There comes a time when even Jann Wenner needs a little help from his friends.
After a five-decade run full of interviews with pop stars and presidents, the founder of Rolling Stone is selling 49 percent of the iconic magazine to an Asian billionaire's son. It's the first time Wenner has admitted an outside investor, a deal that encapsulates the plight of an industry fighting to stay relevant in an online age. Wenner Media LLC also owns Us Weekly and Men's Journal.
Founded in 1967, Rolling Stone became a fixture of American pop culture, helping launch the careers of writers and creative artists over almost 50 years. But like many of its peers, the magazine has steadily lost advertising and readership to nimbler online alternatives. In 2014, Wenner tasked his son Gus with devising a digital strategy. Now Wenner, who started Rolling Stone from a San Francisco warehouse, plans to relinquish as much of his magazine as possible without ceding control.
"It's a big moment,'' Gus Wenner, the company's head of digital, said in a phone interview. "There is a great opportunity to take that brand and apply it into new and different areas and markets."
The new investor is Singapore-based BandLab Technologies, a budding digital music concern founded by the 28-year-old scion of one of Asia's richest families. Kuok Meng Ru. The third son of Singapore-based agribusiness tycoon Kuok Khoon Hong, Ru graduated from Cambridge University with a mathematics degree and launched BandLab last year as a social network for musicians and fans. The startup is funded by private investors, including Kuok's father and JamHub Corp., a maker of audio mixers.
"Our growth in digital has been fantastic, but long term, my dad and myself recognize that in order to truly grow and truly transform the business — and we have this incredible brand in Rolling Stone that means so much," they needed a partner in Asia, Wenner said.
BandLab will have no involvement in the editorial side of the magazine. Rather, it will oversee a new Rolling Stone International subsidiary, which will develop live events, merchandising and hospitality.
Kuok said the two sides have been in discussions for about 15 months. "What has happened last 49 years has already shown that Rolling Stone is more than a brand to people," Kuok told Bloomberg News. "It is now our shared responsibility to take it into the future."
Rolling Stone currently reaches a global audience of 65 million people, according to the company. That includes 22 million domestic digital monthly users, almost 18 million social fans and followers, and nearly 12 million readers of the U.S. print publication. The average monthly unique visitors to its website rose almost 40 percent in the first half of this year from a year earlier. It publishes 12 international editions in countries including Australia, Indonesia and Japan.
"Our strategic partnership is focused on brand extensions into new areas," said Wenner.