Smash Hits! closes for business; fingers point to digital

Once the UK's premier teen music magazine with a regular readership of 500,000 and peak sales of over a million, Smash Hits! is closing down its 28-year-old print version – now attracting a mere 120,000 readers – with the final issue hitting newsstands on 13 February.

The news of the closure has excited a wave of comment and finger-pointing, perhaps due to the strong sentimental links that many of today’s media professionals have to a magazine that contributed greatly to their teenage years.

Publishing company Emap’s director, Marcus Rich, notes that the magazine’s core teenager readership had largely “migrated to new platforms to satisfy their interest in music” – new platforms taken by many to mean the Internet.

Others, though, feel that changes in Smash Hits! culture and presentation have weakened its once pre-eminent hold on a packed market sector; some commentators note that as the magazine lost some of its edgy appeal and anarchic style so its readership shifted from music-savvy teenagers of both sexes towards a younger, predominantly female audience. Other factors quoted in the magazine’s demise include a loss of vital advertising revenue as the food and drink industry has tightened regulations on advertising to under-18s; and the falling interest in and importance of the music charts (witness Top Of The Pops’ gradual sidelining by the BBC) as pop music becomes increasingly corporate.

Changing tastes and attitudes to music in general have also been cited; the market is less polarized (or “tribal”, as Marcus Rich describes it) with teenagers displaying more eclectic tastes, difficult to satisfy in an integrated format. Clearly, no one factor has led to the weakening of the magazine’s hold on its audience; that that audience has been lost to online alternatives, though, few dispute.

Many see the high-profile closure as indicative of a more general encroachment of the new digital media into areas previously dominated by print, TV and radio.

Smash Hits! own digital channels are being blamed in large part for the weakness of the magazine in recent years, and the stated reason for its closure is to allow Emap to concentrate its efforts on these growth areas.

In all, the market for entertainment publications targeted at the teenage audience has shrunk by an average of 10% per year for the last three years, while the proliferation of Internet and other digital channels continues unabated. As with most online trends, the cheap availability and wide take-up of broadband connections over the last two to three years has been highlighted as a contributing factor which, coupled with the high level of demand for up-to-the-minute information from a web-savvy audience, has placed an almost insurmountable challenge before traditional, especially print, media.

It’s unlikely that Smash Hits! will be the last prominent magazine scalp to fall to the online revolution.

Doug Brett-Matthewson

 

10th February 2006

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