Q magazine closure marks the end of one chapter in music journalism
The music press has not gone away – a handful of websites still hold substantial influence
Q magazine folding after 34 years is sad business
Everyone agrees that the closure of Q magazine is a sad business. Thirty-four years after it put Paul McCartney on its first cover, the glossy was unfortunate to enter the coronavirus pandemic with an underlying condition.
Already weakened by the ongoing decline in print media, it had insufficient resistance to survive the plague. “The pandemic did for us and there was nothing more to it than that,” Ted Kessler, its editor, explained.
Everyone further agrees that this is the end of an era. But of what era? More aged pop publications than Q still shuffle their way towards the newsstand. Rolling Stone (b 1967) and Hot Press (b 1977) are there to run track-by-track breakdowns of the latest U2 LP. The admirable Mojo (b 1993) has not yet given up on its mission to detail every breakfast Dr John consumed in 1972.
There is, however, no (ahem) glossing over the collective decline. NME, Vox, Melody Maker, Select, Sounds and The Face have all either vanished or migrated online. This week’s news is merely the latest confirmation of an already gloomy prognosis.
It could be the end of one chapter in music journalism. Arriving with the CD in 1986 – and just a year after Live Aid – Q appealed to the older, less rebellious class of music fan. You saw Q in dentist’s waiting rooms. Nobody came across a copy of Melody Maker when waiting for a root canal.
Amid all the justifiable laments for the fine writers who passed through the magazine’s doors – Tom Hibbert’s “Who The Hell . . .” interviews were priceless – there has been little discussion of the contemporaneous derision it received from the aggrieved “inkies” (as the newsprint-based NME, Melody Maker and Sounds were dubbed). Paul Gorman’s excellent In Their Own Write, an oral history of the music press, devotes whole pages to their dissent.
“There was no room to write about music in a passionate, irreverent, subversive, committed way,” Barney Hoskyns wrote of Q. “I remember [journalist] Chris Bohn calling Q ‘the rock critic’s graveyard’.”
Little did the editors of Q care. They had moved music journalism towards high-end advertisers – Volkswagen never placed ads in Record Mirror – and competitors such as Vox and Select followed in their wake. Broadsheet newspapers, whose coverage of popular music had hitherto been skeletal, cleared space for album reviews.
The Q era saw a qualified halt to the “that’s not music, that’s just shouting” consensus that had ruled mainstream media since the release of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The magazine’s closure pushes that attitude still further back into the middle ages.
Some websites are old enough to buy liquor
Just as every generation regards its music as the greatest, every generation regards its music journalism as the greatest. Those lucky enough to have read Rolling Stone before it became a reactionary bore can make a reasonable claim for the late 1960s. The alternative publications that sprung up either side of punk gave fans access to connected writing they would find nowhere in the Radio Times.
But the high era for the music papers was surely the late 1970s and early 1980s. Few publications in any corner of any cultural field have had the influence of the NME in those post-punk years.
The writers championed awkward experimentalists such as The Human League and Scritti Politti. They then applauded unexpected pop stars such as The Human League and Scritti Politti. By the time of Mrs Thatcher’s second term, Paul Morley, the NME’s most famously awkward writer, was running Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s record label.
The key quote on Q’s paradigm shift comes in an unconvincing defence from co-founder David Hepworth. He explains how he vetoed a five-star review of a David Sylvian album because “the review was not purely [the writer’s] opinion”. Hepworth went on to say that “we put ourselves on the side of the readers rather than the writers”.
This was not then the NME’s view. That paper proudly published end-of-year writers’ charts that bore no similarity to the readers’ equivalent. They championed early rap when the readers wanted The Jam from wall to wall. They placed interviews with jazz musicians where readers preferred Echo and the Bunnymen. In short, they didn’t give them what they already knew they wanted.
That couldn’t continue in the era of deregulation and privatisation. The glossies prospered and the NME went on to become the house publication of student rock. As Q moves away from dead-tree models, those fights really do seem the business of another century.
Yet the music press has not gone away. A handful of websites hold substantial influence and some are old enough to buy liquor. After an astonishing 25 years (really?), Pitchfork, originally out of Minneapolis, still makes the weather among fans of various alternatives. Mojo publishes excellent long-form pieces on actual paper. And Hot Press, founded by Niall Stokes and friends in 1977, continues to make an appearance every fortnight.
Not every era just came to an end.