Rolling Stone: A Hit in China?

Along with a host of other U.S. publications, the music mag has arrived in the Middle Kingdom. Can it overcome the unique obstacles there?

Fabled Rolling Stone magazine may be synonymous with countercultural edginess and forward-looking cultural analysis. But in China, the venerable title has arrived a bit late to the party. On Feb. 26, the publication, first launched in 1967 in the U.S., hit the newsstands of mainland China cities including Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.

It is hoping its trademark mix of music and entertainment news -- this time in Chinese -- will connect with the mainland's youthful legions of rock and roll fans. "We look forward to Rolling Stone playing an integral role in chronicling music and entertainment of interest to the young people of China, as it has successfully done in America for almost 40 years," legendary founder and publisher Jann S. Wenner said in the press release heralding the launch.


  With content covering rock legends from Jimi Hendrix to U2, as well as gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the first edition not surprisingly also features a lineup of Asian pop culture celebrities. It includes 27-year-old Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou and the steamy Chinese Internet blogger Muzimei, known for writing in too-much-information detail on her sex life. On the cover, in a Chinese Communist red and gold illustration, is the godfather of Chinese rock 'n' roll, Cui Jian.

In short, Rolling Stone and its Hong Kong publisher, One Media Group (which declined an interview for this article), certainly made a splashy entrance. Yet the Chinese aren't simply going to go crazy because of the arrival of a storied U.S. magazine title. Some Chinese bloggers, for instance, felt underwhelmed.

"So does old Rolling Stone magazine still have any appeal for Chinese youth?" writes well-known countercultural figure and Guangzhou-based graphic designer Ou Ning, on his recently launched blog dedicated to arts, music, and culture. "I stopped reading [the American edition of] the magazine a long time ago. For this new Chinese version to survive will require a lot of effort -- at the very minimum, it will have to be localized and made more appealing to young people."


  A lot of overseas titles face the same challenge, and Rolling Stone is entering a crowded field. Today, Hearst publications Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Harper's Bazaar all have Chinese editions. Rival Hachette Filipacchi Media publishes Elle and Car & Driver, and business titles Forbes, Fortune, and Harvard Business Review all are available, too. (BusinessWeek has had a licensed edition in China since 1986.) And in the last two years, Men's Health, National Geographic Traveler, Marie Claire, and Conde Naste's Vogue all have come to China.

There's good reason: While the magazine business in the U.S. remains largely flat, the market has been clocking 20% growth annually in China. And it will likely average 15% growth for the next few years, predicts IDG Asia CEO and president Hugo Shong. Boston-based IT media, research, and exposition group IDG, in conjunction with Hearst and a local publisher Trends Media, publishes Cosmo, Cosmo Girl, and Esquire on the mainland. IDG also has its own Chinese versions of its key tech titles such as Computer World (the first to come to China in 1980), CIO, and PC World. "There are a lot of foreign enterprises doing business in China, and they need marketing and advertising vehicles, [which is driving the sector's growth]," says Shong.

All told, more than 60 foreign titles now operate in China, estimates IDG's Shong. And while circulation and market-size numbers remain notoriously hard to come by in China's still murky media market, total magazine ad revenues topped $600 million in 2005, up 18% over 2004 levels, according to CTR Market Research, a Beijing-based market information company.

And huge room for growth still exists -- with magazine advertising representing only 2% of total ad expenditures in China. In particular, consumer titles including women's fashion magazines are hot, with total market growth closer to 25%, estimates Shong, noting that his stable of consumer publications are doing even better, with around 35% growth in total revenues.


  It's not all about just minting gold, however. Business or trade titles are facing some of the same challenges as in the U.S., in particular the move of advertising to the Internet. That has slowed growth to single digits in the last year or so, says Shong. "The business side [of the foreign-title business in China] has been declining," he says. "Those that are doing well are the ones with an online solution" or those doing nonpublishing businesses like conferences, he says.

The Chinese market certainly throws up some unique roadblocks to easy success. First, of all, Chinese publications, whether homegrown fashion titles or respected business magazines like Caijing, are quickly turning into formidable rivals. More importantly, China's media minders still haven't lost their innate suspicion toward the disruptive powers of the news business. And that holds particularly true when it comes to foreign titles that still find their scope of business severely restricted on the mainland.

"Anyone who enters the magazine business in China should be thinking long-term, because it is definitely tough out there," says Jeremy Goldkorn, the editor of, a Web site about media and advertising in China. "There is no easy money to be made. And Chinese magazines have learned the tricks of the trade. They have learned very fast how to make glossy magazines that are easy to read and attract ads. And local publications have many fewer regulatory obstacles to fight than the foreign titles."


  The biggest obstacle is simply the approval process. Every foreign magazine that wants to come to China must first get Beijing's General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) -- the responsible regulatory body -- to sign off. And technically the whole content side of publishing is still off limits to foreign companies. That means foreign publications often have to find creative ways to do business. It often involves setting up advertising or consulting joint ventures with local Chinese partners, or publishing offshore in Hong Kong, which has looser regulations on foreign participation. But this leaves them vulnerable to the changing whims of the government.

Indeed, some are speculating that Rolling Stone could even run into trouble down the road. "I think there may be some problems," says one industry insider, who says he is unsure whether Rolling Stone has received formal approval from GAPP for its publication. "If you don't get official authorization, you don't get to continue publication," he says.

"It wouldn't surprise me," says's Goldkorn, who notes that Maxim's China launch was delayed for more than a year because of difficulty getting regulatory approval. "This is a magazine that puts Cui Jian [who was banned for many years in China for his support for the protesting students in Tiananmen Square in 1989] on the cover and wants to represent the counterculture."


  Even so, there are plenty of signs of official support for the business. Indeed, China's GAPP has agreed to allow the International Federation of the Periodical Press to hold its annual congress in Beijing next year. And China will likely release new regulations that open the market further to business and trade publications. "Beijing will always be more comfortable with magazines that focus on making money rather than lifestyle and culture choices," says's Goldkorn.

For now, at least, the godfather of counter culture titles has rolled into the Chinese market. Whether it will be a one-hit wonder or a long-running superstar will be one of the more interesting stories to watch within China's increasingly crowded market for transplanted foreign titles.

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