Loaded no more.

Loaded ad- Feb 2014- Front coverI’ve never bought, let alone read, an issue of Loaded. Generally speaking, I despaired of the original lads’ mag and its focus on drinking, football, drugs, music and pictures of semi-naked young women. Yet, I’ll be the first to admit that I felt a twinge of sadness on hearing that the current April 2015 issue (published on 26 March), will be the last.

Let’s be clear, of course; I was never part of Loaded’s intended readership; I was 30 when it launched in 1994 – hardly a lad – and wasn’t that into drink, football, drugs or (ahem!) looking at women in various provocative stages of undress. However, there’s no doubt that Loaded managed what only the best magazines ever do: it captured the spirit of the time so completely that people still talk of “the Loaded generation”.

Oh; for good measure, Loaded also helped redefine the whole men’s magazine market in the UK.

As former editor-at-large Bill Borrows explained in The Telegraph, Loaded arrived in a world of “glossy, coffee-table magazines produced by the same knowing crowd of parochial London-based t**ts that considered cutting-edge magazine journalism to be yet another feature on tailor Oswald Boateng or three pages on which brogues to wear to a job interview”. Instead, Loaded assumed “that the vast majority of men did not live in an up-and-coming London district and would rather play snooker in the back room of a bar in Manchester with Alex Higgins, or at least read about it, than find out whatever the latest airbrushed clown on the front of GQ was eating to keep in shape”.

Or, as co-founder and original editor James Brown explained in that first issue: “What fresh lunacy is this? Loaded is a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters. Loaded is music, film, relationships, humour, travel, sport, hard news and popular culture. Loaded is clubbing, drinking, eating, playing and eating. Loaded is for the man who believes he can do anything, if only he wasn’t hungover.”

Or, to put it another way, Loaded was arguably a much needed and long overdue kick up the arse of the men’s magazine sector; and it worked wonders, at least for a while. Seeing the rewards being reaped by original publisher IPC, other major magazine groups were soon trying to grab some of Loaded’s lucre, first with monthly titles such as FHM and Maxim, and then, from 2006, with weekly titles such as Nuts and Zoo.

But it went further; Loaded’s success undoubtedly inspired the 1996 launch of Minx, the magazine “for girls with a lust for life”. It might even have had some influence on gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, also launched in 1994 and inspired by a similar mission to provide something different to the market. (Quite apart from the similarities in their logos, if you take Brown’s initial description of Loaded, replace the “women” and “football” with “men” and “clubbing”, you’ll find yourself with a reasonable definition of Attitude.)

So, while I didn’t much care for Loaded’s style and content, I can appreciate that, when it was on top of its game, the magazine did what it did really well. There were good reasons why it won the prestigious PPA Magazine of the Year Award two years in a row (1995 and 1996, fact fans), and then continued to win numerous industry awards down the years for the quality of its design and journalism.

What might surprise many people (such as myself, who never read the magazine) is that Borrow believes that things all started going wrong for Loaded as early as 1997, when editor Brown jumped ship for a brief stint at GQ. At the time, Brown’s stated reason for leaving was that “Loaded readers aren’t going to want to read about me entering my thirties”. On reflection, Borrow believes that the magazine’s failure to “grow older with its readers”, moving on – yet staying relevant – with their lives, would proved fatal.

Instead of continuing to give its cover to the likes of Martin Clunes, Kevin Keegan, Shaun Ryder, Noel Gallagher (inadvertently also the final Loaded cover star) and Harry Hill, the emphasis switched increasingly to what appeared a policy of “forget the words and increase the nipple count”. “Loaded could have been Britain’s Rolling Stone rather than an embarrassing footnote I removed from my CV many years ago,” as Borrow puts it.

Loaded’s closure is hardly that surprising; having three different owners in the last four years is not a good sign, while print sales plummeting from 350,000 in 2000 to 34,360 at the end of last year (according to ABC) tells its own story. Indeed, its current circulation is almost certainly worse; the Press Gazette reported that, when free bulk distribution is taken away, the magazine was actually selling fewer than 10,000 copies a month.

The end of an era? Perhaps. Loaded joins the other victims of a once booming sector’s decline – Maxim’s UK edition and a rebooted Arena halted in 2009, while Nuts and Front shut down last year. That leaves just weekly title Zoo and monthly FHM, both of which continue with circulations a fraction of what they were just 10 years ago. (FYI, Zoo has slipped from 260,000 in 2005 to just over 32,000, while FHM has dipped from 560,167 to 79,189.)

I doubt that Loaded’s more recent “zero nipple” policy under editor Aaron Tinney is the reason for its lost readers; it’s been on a long decline and, of course, the internet is partly to blame. The modern day equivalent of Loaded’s original target readership are much more likely to satisfy their interests – in girls, games, gadgets and funny/humiliating pictures – online, rather than picking up Loaded in their local newsagent. For proof, look to a TheLadBible.com, which can attract more web traffic than the UK’s two biggest newspaper websites – MailOnline and guardian.com – combined. Now that’s definitely telling us something.