'The moment you wonder if you're cool enough, you've had it'

Barely three years after taking the
helm at New Musical Express, editor Conor McNicholas has given the
title a more tabloid feel and rejuvenated its readership. But, he tells
Alyson Fixter, it hasn’t been an easy ride
 
“I’VE NEVER
been called a twat so many times in my life,” says Conor McNicholas.
“I’ve been painted as this bogeyman figure. But there’s no grand
conspiracy, there’s nothing to hide.”

These don’t sound like the words of a man who’s just won the
industry’s Editor of the Year award and been credited with turning
around the fortunes of 53-year-old music weekly New Musical Express.
But for the editor of a legendary music magazine like NME, there’s a
far more demanding, critical and, well, emotional audience to please
than his fellow hacks.

“When I won the award,” he explains,
“[online music community] Drowned In Sound put it up as its main news
item and invited people to comment. Cue 14 pages of absolute vitriol.”
(Sample rant: “The bastard has simply sold out to those fuckin’ wannabe
CORPORATE PIGS!!!”)n McNicholas clearly isn’t overjoyed by this turn of
events, but neither does he seem particularly surprised. After nearly
three years at the helm of IPC’s NME, during which he’s openly killed
off the last vestiges of the title’s “inky” heritage and turned it into
a smaller, more colourful (and market-leading)n magazine aimed at a
younger audience, he’s had to put up with a lot of that kind of abuse.

While
the judges at industry body the Periodical Publishers’ Association say
McNicholas has given NME “the ‘wow’ factor” and that the 31-year-old’s
vision is stamped on every page of the magazine, members of the indie
community have accused him of dumbing down the title, turning it into a
marketing tool aimed at 16-year-olds with short attention spans, and
being obsessed with the soap opera side of media-friendly bands such as
The Libertines rather than the music.

But McNicholas claims the
title is now relevant to the British music scene in a way that it
hasn’t been since the mid-90s Britpop era, when it managed to hit a
peak readership of well over 100,000 despite the competing presence of
its now-defunct sister title, Melody Maker. After that peak, he says,
the rot set in during the “Britpop hangover” of the late 90s.

“It
just started disappearing up its own arse along with its staff,” he
says. “It was losing copies because it was growing old with its
readers, so it was super serving the 24 to 25-year-olds, but it wasn’t
bringing in new kids.”

It was also, according to McNicholas, who
freelanced on the newsdesk there briefly in the late 90s, “not a happy
place”, with a demoralised staff who didn’t even bother to play music
in the office.

“Frankly, when I joined [as editor] about three
years ago, there was a whole generation of 18-yearolds who didn’t
actually know who the fuck we were,” he adds. “An absolute mainstay of
popular culture and nobody knew who we were. I thought that was a
travesty.”

Attracting younger readers

Cue a fairly dramatic overhaul of the title, aimed at making it more
of a magazine and less of a newspaper – it got a contents page for the
first time, greater emphasis on photographs, weekly music event
listings and what’s been described as a more tabloid feel, much to the
horror of veteran music fans.

The result was not only a modest increase in readership, but a shift
in demographic to a younger age group, bringing in kids as young as 14
or 15, well below the target age of 19. And with the current vogue for
guitar bands and massive media interest in the indie scene (witness the
tabloid feeding frenzy over Libertines singer Pete Doherty’s
relationship with Kate Moss) it could be said that NME is again in tune
with the zeitgeist. When Doherty and estranged fellow ex-Libertines
frontman Carl Barat had a tentative reconciliation in a North London
pub earlier this year, NME was there to take pictures and reel off a
moment-by-moment guide to events.

McNicholas is unapologetic
about the gossipy, starstruck side of the magazine. “I was out with a
bunch of 17-year-old kids in Walsall the other week,”

he says,
“and I was talking to them about what they like and don’t like about
the NME, and they were absolutely obsessed with Pete Doherty.

“One
of the guys said: ‘There’s certain music that doesn’t have a place in
the NME, but if Pete Doherty sneezed, I’d buy it.’ And that’s why it
goes in the magazine every time. All the fans just want to hang out
with the bands and go to shitloads of gigs, but they don’t have the
time, the money, the freedom, so we do that for them.”

