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Journalism

Copyright © 2001 SAGE Publications


(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi)
Vol. 2(1): 23–43 [1464-8849(200104)2:1;23–43;016527]

ARTICLE

From polyglottism to branding


On the decline of personality journalism in the
British music press

j Eamonn Forde
University of Westminster

ABSTRACT

The popular music press in the UK has undergone a number of important changes
since the mid-1990s. These changes are due to a variety of factors including the
emergence and proliferation of high-production glossy niched monthly titles, the frag-
mentation and over-saturation of the market for consumer music titles, the bureau-
cratic restructuring of music magazines, the occupational re-evaluation of the music
journalism profession and an increasingly PR-led industry climate. What all this has
meant is that the space devoted to, and the access required for, ‘immersion reporting’
– the New Journalism touchstone which informed the music press through the 1970s
and 1980s – has been greatly reduced, resulting in a refocusing of resources and the
once autonomous ‘personality writer’ being superseded by a single branded magazine
identity. The article draws on interviews with music journalists, editors, editors-in-chief
and press officers as well as participant observation in music magazines, all conducted
as part of the author’s PhD research at the University of Westminster.
KEY WORDS j arts criticism j consumer magazines j journalism j magazine

publishing j music critics j music press j popular music journalism

Introduction*

The role and function of popular music journalism has been much overlooked
in both media studies and popular music studies and its rise, since the late-
1960s, as a cultural and journalistic form has been traced by academics only
elliptically. The purpose of this article is to consider the professional and
organizational factors behind the form’s evolution and eventual decline in the
1990s, locating how the professional and stylistic freedom afforded New
Journalism-influenced writers in the 1970s and 1980s has been overturned in
the late-1990s by dramatic and complex shifts in working and employment
24 Journalism 2(1)

conditions in the major magazine-publishing corporations operating in an


uncertain and over-populated market.

Popular music journalism’s analytic and stylistic evolution

Stylistically and ideologically, the New Journalism (NJ) ideal of ‘immersion


reporting’, the concept of the personality writer (Jones, 1992; Pauly, 1990;
Wolfe and Johnson, 1975), the literary techniques of the beat writers, the
gonzo ideology of the writer as agent provocateur (typified by the writings of
Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs, De Rogatis, 2000)1 and the analytic US
rock journalism of Paul Williams, Jon Landau and Robert Christgau were all
embraced by and fused within the pages of the UK rock press in the early
1970s. Alan Smith replaced Andy Gray as editor of the New Musical Express
(NME) in 1970 and, along with Roy Carr and Nick Logan, brought about an
editorial overhaul of the paper, taking it away from an agenda ‘steeped in show
business tradition’ (Maconie, 1992: 29) into one oriented towards the counter-
culture. Smith recruited writers such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray
from the underground press as a means of countering fallen sales2 and gaining
taxonomic credibility. As Frith (1983) notes, ‘their immediate effect was on the
paper’s style . . . Their writing was hip and knowledgeable, their cynicism
about the rock business was up-front’ (p. 172). Regular and prominent journal-
istic bylines serve to increase newsroom and organizational status for indi-
vidual writers, allowing them to become increasingly discursive in their work
(Tunstall, 1971). In the music press of the mid-1970s, this discursive autonomy
resulted in what I term a ‘polyglottic identity’ (literally translating as ‘many
tongues’) for the music weeklies where the idiosyncratic voices, styles and
opinions of the different writers scrambled for attention and domination.
Holding the personalism of NJ as a touchstone, features were written in
the first person with the writer centrally positioned as participant observer/
initiator, communicating to the reader as much about the writer as it did about
the subject. Often photographs of the writers would accompany features and
their names would appear on the front cover, thereby creating a situation
where headlines and bylines fused. The high levels of newsroom autonomy
afforded to these writers allowed them to develop wider cultural profiles and
media careers and contemporary rock writers continue to cite them as influ-
ences and talk of them in terms of a rock writer lineage (Lester, 1994; Maconie,
1992; Toynbee, 1993).
Allan Jones (now the editor of Uncut and former Melody Maker (MM) editor)
talks of Kent and Murray as unavoidable stylistic and occupational influences
when he began as a music journalist in 1974. He said:
Forde From polyglottism to branding 25

Unusually for the music press at the time, they seemed to have a really vivid
point of view and they were very funny about what they didn’t like and they
could be very, very critical . . . They were very influential figures at the time
because they were almost the first rock writers-as-personalities over here which
they picked up from Bangs. And put a lot of themselves into the pieces that
they wrote. Which is what I tried to do. I wanted to put myself in the front-line.
To be a direct line of communication with the reader and say ‘This is what
it was like’ and . . . write in an almost kind of documentary style. (Interview,
November 1998)

Polyglottism’s ascendancy throughout the 1970s reached its apex during


the punk era with writers such as Danny Baker, Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill
joining the music press. Parsons and Burchill were recruited to the NME after
the paper ran its famous ‘Two Hip Young Gunslingers Wanted’ ad in 1976
(Burchill, 1998; Savage, 1991) when Nick Logan took over as editor. While this
was a period during which the personality of the writer was that of an
‘interventionist’ and self-mythologizer, the 1980s saw a minor break from the
dominant stance as writers began to veer from NJ towards the use of more
explicit academic thought. Writers such as Ian Penman, Paul Morley, Simon
Reynolds and Pat Kane all drew on, and referenced heavily, Cultural Studies
writers and post-structuralists such as Foucault and Barthes. Features evolved
into sprawling essays where musical textures and musicians were decoded,
deciphered and deconstructed. Their concern was how musical texts com-
municated at the points of circulation and reception (with a focus on polysemic
meaning systems) rather than on music as the reflection of the personality
and identity of the musician; something which the personality writers had
attempted to both understand and (more importantly) mythologize. While
this represented a clear stylistic and conceptual departure from NJ’s personal-
ism, its effect was not so great as to overturn its hegemony. This wave of
writers were, in fact, entirely reliant on the editorial and management climate
ushered in by the more explicit personality writers: a climate which both
tolerated and encouraged articles to run over 15,000 words and where the
name (and perceived cultural importance) of the writer was explicitly sold on
the inkies’3 covers alongside that of the artists or themes they grappled with.

