Magazines

Massage Milk on the Chinese version of Rolling Stone

The Chinese-language edition of Rolling Stone magazine, much anticipated by rock fans, comes out this month, and the ever-entertaining Massage Milk offers his thoughts, translated below:

How far can Rolling Stone roll?

by Wang Xiaofeng

With much fanfare, the Chinese edition of Rolling Stone makes its mainland debut.

For a lot of young Chinese people, especially rock fans, Rolling Stone entered our consciousness over ten years ago. For Chinese readers at the time, actually getting a chance to read Rolling Stone was as hard as getting American action movies, but people brought up the name so often in their articles that its reputation far preceeded it. What kind of magazine was it? What rock fan didn't know that there was an American magazine called Rolling Stone? For me, at least, it was always an object of respect.

As Chinese people gained more understanding of the outside world, Rolling Stone became the stuff of kids' rock n' roll dreams: You can start a band, you can start a rock magazine, you can fulfill all your post-adolescent fantasies. The rock rags of the late 90s, most notably XMusic and I Love Rock, became the testbed for Rolling Stone's China dream. The magazines' brash, unfettered style and attacks against traditional music magazines' snobbish, hackneyed writing weren't the only things that they took from Rolling Stone. Even a lot of the design was copied from them. Rolling Stone had that kind of far-reaching influence on Chinese music fans.

Before Chinese media were baptized at the font of commercialism, the concept of a foreign-branded magazine was a tough nut for us to crack. Its foreignness was sometimes the first thing that people hit upon: copying a magazine is easy, but developing a market is hard. The relationship between a magazine and the market behind it is something that a lot of people often overlook. Details are what make or break you, and details are what we most often forget to think about. For the Chinese readership, it's sometimes hard to understand why Rolling Stone picks Jim Kelly, or the Simpsons, or Sandra Bullock, or political figures totally unrelated to rock on its covers. It is precisely because Rolling Stone is not purely a music magazine, or an entertainment magazine - much less fashion or current events.

By extension, the words "rolling stone" beg a question: If you throw out a stone, how far it can roll is determined by many factors. When Rolling Stone was founded, it was absolutely a music magazine, and from there it kept growing and maturing, and covering an ever-wider range of affairs, but its starting point - young people's concerns about life, fashion, art, and consumerism - never changed. The content it's amassed in its 38 years provides ample proof that while it takes music as its central point, the magazine looks beyond music, to life in general. In Rolling Stone, music becomes a window on to the wider world, and articles draw as much relation as possible between music and society as a whole. Rolling Stone is in the end a pop culture magazine.

I'm sure that as an established brand, in the short term, all of the copies and hullaballoo caused by Rolling Stone will make its prospects seem golden, with a straight and easy road ahead of it. The Chinese XMusic and AV World used to be two fairly successful music magazines. Now think about it: stick the two of them together, and isn't it something like Rolling Stone? Nobody's ever thought about it, because even if you do combine the strengths of the two magazines you won't get a Rolling Stone. That's what the Chinese edition of Rolling Stone is, though: XMusic plus AV World, though the result isn't quite the same. The reason? It's got the "Rolling Stone" brand on it. Also, from looking at the thing, its printing, quality, design, and photography are all miles ahead of domestic magazines of the same type. It's starting from a higher point, it's got a brand that can protect it, and at 20 yuan an issue, it has a nice heft to it when you pick it up. Pour erguotou into an XO bottle and it'll sell at XO prices. That's the strength of a brand. Reading Rolling Stone is a completely diffrent experience from reading XMusic or AV World: it completely satisfies our branded life philosophy.

Rolling Stone arrives at a time when China still hadn't produced a successful pop culture magazine. Its entry into China isn't just a signal or a sign; it's an awkward situation. One of the world's most established, fashionable brands, Rolling Stone's birth cries come as music to the ears of Chinese rock fans. Rolling Stone's American birth in 1967 came at the just right time -- though of course, any time at all would've been the right time in America. In China, it seems like no matter what the magazine is, it's always the wrong time, and Rolling Stone faces this very problem.

