the other kind of industrial

[This post originally went up at my PATREON: subscribers get to read posts and hear podcasts early — and help offset costs and time and help me do more of this kind of thing]

Like many teenagers in the UK 40+ years ago, my non-school culture was basically two things: the music weeklies and strikes. One time my late colleague Steven Wells was reviewing a biography of Richard Branson for NME (Mick Brown’s I assume, published in 1988). “The 70s were a bad time for strikes,” said the book. No! wrote Swellsy, angrily and hilariously, the 70s were a BRILLIANT time for strikes. Management wrong, workers right, the side without resources flexing its collective muscle, the three-day week, no electricity for days on end, no one clears away the rubbish or even the dead… sorry, but for any distrustful, easily distracted young person this was all just great, as well as perfectly and morally correct. The grinding stand-in-the-cold-street banner-waving fact of a strike, the sense of a community re-inventing itself, plus no weekly routine you could entirely rely on. The quotidian could turn topsy-turvy any day now — the world is not what you think it is, in the blink of an eye we can remake it what we will of it.

For more than two months in 1973-74, the newly appointed editor Nick Logan had to put together an issue of NME every week not knowing if it would actually hit the streets. Back when a printer wasn’t just a cranky add-on for your computer, thousands of them were out on strike all across the country [Footnote 1]. At this most militant of moments, Logan’s team was busily changing the model of the rock weekly: writers from the underground press encouraged to slide into this trade pop magazine and invent what would become a new market leader, an engaged, funny, utopian, sceptical rock paper sharply at odds with the mainstream world. Yet even here, on the wildest title, reader loyalty is shored up via continuity: not appearing for several issues is a significant test of that. Yet right here at the dawn of a new dispensation, fully nine weeks went missing. I like that the stoppage didn’t give the incoming readership pause: in the worldview being fashioned, there was somehow already an imagined solidarity to get everyone past quite an obstacle.

In fact 1980 was the first time I noticed a stoppage (I wasn’t yet reading NME at all in 1973, and the three one-week no-shows in 1976 had apparently passed me by). IPC’s NUJ chapel — headed I believe by someone who worked at New Scientist — had come out over freelancer pay, and the paper’s staffers struck in sympathy: no NME for six weeks, a big deal in several ways [2]. Former Oz publisher Felix Dennis put out a spoiler title, New Music News, to pick up readers desperately jonesing for their fix, unable to wait out the dispute in sympathy. It was mostly a mess as I recall, but I was just too loyal an NME reader then to consider myself a fair judge now — and certainly it helped break the habit for some, as people began to shop around [3]. Sounds went all in on its metal coverage at this point for example — NME in 1980 rather disdained metal. The cover of NME‘s back-to-school issue featured Joy Division, and the (belated) news of Ian Curtis’s suicide, which sold all too well. But post-punk was almost by definition a specialised taste, full of unbiddable suspicion about the uses of popularity, and this was the highest circulation would be for some years.

NME’s IPC stablemate was Melody Maker: it too went on strike in 1980. Editor Richard Williams had for two years been repositioning the paper after the hit it had taken from punk, as the most solidly grown-up of the weeklies, serious and genre-pluralist — in fact a major redesign was due, to mark the change. Management wanted him to put out a scab issue; he refused and quit. Instead of grown-up, MM clumsily attempted to consolidate in the glossy new pop market — never previously its strong point — and flailed badly for several seasons [4].

The following year, when Sounds — not an IPC title — went on strike, management did put out a scab issue — with the result that every PR company in town could finally get its most despised acts in the paper, while the editorial team manning the pickets couldn’t stop them. Result: Sounds lost hard-won critical authority. It’s one thing not getting your copy of a Wednesday — quite another getting a copy full of rubbish never meant for you. Readers didn’t make allowances, because why would you? And anyway, by this point, new options really were arriving in all directions. (To name only the ones founded founded and edited by Nick Logan, Smash Hits was now soaring and The Face had debuted in May 1980, poaching readers who enjoyed clubbing and strikingly designed colour spreads.)

If I was still just a besotted NME reader and wannabe in 1980, by late 1983 it was actually running my copy (I’m guessing my earliest reviews were bad: I’m not going to go look to check). In 1984, in June and July, it went on strike again, this time for eight weeks. I was still a very junior and minor stringer, and don’t remember anything particularly clearly about this stoppage — mostly that some still not very good book reviews of mine got spiked during the missing weeks, which I was afterwards quite relieved about.

