How NME Has Flushed Its Moral Compass Partnering With Ladbrokes

Brand partnerships in music are nothing new, especially in these straitened financial times. But, argues Eamonn Forde, NME's latest tie-up with gambling firm Ladbrokes is entirely beyond the pale

The NME has been brazenly courting brand money for decades; but as the power of the magazine brand has diminished, the more exponentially desperate its brand deals have become.

There was Carling in the late 1990s and early 2000s sponsoring the NME Awards and related tours. This was followed by piss-poor Euro lager brand Tuborg in 2010 and hair product manufacturer VO5 from 2017; but by 2022 the headline sponsor was BandLab who… had bought the NME a few years earlier. This suggests one of two things: 1) the new owner wanted to make a statement about its commitment to music, as confused as this may have come across; 2) no one else wanted to sponsor the awards.

NME‘s latest partnership is, however, its most appalling and suggests a brand that has not so much lost its moral compass as flushed its moral compass down the toilet. It has greedily grasped the sponsorship money from high-street gambling company Ladbrokes, presenting this as a totally normal and totally acceptable thing for a title that has long tried to push its "alternative" and "underground" aesthetic. Ladbrokes Live yesterday launched its new platform with a performance by Sugababes in London, the band appearing in front of a garishly branded tent that looked like a Punch & Judy stall.

Must we, as the music papers of the 1960s asked, throw this filth at our pop kids?

Brands are part and parcel of the modern music business, certainly for anyone who wants to be within touching distance of the mainstream, and notions of "selling out" feel desperately archaic. Acts from the 1960s and 1970s can comfortably shun brands and sponsors, but the economic reality for most acts this century – exacerbated by a paltry share of the streaming boom – is that brands can and do become life vests keeping them financially afloat in a tumultuous sea of turds.

One should hesitate to damn anyone for working with a brand, and trousering a plump cheque, but the question that follows should be less about brands in general and more about the nature of the "partnership" and the brands they choose to work with.

The NME does not have a great history here. As The New Rock Revolution™ curdled into Landfill Indie, there were many blank-eyed homilies paid to "brand positioning" by a paper that was finding itself as culturally relevant as the top hat.

By 2018, things had become so desperate that "Welsh model and fashion blogger" Gwilym Pugh was the focus of a promoted feature on the NME site around that year’s NME Awards which was sponsored by a shampoo brand. Pugh was the "ambassador" for the shampoo – like a leonine hipster version of the Ferrero Rocher lad – and the feature followed him on his night at the awards, where we found out about "red carpet realness", where "tipples are provided by some of the Awards’ generous sponsors" and why he "gets on the ‘gram to share memories of this unforgettable night".

It was the kind of advertorial copy written by someone who has never been to a gig or even heard music. As "brand activations" go, it was more embarrassing than offensive.

This was, however, a terrible foreshadowing of how much the NME was to debase itself for brand money. The title has changed hands several times in the past quarter century, from IPC to AOL Time Warner in 2001, later rebranding as Time Inc in 2014, to BandLab Technologies in 2019. With each new owner, it appears the brand bar gets lowered ever further as ethical considerations are booted into the ditch.

In July this year, the NME ran a "paid for ad feature" for Viagogo, the company than is applying Rachmanism to "secondary" ticket sales, dribbling out some nonsense from a Viagogo-funded "poll" which "revealed that more British gig goers are considering travelling abroad to see their favourite artists".

It is not the only music magazine brand to have aligned itself with morally dubious "secondary" ticketing companies. The Q Awards in 2016, for example, were shamefully sponsored by StubHub.

This all feels relatively benign in comparison to the NME’s next stepping stone across the brand swamp. At the start of August, it signed up with "new entertainment platform" Ladbrokes Live to bring back the "iconic" (their word) Club NME live nights, where thousands of free tickets will be given away.

It’s not just NME debasing itself here as Ladbrokes Live, its rancid new "play" in live music, has also partnered with other music-centric companies such as the O2, AEG, AXS and All Points East. In order to get tickets, you have to be over 18 and sign up for a Ladbrokes account and then use one of your "3 FREE WEEKLY PLAYS for a chance to win them". I ask you.

There have been lots of moves in recent years around the "gamification" of music, but the NME has now decided to try something else: "gamblifying" music. Even the naming of Ladbrokes Live feels cruelly cynical, intended to game SEO as typing in the words into a search engine will send you to the company’s assorted live betting pages. Live music is a carrot; live betting is a gaff hook.

The NME, as it always likes to point out, is a "youth brand", but gambling is a hugely damaging issue among young people and students, the very people the NME is courting.

The cost of living crisis, tuition fees approaching £10,000 a year, ballooning student debts of over £40,000, a rental market being allowed to run out of control, the normalisation of zero-hour contracts, increasing job instability, diminishing career options and more are all part of the daily trauma for the NME’s core audience. To be brazenly promoting gambling as a cool way to get free gig tickets is recklessness on a jaw-dropping scale.

A 2022 study by the Gambling Commission laid bare just how much damage gambling does to young people under 16 and their families. 78% of young people who had spent their own money on gambling in the past 12 months "did so because they regard it as a fun thing to do". A YouGov study in 2020 found "7% of the population of Great Britain (adults and children) were negatively affected by someone else’s gambling". It also found that, among those aged 18-34, 4% were deemed "moderate-risk" gamblers and 5% were deemed "problem" gamblers.

Tobacco sponsorship and advertising was banned in Europe decades ago, but gambling sponsorship is allowed to continue. This Ladbrokes/NME tie-up is perfectly legal, but is a ferocious demolition of principles.

Every publication today is finding the economics of staying alive incredibly tough and sometimes compromises have to be made to keep the lights on. But accepting money from gambling companies, and selling the gambling brand to your readers as some sort of agent of altruism with its promise of free tickets, really is a new moral low point.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today