Why read an album review when you can stream it on release day and make up your own mind? Why read an interview in a magazine when you can @ pretty much anyone and ask them anything — or just scroll through their Twitter feed? Why seek out a gig guide when you can click “Attending” and add it straight to your calendar?
Few industries have borne the brunt of hurricane internet as much as print, and music magazines are no exception. Media and the music industry are changing dramatically due to the internet, and music mags aren’t as absolutely necessary for your average fan. But are we sacrificing something much bigger in the name of convenience and easy access?
As print magazines continue to shrinking and disappearing, this question looms large. With so many music magazines being forced to move online — where pageviews and clicks are king — is music writing more superficial, overlooking acts that don’t draw in huge numbers? Is the lore of music history endangered?
Will the fragmentation of music journalism into so many different channels (articles, podcasts, tweets, snaps, stories, vlogs, and on and on) make music history, artists, scenes, and trends easier to revisit, or are they harder to look back on cohesively? Then again, is the dethroning of ubiquitous, mainstream music mags and the rise of diversification in music journalism actually a good thing?
I was lucky to be a teen during the golden age of the NME, the 2000s garage and indie rock revival. NME was my bible back then. I read it cover to cover every week. It informed my music taste more than anything ever had before, and probably more than anything since. Because of this, I have a real soft spot for music magazines; the way it feels to pick up a freshly inked mag each week, the escapism of thumbing through, and frankly the superior nature of music knowledge I stole from its pages.
Music Magazines In Their Heyday
The Village Voice and Crawdaddy signalled a new age of American music journalism in the ’60s. They opened the door for descendents like Rolling Stone, Creem, Bomp!, Cheetah, and Spin. In the UK it was all about Melody Maker, NME, Uncut, and The Wire.
At their peak, music magazines were the supreme arbiters of taste. They could (and did) make or break a band. As the primary source of music news, they were authorities in the space, they provided access to artists, reviews, recommendations, and they were one of the best predictors for a band’s success.
In a pre-internet world, music magazines were absolutely essential for music discovery. You’d get your new music recommendations, hear about an album you could seek out, or learn about a must-attend event. They were totems of personality; a rolled up magazine peeking out of the back pocket was as much a statement to the world as a band T-shirt or button.
Music journalists were akin to rockstars in their own right. Writers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Robert Christgau were able to carve out enduring careers, reputations, and even legends that we’re unlikely to see again in the internet age.
What Happened To The Monolithic Music Mag?
Heading into the 2010s, things really started to go south for the music magazine. As the print-buying community shrank, so too did circulation, budgets, and writing staff. Even heavyweights like Rolling Stone couldn’t fight it, cutting back on page numbers and dimensions. Spin moved out of print in 2012 and became an online magazine. Others simply died out altogether.
Despite its popularity with aging punks and indie brats, NME’s circulation had long been doomed. Former NME editor Conor McNicholas attributed the end of the indie rag’s reign to the popularity of the Arctic Monkeys. Prior to that, NME was riding high on a resurgence of guitar-rock after the cultural drought that was nu-metal. Covering guitar bands like The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Libertines, and those of their ilk, in McNicholas’s words they “owned the fucking scene.” The only other upward blip in the magazine’s history was punk in 1977. Even Britpop couldn’t budge the numbers. The Blur vs. Oasis rivalry was already tabloid fodder.
Then when Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene in 2005, circumventing the traditional to pathways to a hit single, they became the domain of national headlines. This band of teenagers gamed the system, leveraging their super loyal fanbase, Myspace numbers, and burnt CDs. The band watched their debut single, I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, ascend the charts and witnessed small festival stages swell with hopeful onlookers. Indie music no longer needed music press — or more specifically NME. The band was the news source, and the one-time music mag target audience had become the authors of the story.
Looking at the online edition of NME today, you’d struggle to believe it was the same magazine from its glory days. While the pages were once strictly reserved for authoritative music reviews, in-depth interviews with rising bands and musicians, and gig guides, NME is now clearly out for clicks. You’re almost guaranteed to see a 300-word piece about the Gallagher brothers’ latest spat (look now, I’d put money on it), a story about an Instagram post, or outrage over a water bottle being visible in the last Game of Thrones episode. And who can blame them! It’s an ad-driven model in an attention-famine world.
The threat to the music magazine wasn’t just the fact that people could read and listen to more content for free online. It’s symptomatic of the wider music industry. As Amos Barshad of Slate brilliantly phrased it, “The internet atomized music fandom. The monoculture weakened; a million little tribes sprung up in its place. How could any one person claim a universal authority over all of that?”
Save for a very few names — the Beyoncés and Kanyes of the world — there are almost no pervasive, universally championed artists in the same vein as bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, or Nirvana. There aren’t even that many (any?!?) acts with a reputation akin to early aughts bands like The Strokes.
The internet split a chasm in the mainstream, allowing subcultures and subgenres to spew forth. Booking a cover artist doesn’t have the same appeal or garner the same reach it once did. Niche content of straight-to-web music magazines like Pitchfork make more sense and are much more successful than appealing to broad markets.