He insists
the nature of music fandom is such that every generation believes its
NME is the definitive version. “But,” he continues, stabbing the NME in
front of him with a finger for emphasis, “the only responsibility these
three letters have on the cover is to be relevant to the new generation
of music fans coming through, and as soon as you start worrying about
‘are we cool enough and do we have enough authority, and what is that
gonna be for the legacy of the magazine?’, you’re fucked, ’cause you’re
editing looking over your shoulder the whole time.”

Back in 1994,
Conor McNicholas was just another music fan, a philosophy student at
Manchester University, reading both NME and Melody Maker from cover to
cover every Wednesday, DJing at a local indie night and trying to get
the student paper to give him a job. It was the death of Kurt Cobain
that taught him how the decisions a music magazine makes from issue to
issue can cause turmoil in the mind of the young music fan.

“I
was always more of a Melody Maker reader than an NME reader,” he
admits. “But when Kurt Cobain died, which was one of the biggest things
that had happened in my life at that point and completely devastated
me, the NME put out this fantastic, iconic black and white cover [of
Kurt] with the years of his birth and death on.

“And Melody Maker
came out with a shot of him with a gun in his hand. I couldn’t believe
they’d done this to my hero, it felt like they were taking the piss out
of him at the time when everyone was feeling most raw. And I hardly
ever bought Melody Maker again after that day – in fact, I literally
boycotted it for a few years afterwards.”

So how does this memory affect his coverage of the noughties’ very own rock ‘n’ roll train wreck, Doherty?

“The
reality is that it’s a pain in the arse and I don’t pretend for a
moment we’ve covered it right on every occasion,” admits McNicholas.

“We
can’t be seen to be preaching, but we’ve openly taken a very hard line
on this tremendously destructive drug use, especially through the
letters page.

“But at the end of the day, it’s fucking rock ‘n’
roll, isn’t it? We respect our readers enough to believe they can make
their own decisions.”

McNicholas’ big chance to have a say in the
future of NME came in 1997. Having just been made redundant from dance
title Ministry (“I don’t for the life of me know how you can make a
features editor redundant from a magazine, but there was a payoff and I
left the building”), he was facing a life in the freelance wilderness
when a chance meeting with then NME editor Steve Sutherland gave him an
opportunity that he “grabbed with both hands”.

“I
told him I’d been working on Ministry, and he said: ‘Dance music is
getting really big and the NMEneeds to get in there, would you like to
come into the NME for a couple of weeks?’ And I went back to my mates
going: ‘You’ll never fucking believe this, he offered me a fucking job
on the NME!'”

“What he did first of all was send me an email with
a whole load of questions that he wanted answering, like, what do you
think of NME at the moment, what are the good points about it, what are
the bad points? And I now recognise that as an editor reaching out,
trying to find solutions to the problems he has. I turned those five
questions into a 10,000-word dissertation, five chapters analysing how
NME had got to the point it had got to, explaining what it needed to do
to get out of the hole it was in, which, given I singularly failed to
finish my dissertation at university, I was quite surprised about.”

Although
the two weeks at NME that followed were not greatly inspiring, it was
this that eventually encouraged McNicholas to apply for the editor job
at NME in 2002, while he was editing IPC stablemate Muzik.

Rocking the boat

He admits the flak he got for his new-style NME came not only from
outside the magazine but from within as well. The first six months, he
says, were so stressful he was on the verge of resigning and “a lot of
people left”.

“When any new editor comes in, noses are put out of joint,” he says.
“Staff members who’d been there a long time didn’t want to go along
with the changes.

They were saying: ‘It’s been a really stressful
couple of years and we’re looking for a bit of stability’, and I had to
come back and say: ‘I’m not providing stability at all, this title has
got to move’.”

One of his aims was to bring in a new generation
of young writers, and he claims staffers such as Tim Jonze and Mark
Beaumont are now sought out by the fans in the way that writers like
Steven Wells of the NME and Melody Maker hack Everett True were, back
in the days of grunge and Britpop.

“Aside from winning the PPA
award,” he says, “building the new team on NME is by far my biggest
achievement, in my view. It’s a real pleasure to be able to work with a
group of people whose talents I admire so much and whom I trust
completely.

Sounds wanky but it’s true.”

And the knockers
at Drowned In Sound? “Well, to be honest, for people who hate the NME
so much, they seem to know a hell of a lot about what’s going on in
there every single week.

“They’re not going anywhere, are they?”

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