As part of our 15th birthday celebrations, we look back at the development of NME.COM – and the internet overall – across the last decade and a half, as various former editors remember the growth of the website from a vague idea to the beast it is now
Brendan Fitzgerald, NME.COM Editor 1996 – 1998
“The first flickering of the towering beacon that is NME.COM came at a regular monthly publishing meeting in autumn 1995. A question was asked: “What should NME do about this internet thing everyone’s going on about?”
Responses were muted, due to an almost total lack of first-hand experience of the “information superhighway” as it was being tagged in the 1990s: “Never seen it.” “How does it work?” “It’s really slow and full of porn.” Nevertheless, a small team was formed to look into it.
As the NME’s Assistant Editor, I’d been at the centre of the computerisation of the paper’s production process a few years previously, and this was deemed the perfect qualification to tackle the internet. Viability reports were made, green lights were lit and soon a handful of developers and technicians were working in cramped offices and spare nooks over several floors at IPC Magazines’ then home, King’s Reach Tower by the Thames.
An original advert from 1996 describing the new website and its “groundbreaking” features
Looking back, our plans were incredibly ambitious for the time. Consider that in 1996, DVDs had only just gone on sale in Japan, the first Java programme had recently appeared, Internet Explorer 3.0 was still hotly anticipated and the buzz search engine was Ask Jeeves – Google wouldn’t even launch for another two-and-a-half years. The mobile phone boom was in its infancy, email in the workplace was gradually becoming more widespread, but even in media companies obtaining direct access to the internet routinely required special dispensation from IT and user numbers were strictly controlled for fear of clogging internal networks.
Still we forged on, month by month, researching, brainstorming, designing and building, thrashing (and trashing) ideas about, absorbing the nuances of html coding and overcoming the substantial challenge of constructing an automated electronic publishing system which could deliver the collective vision of what NME’s website should be.
By the launch date in mid-summer that year, NME.com was about as all-singing, all-dancing and state of the art as it was then possible to create. Though initially much of the content was by necessity republished from the paper, the site pioneered embedding audio into reviews and offered daily news updates, interview highlights and forums, live chat rooms and rolling message boards to music fans where tech geeks, music freaks and internet warriors thronged to interact and, inevitably, abuse each other. Archaic and long superceded by website standards today, of course, but fresh and exciting at the time.
Convincing the majority of the mainstream music business of the era to buy into this new operation was often arduous and maddening; the internet then was generally viewed with either deep suspicion or a total lack of interest, especially from NME. The majority of music biz personnel had little or no exposure to the internet and were bemused by NME’s “new media” experiment, as they saw it. There were lengthy briefings over how we might co-operate in the future; instead we became tangled up in disputes over rights to posting promo videos and audio clips [plus ca change – TC] and other paranoia about content usage. Of course, major labels would belatedly reverse this early digital denial, once they grasped the web’s reach and commercial potential, but initial uptake was lame.
Happily, the 1990s indie/Britpop universe was far more open to fresh adventures on a new frontier and various excellent, exclusive collaborations with stars of the day and readers’ favourites were delivered via NME.com to fans worldwide. At V97, V98 and Reading, NME.com became the first UK website to post online reviews, videos, photos, interviews and webchats with performers live from British festivals.
Editing NME.com for the first three years of its existence was a thrilling helter-skelter ride and a great privilege. Today, where titles can bloom and bust overnight, it is gratifying to see the site rolling on in such rude health. Happy birthday NME.COM!”
Steve Sutherland, NME Editor 1992 – 2000
While I’m dead grateful that history says I was editing NME when we launched .COM, I can honestly say that it just kind of happened to us, rather than via any grand future-proof scheming on my behalf.
I seem to recall a couple of extremely strange project managers camped out in the office for a few months at a time and, of course, we began to rub shoulders with some weirdy beardy tech-y types (never got rid of ’em actually!).
We had some kind of launch near Soho, I remember, and several zillion meetings with record companies who seemed to think that the ads they were placing with us had miraculously overnight transformed into editorial that we should be paying for. But the penny only really dropped when I was sent to a big conference in New York all about this world wide web thingy.
