The slow, steady, inevitable decline of the NME
With slumping sales and speculation about the future of the print magazine, the NME’s real problem is a content problem
There is no such thing as bad publicity, is there? Later today, (some of) the great and (some of) the good of the music world will gather in London for the annual NME Awards’ show. It’s an opportunity for the magazine to put on the glitz and the ritz and to celebrate itself. There will be plenty of post-awards’ coverage in other media too, largely photos of tired and emotional musicians and pop stars who’ve over-indulged in the hospitality at the awards and various after-show parties.
All of which makes the current wave of press stories about the once venerable magazine a bit awkward. Last week’s circulation figures showed that the magazine now sells just under 14,000 print issues every week. There are also 1,389 digital sales, but it’s clear to all that the glory days when the NME was shipping 300,000 copies a week are well and truly over and are not coming back. Indeed, you can measure the slow, steady decline of NME sales in Guardian Media news stories from August 2011, August 2012, February 2013, February 2014, August 2014 and, of course, February 2015. NME Deathwatch is in full effect.
Naturally, people wonder how long more the paid-for print magazine will survive. Indeed, per this newsagent in London, the end is arriving before the end of the month, a suggestion which was quickly pooh-poohed by the magazine’s publisher, though said pooh-poohing looks fairly weak to me. Time Inc didn’t get to where they are by being stupid and knows that the free model may be one they have no choice but to explore at some future date. The exact date for such exploring may well be nearer than anyone thinks.
It’s quite a fall from grace, but I can’t imagine anyone bar the most blinkered nostalgist is too surprised at how things have shaken out. The world which had the time and room and demand for three or four London-based weekly print music magazines is a place which belongs to black-and-white photos to today’s generation of music fans. Sure, there is still a demand for print magazines of a certain ilk which give you what you can’t get anywhere else, but not a magazine like the NME which is simply replicating what’s already online. You can be sure that putting bands like Palma Violets again and again on the cover is not really the way to increase sales.
The same, though, also applies online. While Time Inc may make a big noise about how the NME is “a brand that reaches nearly four million music fans every week”, it’s difficult to see how they’re making mad cash from this online reach. Those 1,389 weekly sales which were mentioned in the last set of circulation figures are surprisingly low given traffic of four million, while there’s little clarity about how initiatives like charging online readers 69p to read a story on Haim have gone.
The NME’s real problem, though, is a content problem. The reason why print sales have slumped is because the print magazine does not offer anything unique or different to make you part with your few euro. I went through a phase a few years ago of buying the magazine every week, but it quickly dropped off my radar again when I realised that I could find the info I was buying the magazine for, info on new bands mostly, from various online sources. There was also the realisation that those non-NME sources were way ahead of the NME when it came to new acts and that they weren’t waiting for some vested interest or press officer to tip the NME off about the act in the first place.
In more recent times, there’s clearly far better wider and deeper reads than the NME to be had online. Week in and week out, I’ll find great material on Wondering Sound, Thump, Noisey and the Red Bull Music Academy Magazine which are of the same high standard which I used to expect and get from the NME years, nay decades, ago. There is a real, vibrant, unquenchable appetite for this kind of material out there – and the online market is worldwide meaning you don’t have to get a copy into their local shop to grab those readers in the first place – but the NME is not serving this up. Someone wanting to go deeper than the latest crrrazy story about the Libertines or Kasabian won’t be reading the NME.
In a modern media world of infinite stories, pieces, interviews, reviews, features and angles, you need to offering something truly special and unique for readers to gravitate to and stick with you. You also have to deliver this quality week in and week out. There is no point in having a great run for an issue or a week. Instead, you have to hit the same high mark again and again and again. As sure as night follows day, the NME will inevitably become a free publication and it will inevitably gain some new traction with that move. But in the long-term, the only thing that’s going to save the NME – or any other publication for that matter – is creating truly unique reasons for someone to visit, return and stick around.