Increased competition and the music magazine market

In polyglottism’s early-1970s nascency the British popular music magazine


market was dominated by the three ‘inkies’: Sounds (which started in 1972,
only to fold in 1990), NME (1952) and Melody Maker (MM) (1926–2000). By the
late-1990s, the very nature and the musical/cultural agendas of the music
press4 had splintered to the extent that now over 20 national titles jostle for a
26 Journalism 2(1)

market share, carving the readership into ever-more specific niches, while
wider cultural changes have seen rock and pop become key to the agendas of
broadsheet and tabloid newspapers (Rimmer, 1985; Johnson, 1998; MacArthur,
1999). The traditional music press no longer has a monopoly on the subject.
For the popular music press, the process of increased competition that pro-
pelled the fragmentation of the market can be historically traced to the period
1986–97, book-ended symbolically by the establishment, respectively, of Q
and Ministry. This period, in publishing terms, saw the rise in market import-
ance of Emap Metro,5 a publishing wing of the Emap organization. Emap
Metro not only brought much greater competition into the market, but also
fundamentally reshaped the music magazine publishing arena and oriented it
towards glossy, high-production, niche titles. Its two earliest successes were the
fortnightly pop title Smash Hits (1979) and the monthly adult rock title Q
(1986), both of which are in the top three selling music titles (along with Top
of the Pops) in 2000 with sales of 250,388 and 196,099 respectively (McGeever,
2000: 3).
It is the publishing in late-1997 of Ministry and the speed with which it
asserted its market position (by mid-1999 becoming the UK’s biggest selling
dance title and the fifth biggest selling music title) which most symbolizes the
direction in which the publishing market has moved since the mid-1980s.
Ministry was launched as part of the Ministry of Sound’s organizational rise
and move into global branding opportunities and, as a magazine, it taps into
wider cultural and lifestyle publishing trends in a post-’lads’ mag’ market. Its
monthly sales in mid-1999 were 80,476, a 31.1 percent year-on-year sales rise
that made it almost unique in a market where the majority of consumer music
titles recorded slides (Media Week, 20 August 1999: 30).
The consumer music titles market is currently characterized by a virtual
publishing duopoly. In 2000, Emap Performance owned six of the top 12
selling consumer music titles6 while IPC owned four.7 The BBC’s Top of the Pops
has, by far, dominated monthly sales in recent years selling 389,235 in 2000
(McGeever, 2000: 3). Intense title rivalry cuts alongside intense publisher
rivalry, characterizing the current dynamic with smaller publishing companies
such as DMC (publishers of 7), Nexus (DJ) and Future (Metal Hammer) operat-
ing with a limited number of titles within particular niche market areas. These
smaller companies do not have the financial resources to compete on the same
level as IPC or Emap with the set-up and launch costs of a new title in the
current market estimated at around £1 million (Gibson, 1999). Indeed, as
Schiller (1989) notes, high-level entry costs work as a constraint against small
companies entering the market and competing on a level playing field. Despite
the dominance, however, of the big players, there remains a degree of scope for
smaller publishing organizations to operate, but often this is in the role of
Forde From polyglottism to branding 27

‘wildcatters’ (Schiller, 1989). These smaller companies are regarded as being


much more flexible than the larger publishing monoliths which are less able
to respond to changes in the market (Jordans, 1986). The wildcatters are key in
the locating and nurturing of profitable market niches but their titles may be
bought up by the major publishers when their market stability is assured. For
example, Emap eventually bought Select from United Newspapers8 as well as
Mixmag from DMC in a deal estimated at £4 million (Jaynes, 1996). Ministry
Magazines became the latest company to adopt these practices with the
acquisition of Hip-Hop Connection from Future Publishing (Press Gazette, 19
November 1999: 10).
The subsequent ‘fragmentation of the field of “opinion” into many
smaller sub-areas’ (Tunstall, 1983: 106) in the 1980s came as the result of
publishers exploiting niche markets for their advertisers (Théberge, 1991), who
demanded not only large but specific readerships (Jones, 1993). The implica-
tion of this increase in competition has been a decrease in market share with
the majority of music titles experiencing sliding sales (Media Week, 20 August
1999: 30) and publishers searching for ways to stabilize their circulation
figures. Negus (1992: 68) suggests this growth and sub-specialization of music
publications have been ‘facilitated by demographic changes in the constitu-
tion of the total market for pop music’. Popular music is no longer the preserve
of a youth or young adult audience. By the mid-1980s, a new, middle-aged
demographic (who had, effectively, grown up with rock ’n’ roll) had become
core to the marketing patterns of the music industry (propelled, most tellingly,
by the CD re-issue boom). It was this demographic (readers who had ‘grown
out’ of the weekly turn-over of the inkies but who had not totally lost interest
in new music) which was explicitly courted by the launching of Q in 1986.

