Jon Newey Interview

Award winning music journalist, percussionist and editor in chief of Jazzwise magazine Jon Newey has a keen interest in the history of the UK music press. He spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson about his career in music journalism and his initiative to encourage up-and-coming writers.

What’s your background in the music press?

    I’ve worked for the music press ever since 1977, when I joined the music paper Sounds, which was one of the three big music weeklies that really dominated the scene, not just in the UK but worldwide. You had Melody Maker, NME and Sounds

    I’ve always been a music press fanatic. I first got hold of a copy of NME when I was eleven years old. I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg on a little crystal radio set that my dad got me. This would have been early 1962. I remember hearing an advertisement for New Musical Express and it said ‘to get a copy send a stamped addressed envelope’. I’d never come across this music paper before but hearing all the names that they had, I recognised all of the various artists and musicians. I guess at that stage I was a Shadows nut, I love that massive guitar twang and some of those instrumentals. I always preferred the instrumentals to the vocal stuff. No wonder I ended up getting into jazz! 

    But when this copy of NME arrived I was mesmerised. I read it cover to cover. I started to buy it weekly, placing an order with my newsagent and lo and behold in October 1962, Love Me Do by The Beatles was released. So when I heard that, it was like an explosion going off in my head. This whole Mersey Beat thing came out. I’d read NME all the time and I was eleven years old when Love Me Do came out and to have that hit, it just galvanised me. This amazing group and all the groups that followed in their wake. The whole Mersey Beat scene and of course then within a year you had the whole London scene kicking back with the Rolling Stones, quickly followed by The Pretty Things and The Kinks and all these amazing groups. Unbelievably exciting times, especially with the rhythm and blues groups, like the Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things and a whole host of others. After reading NME for a few years, I then discovered Melody Maker and was fascinated by that because it was very much the musicians’ paper and I love all the gig ads in the back. And of course when you were reading it, not only were you reading about all the beat groups but there was jazz, blues and folk coverage in there. So I started to read about all of this as well, hungry for information. 

    Every week I bought NME and Melody Maker. Then, come September 1970, Sounds was launched. The editor of Melody Maker left and launched Sounds. His mission with Sounds was what you would call a left-wing version of Melody Maker, or a more left-wing version of Melody Maker. And they drew writers from the underground press, which first surfaced in 1966 in London with International Times. I became an avid reader of that. And of course I stumbled upon groups like Pink Floyd and Soft Machine in the very, very earliest days. They’d only been going a matter of months. They were just playing long, long, strange instrumentals which were basically jazz. They were all jazz fans and what they were playing, particularly Soft Machine. It was the birth of people improvising in pop music, which soon became known as underground rock which is where it all started from. Everyone was improvising. I was a huge Mothers of Invention fan and Frank Zappa, and I bought my first jazz records around that time as well. One of the first jazz records I bought was Charles Lloyd’s Love-In on the strength that the cover was a live show cover, it was live at the Fillmore in San Francisco, which was the big psychedelic ballroom. I bought it, really, on the strength of the cover. It just blew me apart. Charles Lloyd’s group was like a hippy jazz thing, a great band with Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Ron McClure. Tremendously powerful playing and bit by bit I got into jazz through that. I was playing drums then on the London circuit.

    But come 1976, punk happened. It was within the space of about a year: if you were in a band that improvised (whether jazz/funk or prog rock), all the gigs turned to punk, so all the work dried up. At that stage I applied for a job at Sounds, to work on the musical instrument section of the magazine. They wanted to build that up and make it a real feature, just like Melody Maker had. And I got the job there. That was my start in the music press in 1977.

    I was at Sounds for 14 years, right up to until it closed in 1991. A fantastic 14 years. I went all round the world with Sounds, visiting instrument factories. I used to write about drums and percussion for it. My first interview for the magazine was with Billy Cobham. In those days, before the Eighties, they would still write about jazz, alongside rock, punk, folk and blues. But by the Eighties all of that got kicked out by all three weeklies.

 

During your time at Sounds you also worked as a freelance writer?

    Sounds closed but I think at that time I was writing for three different magazines, freelancing, writing about musical instruments. Then Tower Records asked me to come in and they had a really tremendous record of publishing some fantastic magazines in America and they’d launched a magazine in the UK. It was independent, a proper monthly music magazine that reviewed all genres. They really invested a lot in wanting to have every single genre covered, and they asked me if I’d come and run that magazine for them. I did that and I wrote a jazz-fusion column for them and then ran TOP magazine from 1991 right the way through to the end of 1999, when I edited the Tower Guide to Jazz, which broke it down into all of the sub-genres and we made it all extremely accessible. 

