New Music Editor Bronya Francis interviewed Pat Long about his new book ‘The History Of The NME’, celebrating the 60th anniversary of Britain’s most formidable music paper. Pat is now Digital Content Editor at The Times, but he worked at The NME in the ’00s when everyone worshipped The Strokes and had dodgy nostalgic haircuts. They talked about The NME (clearly), how Long became a music writer, his favourite authors, and the change in how we’ve received music over the years. Read the full interview below, or buy issue 58 of Notion Magazine, which is out now, to read our more concise article on the book.
Planet Notion: How did you get into music writing?
Pat Long: I was the editor of the student paper at UCL, and I always wanted to write about reading music since I started reading the music press. I grew up in a little village in the middle of nowhere and the NME was my lifeline. It also provided a cultural education – at that point, pre-internet, you couldn’t find out about music and movies and that sort of stuff, apart from through the NME or Melody Maker.
These days, it’s easier to find out about new bands through YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. Back then it was totally different; I remember writing to record labels in America to get them to send me records and it would take maybe three months until an album arrived, and now you can get any assets pretty much instantaneously.
PN: What was it like working at NME?
PL: I started freelancing as soon as I left university and I did that for three to four years. Then I got a staff job at NME.
Everyone who is a music journalist aspires to work at NME. It was a really interesting time, because NME had really struggled in the late 1990s after Britpop, because there wasn’t really anything for them to write about. When I joined it was just after the first Strokes EP was released, and they were the perfect NME band because they looked amazing, had great songs, and were recognisably part of the lineage of New York street rock. After that the White Stripes played their first gigs here, and the Arctic Monkeys formed. There was a lot of exciting stuff happening and the NME was at the centre of it all.
I only got a job there because (I don’t know what I was thinking but apparently this is quite a common thing) I sent the editor an email telling him why I thought the NME was shit and what I thought he should do about it. I mean, it was really quite an aggressive email but he liked that and he liked that fact that I cared enough about his paper to want to make it better.
PN: How do you think the magazine coped with its first female editor? [Ed: since this interview took place it was announced that Krissi Murison is leaving her Editorship at NME to take up the position of Features Editor at The Sunday Times]
PL: I think it’s crazy that there is such a fuss about a magazine having a female editor – so many are edited by women now. But when I started there about ten years ago the only women that worked there were picture researchers or secretaries – this is in the 21st century, which is mad. It has always been a male-dominated atmosphere and I’m sure that Krissi the current editor had a really hard time integrating. In 1975 when the music industry was even more dominated by men it would have been a lot worse for women – famously, press officers would send strippers up to the NME office with the latest copies of new albums. So it’s always been a chauvinistic place, but since Krissi’s taken over she’s made a real effort to make it more of a pluralistic paper in terms of the people that work there – look down the masthead and you’ll notice that there are a lot more women staff members, and that can only be a good thing, because as far as I know near enough to half of NME’s readership is female.
PN: One thing I don’t agree with is when music magazines put people who aren’t musicians on the cover. I didn’t quite know how to feel, for example, when The NME put The Inbetweeners on the front of the magazine – more than anything it made me a bit angry.
PL: The thing about The NME is that there are 51 covers a year to fill, and there aren’t always 51 great bands to put on the cover. I would suspect that The Inbetweeners cover would have sold more than if, say, The Vaccines were put on the front. When I was working there, one of the biggest selling issues was the one with The Mighty Boosh on the cover – they sold twice as many copies that any band did. It’s a matter of commercial expediency. Also, I don’t think The NME should just be about music – that would make it boring – it should be about the whole culture that surrounds music, and whatever the readers are interested in.
PN: Which writers do you admire?
PL: I think everyone who started writing for the music press around the time that I did grew up reading Steven Wells who didn’t really like music but just liked causing trouble. He was a legendary writer – hilariously funny and really vitriolic, he would take real pleasure in taking the NME readers’ favourite bands and dismissing them totally. But sometimes it’s good to have your preconceptions about the kind of music that you like challenged.