Also lost to history — in the sense that I’ve never found it on the internet — is X.Moore’s rather more substantial two-part piece in NME in support of the miners’ strike that same year [UPDATE: a reader kindly sent me a photocopy]. At the conference Cynthia Rose remembered that the Kent Miners’ Wives Support Group came up to the Carnaby Street office more than once. And management — so subsequent office rumour ran — became ever-more convinced that editorial was a “nest of Trots”. This was silly: there were two members of the SWP, Moore (real name Chris Dean), and Swellsy, though they didn’t overlap for long and also detested one another. But both were freelancers, and of course neither controlled editorial. Still, even foolish boardroom paranoias can have consequences. When Neil Spencer decided to quit in 1985 — tired after eight years of fending off the higher-ups — his deputy Tony Stewart stepped up… and wasn’t appointed. He suggested, again at the conference, that IPC had seen him on the picket line and weren’t having it. Besides, they’d been trying to get an outsider in for some time (see footnote 3). They hired a Melody Maker writer called Ian Pye — and a significant tranche of NME’s senior editorial quit, some following Stewart when he left to run Sounds. The incoming team had many ideas to counter the challenge from the proliferation of glossies and general reader-bleed, not all bad at all, but little collective experience shouldering off corporate interference or defusing internal conflict in a team that had often been bolshy and feud-prone but was now also seriously demoralised. The HipHop Wars began here: more than anything they were a product of weak and naive leadership.

I should probably add that Pye and his new team were soon commissioning longer work from me, and much more often. They quite soon (1987) blundered into a far worse error, though, as part of an anti-censorship issue. To illustrate a story of a Dead Kennedy’s LP cover that had already nearly bankrupted Alternative Tentacles, a postage stamp-sized, highly pornographic image of H.R.Giger’s Penis Landscape was run, and soon after that Pye and two others no longer worked there. Alan Lewis, formerly of Sounds, was brought in, with Danny Kelly continuing as deputy.

In 1988, a tiny picket — from NME and the ever-militant New Scientist — stood wanly outside Kings Reach Tower, the pretext a management plan to hire staffers only via private contracts, shutting them out from union representation. No one from Melody Maker joined their colleagues — and the sad truth is IPC had already won this war, since editors Lewis and Kelly sat within scrobbling an entire issue together just the two of them. This time zero weeks went without an issue. Lewis was promoted up into the management layers, so when Kelly left to edit Q a couple of years later, IPC chose MM’s Steve Sutherland as editor. Despite crossing their picket line, Kelly was liked and respected by his staff: Sutherland — who had loudly despised the rival title and frequently attacked it in print — was cordially loathed, and yet another clutch of contributors quit. Like Tony Stewart before him, Kelly’s deputy editor James Brown believes what doomed him for consideration was being seen manning even such a paltry picket — except unlike Stewart, he wasn’t even offered the courtesy of an interview. (He went off to launch Loaded.)

The weapon that defeated the strikers in publishing was digital technology. It made many things possible — me writing this and you reading it! — but it made some things immeasurably harder. Back in the 70s, printing and publishing was full of guild-like specialist knowledge, easy to protect because easy to withhold: this was the era of “Spanish practices”, so-called, much-mocked as a problem and a piss-take, but the key to firewalling the power the workers in the trade had over their hard-won conditions. Digital gradually stripped out the many industrial layers required to get words from the typewriter and images from the camera out onto pages in every newsagent in the land. With desktop publishing, you basically had to get goodish at every stage of the process, and this simultaneously reduced and scattered the class-base of the profession. What’s more, every mass-excursus of a staff — in sympathy with a mistreated editor or deputy editor, for example— was a loss of several kinds of wisdom. Collective knowledge is never simple, and arguably its most important dimension is how everyone involved negotiates this complexity. [5]

Certainly there had been victories — freelancer pay was at no time princely but once upon a time we were not held to ransom as we routinely are today, exploited and stressed and too vulnerable not to be pliable. With the miners and the printers, union militancy had been crushed. And because this affected how we wrote, it gradually affected what was written [6]. Flooding the trade pop press with strange undergrounder weirdos was never going to end in a stable-state system, even when the resulting cultural mayhem appealed to the readers and sales rose. The two worlds could never simply combine — and this was good, and a medium that recognised and traded off the noise of the wrangling was a medium that made sense and appealed, in the mid-70s, when instability and conflict were taken as social facts, often exhausting, often exciting. The crackle of difference was the routine, alongside the battle to bring past and future (tradition and experiment) together onto the same page, to interact. All this had put the immediate present under its full tensile pressure — and yes, the papers sold. But the arrival of the new technology allowed for the reassertion of stability-at-speed, via the banishment of many kinds of argument, political or cultural.

