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How Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner built and lost a rock-and-roll empire

“Sticky Fingers” author Joe Hagan says his new biography of Wenner ends on a “tragic” note for both the man and his groundbreaking magazine.

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Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner
Rolling Stone co-founder and publisher Jann Wenner
Chance Yeh / Getty Images

In 1967, Jann Wenner loaded himself into a slingshot and fired himself across the next half-century of pop culture. In the new book “Sticky Fingers,” biographer Joe Hagan chronicles how Wenner created Rolling Stone magazine and became the gatekeeper of rock music — and eventually, all pop culture.

“To get a magazine in the mail, that was the entire internet,” Hagan said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “You’d get a record at the record store, you would go over the liner notes, and whatever else it said on it, and that was as much as you were going to know about these guys. [Rolling Stone] was the entire universe delivered on a platter.”

Wenner’s genius was taking rock music seriously, at a time when no one else was.

“He was able to package and kind of define a culture that had, up to that point, not been defined,” Hagan said. “It looked like a newspaper that your parents would get, except it had stoners in it. So this was like a revelation. If you’re 18 and you want to listen to Iron Butterfly, here's your magazine.”

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It’s been a long time since Rolling Stone had a monopoly on culture, and now Wenner is leaving the business, well past the print era’s prime and having made crucial mistakes.

Even though Wenner proposed Hagan’s biography and cooperated with him for four years, opening his extensive archives of personal letters and memorabilia (“He saved every last shred of toilet paper”), he then publicly denounced the book and distanced himself from Hagan. The issue was that, rather than lionizing Wenner, Hagan delved into those business mistakes, as well as Wenner’s sexual and narcotic escapades, producing a book that Wenner called “tawdry.”

One of the sources of Wenner’s mistakes was the internet, which — like many print publishers — he ignored until it was too late.

“A lot of getting successful in this business or any other is being willing to try and fail, and then try and fail again, and see how much risk taking you’re ready to do,” Hagan said. “But he didn’t see [the internet], he saw a black hole there, and he wasn’t going to go there.”

And then there were the bigger errors: Wenner had an opportunity to trade control of Rolling Stone for 25 percent of MTV in the early 1980s, but didn’t. In 2006, he took out a $300 million loan to buy back control of Us Magazine from Disney, right as the print business was about to tumble off a cliff. And when Hearst offered to buy his empire in a deal that could have made him a billionaire, he passed.

Since then, Wenner has had to sell Men's Journal, Us Magazine and half of the ownership of Rolling Stone. Now he’s in the process of selling the other half.

“Do you want to be as rich as God and have a ton of money?” Hagan asked. “Can you let go of this thing? In a way, it’s such a ... Shakespearean moment for me. It kind of plays that way in the book. What we’re seeing since then is the result of that decision. It’s got a tragic element to it.”

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