Music magazines aren’t working

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s wrong with the redesigned Q Magazine, and I think I’ve finally worked it out: it’s emphasising quantity over quality.

Q has fallen into the trap of thinking that the number of reviews (and lists, and songs) is all that matters, so an issue with 137 album reviews is much better than one with 122. It’s a trait shared by many other music mags too, many of which have reduced the per-review word count to enable them to squeeze more reviews into the same space and put the all-important “we review everything!” claim on the front cover.

So what do you get for your money? In most cases, those reviews will be capsule reviews: 100, 120 words to describe an entire album. If you’re not familiar with the artist, that’s not enough space to get you interested; if you are interested in the artist, it’s not enough to sate your desire for information. So it’s a waste of space for non-fans, and a waste of space for fans.

The second problem with such reviews is that the overwhelming majority of them will be for records that aren’t truly excellent and aren’t truly awful; it’s the territory of the dreaded two- or three-star verdict. Have you ever rushed out to the shops to buy a CD from an unknown artist on the basis of a review? If you have, I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t a two- or three-star review.

The third problem with the reviews section is that the world has changed. For example, let’s look at 1988 – when I was hopelessly addicted to a weekly fix of NME – and 2004.

The way it was: 1988

If you were a fan of alternative music, the NME was a lifeline. Radio wouldn’t play “your” bands, and the mainstream press didn’t bother with them. If you wanted to find out about tours, record releases or news, the NME and Melody Maker were your only sources for that information. Each week, you could also see what records were due to be released the following week, and whether they were worth rushing down to the record shop for.

The way it is: 2004

If you are a fan of alternative music, the Internet is a lifeline – but it isn’t your only lifeline. “Your” bands are covered in the tabloids and played on mainstream radio, which is desperate to ditch its “smashy and nicey” image. If you want to find out about tours, record releases or news, you can get it direct from the artists’ web site, or from an obsessive fan site. By the time records are reviewed in the music press, they’ve been on heavy rotation on Radio 1, MTV2 and Kerrang TV for six weeks, and you downloaded the MP3s from Kazaa a fortnight ago. More and more people are getting their music criticism from weblogs and from e-zines, and in most cases that criticism isn’t crammed into a three-paragraph review that has to describe the record and introduce the artist to the uninitiated at the same time.

The way it should be

Given that the combination of radio, the Internet and satellite TV has effectively rendered capsule reviews redundant, the music monthlies should dump them altogether. Instead, it could do what those media can’t do: provide readers with access to big-name acts and tell interesting stories. It could also dump the dross, and instead draw people’s attention to the music that’s worth bothering with – the four- and five-star records, not the two- and three-star ones.

Word Magazine knows this, and despite its older target market the title is thriving. However, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that with its numbers-heavy redesign, Q has taken a big gamble – and bet on the wrong horse.