First, how many Cui Jians does China have? Before Rolling Stone came out, I'd wondered who'd be on its first cover. I couldn't think of more than five people: first off, they'd have to be a symbol; second, it had to be someone that people still paid attention to. Next, it had to be someone with some connection to music. I thought and I thought and I couldn't think of anyone besides Cui Jian. That I was able to call it so easily isn't a case of great minds thinking alike; it's a case of a seriously small candidate pool. This is different from the early days of Rolling Stone in America: its first cover featured John Lennon. Even if Jann Wenner hadn't picked Lennon for his cover, he'd have had plenty of other choices. His Chinese counterpart Hao Fang has a shortage of goods to deal with. Anyone could've figured Cui Jian would be on the cover of the first issue. It's not hard to see that producing a music magazine in China ranks with boxing, construction, and playing American football as a high-risk occupation. There's not much in the way of real gossip or resources to dish out. Rolling Stone faces the same fate as other Chinese-language editions of foreign magazines: it needs to localize, but then faces the problem of finding local resources. Even if you add up all of the Chinese rock ever produced - just about 20 years or so - the entire industry probably produces less music in a year than a single American state. Don't even talk about quality or worth. If Rolling Stone sticks with people at Cui Jian's level, they'll run out of people in a year or so. It has the advantage of being able to use its parent brand, but how much of the content will attract Chinese readers? That's a question mark for now.

Second, print media is on its way out. It may never disappear, but if you look at the way things are going you'll see that it's being battered by online media, losing readers and - more crucially - advertisers. Rolling Stone joins the New York Times Time magazine, and other print standbys in facing decreasing advertising revenues and layoffs worldwide. America as a country enjoys reading periodicals; that's why Rolling Stone has sales in the millions there. What's the Chinese edition, facing the continuous development of online media, a scarcity of musical resources, a small rock scene, and a public not in the habit of reading, going to do? I'm sure it will be very pretty, but it's not going to change the situation. In 2000, Rolling Stone had a rocky period in America when Wenner fired some mid- and high-level executives and replaced them with people who had better marketing instincts, in order to compete with new, competing youth publications like Blender. For an established magazine to be shaken by a new one this way doesn't mean that Blender was necessarily a better magazine, just that it was better able to win youth readership. That Rolling Stone's readership abandoned it in favor of Blender suggests that in America, Rolling Stone is too old-school. In China, that's not the case at all - it's awful lonely at the top, and the magazine can fill a void in the market and set the standard for quality in music and rock periodicals. But how much of a market does it really have? Another question mark.

Third, the pop music scene in China - and the Chinese-speaking world as a whole - is worrisome. The industry has never had any real organization. The Hong Kong and Taiwanese music industries took a dive starting in the mid- to late 90s, and their pop stars all defected to the mainland. On the mainland, the conversion of the non-commercial operations of the 80s to the ridiculously commercial operations of the 90s has warped and bent the industry. There are no rules, no standards, to rational, experienced leadership, no comprehensive legal protection. There's no environment for fostering new talents, and even if venture capital flooded into the industry today, it wouldn't change the chaotic situation. The popularity of online music has permitted people in the industry to abandon traditional business models and make their businesses even more nebulous. Capital consolidation has relegated what few musical resources there were into the hands of a small group of people. In this day and age, there's no way for new stars to be born, or for new trends to arise. It is a mess, a football skirmish with no rules. Jann Werner founded his magazine in time for the great 60s, and the memories of that magical era will always be associated with it. "Yesterday once no more."
The current era can't provide the Chinese edition of Rolling Stone any fuel for its fire. What can it provide? That's another question mark.

The Chinese edition of Rolling Stone is like a Hollywood blockbuster. It created this dream, and people used their dedication to music to realize this dream. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and I hope it can go on rolling forever, on past all the challenges and obstacles it faces in China, I just thought of something Cui Jian sang years ago, the lyrics to some silly youth anthem: "We can't fly, but we won't turn back / Let the ocean thunder and the fierce winds blow / You're just the music for our setting-out."

What will decide the fate of the Chinese edition of Rolling Stone isn't its content, but its operations.

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