I’m more interested in writing about the context and the history of music than being a critic, just because I think that you can tell people about lots of new records that they may not have heard about otherwise but ultimately my tastes will be different to your tastes and I can’t convince you to like something if you don’t like it – even the best critic in the world can’t do that. What really good critics can do is to make you reappraise something that you have dismissed previously, and Simon Reynolds is really good at doing that. My favourite book at the moment is by a guy called Alex Ross.
PN: He’s Music Editor at The New Yorker, isn’t he?
PL: Yeah that’s right. Have you read ‘The Rest Is Noise’?
PN: I have it on my shelf, ready to read.
PL: It is massive and took me about a year to get through. It turned me onto so much music that I’d have had no idea that it existed otherwise. He’s a music expert, and he writes a way that’s direct and clear and passionate and explanatory and puts all of this knowledge into context. It’s a best seller and yet it’s a book on twentieth century classical music – loads of people are reading it, talking about it and discovering this music, and I think that’s an amazing achievement. There’s a season inspired by the book that’s being put on at the Royal Festival Hall this summer.
PN: I must go to that… And another thing that’s frustrating me at the moment is the inability to have full access to a band, to spend a lot of time with them to really document their lives. You could find a ten-thousand word piece on a successful artist in Rolling Stone forty years ago but now rare is it that journalists can break out of that thirty-minute interview format.
PL: I can’t think of a single magazine that would run a ten thousand word piece now. A long feature in the NME today would be perhaps a double page spread. I spoke to a guy who went on tour with The Police in 1981 to Japan, Hawaii, the Middle East, Egypt… he went on a world trip with them for four months. Record companies had money to burn back then. That was before you had PRs whose job was to shut things down, to manage the media and make sure that your clients are represented in the best possible light and the way to do that is to restrict access to them. But in the old days the PR’s job was to make it easy for journalists to access their bands.
PN: At the end of last year people were obsessed with talking about the death of guitar music, but it’s clearly not vanished into thin air, it still exists. Why do you think people are focussing on that, and turning it into a negative point?
PL: About five or six years ago, if you turned on Radio 1 in the daytime you would hear a song by an indie band like The Arctic Monkeys or The Kaiser Chiefs; now, you’ll hear someone like David Guetta. Guitar music is out of fashion at the moment but people are still forming bands, buying guitars and playing. The success of the NME correlates with the success of British indie guitar music, and so one of the reasons why the NME isn’t selling many copies at the moment is that there’s no one to write about. There isn’t really an underground any more.
PN: It’s hard for there to be an underground when everything is so accessible on the internet.
PL: The NME was so successful at its peak is because the only way that you could find out about these bands was in the magazine. Now you can find out about new groups anywhere.
PN: Do you think that there’s ever going to be that excitement over music like there was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when pop and rock were first established?
PL: The culture has changed. I was reading something about Harold Pinter who said that his first TV plays in 1963 were shown on BBC1 at prime time and they were watched by 10 million people; not even Eastenders is watched by that number of people now. Everyone wasn’t a fan of Harold Pinter, but there were only two or three channels, whereas now there’s a proliferation of media which means that you don’t have communal cultural events like that before, where everyone comes together and does the same thing at the same time. The Olympics and the World Cup may be exceptions. But certainly with music, you can’t imagine everyone rushing out to buy the latest single by today’s equivalent of The Beatles – that kind of situation won’t arise any more. What’s exciting is that today we live in a much more culturally vibrant place.
PN: But that can be confusing.
PL: So the job of the music journalist in the 21st century is to filter out all the noise and to help people discover the good stuff out of the hundreds and thousands of bands that exist. It’s cheaper and easier to form a band now than it’s ever been – that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better, but there are definitely more of them. Bands don’t make money out of record sales any more, they make money out of sync deals. It’s harder for them to make money now.
PN: And that’s good, right? Because they’re in bands because they like playing in bands and they’re not just in it for the money.
PL: Yeah exactly.
PN: Cool, I think we’ve covered everything. Thanks for talking with me.
PL: No, thank you!