Music news as we know it today developed out of the early magazines that caught onto the growth of the popular music industry early on in the 20th Century. Melody Maker was one of the first, introducing itself in 1926 (around the same time that the first electric guitars and amplifiers began to emerge) and targeting musicians. However, as music became more and more popular the music magazines of the day began to target the general public and the introduction of new, rival magazines hit the shelves.
The 1950s is when the real battle started with Melody Maker going head to head with the new kids in town, the NME, an amalgamation of previous titles Musical Express and Accordion Weekly by new owner and music promoter Maurice Kinn. Previously more interested in jazz, Melody Maker was a late convert to the advent of rock and roll, but as the sixties swung in favour of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the ground was set for big readership figures for both publications.
The 1960s also saw the coming of more politicised voices to the publication of music news with the launch of the Berkley Barb in 1965 and Rolling Stone in 1967. Criticism of the Vietnamese war, the publication of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the counterculture revolution of the 1960s sat next to The Beatles, Jimmy Hendrix and Jim Morrison cover stories.
This political edge to music publication didn’t reach the British music news until the late 1970s with the dawning of the age of punk. However, the early 70s saw the introduction of a new rival, Sounds, which quickly became one of the three music weekly magazines to generate good levels of readership. It’s edge came from its ability to see the credibility of new musical movements like Punk early on.
The 1980s would see a mixed bag of journalism in the music industry, with the hip-hop wars affecting the NME and a more populist standpoint reigning at Melody Maker until its intellectual renaissance in 1986. However, it would be the 90s that would see the story of modern British music journalism come to a head. The rise of Britpop and the introduction & success of monthly magazines Q (1986) and Mojo (1993) left Melody Maker without a clear audience or direction, and so in 2000 is ceased publication, merging with its long time rival NME, while Sounds bit the dust nearly a decade earlier in 1991.
The 2000s were left to NME and despite its ropey start to the decade, it would eventually find its footing again with bands like White Stripes, The Strokes and The Libertines. However, with readership dropping fast to just over a tenth of its hey-day 300,000 circulation, publications like NME have pumped significant investment into their online music news to compensate.
With the arrival of a new decade, it’s hard to say that any of the remaining music magazines are doing anything particularly trailblazing, but then neither is the music industry as a whole. With the nation locked into the X-Factor culture, genuinely credible new music often finds it difficult to break out of the underground world that it too often resides. The death of Top of the Pops in 2006 meant that the only music to be played on terrestrial television in the UK during prime time viewing was based around one talent contest or another. With circulation figures so low, maybe it’s time for the icons of music news to take back what they have spent decades helping to create.