Annie’s ‘NME’ installation: a former NME features editor responds

Update: an earlier version of this post erroneously listed New Order as an all-male group, an error that was made in the text of this post by our manager and *not* a feature of Annie’s installation or Susan’s graphs. Apologies for this. Previously The Fall were listed in the ‘all-male’ list, when we should have made it explicit that this was because all of the NME covers in the period in question featured only Mark E Smith, and not other Fall members. Again, this doesn’t impact the central image. If you’re aware of any other errors in this post, please email us at – thanks!

Update 2: this Facebook page has been made to keep information on the situation bang up to date.


Back in July last year, Hysterical Injury frontwoman Annie Gardiner took advantage of the acquisition of a large number of back issues of NME to make a point at Bristol Ladyfest.

Annie’s installation For Whatever Reason (Access) simply divided the magazines – which included almost all issues published between 1989 and 2008 –  into 4 piles, according to the gender of the cover stars. They appear in this order: female artists – male artists – both male and female artists – no artist depicted.

The dominance of male artists was predictable but the scale of the disparity was shocking, the ‘male’ pile towering over the others in a way that made them look like afterthoughts.

The image had quite a lot of support from our followers and others, but the artwork didn’t elicit any significant response directly from anyone at NME – until now.

A couple of weeks ago, Susan O’Shea of Factory Acts updated the image into a clean graph form, using raw data of NME covers up to 2011, and also providing an illustration of how things have [not remotely] improved over more than 2 decades up to the present day:

NME covers by Gender

This image was the one that provoked a response from James Brown (a features editor of NME in the first few years depicted in the graph above). Mr. Brown defends his own years at the magazine, contending that there simply weren’t any more female acts around who they could have put on the cover.

This is an important point about Annie’s installation which perhaps it is easy to misconstrue: of course, the installation is a window onto something bigger: the NME is just one part of the mainstream music media which its covers reflect. It could certainly be argued that the magazine is also a major player in influencing music culture – that the fact of an artist not being covered by the magazine might well in itself mean that we’re far less likely to remember them nearly quarter of a century later. A friend of ours took this a little further, making the point that this statement from Mr. Brown –

– “the period I was features edit[or] there were very few female acts emerging in [the] industry” – is a bit like saying, ‘when I was CEO, there were very few women getting promotions'”.

One also might think that a relative paucity of female acts might encourage an editor to feature those he or she did encounter that bit more often, if only for the sake of a bit of variety. Not so. Over the years Mr. Brown asked us to look back at, 1988-1991, Shaun Ryder took as many covers as Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, Kate Bush and Sonic Youth combined. The Wonder Stuff (nothing against them) featured on seven covers – Fuzzbox, Neneh Cherry and My Bloody Valentine got two each. Because male artists don’t just have four times as much chance of making a magazine cover – those who do are also many times more likely to get a second one, and many times more likely to get another one after that. None of the acts with female members had a fourth cover in this period, so we can’t count past that. In fact the top 8 all-male acts over these four years – Happy Mondays, The Wonder Stuff, Morrissey, The Pogues, REM, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and James – took as many covers and more between them as every female artist in the world combined.

