Friday, March 7, 2008

NME Moves into the U.S. as Its Indie Cred is Questioned

Stephen Dalton outlines the storied history of 56-year-old UK music publication NME in a piece from The Times today. Although the weekly NME magazine is seeing decreasing circulation numbers, the NME empire is planning to expand into the U.S. with a club tour in April and May, an awards show in L.A. April 23rd, and a radio channel coming this summer. The article also discusses critiques claiming the magazine has become too mainstream and corporate, criticism that no doubt every music publication has had to contend with. According to Dalton:

"With the demise of any real rock 'underground', plus fierce competition from online rivals and the FaceTubeMyBook boom, the magazine must adapt or die.

To many of its former readers - and writers - NME has sold out its 'soul' and 'edge' to corporate partners, such as the beer and hair-grooming companies that now sponsor its tours and awards ceremonies...

But commercial success does not equal cultural relevance, argues [former NME staff writer] Steven Wells. For him, NME's fatal error was sacrificing the 'rebellious, politicised, energised, anything-is-possiblism' of the post-punk era to become 'the house organ for indie, defined as unchallenging guitar music made by white suburban males'. The result, Wells claims, was 'cultural incest. A zoo animal eating its own dung is amusing for a while, but it gets tedious.'

Barney Hoskyns is another 1980s NME veteran, who now runs the online music journalism library, Rock's Back Pages. He is less critical of the magazine's current direction, claiming it had little choice but to become just another 'consumer lifestyle' publication.

'Rock is no longer counter-cultural, it's in the bloodstream of the new status quo,' Hoskyns argues. 'Coverage of rock is ubiquitous, therefore it no longer requires its own media ghettos. Rock writers have dumbed down, or at least played down, their own quirks and idiosyncrasies to accommodate the above'..."

It's certainly true that rock in general used to be the voice of the counterculture and that it's now very much the music of the establishment. Yet rock and all of its subgenres (indie included) are still often held to high standards by fans who are attracted to artists who seem real, authentic, and who don't appear to have "sold out." In light of that, you've also gotta love the quote from Steven Wells that adds yet another definition of indie to the ever-expanding list: "unchallenging guitar music made by white suburban males." Kind of harsh, but his argument reminds us that in 2008 the terms indie, alternative, and punk are often used to describe an aesthetic rather than a political or economic stance.

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