For nine years, the U.K.'s The Word bucked trends, let writers write what they wanted, and now, like so many other rock publications these days, is meeting its end.
This post has been corrected.
Music magazines shut down so frequently these days that it can feel like numb routine to hear of another's passing. Most of the readers who care are online now anyways, subscribing to Tumblr and Twitter feeds, finding via blogs and discussion boards the opinions and recommendations once delivered in print. The irony is that more and more over the past decade, music magazines have felt pitched at the kind of easily bored person who doesn't read magazines anymore because they read the Internet, where listicles at least come with YouTube embeds. Think Entertainment Weekly or the late Blender: tiny word counts, visual noise galore, lots of "entry points." Only Spin seems to realize that magazines won't beat the Internet by becoming more like it; it recently revamped itself as a full-time website with a quarterly print component that physically resembles the old, downtown New York art-world title Index.
But the recently announced demise of The Word, a nine-year-old British rock monthly, hurts more than most. The Word did something that seems beyond most of its competitors now: It breathed. Even at its most list-tacular, there was nothing assembly-line about it. When it puts out its final issue this week, the best music magazine anybody published in the last decade will be officially dead.
Largely created by and for English blokes over 40, it projected instant familiarity and warmth by encouraging its contributors to write as unabashed enthusiasts
The Word's circulation numbers were never anywhere near its British competitors Mojo and Uncut's—for one thing, it wasn't as widely distributed in the U.S. as those two titles—but moreover, its demise points to a last gasp for rock magazines aimed specifically at older audiences. It was launched at roughly the same time as two U.S. publications aimed at similar niches: Paste, which eliminated its print edition two years ago while continuing online, and Tracks, a bigger-budget title that lasted less than two years. The Word had a clearer, feistier editorial voice than the Boomer-friendly Tracks and the indie-leaning Paste. At the time, readers over 40 were seen as print's natural audience. But now they, along with everyone else, are moving fast toward tablets and phone apps and leaving print behind.
One big reason music magazines do all that attention-grabbing charts and lists is because it's proven successful to do so, and the people who proved it are the people behind The Word. Word publisher David Hepworth and editor Mark Ellen worked together in the late '70s and early '80s on that era's defining U.K. pop mag, Smash Hits, which asked pop stars their favorite color as well as what they thought of the Falklands invasion.* Later still, the duo helped start Mojo, to this day the gold standard in monthly rock historiography, prizing deeply reported features about legendary artists, measured but done with high gloss. It's also a place where lists are trotted out regularly for cover features.
Mojo is an editors' magazine, where a reverential house tone usually prevails. The Word, blessedly, was a writer's magazine. It didn't bother having an identifiable group voice, instead opting to fill its pages with more first-person than any modern American rock-mag would find seemly these days from any but their biggest names. Largely created by and for English blokes over 40, it projected instant familiarity, depth, and warmth by encouraging its contributors to write as individuals and as unabashed enthusiasts.