Wednesday, September 21, 2005

WHAT THE POP PAPERS SAY: Another NME makeover

There's an interesting story in the current Private Eye, of the Mean Fiddler's Melvin Benn selling two FA Cup final tickets to Mendip Council Environmental Officer Chris Malcolmson. Benn, of course, is the name on the Glastonbury Festival licence; Malcolmson is the man who reports to the council on the suitability of the Glasto licence application. The Eye raises it brow that Benn - apparently - sold the tickets for face value when they could have been worth two grand, suggesting this is rather a cosy arrangement. But the paper must have its story wrong - after all, doesn't Glastonbury look askance on people reselling its tickets - at face value or not - insisting that anyone who cannot attend return the tickets to them? In fact, in May this year, Benn was quoted in the Independent on Sunday bemoaning his inability to bring criminal proceedings against people who sold on Glastonbury tickets: " I have no ability to take action against touts. It [touting] is rank profiteering and hugely disappointing that it is not against the law." Hugely unlikely, then, that Benn would be pimping someone else's tickets, face value or not, to a third party.

There is, of course, one sort of ticket which is illegal to sell in the UK: tickets for football matches, a law brought in as an anti-hooliganism measure, and a model for the sort Benn would like to have at his disposal for music touts. We're sure he'd be first to turn in anyone selling FA Cup tickets to his local police station.

Conor McNicholas this week picked up his pen and his Basildon Bond to send a letter to the MediaGuardian to explain part of the rationale behind this season's revamp of the NME: the idea is to try and build writers to rival those names that make old guys go weak at the tearducts by giving more prominence to the current crop of writers - so everybody gets a photo-byline now, not just in the week when it;s buggins turn to edit Angst; and the font showing who reviewed what has been boosted a couple of point sizes and emboldened. Having said that, though, the new look seems to be bigger on pictures rather than words.

This reworking finally slews off anything that remains of the NME of the 80s - every redesign of the last five years (and there have been quite a few) has left behind some taste of the paper during the Danny Kelly era, but this week, the only real thing that links to the classic design is that logo. Having said which, a more useful role for the paper's heritage has been found in the shape of a "tales from the NME archive" - this week, it's the Stone Roses at Spike Island, which is an oven that has been revisited many times before, and it'll be interesting to see what they start selecting once the obvious choices have run out - it could just be a boring older brother chanting "Pistols at the 100 club/Oasis at Knebworth"; but there's potential for it to be more like an interesting uncle. We'd like to see a re-run of Steven Wells going to Sellafield, but we suspect that's unlikely to happen.

Flicking through the magazine, we were convinced that the pages were bigger than they had been before - even getting down to measuring them against last week's issue; it took a while before it hit us what we were experiencing: the new NME bears a more than uncanny resemblance to the glossy Melody Maker, and being tabloid rather than A4, that was why it seemed larger. (Actually, the album reviews also have something of the Observer Music Magazine about them.)

Having made a decision to go with pictures, at least the magazine has the images to back it up with inside - The Big Picture has become Shots, with a slew of this-week photos; the main image appears to be of Kanye West showing Franz Ferdinand how to make their hands into a vagina shape (apparently this is "throwing a diamond", or making the logo of Roc-a-fella; we suspect you probably knew that). In fact, with so many great photos inside, it's curious that the cover of this year zero issue is a bit poor - the Killers all looking a bit ropey. Brandon looks less like his charming self than a really low-rent Brian Molko lookalike; surely there must have been a better picture? Mercifully, the bulk of page one is taken up with a CD; the sort of CD which the paper has a reputation for effortlessly compiling (Arctic Monkeys, BRMC, Boy Kill Boy, Arcade Fire, and a taping of that Reading Rakes/Bloc Party/Maximo Park/erm, Towers of London supergroup).

Peter Robinson is still there, taking on Rick Parfitt. Parfitt doesn't like Pete Doherty - "he's something beginning with 'P'" he growls. But... erm... Mr. Parfitt, aren't you something beginning with P, too?

