NME is too iconic to fade away - you don’t get positive results without positive change


Last week NME announced it was going free, giving it a new mass audience and anchoring the printed title as an important part of the iconic magazine’s future. For a brand so rich in history it’s refreshing to see that with some strategic thought Time Inc. UK (NME’s publisher) have found an angle to not only preserve the rich history of the brand in its printed form but also allow it to be profitable into the future.

NME Publishing

The long-standing surviving member of a generation, a legend in its own right

NME was one of a generation of weekly music titles along with Sounds and Melody Maker (Melody Maker and NME merged in 2000 and Sounds closed its doors in 91) that flourished in the pre-internet era. 

NME really developed its status as an opinion leader in rock and indie music through strong, opinionated editorial and critique in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1970s they gave the Sex Pistols their first coverage with a review of a live show at the iconic Marquee Club in London. 

In the 1980s they wrote articles about what the music was about - youth issues, war, love and loss. In ‘86 they released the C86 compilation cassette which was referred to by Bob Stanley, a journalist at Melody Maker and founding member of St Etienne as ‘the beginning of indie music’.

In the ‘90s they were instrumental in the rise and fall of Britpop and fuelling the Blur vs Oasis conflict. In 2001 they gave away a free MP3 of The Strokes debut smash ‘Last Nite’ on nme.com a week before ‘Is This It’ hit the stores, going on to give indie guitar music a whole new life (was that really 14 years ago? Feels like yesterday). 

NME would go on to enthusiastically promote similar sounding English bands (think The Libertines and Arctic Monkeys) and be heavily associated with this aesthetic and sound throughout the noughties. You can see just by highlighting a few pivotal moments in history how much of an icon NME is to British music.

You don’t get positive results without positive change

The iconic magazine will move to a free distribution model from September 2015, increasing the circulation from 15,000 to 300,000 as Time Inc. UK looks to breathe new commercial life into the title. 

NME issues will be handed out at London tube stations and selected retailers, as well as to students at university campuses nationally. There will also be an increase in its content output and range with more coverage of film and other artistic pursuits, new original and curated content appearing across all platforms and an expansion of live events. NME.com will also get an overhaul with more video franchises and greater engagement with users on new social platforms. 

We have seen similar commercial turns in the publishing market successfully implemented by Time Out and the Evening Standard, which went free in 2012 and 2009 respectively. These moves saw Time Out increase circulation from 52,000 to 308,512 and the Standard from 235,000 to 887,000. The Evening Standard recently announced a third consecutive year of profit.

NME’s current circulation of circa 15,000 and a cover price of L2.50, results in L39K per week in sales revenue. Taking into account the fact that the ad space in the magazine is going to be more valuable than it is today, they could need to sell an additional eight pages of advertising a week to recoup the loss from making the magazine free. This should be achievable given the much broader appeal to advertisers they will now have and the existing relationships Time Inc. UK has with the major media agency groups. This is a very basic analysis but shows the potential and it is safe to say the move should make the magazine more profitable.

A new mass audience

Since the ABC audit was introduced, NME’s circulation peaked at 121,001 in H2 1990 - they are now looking at more than doubling that peak in print. More audience is great for advertisers but it could easily dilute influence with young opinion leaders.

NME is a major player and influencer in the music sphere today and nme.com already has a healthy audience, with 435,000 unique users every month - more than double that of other indie tastemakers such as pitchfork.com which has 205,000. Pitchfork focuses on new music and indie – while the NME brand has gone more ‘pop’ with articles about Foo Fighters, Mumford and Sons and Taylor Swift alongside more art/pop bands like Tame Impala, and less prominent promotion of more up and coming bands. 

So a move to a mass audience makes complete sense; however getting the editorial tone right on the back of this change is going to be very important in maintaining and increasing influence with music consumers – particularly as strong relevant editorial is part of the iconic history of the brand and one of its USPs.

What does this say about the future of magazines?

As the leader of Sonic Youth Thurston Moore once said: ‘People see rock and roll as youth culture.’ But the younger consumer today has grown up with free online content and a generally lower level of consumption of printed media. Media brands need to change with the times. 

Getting the magazine into the hands of more consumers also plays to the key traditional strengths of magazines in touch and tangibility as well as trust. 

This year Crowd DNA and Magnetic re-affirmed some things we inherently already knew about print’s tangibility in their Rules of Attraction study. Of 15,000 people surveyed, 9/10 agreed it just feels better holding a printed copy of a magazine and 9/10 also agreed they prefer printed versions. A qualitative study also returned responses suggesting the reader might be more likely to trust and believe opinion and articles in printed form. 

Giving the free magazine to consumers who might not have held a printed copy of NME before, is going to be not only massively positive for NME but perhaps for other magazines too – it could have a spillover effect into younger consumers’ perception of and likelihood to engage with other printed media in the future.

NME will also be looking at this as an opportunity to drive new consumers to online and social channels and have them further engage with content; this is a great example of print continuing to function as an anchor role for the brand.

At the end of the day

This is a positive change; it recognises there is still an audience to reach for advertisers in print, it recognises an angle to grow revenue, it recognises traditional strengths of print in touch and tangibility, it recognises print can be used to increase engagement with other channels and it recognises the wonderfully rich history of the brand. At the end of the day it would have been a real real shame if the printed edition had faded away, condemned to saying goodnight in a fading light, instead of seeing a new clear blue morning.

NME Publishing
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