The changing publishing market and stylistic shifts

As the inkies pursued their agenda of polyglottism and stylistic diversity


throughout the 1970s and 1980s a number of concurrent publishing develop-
ments and successes restructured music journalism and began pushing it
towards a new agenda and aesthetic. In 1978, Nick Logan left the editorship
of NME to launch Smash Hits which, by the mid-1980s, stood as a contrast
to the indulgences of the personality writers and the austerity of the ‘post-
structuralists’. Mark Ellen – one of the magazine’s founding team – says that
the editors had all left behind the ‘tedious and rather turgid polytechnic
reasoning to everything’ typical of the inkies, preferring instead to create an
‘incredible, fantasy parallel universe’ where pop stars were approached as
‘cartoon-like creatures’ and their traits taken to the level of hyperbole and
28 Journalism 2(1)

gently lampooned (interview, April 1999). As well as marking an ideological


schism with the weeklies, Smash Hits also marked a leap in stylistic terms and
production values with Allan Jones (then an MM writer) noting that ‘suddenly
you had this glossy, full-colour [title] . . . At a stroke the weeklies looked
incredibly dated. Cumbersome, old things’ (interview, November 1998).
The Smash Hits aesthetic and explicit mainstream orientations were forged
within the central notion that the era of the personality writer had run its
natural course and readers were no longer interested in convoluted and
protracted theorization or partially autobiographical NJ. Mat Snow (then a
contributor to NME, and subsequent editor of Mojo) referred to this stylistic
hegemony in the NME as a form of ‘ersatz intellectuality’, indicating that the
title was (under the editorship of Ian Pye) heavily politically divided with
certain writers exploiting the paper as their own mass-circulation curriculum
vitae to secure jobs on the broadsheets and in the broadcast media (interview,
February 1998). The music press – because no formal training is required9 –
was generally regarded by journalists as a short-term ‘bridging’ career into
the mainstream media, with writers setting a three-year ceiling on their
‘apprenticeship’ there (Burchill, 1998) by using their polyglottic reviews to
gain high-profile journalistic experience and catch the attention of potential
employers. As Bourdieu (1993: 75) argues, critics attempt to make a public
(and professional) name for themselves through the accumulation of a
‘capital of consecration’ over cultural artifacts thereby giving themselves the
power to consecrate objects or persons in order to appropriate the attendant
profits/prestige.
Building on Smash Hits’ market success and emphasis on a clearly defined
and adhered to monoglottic house-style, the mainstream rise of Q since 1986
symbolized the passing of the belief that the music press could hector and
dictate the taste patterns of its readership, placing emphasis on its role as a
branded consumer guide. Its muffling of the discordant polyglottism of the
personality writers and underscoring of the branded monoglottism of the
magazine have been criticized for the introduction of an encroaching corpor-
ate and occupational conservatism into British music journalism and, in so
doing, gelding the iconoclasm of personality writers. Kane (1995) suggests
that Q’s ‘reverential and anodyne’ features simultaneously ushered in and
accelerated the PR culture which depleted both the amount and the type of
access which was intrinsic to ‘immersion reporting’ and the pursuit of person-
ality journalism. Johnson (1996: 12) notes that in ‘reaction to the rampant
egomania and elitism of the music weeklies, the word “I”. . . [was] . . . banned
from the Q lexicon’. Simon Reynolds (1990: 26), a former MM writer, neatly
contextualizes the issues when he argues that Q was
Forde From polyglottism to branding 29

founded on the premise that readers were deserting the music press because they
were alienated by the ‘vicious journalism’ and ‘highbrow pretensions’ that
especially characterised the NME of the early eighties. Q’s success . . . had the
effect of lowering, if not the tone, then the temperature of music journalism
throughout the field. Q’s ‘objectivity’, its non-partisan approach and avoidance
of vehemence, has become the norm, resulting in the virtual extinction of the
confrontation interview and critic-as-star ‘self-indulgence’.

Branding and brand extensions

As the consumer market became over-saturated and fragmented in the 1990s


(Kirkman, 1999), readers became (in publishing argot) increasingly ‘pro-
miscuous’ and ‘grazed’ across the available titles with no sense of direct
affiliation to a single title. As a direct result of these new market conditions
and dynamics, British music magazines in the 1990s went through a dual
process of niche orientation and branding. This involved them identifying
their segment of the market and, through the erection and propagation of a
monoglottic branded identity, direction and aesthetic (achieved primarily
through the constriction of review space and subsequent de-legitimization of
the personality writer), attempting to hold a hegemony over that segment.
Magazines became subjected to increasing bureaucratization, policy orienta-
tion and goal attainment, resulting in a new type of brand-centric music
journalism which marked a significant break from (and overturning of) the
polyglottic personality approach.
Nilson (1998) suggests that the branding of products increases in import-
ance when the market is over-populated as the increase in market competition
results in a decline in product differentiation. He notes that ‘as the tangible
aspects of the product or service are becoming more similar, the intangible
aspects, the abstract values, are increasing in importance’ (Nilson, 1998: 8).
Branding is a step taken by companies to ensure market survival as a ‘strong
brand in a market sector creates barriers to entry. The stronger the brand values
of the leading brands in a sector . . . the more difficult it is for players to enter
the market’ (Nilson, 1998: 9).
NME editor Steve Sutherland supports this when he says:
I think the most important thing I do is to take care of the NME brand and to
ensure that not only does it survive now and do well now and keep to its remit
but also to explore opportunities for that brand to expand. To use the resource
that we have in whatever form it needs to be used in the future. So that’s pretty
much it . . . (Interview, December 1998)

indicating long-term IPC plans to extend this brand name to TV10 and radio
shows (alongside the paper’s website) to ensure that ‘the brand “NME” will
30 Journalism 2(1)