Radar has been beefed up considerably: two bands (Five O'Clock Heroes and panda-eyed sweetthrobs Louis XIV); demo reviews (The Puzzle's Let The Sun Shine "has a harmonica"; a column about new music in "your town" (assuming you live in the town featured, which is Brighton this week, which means The Pipettes); something called The Buzz, which we're keeping an open mind on for now, and extra space for live reviews of new bands which used to get poked in the corner of the main review pages (My Latest Novel at the Camden Barfly - "Arcade Fire without the fire"). This is actually one of the most positive things we've seen come out of the NME in ages, and it throws into relief how poor the coverage of new stuff had become. It might free the paper from the diminishing number of keynote bands it was having to rotate over the weeks by building up a few more groups. To knock 'em down, of course.

There's an interview with Noodle from Gorillaz, which is only slightly ruined by the fact that, as a person, she's a two-dimensional cartoon, and as a character, has a couple less dimensions than that. The questions are pretty sharp, though: "You're Japanese, called Noodle and you're into martial arts. Do you, perhaps have a French friend called Fromage who likes eating snails?"

reviews
albums
various artists - help: a day in the life - "succeeds where Live8 failed", 10
the dead 60s - the dead 60s/space invader dub - "they never lose focus", 7
ladytron - witching hour - "rather makes one want to have sex", 7

tracks
totw - arctic monkeys - i bet you look good on the dancefloor - "pure, seething TEENERGY"
death cab for cutie - soul meets body - "like something from David Bowie's Labyrinth soundtrack"
ms dynamite - judgement day - "actually reallty great"

live
coldplay - madison square garden - "looking at all these placid faces, is it really such a bad thing?"
mystery jets - london ICA - "defeaning enough to rattle the Palace crockery"

There's a new feature at the back, The Recommender, where a pop star gets their PA to pull together a list of cool stuff - Paul Smith, from Maximo Park, namechecks Life Without Buildings (who were actually bloody good - although we suspect their golden moment, The Lean-To, isn't going to be available on iTunes).

In a rather astonishing coup for the advertising sales department, they've managed to persuade Virgin Digital Downloads to sponsor the tracks pages, while HMV Digital Downloads has sponsored the free CD. There's probably a message about the plurality of voices or something there.

The small ads are back - although it's not 'send a letter to box number x' style any more, it's phone dating type stuff; oddly, none of the people searching for their soul mates through the music paper mention a single band they might like. Perhaps they're all Andrew WK fans?

So, all in all, then, it's not the most radical redesign of a music paper, and the changes seem to be more about a growing confidence about what the NME is doing and - and this has been lacking for a while - a firmer sense of what it stands for. We're sorry to see the ending of the two letters from America, but delighted Queens of Noize have been sent elsewhere. We'll give it a couple of weeks to see which of the changes take, but at least we're not looking forward to next week with a sense of dread.


5 comments:

ian said...

So, HMV downloads is sponsoring the CD... Well I'm sure it makes sense to some marketeer somewhere.

Anyway, this new NME. Despite the allegation that it's become like the Maker when they made it crap, so they could close it down, the question remains, as a lapsed reader, should I buy it? I trust it still costs 70p or thereabouts?

Ian Snappish said...

It's actually an impressive £1.90 these days...

simon h b said...

and you know, Ian S, when I started with the pop press, you could get all four weeklies for that - indeed, I remember Morrissey moaning when the NME went to 50p that he could remember when you could buy all the titles for that...

ian... I suspect that the aim is not to bring lapsed readers to the fold (although I guess how long it's been since you lapsed might play a factor...)

ian said...

One pound and ninety pence! What are they making it out of these days? Petrol?

I suggest we immediately form a blockade of the NME's printing works demanding an immediate cut in prices. And inky fingers too.

simon h b said...

Surely we should insist that the Chancellor reduce the price of the NME, rather than a direct demand for a price cut?

And we could drive very slowly in front of the Babyshambles tour van. That'd show 'em.

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