Any institution that makes money from music, or is a by product of this commercial process, cannot lay claim to protecting artistic integrity. The NME treats music as a commodity, and has replaced critique with sales promotion. Their conservative impulses towards new music and how to ‘break’ and ‘source’ artists mean they can lay no intellectual claim over the preservation of music as an artistic conceit. It has also led to a unified, bland genre of music.
The following three case studies are to illustrate this point.
Case Study 1 – New Rave
Now that it is over, it is clear that the creation of new rave owed as much to the vagaries of contemporaneous music journalism than to musical invention. It was a movement with no soul, no historical context, and no core. It arrived fully packaged and commoditised. At its heart lay no music label, band or promoter that it grouped around. A disparate group of bands were amassed under the banner, with little direct linkage between them. Instead there was an emphasis on stylistic tendencies, as if it was an excuse to sell clothes rather than records. This mainly came about due to the preponderance of the music press and also its union with the fashion industry. Note NME’s links to the Arcadia group, amongst others.
Case Study 2 – The Brats
In the late 90s the NME launched the Brats as a subversive riposte to the mainstream Brit Awards. Their original oppositional stance has receded into conformity and languor. Considering they are owned by IPC Media, a large conglomerate with a huge multinational marketing reach, this transition is not unexpected.
Case Study 3 – The Pigeon Detectives
The most tuneless, godawful band I think I have ever heard. And they owe all of their success to the patronage of the NME. A hopeless bricolage of every half decent act that has been popular in the NME over the last 5 years. This homogenised rubbish is symptomatic of everything that is currently wrong with British alternative music, and that the NME have helped to create. There is frankly a multitude of excellent music currently being made in the UK that is soundly ignored because it wouldn't appeal to a certain demographic.
It’s no surprise then that the NME has been superseded by community based websites such as Drowned in Sound and Pitchfork. While they revel in their hipster status, they do promote a good model for a modern music publication (whether online or print) combining high level criticism with community based musings.
The NME has become an irrelevance. User derived content, free mp3 files on band's websites and the proliferation of community websites have lessened its influence. The parameters of its musical base are so narrow that they are constrictive. The editorial remit appears to be to give as much saturated coverage to certain favoured artists who will sell the magazine. The inability to review new artists without referencing a canonical (in their eyes) artist is akin to product placement. The record industry is notoriously a closed shop, and it frankly smacks of nepotism. Whilst this is sound business sense, in the long term they are alienating a core section of their readership.
The question that must be posed by all of those disillusioned by the publication’s fall from grace is whether too much is expected. In its current guise I would say that is the case. There is a place in the mainstream for an oppositional voice, one that places music criticism within its contextual environment and can appraise without subsiding into clichéd, postmodern, ironic malaise. But the NME have come to represent the mainstream, and big business. Their conservative impulses and failure to evolve with their readership means it will eventually fall on its own sword. The vapidity of it's journalism makes it a question of when and not if.