With a sales trend chart that makes the CD single market look rosy (down 20% in a year), it’s perhaps no surprise that a drastic move with regards the NME was made. This week saw the announcement that come September this year, Time Inc’s 63 year old pay weekly music magazine is to become Time Inc’s 63 year old free weekly music magazine.
Once the go-to resource for indie music hipsters — it was, really — the NME’s glamour has faded like so many of the acts which they championed — Hard-Fi or The Automatic anyone? — to the extent that the weekly circulation of the magazine was floating around the 15,000 copies mark. Time Inc this week decided to take a leaf out of Time Out’s book and cut their losses on the paid model and go free. Reports suggest this week that 15,000 paid copies are to jump to a distribution of around 300,000 copies free per week which will be dropped off at stations, universities and various other venues. But what does this mean for the magazine itself?
The magazine has been under pressure for a while now. NME, of course, stands for New Music Express, yet, in the digital age, relying on a weekly printed publication to inform you about new music discovery, doesn’t feel particularly expedient nor new. Whilst the brand has a thriving digital portfolio, the revenues generated from the printed product, remain the real profit driver hence any reluctance to go digital only at this stage.
In truth, the printed format, seems a little dated for the provision of new music coverage. Gone are the days where there is limited availability of alternative resources. Armed with the same digital device which they are using to listen to their new favourite tunes, music fans can access new recommendations that are updated multiple times daily from a wide range of sources, by respected influencers who hold huge interactive archives with direct links to listen along / watch along resources such as Spotify and Youtube.
The move to retain a free printed product, to me, feels like a last throw of the dice. It’s a bit of a sentimental experiment and one which may eventually signal the end of the printed product for the brand before too long.
Having said that, there are are a raft of other print publications that are all thriving without charging a cover price —hello, Metro, Evening Standard, Shortlist, Stylist, Sport, City Am and Time Out. Indeed the free printed publication market is already quite a crowded space — is there room for yet another free magazine being handed out on the commute? When you add this to free music / culture specialist publications such as Loud and Quiet, The Skinny et al this free gig starts reaching capacity pretty quickly.
To continue the doom-mongering and to reassert the extent of the challenge which NME and Time face, we’ve also seen the demise (and digital migration) of other music staples — RIP The Fly and Stool Pigeon. Additionally, in recent years we’ve seen increased competition come from non-traditional competitors. Take for example The Guardian who have upped their game massively in terms of quality, depth and scope of music coverage and they are not alone. Then there is the massive influx of highly respected digital competitors such as Drowned in Sound, The Line of Best Fit, Pitchfork and The405 not to mention new music aggregators such as Hypem or music recommendation services such as last.fm or streaming services like Rdio and Spotify all of whom are fighting for the same eyeballs and earspace as NME. Considering all this, life as a printed music entity seems even less commercially appealing, even as a free one.
So what can NME do to stay alive and well? What can they do to differentiate themselves from the mass? There has been suggestion of drafting in technology, fashion and lifestyle content into their coverage, but this seems a little like treading on Shortlist/Stylist toes from a brand whom are renowned solely for other content. This seems like potentially watering down the core brand provision and so to my mind seems like a risky strategy.
For me, to have any chance of survival the NME’s magazine needs to entrench rather than diversify its proposition. It should retain and celebrate its musical roots and continue in their provision of quality music content. With the ever increasing accessibility of music, there is an expanding need for a trusted voice to help guide you through the good from bad. This is where NME should be aiming. In essence to, once again become a trusted music curator akin to John Peel, Steve Lamacq, Bob Boilen, Annie Mac or even Zane Lowe have been on Radio. It must refind its authoritarian voice and be able to talk convincingly across all kinds of new music. If it is to diversify any, it should be across the genres of music which it covers rather than into new content areas. It needs to continue to invest, promote and utilise quality journalists and re-instate a point of view that is not compromised by the undoubted influx of commercial partners that will come forth in a free publication funded through advertising.
In my view, the free NME will perform pretty well in the short-term but may struggle to retain a core audience longer-term especially if the offer is diluted through more commercially aware reviews and an especially high ad:editorial ratio. The aim of the NME should be taste curation and this should be done through continued investment in quality journalism, through building closer links across each element of its portfolio. It must retain it’s core ethos and focus in music and aim to find a trusted voice across different strands of music which may mean looking outside of Shoreditch for the next big hipster indie-kid. *gasp*.