exist . . . in whatever form it needs to evolve’.11 Pan-media brand extensions


have become increasingly central to the marketing strategies of all the major
titles, with Emap investing heavily in QTV (a 24-hour interactive video and
review channel on Sky Digital), Smash Hits TV (a Saturday morning enter-
tainment show on Sky One) (Vernon, 2000), a daily TV show on The Box and
a two-hour radio show broadcast across the Big City Network (itself owned by
Emap) (Addicott, 2000f). In addition to this, Emap has invested an estimated
£4 million in developing and expanding affiliated websites for all its music
titles (Addicott, 2000d: 4). DJ editor, Christopher Mellor, says of his title’s
expansion into branded tours, club nights and a radio show on Atlantic 252:
‘We’re trying to do more things like that. Basically because you have to survive
now. You can’t just be a magazine’ (interview, June 1999).
Building on this, at a BBC Top of the Pops (TOTP) seminar in London (17
August 1999), Chris Cowey, the executive producer of the television show,
spoke in detail of plans to develop and extend the TOTP brand globally. The
Top of the Pops magazine was situated as key to this process, with plans to
launch a ‘localized’ German version of the magazine on the back of the success
of the German TOTP show with the two existing, like their British counterparts
(Handley, 1997), symbiotically. Taking this logic of international branding in a
different direction are the British dance magazines (Ministry, DJ, Muzik and
Mixmag) which are producing free Ibiza-centric issues for distribution to the
clubbers on the island, using the localized versions to build domestic brand-
awareness and loyalty (Marks, 1999). While the various steps towards branding
and product-extensions taken by all these music titles can be seen as ‘adding
new product variants or new products in essentially the same field’ (Randall,
1997: 59), these brand extensions ‘must be consistent with the core values,
strengthen the brand’s differentiation, and offer real consumer benefits’
(Randall, 1997: 67). Branding and brand extensions are undoubtedly the key
market opportunities available to counter the circulation problems facing
magazine publishers and editors in the late 1990s.
Each title has to work through a dual process whereby it clearly brands
itself while subtly distinguishing itself and its market position from that of
rival titles. In doing so, it must attract sufficient like-minded readers to make
the magazine a viable commercial enterprise (Scott, 1999); Mojo being a recent
example of a title which has located a new, post-Q, niche which has corres-
ponded with its readers’ requirements. As the magazine market around it
contracted, Mojo (along with Ministry) has been one of the few titles to see its
ABC figures constantly rise. Branded titles not only face inter-publisher com-
petition, but also intra-publisher competition. The larger publishers offer a
portfolio of titles and, hence, a portfolio of brands; therefore ‘each brand
needs to be managed separately, but they also need to be managed together to
Forde From polyglottism to branding 31

avoid sub-optimisation’ (Randall, 1997: 138). The titles must be arranged and
managed carefully within the current publishing market. Such ‘category man-
agement’ (Randall, 1997: 139) involves the developing of a strategy for the
category as a whole and not for each of the individual title brands separately.
Therefore, to take an example, IPC’s overall strategy for their ‘Music and Sport’
titles is considerably more important in company and market terms than their
strategy for any individual music title which exists within that portfolio. The
first duty of each magazine’s branded identity is to contribute to and support
the branded identity of the portfolio of which it is but one part.

Internal reactions to external pressures

In the increasingly bureaucratized music press, a clear power imbalance has


been imposed through the accentuated hierarchical division between what
Breed (1955) terms ‘executives’ (the publishing directors and marketing
managers who determine long-term policy across their portfolio of titles)
and ‘staffers’ (the reporters, copy-editors and sub-editors whose day-to-day
activities are inscribed within the executives’ strategies). The operational
decisions made by publishing executives (in conjunction with editors-in-chief
and editors) operate covertly and employees become socialized into their
roles, picking up company policy through osmosis and become informed by
(and subsequently internalize) certain premises and assumptions present in
the working environment (Stratton, 1982). The non-revenue goal of individual
journalistic prestige typical of the personality writers and ‘post-structuralist’
waves of staffers and freelancers was slowly abandoned by publishing execu-
tives in the 1990s in favour of an explicit move towards the routinization and
orientation of ‘gatherer’ and desk-bound ‘processor’ roles (Tunstall, 1972)
around title prestige goals with the objective of stabilizing audience and
advertiser revenue.
While policy and professional changes are made by executives in collabora-
tion with editors, the power and autonomy enjoyed by editors is highly
conditional. Major changes in mid-2000 as Emap Metro became Emap
Performance set in motion a set of serious editorial clashes with publishing
executives, resulting in the sacking of Andy Pemberton, editor of Q (the
company’s flagship music title) (Addicott, 2000c). While previously each
magazine within Emap’s music titles portfolio had its own office space and
distinct socio-professional climate, a major restructuring programme meant
they were all moved to the same floor with the intention of editorial teams
pooling resources. This actually served to make magazine teams suspicious of
each other and resentful of their new working structure. Pemberton’s sacking
32 Journalism 2(1)

was seen by employees as symptomatic of the pan-organization worker/


management tensions. ‘The management’s line was that Pemberton lacked
“vision” and was difficult to work with. But rock journalists argue that they are
supposed to be bolshie, rebellious and questioning of authority. “That’s the
whole point and they just don’t get it,” said one’ (Kennedy, 2000: 11). What is
important to note about this is that even magazines’ distinct monoglottic
identities are under threat within increasingly resource- and cost-effective
corporate publishing, possibly setting an industry precedent in the shift from
title-specific monoglottic branding to increased homogenization in pan-
portfolio branding.
Throughout the 1990s, cost-cutting measures were imposed as non-
permanent freelance contracts became the industry norm. Alan Lewis (editor-
in-chief of IPC music titles) says of this explicit programme of organizational
and occupational re-structuring that

most of the people in all . . . [our] . . . offices are subs, designers or section editors
who are responsible for commissioning stuff, getting it in, processing it, putting
it through. The number of people who are simply paid to sit and write is very
small. That’s just a general trend in the industry and certainly we’ve been part of
that. (Interview, March 1999)

