Press play: the future of music magazines

Mainstream music magazines may no longer be as vital to fans as they once were, but a new wave of independent titles is keeping the relationship alive

Magazines and music have always been tied together for me. My love of music led me to settle on the NME as my first regular magazine habit and later to my first self-published magazine being a music fanzine – a distant and lesser cousin of Sniffing Glue and Ripped & Torn. Pre-internet, the weekly music press and such fanzines were the only way to find out about gigs and new releases. Later when The Face launched it was their music coverage that first engaged me, long before I realised that the magazine’s Neville Brody was also designing many of the record sleeves that gave visual identity to the music I listened to.

For all its high design finish (or possibly because of it), The Face and the music it featured initially remained outside the mainstream. This was young person’s stuff, published in an era when what became known as pop culture wasn’t considered serious enough for the daily newspapers or TV news. It’s difficult today to understand how much of what was exciting about The Face was its oppositional stance in terms of alternative music, fashion and politics. It didn’t take long though for the cultural references it championed to be co-opted by the mainstream as they took the magazine’s surface style/ design message and used it as a ready-made wrapping for the 80s rise in consumerism.

That was the era of the shiny new CD format, and Q magazine launched to concentrate on home listening rather than live gigs. The NME I grew up with retained the left-leaning politics of the punk era; the seven-inch singles it reviewed were to me tokens of support for a movement, whereas Q took a more overtly consumerist approach based on lengthy guides to new releases and CD re-issues. This consumer guide approach was perfectly suited to the times, and designer Andy Cowles went on to apply similarly successful formats to movies with Empire magazine and to retro music with Mojo.

Zoom forward to today, and NME has seen off its old competitors Melody Maker and Sounds by reinventing itself as a colour glossy. But with the honourable exceptions of RayGun (which surely had a larger audience among designers hanging off David Carson’s every mis-kern than actual music fans) and The Wire, which has quietly continued its coverage of experimental music with design from a range of enquiring minds including Paul Elliman, Non-Format and James Goggin, there’s not been much excitement about music magazines for a while.

Not so long ago a branch of Tower Records was the perfect  place to find new music and music magazines alongside each other in one superstore. Like most music stores Tower is now a distant memory. The music has gone digital, so has the information.

As well as the online coverage, many non-music publications include music as part of their remit – newspapers have a music page, magazines such as McSweeney’s spin-off The Believer publish a special music issue every year, even the New Yorker has a full-time reviewer in Sasha Frere-Jones (older brother of type designer Tobias, design geeks).

But NME has its own site too, as ex-editor Conor McNicolas points out. “The NME brand reaches more people than ever. In its heyday it sold 300,000 copies. It sells around 35k now but the website has an audience of over 5 million.” If there remains a keen audience for music coverage, the challenge for the specialist magazines is to attract them to print. “Magazines have to change,” McNicolas says. “People want something tangible to remember and share their experience of music.”

This seems to me a very pertinent point. Successful musicians now earn more from live gigs, merchandise and memorabilia than they do from selling songs. There is an emotional link between music and listeners that sleeve designers have long reflected. Why not create special, collectible publications that reflect this? It surprises me there aren’t more examples around, but two current favourites come to mind.

The Journal of Popular Noise is a beautifully presented piece of print that wraps around a set of seven-inch vinyl records. The folded card wrapper carries information about the musical content. The combination of vinyl, letterpress and numbered editions make it a highly collectible publication, albeit at the more expensive and specialist end of the spectrum.

A more accessible publication is ’Sup magazine. Launched as a free magazine in 1998 it is now a paid-for title published twice a year from New York and London and covers all forms of contemporary popular music. Its recent 24th issue included Edwyn Collins, Bill Callahan and Yuck in its 168 pages, as well as an interview with Sic Alps by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Its laid back Q&A style is echoed by Brendan Duggan’s art direction, with simple monochrome pages supplemented by a spot colour and extended use of photography. What it lacks in direct criticism it makes up for by representing the state of the music-making world. It is perhaps the perfect music magazine for our times – open-minded in terms of genre and taking an insider’s view of music culture. Like the best magazines it reflects its times culturally and visually.

One other magazine merits a mention. Underscore is a book-like culture/arts magazine from Singapore that describes itself as “attuned to a simple rhythm of life”, underlining this by providing a carefully compiled online playlist of music to listen to while reading each issue. A logo on the page refers you to the relevant track on the magazine’s website. It’s a very different type of sound and the relationship between print and audio is more subtle conceptually, but the idea is not so different to the free cassettes distributed by NME in the 80s.

Jeremy Leslie runs the magCulture.com blog

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