How NME went free - inside its post-pricetag relaunch

How NME went free - inside its post-pricetag relaunch

As the music weekly NME publishes its final edition, Music Week revisits an interview with editor Mike Williams about the reinvention of the once iconic title...

In the last two years, Mike Williams has moved house, got married and welcomed his first child into the world. All three apparently rank highly on those lists of ‘most stressful life events’, but surely come nowhere near the pressures associated with overseeing what Williams calls “the biggest change that’s happened to NME”.

Unless you’ve been living on Mars for the last few months, you’ll know what he’s talking about. In September last year, after 66 years on the newsstand, the legendary music weekly took a great leap into the unknown and became a free publication, distributed outside tube stations, at venues and universities and in various shops, with more outlets apparently being added every week. Though none on Mars, yet.

Williams was the driving force behind the change. He was made editor in 2012, having previously served as NME’s deputy editor and features editor. Before NME, he edited Cardiff based independent music magazine, Kruger.

The move to free was widely expected, NME’s paid-for weekly circulation having shrunk to 15,384 copies. In its free incarnation, publishers Time Inc. promised a distribution of 300,000 copies – around NME’s circulation figure during its ‘70s heyday.

But if most commentators welcomed the news, since the all-new NME actually emerged, its move into more lifestyle-related territory and its choice of cover stars – including Justin Bieber, actor Robert Pattinson and Radio X DJ Chris Moyles – has faced criticism from former readers and writers alike (and, in the interests of full disclosure, we should probably point out that your correspondent worked for NME between 1992 and 1997).

If any of the criticism bothered Williams, however, he seems determined not to let it show. He says advertising has soared since the relaunch and, while NME’s new circulation figure will not be published until later this month, it’s clear when we meet that he believes they will contain some good news for everyone with a vested interest in seeing the UK’s longest running music title adapt to the new era. 

He very much includes the music industry in that camp, repeatedly stressing the opportunity NME’s new visibility offers to promote artists – whether that’s in the magazine, online or via events such as the NME Awards with Austin, Texas – held at the O2 Academy Brixton on February 18, with this year’s Godlike Genius award set to be picked up by Coldplay – or the NME Awards Tour, which this year features Bloc Party, Drenge, Rat Boy and Bugzy Malone.

Before any of that, however, Williams sat down with Music Week in Time Inc’s London offices to discuss Bieber, the economics of free and the future of the NME. And, yes, it does have one…


What was the logic behind going free?

We wanted to grow the business across everything that we do. We’ve been in digital growth for a long time, but the part of our business we are most famous for, the heartbeat of the brand, is the print product and it was the smallest part of our business by a long way in readership terms. The reality was, as a business, we were growing but if you stopped someone in the street and said, Do you know what NME is?, they’re not going to say, A multi-platform media brand, they’re going to say it’s a music magazine. That’s our identity, and reinvigorating the business was all about securing the long term future of the print product.


Did you look at any other options?

In terms of thinking internally and conversations with the audience, we considered other things. But we knew that the big opportunity was to make a free, weekly NME the shop window of the brand. To get all those people who should’ve been turned onto NME but weren’t picking up the magazine and becoming brand acolytes in the way people had previously, this was a way to do that for us. If you compare it to our digital numbers, the print product is still the smallest part of our brand, but now it’s at massive scale compared to being at very niche scale. That unlocks so many opportunities for us and the percentage increase in people who are now seeing what we do is phenomenal. It’s not just an opportunity for us, but for the entire music industry to get what they do in front of a massive audience. Previously, that wasn’t happening because the audience was a lot more… It was a lot smaller, basically.


So how much bigger is it now you’re free?

Because of the [sales figures] embargo, I can’t really talk about it. But we said that we would have 300,000 copy distribution and we’re really happy with what our first figure is going to be. We’re really happy with what the number is, and I think people will be really impressed with what the number is.


How hard was it to make the switch from paid-for to free publication?

We definitely had some teething problems with distribution. It’s not just NME that’s never done a free magazine before, Time Inc. hasn’t done one. We gave ourselves a little bit of grace at the beginning to get it right and, since we’ve done what we consider to be getting it right, week-on-week we’ve been putting on more universities, more stores, more tube stations. We’re in 40 unis every week, 75 independent record shops, 120 HMVs, 65 London tube stations, and we’ve got new partners – 50 Richer Sounds stores, all the Dr. Martens shops. But, if anyone had the impression you can put whatever you want on the cover and distribution takes care of itself, that’s not the case. But after those teething problems, we’re getting it right and our circulation figure is going to reflect that.


Has relying on advertisers for your revenue affected any editorial decisions?

No. There’s no consultation about what we can and can’t do. The thing about NME is – and this is no disrespect to any other brand that works on the same kind of model that our print product is working on – NME has a brand identity that other brands perhaps don’t have. In terms of buying into that, why would you want to go to a brand for something and ask them not to be that? We haven’t encountered any problems with any advertisers.


Do bands mind if they appear under a cover wrap? Does that diminish the power of an NME cover?

Cover wraps are definitely part of this model. I wouldn’t like to comment on whether anybody who has appeared on the cover of NME is happy or unhappy about it, because that’s their prerogative. In terms of diminishing the power of the cover, as a piece of art, I don’t think it does at all. As a statement that that artist is on the cover of NME this week, I don’t think it does that either. Obviously, a cover-wrapped cover is less visible on the day it’s out on the street, but in terms of all the other ways that we would promote that cover, I don’t think it diminishes at all.


People used to like to think they knew what a typical NME reader was like – young, alternative, probably a student. How has that changed with the new free magazine?

