Penske Media Corporation wrapped up a major deal this week, acquiring a controlling interest in Wenner Media, parent company of Rolling Stone magazine. The pact puts the publisher of Variety, Deadline, and Women’s Wear Daily in business with Rolling Stone founders Jann Wenner and his son Gus, who will remain on board as editorial director and president, respectively. It also allies PMC with BandLab, a Singapore-based digital music company that acquired a 49% share of the magazine in 2016, and will retain its stake.
In an interview with Variety, BandLab founder Kuok Meng Ru played down any indications that his company had lost out by not buying a controlling stake in Rolling Stone, and said he welcomed PMC’s investment. He hopes the company will be able to grow and expand the magazine at a time when its advertising revenues and subscriptions are in decline, and said he was impressed with PMC founder Jay Penske’s vision for Rolling Stone.
What do you hope the PMC investment in Wenner Media will do for Rolling Stone?
It sets Rolling Stone up for a great future for the next 50 years. Rolling Stone is a tremendous brand with huge opportunity and to have a company like PMC with its infrastructure and Jay’s vision for media, is validating. Investment is about commitment to the brand, and so Jay’s commitment to the brand and our commitment to the brand and the Wenners’ continued involvement, is the best possible outcome you could have.
There were reports that BandLab was interested in acquiring the remaining 51% of Rolling Stone. Were those reports accurate?
There’s been a lot of speculation and we can’t comment on that, but as the 49% holder in the business, it was very important to us that Rolling Stone was in good hands. And therefore while we were exploring all possible options of what could be done, our position was to be very open minded. I’m confident that the setup we have now is the best possible setup for the future of Rolling Stone.
There were also reports that you had some right of first refusal and there was speculation that PMC bought a majority stake in Wenner Media instead of buying a controlling stake in Rolling Stone as a way of getting around that potential stumbling block. Is that accurate?
I can definitely refute that there were workarounds or that kind of thing. It’s important that there isn’t any misunderstanding. We can’t comment on rights, because it’s related to the deal we made in 2016. There is complexity with how larger organizations as they start to sell different properties get managed. Bringing in a partner in Rolling Stone directly creates different challenges. So I think that the structure, which we fully supported, is something that gives the company the strongest foundation going forward. This was the ideal structure for the running of the business.
Are you committed to maintaining your 49% stake in Rolling Stone or would you look to exit your investment?
Absolutely, we’ve never felt more excited about the future of the brand. Someone else has now come in and shown the same level of commitment and belief in what Rolling Stone can become.
What was Jay Penske’s pitch to Rolling Stone’s owners?
Jay has shown a commitment to quality and to good business sense. He’s shown that with some of the turnarounds he’s managed, especially with Variety and some of the other media entities that he’s taken over. Jay’s approach matches a lot of the values and the way we approach brands, which is thinking long term. Rolling Stone needs a partner who isn’t just thinking in terms of three to five years and then getting out. It’s not easy to find an investor like that in today’s landscape.
Are there potential synergies or areas of collaboration between Rolling Stone and other PMC properties?
There are immediate synergies in terms of the way that a larger media group’s infrastructure is beneficial to what has been an independent brand like Rolling Stone. Even outside of that, the benefits will always come because there is scale. The kind of video production and facilities that PMC has can only be beneficial to Rolling Stone.
The print business is facing some tough headwinds as more people consume news online. How do you think Rolling Stone needs to adapt to different consumer behavior and how can it monetize that audience?
Some of those strategic moves we can’t announce yet, but I think the most important message is that Rolling Stone is not just a print brand. It’s not just a media brand. It’s much more than that. It references and reflects, and also influences and sets the tone for pop culture. That gives it tremendous opportunities. It’s not a one-dimensional brand. It also has a chance to be a global brand. A lot of what is challenged today are brands that have a different approach or significance to their audience.
How well known globally is Rolling Stone?
The canvas is very clean. We only have 12 licensees around the world. Look at Rolling Stone’s covers. They really traverse the globe. There is a great recognition. Building a foundation of what already exists and being able to bring it to a larger audience is a big part of the vision that we have and that Jay has.
It’s the 50th anniversary of Rolling Stone. It was founded as a counterculture voice and as a platform for youth culture. The young audience that first read the magazine are now grandparents. So do you age with your readership? Do you go after a different demographic and risk alienating those readers?
It’s one of the unique brands that actually transcends generations. Very few brands have the ability to have both Bob Dylan on a cover as well as Paris Jackson or Kendrick Lamar, and be able to make that make sense in the scheme of what the brand represents. Pop culture is driven by the youth, and that will always be a strong element of Rolling Stone, but the great thing about the brand is that it means very different things to very different people. With the internet and digital and what we can do with print or social, there are many different stories that we can tell. It’s all about content.
Was it important to have the Wenner family remain involved?
Definitely. Jann has created something incredible over the last 50 years, and I think that a founder’s relationship with a brand goes beyond the operational responsibilities that he has. Within the new structure, he does have those, and that can only be a good thing.
When did the Wenners tell you they were thinking of getting outside investment?
Before the process began.
Did they tell you that when you came on as an investor in 2016?
That was not something we discussed immediately, but we understood the situation at hand and recognized that could be a possibility.
What was their rationale for selling a stake to an outside investor?
They still had a passion for the brand and they weren’t interested in exiting completely. I can’t speak for them, but that’s my understanding. I’m buoyed that they have a renewed commitment to the brand, and this deal gives them an opportunity to participate and be actively involved and be part of the future.
Will you be doing more Rolling Stone sponsored events?
Yes, there’s an opportunity for live events on a global perspective, in the U.S., as well as overseas. That’s part of our remit to operate and build upon. With Penske’s presence in the U.S. and our position overseas, Rolling Stone has the ability to grow and expand in that area.
Does print still play a big role in Rolling Stone’s future?
The strategic operations of the business is something that will be developed out of collaborative conversations. But, if you ask me about my own personal view of the importance of print and its sustainability in the modern environment, I believe that Variety is a great example of how print can be a viable, high quality product. Quality is everything. It’s tangible, it remains with you, and it doesn’t dissipate into the ether. Print’s role has changed, but it’s still very important.
How would you describe the Rolling Stone brand?
Rolling Stone has arguably been the most influential and important voice in pop culture for the last 50 years. Its roots are in and will continue to be in music. It’s more than that, because music is so linked to culture, and all the relationships that come with that, whether it’s politics or film or TV. It’s a representation of the state of the world as it is, was, and will be.