently reported ascending figures for suicide in young males and glamourisation of self-harming within music, O’Brien lobbied for the issue to be given editorial space. In the end, that week’s cover feature, much to the dismay of the writer and fans of indie band Felt, was given over to focus on youth suicide. Years later, O’Brien tells me, “it’s become this collector’s item. Apparently Kurt Cobain had the front cover on his wall and it was one of Richey Edwards [from the Manic Street Preachers] favourite issues. It had a real impact.”

Image via Flickr

O’Brien says the NME were “covering a lot of youth culture and political issues” at the time. “There was still a strong political grounding in the writers at the paper. We were adventurous in terms of covering literature, film; we had interviews with JG Ballard, Martin Amis, and directors like Wim Wenders.”

It's during this period, as writers like Nick Kent pressed the self-destruct button on themselves and thus the magazine’s gonzo journalism of the 1970s, new blood like Paul Morley and Ian Pennman moved to the paper, bringing with them critical theory and heavy-handed epigrams to Roland Barthes. With a new set of writers and an expanded remit that ventured out into film, literature, and social issues, O’Brien’s 1980s are not dissimilar to the transitional period the NME is in now. They had Eddie Murphy and Liverpool FC on the cover; we have R Patz and Chris Moyles. Yet there’s one clear difference in the two eras, embodied in the gap between recent columnist Katherine Ryan’s musings on Nicole Sherzinger and Barney Hoskyns’ Nietzsche fuelled ravings in the 80s: the counter-culture voice that underpinned the shift in coverage in the eighties and through to the millennium has gone.

The relatively safe space the NME now occupies can be traced back to the last notably successful period for the magazine, around the early 2000s when bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, and The Libertines entered the cultural canon – helping to define NME as the “indie” favoring magazine it had been known as up to its free-launch. But by the middle of the decade, the trend had waned. “Cover stars were emerging like Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and then Klaxons. But despite big record sales, there just wasn't a groundswell of magazine sales that tallied with their success”, says a member of NME’s editorial staff at the time, who wishes to remain anonymous. “That was the real start of the losing battle.”

Predominantly, that lack of sales came down to the internet; as blog aggregating sites like Hype Machine grew, the need to find out about a new band each week, through the form of paid paper, felt unnecessary. Yet there’s more to it than previously unchartered broadband speeds. As the internet grew, so too did the positioning of indie rock in mass culture – it matured into the guest on Soccer AM, the soundtrack to Gavin and Stacey, David Cameron's love of The Smiths. The further you went into the decade, the less cool or relevant it became to define yourself as indie.

In the past, a genre or artist’s journey into the mainstream would be met with strong-worded disgust from the NME – “when people felt that U2 had crossed over and become more mainstream [in the 80s], they deliberately commissioned a writer who hated U2 to write the review”, recounts Lucy O’Brien. The same went for artists who veered too far into political or artistic subterfuge or delusion. Nick Kent trashed a “new, low level” David Bowie tour in the early 80s. And after celebrating his solo career for at least a decade, the paper famously denounced Morrissey, claiming in a lead story that he was flirting with “far-right/fascist imagery” and it could “no longer just be laughed off with a knowing quip.” It’s a far cry from the magazine that awarded the alleged tax-dodging Arctic Monkeys with album of the decade, as they did in 2014, for the band’s fifth record A.M, having already spent the year heralding them as “rock’n’roll’s” saviours.

In the past ten years, as the idea of indie has become less of an identifiable, tangible, mass cultural tribe and more of a mainstream, advertising concept, the NME found itself between a rock and a hard place. As one former staff member told us, they may not have been selling Bloc Party covers by the boat-load due to the internet, but indie bands like Arctic Monkeys or Kasabian would, historically, sell more than the hip-hop, grime, or dubstep acts that were coming to the fore. So instead of denouncing indie, they dragged it like a dead deer, on a sleigh made from the bones of The Smiths, Richey Edwards, and Ian Curtis, pulled by Peace, The Cribs, and The Vaccines, with Noel Gallagher leading the reins.


