Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone magazine’s first Australia-New Zealand issue features The Wiggles (Design: Archi Banal)

MediaSeptember 24, 2022

What’s Rolling Stone up to in New Zealand?

Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone magazine’s first Australia-New Zealand issue features The Wiggles (Design: Archi Banal)

Does the iconic publication really have plans to fully cover the depth and breadth of Aotearoa’s music scene, or was its glitzy launch party all for show?

With its glass walls and ceiling and leafy interior, the Glasshouse in the Auckland suburb of Morningside doesn’t seem like the kind of venue a rowdy awards ceremony should be held. Yet, on a Wednesday night in late August, a who’s who of Aotearoa’s music industry crammed in to experience a brand new mouthful of a ceremony, the Panhead Rolling Stone New Zealand Awards.

The night was a success, says Poppy Reid, the event’s organiser, and not everyone who wanted to come made the list. Delayed by Covid, the ceremony grew beyond her initial ambitions. “There was a huge wait wait list of people that really wanted to go to the event,” confirms Reid. “It made it feel like a bit of a hot ticket event.”

Rolling Stone awards
A reveller enjoys the Panhead Rolling Stone New Zealand Awards. (Photo: Rolling Stone)

The Spinoff wasn’t invited, but one attendee told me she nestled herself in beside a gigantic pot plant and watched familiar faces – label reps, PR peeps, media veterans and some of the country’s biggest musicians – mingling, enjoying canapés and free drinks, as well as performances by Stan Walker, Rob Ruha and Six60, who each performed songs in both English and te reo Māori.

A grand total of four awards were given out that night. Lorde wasn’t there to receive her global award, but Six60 showed up to accept the best single trophy for ‘Pepeha’. LAB won the night’s biggest prize, best record, which came with a diamond-encrusted Rolling Stone ring worth $6000. They also didn’t attend. The best new artist winner, who also received a ring, used his acceptance speech to rightly point out that he is hardly “new”. Teeks released his debut, The Grapefruit Skies EP, in 2017. In November, he is headlining Spark Arena.

‘That’s pretty bling’, said Teeks when he tried on his Rolling Stone diamond ring. (Photo: Twitter)

The event was more than just competition for the Aotearoa Music Awards, the country’s official awards showcase, held toward the end of the year. It was also a launch party for Rolling Stone, the long-running American music magazine that, aside from occasionally covering big name pop star Lorde, hasn’t had an official presence in Aotearoa since the early 1980s – until now.

Starting this month, Australian media company The Brag is printing an official Australia-New Zealand Rolling Stone offshoot; cover price $16.99. The magazine will be available in retail stores quarterly, and it promises dedicated coverage of Aotearoa’s music scene. The first issue came out earlier this month and featured The Wiggles on the cover, minus New Zealand’s part-time Wiggle Robbie Rakete. A section of Rolling Stone’s Australian website has also been devoted to New Zealand music coverage.

Several local industry figures spoken to for this piece, who asked not to be named or quoted, voiced concerns about what the publication’s long-term goals were, and whether it could cover the full depth and breadth of Aotearoa music from its Australian base. They queried who chose its award winners, and asked what gave Rolling Stone the authority to dish them out having launched only recently. Having a launch party is one thing, but hosting an awards ceremony before you’ve begun to build your presence in that territory is another, one said.

Aside from the trade and industry freebie NZ Musician, Aotearoa hasn’t had a dedicated music print publication since Rip It Up folded for good back in 2015. As one friend asked in a text message a few days after the glitzy, star-studded awards ceremony, “WTF are they doing?”

On a Zoom call one recent afternoon, The Brag Media’s editor-in-chief Poppy Reid and executive editor Jake Challenor Zoomed into frame to answer that question. Reid, a New Zealander of Ngāi Takoto and Ngāpuhi descent who has lived in Australia since the age of 15, was in her hometown of Sydney, while Challenor was at home on the Sunshine Coast. Covid has taught them to work remotely, says Reid. “Our news editor is in San Francisco … we have a bunch of Melbourne correspondents,” she says. “We find ways to get together through cool work events.”

Not joining us was Conor Lochrie, a half-Scottish, half-Irish writer who moved to Auckland from Melbourne only recently, then picked up a job as Rolling Stone’s sole New Zealand-based staff writer. “He’s going to a festival … umm … I can’t remember the name of it,” Reid attempted to confirm, scrolling through her emails. “The Others Way? A massive festival. That will be good.” She’s talking about the hugely popular annual festival spread across multiple Karangahape Road venues. This year’s festival, in October, features Nadia Reid, Dance Exponents, Che Fu and SWIDT.

Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone Australia-New Zealand’s first cover stars, The Wiggles. (Photo: Rolling Stone)

The launch of the magazine, and the glitzy awards ceremony, was supposed to happen back in 2020, says Reid. Rolling Stone magazine used to have an Australian edition, but that ended in 2018. Thanks to a new partnership between The Brag and Rolling Stone’s owners, the American media giant PMC, it decided to extend the magazine’s reach into Aotearoa. “We looked at the data and saw that we reached 20% of New Zealand anyway … we thought, ‘Let’s make it legit,'” says Reid. She has another motive: “Dad will think I’m cool.”

