Last Wednesday I spent the day at the British Library as I immersed myself in research for a special project I’m currently working on, the fruits of which I’ll hopefully be able to share soon. Such research was more of a joy than a chore given that it allowed me to spend the afternoon immersed in back issues of the venerable NME, the turn of every page a nostalgic trip back in time, the contemporary accounts of an age I was too young to properly appreciate at the time. Yet at the same time this was bittersweet as I was also wading through the legacy of a publishing culture that simply doesn’t exist any more and sadly never will again.
It hardly needs an expert insight to see the slow and steady decline of the magazines industry. Titles, many of them with a legacy of years if not decades of publication, seem to fold every week. There is no more telling sight of the shrinkage of the market than being a regular visitor to a branch of WH Smith. At Waterloo, the one I pass every day going to and from work, every few months the shelf space devoted to periodicals shrinks a little more. Racks of magazines replaced by earphones, mobile power packs and bags of sweets. Those brands that still live on are the survivors, the very fittest of bunch. Yet even they seem to forever be under threat of closure as the advertising revenue shrinks, the page count declines and the circulations continue to fall. The “news” part of the newsagents business retreats ever further to an unloved corner at the back of the store.
Reading an old edition of a weekly publication such as the New Musical Express serves not just as a reminder of why it used to be so important but also why it has become no longer so. To open a back issue is to be whisked back in time to an era when music writing was but the jumping off point for an entire culture. In between the long form interviews, record reviews and gig guides are adverts for penpals, flatmates and bands wanting singers, better management or simply just the chance to perform. Billboards for forthcoming tours jostle for space with splashes for record catalogues, for stockists of music and assorted memorabilia and those dealing with imported rarities for collectors. The newspaper is a hub around which the whole business of making and appreciating music revolves, a mutually dependent relationship which sustained the industry through good times and bad.
For all the good that the internet has enabled, our now permanently connected world has now done away with the need for much of the above to exist. There are sites and forums for the exchange of plans and ideas, every venue in every town has its own website or is part of a ticketing hub to enable discovery of live shows and with Spotify et al it is possible to access a near complete history of recorded popular music – including the rarities and imports. I don’t need a newspaper to curate this or to be the heart of the ecosystem. What the internet has created and enabled it has also served to kill.
That is why what is left of the music press is now just a pale shadow of itself. The attendant culture has dissipated. All is left is the writing, but even an interview with a famously elusive megastar is not necessarily a selling point now given that the words can be scraped and disseminated online within a minute of the exclusive appearing. Closing those bound volumes of back issues genuinely feels like closing the door on the past