You gotta wonder how many more indignities NME can stand. Once the market-leader in alternative music cool (it could justifiably claim this title up till the mid-to-late-90s), it now appears so clueless that somehow great big gaffs like sticking a pic of Alanis Morissette over a review of the new album by singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (I've just read that title a few times and it still makes no sense) get past its subs. They don't even look alike, apart from both being female.
Pretty sad, but worse is the almost-apology the mag was forced to make in the same week to living perma-sulk Morrissey, following a court ruling. The singer issued a libel writ following a 2007 interview which he claims made him look racist - not the first time he has accused NME of that. I say almost-apology because the mag neatly side-stepped saying sorry outright, instead apologising for the 'misunderstanding' and clarifying that it definitely didn't think he was a big old racist.
It's telling how widely these two stories were reported. It definitely feels like the once great mag is entering something like a death-spiral, battling increasing irrelevance, dwindling sales and a pretty indifferent market. The general perception is that the mag is long past its peak. Last year, the Guardian reported the dramatic fall in its circulation (although other IPC titles suffered smaller losses): http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/aug/18/nme-circulation-falls?CMP=twt_fd
Although recently-departed editor Krissi Murison launched something of a valiant fight to win back the mag's credibility after the unrelenting shallowness of the Conor McNicholas years, the increasing attempts to encroach on the heritage rock market seem doomed to failure. Mojo and Uncut have got that demographic locked down, just as Kerrang! has the metal and emo market zipped up, so there's no point NME sticking My Chemical Romance on the cover and pretending it loves them. Most metal kids loathe NME anyway, so they're not likely to make the leap to permanent readers. It's this sort of cluelessness and shortsightedness which has done for the mag since the 'new rock revolution' thing died a sad death.
In a way, the failing fortunes of Morrissey and the NME feel interlinked. Moz, as the mag has freely admitted, was the quintessential NME cover star. He reflected its core readerships' tastes, likes and dislikes as no musician before or since. NME launched him towards stardom and then, with Britpop rearing its triumphalist head in the mid-90s, slew him as a creditable artist in a way which was probably justified (those racism accusations again) but arrogantly executed and positively Oedipal in its symbolism.
The magazine had killed its greatest icon, and the singer scorned his former champion. But both needed the other more then they could let on, not just to boost respective sales, but as comforting fellow travelers in a world and industry where the music they loved looked increasingly like an irrelevance. In a way, NME got its karmic retribution for this act of betrayal as Britpop quickly became a case of diminishing returns, its hastily appointed new icons proved to be dull, ephemeral or unwilling and once solid titles like Melody Maker faltered and closed.
Chastened, NME narrowed its focus accordingly and even made up with Moz in the mid-00s, at which point both the mag and the singer were enjoying short-lived revivals. Now that it looks like a long slide into irrelevance is irrevesable for Morrissey and the NME, it has to be said the main problem for both is basically the same: the dire quality of recent output. The strong hits for NME.com show that the hunger for the music it traditionally covers is still there. But why would you bother to fork out for a mag which is little more than a glossy comic with irrelevant, regurgitated lists every other week? Why keep the faith when you can get all your reviews and music news for free online?
Morrissey recently, and with characteristic melodrama, announced his retirement. The likelihood of him sticking to his promise is, well, dubious. But unless something radical is done, and soon, NME, at least in its magazine form, may well be making the same announcement.