Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

It’s the distribution, stupid

At a lunch with old magazine colleagues, talk turned to the boom years of the eighties and nineties, when launching magazines appeared to be a relatively simple business. The sentimental view of that era is that in those days, the people working on the titles had a uniquely firm hold on the product and had a relationship with the readers which nowadays nobody has. This is an opinion which has much to recommend itself to old soldiers.

However, on this occasion, somebody seated at the table put the contrary view. What made things easy in those days, he said, was the power of distribution. A product reliably delivered to the right point of sale at the right price, promoted by the right marketing, backed up by the right gifts and lures; that’s what made for success. The difficulty with today is it’s no longer about distribution. Web delivery means that everybody’s now got access to the same means of distribution. It’s the same in the music business. The power used to reside with the people who controlled the manufacture and had the trucks and retailers. Once that’s taken away, lots of habits are taken away with it.

NME begins free distribution from this month, which feels like a watershed moment. In the seventies and eighties, the hundreds of thousands of music fans who read the NME were perfectly attuned to its distribution. They were members of a vast underground society, known to each other and largely unrecognised by everyone else. You could get your NME in the West End of London at lunchtime on a Wednesday and it was available in the rest of the country the morning after. If it didn’t turn up on time, then the news, interviews and gossip within its pages would have no other way of being distributed to its intended readership.

As a free title, NME will have to re-establish itself by occupying time rather than delivering information. It will have to establish new habits to supplant the old ones. Giving it away in large numbers to the right kind of people won’t be easy. Whereas every man under the age of forty getting on an underground train in the morning is in the market for at least some of what ShortList or Sport offers and is quite happy to beguile away a journey in reading some of it, the same thing doesn’t readily apply to discursive interviews with edgy rock bands.

In the days when you began with the product, which is not a word anyone would ever have applied to NME, the advertisers adjusted themselves to the distribution that product managed to achieve. Nowadays, when you are forced to start with the size of audience it takes to get the advertisers interested, the distribution dictates the product. It’s hard to be both distinctive and mass. That’s the challenge.

Don’t know how lucky they are!

There are many in the magazine business who value the BBC. There are even some who see it as such a shining example of all that is good and true that they can’t bring themselves to question anything it does. Then there are a few who think it could do with taking down a peg or two. What all these groups have in common is limited patience for a Corporation whose high-ups so readily cry the poverty and uncertainty tale as they are doing at the moment as they once again come under government scrutiny. The one incalculable benefit the BBC have is they know what their revenues are going to be this year and the year after that. Out here in the real world, that’s just a feverish dream. Every time a senior figure at the BBC complains that they’re having to do more with less, it only serves to remind the people outside the Corporation that they’re having to do the same thing without the support of a hypothecated tax. They would do well to pipe down. People within the BBC only see its weaknesses; outside we only see its strengths.


In publicising her autobiography, Reckless, Chrissie Hynde does the most reckless thing a person can do in this day and age. She makes some remarks about women’s dress and sexual violence which would have been thought entirely unremarkable if they had been given voice at a parents evening at any school up and down the country and suddenly finds herself being not so much engaged in discussion as shouted down. Hynde’s thoughts aren’t received in the spirit in which they were intended, as another contribution to a debate which is likely to go on. They’re seized on and angrily re-presented as a dangerous deviation from the norm which it’s somehow injurious for us to be exposed to, as if we were children not capable of reaching a view based on our experience of life, as if ideas this seditious shouldn’t be allowed to poison the atmosphere.

Social media is the perfect medium for wooly censoriousness. When firestorms like this one erupt - and nowadays there is one almost every day - it encourages people to add their voices to what they see as being The Right Side, to add their little digital placard saying “against this sort of thing” even if they haven’t worked out what sort of thing they are for. The desire to quell an opinion that you don’t happen to share and at the same time to question the bona fides of the person who expresses it represents the worst aspects of sixth form priggishness. It must have come as a shock to Chrissie Hynde.

I particularly sympathise with her because she and I share a generation. When we were growing up in the 50s and early 60s whole areas of human life - sex, religion, money, patriotism - were things you weren’t allowed to talk about. They were simply not permitted to be mentioned in polite society. I’ve been reminded of this era recently while reading Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories by Thomas Grant. These are the memoirs of a leading advocate involved in the court cases around Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Mouth and Oral Sex in the 60s and 70s, when the publishing industry was seen in many circles as hastening the decline and fall of civilisation merely by allowing a few paperbacks to be published. It was the fact that they were paperbacks that was the crux of the problem. Too cheap, too available, too apt to get into the wrong hands.

These were the days when public debate was policed by elderly judges who would sometimes demonstrate how out of touch they were by asking “is this the kind of book you would want your wife or servant to read?” Suddenly, from the early seventies onwards, Chrissie Hynde and I found ourselves in a world where you were allowed to say anything. The maddest ideas were given voice during that time without anybody coming to harm. We thought this was the new state of affairs. We thought it would last forever. How wrong we turned out to be. Now, thanks to social media, we seem to have been landed back in a time where once more the open landscape of human discourse is criss-crossed by fences beyond which it is considered dangerous to stray. And this time, the people policing the fences are the sons and daughters of the very liberals who once sat on the other side holding up the banners calling for free speech. Nobody wants to expose themselves to the disapproval of youth. Hence what they do is edit themselves before they speak and if in doubt they don’t speak at all. The idea that people daren’t say what they think for fear of the disapproval and condemnation of people they have never met on social media hints at a form of censorship more insidious than anything Goebbels had in mind.

Only human after all

It’s months now since the launch of the Apple watch and I’ve yet to meet somebody wearing one. Obviously this is not a scientific survey but I think it’s fair to assume that demand for the product has not yet taken the company by surprise. The rush for Apple products is usually so great that it gets on the news and creates its own demand. At the same time, Ian Rogers, the Apple executive who was in charge of the launch of their radio services, has announced that he’s leaving the company less than three months after the service launched. Again this doesn’t prove anything but it seems reasonable to assume that if the service were about to announce dramatic success in turning samplers into subscribers, he wouldn’t be leaving without making sure that some of the glory stuck to him. What’s striking about Apple’s success is that it was based around a couple of products going far better than anyone could possibly have dreamed and seems to have happened without any prior market research. That’s the thing about the magic touch. It can depart just as mysteriously as it arrived.