Music Magazines

A few weeks ago an ex-NME journalist wrote a big piece in a national paper …she displayed a complete lack of knowledge or interest in music. She had never heard of (for instance) Krautrock. It’s a bit like a film journalist holding a hand up after ten years in the job and saying, ‘bugger me, have you watched anything by Kurosawa? Is he good?’

A few weeks ago an ex-NME journalist wrote a big piece in a national paper …she displayed a complete lack of knowledge or interest in music. She had never heard of (for instance) Krautrock. It’s a bit like a film journalist holding a hand up after ten years in the job and saying, ‘bugger me, have you watched anything by Kurosawa? Is he good?’


Music Magazines


Much has been written about the death of the album and the single – the internet is supposedly going to rewrite the rules of the industry. Whilst there have been changes such as itunes and the download chart, it is also the case that album sales in 2004 were higher than they have ever been.


If the internet is going to threaten any of the traditional dinosaurs of the music-making racket I would suggest that it is the magazines, and not the record companies that are going to go first. This is, I think, a shame. I like having things to read on paper – you can say what you like about computers but it is simply not the same taking a laptop into the lavatory when you think you are in for a protracted time on the pot. Magazines are perfect for the bog – nearly as good as the Daily Telegraph collections of obituaries. But if the music magazines do die out then it will be their own fault when webzines take over. And this is why.


I’ve detailed in the past my dislike of conservative music magazines but I might as well carry on and get something else off my chest. Most of the monthlies have the same relationship to modern music as the National Trust magazine has to modern architecture. Mojo and its ilk are cultural heritage magazines, just like Tatler and Country Life. They are all designed to sell the recently expanded back catalogue of already very well to do musicians from the past. Some CDs are already in their fourth incarnation. How many have great bonus tracks (honestly)?


And whilst we’re not on the subject but pretty close to it, how long will it be before a DVD special edition contains just the bloody film? I’ve yet to see a deleted scene that was worth watching, yet to watch a ‘behind the scenes’ making-of that doesn’t display the reality of making films (i.e. it is a very slow and tedious business) and yet to watch an outtake collection that doesn’t feel contrived. Whilst the supposedly generous inclusion of extras really just adds more clutter to our lives, the impact on filmmaking is also deleterious. I’ve heard now of directors making multiple endings of films purely for the DVD market. What price artistic vision? Anyway, I for one would pay extra for a special edition DVD that didn’t include ‘extras’.


The same holds true, I think, for music. Mags like Mojo exist partially off the belief that if we look hard enough through the vaults we will find hundreds of lost gems. Personally I doubt it. And for every Smile (which is not as good as Pet Sounds) we will see a cynical CD release with alternate versions that sound damn similar to the original ones. Most expansions of albums ultimately detract from what was once a sensible editorial decision to select the best bloody songs. So fie on you Mojo, and your trawls through the vaults.         


The monthlies catalogue the past. Historically the weeklies were there to seek out the future. Intrepid journalists braved the toilet circuit of London to find the next big thing. The scenes that evolved in Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield and Glasgow were all enthusiastically documented. Magazines had clear styles and trumpeted different bands. There was competition, if you like, and certain scenes were promoted. Not all of this was successful and some of it was hysterical. But without this competition – with no Sounds and with no Melody Maker, and where only the NME remains – we now have a weekly press that is both lazy and anaemic.


Say what you like about some of the NME journalists of the past (and in a moment I will) at least some of them appeared to like music (and to know a bit about it too). Not any more. In a way I think we can blame Parsons and Burchill for much that is wrong with the NME today. And if this isn’t strictly fair then let’s be honest – there are plenty of other things that we could justifiably blame them for. Anyway, they have shown that there is a career to be made from watching a bunch of feckless tossers pose and strut about in a Camden pub. I have no idea why this should be – watching or reading Parsons make a tit of himself is not an edifying spectacle – but this isn’t the point. He is paid to do it all the same, as is Burchill. So, as far as I can see, the NME is now simply a stepping-stone on the way to newspaper journalism.


It appears to be written now by the same set of people that went on gap years to Thailand before attending university. Probably the same set of people who pretended to be slumming it at university by smoking roll ups and wearing bad jumpers. (An aside: this doesn’t always hold true but as a rule of thumb men who sport the longest hair at university will go to do the most corporate jobs afterwards). To some extent the fact that the magazine is written by a bunch of careerist (middle class) wannabees wouldn’t matter if they a) could write about music and b) knew a bit about it too.


