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Keep Taking the Tabloids

the music papers and how to get your name into them


Glossy magazines may have stolen some of their thunder, but the traditional music papers still offer new bands their best chance of media coverage. We tell you how to get the most out of them.

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED enough in music to be buying PHAZE 1, you're probably interested enough to have come across other aspects of the music press - the kind of magazines and (especially) newspapers we'll be discussing in this article. No doubt you have certain opinions about them. They may anger, confuse, or simply amuse you. But what do they really do?

For most people, the weekly music press is their most direct connection to the music scene: it's through the pages of 'Sounds', 'Melody Maker', the 'NME' and 'Record Mirror' that they hear of musicians and styles of music that they'd otherwise never have known about. Sometimes bands appear to the public through radio or television, sometimes through word of mouth; but for many acts, the first place they gain attention is through the music press.

The music papers are not new. The oldest, 'Melody Maker', began life decades ago as a jazz paper, but with the birth of rock 'n' roll changed direction. During the 1950s the 'New Musical Express' and 'Record Mirror' were launched. When 'Melody Maker' was suspended by a strike in 1970, some members of its staff decided to form their own paper and 'Sounds' came on the scene.

During the '70s these four titles had the market to themselves, and enjoyed enormous status and power. Truly, this was their Golden Age. Alan Lewis, current editor of the 'NME', looks back on that period with nostalgia.

'NME' EDITOR ALAN LEWIS

"I've been in music papers a long time, and the job in the '70s was very easy. You literally just banged a new band on the cover every week. You had to get it right - obviously you assumed your choice was correct - but there was a very direct spin-off. The readers liked it, John Peel would play the record, people would go out and buy it, and within a few weeks that band would probably be in the charts and signed to a major label. And that's how the scene worked."

By the end of the 1970s, however, the market had changed dramatically. New magazines exploded onto the scene, stealing the thunder of the "inkies" with glossy pages and colour photos. Tabloid sales fell, and for a while it looked as if the old music press would not survive. The most successful new magazine was 'Smash Hits', which still sells well over half-a-million copies a fortnight. Its launch editor was Nick Logan, a former editor of the 'NME' and now publisher of upmarket lifestyle magazines 'The Face' and 'Arena'.

"The music has changed", says Logan. "'Smash Hits' is a young kids' magazine, and it's an attractive mixture of pictures and copy. It was launched into a market that was previously patronising to readers in that age group."

Alan Lewis sees 'Smash Hits' as an institution, much like the 'Radio Times'.

"A young kid feels that this is the one he's got to have. It's fed off this conservatism that exists at the moment: people like brands, they like names they feel comfortable with, they like the safety of it, they like to feel they are purchasing the winner, the successful, safe magazine."

Other magazines such as 'Number One' have followed that formula, pursuing the teenage market with varying degrees of success. However, with teenagers dwindling in numbers and people in their 20s and 30s becoming both more numerous and more affluent, a second front was opened in the circulation war as monthly magazines like 'The Face', 'i-D', and 'Blitz' made music part of an overall lifestyle package. More recently 'Q', the "modern guide to music and more" presented an alternative way of covering music for a somewhat older audience.

'MELODY MAKER' EDITOR ALLAN JONES

"For a long time we couldn't compete physically with the glossy magazines", recalls 'Melody Maker' editor Allan Jones. "We suffered from rather moribund production values, so physically we were at a disadvantage. And over the last four or five years, there have been very few groups who have managed to unite an audience from the disparate bands of rock tribes. I think there's probably only U2 with that kind of ubiquitous popularity that binds together so many different strands of the rock audience, and perhaps the Smiths at their peak."

Neither of the editors really sees 'Q' as a threat. Alan Lewis looks upon it as a natural progression from the 'NME', and finds it comforting to know there is life after your teens; 'Q' took a number of its staff from the 'NME'. In any case, the magazine doesn't really operate at the same level as the weeklies, having what Jones terms a sober, even bland image, and failing to feature the same mixture of new and emerging acts.

Still, the threat of the glossies, in all their various forms, was enough to convince the publishers of 'Record Mirror' that the title should change format, and so it shed its tabloid image to become the magazine it is today. The remaining three "inkies" also made changes, but stuck it out. Still the burning question remains: what purpose do they serve?

