Though any music snob worthy of the name could tell you how wrong NME was about given movements, moments, bands, albums, or singles, the magazine's 66-year history—and its huge, blaring cover photography in particular—reflected a belief that music was a culture worth being immersed in, worth arguing about, worth living for.
The institutional voice ranged between the breakneck hype-to-hatred cycle that attends British pop music and deeper diving criticism, profiles, and personal reflection. Hyperbole may have been its most obvious dialect, but if you read all the way through, you'd frequently gain access to excellent writing and bands you wouldn't otherwise hear about.
As with all publications, NME's existence was embattled by the rise of the internet. It became a free publication in 2015 (its website will continue to publish). But as rock'n'roll faded from the center of youth culture, the magazine struggled to retain its identity or its relevance as a source of discovery.
The job of informing young people which records, singles, and gigs were worth spending their money on became less necessary in an age when buying records was rare and buying singles even rarer, and when free streaming services made it easier for anyone to hear anything. And as popular culture expanded to include other sounds and influences, the insularity that energized the magazine's best writing simply ceased to communicate.
Still, it's significant that NME outlasted its chief rivals, including Melody Maker (which folded in 2001), Sounds (1990), and the pop-centric Smash Hits (2006), for as long as it did. That's because it was the NME. I hate the word "iconic," but it does seem to apply, here.
The NME was mentioned—not always glowingly—in songs by the Kinks, the Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Bongwater, Noise Addict, and Sleaford Mods, among many others. A more recent line by none other than Ed Sheeran—"I've never had an enemy except the NME/But I'll be selling twice as many copies as their magazines'll ever be" (from "Take It Back")—sounds distressingly prophetic now.
NME's weekly circulation varied wildly, from a high of over 300,000 in 1964 to a 2014 low of 15,000. The all-time peak of 307,217, reported in February of 2016, shortly after the cover price was eliminated, appears to have been optimistic.
Though all weekly publications struggle to maintain a consistent tone, every period of the NME featured excellent work, by writers like Charles Shaar Murray, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, Steve Lamacq, Kate Phillips, Barney Hoskyns, Mary Anne Hobbs, Stuart Maconie, and, more recently, Laura Snapes. It also boasted early work by people, like Chrissie Hynde, who would leave the crit behind and form bands of their own. And years before entering into a series of protracted feuds with the magazine, a young Steven Patrick Morrissey would write vivid hilarious letters to NME celebrating (Sparks) or trashing (the Ramones) its coverage of bands.
Speaking of letters, poring over back issues, the best bits were frequently not to be found with a writer's byline underneath. The letters, the listings, the ads, the classifieds—all provide a fantastic portal not merely into the musical past, but into the past of music freaks. Much like Jonathan Coe's fine novel The Rotter's Club, old NMEs help illuminate the gaps between the songs.
So, anyway, yeah. It was the NME. They got some things wrong, and others right. They made fantastic mixes (c81 and c86, anyone?). And they stuck around long enough to become a website. It might not be a tragedy, but it's definitely a drag.
Lest one grow too moony, however, the excellent Guardian critic Alexis Petridis wrote the best piece I've seen about the demise of NME's physical manifestation:
"The kind of things about NME that had once been hot topics had long ceased to be discussed," he wrote, "even within the music industry. Who was on its cover that week? Who was it hyping as the new saviour of rock’n’roll? Which unfortunate had been dealt a kicking in the reviews section by one of its bolshy star writers? If it was mentioned at all, it was in tones of bafflement and pity.
"Perhaps if it had paid less attention to market research and kept its musical outlook broad, it might have survived longer, better-equipped to navigate an era in which R&B and hip-hop are commercially and creatively dominant, and grime is the underground genre enjoying the biggest crossover into mainstream success. Or perhaps not: the precarious climate for print media, particularly in the music press, doesn’t really encourage any kind of risk-taking. As it is, NME finds itself exiting the stage mourned exclusively by people old enough to remember a time when it seemed important. Sad to say, it seems unlikely you’ll find an 18-year-old in 2018 who cares much whether it exists or not."
Guilty, as charged. However, a 2015 remembrance in the Telegraph by NME alum Johnny Sharp, occasioned by the news that it would now be a free weekly, provides a nice reminder of the romance that used to attach to music journalism, for a few people, anyway:
"The first time I walked across Blackfriars Bridge towards the NME’s then home of King’s Reach Tower on London's South Bank, it really did feel like I was approaching the centre of the musical universe," wrote Sharp. "And once I reached the 25th floor, to find my future colleagues just arrived back from a liquid lunch, feet on the desks, chain-smoking inbetween a wardrobe-high mountain of demo tapes and promo CDs, as the new Superchunk album blasted from the stereo, it seemed a rather more appealing work environment than the Hull Daily Mail office where I’d done work experience typing out court reports. Admittedly, this might also sound like other people’s vision of an early ‘90s hipster hell, but to each their own…
"I would eventually be taken on full-time as an NME staff writer, just as ‘indie rock’ had undergone a Blair-esque rebranding as ‘Britpop’ and reached a surreal peak with Blur and Oasis’s battle for No.1. Understandably, as the go-to paper for indie kids it felt like we were Britpop’s official paper of record, and just as those two bands’ takeover of the charts seemed like as though the 'Misfits’ from Pulp’s song of that same year had been handed the keys to Castle Pop, we felt like we’d sneaked in past security in their wake.
"The artists we featured, meanwhile, had a love-hate relationship with us. 'You build us up to knock us down,' they would complain. And sure enough, we could certainly build them up, and we did on a ludicrously regular basis – the law of averages suggests that a different band is unlikely to change your life every week...
"Yet this period was actually the beginning of the end, not just for Britpop but for the weekly music press. Both were partly victims of their own success. Britpop ushered in a new influx of more commercially-minded guitar bands who ensured that the term ‘indie’ would soon come to be synonymous not with independent, adventurous, left-field post-punk music but alt-posing, safe-sounding, traditionalist guitar rock...
"NME was increasingly no longer the centre of music fans’ universe, and although many, many, good bands have been given a leg-up into our consciousness via the NME’s pages since then, and countless pieces of excellent music writing and great photography have graced NME’s pages since, the generation of music fans they have always catered for (16-35) can quite simply get what they’re offering elsewhere for free, not least on the NME’s own website.
"That means it simply couldn’t hope to reclaim the same clout in the music world while it was a paid for magazine."