Indeed, as Franklin (1997) notes, some 80 percent of UK journalists work on a


de-politicizing freelance or non-permanent contract basis as the balance of
power increasingly tilts in favour of executives. The resultant undermining
of the professional recalcitrance of the polyglottic writer when faced with
executive decisions that work against their occupational interests has brought
about the removal of career security and autonomy that allowed for journal-
istic singularity. It has been superseded by the ‘corporate caution of newswork’
(Pauly, 1990: 111), something that NJ was ideologically opposed to. Steve
Sutherland says of the journalistic and stylistic repercussions of such bureau-
cratic distancing and the erosion of freelancer sovereignty:

It’s not a particularly well-paid job and it’s paid by the print that appears on the
page rather than the time you put in; so the emphasis, if you want to pay your
rent, is to get as much into the paper as quickly as you can. So that’s fairly
detrimental to a well-researched, well-rounded piece. (Interview, December 1998)

The nature of freelance contracts being imposed in 2000 by major pub-


lishers serves to undermine further the already weak position of contributors.
IPC freelancers must sign over copyright of their work to the organization,
while new ‘oppressive contracts’ (Campos, 2000: 6) and employment terms
and conditions introduced by the 365 Corporation resulted in a stand-off
between senior management and journalists. The contracts insisted that the
company owns the copyright on a freelancer’s work, that it could be sig-
Forde From polyglottism to branding 33

nificantly altered and sold on without acknowledging them as the author as


well as imposing ‘an indemnity for libel costs’ (Campos, 2000); 365 manage-
ment stated that the new contracts were necessary to put in place a broad
framework that would allow ‘raw’ freelance copy to be used across multiple
platforms such as the internet, WAP phones and SMS messages. Louise
Fullwood (the company’s legal advisor) suggested that the legal indemnity
clause was imposed to ‘give some sense of editorial responsibility to freelances’
and that in the unlikely case of a libel action arising from published copy the
clause ‘would be there for 365 to take advantage of if it had the inclination’
(quoted in Campos, 2000: 6).
Andrew Mueller (a 365 freelancer opposed to the contract) stated that
when the site was originally launched it was ‘going to be about quality and
had a group of 30 people with good bylines among them, but with this
contract a lot of these people have now drifted away’ (quoted in Campos,
2000: 6). The nature of the contract means that freelancers must be overly
cautious in what they write, effectively snuffing out the polyglottic risk-taking
that was typical of feature and review writing in the 1970s and 1980s. Charles
Shaar Murray stated that polyglottic rock writers in this period were allowed to
be honest in reviews and were under no obligation or pressure to give positive
reviews, suggesting that they ‘despised the record industry, gave not even two
hoots for the sensitivities of our publisher or the profits of their shareholders’
(Murray, 2000: 3). The result of the highly restrictive 365 contracts have meant
that freelancers must be conservative in their writing and former polyglottic
writers must suppress their personalities and idiosyncrasies, knowing their
publishers will not back them up if what they write results in legal action
(having, through the terms of their contracts, effectively absolved themselves
of editorial responsibility).
The models of ‘new wave management’ proposed by bureaucratic theorists
such as Newfield (1995) (in Du Gay, 2000) suggest – in stark contrast to the
Weberian notion of impersonal and hierarchical bureaucratic management –
that businesses need to become like ‘global villages’, where employees feel a
sense of community and belonging. Their work should be seen, not as a ‘pain-
ful obligation’ (Du Gay, 2000: 64), but rather as something that individuals
undertake and feel fulfilled doing within organizations that are flexible and
responsive to change. However, the precedent being set through the imposi-
tion of such employment terms has meant that all sense of ‘community’ and
‘teamwork’ has been removed and polyglottism has become regarded by
editors and executives as a risk rather than a merit. Indeed, as Kanter (1990) (in
Du Gay, 2000) argues, individuals become caught up in the solipsism of their
own career trajectory rather than in the altruism of teamwork.
34 Journalism 2(1)

Reorientation and repositioning

The structural and stylistic consequences of the pressures to adjust to an


uncertain market can be most explicitly seen, since 1997, in IPC’s bureaucratic
refocusing of its key weekly titles. NME was taken to a marginally older
readership and the investment in heat set printing meant the ink no longer
came off on the hands of the reader (as executives feared its archaic print
quality was a key factor in its loss of readers to high-quality glossy titles). MM
took on a stronger pop identity and adopted a more tabloid and ‘info-bite’
approach in an attempt to court a clearly younger readership occupying
the mid-point between Smash Hits and NME (Sullivan, 1998), eventually
becoming a full-colour glossy in October 1999. IPC music titles’ editor-
in-chief, Alan Lewis, says of the explicit economic reasons behind MM’s
restructured aesthetic:

We felt [before the redesign] it was really too close to NME. That didn’t matter
when the scene was healthy. In fact it worked perfectly well for us. But as the
scene became less healthy and there was less advertising about people began to
wonder why we were publishing two titles which essentially had the same agenda
– i.e. indie rock. (Interview, March 1999)

