Somewhat Like a Rolling Stone

1967 was the year The Doors released its self-named album. Elvis and Priscilla were wed. Jimi came out with Are You Experienced? And before the year was out, the Beatles set out on The Magical Mystery Tour. 1967 was the year that Kurt Cobain was born; the year that Woody Guthrie died.

1967 was the year Rolling Stone was launched.

Although the newsprint biweekly seemed rather unusual in a period when Life magazine was thick and glossy and The Saturday Evening Post had some of the best writing going, it became an important voice because Jann Wenner and his editors had the good sense to give assignments to Tom Wolfe—The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities were consequences of writing Wolfe did for the publication—and Hunter S. Thompson, a man who we could use right now to chronicle the mendacious beasts that are slithering on the political scene today. In 1973 Annie Leibovitz became the chief photographer for the magazine, creating images that have become both signature and timeless.

Fifty-three years later, Rolling Stone still exists.

But like anything 53 years on, it isn’t what it once was.

Today Rolling Stone is owned by Penske Business Media, a privately held firm that is headed by Jay Penske. His father is Roger Penske, perhaps the most legendary still existing person in motor sports. Penske pere, for example, as a racecar team owner, has not only won more Indianapolis 500 races than anyone (18 times), but last year he bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The family does it big. To its credit, Penske Business Media owns a range of magazines, from Art in America to Variety. Anyone who keeps journalism alive deserves our thanks.

I recently got an email solicitation from Rolling Stone that said that were I to subscribe post-haste I would get “instant access” (once there would have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to “instant karma”) to:

• Exclusive interviews
• Award-winning features
• Trusted music, TV, and movie reviews
• In-depth political commentary
• Stunning original photography

And I suspect that while all of those areas have sufficiency and probably sometimes excellence, Wenner’s own interviews in the early years are rightfully legendary; the feature writing isn’t Wolfe in his prime; Thompson has never been eclipsed; and, well, Leibovitz.

But let’s put all that aside.

Here’s the thing that really drove the stake through any possibility that I would have considered achieving “instant access.”

Were I to have signed up, in addition to saving 50% on the publication, I would have gotten a “FREE Rolling Stone Tote Bag.”

Yes, the sort of thing that PBS and AARP provides to members who sign up for things.

But then again, it is 53 years old.


Broadcast Music, Inc., better recognized by its acronym BMI, has been around since 1939, which makes it significantly older than Rolling Stone, at 81. The business of BMI is to sell licenses to outfits that publicly play music.

While COVID-19 has had a fairly devastating effect on musicians and music-based venues from bars to stadia, this past week BMI announced:

“Despite the unprecedented impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, BMI closed its fiscal year ended June 30 with historic revenue and royalty distributions. The company generated $1.311 billion in revenue, a $28 million increase over the previous year and distributed and administered $1.233 billion to its affiliated songwriters, composers and publishers, 3% or $37 million more than last year. For the fifth consecutive year, these results represent the highest reported public performance revenues and royalty distributions of any music rights organization in the world.”

While those numbers are certainly impressive, here’s something about them that is even more surprising than a tote bag: the company estimates that because its “general licensing sector,” which includes things like bars, restaurants, fitness centers, and retail establishments, was affected by COVID-19—as in their being closed for weeks or months and therefore not playing music over their audio systems—BMI took a $60-million hit.

Like the recent RIAA numbers, it turns out that digital sources where a big source of revenue for BMI, representing 32% of its domestic revenues, or $304 million. According to BMI it is “the first time the digital category eclipsed all others.”

It saw significant growth in subscription streaming services—BMI entered digital audiovisual licensing agreements with Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, and Peacock this fiscal year. The cable and satellite-based income came in at $271-million.

Radio, incidentally, although up 21% compared to last year, came in at $155 million, which is just over half of what those streaming sources brought it—and apparently that $155 million was boosted by “BMI’s rate court settlement with the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) that resulted in a new agreement and retroactive payments.” So conceivably the number would have been less were it not for that.

Apparently the world of songwriters, composers and publishers is growing, as BMI reports that it has added nearly 100,000 new ones to its roster.

And here’s something that is exceedingly remarkable: it processed nearly two-trillion—that’s a 2 with 12 zeros—performances this past fiscal year.

Then play on.

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