This week the New Musical Express (NME) announced that from September, it will be free. More than 300k copies will be at stations, universities and stores nationwide. The news was received by the media in its usual upbeat way: 'Sad fate for old-school music weekly as NME becomes free sheet', sniffed the Financial Times. Others also suddenly became experts on the music media with headlines including 'the day the music died'.
But are they all in for a very big surprise?
First let's look at the drivers here. NME was originally part of the IPC Media stable of publications. In 2001 IPC was acquired by New York-based publishing company, Time Inc, part of the Time Warner group. Last year, Time Inc was spun off from Time Warner and that's when things started to happen - not all good. I first heard about significant changes back in December when all contributing freelance journalists and photographers working with Time Inc. (UK) Ltd received a letter. The letter stated that if they wanted to continue to contribute work to with Time Inc publications they'd have to sign away their rights to the content.
To many not in the media this might seem like a small thing, but actually it's huge. The fees paid for articles and photos at most publications these days are total pants, so to buy food and pay the mortgage, most freelance journalists and photographers resell their work to other publications. But if you've lost your copyright and it's no longer your intellectual property, then you can't, which is why Time Inc's 'rights-grab' was roundly condemned by the National Union of Journalists and the British Press Photographers' Association.
This was the first indication that things were going to change dramatically at the NME. Roll on a few months and we've got a free paper. Like many in the media I hate 'rights-grabs' but they are slowly becoming a standard feature of the new media age. And there's no turning back. They are a product of conveyer-belt news; of Twitter, citizen journalism and the huge amount of rolling content now needed to create a successful online publication. And going free is the ultimate and logical next step for any ruthless competitor.
Ask the London Evening Standard.
The Standard went free in 2009. At the time the Financial Times declared that: 'Freesheet no longer viable model for papers selling news'. They were so very wrong. In October 2010, the Evening Standard won the Media Brand of the Year and the Grand Prix Gold awards. The judges said, "[the Standard has] quite simply ... stunned the market. Not just for the act of going free, but because editorial quality has been maintained, circulation has almost trebled and advertisers have responded favourably. Here is a media brand restored to health."
Free works because it turns the print newspaper model on its head. Rather than selling the paper to the readers, they're selling the readers to the advertisers. As the old adage goes: 'If it's free, you are the product'. The London Evening Standard is a success because rather than having a rapidly dwindling circulation, it can now sell shedloads of advertising on the back of its monster circulation. In fact, if I was Katherine Viner, the new editor of the Guardian - a great but notoriously underselling paper - I'd be thinking along just these lines right now.
Turning back to the NME, will it work for them?
They're not a daily newspaper but a niche weekly magazine assumed by all to appeal only to a young demographic? Many of the commentariat think not. And there is certainly an argument that NME's readership is teenagers who, unlike Evening Standard fans, are not going to pick up a free copy to read on their commute to work. But in my view, a free NME will be a very attractive commute-read for anyone of any age who is still even remotely interested in music. But why am I so sure about this?
If they can do as they promise, widen their offering with more tech news, gaming, fashion, lifestyle and politics, then I wouldn't be at all surprised to see people in their 30s, 40s and 50s regularly pick up a copy of NME. After all, the top story on NME.com today was 'New Order confirm UK tour dates' - New Order have not been really big since Blue Monday in 1988. In fact, alongside today's top artists, the NME front page is littered with the greats of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s including Blur, Oasis, Franz Ferdinand, Amy Winehouse, The Chemical Brothers, and even legendary bands from the 60s and 70s including The Beatles and The Grateful Dead get a look in. Bands from the 80s and 90s still play sell out tours on a regular basis in the UK. This is a fact. So with a warm market, if they add a hint of politics and tech news, let's face it, who wouldn't pick up a free copy of NME?