Photo by Charlie Kwai

Around this time, new scenes were popping up with their own new and knowledgeable base camps. Grime had a foundation in SBTV, artists like Beach House, Bon Iver, and Grimes were heralded in Pitchfork, while Hipster Runoff, perhaps unconsciously, championed a burgeoning chill-wave scene. Later, Boiler Room would bring electronic music into the communal kitchen of student flats across the globe, while publications like Complex and The Fader covered hip-hop, R&B, and alternative pop. Like NME and punk in the 70s, these scenes found a foothold in the publications that were covering them; claiming the scene as theirs to own and champion. And it’s right here in time that the NME floundered. Too dominated by sales to take a massive, overhauling chance like it did with punk in the 1970s or its philosophical pop ramblings in the 1980s, the magazine continued to stick with indie.

By the 2010s though, the genre had become so watered down that sentient forms of derivative cultural mucus like Palma Violets were being espoused as “the best new band in Britain” and Jake Bugg was adored by jack the lad city workers. The political issues that sat at the intersection of youth culture, which the erstwhile NME would bring to the fore, were being tackled in a different way too. In an issue as recent as this year, the privately educated The Horrors frontman Faris Badwan denounced politics as irrelevant and the act of voting as something for people "who don't have an imagination". Given that Badwan's opinion was shared by many artists in the feature, it's a pertinent insight into how politics within the indie scene have shifted over the magazine's history.

When it was announced the magazine would be going free, it seemed like a great opportunity to right these wrongs: to get in tune with au courant artists and issues without worrying about sales, which they’ve achieved somewhat in both the Taylor and Rihanna cover stories, but also with short features on Little Simz and Bugzy Malone - and most importantly, an important and insightful feature on trans visibility in last week’s issue. So, what joins the dots up with the collective disappointment over this first month’s run of the free NME isn’t the cover stars. It’s that, as one ex-NME staff member tells me, “it doesn’t have the counter-cultural voice that, no matter what music you’re into, ran through the bedrock of what NME were always about”.

Chris Moyles face on the cover, for example, isn’t the problem - he’s been in the magazine before. When he retired from Radio One the NME wrote a blog post that stated: “Do we forgive him for the decades of grating laddish sexism? For saying on-air of Charlotte Church that he would ‘lead her through the forest of sexuality now that she had reached 16’? For his continual failure to understand why using the word ‘gay’ as an insult isn’t okay?... No fucking way”.

With that in mind, the cover feature on Moyles in the new, free NME, would have been more palatable if it were covered in a way that felt more in line with the magazine’s previous ideals, if it pushed an important cultural issue. Instead it comes across like an extension of PR, especially as it’s preceded with a double-page advert for Radio X.

This week’s cover star is the group Foals - which is, in this topsy turvy world where indie is mainstream, strangely the safest front-page splash they’ve done since relaunching as a free publication. In the past, Foals would have been a risky choice for the NME; in their first incarnation they were a bunch of stoners from Oxford who made math-rock for Shellac fans. The same goes for a group like the Libertines, who could barely pull themselves out of a drug-induced stupor to get a record together when they first appeared on the cover in the 2000s. But by taking the idea of indie in the early 2000s and following it, past the stage where bands like the Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian were arbiters of cool, the magazine has been complicit in indie’s transition from the outsider to the insider. Over the years it’s shifted its ideals away from the left and into a central world where its riskiest cover stories are with globally renowned pop-stars rather than the culturally important issues of the day - and its safest covers are with bands who, previously, only appealed to a very niche tribal audience, even within a guitar-centered music scene.

When people ask what the NME’s legacy has been: what will you tell them? With one foot firmly in the past, you could say their only real heirloom is the apotheosized punk scene of the 1970s, the one championed by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, the Brit-pop groups the paper went to bat for in the 1990s or as far back as The Beatles in the 1960s - who famously named their fourth single after the letter’s page in the magazine. Or perhaps their legacy lays in the music you found within its hallowed pages, back when every band featured would be listed at the front and you’d quickly skip to your favourite to see what they said.

The truth is, the largest estate NME leaves behind is the mainstreamification of indie music: Ricky Wilson on The Voice, the hollow cliche of the gobby indie rebel in a leather jacket, Catfish and the Bottlemen and Mumford & Sons, Peace on Made in Chelsea, Radio X, the 10 Best Kasabian Songs, the plain clothed civilian with "indie enthusiast" written in his Twitter bio - these have all come around, by and large, thanks to the cultural grip the paper had on its audience. It's the one dinosaur the magazine never BBQ'd. As this prehistoric creature continues to walk, it has taken on its final form. With harmless teeth made from television boxsets and skin constructed from the detritus of PR meetings, indie has found a new home: its refuge is in the hand of a Netflix watching city worker who can't get the WiFi on their phone to work on the train.

You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.