On Wednesday, March 7, legendary British music magazine NME (shorthand for New Musical Express) announced it will shutter its 66-year-old print edition of the publication, effective immediately. This week’s issue, featuring up-and-coming UK punk band Shame, will be its last. According the Guardian, NME will “keep a sporadic presence in print with special issues such as its paid-for series NME Gold, to cater for music stars’ appetite for appearing in a printed product.”
The reason for the closure is the same reason many media entities have chosen to cease print publishing—it wasn’t doing so hot. Their digital presence, NME.com, which will continue to exist, and all cover stories will migrate over to a section on the site called The Big Read. There’s more: this news arrives just one week after NME’s parent company, Time UK, was purchased by private equity group Epiris for £130 million pounds (roughly $180 million USD). At the time of the announcement, Mike Williams, the editor of NME, stepped down from his position.
Eulogizing NME’s print pub seems like a natural instinct, but it’s proven to be much more complicated than that—NME isn’t what it always was, and it was something magical. (I know, that’s super sentimental, but bear with me.)
The demise of the once new print-based, then big and glossy NME magazine marks the end of an era—the publication is responsible for launching now-iconic English rock acts like The Clash, The Smiths and Joy Division, as well as fueling the flame of ‘90s Britpop worship, introducing the world to Oasis, Blur and Pulp. NME is synonymous with punk for those of a certain generation, for taking risks in the late ‘70s on the once-delinquent genre and continuing to champion the new wave and post-punk that followed. NME not only advocated for music that deserved to be heard when no other publication dared to be so brave, it furthered movements—diehard indie fans are familiar with the term “C86,” a genre-designation for the twee/indiepop musical movement of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, characterized by jangly, power pop guitars. “C86” originates from a cassette compilation released by the print publication in, you probably guessed it, 1986. It would prove endlessly influential to American indie rock, including to a young Kurt Cobain in the days leading up to Nirvana.
But NME, and its print edition, in 2018, was, to quote former staffer Laura Snapes, “an absolute shadow of its former self.” As movements come and go, so do the people responsible for making them accessible and transparent—the readers and thinkers and writers and editors and everyone in between.
The pressure to sell well and move copies is one all too familiar for anyone who’s worked in print media of any kind, as is the inclination to make morals malleable to change direction into something more...let’s call it “financially viable.” For NME, that stress-by-proxy (might’ve) inspired a handful of (potentially) unethical editorial decisions—the alleged tokenization of grime artist Stormzy on their “depression” cover in spring of 2017 comes to mind. (It was reported that he was never asked permission to have his image used.)
There are other issues at play, too: NME waited until 2009 to hire its first female editor, outrageous considering the publication started in 1952. The Guardian piece that announced the hire of editor Krissi Murison, too, was penned by a former female NME staffer, and detailed workplace sexism.
In 2006, Lily Allen posed for a cover supposedly dedicated to “women in rock,” was later replaced by the lackluster rock band Muse and NME offered the patronizing retort of “[women have] brought new energy to a scene dominated by men. They’re also living proof that you can still rock a crowd when you’re wearing stilettos,” from then-editor Conor McNicholas. There are other examples, many of them, and I am sure we will hear them in the coming days.
The end of NME in print is, of course, not the end of NME, but it does feel like a real distancing between some of the great and good the publication has done in its history. It’s a reminder of the limitations of media, and how easy it is to fall victim to self-induced missteps. Strangely enough, a time will come when a curious listener will pick up a music book of any kind—NME will surely be cited at least once, if it dates back to the last 60 years or so—and have no immediate connection to the magazine, no experience of seeing its physical cover out in the wild. Perhaps it’s better that way.