Jann S. Wenner founded Rolling Stone magazine in San Francisco in 1967. With Wenner at the helm for 35 years, the grass-roots counterculture magazine originally published on newsprint has evolved into a glossy pop-culture institution, always covering politics and current events relevant to the zeitgeist. He has interviewed Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Pete Townshend and Bill Clinton, and has enlisted writing legends Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Lester Bangs, Cameron Crowe and Timothy White, among many others. Jann now spends his days managing the Wenner Media empire, which also houses Us Weekly and Men’s Journal. He has recently attracted the media spotlight for the decision to overhaul Rolling Stone’s format. Jann sat down to talk with scene Editor Joel Resnicow ’03 this week at the Rolling Stone offices in New York.
scene: In the late 1960s, music was irrefutably the linchpin of youth culture, the ultimate expressive outlet for social unrest. Do you think that music has maintained this role as the mouthpiece of the younger generation?
Jann S. Wenner: Yes, it has. I think that music at its best speaks directly to the real experiences of young people. And in the ’60s, when that connection became very compelling because of the political and social impact of the government policies during the post-war baby boom and other things that happened — it became absolutely clear. And since that time, the most popular groups really speak to people about the way their lives really are. You’ve seen it occur again and again, whether it’s U2 or Bruce Springsteen. You see it all throughout rap. The best of popular music still does that today. I think that it’s still as meaningful to a young person. The Strokes will say to a young kid who is frustrated with his life something as meaningful as the Beatles [said] to me in my day — maybe not as good musically, maybe not quite as profound, because the stakes are not as high. But I think it still has that meaning.
Is the meaning less unified and more spread out in different genres?
Well, yes. Of course, all this takes place in a slightly different context. We now have the explosion of media and, within that, media that is far more relevant to young people than [it was] in the ’60s. The only thing that was really relevant [to young people] then was popular music. There was nothing in the newspapers, on television, [and] in movies that was about youth or for youth. It was all to come, and it certainly did come. Today, it seems like everything is written to young people, whether it’s television shows, movies, everything. Even so, music still has the unique, central role. It speaks to the heart. It expresses things that somehow are inexpressible in other mediums.
Do you think that current and future Sept. 11-inspired art will have the same impact and staying power as, let’s say, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or Neil Young’s “Ohio?”
I don’t know what is inspired by 9/11 except for a lot of journalism — some of which has been very good — and [Bruce Springsteen’s] record. I think Bruce’s record has tremendous staying power. It’s major whether you put it in the context of 9/11 or not. But seen in the context of 9/11, it’s overwhelming. “Rise up, rise up, my city of ruins.” It’s just brilliant. It’s heartbreaking.
Do you have any general predictions for the direction of music in the next few years?
I’ve been asked that question for many years now, and what I said before I’ll say again, which is: It depends on the artists. The biggest change in popular music has been the rise of rap, and a great deal has been absorbed into rock. I think mainstream rock — like the Rolling Stones — has tremendous vitality. I think that it’s just staying around, waiting for some new artist to emerge. You can just see the vitality. Dylan just put out a five-star record, and he’s like 65. People ask the question: Why are the Rolling Stones at age 60 still on tour, still the best band, and still having a great time? Why are they still better than everybody else, and why are they still around? What is it about them and this music? I hope that the idea that you have to look like a juvenile delinquent to be relevant is gone. Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Muddy Waters — these people performed and were brilliant till their very last years.
People today have an overwhelming variety of media outlets. Has this diversity improved the overall quality of the media?
Yes and no. To some, it’s really sharpened them up. The good ones have gotten better. Arguably the network news is better than it has been before. The New York Times is better than it’s ever been. The rest get worse and worse, more and more mediocre. But overall, the good institutions [and] the good magazines have gotten better.
Who is to blame for the music industry slump? And whose responsibility is it to facilitate change?
I think the blame is to go all around. It’s a bunch of different reasons. First, there hasn’t been that much super-compelling music. Number two, you’ve got all the other media competing with the music that is diverting people’s attention, purchasing and interests, including the artists. And also you have the economic situation. It’s not a fertile climate. And you’ve got what I think is bone-headed and narrow-minded management at the record companies about pricing, nurturing the artists and promoting new music. Instead they raise prices, narrow choices and restrict promotion.
I’ve often heard the comparison a lot to venture capital. In tough times, record companies just can’t take as many or as big risks on artists.
Well, I think that’s when you do want to take big risks. But with the record business, we’re not talking about big risks. We’re not talking about billion-dollar investments. We’re talking about records that can cost anywhere between $250,000 to $2,000,000 to release and promote. Those are not huge risks for a billion-dollar company, to put out a million-dollar record. It’s not even that they don’t spend; it’s the fact that they don’t promote access. They don’t allow anything. They shut down the Internet radio sites. It counters what they should be doing.
Will Internet technology prove to be a positive force in the music industry any time soon?
I think so. I think that it sustains the music. It’s making all sorts of catalogs and other stuff available to young people who otherwise couldn’t afford it. The young kids can’t go out and buy the whole Beatles catalog, but they can get some of it on the Internet, and then they learn about it, and they might buy some. So I think that it’s good for music. And I think it can be good for the music business too, but they refuse to find out. They just want to fight it rather than figure how to embrace it and make it work.
How has the state of the music industry changed the direction of entertainment journalism?
The new direction of Rolling Stone: we’re adding more music. We’re printing more pages per issue. And we’ve continued our focus on general-interest subjects: politics, national affairs, all that stuff. We’re just going to make it better. We are still going to run long articles, but we are also going to run more short articles and get a little newsier to try and cover things a little faster, [rather] than sitting around for three months waiting for a 7,000-word piece. When it comes out, [it’s] a little out of date because of all the other media that’s around. Our need to do a 10,000-word investigative piece is lessened, because by that time, you’ve already read about it and seen it on TV. I think that less faster is better than longer slower. That’s just the reality of media today in the information process. It has nothing to do with abandoning journalism principles or commitment to great writing.
In 1995, you asked Mick Jagger in an interview, “H
ow would you sum up the last 30 years?” I believe he responded “[Ah. God. You f—],” perhaps as a joke. So I figure that it’s not out of line for me to ask you: How would you sum up the last 35 years?
There’s a great answer to a somewhat similar question. In my interview with John Lennon, the last question I asked him was, if you had a picture of yourself when you’re 64, what would your picture be? I was only 27 years of age, which may seem old to you now but from my perspective was young– and impetuous and crazy. But anyway, I asked him what your picture of when I’m 64 is, and he said, “[I hope we’re a nice old couple living off the coast of Ireland or something like that] — looking at our scrapbook of madness.”