The big news in rock n' roll circles is that Jann Wenner has finally thrown in the towel and put his beloved Rolling Stone on the market. This storied publication was the source of record for the music industry almost from its first issue way back in 1967.
A story in The New York Times by Sydney Ember refers to the historic magazine as “the counter-culture bible for baby boomers.” And in fact, Rolling Stone's failure to evolve from its hippie roots goes a long way toward explaining why it's now for sale.
Now, of course, the magazine industry is suffering in general, from Time to Esquire to Cosmo. But Rolling Stone's demise is a story about an influential media brand simply not keeping up with the times – ironic for a publication that was once on the leading edge of musical trends and tastes.
Hindsight, as we know, is 20:20. But in this case, you could see this distress sale coming for years – a tough pill to swallow for the proud entrepreneur Wenner.
So what went wrong?
Generational vs. transitional
Like radio formats, a magazine like Rolling Stone had decisions to make – grow with your original fans way back at the beginning (the generational approach) OR become a transitional brand and continue to stay cutting edge with music, focusing your energies at young people.
In many ways, it's analogous to Classic Rock (maintaining the same audience over the years) versus Alternative (targeting a younger audience that will eventually outgrow the brand).
Rolling Stone's approach was the former. And while it continued to cover young bands, as well as genres like Hip-Hop, Alternative, EDM, its roots have always been with the music and the stars that originally made the magazine (and rock ‘n roll) great.
It can work for Classic Rock radio because there's appeal not just for the music, but also for personalities and community. In the magazine biz, it's much more about what's on the printed page.
We've seen this in radio over the years with owners and CEOs as smart as Wenner. The reluctance to dive head first into digital and alternative platforms cost many brands – think MTV, another music powerhouse that failed to make the turn toward the future.
As the Times notes, a Wenner deal in 2001 with Disney for another holding, Us Weekly, created financial turbulence, making it difficult to invest deeply in digital assets. And that was a point in time when big publishing brands simply had to start thinking beyond the printing press.
On top of that, Ember reports that when it came to digital, “Wenner remained skeptical, with a stubbornness that hamstrung his company.” That was not the forward-thinking vision required to transition a proud, traditional music institution.
The audience evolution?
In many ways, Rolling Stone remained steadfastly loyal to remnants of the Woodstock generation. And yet, that culture (or counter-culture) has long eroded, as icons like Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden burned out and faded away.
Today, many of the core fans that enjoy Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones actually represent the conservative end of the spectrum. Back in 2012, Arbitron studied how format fans lean politically. And their research showed that while early rockers may have been decidedly anti-war and pro-ecology back in 1968, today's Classic Rock fans actually skew Republican.
Yet, Rolling Stone has been especially loyal to Democratic candidates, as well as sporting a strong left-wing ideology, perhaps to its mass appeal detriment. After all, it is a music magazine.
1,000 word essays
While attention spans have shrunk – think Twitter and PPM – Rolling Stone ignored the lessons from USA Today and other publications focused on more bite-sized news, information, and entertainment. Rolling Stone, on the other hand, has stayed with long-form journalism – reporting that rambles on for pages and pages, testing the patience of music fans looking to find out the newest bands and latest music trends.
Face the music
As writer Ember avers, Jann Wenner's stubbornness has cost him his beloved magazine. But many of the answers evading the Rolling Stone team were research accessible if there was an openness to learning inconvenient truths – that perhaps the magazine was indeed getting long in the tooth. As we know all too well in radio, querying the audience doesn't always identify the smoking gun or conjure up the elixir that can turn around a tired brand.
But a willingness to ask the hard questions, let the readership be heard, and be courageous enough to accept the reality the magazine wasn't in step with the times is the first step in staging a pivot.
Even the greatest media brands need to be rethought, reimagined, and even rebooted every few years. Sometimes, this process becomes more difficult when the brand's founder refuses to accept the societal and cultural changes that drive the zeitgeist of the moment.
Today, Jann Wenner is finally turning to a Millennial – his 27 year-old son Gus – to guide the publication's future, and prepare it for its next incarnation. As he explained to the Times:
“I think it's time for young people to run it.”
Actually, that time was a couple decades ago.