I’m not sure that the typical NME reader is that different to the one you’re describing. But we wouldn’t want to define our potential audience by age or gender or even music taste, because we think what we’re doing will either attract them or not. We always want to feel that, for the younger end of the audience, we’re the older sibling helping someone discover the music that’s going to change their lives. And, for the older end of the audience, we’re the excited younger sibling who’s re-engaging them with the things that got them excited in the past. What we do is still targeted at a certain type of young person who cares about music, but we don’t want to be excluding people who don’t fit into that profile because we want them to see what we’re doing. I’m perfectly comfortable with a 12-year-old reading NME or a 60-year-old reading NME, if they enjoy what we’re doing and maybe get turned on to some great new music, then that’s a positive. But as a brand, I’m not writing for a 12-year-old or a 60-year-old. The reason we can diversify the covers in a way that feels a lot more mainstream than the previous print product is that people are a lot less tribal in terms of their tastes. The idea that a tight-knit niche audience will only want one thing… that’s gone, and that’s quite liberating for us – to attract massive stars onto our cover, but also be passionate about writing about them.


It seems fair to say some of those cover choices have been controversial. Did you deliberately target more mainstream names?

Yes and no. If you look across all of those issues together, you’ll see a pretty decent and accurate snapshot of what NME is doing. To me, the Justin Bieber cover is a great cover: it’s a great shot, people talked about it and people should talk about what’s on the NME cover. The fact it seems odd that people are raging about NME covers and arguing about them is wrong. That should never have gone away. An NME cover should absolutely spark debate, because it means that people care, not just about NME, but about music. It’s great that people are debating whether Justin Bieber should be on the cover, but that’s not the reason he’s on the cover. The reason he’s on the cover is, he’s a really interesting person, who’s just had a really mad reinvention. A hell of a lot of people who thought he was an absolute wally think that he’s now actually a pretty credible artist. A hell of a lot of people still think he’s a total twonk, and our interview delves into both sides of that. But the cover that outraged people wasn’t really Bieber, it was Chris Moyles. I get that, but I also get that at one point he was possibly the most listened to DJ in Radio 1 history. The guy has always been divisive, and the point of him being on the cover was the fact that he’s so divisive. To some people, this guy represents the popular mainstream and they buy into him and, to others, he represents the most oafish, boorish, despicable side of media possible. I have no regrets about any of these covers, I’m incredibly proud of them all. A big business would not have let this happen without extensive audience research and that doesn’t stop when you put the product out. We’re doing continual audience research and it comes back with a big thumbs up. People like the product. 


Some former readers and former NME journalists don’t seem quite so keen, though. Do you care what they think?

If I can separate the two, I don’t care at all what the ex-journalists say. Because I feel they would have been critical of anything. NME is often a target for people but it’s because people care so deeply about NME as a brand. Even the people who are continuously critical of the brand, it’s because deep down they really love it and, if it isn’t exactly how they remember it at the point it changed their lives, or it isn’t exactly how they want it to be now for whatever their agenda is, it matters to them. In terms of what people would consider the traditional NME audience, I don’t want them to not be into NME. But I completely understand that there are people who feel NME represented a very specific thing to them and they feel it isn’t that anymore. That may be relative to what they see on the front cover, because NME hasn’t massively changed what it’s doing on a day-to-day basis on the website, and hasn’t changed massively its castlist inside the pages.


NME was traditionally very influential for breaking bands. Will that still be the case?

It was not particularly easy to put new bands on the cover of the newsstand NME. I wouldn’t want people to rewrite history and think that’s what the NME used to do. We cover more new music on that we did previously and we’re absolutely invested in discovering new artists. In print, the fact that we are hitting a more diverse and mainstream audience, giving somebody a if-you’re-only-going-to-listen-to-one-new-band-this-week-make-it-this-one [message], is a lot more effective for our audience than saying, Here’s 20 bands that you may or may not be interested in. I completely accept that it’s not as easy for labels to get their artists in NME, but that’s more of a reflection of what the audience want us to do than a lack of commitment to new music on our side.


Is it annoying that the print NME attracts more attention than the wider brand?

It’s just because of how important the print product has been over the last 60 years. I’d like people to talk about the big picture, but there’s nothing I can do about it, so I don’t really get annoyed by it. The main thing an editor of NME has needed, from the first one right up to me, is a thick skin and a nice, sunny outlook on life. There aren’t many magazine brands that generate as many column inches or as much debating time as NME does, and that’s a positive thing. The fact we’ve managed to reboot the brand and made it a massive talking point again is fantastic.


Are the NME Awards changing this year as well?

The awards are still at Brixton Academy and they are going to be just as fun and raucous and exciting as they’ve ever been. We’ve just announced Coldplay as Godlike Genius winners. It’s really exciting that NME in 2016 can get the biggest band in the world to play Brixton Academy, when the other gigs for them this year include things like the Super Bowl. It’s a really natural thing for us to ask them to do because of us championing them and being behind them from the early days. It’s an amazing success story for them and for us for them to be doing it this year.


Is Bieber coming?

If he wants to turn up, he’s more than welcome.


And what about the future of NME?

The future of NME is that it has a future: a really bright and exciting one, full of loads of potential. To have NME in growth in every single area is unheard of. From a music world perspective, to know that this really famous old brand has got this incredible new lease of life is a massive opportunity for everybody. A healthy NME is really good for the music industry and right now, I’m really happy to say it is a really healthy NME.


Taken from the February 1 issue of Music Week. For more features like this, subscribe online.

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