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25 July 2023

The strange corporate rebirth of NME

The music magazine is back in print, but has no editor-in-chief and isn’t on news stands. It’s a “marketing tool”, executives say.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

If news of the print relaunch of the NME has you half way out the door and on your way to the corner shop, be warned: the latest version of the music magazine won’t be available on news stands. The strategy for the magazine, which returns as a “bi-monthly” publication with a July/August 2023 issue, is akin to a “limited sneaker drop”, Holly Bishop, the chief operating and commercial officer of NME Networks, told the New Statesman.

“As much as it’s a very traditional product, we’re approaching it in a very non-traditional way,” Bishop explained. “Rather than print thousands upon thousands of copies and try to shift them at the news stand in bulk, we’ve changed that model up and have taken inspiration from industries like fashion, where you see the value in scarcity.”

The NME was founded in 1952 and was first published on newsprint in a weekly tabloid format. It started the first UK singles chart and over the following decades established itself as a champion of new British bands – from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to the Sex Pistols, the Smiths, Blur and Oasis. It inaugurated a new kind of music writing, recruiting for “hip young gun-slingers” in 1976, and became known for launching the careers of consecutive generations of opinionated music obsessives – Nick Kent, Julie Burchill, Ian Penman, Paul Morley. NME.com was created in 1996 and the magazine finally went glossy in 2002.

By 2015 sales were falling at a rate of 20 per cent a year. The last print iteration of the NME was launched later that year, in an effort to revitalise the magazine by handing it out for free and increasing its circulation. In this form it became a more mainstream offering with a greater focus on pop, featuring Rihanna, Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift on its covers. This didn’t last long: in 2018 it was announced that the title would cease print production. NME.com continued, and in the years since the website has focused on music news. Its reports on the industry, particularly the effects of Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, have proven essential. Is reviews, meanwhile, are often unwieldy, its interviews typically bloated press releases for forgettable artists.

The new NME will be the glossiest, heaviest iteration of the magazine yet, its covers focusing on new and upcoming artists, such as D4vd (pronounced “David”), the 18-year-old American singer who features on the first cover.

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Each issue will cost £10 or $14 (in early 2015 the weekly cover price was £2.60). But the ambition is not to drive revenue, Bishop said. “It’s actually about having a product that can meaningfully connect with the audience and act almost as a marketing tool for the brand.” That “brand”, with its “dot com proposition”, Bishop explains, already “had the digital space”, but wasn’t fully engaging its audience in the “physical space”. The first step to counteract that was to bring back the NME Awards – where the magazine presents trophies shaped as extended middle fingers – in 2020. “From there, we’ve really continued to grow our physical IP [intellectual property],” with a return to print, Bishop said.

[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]

Bishop described this as a “high-hype approach”, but wouldn’t say what this means in terms of the number of copies that will be printed, or how the magazines will be distributed. Copies will, however, be “super limited”, she said: “There will be limited drops through the artist on the cover. We will also be working with partners. We don’t want to give too much away because then it takes away the element of surprise. But what I can say is we’re leaning into our group’s credentials.” The group in question is Caldecott Music Group, owner of the Singaporean company BandLab Technologies, which bought the the NME (and the monthly rock title Uncut) from TI Media in 2019. NME Networks is the media arm of the business, which also includes BandLab, a “music-making and social creation platform”, and Vista Musical Instruments, which comprises various instrument manufacturers.

The news of NME’s return to print is “certainly not what I expected to hear”, said Stuart Maconie, the author and BBC 6 Music broadcaster, who wrote for the title during the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I’m intrigued that someone has taken such an odd step and I’d be really interested to see a copy of it. But then the more I learn about it, the more I realise it’s something quite specific. It’s different from the NME of old, certainly the old print NME I worked for.” That title, he said, was “an underground broadside of opinion from outside the mainstream. It was even in the feel of the paper, because the ink came off on your hands. It felt like a hand-printed, revolutionary dispatch rather than a corporate artefact. This seems to be exactly the opposite.”

Many saw the NME of Maconie’s day as “maverick”. Though he was “always slightly amused by that position – we were a wing of IPC magazines!” If the relaunch of NME as such a “corporate” offering had happened in 1990, Maconie said, “I think it might have been quite shocking”. In 2023, it isn’t. “I don’t think the NME stands for the same things it did. People have had a long time to recognise it as a digital brand, and a new generation see it as a place where they drop in to find out about tour dates and who’s releasing records.”

The new NME, Bishop said, is “really looking to connect with that Gen-Z audience”. The magazine’s articles will be a “curated selection” of the title’s online coverage, with some print exclusives. There is no editor-in-chief, just a small UK team of section editors who currently work on NME.com, an NME Networks editor based in Singapore, and a “legendary art director”. The head of marketing has also been involved in editorial planning “because it’s a brilliant marketing tool for the brand. Moving away from having one person at the helm, that one person who really imprints that singular tone of voice, has been intentional. Ultimately the brand is bigger than all of us, and that’s how it should be.”

Bishop’s language suggests the publication is more of an exercise in corporate strategy than an editorial proposition. Sean Adams, an artist manager and founder of the online music community Drowned in Sound, pointed to the “interconnection” of Caldecott Music Group’s investors and the wider technology industry. In 2022 BandLab received investment from the Dutch private equity company Prosus, which is also an investor in Tencent, a Chinese technology and entertainment conglomerate that is the world’s largest video game vendor. Tencent has shares in Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and Spotify. NME is now another link on this map of entertainment ownership. 

The July/August NME issue will be available to order from 9 August from the music retailer Dawsons, which is part of Caldecott’s portfolio. This fact amused Maconie, who imagined that someone might “pop in” to the shop “to get some new strings for their banjo and go, ‘Oh, go on, I’ll pick up this handsome, bound NME while I’m at it!’ ”

But Dawsons doesn’t seem to have any shops open in the UK. Prospective readers will have to order the magazine from their digital store, once its new website is up and running. “It’s an asset that they can drive the NME’s audience to another one of their businesses,” Adams said.

Adams wondered how easily the title’s digital audience will move to print. “If all you’ve ever done is dipped into a news story about the Strokes saying that they didn’t get to play in Malaysia because of [the 1975’s] Matty Healy, is that necessarily going to be something that will make you buy the magazine?” The industry has come a long way since the days when a record label would pay for a journalist to spend weeks on tour with a band for a lengthy magazine feature. “They’re going to have to really justify the content to make someone spend £10 on a magazine.”

“I don’t expect this new NME to be full of lacerating pieces about how terrible Ed Sheeran and Dua Lipa are, or for that matter Stormzy,” Maconie said. “It’s a very different product, a product of the times.”

[See also: Is this the end of newspapers?]

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