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quite a revealing blog entry about editorial policy at Q and NME

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One of my regular correspondents on Twitter recently published this blog entry. I thought I’d reproduce it here, because I find it to be quite revealing: partway explanatory of what goes on behind the scenes at the mainstream rock press.

Dear Everett True, NME and Q don’t love music any less than you do…

I like Everett True. Many don’t but I do. He’s a personality and modern music writing has a paucity of those. But that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. This week he’s been posting up the archive of one of his much-missed projects Plan B, a fine magazine which gave birth to many a great up and coming new music writer. But while that’s a brilliant public service it gave me occasion to read his editorial from Issue 0 and now, a few years late, I need to disagree with one of his quips.

Recounting a trip to lecture some media students, Everett talks about dismissing, “NME and Q as being put together by people embarrassed to be writing about indie music…” That’s the point at which he and I take different paths.

Both Q and NME have been terribly compromised publications for years but that isn’t down to the people working on them not caring or not loving music as much as Everett does. It’s because those magazines are cogs within large corporations with confused agendas, turned into toys for editors enthralled with a philosophy of “brand”, “content partnerships” and other phrases that translate to bad magazines.

Everett’s advice to potential Plan B contributors was “be yourself” but that’s not always been a choice at NME or Q (although NME under Krissi Murrison is 1000% sharper than the dull days of Conor McNicholas running the paper into the ground). Q is like the Borg. It gobbles up writers and pulps them into a bland mush.

The Atlantic has just published a list of what makes great editing in celebration of its 153rd birthday. One point stood out for me as a big failing at Q was this: “Don’t over-edit. You will often estrange an author by too elaborate a revision, and furthermore, take away from the magazine the variety of style that keeps it fresh.” Too often Q has been like a mangle, squeezing until all the writer’s personality is left in the bucket.

That is not the fault of the people who work on Q [I was front section editor there for just over a year]. They are a sharp, smart, committed team with a real love of music. But the product they are made to produce is a sad compromise, under the cosh of powerful PRs trading access for writing about bands that just aren’t up to snuff. Q has to play safe.

Editors aren’t given the scope to be imaginative – they can’t take risks and there have been some terrible decisions (putting Johnny Borrell aka the least palatable man in music on the cover?!). No one in the office besides the boss backed that move but it happened anyway. A few months down the line the revisionist history had begun: “Who’s idea was that then?”

Plan B was wildly inventive and individualistic. It could never sell more than a nominal number of copies. Q is bland and it struggles to maintain the sales figures it once easily pulled in. Neither is the solution for what a music magazine should be now.

In some ways, the question is whether a traditional music magazine, a bound collection of pages, still has a place. I think it has but a successful one needs freedom of movement that an oil tanker like Q doesn’t have right now. The ship can be turned around but the captain needs to accept that the iceberg it’s headed for is there to begin with. Right now, they’ve got their hands on the wheel and their eyes closed…

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(Some random thoughts about this)

  • You don’t have to work for them. You don’t have to write for them.
  • If the people who work on Q are “a sharp, smart, committed team with a real love of music”, then they should be asserting themselves, not be content to kowtow to someone else second-guessing what the ‘market’ wants. Or going off and creating their own alternatives. (Something I didn’t understand not happening while the whole Mojo/Kerrang! rights issue was going on earlier this year – the amount of folk protesting and rightly pissed-off, they certainly had the experience and knowledge in-depth to create a new, vibrant kick-ass magazine between them.) I don’t have much sympathy with folk who are content to get paid by corporations and then complain at their lot. (This accusation isn’t directed at Broken Bottle Boy, the originator of this blog entry, incidentally. He wasn’t content, so he left.) If nobody was willing to go along with the PRs or editors or company policy decisions they disagree with, then they’d have no power, and no magazines to fuck around with. Simple as that.
  • Conor McNicholas grew up reading my work. Not sure what that says about him, but it vaguely makes me think of Big Sound curator Graham Ashton’s assertion that Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life inspired him to dedicate his life to music. Where’s the connection? I know that the individual has no control over the way others perceive them or their work, but was I really so crap?
  • Points 1, 3 and 4 in that Atlantic list are good points.
  • Broken Bottle Boy is talking about internationally-acclaimed, thoroughly established music titles here. There’s baggage that comes along with that status. Sure, I’ll acknowledge that. Pressure to maintain market-share, etc. Where’s the baggage that comes along with the Australian street press so that the fucking editors suck all the individuality out of the writing, the photography and the design, week in, week out? Pressure to do the publisher’s bidding? Worry that PRs won’t allow access to certain musicians? Necessity to follow the agenda set by advertisers? Maybe I’m reading way too much into it. Perhaps it’s simple clumsy amateurism on the part of the editors. (I’m a real fan of the amateur, but not when the amateur is simply trying to copy the professional, without any wit or resources.)
  • Plan B could easily have sold more than a nominal number of copies, given corporate backing. Same way almost any pop song could be a major hit, given enough marketing. We didn’t want the corporate backing.
  • It’s never too late to turn around. Um, with your company’s backing, of course. (I’m thinking of my abortive attempt to turn VOX into a completely new title, without any financial backing from IPC in the late Nineties.) Q‘s future is doomed if they continue to take the direction they’re following: they literally become pointless. There’s a place for specialist, or well-crafted, print music magazines in the 2010s. The tat you can get on the web, no problem.

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