It is either brave, crazy brave, or a bit of both: Rolling Stone Australia is back from the grave.
Have no fear that reviving a print magazine first seen here in 1970 and which bit the dust two years ago is some sort of tepid exercise in nostalgia. The good news is that the magazine is terrific.
The most unlikely media rebirth of the year — amid closure or suspension of many household names — is already claiming early and significant impact for its first issue, featuring a striking image of the Australian global superstar Tones and I on the front cover.
Issue 001 has a feature about NSW Police in effect restricting performances of controversial western Sydney drill rappers OneFour, which has three members in jail for crimes including reckless grievous bodily harm.
The magazine styles the policing as an assault on free speech; the police say its crackdown maintains public safety.
“After the magazine was released earlier this month, the band’s manager came to us and said for the first time the specialist organised-crime unit’s dealings with the group have ‘softened’ and that ‘there was less harassment’,” says Rolling Stone Australia managing editor Poppy Reid.
The band’s manager thinks the magazine’s imprimatur has increased its legitimacy as a music act.
Other clever features are on the Hillsong Church’s hit-making music machine, strip-search laws, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the local music industry.
There’s a look at cash cow nostalgia acts such as Elton John, attempts to make Elvis Presley cool again, and how China’s punk musicians are coping with coronavirus lockdown.
Old goes hand in hand with new: there’s an interview with Peter Garrett and a feature on Greta Thunberg.
The Tones and I cover feature has all the hallmarks of a classic Rolling Stone cover story, an eight-page access-all-areas piece assessing the uncomfortable reality of sudden global fame. And the “limited edition poster” accompanying the feature is a cute retro throwback.
The magazine was brought back to life by publisher The Brag Media, which produces The Brag, Tone Deaf and The Industry Observer websites. It’s based in the Sydney suburb of Chiswick and won the licensing rights from the US owners, Penske Media. Originally it planned just a website.
Niche and premium
Surely it’s mad to produce a magazine?
“We initially thought the exact same thing,” Reid says. “Why would we launch a premium print product, choose the best of the best when it comes to paper stock and print embellishments, in a time when magazines are shuttering in droves?
“Honestly, it was our visit to Rolling Stone’s New York office that changed our mind. For them, the print offering is extremely important both editorially and commercially, and we believed we could emulate that success and footprint here. So far so good.”
The US market is very different from Australia’s, particularly in scale. But Brag seems to believe that niche and premium are the two successful strategies for print success.
The $15 magazine will appear four times a year.
The first issue managed an ad count of 14 out of 100 pages, even after half the planned ads were cancelled or delayed due to the virus. Brag is printing extra copies from the initial run of 10,000 and subscriptions have been strong.
Rolling Stone Australia, founded three years after the US edition, always punched above its weight.
In 1993 Paul Keating made the cover, peering out over sunglasses, and the magazine entrenched itself in the zeitgeist.
Two years later an arresting image of The X-Files stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in a semi-naked embrace and wrapped in a sheet shot around the world and ended up on the cover of the US version.
The 1990s is a long time ago, but generation X is now asserting its cultural power, evidenced by the popularity of the Netflix basketball documentary The Last Dance which chronicles the 1990s Chicago Bulls.
That’s just the sort of market ready-made for Rolling Stone. But it launches into an era when the bottom has fallen out of the magazine industry. In 2012 the mighty ACP magazine empire was bought by the German publisher Bauer for $500 million, but this month Bauer bought rival publisher Pacific Magazines, home to Better Homes and Gardens and New Idea, for just $40 million.
Bauer owned the rights to publish Rolling Stone Australia, and the last issue appeared two years ago after the licence was acquired by the indie publisher Paper Riot.
And although 15.2 million Australians read print and digital magazines last year, a 1.2% increase according to Roy Morgan, the mainstream music media feels diminished. Newspapers don’t seem to care about their gig guides any more, Foxtel has axed Channel [V], Max and CMC, and in February Channel Ten axed its music program The Loop after eight years and 400 episodes.
In contrast, live music performance is booming, with a 32% growth surge to $1.1 billion in 2018, Live Performance Australia reported. And that doesn’t include festivals.
And audiences are willing to pay top dollar; more than half of all money spent on live performance went on contemporary music. So presumably the magazine’s $50 annual subscription won’t be too much of a stretch.
“The overall ethos of Rolling Stone is to illuminate the culture of our times,” Reid says.
“It’s not that we believe other media isn’t doing that — in fact Crikey is a great example of a publication which offers the space to dive deep into a topic. It’s more that we believe Australasia needs more of that.
“Music fans, culture fans, people who are interested in a measured approach to political reporting, those are the people we hope to do proud.”
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