    I’d also been freelancing for Jazz on CD magazine writing reviews and for Jazz at Ronnie Scotts magazine, I wrote a column in there every month, from about 1995 onwards. And then I wrote for the Pizza Express club magazine.     

    In 1997 Jazzwise launched. They spoke to me and I helped advise them and they asked me to review as one of the founder members. And I brought in writers like Stuart Nicholson and Keith Shadwick as well. I’ve been writing for Jazzwise right from the very beginning.

 

Then you left TOP and joined Jazzwise?

    I came on board right at the end of 1999 and took over the running of Jazzwise as editorial director and I re-launched it in February 2000 because I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do with it. I put a business plan together in the latter day of Sounds, for a jazz magazine that was going to be very contemporary that had the depth of editorial of a jazz magazine but the visual and graphic punch of a rock monthly. But Sounds closed before we could do anything with that, really. That whole concept was burning in my head, still even 9 years later. So that’s how I re-launched Jazzwise and people loved the concept. It was to give added depth for the established jazz fan but at the same time try and bring on the new, jazz audience and encourage younger people to experiment with it and to get into it. And I felt that they would never do that whilst it looked like a magazine for men aged 75 and above. So I had a complete idea, fully formed in my head, exactly what I wanted to do with it: longer features, really really striking graphics, talk to the record companies to get them to start using colour for jazz photography rather than black and white. And because of my long time working in the rock press I had that sense of visual design, and I have an art school background.

    Jazzwise was 20 years old last year. We’re the biggest selling jazz magazine in the UK, we’re the leading English language jazz magazine in Europe. And I think our style has really influenced what Downbeat and Jazz Times have done.

 

You started The Write Stuff, a scheme for up and coming jazz writers. How did that come about?

    I got into jazz through reading about it in Melody Maker, initially. It was a magazine that covered rock, pop, jazz, blues and folk. Whereas before you had young writers who would come in and start writing about rock music on these magazines, they’d get encouraged by some of the older writers to check out jazz and they’d end up writing about jazz as well. People like Richard Williams and Richard Cook, Chris Welch, Roy Carr, they all wrote about rock and they wrote about jazz. They were tremendously proficient writers. After about 1979, any coverage of that had been kicked out of the three main weeklies. So as an engine room for new young jazz writers, that had completely died. 

    I was rather concerned about where the next wave of new young writers was going to come from, because there were designated jazz magazines such as Jazzwise. Most of the writers on Jazz Journal were all aged over 70 and I was on the lookout for younger jazz writers because I was very concerned about how we were going to bring the next wave of them on.

    I was talking about this problem with John Cumming [of Serious] one day and it was at a stage where Serious and the London Jazz Festival were looking at outreach and educational-orientated things to do with jazz. We came up with the idea of doing a series of workshops during the London Jazz Festival for new young jazz writers. Kevin Le Gendre would take them through the basics of reviewing a gig, I did workshops on the history of the jazz press and the music press in the UK, and how the whole rock press developed out of the jazz press and then the jazz press was pushed off to one side and how it all ghettoised and then where it is today, using original magazines and material. We got Mike Flynn to do a session on writing for online. Then we just expanded it over the years and refined it. It’s about 15 or 16 years old and we still do it every November. 

    Writers that came up through The Write Stuff include Daniel Spicer, Marcus O’Dair, Eddie Myer, Thomas Rees. There are people from The Write Stuff who went on to write for The Guardian and Radio 3. It’s a great way of discovering and helping new young writers. The push these days is to encourage more and more female writers to get involved and take part.

 

At the Ropetackle Arts Portal, you’ll be talking about the history of the music press. What sorts of things will you cover?

    I think that the story to be told is that all of this started with the jazz press, going back to 1926. That’s when Melody Maker started and it was a dance band and swing paper. It was very much a musicians’ magazine.

    The closure of NME has really brought it home to people. There was a golden era, certainly in the popular music press. What a lot of people don’t know is that it all started with the jazz press. All the big titles that we all know about – it started with the jazz press back in the 1920s.