Suddenly I saw the light – we were all going to become billionaires, record companies would cease to exist and if you weren’t on the bus you were over. Smart music sites like Napster were springing up all over the place and with the newfound realisation that we too were under attack, we decided to go for it.
Our demeanour at the time – at least when anyone had the impertinence to ask us why they should invest, why we thought it was a good idea to give away all the information for free that the paper published for our paying clientele and precisely how were we going to make all those dreamed-of billions – was to go all coy and give them the look which said: “Get with the programme, Grandad.”
What we were saying to each other in private was somewhat different: “It’s better to commit suicide than be murdered,” was our mantra.
In all seriousness, it was like the legendary Wild West – webcasting live from Glastonbury when a tractor cut the power lines to our caravan, storming into the press tent, unplugging all their faxes, nicking all their juice and locking down the area with the aid of a couple of heavies. Oh, happy times.
One thing we definitely got right: running the website out of the main office and using all the same resources. It gave us a harmonic and efficient way of working which no-one has bettered to this day.
Anthony Thornton, NME.COM Editor 1998 – 2004
I became editor of NME.COM in 1998. We were a fantastic team who were always dreaming up new ideas. We were arrogant, bullish and hardworking and it felt like we were the young upstarts with the music business in our sights: people who could do anything.
These ambitions often exceeded the technology of course. We were the first UK site to put video of a band in concert online (it was called a webcast back then). Suede: Live in Japan went out in 1999 and because Realplayer had recently been updated you could see it on your screen in a MASSIVE two inch screen. Or, if you fancied pixels the size of a postage stamp, you could make it fullscreen. We utilised this technological leap forward to do 100s of interviews from the NME Awards and festivals, many of which have been brought back on nmevideo.com now.
Some things went well: we were the first people to release anything by the Strokes and The Libertines when we gave away mp3s of ‘Last Nite’ and ‘What A Waster’. Other things had their time but have fallen by the wayside. There was the free webmail service that we ran for a few years (I was email@example.com); Beat The NME, a multi-player music quiz and chatroom; NMETXT (believe me, that sounded modern), and live text-only webchats.
We lured people like Elliott Smith and Frank Black into the office and sat by steam-powered computer screens as an NME.COM staffer typed in answers to questions from fans (and psychos) as fast as they could. The downside to this became apparent when Chuck D of Public Enemy attempted to have a chat with Johnny Cigarettes about the 1 out of 10 review that he’d just been on the receiving end of.
For me, though, I think the moment that the possibilities of the web really became apparent was when I attended Radiohead’s first gig to unveil the fruits of what would become ‘Kid A’ at Arles in Southern France in June 2000.
In an age of Travis and Sterephonics, this was as about as anticipated a release as you could imagine. So on the day of the gig, breaking from the format that dominated all news at the time, we decided to write news stories before, during and after the event. This was accomplished by phoning it in on my rubbish green-screen Motorola to the news editor who was stuck in a gloomy office with only a cardboard cutout of the Beta Band for company. I was conscious that I was the only person reporting live from what was, right then, the biggest music news story in the world. Then, gig over, I rushed back to the hotel room, to uploaded a full report and upload photos of the gig over a a cranky old telephone line. Then I went to the bar and bumped into a couple of the band, where we talked excitedly about internet radio.
NME.COM then asked people who had seen Radiohead play their new songs to e-mail their reviews. And they came in, in their 100s. So every day with the help of Radiohead fans from across the world, we were able to publish in-depth reports on all the new songs as they were unveiled each with multiple viewpoints and often photographs. This type of article didn’t even have a name yet – later someone told me it was called crowdsourcing.
It was at this point that Radiohead paid NME.COM the highest compliment, they called a press conference to announce the name of the new album to the world in New York and on a note sent to US publicists to accompany the release they wrote:
The reason we are sending this information to you right now is because our hand has been forced by NME newspaper in the UK who are fighting hard to get every conceivable piece of information about the band first and put it on their website… which is actually really worth checking out.