Expert Eye: Redesign of music weekly NME hits all the right notes

Picking up NME again was like anticipating meeting an old college friend and wondering whether you would still have anything in common. I used to be an avid reader, along with Melody Maker and Sounds, when music was one of the essential staples of life. It was old then, having been around since 1952. Older than me. But while all of its contemporaries have died off, NME remains a big brand. There is NME.com, the NME awards are a big event (this year they were held at the 02 Arena with Klaxons, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs and Manic Street Preachers) and NME Radio will be launched this month.

The newspaper, though, is now an A4 magazine. Unlike most of my college friends it is slimmer and more compact. The glossy-covered issue I first picked up had Hollywood Scarlett Johansson as the main image – not very rock and roll, I thought. But it turns out Ms Johansson has produced a ‘very exciting’indie album, so what do I know? Not sure about the interview with Eurovision failure Andy Abraham, but as I flicked through an unfamiliar NME, I discovered I quite liked the way my old friend had grown up.

Changing faces: Design

The typography and colour are tightly disciplined without making the magazine look like a teen mag. There are essentially only two faces with the use of a contrasting slab serif, giving it sufficient edge for its readership, as does the ragged text out of colour and the bleed-offs on the panels. The colour-coding flags up the sections well. Rather than the indulgent reads of yesteryear I found myself dipping into shorter takes – six or seven par leads – with points of interest down the sides. This is a magazine that understand the power of photographs and is not afraid to dominate the page with gritty images.

Different places: Content

While it isn’t aimed at me any more, I found plenty to keep me entertained in the varied mix of comment, reviews and recommendations. The mag moves away from music into short essays on cannabis classification and some amusing celeb gossip too. The letters page is one of the strongest elements – as close to a chatroom style that it is possible to do in print. An annotated feature on the influences behind the designs of album covers and 12 steps, a look at the way people are connected, help add to the pace. The key to NME appears to be to expose its readers to the best in new music and for that it has a big reputation. The Radar section aims to keep its readers up-to-date with what’s out there – and the punchy ‘five tracks you need to hear now’ persuaded me to make a rare visit to myspace.com. The gig guide – yes it’s still called that – looks pretty comprehensive.

Brand extension: The website

There has been much written about NME’s circulation. Its sale is down to 64,000, although given that more than a third of its readership are students it clearly gets passed around a fair bit. Its readership is a healthy 411,000. Where there is real growth, though, is on its website. I was persuaded by the magazine to join up – for free – where I now have my own personal profile. I can put up my reviews, videos, list my favourite tracks and chat with like-minded people. I watched videos, including an interview with the Kaiser Chiefs and listened to some new songs.

Old friends, new interests

Will I be meeting my old friend again? Although I found him surprisingly interesting, informed, opinionated and with a good sense of humour, we have clearly drifted too far apart. On the other hand, the website is worth getting to know better. I spent longer on the web than I did with the printed version. NME, the mag, faces the same challenges as most titles today. But its website is a triumph. As one of its former deputy editors said recently you can be an NME fan, click on the website, go to the concerts and watch the TV channel without ever flicking through the magazine. This is a familiar story to newspapers of course. What the extended NME brand demonstrates is that the personality of the title really can live on beyond the printed word.

Peter Sands is consultant editor with Press Association Training. He is a former editor of The Northern Echo and has redesigned more than 80 newspapers and magazines

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