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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Rock magazines sell the past because that's what people buy

Killing time at Stansted last night I wandered into WH Smith and looked at the music magazines, something I haven't done for a while. Johnny Marr was on the cover of Mojo. A 1969 image of Gram Parsons was on the cover of Uncut. Q was a composite cover featuring Robbie Williams, Noel Gallagher and others.

People ask why the cover stars of monthly music magazines are so often stars whose fame is rooted in an earlier age, as much as ten, twenty, thirty, even forty years before. Surely these titles should be celebrating newness?

It's not because the editors of these titles are in love with the past. It's because it works. It doesn't work perfectly but it works better than the alternative, an act who are either unrecognisable or have a polarising effect which will rebound at the expense of your circulation figures.

There was a time when the best thing you could put on the cover was the Hot New Thing. Nowadays it's possibly the worst thing you can do. Why should that be? Too many Sigue Sigue Sputniks and not enough Radioheads? Too many acts who were set to take the world by storm and then didn't? Novelty fatigue? A multitude of new ways of accessing information about the Hot New Thing? It's probably a combination of all these.

The fact that new acts are box office poison is particularly bad news for PRs. The thing they are paid to achieve will remove a few thousand pounds from the revenue line of the publication they must achieve it through.

I see that last week's cover of the NME featured Haim and Parma Violets. That's two new bands, albeit photographed in a sixties pose and a cover line referencing a fifty-year-old Who single. But that came after three consecutive covers which were essentially backward-looking.

With the new issue normal service has been resumed.


15 comments:

Nige said...

And David knows. We all remember when Jimmy The Hoover were on the cover of Smash Hits.

Richard Gillis said...

Nice point. There's comfort in nostalgia. Trick cyclists say we 'buy our childhood' in times of stress. See also the marketing of pickle, and private schools.

David Hepworth said...

In those days you could get away with it. Not in that case. But anyway, that was Mark Ellen.

daragho said...

The heritage rock mags seem to have a cycle as well. I know I've read the Gram Parsons thing in Uncut before. The same ground is covered again and again. Is it in the hope that a new generation of slightly younger readers are discovering the heritage acts afresh and will go for their in-depth feature? Because no matter how much I love the Beatles, Byrds, Stones etc I've read enough bios and seen enough documentaries to make me never want to read a rehash of their story in Mojo or Uncut again.

Nige said...

It was Mark, you're right. He still seems very proud about it, 30(!) years later...

RobF said...

I understand and agree with your point but in my opinion Mojo and Uncut have the balance wrong and focus too much on music of the past. Bring back "Word" which seemed to strike a better balance and introduced this 50 something to some fantastic contemporary music.

Nigel said...

Well, I've just bought some nostalgia in the form of Bowie's new single. Singing about the past, referencing his past, and a lovely, lovely tune. I always admired him, though not a huge fan, but this time something clicked.

John Medd said...

I'd wager that 90+% of anyone over the age of 30 who owns an MP3 player lives in the past musically: they're made for condensing a loft full of iconic albums (yes, many from 1971) into a series of heritage playlists.

johnlyons121 said...

Bring back "Word"? That would be brilliant beyond my ability to express it.

But given that it was a drain on the coffers of Development Hell, I don't see how that would happen.

Phil said...

Nostalgia is the only option left because people's access to, and consumption of music is now so diverse and fragmented. We have our individual totalities of music on our mp3 players. So if a magazine editor finds and champions The Next Big Thing (The Hummingbirds from Liverpool for me), who cares? We each have our 'own' new bands to follow, anyway. At least with heritage acts, you can target a quantifiable audience you know liked the old stuff – and still do.

londonlee said...

Pretty damn sad that NME cover. I remember (gather 'round, children) when the covers were all about the new and now. But that was back when the press was the only place you could find out about it.

I still have a Jimmy the Hoover single! On 12" no less.

Stan Lee said...

I'm currently read Pat Long's excellent History of The NME. In the chapter I have just finished Nck Logan put Dr Feelgood on the cover before they even had a record deal. Doubt we'd ever see that happen these days.

David Hepworth said...

I'm not sure that it's a simple case of people's interest in the past versus their interest in the now. It's all to do with who you can put on the cover. How many acts attract more people than they put off? It's a very small handful and the only act who've joined that select company in the last twenty-five years is Oasis. Lots of other people are popular but they just don't work on the news stand. I'll take the books words for it that Dr Feelgood were on the cover of NME before they had a record deal but it was rare then and it would be rare now. What was different then was that the only place you could find out ANYTHING about Doctor Feelgood was at the news stand on a Thursday.

ageing hipster said...

"we 'buy our childhood' in times of stress."
Big part of the appeal of Facebook, IMO, letting you constantly revisit, remember, celebrate old friends, old times, the detritus of the past...

JulesLt said...

What about Kerrang? I wonder if it's more down to genre exhaustion - the NME is still pushing a style of music that is pretty familiar to anyone from the post-punk era, while never really embracing the actual changing tastes of young people. What with them being dreadful of course I don't blame them . . .

There is some irony that Folk Roots had more contemporary acts in the front.