As Close To A Snapshot Of Music History As You’re Gonna Get
Discogs is concerned with the cataloging, preservation, and celebration of music history; the raw release data and the stories that enshrine and surround those artists and releases. I struggle to think of a better time capsule of music history than the humble music magazine. They’re so easy to consult for a week-to-week rundown of what was popular, what was big in the charts, who was worthy of covers, what artists had to say, what venues were they playing, and what had just been released.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on Marc Riley’s BBC 6 radio show segment, Parallel Universe, where he and music writer co-host Rob Hughes pore through music magazines of yore and uncover a complete snapshot of long gone music scenes. Armed only with copies of Melody Maker, NME, Uncut, and other once omnipresent UK magazines, they manage to offer up the kind of details that make you feel like it’s happening right now and you’re part of it.
It’s a format that would be difficult to recreate in a post-print world, where music press is splintered and scattered across the web. It would require a lot more work to piece together the disparate shards of music journalism, interviews, criticism, and commentary that Riley and Hughes are able to unearth from the pages of just a few magazine issues each week.
Physical, printed history — as long as it survives minimalist revolutions — is enduring and unchanging. Online content can be subject to real-time edits or even removed when it no longer serves the agenda of the publisher, author, or stakeholders.
It’s not just publishers, printers, and writers themselves who are hurt by the decline of the music magazine. Record stores and independent book sellers who once looked to music magazines as a way to supplement record sales have been left in the lurch with magazines going out of print.
What’s Left in Its Wake
It’s not all bad news though. By no longer being confined to the page, music journalists who previously would have been chained to their typewriters now get to play with different formats, explore more dynamic mediums of storytelling, and present music and its periphery in more interesting and often more illustrative way.
Vice’s music offshoot, Noisey, attracted six million views on their eye-opening documentary about the X-rated, juvenile world of Blackpool grime. As associate editor Ryan Bassil told The Guardian, “it wouldn’t have worked in print. You just had to see these kids.”
In that same article for The Guardian last year, Dave Simpson posited that despite so many music magazines going out of print, music journalism was indeed healthier than ever. While once dominant, circulation-heavy titles in the UK have petered out and disappeared, they’ve been replaced by much more niche print coverage, with a much more specialist focus and lower circulations.
Some critics argue that kids these days are naturally less curious than they used to be. They’re too caught up with their memes and their hashtags and their hot takes. Maybe that’s true, or maybe it’s simply a convenient way to shift blame from publishers who failed to adjust their ambitions and business models.
As Stuart Stuffs, former NME staffer and founder of the more modest but very successful Loud & Quiet, points out, “NME had huge overheards and big ideas of success you’d expect with a major publishing house. We have a crappy office in Hackney and a skeletal team: lots of volunteers, including writers. I still do the London area distribution in my hatchback.”
The Democratization Of Music Journalism
Music journalism isn’t strictly the domain of “music journalists” these days. You don’t need to have a degree in journalism, know someone who works in print, or spend years slogging away in unpaid internships to be a music journalist. Anyone can start a blog, YouTube channel, or Instagram to talk about music they love and connect with an audience. There are few better examples of this than The Needle Drop’s Anthony Fantano, who was hugely influential in the rise of acts like Death Grips. He’s a divisive figure in that scene, but arguably all attention is good attention.
Another benefit of parting ways with traditional methods of music journalism means that creators who are not beholden to an editor, stakeholders, or financial backers can talk about and cover whatever they want. In theory, it engenders more inclusive music coverage that gives a larger voice to the underground.
The Quietus’ co-founder, John Doran, asserts that despite the tectonic shift in the industry, music journalism isn’t suffering. “Journalists were paid much more back then,” he says of magazine writers in the ’70s. “Lester Bangs could write a meandering 5,000-word piece which would allow him to pay his rent, take drugs, play terrible saxophone in his bad band and write racism or misogyny. His pieces on Kraftwerk and Lou Reed were amazing, but his book on Blondie has this awful passage about how male fans fantasise about beating Debbie Harry’s face to a pulp.”
But, Like, What Does It All Mean?
If I come across as bleary-eyed and nostalgic, at least I’m not alone. Fans of music magazine are very active on Bookogs, entering their stacks of mags into the database for posterity. The Discogs forum is also a home to interesting conversations about why music fans still love their printed tomes. Unsurprisingly, as lovers of physical media, we still harken back to a time when our music news was fresh off a literal press and in hand.
Music has to be sought out. It’s more accessible now, but you still need to be exposed to the right stuff, whether that’s via reviews, radio, algorithms, TV shows, or magazine articles. People still like physical things and are hungry for in-depth, provocative music journalism. That desire is never going away.
There’s no telling whether the decline of printed music journalism is a credible threat to cohesive music history or if this is just the paranoid ramblings of a music mag devotee (hi!). No doubt it will just take a bit of extra work by canny journalists of ~the future~ to sift through all the noise and myriad voices.
As long as physical music magazines are out there — whether currently on the shelf or collecting dust — we’ll be here to help you catalog them and build a full picture of music history. If you feel even half as strongly about music magazines as we clearly do, add yours to the Bookogs database, connect it to artist and release data on Discogs, and help us build the biggest archive of music journalism for posterity.