As the mid-afternoon sun beats down on the arena and scantily-clad revellers loll about on the grass soaking up a rare flash of summer, a photographer snaps away at a group of overexcited teenagers screaming as they spray each other with cans of beer.
‘Keep looking at the camera!’squeals Krissi Murison, deputy editor of NME, hopping out of the way to avoid being soaked herself. The beer runs out and I hand out baby wipes to the dripping music fans.
It’s August Bank Holiday weekend and I’m at Reading Festival with IPC’s music weekly, NME, following Murison around as she steps over drunk sunbathers, looking to capture the ‘essence of the weekend’for a cover shot.
Murison, a freelance photographer, and I scour the crowds looking for attractive teenagers that can be coaxed into creating the mood on film. ‘I feel quite bad, they’re going to stink now,’she giggles.
Three groups of sticky teens and 10 cans of Carling later, Murison realises she’s been out in the field far too long, and leaving the photographer to his own devices, we head back to the NME’s hub, a Portacabin set backstage behind the NME signing tent.
NME, which was launched in 1951, is now a recognisable brand at the Carling Weekend and new technology has enabled the magazine to expand its coverage in recent years.
Over the weekend NME has two backstage gossip blogs (one here, one at the parallel Carling event in Leeds) and every band is being reviewed as they play on the Main Stage, the NME/BBC Radio One Stage and the Carling Stage in Leeds. Writers use their BlackBerrys to email copy to a sub, who then puts it on a blog so the minute a band walks off a stage, it’s on NME.com.
‘It’s brilliant,’explains Murison, who’s been with NME four years and deputy editor since earlier this year. ‘It used to be that you’d trudge back here, write it up and trudge back, and you wouldn’t have time to go to the toilet or eat your lunch or anything, so now from there they can actually write it and when the band stops, they can have a bit of a breather.”
The team in the London office is currently working on last night’s copy and sending over several different pages to Murison for inspection. With 25 pages of coverage to finish before they rock up back at the office on Tuesday, there’s little time for sleep.
‘Every time we say ‘never again’ and by the time the festival season comes round again you’ve forgotten just how little sleep you had and you’re ready to go again,’she says.
Dan Silver, associate editor, joins us, and explains how the team normally ‘rock up with a hangover at midday, bleary eyed and smelling faintly of alcohol’for an editorial meeting and work late into the night, not leaving the backstage office until around 3am.
‘You’ve got to be really adaptable and make sure everyone is in good contact. We have two sites to coordinate; it can be a logistical nightmare,’he says. ‘It’s a full-on operation, like organising a small army.”
Last year there was a big emphasis on blogging, but this time around NME has concentrated on what news editor Paul Stokes says is the strongest thing NME.com can do. ‘I’ve gone from doing 16 stories across the weekend last year to aiming to get about 70 to 90 stories up this weekend over the three days,’he says.
Stokes has been with NME for two years, before that freelancing for a number of titles including Q and Kerrang!. The urgency of the internet means there is less time spent getting drunk in the VIP area with bands for this generation of festival writers.
‘It’s gone from being a bit of a jolly to actually proper work, which can be hard when you know there are loads of people having a good time. I have friends who worked for NME in the Nineties and they could literally turn up on the Friday, get horrendously drunk and then come back on the Monday and work out what they’re going to write about it.”
There’s not much time for banter and Stokes heads back to work as The Twang swagger out of the back of the signing tent to be grabbed by an NME video journalist for a quick interview against a makeshift backdrop of NME cow stickers stuck randomly on the fence.
NME started doing festival video in 2001. Back then it would go to every festival and do news bulletins, even though it was on narrowband. NME has become much more of a multimedia operation over the past few years, and this festival season it has posted more than 100 videos since the start of the summer – aiming to put up 10 a day when out in the field.
Phil Wallis, senior digital producer for Ignite at IPC, explains why video is so important to NME. ‘We get places other people don’t, and our video coverage does reflect that. It brings home what it’s like being at a festival.
‘NME.com is very famous for news (and pictures) as it happens, and we wanted the video to reflect that as much as possible. Instead of putting it up two or three days later, we approached it with ‘this is NME and NME is in the field’ so the video has to go up while we’re in the field.”
Up in Leeds, NME’s Too Much Information video blogger Dan Martin is taking his own spin on the festival, and down in Reading, Wallis has three freelance video journalists with him doing professional video – offering a variety of video coverage that’s all edited onsite and posted on YouTube with NME TV (a specially designed facility that allows larger and longer clips to be posted) and embedded on the NME site.
The videos include backstage footage and interviews offering insight into the bands’ weekend (what they’ve seen, what they’ve eaten, who they love), and quickfire Q&As (tent or caravan, early to bed or party late).
Conor McNicholas, editor of NME, explains that the combination of technology allowing them to run a virtual office from the festival, and his team, frees up his time over the weekend. When he started five years ago he would often shuttle back to the office to check pages.
‘We’ve built such a talented team that I can pretty much leave them to it and know all will be good. The secret to turning around live coverage from a festival like this is planning.”
Now when McNicholas is on site he has four roles: troubleshooting, making industry contacts, the cover (‘I still retain ownership of that”) and watching bands – looking out for who they should be investing space in the magazine for in the future.
It’s been a great weekend so far, he says, the weather making a huge difference. ‘The [bad] weather makes it more difficult, but it’s one of those things where the readers don’t care how difficult it is for us, so whatever goes on you have to deliver the goods.”
At the Carling Weekend, NME has a media partnership, but at Glastonbury it doesn’t, and is forced then to operate more of a guerrilla operation.
This can have its advantages. Two years ago when the torrential rain saw half the campsite float away the whole of the BBC was taken out for about four hours and anyone with any official connection was dead in the water, but NME had been forced to operate independently, and had brought its own PC coach with 12 PCs built into it and its own internet connection.
‘For about three hours on that Friday morning, when it was one of the biggest stories in the country, we were the only ones able to upload photographs, even beyond what the BBC was able to do,’says McNicholas. ‘We were getting all the traffic and it made a huge difference.”
The popularity of the NME website is constantly growing, here and abroad, and has been branded the biggest commercial editorial music website in Europe.
‘We’ve got to a limit with what we can deliver with the mag. Innovations recently have been about letting the online services breathe and changing the nature of what we put in the magazine as a result.
‘Previously our festival coverage was trying to review all of the bands that played, basic music journalism, but it’s just kind of pointless, we were never able to review every band and there were two sites – it was always going to be a second-class service.
‘The job of the magazine now is to deliver context, humour, analysis and event reporting. It’s about playing to the strengths of the magazine, delivering colour texture and depth, and the website gives a volume of information.”
The realisation that technology was going to completely change festival coverage came for McNicholas at Reading last year when dreary emo offering My Chemical Romance, went on stage and got bottled horrendously (the crowds at the Carling Weekend are notorious for this).
‘While it was going on, I was writing a blog entry on my BlackBerry. I then emailed it to my Gmail account, was able to rush to the Portacabin, copy and paste it into our CMS and I had the blog entry of the bottling online before the gig was finished.
‘That has to be the future of the way we do our coverage,’McNicholas says.
On that note, he announces he’s off to catch what’s left of the bands, and realising I’m
backstage, I sneak off to behave like a shameful groupie behind the NME/BBCRadio One Stage, where The View are headlining, passing a couple of weary looking NME staffers on my way.