How the NME found its highest-ever readership and a new lease of life after print

NME editor Charlotte Gunn, centre, with her team of eight full-time staff plus two freelancers

Eight months after being read the last rites by media pundits, the NME is seeing record online traffic and is on track to beat its profit targets this year.

The sudden closure of the fabled music magazine’s print edition in March spawned countless obituaries declaring RIP to NME. But, under the editorship of Charlotte Gunn, the now digital-only title is pulling in new readers and rekindling some of the editorial qualities that made it a must-read for generations of young music lovers since its launch in 1952.

“When the mag closed, we had a real rethink of the brand, what it stood it for and how we can continue to attract young digital-savvy audiences,” Gunn tells The Drum.

“We've focused a lot more on opinion pieces and long reads. We've gone back to doing more reviews, which NME was known for and trusted for throughout its history. I think digital often gets thought of as the poor relation of print, but we've gone back to traditional journalistic practices. The NME always had a strong opinion – [so we said] let's make sure that's prevalent again. Let's get people talking. That's what we were always best at.”

The NME’s firebrand voice had been all but extinguished in the print edition’s latter-day incarnation as a please-all freesheet. Owner TI Media putting it out of its misery may have been considered a harbinger of doom for the music press at the time, but for Gunn and her team it has been a liberation.

“The cost of printing and distributing that mag in those volumes every week just wasn't viable any more. From the moment we closed the print mag we were a profitable business again. So while I don't think anybody wanted to see that happen, it made sense.

“It's felt quite freeing in a way. There were a lot of restrictions having to hand out a product that had to appeal to people on the tube as well as students – the distribution model meant it needed to be all things to all people. Page restrictions meant we were doing a handful of reviews every week whereas now we have the ability to do many more. And it was harder to have a voice and opinion, but now we can take a few more risks.”

The challenge for Gunn, who was promoted from digital editor to editor when NME went online-only, has been to define what kind of voice it should have in an age when music discovery owes as much to algorithms as anoraks. “A lot of people have this memory of NME as their bible of information when they were young – it certainly was that for me – and it's hard to have that same purpose in a digital age when information is so readily available.”

Gunn’s NME seeks to reflect that “people’s tastes are a lot broader today and genres are less well-defined”, which means the NME of 2018 is not the guitar music almanac it once was. “We still always will champion good new guitar bands because that's in our DNA, but we're aware that people have broader tastes these days so will cover some pop when we think it's good and feels cool and relevant, we'll cover rap music, grime…”

The thought of a ‘poppier’ NME will make purists bristle. As Gunn recently alluded to on Twitter, barely a week seems to pass without an elder statesman of rock-writing declaring today’s NME to be a shadow of its Nick Kent or Paul Morley heyday. But the NME isn’t for them. It’s for the young. Just as it was in whatever era you want to call its halcyon days.

“We have always been a youth publication. The bands and the music we've written about have changed because otherwise it would be horribly out of touch. I can totally see why people feel the way they do about it, but equally if it had stayed the same it would be ludicrous. It would be a different title and there are many titles doing that exact job.”

Gunn admits that the constant carping about the NME’s glory days can be frustrating, but she hopes a new generation of readers will come to feel as attached to the magazine as those who still reminisce about its supposed 70s and 80s vintage eras.

“It was always the magazine that meant the most to me growing up. I bought my first gig tickets through the back pages and learnt about my favourite bands who weren't really represented elsewhere. So yes, I feel the weight of it, but it's such a privilege to be at the helm of it and starting to shape what it looks like in 2018.

“While it can get frustrating, it's amazing that it's such an emotive brand and people have such a strong connection to it. Really, we're just trying to bring that to a whole generation of new music lovers and hope they form the same connection with it that people have done in the past.”

The early signs are encouraging for Gunn’s new-look NME, which is now reaching 16.5 million unique users a month – the highest readership in the website’s 21-year lifespan. A new video strategy – prizing longer form interviews with A-list talent over the minute-and-a-half long clips that once predominated its YouTube channel – is also paying off: in September, NME recorded 13m watched minutes from 4.4m views, double its previous best month.

These are high returns for a team of only eight full-time staff, supplemented by news freelancers, and a validation of Gunn’s determination to milk as much material as possible from NME’s “world-class” access to stars. An interview with a major band or artist will now typically begin with a half-hour on-camera interview, which can then be turned into a written feature as well as being pulled for news lines.

This approach is also reaping rewards financially, according to Gunn. “We're ahead of target this year for our profit and our cost base is good.” And while the NME may have closed its magazine, it hasn’t retreated into the digital world altogether. Gunn says she is exploring the possibility of doing more live events to add to its centrepiece annual NME Awards.

“The story in March was that NME had died, but it's healthier and stronger than it's ever been,” she says. “Hopefully people will see that and stop writing annoying articles.”

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