When Ted Kessler was named editor-in-chief of music magazine Q in 2017, he told superiors he didn’t want to be the last person in the job. “Don’t be stupid,” was the reaction. The magazine had stabilized. There were other titles in its owner’s stable that were more vulnerable.
y 2020, and after a prolonged rattle, Kessler learned that Q had to fold after 34 years. The writing had been hanging on the wall for months, between meetings about meetings, blue-sky brainstorming and mumbling about numbers (not insignificant, considering that Qhad slipped from a 1990s high of 200,000 to 28,000).
When it came to keeping Q alive, it is not for lack of having tried on the part of several leaders: a “consultant” proposed several whistles to keep the brand afloat, as detailed by Kessler: “Ready Steady Q (pop stars cook us their favorite dish); Through the Q-Hole (pop stars let us into their homes and readers would have to guess who would live in a house like this); Q‘s Style Challenge: We’re asking pop stars to dress up their rivals in a brand new stage outfit!
While there’s no shortage of books that celebrate the glory of music journalism, Kessler’s book is arguably one of the first to offer some kind of post-mortem. Right off the bat, he cites the “content abyss” – the insatiable abyss of reviews and interviews that can be found online – as spelling the death knell for print media.
“With the sheer volume of free equipment being blocked, it encroached noticeably on Q,” he writes. “On the one hand, we hated that there was so much undeserving nonsense covered online. But on the other hand, we found ourselves increasingly sought after for exclusives with big ( and sometimes not so great) artists.
Kessler offers a thoughtful take on how music journalism found itself falling from its glorious heyday to the present day. In a seamless blend of personal and polemic, he maps coordinates using moments from his own musical career. Start as a freelancer Lime Lizard in 1990, he first saw his name printed on the newsstand of the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street, and his fate was sealed.
He moved to NME at the height of its Britpop-era power, becoming a live reviews editor, then a features editor. His career came of age at a time when access to rock stars was more generous than it is now; the junkets were lush, remote and extravagant. Kessler details trips to Cuba to spend time with Happy Mondays and Manic Street Preachers; to Seattle to eat seafood with a post-breakup Florence Welch; to Atlanta to interview brand-new minstrel Jeff Buckley; and to Los Angeles to watch a post-9/11 version of The Strokes.
Of Oasis, he writes, “You could hear the lineage immediately, but despite those echoes, they sounded quite contemporary. Their performance was wordless, virtually motionless, but all senses were overwhelmed by the noise with which these straight-faced Mancunians faced you.
As Kessler swings from one impressive encounter with a rock star to the next, the book’s sense of place is admirable – from the singular energy of Camden in the Britpop era to the maze-like streets of Soho, where much of the British music press operated.
On the inner workings of NME, he reveals: “Historically, the newspaper was able to shake off any cultural lethargy by designing scenes around new acts. All they needed was two or three bands in vague geographic, sonic, and sartorial proximity to each other. Baggy, shoegazers, Grebo, the new wave of the new wave – each invented movement provided weeks of copy and momentum, delivered by the youthful exuberance of new bands delighted with press recognition.
Kessler traces his formative years, growing up in London, then transplanted to the suburbs of Paris as a teenager. His move there has more than a note of intrigue. The family lived far from the city center as Kessler’s journalist father had a secret second family on the Left Bank. That said, the reader spends a little too much time in the Parisian suburbs with Kessler, who regularly gets drunk, has his Doc Martens stolen and devours his weekly delivery of the NMEbefore returning to London.
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Elsewhere, Kessler details the unusual experience of being editor of a music magazine while being the older brother of a rock star (Daniel Kessler of Interpol). At the turn of the century, the then unknown musician sent his older brother a demo EP. “Distraught, I put the CDs back in the mail for later and walked down the hall to the bedroom, where I put on my running gear,” Kessler writes. “I didn’t have time for that right now, for my brother’s band. I was just too busy. Over time, Interpol would become inescapable, leading to a situation where Kessler sometimes became conflicted to cover up the group (while also being forced to deny any allegations of nepotism).
At the end of the day, paper cuts reads like the valentine of an industry and a magazine that, far from dying spectacularly, died at the hands of British publisher bigwigs:[s] which smelled like a Range Rover and looked like it was selling country estates for Savills”.
For any music fan, the last 30 years have been a turbulent time. For Kessler, infinitely more.
Music: Paper Cuts by Ted Kessler
White Rabbit, 320 pages, hardcover €24.50; e-book €8.99