Every single week since buying my first copy of Smash Hits, I’d walk into the newsagents a little lighter in the pocket, and leave weighed down with music magazines and weeklies.
From the stalwarts (Q, Melody Maker, NME, Rolling Stone) to the more obscure titles (Circus, Select, Vox), my Leaving Cert year wasn’t spent reading about trigonometry or Sean O’Casey, but Blur, Pearl Jam and REM. I was giddy, and almost sick to my stomach with envy, as journalists jetted around the world, hanging extensively with their rock and pop idols. They had a ringside seat to the Bacchanalia, and they often delivered their dispatches from there with an arched eyebrow and a lyrical flourish. I vowed I’d become a music journalist one day, and even though every soul in school laughed at the idea, it eventually came to pass.
By the time I reached my dream in the early Noughties, music journalism wasn’t what it once was. There were still tour buses, backstage chats and colourful tales of craziness, but access to big-name artists was being curtailed. Encounters with our musical idols were reduced to round-table interviews; 20-minute pockets of inane chat with artists who were media trained to the point of blandness. We certainly didn’t become friends with any of them, as the old guard seemed to.
In any case, it all rushed back to me this week when I heard that Q Magazine, the monthly glossy once touted as a ‘Smash Hits for grown-ups’, was winding down its publication. Launched in 1986, the magazine will release a commemorative issue on July 28, running some of its biggest features and interviews.
“The pandemic did for us and there was nothing more to it than that,” its editor Ted Kessler tweeted earlier this week.
But the thing is, Q, and music journalism in a wider sense, is definitely the victim of a changing music industry and a culture unrecognisable to what it was during the magazine’s heyday.
“It’s like your favourite pub closing,” Today FM presenter/musician Paul McLoone observes. “I was the perfect age for Q; I grew up reading Smash Hits and Q retained that irreverence. They loved music and rockstars, but they weren’t afraid to take the piss and poke fun. It certainly wasn’t just a vehicle to sell records.”
Like most of us, McLoone read the music press for many reasons. There was a sense of belonging to a certain tribe (though, McLoone admits, he was more of a ‘floating voter’), but it was also about finding out about the characters of musicians, and learning what to buy.
“Q was quite on the money with all that stuff, and as the first big monthly, it felt more all-encompassing,” recalls McLoone.
Similarly enamoured with the music press as a teen, Phil Udell went on to write for Hot Press, before striking out and founding the Irish monthly magazine, State, in 2008.
“We were on the cusp of change even then,” Udell recalls. “When we started State, we always dreamed of producing our own physical magazine.”
Yet even in State’s early days, the age-old experience of hanging with rockstars for days at a time, Almost Famous-style, was coming to a close.
“For our first issue we had the chance to do a face-to-face with REM, but no one would pay for that kind of stuff anymore,” recalls Udell. In the end, a writer in New York did the story for us.”
“When we started, there was a 50/50 split on whether we should even have a website,” Udell recalls.
It’s no secret that the internet has taken over the job of the music press in many ways. Q, famously, was slow to adapt to new media, and there’s a sense that many of the music magazines missed the change to stake their land online. Where decades ago youngsters would devour the press, now social media is leading many young music fans to the music they love.
“You’d buy the NME on a Wednesday and buy a record on the strength of what someone had written about it, without even hearing it,” says Udell. “These writers were having to paint a picture and create an image in someone’s mind about what a record sounds like. Thanks to technology, that has largely done.”
Ask most teens about where they hear about new music, and TikTok and Snapchat feature heavily in their replies. And when a direct conversation with Billie Eilish or Dua Lipa is merely a tweet away, the music journalist becomes even more redundant. McLoone believes that there are still pockets of youngsters who are every bit as enamoured of music and good writing as their predecessors were.
“There’s a definite sense that music journalism has become less important,” McLoone surmises. “From a radio perspective though, I get a sense of a certain type of fandom. I know it’s not gone; I know they’re still out there, but it’s much less visible. Less visible to me at any rate, and that’s no bad thing. Perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.”