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Generation Hex : Rolling Stone Has Long Dominated Rock Journalism, but Some Industry Insiders Say Spin Now Has the Advantage in Coverage of the Crucial Alternative Scene


Rolling Stone, since its launch in 1967, has been at the center of the rock 'n' roll universe, its leading journal of developing trends and the No. 1 arbiter of taste. To be featured on the magazine's cover is to reach a milestone, as Dr. Hook only half-joked in his 1972 novelty hit "The Cover of 'Rolling Stone.' " Its circulation alone--more than 1.2 million--makes Rolling Stone the king of rock journals.

But there is a growing perception in the recording industry that 10-year-old Spin magazine has chipped away at the ruler's crown, at least in terms of its ability to reach the core rock audience.

According to interviews with more than a dozen industry insiders--record company executives, publicists, managers and radio station programmers--Spin is the voice that speaks most directly and effectively to the alternative-rock listeners who have fueled the emergence of the genre into rock's most powerful force in the '90s.

Whereas alternative rockers have to compete for space in Rolling Stone with movie and TV stars, supermodels and classic rockers, Spin has focused almost exclusively on alternative acts, such as Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Hole and Soundgarden. This has helped build Spin's image as the magazine where fans get tipped off to pivotal trendsetters.

"People who are buying music now think first about Spin," a 40-ish record company executive said. "People my age think of Rolling Stone."

According to a publicist for a major record company, "Spin just has a younger, hipper audience."

The manager of a popular punk band, decrying Rolling Stone's wider focus on subjects other than rock, called it "a lifestyle magazine for the BMW crowd . . . a notch away from Entertainment Weekly," while a record company executive described Spin as "more edgy and aggressive."

Others surveyed said that Rolling Stone, despite a renewed focus on younger bands, is seen as less adventurous and not as music-driven as in the past. Spin, on the other hand, is seen as cooler and fresher and, because of that perception, is considered a more appropriate launching pad for a developing band, despite a circulation that is only about one-third the size of Rolling Stone's.

"I think it's absolutely true, but it's embodied even in traditional artists like Neil Young being more concerned about being on the cover of Spin than the cover of Rolling Stone," said Spin editor and publisher Bob Guccione Jr., who will feature Young on the cover of his September issue. "We've had any number of artists come to us and say, 'Look, we've been offered a cover by Rolling Stone, but we'd much rather have a cover of Spin. What are our chances?'

"It's become clear to [the record industry] that this is the magazine that record buyers are turning to. We've been there long before the Generation X phenomenon. The young people growing up have no tradition with Rolling Stone. Their tradition is with Spin."

Jann Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone, acknowledged his competitor's impact.

"Spin has made some good calls," he said. "We're aware of the sentiment and the perception, sometimes the reality, that Spin has beaten us on a couple of things. We're not sitting back. We're going to go out and aggressively do our very best."

But Rolling Stone, Wenner added, has a much broader focus.

"We can't be exclusively about cutting-edge rock, although we do cover it, and cover it well," he said. "Generally, we want to cover it when it gets a little more popular. . . .

"But even with our failings and our commitment to covering other kinds of entertainment as well as a broader range of rock . . . I still think our track record is the best."

Nobody will dispute that Rolling Stone is thriving. Its gross revenue for 1994 was almost $125 million.

And the insiders contacted for this story all acknowledged any artist would likely benefit from appearing in Rolling Stone. In fact, it is a testament to the magazine's power and influence that, for fear of possibly alienating Rolling Stone, those contacted asked to speak anonymously.

"The advantage of getting into Rolling Stone is you reach a whole lot more people," a publicist for a major label said. "The advantage of Spin is this perception of credibility. There is a part of the [rock] readership that is more enamored of what Spin tells them is happening than what Rolling Stone does."

Another publicist called it a matter of imaging: "A Rolling Stone cover for a new band can feel really hype-y, can feel very fabricated, whereas a Spin cover feels much more organic."

A record company executive said that Rolling Stone, in broadening its coverage over the years to include all types of music and other entertainment, has lost sight of what was once its core audience.

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