RIP NME? I remember when all this were Stone Roses

The best times are behind us. The best times are right now. The best times are ahead of us.

Which of these three statements is truest for you right now? It’s likely that each one will appeal to us in different ways at different times.

Earlier this month, the print edition of the NME (the New Musical Express, a weekly UK music magazine) ceased to be. I hadn’t read it in years. I preferred Melody Maker (better writing, better bands, wittier). But whenever I could afford it I would buy both MM and NME. I stopped buying the NME at the start of this century (MM died about the same time, a sad ghost of what it had been). I was never tempted to pick up a copy of the NME even when it became a free hand-out. But I was sad to see the demise of the paper NME, all the same.

The NME had a very long history in its print incarnation. Launched in 1952, it notched up more than 65 years as an “inkie” (as such tabloid publications were affectionately known in my youth). Its life was longer than that enjoyed by many human beings. It changed beyond recognition between 1952 and 2018.

Reactions to the demise of the NME from those who had loved it over the years were highly emotive. Everyone, it seemed, had their own NME, their own golden era.

But there was no single fixed golden era for the NME (at least if judged by the fond outpourings of reminiscences from inky-fingered music fans over recent weeks). Rather, for most NME readers, the golden era coincided with when the person in question first discovered it.

The NME constantly reinvented itself for each new era, each new generation. “Gear” early-60s teens dugs its coverage of the Beatles and Cliff. The 70s contingent might have been lured in by the NME’s stance on prog, by Nick Kent’s deep dive into the heroin-laced world of Lou Reed, Keith Richards, et al, or by the NME’s wholesale reinvention as a confrontational punk era tabloid.

And so it went on. Constant reinvention. Constant amnesia. Perpetual present. Perpetual youth.

I remember when all this were Stone Roses

I myself got on board in 1988. It was all Stone Roses and Pixies at that stage. Plus a bizarre ongoing fascination with every pronouncement from Morrissey. A weird, alien and cooler-than-thou world full of reference points that were at first entirely beyond my ken. I certainly can’t lay claim to my first NME boasting a life-changingly cool and iconic cover image. My first NME featured that most credible of recording artistes Harry Enfield, in his Loadsamoney guise.

That was my NME era, but it was not the last. Mic Wright (aka @brokenbottleboy) writes about how he first entered the world of the NME and the wider music press just before Kurt Cobain’s demise in 1994. I can absolutely identify with his becoming fully immersed in the world of the music press, and can only envy his access to what sounds a treasure trove of old music mags:

“One of my oddities was a desire to buy copies old music magazines. I had stacks of Sounds – dead before I had my musical awakening – and Melody Maker from the late-70s through to when it closed, I had NME from its various golden eras and I was a voracious reader of the then-living Select magazine. I bought the weird new titles and the obscure mags about music that I wasn’t even sure I’d like.”

If in doubt, put a wet dog on the front cover

The NME endlessly reinvented itself to keep up with (and occasionally ahead of) the times. Until it didn’t.

Throughout each of its successive golden eras, the NME was always a newspaper immersed in the music that makes our hearts beat and that soundtracks our own golden years. But at each stage of its life, the NME was also a corporate product.

When I was wee, I was obsessed with weekly UK sci-fi comic 2000AD. In his memoir The Mighty One, former 2000AD editor lifts the lid on how the (accurately) self-proclaimed “galaxy’s greatest comic” was produced week by week. But before 2000AD was even launched, MacManus first entered the UK comics world via a junior role in the “Juvenile Group” of publications owned by publisher Fleetway. He describes how, at the exact moment he joined Fleetway, the company was the subject of merger and acquisition activity, which made the soon-to-be 2000AD team neighbours of the NME at their brand-new London location, King’s Reach Tower:

“The building was to be occupied by IPC Magazines, owned by Reed International. We were told our Juvenile Group would be joining them, dropping the name Fleetway and becoming known instead as the IPC Youth Group. The idea of working in a skyscraper was exciting. […] On moving in we found the Youth Group was to inhabit the 19th and 20th floors, working in open-plan areas punctuated by the occasional managerial office, each one boasting a secretary sat outside and a drinks cabinet, liberally equipped with bottles of sherry, situated inside. […] On the floor above us was Country Life, a magazine whose editorial philosophy seemed to be: ‘If in doubt, put a wet dog on the front cover.’ […] The floor below included pop titles like New Musical Express and Melody Maker, who were just coming to grips with the newly emerging forces of punk rock.”

First, as one who works at a publishing company in the present day, let me assure you that the sherry-stocked drinks cabinet is a thing of the long-distant past.

Now, let us cut to 27 February 2018. I tweeted a link to a Times article reporting that a range of magazines “including Country Life, Marie Claire, NME, Woman’s Weekly and Horse & Hound have been sold to a London-based private equity fund for an undisclosed sum.”

The history of corporate takeovers and horsetrading, of mergers and acquisitions does not seem often to linger in the memory. Mergers are seismic at the time for those affected. Redundancies are likely. Wholesale change to time-honoured ways of working is inevitable. But change happens and things tend to settle into their new ways. The history of any company or product is often forgotten in the perpetual present of keeping the wheels turning and the lights on.

It is fascinating to me that Reed International must have sold off the package of magazines including NME, Country Life and co at some point in the 1980s or 1990s, and that this same group of titles changed hands multiple times over successive decades. How did this package of magazines remain together for so many decades? Who knew that the histories of NME and Country Life were so intertwined?

This may be the last time, I don’t know

Now rewind to 2015. Time, Inc, who had just acquired the NME, announced their radical decision to relaunch it as a freebie “lifestyle” magazine. At the time, David Hepworth wrote that “this isn’t the first time the NME has changed – but it may be the last”. Hepworth shared some possibly prophetic words:

“If it doesn’t work then it will be sold off to some independent who will say they’re going to keep it going as an ‘online-only’ proposition and then quietly disappear.”

Over the decades, the NME went from a massively profitable and influential weekly music magazine read by hundreds of thousands to a free sheet that – according to a number of sources quoted in the Guardian this week – stockists couldn’t give away. 

Everybody who ever loved or liked the NME had their own golden era. But they were united in their affection for it as a music magazine. By the end of its days in print, the NME had drifted a long way from what anybody might consider its golden era. Mic Wright says:

“By the end, the NME was a skeleton. A brand extension. A place to extol the rock and roll benefits of certain hair care brands. I knew NME, sir and you are no NME.”

It remains to be seen if Hepworth’s predictions of its ultimate demise will be borne out. Perhaps its new owners will breathe new life into it, to create a truly 21st century source of music information and insight.

Asian Trader quotes Epiris managing partner Alex Fortescue on the deal that secured them the NME:

“This deal is a complex corporate carve-out of the type in which we specialise. The business itself offers plentiful scope for transformation through operational improvement and M&A. We are thrilled to have got Fund II off to such a strong start.”

Memory without the pain

The history of the NME is extraordinarily complex. Through constant reinvention, it enjoyed countless golden eras. Those golden eras may or may not now be over.

Your own era will always appear the halcyon era, the golden years. What came after will always seem to be taking away a piece of your own youth, your own halcyon days.

Nostalgia is alluring. But it can also be dangerous. In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein writes: 

“Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. [N]ostalgia is elating to bask in. Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain.”

Life is constant reinvention, constant forward movement, constant striving for better. The best times are always ahead of us.

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