The editor of MM for this market and editorial repositioning, Mark Sutherland,
occupationally sidelined and removed the polyglottic writers from the paper
and his editorial shift in the title’s direction was a cause for internal political
schisms. Several staff members and contributors left in protest at his appoint-
ment, while others followed Allan Jones to the newly launched Uncut. Several
MM freelancers argued their commissioned work dried up because Sutherland
informed them that their polyglottic ideology and professional approach were
‘old school MM’ and unsuited to the title’s redirection. Sutherland recruited
several younger writers and explicitly withheld reviews and features from
those writers inherited from Allan Jones’ editorship who refused to com-
promise their stylistic approach, meaning they had to look to other titles or
careers to make a basic living. A former MM section editor said of the changes
in the paper and the decline of polyglottism and writer autonomy (and the
quality of writing and analysis he felt came with it):

Well, Melody Maker is like a joke now. It’s horrible . . . Now they’re talking down
at people. It’s funny . . . when I was 11 or 12, I was reading Ian MacDonald, this
really dense, verbose . . . work. That’s what you do when you’re 12. You don’t
want to read the fucking Dandy when you’re 12 . . . So for them to put out a
comic with [in faux-excited voice] ‘Wow! Kids! Oh Natalie [Imbruglia]! She’s
sexy!’ That’s really wrong . . . You don’t want someone talking down at you . . .
You want something intelligent, even intellectual I think. (Interview, February
1999)
Forde From polyglottism to branding 35

Sutherland stated that he removed the polyglottic writers from the paper – and
decreased the length of features and reviews – because ‘they were woefully
self-indulgent, they had no idea what a deadline was and wrote far more for
themselves than for the readers’ (quoted in Addicott, 1999b: 7). Confusingly,
however, each week in the paper he runs a photograph and a short biography
of MM staff and contributors as a point of reader identification, despite the fact
that such explicit personalization of writers did not take place under Jones.
Sutherland effectively removed the personality from the journalism and
enforced an increasingly restrictive monoglottic house-style while still seeking
the reader-identification and empathy that came with such writing. The
changeover of freelancers took place over several months as new (increasingly
monoglottic) writers were fore-fronted to the professional and fiscal frustra-
tion of the more established polyglottic writers. Everett True had been acting
editor before Sutherland became editor (being led to believe by IPC executives
that he would become editor) and the appointments he made during his brief
tenure were overturned immediately by Sutherland who insisted that staff
members reapply for the positions they were already occupying, causing
considerable friction within the title. Few polyglottic freelancers remained
more than a few months after Sutherland’s appointment (citing extreme
professional and social incompatibility with the new editor as their reasons for
leaving) and those who remained tailored their copy to such an extent as to be
– as one staff member said of True’s abandoning of his confrontational and
vitriolic writing style – ‘almost unrecognizable’.
In sharp contrast to Sutherland’s agenda, Allan Jones stated that during
the majority of his editorship at MM (1984 until 1997) he did not encourage or
attempt to enforce a rigid and homogenizing house-style, implying that there
was not the same corporate newsroom hierarchy at the paper which is now
increasingly sidelining the opinions of freelancers. With a plethora of voices
discussing music and its inherent polysemic characteristics: ‘there’s not going
to be a consensus. So I thought we should basically build that in as part of
our appeal. This cacophony of voices all wanting to be heard’ (interview,
November 1998). However, he argues that ‘there aren’t those personality
writers that there were even just a few years ago. Perhaps [Taylor] Parkes
being one of the last.’ Parkes clearly wrote from a NJ-influenced perspective
and took pride in the fact that his writing was an obvious point of reader-
identification:

It’s great when you provoke people to feel emotional, whether they really like
what you’ve said or want to kill you as a result. It takes a lot of effort to write and
post a letter to a stranger. If you can blur the boundaries between journalism and
creative writing to the point that you are actually affecting someone, then that’s
something to be proud of. (Quoted in Handley, 1996: 14)
36 Journalism 2(1)

Linking into this, David Stubbs (an Uncut and NME contributor and a
former MM staff writer) says of his contemporary, Simon Reynolds, during this
era: ‘He was writing, unapologetically, as if he was addressing a seminar of post-
graduates and didn’t see any reason to do otherwise. These days there would
be a pressure to adjust according to the market’ (interview, November 1998).
Reynolds is now a contributor to The Wire and its editor, Tony Herrington, says
of his severing of ties with MM when Mark Sutherland became editor: ‘He
refuses to have anything to do with it because he knows that if he writes
anything for them, it’ll either be hacked to death, to turn it into a Melody
Maker piece, or it’ll just be spiked’. Former MM freelancers suggested that their
review copy was substantially re-edited to fit the conservative parameters of
the title’s new house style and this was something they were powerless to
oppose (telephone interview, February 1999).
In a prescient discussion of music journalism’s stylistic evolution and
subsequent monoglottic decline, Parkes (1994) raised a number of important
points in an article written for MM as a reaction to a reader’s letter which
criticized the paper for not producing writers of the calibre of Morley, Bangs or
Kent. Parkes’ central thesis was that there was a clear need for music journalists
to break from (and not be constrained by) the legacy of these writers, but that
an encroaching cultural apathy (detectable in writers, artists and readers) was
pushing the music press away from a position as a polyglottic forum where
ideas and concepts could be debated and worked through by writers who had
distinct and unique writing styles, views and aesthetics. He neatly sums up the
tensions that exist between those writers who wished to build on what the NJ
template proffered (rather than surrendering to it) and market pragmatism and
conservatism which pushes them towards title branding:
Look at it this way: a couple of years back, ‘rock writing’ underwent a contraction
so immense that the entire music press (and ultimately, indirectly, the way the
music we write about is perceived and consumed) had to change shape to
accommodate it. Because nobody was trying for anything much anymore, we all
had to assume that nobody wanted them to; these days (so we’re constantly
assured), no one’s interested in theory, no one’s bothered about ideas – basically,
no one cares what we think. Why should they? It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, boys.
Personally, I can’t agree – but then, fuck, I’m a music critic. I don’t have to buy
the bloody paper. (Parkes, 1994: 46)