A few weeks ago an ex-NME journalist wrote a big piece in a national paper (see what I mean) about how she and her friends, now that they have reached the age of thirty, feel that they can admit to liking (say) Phil Collins. Never mind that this person referred to the magazine as ‘achingly hip’ (this is almost sweet), she displayed a complete lack of knowledge or interest in music. She had never heard of (for instance) Krautrock. It’s a bit like a film journalist holding her hand up after ten years in the job and saying, ‘bugger me, have you watched anything by Kurosawa? Isn’t he good?’ If this particular journalist is anything to go by it is no surprise that the NME now peddles imitators of the past.


Up until recently the coolest music was always the music that didn’t sound like anything else. Punk, New Wave, New Romantics, Hip Hop, (Gangster) Rap, Acid House… What about now? NME pushes bands that sound like amalgams of bands from the 1980s. Now I don’t think this is all ignorance. Part of it is critical timidity. The NME of the past (and the other weekly music papers) took punts on bands because they loved them. Sometimes they ended up looking ridiculous but at least they were enthusiastic. Part of it is arrogance  – there is no one out there (printed) to really challenge them.


The upshot of this, incredibly, is that we are now in a situation where there is no print outlet for genuinely new music. Partly because we are in a world of copycat artists there is a confluence between the weeklies, the newspapers and the monthlies. All the same people could be on the front cover of the magazines because a) young people are making the music and it sounds new to us (NME), b) attractive young people are making music that goes down well at dinner parties (Newspaper style/music sections), and c), young people are making music like the music we used to listen to (Q etc.).


If this is bad enough (and it is) then there is something even worse, something that I have saved for last. There is a magazine out there that sells very well and is called Burn. Or something like that. This is perhaps the greatest affront to music making that has ever existed and if you see it – well, burn it. The upshot of it is this: we are all busy people, and lots of albums have filler tracks so what joe punter really needs is a magazine to cut through all the rubbish and just tell him/her what the good songs are. This is un-fucking-believable. There is a history of manufactured pop bands putting out albums with a couple of killer tracks (the singles) and a whole lot of filler.


Everyone knows this, but to suggest that you can treat every album this way is incredible. Because we know what they must do – listen to an album and note down the most immediate tracks. But we also know that albums are many layered things. It is like the critic on the television who is dismissive of a book or a film for what it is not. It is saying, ‘I don’t know why you bothered with these eight tracks, because they aren’t as good as the first couple of singles.’ Sometimes this will be true, but oddly enough some songs require repeated listening. And even more oddly, that will be the intention of the artists. It is often the case that your first favourite song from the album – the catchy one – will pall, and in its place will come one whose pleasures are slow to reveal themselves. There aren’t easy parallels in comparing this approach to books and films as albums rarely contain such obvious narratives. The nearest that I can think of is that Burn acts as a kind of Reader’s Digest condensed books but for music. And I can’t think of a much more damning thing that that.


We’ve dealt then, with the expanders (the monthlies), the contractors (Burn) and the clueless careerists (NME). What can webzines offer in their place? Well, they generally have some major disadvantages (in terms of funding) but they also have many advantages. Like fanzines of old (and new) they are run by and written by people that love music. They are not part of some huge corporate conglomerate with pressures to sell x many copies. They are also not beholden to the record companies. Want to interview hot new artist A? Fine, as long you also interview artist B from the same company. Say no to artist B and say goodbye to that cover interview. Webzines can tell the record company to fuck off – they don’t have to work that way. Of course, it is also unlikely that a record company would court them like that. But that doesn’t matter because most webzines don’t care about securing the interview of latest young thing. They actually care about the music. Webzines can also be truly interactive and have more than just a letters page.


Now, when I hear the word interactive I tend to try and cover my ears. It is usually some cynical ploy by television companies to get people to part with their money by voting for their favourite fool, or used to pretend that there is some kind of a conversation going on when in reality there isn’t. This is generally because these forms of interactivity are top-down whereas the best web forums are bottom-up. They are genuinely democratic in that respect. They don’t have to be insular and made up of people sitting at home in the dark in front of a computer screen – and let’s face it, anyone with any sense does their browsing at work. They can spread an enthusiasm about music to more people and can (hopefully) get more people going to gigs.


Nothing, of course, is great purely because of its form. The internet will always be full to the brim with absolute shite. But at the moment there is only one place to go for information about music. The internet. (And, thankfully, many of the best labels around, such as Domino, also have the best websites too.) As I said at the beginning of this rant, I would like to see a well written and interesting paper based magazine. But perhaps I have to accept that whilst I think that there must be a market for one I am wrong. And so I head off to the smallest room with something of a heavy heart.


Words: Chris Dawson.