And all the while management was also chipping away at editorial independence and decision-making and intention, and also at any kind of personal writerly trust in content. I know what I feel, you might be thinking, and so I know there’s readers out there who’ll get it — with your pitch to your editor as the first test of such a hunch. But if there’s someone higher up smarmily pointing at the so-called numbers all the time, and overriding your instincts, well, things begin to flatten out. The bolshiest began to shear off and self-publish; others saw how best to embed the new technologies within the larger media bubble, for sure, but this layer also seemed to neutralise the frictions of the 70s and early 80s largely by internalising them. Shortcuts become habits, market assumptions become truths, the soul — which is to say the collective jabber — diminishes, and so does the overall quality. To this day outlets still discover and publish good writers, of course, but the context seems now to muffle and diminish everything. What if precise and instant outreach, but too much? Is it even possible any more to cut through the seamless sameness of the machinery?

Or anyway that’s how I read it all, having lived through it, somewhat off to the side as a cog in the quieter reaches of the machinery. That final sad little industrial twitch in the tale at NME is evidence — even if only part of the reason — for the general decline in the 90s in the quality of the music press as a collective platform with an implicitly semi-political stance. Of course I wasn’t personally much in tune with what NME had become by the end of the 80s, and had quit round this time for reasons seemingly unrelated to industrial action, angry enough simply to be thinking let it all burn. And off I went to reconstruct some of what was being lost at The Wire (see footnote 5): to re-fashion artificially what had been modernised away so glibly grumble grumble [7].

1: With some personal memories, I’m mostly retelling the tale as set out in the late Pat Long’s useful History of the NME: High Times and Low Lives at the World’s Most Famous Music Magazine — any anecdotes he got wrong I’ve probably also got wrong. Long says the union leading the strike was the National Graphical Association, but doesn’t mention why it had been called. Long’s book is largely interview-based, and exact details of the industrial action of that time may well be misremembered by participants — though the dates of the stoppage can be confirmed on the Wikipedia page detailing NME’s covers down the years, a quick and helpful way to track when no issue came out.

2: Neil Spencer says 10 weeks in Paul Gorman’s In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press, but Wikipedia says just six. This was a National Union of Journalists strike: in fact the only freelancers’ strike called in the NUJ’s history, so the IPC chapel has reason to be proud! Worth adding here I guess that the editors of the music papers — and I think some staffers? — were not in the same union, and hence not duty-bound to come out: that in fact they were deployed as management to negotiate with (and browbeat?) the strikers, even if their natural loyalties lay with their writers against management…

3: NMN was edited by Mark Williams, and perhaps he had a grudge? IPC had lined Williams up for the job of editor when Nick Logan quit in 1977, but lost their nerve when Williams was busted for drugs — and the job went to Logan’s dep ed Neil Spencer. (I haven’t been able to determine how long NMN lasted: several months at least I think.)

4: Richard Williams: not to be confused with Mark Williams, even though I put them on the same panel in my conference. Both feature in the book. Several of RW’s very strong writing team moved on to NME at this point (including Cynthia Rose and Chris Bohn), which began to deliver its own version of his project, expanding its genre remit, in particular the jazz that MM had entirely dropped. But the true upshot of MM’s deliquescence would be being the making of The Wire, a tiny quarterly put out on a wing and a prayer from around 1982. From around 1985 it started to flourish: unlike Melody Maker, it’s still going strong, its values undimmed, its mission undaunted.

5: This is a lightning sketch for the effects of digital, less a history than the collapse of my observations into my speculations. I use the words “trade” and then “profession” — much can be made, I think, of the social shift from the first to the second, as a mark of the narrowing of the class base on the producer side. On the consumer side, there was huge pressure in the 80s to target hard by narrowing the catchment, and this also reduced and scattered the base I think. There were more publications, but niche demographics meant each reached much narrower constituencies, which in turn had an effect on pre-publication crosstalk within anyway smaller editorials. Titles were also increasingly encouraged to plan their cover stories months out, for marketing purposes, which inevitably resulted in safety and stasis and lack of surprise.

6: And here’s the companion piece, to be read AFTERWARDS, if at all…

7: I’m wondering about other stoppages not so close to my personal timeline, as Pat Long’s book only deals with NME, the only weekly I wrote for for any length of time. There were five music weeklies in 1973/74, for example: NME, MM, Sounds, Record Mirror and Disc (formerly Disc and Music Echo). Did the strike affect the others also, and how? Did Melody Maker come out alongside NME for the 1984 strike at IPC? Was the 1981 strike at Spotlight the only time Sounds came out?

[If you like this post, please support my PATREON which will help me write more! Also let other people know that you think might enjoy it… ]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *