Music magazine NME turns 60 this year and NME.com has just turned 15, attracting 300,000 readers a day. Luke Lewis has been editor of the site for the past 18 months and has overseen its iOS and Spotify apps.
Here he explains how social media is a powerful driver for sharing music content, why journalists have to accept they are no longer gatekeepers and why building copy around SEO is “a race to the bottom”. By Eamonn Forde.
You just launched your own Spotify app. Why do that now?
“This year we have been experimenting with things and the most recent is the new Spotify app. Playlists work well for us as they are social. You can ask your followers what the most epic song outros are, they send it a bunch of ideas and then you create a playlist and get feedback.
It’s a really collaborative thing. Launching the Spotify app made sense. You have to be where your users are. Spotify has 20m users and is growing.”
You had a deal with We7 before that.
“It wasn’t a commercial relationship but it suited both of us. We got the free streaming music on our site and they got the visibility. It helped boost their search results as they were on every page of NME.com. It wasn’t a particularly close relationship. We just did it to our mutual benefit. Now We7 has mutated into something else and has been bought by Tesco so we don’t have a relationship with them. Spotify are the market leaders in streaming.”
How does the app process work with Spotify?
‘We built the app and they proved the platform upon which developers can build. It was quite a long process and they [Spotify] were quite demanding. They were perfectionist in what they approve. They have top developers so their standards are quite high.”
Is there a split in reader types between print and online?
“They are quite similar audiences – aged 16-24. But the issues of the magazine that sell best are generally more heritage acts such as Joy Division and The Smiths. These are acts that grew up with the NME and we have this archive we can draw on.
Britpop was a boom time for guitar bands and in the mid-Noughties there was another boom with bands like Razorlight and The Killers. We are not in a boom time for guitar music now. That’s obvious. The result of that is that there just isn’t as big a pool of exciting bands to put on the cover.”
How does NME.com manage that co-existence with the print version?
“We have a much broader remit as NME.com is a mainstream entertainment site. The site is news-driven and the majority of traffic comes via the news section. Most of the articles are short-form and it’s quite fast-paced. Where the magazine comes in is with much longer pieces that are analytical.
We don’t do many features on NME.com and there is very little on there that is longer than 500 words. That’s a conscious decision about how the two different parts of NME work. We don’t publish much online from the magazine – which is quite unusual; 80-90% of what is in the magazine each week never goes online. That’s a conscious decision to try and preserve those magazine sales.”
How do you deal with the fact readers can discover bands just as quickly as you?
“We redesigned the online reviews section last year and it’s very much based on user ratings and the social interaction that goes on underneath that review. Instead of saying an album is 8/10, we actively solicit users to leave their own ratings underneath and then we display in the reviews section that albums that are getting the most heat among our users.
It’s a conversation about these new bands and new albums rather than our monolithic editorial judgement. It would be stupid not to grasp the central fact that the internet has undercut the authority of the music journalist. Online you have this huge audience that you can engage with and make these discoveries together.”
Is the way music is being released online undermining the authority of the press?
“Your pride takes a bit of a knock as a music journalist as often we don’t get sent stuff before our users. For example, with the new Blur tracks [in early July], our users heard them at the same time we did as they were streamed via Twitter. There is so much you can do on social media with that. You can really harness the excitement around that moment of everyone hearing it together.”
Then there was Radiohead with In Rainbows and King Of Limbs.
“Some of the most fun days I’ve ever had at NME are when those sort of things happen. It’s quite common now. If we are doing an instant first listen, we call it that and then we’ll say to pick up the magazine on Wednesday for the definitive review. I think people get that distinction.
Putting reviews online brings a different element to it as you get the comments and you soon discover that the 3/10 review that you’ve given has enraged millions on the internet and you get hundreds of comments of people calling you a dickhead. It makes the experience of reviewing music rather different.”
You’re not just more accountable – you’re accountable in real time.
“It hasn’t deterred us from having opinions but it means you have to have a much thicker skin. Previously on a magazine you could do the letters page and magisterially think of funny quips and sit back. There was no comeback as you were the funny guy with all the power. Now the power is all with the readers.
NME, perhaps more than any other title, does attract a lot of venom. If you slag off someone like Pendulum it immediately becomes much less funny when you get flamed by a thousand people on Twitter. It doesn’t defang you as you still have to have those opinions. Some people aren’t cut out for it and don’t want to be slagged off in their line of work which is fair enough.”
Many commentators online have two default starting positions: 1) you’re wrong; and 2) you’re an idiot.
“The internet is a vicious place. When journalists whinge about the comments below their articles there is something very arrogant about that. People have a right to comment and they have a right to call you a dickhead if that’s what they want to do. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be writing online.
Increasingly the role of the music journalist is to be one competing voice among many and joining in the cacophony. You are hopefully moving it forward in a useful and erudite way, but you are one voice among many and you have to accept that.”
How are you developing the online community?
“The focus for the rest of this year is taking our community more seriously and policing and looking after it. At the moment, we are pretty much letting them get on with it but we definitely ought to give that side of things a bit more love.”
What would that involve?
“Things can be derailed by negativity. We should comment more ourselves and push things in a more constructive direction. There’s another side to it and our focus is also to have a closer relationship with our users. We are developing a Facebook app that will enable use to take people’s Facebook ‘Like’ data and then recommend them stories and new bands based on their tastes.