    Melody Maker was established in 1926 and along came Rhythm doing pretty much the same thing. These magazines were working musicians’ magazines. I think there were gig ads in the back of these. But certainly you could find out where you could buy instruments from and where you could get personal tuition. It was all about live music.

    I’ve got copies of Melody Maker from the late Fifties and early Sixties and it’s pretty much all jazz. Little bits of rock and roll creeping in but then of course you had Cliff Richard and The Shadows who were the big boom thing in the very late Fifties and early Sixties. Bit by bit these various scenes started coming up where there was no scene at all. But with the advent of skiffle, which was kind of a punk trend in the 1950s where you don’t have to be a trained musician, you don’t have to read music, you can make a string bass with one string, play three chords on a guitar and hit an old packing chest. It was punk but 25 years or so before. It meant it opened the door to a whole load of people who could get involved without having a skillset already. Bearing in mind that there were no jazz courses in those days. The Royal Academy was turning out classical musicians, there was nowhere where you could go to learn, apart from a few people who taught. People picked stuff up from records and then maybe you were lucky enough to get the odd lesson with somebody. So what happened to the NME and Melody Maker was that they started writing a lot more about the UK scene.

    Bit by bit, the jazz content of these papers got squeezed and squeezed. It was still there in the Seventies when Sounds launched and it was great that you could still read about all of this. So many kids that were into rock music and also into blues, got their first taste of jazz from these magazines. By 1980 you just couldn’t read about them anymore. And interestingly enough, the jazz market was at its peak in the early Seventies with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Charles Lloyd etc. selling hundreds of thousands of copies. When you look at sales of jazz albums since then it’s gone down and down, but they got all this coverage in the big-selling rock weeklies as well as in the smaller circulation jazz magazines.

    In the mid-Sixties Jazz News had started as a weekly, with a familiar format that had been seen before in Rhythm magazine. The format hadn’t really moved on in terms of its layout. Obviously, what it was covering was a lot more contemporary but in terms of the layout very few photographs. 

    Jazz News went through the Sixties but then Jazz Journal which started back in 1948, it’s layout is similar and with similar writers to Jazz News and a couple of American writers. Looking at a 2010 issue, it looks the same today. It’s a shame because they really could have built on the legacy of it but it’s off-putting for any young person coming into it. It’s just so old-fashioned. In the sixties you had these two but by the mid-Sixties the pattern was set for the move from pop into rock and bit-by-bit jazz got pushed out of the very magazines that started as jazz magazines.

    A lot of people don’t realise that Britain is the most famous country on earth for producing fantastic rock magazines and rock music weeklies, but they all started as jazz magazines. Of course, once you get into the 2000s fewer and fewer people wanted to read in depth about music and I think that with a lot of rock music it’s difficult to write in-depth about it, because the music was quite safe, there was no political edge to it, lyrics have gone back to lovey-dovey lyrics. So the whole revolution and the counter-culture that had moved from pop to underground rock and brought jazz improvisation into it, was all over. Heavy metal made loads of noise but the whole thing was all quite safe in many ways and there was far less to read. And younger people had a lot more distractions: computer games, DVDs and all kinds of stuff. Music had been pushed out of most pubs, Sky TV showing football all the time. Whilst there was a pub on every high street putting bands on seven nights a week, that all went. So bit-by-bit the sales of music magazines dropped further and further, people weren’t launching them but what there was, was a great move to what we call specialisation, or ghetto-isation is the other word. Rather than getting the magazines that covered all genres, what you now got was heavy metal magazines, folk magazines, Blues and Soul, Mixmag covering the whole dance scene and specialist jazz magazines, and Folk Roots doing the folk scene and Songlines covering world music. So what you’ve got today are magazines covering the individual specialist areas, all finding it hard going because there’s a lot less people interested in reading about music. CD and album sales are right the way down. People who stream stuff rarely want to read about it. On the whole, young people just don’t want to read about music in the way that they used to. And if they do then they look online and get little soundbites or whatever. There’s far less of an immersive feeling about wanting to read 5,000 word essays and long album reviews. Sadly, what was so great in the UK, the great days of brilliant rock journalism really there just aren’t the writers about these days who are anywhere near as good as what came before. A lot of writers just don’t have any frame of reference. People tend to be knowledgable about a little area of it but very few young writers have got that depth of knowledge.