The betrayal of NJ: the PR bulwark and the abatement of


immersion reporting

As music titles have multiplied and the publishing market has further frag-
mented, the press officer (as a buffer zone) has become increasingly central in
Forde From polyglottism to branding 37

the adjudicating of journalistic access to artists: the end result has been that
access has exponentially decreased as it has become increasingly more com-
plex and protracted12 to secure. Access is spread much thinner (and has to be
negotiated between press officers and features editors much more) as yet more
titles have entered the market and the wider print media encroach on the
music press’ beat. Press officers quantitatively and qualitatively gatekeep
access to their artists and music journalists are now organizationally and
occupationally distanced from their subjects. NJ writers held the belief that
‘personal involvement and immersion were indispensable to an authentic,
full-blooded account of experience’ (Pauly, 1990: 114). They argued for a need
to be directly connected to the people they wrote about and then to be able
to articulate the nature of this connection to their readers (to experience
vicariously), but such connection is increasingly being subjected to a com-
plex nexus of organizational gatekeeping by ‘career publicists’ (De Rogatis,
2000: 163).
During participant observation (February 1999) at Uncut, Paul Lester (the
music features editor) was negotiating access with Suede’s press officer for an
18-page cover feature on the band (to be published in the May 1999 edition of
the magazine) designed to synchronize with the release of their album, Head
Music. The access he was trying to secure was for Simon Price, an Uncut
contributor who had known the band professionally for seven years and had
been one of their earliest champions. In the end, access for two days (as a face-
to-face interview) was agreed upon and this was considered – in the late-1990s
climate – somewhat exceptional. Duff Battye, press officer at Word of Mouth
(an in-house press division of BMG), echoes this point about the erosion of
‘immersion reporting’ noting that for the Puff Daddy campaign (for the Forever
album) in 1999 ‘journalists would be lucky to get 35–40 minutes’. He states
that The Face was key to the overall Puff Daddy campaign and the access their
writer was granted amounted to spending a day and evening with him in the
States, then following his entourage when he came to London, and finally a
40 minute face-to-face interview. This was supplemented with a photo shoot
in Paris (a European exclusive). ‘But that’s an exceptional case. They had an
amazing amount of access’ (interview, October 1999).
NME editor, Steve Sutherland, neatly summarizes the changing occupa-
tional and organizational conditions and how this works against polyglottic
journalism when he says:

At the moment I don’t think we’re in an era which encourages celebrity writing.
I think people have been discouraged from the self-indulgence that it actually
requires to be a great writer . . . Writers aren’t encouraged . . . to stick their necks
above the parapet. You get one-offs . . . I think it’s a more difficult time to stand
out than it was before. Because I think that these people that we hold dear like
38 Journalism 2(1)

Nick Kent and all that – there weren’t very many people writing in those days so
it was easier to be a star. And also you don’t have the access you used to do. You
can’t go on the road for a week with Led Zeppelin anymore. You can’t go on the
road for a week with any fucker any more. You’re given half an hour and ten
minutes of that is for the photos. So it’s tough. You don’t get the access.
(Interview, December 1998)

Recently there has been a symbolic crossing-over into music journalism


of the Hollywood approach to press management where journalists are
‘screened’ by public relations officers before having access to artists approved
(Hattenstone, 1998). Because they are paid on a word-rate, economic prag-
matism dictates that they cannot challenge such interventionist practices. If
they do, they run the risk of being professionally blacklisted (essentially being
out of a job). In 1998, Q Prime management issued a five-page legal document
to the music press in the UK on behalf of their client, Courtney Love (from the
band Hole). Love, in the promotional build-up to the release of the Celebrity
Skin album, would only agree to interviews with the media if they legally
agreed to the conditions outlined in the document. The conditions included
no discussion of any ‘sensationalized rumors and half-truths regarding
Courtney Love and Hole’ (Q Prime, 1998: 1), Kurt Cobain or the Nick Broom-
field documentary, Kurt and Courtney, unless first raised by Love herself. This
approach was – according to several editors I spoke to who had been faxed the
document – something that Love had carried over into the music industry
from her experiences in Hollywood (having starred in The People vs. Larry
Flynt). Many of the editors refused on principle to sign the document, thereby
scuppering the chance of an interview and possible sales boost for those issues.
The reasoning behind this was that acquiescence would set a precedent for
increased PR interventionism leading into journalistic passivity and com-
pliance in a sanitized promotional drive. Such overt ‘news management
techniques’ (Blumler and Gurevitch, 1997: 127) are not exclusive to arts
journalism and as the professional power of the freelance writer has decreased
throughout print journalism, the power of institutionalized PR as a ‘primary
definer’ (in terms both of a news agenda and the critical discourses within
which artists are discussed) has increased, meaning a depletion of expensive
investigative (Morgan, 2000) and immersion reporting.