After that there was still room for The Charlatans, EMF, Carter USM, The House of Love, Pop Will Eat Itself, Pet Shop Boys, The Wedding Present, Simple Minds, The Cure, Birdland, The Cult, Frank Black (without Kim Deal), Mark E Smith, Bernard Sumner, Primal Scream, The Farm, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Nick Cave, Terence Trent D’Arby, U2, Hothouse Flowers, Public Enemy, The Mission, KLF, Billy Bragg, Teenage Fanclub, Def Leppard, Elvis Costello, The Proclaimers, INXS, The The, Fine Young Cannibals, The Triffids, Stevie Wonder, Youssou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Danny Wilson, Tone Loc, Beastie Boys, Echo and the Bunnymen, De La Soul, Revenge, Lloyd Cole, Depeche Mode, Motorhead, Carl Andrew O’Brien, Jazzie B, Lenny Kravitz, Slash, Billy Idol, They Might Be Giants, Northside, The Beloved, Flowered Up, Paddy McAloon, Electronic, World Party, Adamski, Pet Shop Boys, The Waterboys, Soup Dragons, David Bowie, Donovan, Jesus Jones, The Clash, Johnny Marr, Gary Clail, Neil Young, Erasure, Anthrax, Ice-T, Blur, Metallica, Chapterhouse, Nirvana, Renegade Soundwave, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sting, Bomb the Bass, Madness, Iron Maiden, Napalm Death, [the other] James Brown, Nasty Rox Inc, Derek B, The Housemartins, UB40, Roddy Frame, Pink Floyd, The Psychedelic Furs, That Petrol Emotion, Zeke Manyika, Todd Terry, Bros, Gary Glitter, and a few non-musicians like Tony Wilson, John Peel, Harry Enfield, Reeves & Mortimer, John Barnes, and Liverpool Football Club.

James Brown challenged us to name another female act that they might have featured. We feel that was the magazine’s job at the time, not ours now. And quite a few acts we can think of who might have featured in this time, like Madonna or Laurie Anderson, actually took one of the (equally rare) female covers just before or after the 1988-1991 window he asked us to consider. But, as it happens, James thought of one himself before long:

…not like any of the acts listed above then!

Most importantly of all – did Bjork and Sinead change the fact that there were ‘very few female acts emerging in [the] industry’, anyway? You wouldn’t know it from the cover of the NME. Nothing changed there.


9 thoughts on “Annie’s ‘NME’ installation: a former NME features editor responds

  1. (NB The Fall have had a long and varied history but they’ve had many many female members even in the years in question.)

    But this is a really good analysis of the bias towards male acts. I’d be interested in how different Melody Maker’s track record would be: in the years I read MM (88-94) I can remember covers featuring (off the top of my head) Throwing Muses, Courtney Love, Kim Deal (with both Pixies and Breeders), Lush, MBV, Huggy Bear etc. and my impression was that MM had a genuinely more progressive agenda than NME. Despite what James Brown suggests there were plenty of woman around making music back then; he’s being disingenuous in the extreme.

    • Thanks for this, Annie. When I was a nipper I tended more towards Melody Maker too as they had a little more focus on the 4AD-ish and American acts I liked at the time while NME seemed a little more about tshirt bands who were, yep, 99.9% male. In those days it seemed at least half my favourite acts were female-fronted and certainly received coverage in Melody Maker, which is how I learned of most of them: Throwing Muses, The Cranes, Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, PJ Harvey, Belly, L7, Madder Rose, The Sugarcubes, Stereolab, Babes in Toyland, Lush, Die Cheerleader, Daisy Chainsaw, Luscious Jackson, The Sundays… and I could go on and on…

      You’ll also notice that these bands are varied in style and not shoe-horned into, to take a contemporary example, the easily-marketable singer-songwriter.

      Still, I suspect that if we did the ‘front cover test’ on the sadly-defunct Melody Maker the results wouldn’t be much if at all better.

  2. A very good point about repeating cover stars. I stopped buying NME when they put The Libertines on the front cover for what felt like the billionth time that year. I also remember everyone getting their knickers in a twist because YYYs, and then Beth Ditto got the front cover. A WOMAN. ON THE FRONT COVER. How the readers laughed.

  3. “the period I was features edit[or] there were very few female acts emerging in [the] industry” – is a bit like saying, ‘when I was CEO, there were very few women getting promotions’”.

    No. Your analogy puts too much power in NME. They merely report what is happening in the music world, I agree that there should be fair coverage of artists, but it may sometimes be the case that a much more popular artist is making the headlines, and that they may be male. We need some facts of what proportion of female artists have been over looked regardless of how popular or ‘you need this in your life’ they may be.
    I think your analogy should read whilst I observed from the sidelines of the industry, I could have done more to promoted the female underground/ up & coming artists.

  4. Pingback: Women in Rock… | Sheer Music

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