IPC Media enjoys a special relationship with BA Multimedia Journalism
IPC Media’s director of special projects, Steve Sutherland, visited final-year BA Multimedia Journalism students on Monday to discuss the magazine industry.
His visit featured as part of the course’s final-year Professional Perspectives unit.
IPC Media is one of Britain’s biggest publishing companies.
Owned by Time Warner, IPC Media publish a lot of well-known magazines, including Marie Clare, InStyle, Country Life, and Nuts.
Steve, who edited NME between 1992 and 2000, started the lecture by analysing a number of the music magazine’s front covers.
He asked students what they liked about the designs, what they didn’t like, and whether they sold well.
Covers touched upon included those that featured a naked Beth Ditto, lead singer of Gossip.
Steve revealed this particular edition sold “terribly badly”, but there could have been a number of factors for this.
He said the image was perhaps “trying too hard” to be something controversial.
He added research revealed consumers felt uncomfortable picking it up from the shelf and taking it to the cashier to pay for.
It did attract press attention and created a debate, but this did not translate into high sales figures.
Steve inherited the NME editorship during Britain’s famous Britpop era.
He described how the magazine differs from other brands and is like a right of passage for some.
“They [NME] encourage people to tell them what a terrible, rubbish job they’re doing.
“People, when they talk about NME, tend to treat the NME like the BBC. They feel that they own it in some way.”
Steve said one of the biggest mistakes made when working for a music brand – whether online or print – is that people think it’s about music.
“It isn’t about music. To talk about music is quite a boring thing. It’s about being a music fan.”
The brand should appeal to people’s emotional levels, according to Steve.
“It’s not about a great drummer, or a great guitarist, it’s about having a kind of feel for the emotional impact, or the way these people talk to you.”
Steve said when working for a music brand, students needed to understand the most important people are the people they’re talking to, not the people they’re talking about.
“It doesn’t matter what album you’re reviewing, what matters is the people reading that review.”
The role of the music journalist
Steve said the role of the music journalist has changed across the years quite dramatically.
He said that during the 1950s and 1960s, if working for this type of magazine, you would be a news reporter.
“There would be nowhere else in the world that you could find out if Elvis Presley was or was not coming to Britain.”
By the 1970s, the chart mentality had become a mechanism for turning musicians into celebrities.
“They became interesting people in their own right.
“You’re job, if you were a journalist working for any of these music papers at the beginning of the 70s, would have been to interview these guys.”
During Britain’s punk rock era, higher tax thresholds saw a number of celebrities temporarily emigrate to America, according to Steve.
This led to artists no longer having contact with their fans, creating a disconnection between the two.
“If you were a journalist around that time, you would have become an evangelist.
“What you would be doing at that point is telling people that’s crap; this is great. You should listen to this.”
This marked a significant shift from the music journalist’s sole role of being a news reporter.
“You were trying to change things. You were a force for change.”
The late 80s and 90s embraced the concept that music could mean something and be divided into the mainstream and alternative scenes.
Steve said when he started working within the music press in the late 80s, “You were kind of more of a documentary maker.
“You would follow things. You would tell people. You would gain access to [artists]. You would show them what was going on.”
A number of strong relationships would form between certain writers and bands, where they were able to get the inside scoop.
But in today’s climate, Steve said the industry is very different and this type of relationship has broken apart.
The rise of the Internet and artists publishing their own publicity material threatens the music press’ role as informers.
Steve said the job hadn’t changed “full circle” but in the past the journalist would be “passing down wisdom” to its readers.
Peer-to-peer recommendation, however, is now seen as far more powerful, whilst a lot of music can now be listened to without being bought.
“Your voice as a critic now is just one voice in the noise.
“Your job now is to be a lot more like a best buddy than some kind of prophet. You need to enthuse people through your enthusiasm.”
With “a lot of noise out there”, Steve said today’s music journalist has another important responsibility, acting as a filter.
“You’re helping people in their busy days and busy lives to find some great stuff among all the noise.
“That’s what the job kind of entails these days. It’s quite difficult for some people to swallow, because it sounds like a more humble role, but actually it’s a lot more subtle than that. It’s a really very clever role.”
Steve stressed the best thing trainee journalists have nowadays is the ability to blog, allowing them to rehearse and find their own voice.
“The way for all of you to get paid – and this is absolutely crucial – is to be absolutely brilliant at what you do.
By writing a blog and building an audience, you’ll be able to prove to employers how skilled you are, according to Steve.
Who you want to be as a journalist
Steve said if he were a magazine publisher, there would only be three or four reasons he’d launch a publication during this climate.
To find a gap in the market, Steve suggested looking at what existing brands do really well, but also find their weaknesses.
“The one thing you desperately need to know about the market is what the brand that you’re going to go and work for lacks.”
Steve said he liked to hire people who disagreed with him, but this isn’t something every editor does.
“I was always of the opinion that I’ve got one of me, so what’s the point of having two or three of me?”
A number of panelists at the course’s recent careers forum highlighted the need to specialise, but Steve said not to do this too early.
“Try to work out where you can fit and then look at the move. There are endless opportunities, if you just find the right one.”
Steve ended his talk by advising students to look at what they can bring to potential employers, how to market and set themselves apart from other applicants.
“When we take guys from this university to come and work at IPC, which we do every year, you end up going in and doing stuff that we’ve got people who can’t do it.
“Sometimes I have to remind people, this is supposed to be a great job. It’s not really a job at all. It can be a passion.”