Covid threw a spanner into the works, but in May, 2020, they decided to push ahead with an Australia-only launch. It was, admits Reid, a risky time to be launching a magazine business when print titles were folding all around them – including in New Zealand. “We were like, ‘Obviously we won’t do a print magazine. News agencies aren’t even open, so should we do this?'” The Brag’s CEO Luke Girgis decided to take a gamble, says Reid. “He said, ‘While everyone’s laying down, let’s stand up.'”

It worked, says Reid. The first magazine featured busker-turned-pop star Tones and I on the cover. It quickly sold out and Reid says copies of it were sold on eBay for a 300% markup. When it happened again with the second issue, featuring Sia, they realised it was no fluke. “Everything in life is cyclic,” says Challenor. “Vinyl is now outselling CDs. It’s a similar sort of trend for magazines. Audiences want to touch something, feel something and have that experience. There will always be that audience and it will continue to rebuild.”

Rolling Stone
Tones and I on the cover of Rolling Stone Australia, an issues its editors say sold out. (Photo: Rolling Stone Australia)

Now, starting with its Wiggles September-November issue, the magazine is officially including Aotearoa artists. It’s also in local stores, although when I went to purchase one at Ponsonby specialist shop Mag Nation,  the owner didn’t seem to know anything about it, shaking her head while telling me, “I haven’t heard of it”. I found one of two copies tucked into a shelf behind a pillar.

Before I could bring up local industry concerns, Reid, a recent music journalist of the year winner at the Australian Women in Music Awards, asked for them. “I haven’t heard – what are people saying?” she said. After I relayed the concern over whether Rolling Stone was in the best position to cover our music, Reid pointed out her Aotearoa roots. “I feel like we’re across the New Zealand music industry,” she says. “Myself being Kiwi, I do keep extra tabs on what’s happening in New Zealand a little bit.” In response to awards judging , she said: “We went through a rigorous nominations process. We had a judging panel and then we opened it up to global editors as well to be part of the judging process.”

One key thing that might allay fears is that Rolling Stone is published in 15 countries, and that reach means Reid and Challenor are in a privileged position. They could help push local artists in front of bigger audiences. Recently, a cover story featuring Keith Urban for the Australian edition was repurposed for the American publication, Reid offers as one example. “We talk with global editors all the time. We’re on email threads, we have calls with them. That’s everyone from Rolling Stone Italy to UK … we’ve had cover features translated in different languages and published in different countries. We pitch all of our big features and have had a lot of pick-up.”

Being featured in Rolling Stone, says Reid, is an incredible opportunity for New Zealand artists. “Either through our pitching or through our New Zealand Rolling Stone Awards judging process, we’re hoping they will then be on the radar of some of the most incredible music critics in the world.”

The proof, as no one says, will be in the pages. Based on Rolling Stone’s September-November issue, Reid is tentatively living up to her word. Nine Aotearoa artists are featured in a “Tipped to take over” section, including Dunedin-based indie darlings Marlin’s Dreaming and Paige, the guitar-based singer-songwriter who, until recently at least, was still selling donuts at Krispy Kreme. One of those acts, the four-pieced rock act Coterie, were born in New Zealand but grew up in Perth and remain based there. Each artist gets a one-line description and one song recommendation.

That list will appear in each magazine, says Challenor, and is compiled from the constant stream of music pitches appearing in their inboxes. “We don’t necessarily know their history in New Zealand,” he says. “We’re literally listening to the music going, ‘Are we excited about this? Do we want to put them on this list?'” More compelling are the four pages dedicated to Teeks, and even if Reid’s thoughtful words are geared toward introducing the artist to an Australian audience, I learned several things from her story, including that he was homeless and unemployed around the time of the release of his breakthrough EP The Grapefruit Skies.

Teeks on the set of ‘Remember Me’. (Photo: Mataara Stokes)

Could we see a New Zealand artist like Teeks on the cover? “I would love that,” says Reid. She’s cautious because she’s been told by an American editor that the magazine doesn’t break artists with its covers, it “anoints” them. “That has really stuck with me as our true north when it comes to choosing our cover stars,” says Reid. “It needs to have a global story, some global impact.” Judging by those guidelines, Aotearoa probably only has a couple of options: Lorde, who has already featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in America, and Benee, who has not. “There are definitely a couple we’re looking at,” confirms Reid.

Both Reid and Challenor say it’s too soon to judge them, and they urge the local industry to give them a chance. “It will take six months for us to really get a picture of how it’s been received in the market and how it’s growing,” says Challenor. The dream is to hold more events, more “activations” and to see support for what they’re doing grow. “There will be ways for us to make it feel as relevant to audiences there as it does here,” he says. “It’s early days … it will take time.”

Update: Short-lived versions of Rolling Stone magazine have been published in New Zealand before, in the mid-70s and the early 1980s. 
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