The foundation of my love of music was the media that provided the running commentary on the styles, scenes and sounds I grew up with.
Without the New Musical Express, The Face and i-D music would still be good, but it would exist in isolation, without context and without colour.
It was also the rock on which my love of magazines, writing and journalism was built.
Last weekend I ripped through Ted Kessler’s brilliantly titled book Paper Cuts - How I Destroyed the British Music Press and Other Adventures. This is a longer version of the punchy review I did for the local papers.
The last ever editor of Q Magazine when the music monthly closed at the start of lockdown in 2020, Kessler shares the potent mix of his remarkable life story, interwoven with a rich commentary about the decline of the music press.
The other eye I had on this tale was my own early career choices. I often think about this world as a parallel universe down another fork on my life’s road. I started out writing about music, fashion, films and clubs but took that different path in my early twenties. Many other young journalists probably also compromised on their ambitions, but I do count myself lucky to have landed in an exciting sector. I made my home through the 1990s reporting on the television business and its technology, rather than music, stars and showbiz, later moving to Manchester to edit Insider, the best business magazine in the land. One of the reflections I used to share with journalism students at UCLAN was the access I had to real decision makers and headline makers was so much greater in the business press than I suspect it was in consumer media.
Although I’d interviewed some high-profile celebs in that phase (Ben Elton and the rapper Tone-Loc were favourites, various long-forgotten Australian pop stars, not so much), some of the PR-guided set pieces were excruciating and over-controlled. You really felt you were in their pocket and constantly on parole for good behaviour. Ironically, my best-ever scoop was about the revival of Countdown Revolution, a much-loved TV music show.
As I mentioned in this piece a couple of months ago, I have at times lamented that early choice. But deep down I probably always knew the money wasn’t good enough and the precarious nature of jobbing journalism for cool papers and mags was more than I could bear. Certainly, both Ted Kessler and Miranda Sawyer have confirmed their own financial precarity was a trade-off for an interesting life.
Journalism is a hustle. You have to constantly negotiate access to a much sought-after interview, or work out the trade-offs required to stay in the game. The business press was a different kind of dance, but there were games to play and the advertisers had more power; too much if you weren’t vigilant.
To be any good at journalism, in any field, you need courage, access and a genuine love for what you are writing about, if you don't then you are dead, because the gatekeepers have an antenna for it. Writing talent, as Ted Kessler describes, particularly for a high-output media like a weekly paper, isn’t as important. You just have to be able to knock out the copy sometimes.
I enjoyed Ted’s accounts of his own on-the-job learning, well remembering the brutal dressing-downs I had through my early career. I didn’t use words wisely, I was way too slow, and it took a while to balance the relationships that could taint a fair and accurate view of our world.
His tales of press trips and moments of genuine wonder are beautifully told, John Harris and him at an early Oasis gig, the energy of the Happy Mondays, but there was always a tension. These people weren't your friends and could snap in an instant. Maybe it’s also because the stakes were so high and the negative consequences so catastrophic. When he spends time with Radiohead and the editor ditches it as a cover story, relegating it to a chippy inside spread with poorly chosen photos, it triggers a grudge that lasts for a decade.
He gives Paul Weller’s Stanley Road album 6/10 in the NME and Weller invites him down to Surrey for a straightener in the car park of his studio.
I don’t ever remember being offered out by a grumpy TV facilities boss, but I upset plenty of people over the years. Sometimes it was my own fault. I can think of the press officers at major corporations, who were also our advertisers, who thought I was an idiot. I then decided I would go out of my way to deliberately annoy them by doing stories so offensive, so detrimental to their reputation, and so egregiously hostile, that they threatened to withdraw all advertising from my publication, and its sister titles, which were hanging by a knife edge anyway. It was high stakes but boosted my credibility and their requirement to take me seriously. And I was right, by the way, the story I worked hard to get published about them was true. And rather a troublesome idiot than a lickspittle, of which there were plenty elsewhere.
But as I matured I knew better and learned how to earn the right, to play the long game. If you’ve got a good reputation, if you do the work, serve the readers good stories, and try to be different, then your respect yields better stories. In later years, while working on a different magazine, that same advertiser flew me to Rome to interview the head of the Vatican’s TV station, and also to the World Cup in France 98. Though to prove where I stood in the pecking order it was only Bulgaria v Nigeria.
For an industry that holds its annual trade exhibitions in Las Vegas and Amsterdam, I enjoyed those years and had a good innings hanging around things I never fully understood, finding the personalities, spotting trends, and separating good new products from dross.
I was asked recently what my favourite ever story pitch was. It’s easy: “Hi Roger from Quantel here, how would you like to come to the Cannes Film Festival on our private jet?” That was a big deal. Competitors upped their game after that. Spending time with smart people brings insights, insights bring readers, readers bring credibility, and credibility gives you the freedom to be brave. Plus, though I knew Cannes was incredible from trips to the MIPCOM and MIPTV markets, the film festival was next-level insanity and glamour.
But I think the real reason I really enjoyed Ted Kessler's Paper Cuts was that it was also about the decline of publishing, the collapse of the magazine industry as we knew it, and the self-inflicted wounds that legions of halfwitted publishers administered in the name of brand strategy, diversification and efficiencies. I went through many of the same kind of corporate bollocks that Ted Kessler outlines; strategy days, meetings about meetings, overreacting to anecdotal evidence in reader surveys and off-the-cuff comments from people making an excuse not to advertise. I've lost count of the pointless memos, botched redesigns, paranoia, new managers with the latest bright idea and the sharpening of knives by young bucks on the rise. There was also a clash of priorities between advertising, editorial and corporate merger strategy.
Ted Kessler’s characters, some tragic, leap off the page. Maybe he was blessed with big names and personalities, but for his Steven Wells (RIP), we had Oscar Moore (also, RIP). Yet it remains true that no one has yet written a savage portrait of working in the business press in the way Kessler does about his world, or Laura Weisberger's novel about Vogue, The Devil Wears Prada. I just don't think my magnum opus (The Devil Wears Ciro Citterio) would be quite the rip-roaring page-turner.
The irony is not lost on me, by the way, that other hardy veterans may have well interpreted my own enthusiasm for events, video and podcasts as equally vomit-inducing careerism and therefore evidence of my own blatant hypocrisy. In a later career incarnation, I sat on the board, advocated change, and embraced the internet. As one of my American journalist friends said, "oh my God, you've become 'they'."
But you only have to look at the absolute bin fire that is the local newspaper industry to know what happens when you get the big calls wrong, promote the wrong people and fall asleep at the wheel.
But for all of that I have never stopped being a journalist, and a supporter of journalism, and loving the company of journalists, not just because of stories from back in the day, but because of all the stories they tell so well.
Paper Cuts is stuffed full of hilarious stories of wild encounters that us journalists love retelling. Trips to Cuba with Manic Street Preachers to meet Fidel Castro and dinner with Florence (but not her Machine) at the height of her success, a fair few involving Manchester music legends, Shaun Ryder, the Gallaghers and then there’s Mark E Smith of The Fall asking about the name Kessler: ‘Jew, Or Nazi?’ A story Ted Kessler’s dad bizarrely recounted with morbid glee.
But for all its depictions of a downfall of an industry, and the sad story of his Mum’s passing, the book also ends on an optimistic note. Kessler’s own Substack newsletter The New Cue fizzes with the same energy for new music and a rich heritage. It may not reach the heights of NME in the 80s, but it’s a platform for writing that matters. I hope they get the access they deserve in a world where social media gives artists the ability to totally control their brand and message, but often leaves too little a crack for the light to get in.