"Basically I think it's to create a climate of enthusiasm for the music we like", says Allan Jones about his paper. "It's not dictated to by the charts - it's an alternative to that. It seems to me that so many people are force-fed music and they are not aware of what's actually happening. Perhaps it's arrogant and sweeping to say it, but I think our track record over the last year has been especially good in picking up on emerging new groups, and we want to communicate our enthusiasm for that kind of music to the reader who is disenchanted by a lot of what's available. If it wasn't for 'Melody Maker', 'Sounds' and the 'NME', there's a lot of bands who would get no publicity whatsoever."

So in one sense, the music press can be seen as playing the role of talent-spotter - for both the record companies and the readers. All three papers have staff constantly on the lookout for new bands, and the rivalry between them means some acts are lucky enough to have all three chasing after them at once. This isn't necessarily a good thing for a band to be confronted with, though.

"There's a danger you can give a band too much publicity, and they then try too hard to live up to that reputation and burn themselves out", cautions the deputy editor of 'Sounds', Billy Mann. "After a live review in 'Sounds', you can guarantee a band will have record companies ringing them up offering them sums of money."

The standard tabloid approach is to kick a band off with a live review or record review, and then build up through short pieces before giving them a full interview and, perhaps, a cover. Of the three, it's the 'NME' that exercises the most caution.

"We have seen the dangers of rushing into print and doing acres and acres of coverage on bands who have been seen by about 30 people in a London club", explains Alan Lewis. "On the one hand yes, you want to come out with 'I've seen the future of rock 'n' roll', but I think times have moved on: rock 'n' roll has been around in various forms for 40 years now, and people don't believe any of that anymore, they are more relaxed and cynical about it. Readers are prepared to take their time; music is not the biggest thing in their lives, and we have to live with that."

This somewhat circumspect approach is reflected in the 'NME' front cover, which has recently featured mainstream acts like TPau, Bananarama, and the Pet Shop Boys; and in the paper's coverage of musical trends such as Acid House and World Music, rather than concentrating solely on new individual groups - a policy that Lewis believes keeps the 'NME' ahead of the other papers.

"I can sympathise with young bands who feel that we don't do enough on them. But right now... we have to sell papers as well as serving their interests. I'm afraid what tends to happen is if a totally unknown band is put on the cover of 'Sounds' or 'Melody Maker', it alienates as many people as it pleases. That's not an exciting thing to say, but it does seem roughly in tune with the public mood."

While Alan Lewis might sound pessimistic, the 'NME' has recently produced its biggest issue (76 pages) since 1981, and with 95,000 copies changing hands every week, is still the best-selling music paper in Britain. It appears to have recovered from a period when it personified the ills of this country's music press, raving over rare and obscure acts and pouring scorn on commercial success. Not only that, but when Lewis took over as editor a year ago, he inherited a paper that was losing sight of its basis as a music medium, and increasingly being drawn into other fields.

"They had Neil Kinnock on the cover twice and I think that was dangerous and silly", he says. "There were periods where the writers went too far and were terribly destructive, and some weeks you wondered why they were in the business at all, because they didn't seem to like anything very much. That did the paper a lot of harm... it became ultra-elitist."

Elitism can lead the music press to shirk one of its major responsibilities, for in recommending a group to the reader, they're encouraging that reader to buy that group's record. With albums costing between £6 and £8 and CDs substantially more than that, should the press be exercising greater care in their criticisms?

"It's a very accurate point and an undeniable fact: people just don't have the cash to invest in a wide variety of music and different styles of records as they did when I first started buying them", Allan Jones muses. "So people are going to be more selective and a little more cautious. We hope we can point people in the right direction to the best music that's available. We try to engender a sense of trust with our readers, that they won't be disappointed if they go out and invest their money - we are quite aware that we get our records free."

Yet even assuming the music papers have the confidence of their readers, musicians are still saddled with the problem of getting the paper's ear in the first place. One major criticism is that there's not enough coverage outside London, where the papers are all based. Allan Jones recognises this.

"It's a historical problem going back 20-odd years, that London being the focal point of the music business, deals have to be done here... To get a support slot and be paid five quid at the Marquee, having come all the way down from Newcastle, makes it a big financial commitment, and things haven't got any easier.

"We have been trying to expand our network of provincial writers because we do depend on information coming through from the provinces about emerging bands, and we would like to write about them, support them and be seen to be actively encouraging them."

Of course, the best way of overcoming geographical problems is to get your music onto oxide and send a demo-tape to each paper. Before you stick the stamps on the jiffy-bag, however, read each paper over a few issues to see which writer appears partial to your type of music, be it dancefloor, metal, punk, or Madagascan samba. As Alan Lewis says, "every paper has its specialist in certain areas - it doesn't take long to suss out who they are."

Another way of getting your band's name across for free is to make sure your live appearances are listed in the music papers' gig guides. The 'NME' prides itself on its listings, to the extent of employing two people to compile them from letters and phone calls.

It's as true as it's ever been that all publicity is good publicity - especially if you're a young musician struggling to make a name for yourself. But it's conceivable that one music paper might be more useful to you than the others, so how do they differ? Not surprisingly, all three tabloids have their own views on what gives them the edge over the competition.

Billy Mann sees 'Sounds' as being more clearly a newspaper stylistically, unlike 'Melody Maker', which now looks more like a magazine despite its tabloid size. And in its coverage of Heavy Metal and Thrash bands, 'Sounds' has championed a niche that the other music papers pretend no longer exists - which could come in handy if your ambition is to be the next Iron Maiden.

At the 'Melody Maker', Allan Jones is proud of his current roster of writers and of the mickey-taking 'Talk Talk Talk' section. But for the musician, the ace up this paper's sleeve must be its extensive classified ad section. All kinds of famous bands started life in the 'Musicians Wanted' columns here, and many moons ago, a young player by the name of Phil Collins answered an ad for a drummer placed by a band called Genesis... Both 'Melody Maker' and 'Sounds' include pages of equipment reviews, and so could be said to be closer to the musician in that sense - though that doesn't mean being featured by them will necessarily be of more use to you and your band.

The 'NME', meanwhile, carries more news and has an excellent readers' inquiry page for information about bands on whom the dust may long have settled. The 'NME' has also produced an ongoing series of compilation tapes, which you stand an outside chance of getting onto once your name's been around a while, and more recently was behind the charity re-recording of the 'Sgt. Pepper' album by current bands.

'Record Mirror' is the only weekly publication to carry the BBC/Gallup charts. It also gives comprehensive coverage to dancefloor records, being a crucial buy for DJs, and has recently taken the "indie" mantle from the now-defunct 'Underground' magazine.

So who exactly reads the music papers? In their last readers' poll, 'Sounds' asked punters to give a name to the papers' average readers. Apparently, the average 'Sounds' buyer is called Mick and has long hair, jeans and a leather jacket. 'Melody Maker' readers are all called Simon, while the favourite names for 'NME' fans are Julien and Nigel.

Finally, what of the future? Will Mick, Simon, Julien and Nigel always have their papers to read? With the fewest pages, the lowest circulation and the fewest advertisements, 'Sounds' appears at a low ebb, yet it still commands weekly sales well in excess of 50,000, and seems well-placed to cope with the onslaught of two new competitors: a rival tabloid called 'The Cover' and an 'Underground'-style magazine called 'Off Beat', edited by ex-Soundsman Dave Henderson.

Much the same can be said of 'Melody Maker'. Its sales figure for the first half of 1988 was over 60,000, and editor Allan Jones sees no cause for scepticism.

"It amazes me in this country how many magazines are supported by such a small population - we seem to consume an awful lot of magazines. It's surprising perhaps, in the current climate, that three weekly tabloids plus 'Record Mirror' all find room to exist. Certainly there are a lot of occasions when we're trampling on each other's feet, trying to get through the door first."

Well, if any of the tabloids tries to get through your door, open it, let them in and make them a cup of coffee. Just be careful of what you say next, that's all...


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Phaze 1 - Copyright: Phaze 1 Publishing

 

Phaze 1 - Jan 1989

Feature by Nigel Holtby

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