To hear some media mavens tell it, Rolling Stone—the legendary rock ’n’ roll magazine founded 50 years ago by Jann Wenner—is being put up for sale much like an old horse who might otherwise be headed for the glue factory.
The New York Post’s ace media columnist Keith Kelly, for instance, reported this week that the universe of deep-pocketed potential buyers is small and shrinking for a title that has lost cultural relevance and advertising revenue.
It continues to nurse wounds—and cope with litigation—from a catastrophically libelous November 2014 story that sensationalized a University of Virginia gang rape that never occurred.
Yet Spin magazine founder Bob Guccione Jr.—who competed head to head with Wenner’s journal for a dozen years until he sold his own rock-music mag in 1997—sees plenty of reasons for optimism concerning Rolling Stone’s future.
“I think there will be a large number of suitors, because it’s iconic,” Guccione, the son of the late Penthouse founder Robert Guccione Sr., told The Daily Beast. “There’s a lot of people with lots of money, maybe billionaires with tech startups, who might buy it for the price of a really great Picasso. And it’s sort of like that—owning an iconic painting that’s the centerpiece of your living room.”
He added: “By the way, Rolling Stone can be resurrected as a very meaningful youth-culture publication—partly because it isn’t one today.”
Guccione, who just turned 62, is a member of the baby boom generation that, from Rolling Stone’s birth as a gritty emissary of youth and music in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin district, considered it a must-read.
“I was a bit on the young side, but the hipster friends I had in school were reading it, and I think the first time I picked it up, I was around 16,” Guccione recalled. “And I liked it very much. I would say a few years later [in the 1970s], I really paid more attention to it. That was the golden era—the absolute epicenter of the counterculture.
“It had a dimensionality and it was authentic to the needs of its audience. It did great interviews with Bob Dylan and John Lennon, but it also covered Vietnam, it covered Watergate, and it covered social movements. There were brilliant Hunter Thompson pieces devoted to Americana. Hunter S. Thompson was a main draw. Cameron Crowe was there. There were just great pieces.”
Crowe later became a movie director and nostalgically dramatized his Rolling Stone experiences in the 2000 film Almost Famous; Thompson, the larger-than-life inventor of “gonzo journalism,” who first published his most celebrated work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in the mag (and tragically committed suicide in 2005), led a murderer’s row of contributors that included Lester Bangs, Joe Eszterhas, Annie Leibovitz, Patti Smith, and P.J. O’Rourke.
But Wenner—who today is 71—ultimately declared San Francisco a “cultural backwater” and in 1977 relocated Rolling Stone to New York—a harbinger of bigger and shinier corporate ambitions, the acquisition of serious wealth and the rarefied life of a Manhattan A-lister.
“And then I sort of dropped away from it for awhile when it came to New York and went Hollywood, which I guess was a paradox or an oxymoron,” Guccione said. “It sort of started putting Tom Cruise on the cover—and I lost interest.”
Fellow baby boomer Tim Page, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, had a similar experience with the magazine.
“When I started writing criticism, I tried to bring the vigor and freshness I found in the early Rolling Stone into classical and classical contemporary music,” said Page, a professor of both journalism and music at the University of Southern California. “It was a lifeline for music-crazy kids all over the country—these big, generous, intelligent articles on Captain Beefheart, Glenn Gould, Harry Partch, Brian Wilson, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. I mostly stopped reading the magazine by the mid-1970s—it had changed a lot—but every now and then, it continued to surprise me.”
By the time Guccione launched Spin in 1985, he was hoping to create a prickly antidote to what he saw as Rolling Stone’s slick, establishment-leaning complacency—and occasionally delighted in “tweaking the nose of Rolling Stone,” he recalled, “which I heard annoyed Jann.”
Rolling Stone “kind of gave up its relevance in the last 20 years,” Guccione said, noting that it continued to publish the occasional blockbuster, such as the late Michael Hastings’ career-ending profile of America’s man in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. “It sort of became like Esquire… You didn’t really need to read it. And I hate being harsh, because I have nothing but admiration for Jann Wenner. I just think he’s one of the great, great editors of modern times, and it was a great, great magazine.
“No one should underestimate how important it was. It was of its time—and only a great magazine is of its time. And Jann Wenner was in touch with the currents of the culture, which move very fast and zig and zag. And he understood what was important.”
Guccione added: “But I think at a certain point he decided he wanted to make a lot more money, so he did a much more commercial magazine, and I think that was fine. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
Yet the more Wenner focused on developing new titles such as Us Weekly and Men’s Journal, the less time he spent on his first-born child. “For as long as he was personally interested, he was very finely and acutely in touch with the culture and that’s what made Rolling Stone great. But it suffered when it was a case of Wenner not having his eye on the ball. I would say that the decline of Rolling Stone was proportionate to the decline in the involvement of Jann Wenner.”
By the mid-1980s, Guccione perceived that Wenner’s rock ’n’ roll mag—without Wenner’s intensity—was losing its grip on the vibrancy of the music scene; and he saw an opening.
“When Rolling Stone started, people didn’t take rock ’n’ roll seriously, and Rolling Stone did,” Guccione said. “That was the key to its success. And when we started Spin, everybody took rock ’n’ roll too seriously.”
In the end, Guccione said, Rolling Stone, instead of appealing to a target readership of 18- to 35-year-olds, “made a strategic decision that it would stick with the audience it activated and grow old with it. I’m sure they would deny it to this day that that was their strategy, but I just know it was. I was in the business. I competed with them.
“And they have in fact grown old. Some people of a certain age have their concerns in their life, and they are no longer interested in what Santana has to say, they no longer read Rolling Stone, they are reading the Economist and The Wall Street Journal.
“But it was a brilliant strategy for the life of that magazine—because the product that Rolling Stone sold was not really editorial; it was the sense that its readers were always vital. And they were still vital. You could be sixtysomething years old, but you were still a rocker, because you read Rolling Stone… But now the magazine has reached old age and retirement.”
Guccione said an enthusiastic new owner could infuse a fresh brashness into the magazine, and refocus its appeal on the target youth demographic.
“Somebody has to come in and say, fine, our audience is now back to being an 18-to-34 audience, and we’re going to be relevant to that age group,” Guccione said. “And we’re not going to mind if somebody 35 or 45 says, you know what? I don’t want to read this thing. You have to be OK with that. And I think Rolling Stone could become vital again. It’s all about who edits it and the direction they get from their new owner to be bold.”
Could that new editor be Bob Guccione Jr.?
“That’s interesting,” he replied with a laugh. “If somebody buys it and they want to come talk to me about having me as a consultant, absolutely. I’d love it.”