A History of Music Magazines

She’s topless. She’s wearing black pants fringed with stegosaurus-like spikes, scabrous black gloves to match. From under a nimbus of white, cotton candy hair, her eyes appraise you defiantly: wanna make something of it? No, actually. You don’t.

She’s Lady Gaga and she’s on the cover of the April, 2010 edition of British music magazine Q.

Violating good taste, you say? How else do you expect print magazines to survive in the Internet era? When fans want information about a band, these days they’re most likely to set their browsers to the band’s own website where they can access information, photographs, and even song samples for free. Music magazines can’t compete, so they’ve had to reinvent themselves by focusing on the type of content that will catch a reader’s eye amidst all those busy magazine covers at the newsstand. Increasingly, too, magazines are repositioning themselves as multi-media entertainment brands, and the print periodical is merely an entry point into website.

It’s just the latest stage in the evolution of British music magazines.

The Arch Rivals: Melody Maker and NME

When Melody Maker was launched as a weekly magazine back in 1926, its focus was jazz and its intended audience was serious musicians. Its forte was always technical, instructional, informative articles about the music itself rather than the musicians. Well into the 1960s, its pages continued to be filled with reviews of musical instruments and esoteric articles about jazz and folk music.

Melody Maker’s arch rival was a magazine called New Music Express (NME), started in 1952 when a London music promoter bought a magazine called the Accordion Weekly and repurposed it to cover the newly emergent rock ‘n roll genre. Borrowing an idea from the American magazine Billboard, NME created the first UK Singles Chart, which became the “must have” list that music buyers based their purchases on. Then as now, music was an essential component of youth identity: expanding beyond weekly information about new music releases into more in-depth reporting on musical artists and their music, NME was actually giving its reader blueprints about how to live.

Throughout their histories, both Melody Maker and NME seemed to exist in a dynamic tension between the edgy and the mainstream. During the 1970s and early 1980s both magazines were known for their irreverent attitudes and indeed for the decade after Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister, NME openly espoused socialism.
Things came to a head with the emergence of hip-hop on to the British music scene. Hip-hop polarized readers – and writers, editors and publishers. At NME, sales plummeted whenever a hip-hop act appeared on the cover, a fact that the editorial team appeared to be comfortable with but the publishing team – charged with turning a profit – was not. The publishers’ sentiments prevailed and a new decidedly less edgy NME was launched, better known for its breathless, gushing hype than for its music reporting.

Melody Maker maintained its iconoclastic tone. But was that what readers wanted? Throughout the 1990s, Melody Maker lost readers. Frontline music groups stopped giving Melody Maker writers interviews, and bands stopped advertising gigs, though its classified advertising section remained a must read for everyone in the music industry itself and Melody Maker was always the first place musicians advertised when they wanted to find new band mates. (Over the years, Melody Maker had been responsible for some impressive musical match-ups. The most famous?  In 1970, Steve Hackett of the fledgling band Genesis recruited Peter Gabriel through its pages.)

By the time Melody Maker folded in 2000, it was only selling 32,500 copies a week – the lowest number in its history. Detractors were calling it “Monotony Maker.” Officially, it didn’t go out of business; publisher IPC merged it with NME though there seems to be very little of Melody Maker’s signature professionalism and irreverence in today’s NME.

The Late Arrivals: Smash Hits and The Face

One of NME’s most successful periods was the mid 1970s when Nick Logan was its editor and for a time succeeded in coaxing it into a hipper, more irreverent editorial point of view.

Logan was so successful at this that in 1978 he launched a magazine of his own called Smash Hits targeting the teenage market. The magazine’s fish bait? It published song lyrics. It also launched the careers of quite a few entertainment editors and journalists, though his best-known employee was Neil Tennant of the electronic dance duo, Pet Shop Boys (who has been quoted as saying that if he hadn’t found fame as a musician, he would have stayed on at Smash Hits.) Smash Hits stopped publication in 2006 but is survived by a profitable website as well as digital TV and radio spin-offs.

In 1980, Logan launched another periodical called The Face, devoted to music and fashion trends in youth culture. The magazine became hugely influential for a while – more for its photography and art direction than for its music coverage – before it too succumbed to declining circulation in 2004.

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