Did pop eat itself?

The
teen pop titles have changed dramatically since their inception, marked
by sliding sales, increasing covermounts and more celebrity coverage.
Colin Crummy wonders if the pop bubble has finally burst

THE TEEN POP magazine market
is proving as impossible to stabilise as adolescent hormones. MP3
players, mobile phones, the internet and 24/7 music television have
wooed away attention-deficient teenagers. Fans can hear and see the
songs before the magazines get a look-in. Heat and Zoo have found their
way into school satchels, lending weight to the old adage that kids
grow up faster these days.

In the wake of last month’s ABC figures, Music Week editor Martin
Talbot was moved to predict the end of the road for the pop title. The
two big magazines, Top of the Pops and Smash Hits! had just gone
head-to-head, in a move expected to squeeze the market further.

Sales
are definitely on the slide. The market leader, BBC’s Top of the Pops,
sold 389,245 copies a month in 2000. It went fortnightly in April this
year and now sells 140,192 copies per issue. This means direct
competition with Emap’s Smash Hits!, which sold 120,541 copies per
issue in the latest ABCs – just over a fifth of what it sold in its
1980s heyday (1985’s mid-year ABCs showed Smash Hits! shifting 522,169
per issue). This decline has directed the magazines down new avenues –
and it remains to be seen if they’re actually dead ends.

The
magazines are starting to look less and less like pop titles. Smash
Hits! editor Lara Palamoudian admits that Emap’s “hero brand” is now
more a celebrity than a pop title. “Music is still a very important
part of what we’re about,” she says, “but we know our readers are also
interested in celebrity lifestyle and the glamorous world of the stars.”

Both
Palamoudian and Top of the Pops editor Peter Hart say the current lull
in pop music contributes directly to their sales decline – hence the
need to broaden their remit. Hart says it would be stupid not to. “I
thought it was a bit po-faced to separate music from TV and film.
Readers see pop stars as celebrities, and there’s no need for those
rigid boundaries to be there.”

Ironically, while they increase
their TV and film coverage, the music magazines are finding it harder
to broaden their music scope. Both magazines started with a much wider
musical palette than they currently use.

Since the late 1990s,
when bubblegum pop won prominence, the titles have become tightly bound
up with a series of pure pop acts that appeal to a younger reader.
While music fans have turned against manufactured pop groups, the
magazines are finding it difficult to break out of their restrictive
pop format. Like every Spice Girl who ever went solo, no one takes a
change of direction from Top of the Pops or Smash Hits! seriously these
days.

David Hepworth, editor of Smash Hits! in the 1980s and now
creative director at grown-up music mag Word, blames the pigeonholing
of music to such an extent that the magazines themselves have become
“paralysed by pointless categories”. He says: “Great pop music has
always flourished in the cracks between genres. The reason we don’t
have so much of it nowadays is that the media has filled in the cracks
to make that impossible.”

As Emap’s first consumer title,
launched in 1978, Smash Hits!’ legacy of humour, irreverence and
affection is, as Hepworth suggests, visible in everything from Vanity
Fair to Nuts. This helped the magazine cross a wide age group, which
has since shrunk, along with the magazine’s iconic image.

“What
changed Smash Hits! was that it ceased being a magazine about
music and turned into a teenage magazine,” says Hepworth.

“It was always read by teenagers, but there’s a difference.” This
has helped fashion another shift: it’s now categorically a magazine for
girls. The current editors contend this is just the nature of the
market. At least 95 per cent of Top of the Pops’ readership is female,
says Hart – it was launched at a unisex market, but that just didn’t
work. “Teenage boys read magazines like Nuts – the whole point is that
they want to be reading about Jordan and Abi Titmuss, not Green Day. So
you make a magazine that’s appealing to females, it’s as simple as
that.”

But Peter Robinson, freelance pop writer, disagrees: “It’s
a self-fulfilling prophecy because you can always say that boys aren’t
interested in pop music, and the reason boys aren’t interested in pop
music is because it’s always marketed at girls – the media who cover
pop music give away free make-up.”

Robinson, who also runs the
music website Popjustice.com, says this strategy is at the heart of the
decline. “The problem at Top of the Pops and Smash Hits! is that nobody
buys the magazines because they want to know what the titles think.

They
buy them because there’s a pair of flip-flops on the front or because
of who’s on the cover. That’s dangerous when there’s no-one around to
sell the magazine.”

But attempts to include boys, ditch
covermounts and encompass more of a musical range have failed
elsewhere. Popworld magazine, based on the successful Channel 4 music
programme and website of the same name, was launched in 2002 and was
backed by pop svengali Simon Fuller. It collapsed before a year in
print. Smash Hits!’ most recent attempt at shedding covermounts, under
editor Lisa Smosarski, saw a slide in sales before the freebies got
reinstated.

Hart remembers the first issue of Top of the Pops
featuring the archly indie Brett Anderson from Suede beside the very
pop Tony Mortimer from East 17 – the title struggled before it ditched
the crosspollination, he says. “The magazine was launched to bridge the
gap between Select and Smash Hits!, but you didn’t get nine to
17-year-olds interested in reading about that. Kids want a magazine
about their favourite pop stars and for it not to be ranging into the
indie or dance side of the music.”

Other media have fared better at crossing gender and genre divides – by adopting early Smash Hits!

style.
Channel 4’s TV show Popworld (which has survived where the print
version hasn’t) mischievously blends all genres of popular music.
Robinson recently launched the channel4.com/music website in
conjunction with pop culture website Holy Moly, and says the golden era
of Smash Hits! was a big inspiration. He considered a magazine version
of Popjustice (which works on the premise that pop music deserves a
better press than it currently gets), but has decided on a downloadable
web version, with only an occasional print fanzine. Despite this, he
says that magazines do, or should, have a future – they just need
something in them that teenagers want to read about.

The pop
editors say that they are in tune with what their readers want. If so,
perhaps the only logical conclusion is that kids don’t want pop music,
or at least they don’t want to be seen to want it.

Nearly
everyone agrees on one thing: pop has become uncool. Those who get into
the media have grown out of pop by that time – and snobbishness runs
through music writing. More damning, Hart says, is that even readers
don’t like the word ‘pop’

anymore. “For those readers who aren’t
into our magazines, ‘pop’ is a bit of a dirty word. Even our own
readers have told us ‘pop’ isn’t for me, it’s for my little sister. So
we don’t talk about pop anymore.”

And if flip-flops and McFly stop shifting magazines, they might find that they won’t have to mention the ‘p’ word at all.

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