    And so many magazines have gone. A lot of it is digitised so I have high hopes that just as the Kindle has died, people don’t want to read books like that anymore and they can’t even give them away now. People are coming back to physical books. Vinyl has come back. CD sales are down but they still account for 40% of the market. There isn’t a massive market for streaming jazz. People who listen to jazz want the real thing. They care about the quality of the music. You might want to sample a couple of things on Spotify but if you’re serious about it then you want to get the real deal, take it home and listen to it and immerse yourself in it. 

    Where we’ve ended up today: niche magazines that can just about survive, targeted very directly at their audiences but you’ve got to have a print edition, you’ve got to have a website, you have to have a digital edition to survive. You have to plug all those gaps and be active on Facebook and Twitter. But it is a story of hope in many ways. Just as sales of physical books have come back, vinyl has come back, I hope that the monthly market in music magazines like Mojo and Uncut will stabilise. It has stabilised, it’s bottoming out at around 40-50,000. 

    And certainly Jazzwise has been stable and in fact our subscriptions are going up. Poor Jazz Journal is really on its hind legs, it has really suffered but in many ways it’s suffered because it didn’t move with the times. Which is sad because I think it’s a great title. 

    Kids spend all their time on social media, music is just a thing in the background to a lot of people. People don’t own CD players these days, they don’t have the room. People  live in much smaller spaces so they can’t have collections. But once people get to their mid-thirties when they’re earning a bit more and can afford a place of their own and they’ve got space then maybe they’ll go out and buy a CD player or a vinyl deck and they’ll start wanting to actually buy things. People do love owning things and holding something, especially music collectors. And playing it over and over again. So that, I don’t think, will ever die. It’s quite a male thing, record collecting, but hopefully more and more females will get into it. I think through the vinyl thing as well because as an artefact it’s so much more. CDs still sound great. But you can still see the travails of the record business and the music press. Between 1999 and today the record business lost nearly two-thirds of its value worldwide. It’s showing growth in the last year but it’s still way below where it was in 1999.

 

What do you think the future holds for the music press?

    There’s no end of blogs and websites out there but whilst they’re good for news and picking out soundbites, to read anything long-form is very difficult. Also, through various studies, what you read from the printed page stays in your head longer than what you read from a screen. It’s quite tiring reading stuff from a screen so people use it for small bits and sound bites and news but if you are at all really interested in music, and you want to immerse yourself in it, then it’s print.

    I think there will always be print around because it’s an artefact, something that you can smell, you can see, you can handle it, you might want to keep. And there’s a tremendous amount of craft that’s gone into it.

    There’s also the fact that you can trust it. There’s a lot of experienced professionals and their job is to make sure the facts are checked, their job is to make sure the pieces are edited well and to make sure the standard of writing is kept up high. Blogs often don’t do that. They’ll often put up any old rubbish and they can get into trouble because they put up things that aren’t true. There’s very few editorial controls on these things which means that there’s a lot of rubbish, lies and misrepresented facts. Opinion is pushed as fact, which it isn’t. Opinion is opinion, it is not fact.

    You’re never going to get the days where music magazines sold in hundreds of thousands but there will always be a market for print. It’s just like with national newspapers, they’ve all dropped from selling four or five million to the tabloids selling one million. The Guardian and The Times are struggling with a couple of hundred thousand. They’re all struggling out there. But I think that we want to keep print alive at all costs because it gives a satisfaction that online simply cannot give. You can sample things online but nothing makes up for the fact of playing a record or putting a CD on. And nothing makes up for the fact of being able to read a printed magazine. What you’re looking at is a world in the future where you’re going to have digital magazines. We have the app and you can get the whole magazine digitally and read it on your phone or computer so there’s that offering and anyone around the world can buy it. So it’s great that suddenly Jazzwise can be accessed in Outer Mongolia. From that point of view it’s absolutely fantastic. People who are more serious about it will want to get the print copy. You have to be there on every platform these days. But there will always be print and long may print stand.

    I look forward to a day when print is on the rise again and don’t think it won’t ever happen. People said vinyl was dead and it will never, ever happen. And they said books were dead and what’s happened? I think it will never be back on that level but as long as there are good, high-quality magazines and at Jazzwise we really do keep the quality very high. It’s on a mission to raise the quality, in fact I’ve just got John Fordham writing for me now.

 

Jon Newey presents his talk ‘The UK Music Press – Then and Now’ at the Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea in October, 2018 as part of the Ropetackle's Wordfest Festival.

[Photo of Jon Newey: Lisa Wormsley]