In a polemical post-mortem for his industry, the former Q editor charts the highs and lows of once-mighty magazines
When Ted Kessler was appointed editor of the music magazine Q in 2017, he told the higher-ups that he didn’t want to be the last person to hold that role. “Don’t be silly,” was the reaction. The magazine had stabilised. There were other titles in its owner’s stable that were more vulnerable.
By 2020, and after a protracted death rattle, Kessler was told that Q was to fold after 34 years. The writing had been on the wall for months, what with the meetings about meetings, the blue-sky brainstorming and the muttering about numbers (not insignificant, seeing as Q’s circulation had slid from a 1990s high of 200,000 to 28,000).
When it came to keeping Q alive, it wasn’t for want of trying on the part of a number of executives: one ‘consultant’ came up with a number of wheezes to keep the brand afloat, as Kessler details: “Ready Steady Q (pop stars cook us their favourite dish); Through the Q-Hole (pop stars let us into their homes and readers would have to guess who would live in a house like this); Q’s Style Challenge: we ask pop stars to make over their rivals in a brand-new stage outfit!”
While there is no shortage of books that celebrate the glory of music journalism, Kessler’s book is arguably one of the first to offer a post-mortem of sorts. At the outset, he cites the “content abyss” — the insatiable pit of reviews and interviews that could be found online — as sounding the death knell for print music media.
“The sheer volume of free gear being bunged down it impinged noticeably upon Q,” he writes. “On one hand, we hated that there was so much undeserving nonsense covered online. But on the other, we increasingly found ourselves being gazumped for exclusives with big (and sometimes not so big) artists.”
Kessler offers a considered take on how music journalism found itself falling from its glorious apex to the present day. In a smooth blend of the personal and polemical, he maps out the co-ordinates using moments from his own music career. Starting as a freelancer for Lime Lizard in 1990, he first saw his name in print on the newsstand of the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore, and his fate was sealed.
He moved to the NME at the height of its Britpop-era might, becoming live-reviews editor, then features editor. His career came of age in a time when access to rock stars was more generous than it is now; the junkets were luxuriant, far-flung and extravagant. Kessler details trips to Cuba to hang with the Happy Mondays and Manic Street Preachers; to Seattle to eat seafood with a post-break-up Florence Welch; to Atlanta to interview a box-fresh troubadour Jeff Buckley, and to Los Angeles to shadow a post-9/11 version of the Strokes.
Of Oasis, he writes: “You could hear the lineage immediately, but despite those echoes they appeared entirely contemporary. Their performance was wordless, practically motionless, yet every sense was overwhelmed by the noise with which these poker-faced Mancunians faced you down.”
As Kessler oscillates from one impressive rock-star encounter to the next, the book’s sense of place is admirable — from the singular energy of Britpop-era Camden to the warren-like streets of Soho, where much of the British music press operated.
On the inner workings of the NME, he reveals: “Historically, the paper could shake off any cultural lethargy by engineering scenes around new acts. All they ever needed was two or three bands in vaguely geographic, sonic and sartorial proximity to each other. Baggy, shoegazers, Grebo, the New Wave of New Wave — each made-up movement provided weeks of copy and momentum, delivered by youthful exuberance of new bands overjoyed to be recognised in print.”
Kessler charts his formative years, growing up in London, then transplanting to the Parisian suburbs as a teen. His move there has more than a top note of intrigue. The family lived far from the city centre because Kessler’s journalist father had a second secret family in the Left Bank. That said, the reader spends a beat too long in the Parisian banlieues with Kessler, who routinely gets duffed up, has his Doc Martens stolen and devours his weekly delivery of the NME, before moving back to London.
Elsewhere, Kessler details the unusual experience of being a music magazine editor while also being the older brother of a rock star (Interpol’s Daniel Kessler). At the turn of the century, the then-unknown musician sends his older brother a demo EP. “Flustered, I put the CDs back into the mailer for later and walked down the corridor to the bedroom, where I changed into my running gear,” Kessler writes. “I didn’t have time for this right now, for my brother’s band. I was just too busy.” In time, Interpol would become unignorable, leading to a situation where Kessler became occasionally conflicted about covering the band (while also forced to deny any claims of nepotism).
Ultimately, Paper Cuts reads as a Valentine to an industry and magazine that, far from burning out spectacularly, faded away at the hands of British publisher bigwigs: “guy[s] who smelt like a Range Rover and looked as if they sold country estates for Savills”.
For any music fan, the last 30 years was a rollicking time. For Kessler, infinitely more so.
Music: Paper Cuts by Ted Kessler
White Rabbit, 320 pages, hardcover €24.50; e-book £8.99