Conclusion

While polyglottism and writer autonomy have clearly subsided within the
mainstream music press, it would be erroneous to suggest that they have
evanesced completely and there does remain scope for such a stylistic and
ideological approach at the margins of the publishing sector. The Wire (along
Forde From polyglottism to branding 39

with the Irish music paper, Hot Press) is one of the few remaining music titles
that will occasionally run the name of senior contributors on the cover. The
magazine, due to its pursuit of a left-field musical agenda, believes that it is not
subject to the same commercial pressure that mainstream music titles are. The
magazine’s editor, Tony Herrington, argues that a branded monoglottism in
music journalism is the result of publishers’ bureaucratic readjustments and
concessions to an over-saturated and highly competitive mainstream market-
place. Of The Wire’s polyglottic agenda and identity he says:
Certain writers carry a reputation before them . . . I mean we put David Toop’s
name on the cover . . . Because one of the things we think people read The Wire
for is the quality of the writing. I hope. So that is an issue for us. Whereas, I think,
for other magazines it’s not important. The issues are getting scoops. Getting
exclusives . . . Because now it’s not enough to sell a piece on the journalist itself.
You need to sell it in the most spectacular way you can. Getting the big stories
with the big names. (Interview, November 1998)

Mainstream titles have been forced to reconsider their position within


a shattered publishing topography and to take steps to ensure circulation
buoyancy, yet the short-term stability offered by cover-mounts (Addicott,
1999a, 2000e) has created a misleading gauge of reader loyalty and market
reach/penetration. The weekly music press, it has been suggested, used to
attract a loyal readership, but this has been lost with the rise and proliferation
of glossy monthlies and music titles are finding it increasingly difficult to
attract new readers (Reeves, 1999). This implies the rise of a new cultural
dynamic where individuals are now less interested in both music and in
reading about music, and this is something that Select editor John Harris
supports when he says:
It strikes me that being an outsider, and wanting the badge of difference [that
music magazines give readers] isn’t nearly as resonant a notion within young
people now as it once was. I think young people now are much more conformist
and want to feel included in society much more than they ever did before. And
long-term that probably is a concern [for editors and publishers]. (Interview,
October 1998)

As Bourdieu (1986) argues, cultural critics are often the ideal-typical


readers of their own titles and present a point of cultural identification/
empathy for the average reader. In interviews with journalists, a common
theme raised was that their attraction to the career arose because they were
dedicated and discriminating readers of particular titles and identified with
particular writers’ critical styles and viewpoints. If then, as Harris suggests,
music titles are losing readers because of these wider cultural shifts, their
monoglottic approach also means they are less likely to attract and recruit new
writers from their readership base. Indeed, as Danny Kelly (publisher of
40 Journalism 2(1)

Music365 and former NME and Q editor) notes, the music press no longer
attracts polyglottic writers and its importance as a bridging career into the
wider media has declined dramatically (in Reeves, 1999), thereby resulting in
a never-changing, self-perpetuating monoglottism.
The systematic bureaucratic restructuring of the music press in the light
of increasing market ambiguity has brought about an occupational imbal-
ance between freelance gatherers and processors, the former increasingly de-
democratized, and the latter increasingly central in the promulgation of a rigid
and conservative (corporate) house-style set by executives. Indeed, as Rivers
(1973: 533) notes, the ‘effort to appeal to masses of readers causes many
publications to express fewer editorial attitudes or none at all for fear of
offending readers’. This is undoubtedly true of the popular music press where
it is becoming progressively harder to distinguish the voice of the individual
from the voice of the magazine: in effect the bureaucratic transmutation from
idiosyncratic polyglottism to branded monoglottism.

Notes
* As this article was going to press, it was announced by Emap that Select would cease
publication in December 2000 (Harding, 2000). Shortly after this, IPC announced that
Melody Maker would be absorbed into the NME ‘Superbrand’ and would no longer exist
as a stand-alone publication (Harris, 2000). The closure of both titles was attributed to
a decline in the overall alternative music market.

1 Gonzo is a form of ‘on-the-hoof journalism, in which . . . [the writer] . . . com-


bines moral seriousness with delirious invective, amphetamine urgency and
trickster humour’ (Penman, 2000: 10) of which Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas may be taken as metonymic.
2 The editorial repositioning of NME in early 1972 brought its sales to over 300,000
by May of that year (Maconie, 1992).
3 Thus called because of low printing quality that meant the ink came off on the
readers’ hands.
4 In this section I treat the music press as those papers and magazines which are
wholly (or substantially) devoted to the coverage of popular music. This defini-
tion does not include those magazines or papers that carry small music reviews
principally because music coverage is not their primary objective.
5 East Midland Allied Press. In mid-2000 Emap Metro was re-titled Emap Perform-
ance as the company increased its multi-media ventures into TV, radio and the
internet (Addicott, 2000c).
6 Smash Hits, Q, Select, Mixmag, Mojo and Kerrang!
7 NME, MM, Muzik and Uncut.
8 Emap had rushed out Zig-Zag in 17 weeks to act as a ‘spoiler’ for Select, fearing
that it would take advertising revenue away from Q. Zig-Zag was, however, only
to last a single issue (Reynolds, 1990).
Forde From polyglottism to branding 41

9 The one exception here is the post of news editor where industry-recognized
training is a prerequisite.
10 NMETV (a weekly half-hour magazine show) began a trial eight-week run on
Bravo on 3 November 2000.
11 Sutherland was made ‘NME brand director’ in February 2000 (Addicott, 2000a)
when Ben Knowles replaced him as editor with the explicit task of turning
around falling sales (Addicott, 2000b).
12 One broadsheet journalist stated that it took over 10 months of concerted
negotiation on their part to confirm an interview with a UK solo artist to discuss
his drug problem.

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Biographical note

Eamonn Forde is a PhD student at the University of Westminster. His work focuses
on the popular music press in the UK with particular emphasis on the professional
roles of journalists and their links with record industry press officers. He has taught
on media studies and popular music studies courses at the Universities of Leicester,
Loughborough, Nottingham Trent and Westminster and he is currently a tutor on
the MA in Mass Communications course at the University of Leicester.
Address: CCIS, School of Communication, Design and Media, University of West-
minster, Harrow Campus, Watford Road, Northwick Park, Harrow HA1 3TP, UK.
[email: fordee@westminster.ac.uk]