By Hans Ebert
Back in the day- and these days, more and more of us are going back to those days because, well, it was where everything that actually meant anything, especially music- Rock fans couldn’t wait to get their hands on the latest issue of Rolling Stone. There was Crawdaddy, Creem and the Village Voice, but when in 1967 Jann Wenner published Rolling Stone working out of a warehouse in San Francisco, it took journalism- Rock journalism up a notch. If the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, then Rolling Stone was the bible.
Writers like Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Ben Fong-Torres, Lester Bangs, PJ O’Rourke, Timothy White, a very young Cameron Crowe, who went on to write and direct the autobiographical “Almost Famous”, and the great and incredibly knowledgeable Ralph Gleason, not only wrote about music and interviewed musicians, they hung out with them all- Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Lennon, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Clapton etc. Those Rolling Stone covers photographed by the brilliant Annie Leibovitz have become collectors items. Dr Hook even wrote about what it meant to be on the cover of the magazine.
Like waiting for the latest Beatles, Dylan or Stones album, we didn’t want to miss out on owning the latest issue of Rolling Stone. Their were bragging rights involved. We trusted the writers and we believed their reviews of records. We believed the reviews because they had made the time to speak to the artists about their art. And this made a huge difference in appreciating the music. It was credible, relevant, incisive writing. It made some of us decide to get into journalism and charge whatever was going through our Tiffany twisted minds at that time. And when Dr Hunter Thompson brought Gonzo journalism to the pages of Rolling Stone, we understood the mystery train of Fear And Loathing that he was taking us on, and where we never knew who’d be there waiting at the next station. Yes, Rolling Stone was a long and winding trip into the unknown. But the timing was right, and we enjoyed the ride.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but that trip finally ran out of steam for many. Music had changed, minds had been altered, and the harsh realities and commitment and investment in marriages had taken over from chasing dreams. We might have been chasing dreams, but only as hobbyists.
And now Singapore-based Brandlab Technologies and its social networking music site, has purchased 49 percent of Rolling Stone. The tweets below will save me the time of regurgitating the back story of the sale- it’s still a bit patchy to comprehend- and the parties involved, but the big question is Why and whether this might turn out to be another MTV Asia. Let’s hope not.
When the US-based music channel was launched in this region, much was expected- a global brand that was going to take music and musicians in Asia where they had never gone before, and with everyone wanting their MTV more than Dire Straits did. But sometimes, the obvious becomes overlooked in all the excitement and the affectations to be seen as purveyors of all things cool. And all those steering this ship of cool into previously uncharted waters soon saw MTV Asia become a rudderless ship of fools.
Being with PolyGram music at the time, it was somewhat surprising when the music company was somehow persuaded to be a joint venture partner of MTV Asia. More horrifying was being pulled in to deal with the channel’s “gweilos”. It was a partnership doomed from day one because of the ugly politics involving warring factions within the hires in Asia. But that wasn’t all.
It didn’t take long for PolyGram to put a cap on its investment as the ship was sinking faster than The Love Boat minus the love as the marriage between the music company and music channel was always fraught with tension- mainly distrust. There was very little advertising, the costs of running the channel and its army of staff and production house in Singapore was way too much to absorb. Equally suffocating was the bullshit, especially all the questions that could not be answered about the costs of running this production house, and the fact that those who green lighted the move to Asia having done a shoddy job when it came to due diligence. Either that or they had been very smart in ensuring that the really big bucks stopped with them.
More importantly, one size- and one MTV- didn’t fit all. Viewers in the Philippines, for instance had no interest in watching music videos from Indonesia, India wanted its own version of MTV as did Mainland China. And so it went on like any dysfunctional family. Today, like Channel [V], MTV Asia plods along pumping out content through three different beams- one channel to India, another to Greater China and the other to Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia- and is almost like visual Muzak where the channels flicker away in the background with the sound off. It’s all irrelevant. It’s all just a click and flick away.
As for Rolling Stone, most believe the 49 percent purchase to be a trophy investment- a global brand that despite having lost its edge still being an iconic name which will be hyped and parlayed for around three years before being sold off to some big money shaker in Mainland China wanting their own bragging rights. But take away this cynicism, and where might this new chapter of Rolling Stone end up without gathering too much moss, and getting bogged down in some cow pasture?
Let’s start with the music: Where is it in Asia so it can be all things to all people, and which can travel and be accepted by all music fans in Asia? A Mr Psy and Gangnam Style with worldwide accessibility doesn’t come around too often. If it means moving into the concert business, well, that’s a game of chance, whereas the entire entertainment industry is this strange cocktail of one-sided contracts, tough licensing deals, Rights issues, approval processes where it’s easier for those owning content to say no, while on the other side of the fence are the music fans and consumers who are part of a generation that want everything, but don’t wish to pay for anything. It’s money for nothing and everything for free. And more and more of everything. It’s hoarding gone haywire.
As for BrandLab, it’s owned by 28-year-old Kuok Meng Ru, below, who certainly seems to be a genuine music fan with his heart in the right place judging by the other music related products in his still very young portfolio. But in business, heart and head must come together.
Being the third son of billionaire Kuok Khoon Hong, the family who recently sold the South China Post to Alibaba, helps as, more and more, life is a network. And a powerful family with business interests everywhere certainly opens doors.
Jann Wenner retaining controlling interest in Rolling Stone in the sale is a decent throw of the dice to see what type of ripple effect this might cause and how it could benefit his son Gus, who runs the digital arm of the magazine. It’s a tale of two generations with music being the glue and ties that bind, and, of course, with Asia there always being the China Dream. But making that dream become a reality to the West when it comes to music has been one very Long March with nothing much to show.
Here’s hoping something relevant and creative comes of this purchase and partnership- an East/West business partnership that can bring an International sound through all manner of collaborations to what is still a very small community of creative talent. It’s something MTV were in a position to do with MTV Asia, but which never happened. The politics got in the way. So did the egos. If Gus Wenner and Kuok Meng Ru can quickly make even one East/West collaboration happen and make this available on a number of delivery platforms, it just might create a ripple effect that will show everyone that this partnership really means business- one that will inspire the creative community in Asia that music out here really has a future instead of being stuck in the past and in a rut.