FEATURE - Rocking to a new tune

FEATURE - Rocking to a new tune

Radical revamps in the music magazine market are not taken lightly, but even bibles need updating. The NME completed its transformation from inky, weekly newspaper to glossy magazine last month.

The paper is now scarcely recognisable compared to its format of five years ago, when it and stablemate and competitor Melody Maker jostled for position as the weekly portal to new rock music.

But Melody Maker is long dead and few of the major players in the music market five years ago have survived. Titles including Sounds, Select, Kingsize, Vox and Muzik have closed their doors, their particular groove having faded and died.

In their place are new upstarts, including Bang, X-Ray and Word, which have created a flurry of excitement in the music market as they attempt to hit the right note among a new breed of music consumers.

In the past few years, the music industry has been forced to change to meet the new demands of consumers who have discovered innovative ways of getting their hands on their product. The reverence which was previously placed on a new release has been replaced by an accessible, throwaway attitude to music, as downloads replace singles and mobile phone ringtones prop up the ailing market.

Record companies have struggled to keep up, weighed down by copyright and piracy issues, as well as falling CD sales.

The magazines which chronicle musical trends have undergone a similar shift, extending their brands to deal with the plethora of touchpoints through which consumers access music.

Tim Schoonmaker, chief executive of Emap Performance, which publishes Kerrang!, Q and Mojo, says: "Ten years ago, music magazines were the most important portal to their particular world, whether it be dance, rock or metal. So Kerrang! was the portal to the world of Kerrang!. Now it is a completely different place.

"There are loads of ways to get access to that world and the magazine is no longer the gatekeeper to the planet."

Music magazines' job as filter, then, has taken high priority and their brands stretched to accommodate the new ways in which their readers consume and, interact with, music.

The NME was the news authority on pop and contained the UK's only pop chart in the '60s. Now it puts out news via its website and allows readers to dictate its chart. Emap has extended its music brands onto digital television and radio to catch its audience as it spreads.

Setting trends But the latest shifts are only part of a long history of music magazines, whose job it is to keep up with the trends of the music-loving population.

Emap's Kerrang! rode the wave of the interest in nu-metal in recent years, but is now witnessing declining sales as readers move onto the next big thing.

The NME saw its circulation rise above 100,000 per week during the Britpop era, but sales now hover about the 70,000 mark.

Keeping abreast of the changing trends of a fickle youth requires a music publisher to be fleet of foot, but the audience they attract is a valuable one to advertisers.

In recent times, the mainstay advertising of the music magazine market - music and film products - has been replaced by a wave of lifestyle brands wanting to tap into the key youth market.

"Mainstream music magazines are obsessed with the number of 15 to 24-year-olds reading their titles to satisfy lifestyle advertisers who want access to that market," says Jerry Perkins from independent magazine company Development Hell, which publishes Word, targeting the so-called "dad rock" market.

Big brands such as Carling, which gave up its sport sponsorship for music, now buy into music festivals and events - major European music festivals are full of branded tents as advertisers try to get a piece of music's cool.

But "buying" music is not the way to do it, according to Adam Dewhurst, brand and marketing director at Swinstead Publishing, which publishes Sleazenation, Jockey Slut and X-Ray.

"Often brands get into music in an ill-considered way.

They see the respect young people have for rock stars and want that respect and kudos for their own market," he says.

This is mirrored in the music publishing world, he says, where the big players in the publishing industry chase high sales at the expense of key niche audiences.

"There is a lack of understanding in the marketplace and youth is represented in a ridiculous way. The big boys make it look difficult to stay cool. They want to have increased sales figures, but maintain kudos - but you can't have niche and sell 200,000 copies," he says.

When dance music burst onto the scene, he argues, big magazine publishers jumped on the most mainstream aspects of the movement, targeting Cream recruits with titles such as Muzik and Mixmag. When that scene faded, so too did their titles.

Swinstead's dance-focused titles Sleazenation and Jockey Slut have maintained their niche audiences by keeping close to the scene.

"If these magazines were really tapped into the industry, they would be thriving," he says.

Swinstead Publishing's new title X-Ray - a contract title for alternative radio station Xfm - comes complete with a CD each week and has sales in the region of 25,000.

Another new entrant, Future Publishing's Bang, "exploded" into the market in March to tap into renewed interest in guitar-based bands, but has found it difficult to negotiate the cool of niche with the circulation hits of mainstream and is now tampering with the format to attract bigger sales.

But Perkins says that any new entrants into the market have to bring something new and he believes that chasing the fads of the fickle youth won't provide return in the music magazine market.

"The editorial tone of many titles is 15 to 24-year-olds.

They should be less obsessed with being cool and cynical and go back to the idea that there are two types of music - good and bad - and one type of music fan - ageless.

"An 18 to 24-year-old's relationship with music is not the same as that of a baby boomer. They download tracks and burn CDs and listen to music in a disposable format and them dispose of it.

"It is the older end of the market who are downloading to sample and it is they who are still going out and buying CDs and attending gigs."

Wrinkly rockers Indeed, Perkins' theory is held up by circulation trends, which are moving towards the older end of the market - IPC's Uncut put on 26% year on year in the latest results from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, while Emap's Mojo was up three per cent.

As publishers - including Emap, IPC and Dennis - seek out the next big music publishing phenomenon, they may find safety and profits - if not cool - at the wrinkly end of the market.