But you don’t want to go too far down the road of personalisation otherwise people will lose the serendipity element. They like to be surprised and sometimes they just like us to tell them what to read.”
What sites do you look to for best practice?
“I mostly look at US sites. Things like the AV Club and Stereogum. Their communities drive a lot of comments and they are mostly pretty intelligent. They have built that up over 10 years or more of focusing on their community.
A lot of people are very down on Huffington Post but their community elements and commenting systems are astonishing. The best stuff that happens on the Huffington Post happens below the articles. The articles can be a bit crap but the community is amazing.”
How are elbo.ws and Hype Machine changing discovery?
“You have to accept that things have changed. You could discover 20 new bands an hour on the Hype Machine. One of the problems with blog culture is that it is relentless and there’s not that much of a hierarchy. We did think about NME creating a music blog network, like an umbrella, so there would be an endless ticker of new band recommendations that we would pull in from other music bloggers. But when we looked into it, it seemed like too much and we have taken a step back from it.
We redesigned the new music section recently to try and calm that down by being a bit more of a filter and never recommending more than one new band a day. Anything more than that is ludicrous as the more new music you recommend, the more the value of it diminishes.
We introduced a stamp of approval that we only give to one track and one album a week. That was definitely trying to take some of the noise out of that experience. How many new bands do you need to hear right now?”
Is SEO still important?
“Search accounts for about 40% of our traffic and social accounts for almost as much. But the difference is that attracting people to your site via social media is that those are real users. A user that comes to NME.com via Facebook will view on average five pages per visit. One who comes via Google views only one or two pages.
The Facebook user is more valuable to us so we don’t give SEO that much thought really. It seems like an outmoded way of doing things and is a race to the bottom. If everybody is using the same keywords and if everyone’s headlines are the same, it’s not the route to a great site that people want to come back to every day. The views we value are the ones who come every day.”
What community tools work best for you?
“In terms of traffic, Facebook drives the most by far [15% of total traffic]. Twitter is increasingly a bigger apart of the pie [10% of total traffic]. Sometimes StumbleUpon drives more traffic than Twitter but you don’t have to do that much on it as it happens organically so you don’t have to look after ‘the StumbleUpon community’.
The traffic from Tumblr is not huge but the people who come via Tumblr view a lot of pages – more than any other traffic source. I am not sure why that is. Our community on Tumblr is a bit more indie. You’ll not get much response on Tumblr if you post something about Lady Gaga but on Facebook you might. On Twitter it goes mental.”
In this pursuit of the new in terms of digital platforms, how do you know what to prioritise?
“As soon as you start using these things, you can see immediately if your audience gives a shit or not. We tried Pinterest and to this day we have never had more than 100 referrals from it. Our users were just not on it. Google+ was the same thing. We started using Instagram to post photos from photoshoots and festivals and instantly people were engaging with and there was loads of activity and feedback. Some platforms connect well with our audience and some don’t.”
Why is that? Google+ and Ping never took off.
“With Google+, you feel that you ought to maintain it as a platform but there is just no engagement whatsoever. So it’s kind of a chore at the moment. But in terms of using digital tools, it is a bit of a golden age because a lot of start-ups will bend over backwards to help you. They will do everything for free and don’t want any money because they’ve got all this VC funding.
A company like Webdoc works well and we were able to use it for a section on the best tracks of the 1990s where users would post rich media comments. They did it all for us for free as they wanted the exposure.
Another thing I like to use is image-tagging tool ThingLink. We can’t afford to do flash animations and interactive graphics so this is a free way of doing that so you can take any image and annotate it by putting YouTube and SoundCloud clips on it. It’s a great tool and doesn’t cost us anything because ThingLink just want the exposure. My favourite element of the job is finding these digital tools and playing around with them.”
Labels get attacked for not “getting” digital. Is that right?
“I always defend labels. Labels do an amazing job of funding new music and taking a risk on new music. They always took massive risks on music and they still do. You start to appreciate the courage of that approach more with the rise of tech giants like Apple. Apple makes billions from music via iTunes but puts nothing back, although they do provide a shop window that sells a lot of music.
My feeling is that if you profit that handsomely from music you also have a duty to plough some of that profit back into the grassroots. That’s what record labels have done this past half century. Now the profits in music are going to the likes of Apple but they are not flowing back into signing new talent.”
Does being signed or unsigned make a difference to what acts you cover?
“It’s immaterial. If it’s good, we’ll discover it. To build an audience or get in festival line-ups or becoming a festival headline, you need a label ecosystem to get to that point. I don’t think there are any examples of bands getting to the point where they are headlining festivals without a record label backing them.”
Are you readers as interesting in technology as they are in music?
“We don’t do a huge amount of it. I write about it as it’s what interests me. Our users are interested in it as far as the technology is useful to them as consumers of music. Writing in a more theoretical way about music wouldn’t be quite right for us. We are experimenting. We are going to start doing technology news as we have partnered with Trusted Reviews and will take some of their gadget and technology news and put it in NME.com and see if there’s an appetite for it.”
Is piracy a divisive topic for your readers?
“It is to an extent but when we write about piracy you tend to bring in that hard-core community on the internet who will just seek out any article of The Pirate Bay and they all come in and start ranting. You get the impression they are not regular users of NME.com. You get a lot of them.
When I write about defending copyright and defending the record label system, instantly a community of people will get wind of it and slag you off [laughs].”