Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner on Cultivating Creative Talent

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

In 1967, my guest today and a few friends published the first issue of a new magazine. Rolling Stone changed music journalism because it covered rock and roll and other emerging genres seriously. It also shifted the way politics and social issues were covered in America and eventually abroad through its foreign editions with embedded reporting and innovative writing on war, elections, drug use, and the environment.

Its founding editor and publisher, Jann Wenner, spent five decades at its helm, cultivating an impressive crew of editors, designers, and photographers, from Hunter Thompson to Annie Leibovitz. He also featured and befriended some of the biggest names in music, from Bob Dylan, whose song you just heard, to The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, and Bono.

His new memoir chronicles that whole history, and you’ll find more of our conversation in the November/December issue of HBR, and soon on HBR.org. But for this interview, we’re going to focus mainly on spotting and managing creative talent.

ALISON BEARD: Jann, it’s great to have you on the show.

JANN WENNER: Thank you very much.

ALISON BEARD: So, first, let me ask you, why did you launch Rolling Stone?

JANN WENNER: Well, I was a rock and roll fan, and was not a very good guitar player, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to learn more about it. I got consumed by the music and how it affected me and the messages I was getting from it. And I just needed to be a part of what The Lovin’ Spoonful called “the magic that will set you free.”

ALISON BEARD: And I want to just clear it up for people who don’t know, did the name come from the old proverb, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, all of the above?

JANN WENNER: All of the above, but principally, the Bob Dylan song.

ALISON BEARD: And how did you decide on it?

JANN WENNER: We kicked through a bunch of different names. Nothing really sounded quite right. Remember, it was the hippie psychedelic era, so we were trying for quasi-psychedelic names, like the groups had names, like the Jefferson Airplane, or the Grateful Dead. And so, we were thinking of things like the Electric Tomato or the Electric Newspaper, or something like that.

And finally, Rolling Stone was a phrase in a song that defined the times and the things we were thinking about. And Ralph Gleason, my co-founding partner, wrote an essay for The American Scholar called Like a Rolling Stone, in which he laid out all the themes that we were going to explore in the magazine, the basic philosophical underpinning of the magazine, that rock and roll was important, it carried serious social and political messages, that it was a tribal telegraph, a glue that held a generation together.

ALISON BEARD: And how did you assemble your first group of editors and writers, the people who really launched the thing?

JANN WENNER: Well, it was really me and some volunteers, whoever would work for free. We’re very few people. It really was me and Ralph, and the other editor there was a guy named Michael Lydon, who was a Newsweek bureau chief, who at that time could work part-time at midnight, and was a friend of mine. And I think I got a college buddy, Jonathan Cott, to write in the first issue. And somebody who had been reading in another fanzine called me, named Jon Landau to join me. But it was just volunteers. It was free for the almost first year.

ALISON BEARD: And at that point, what was your ambition for it?

JANN WENNER: Just to do something very serious about rock and roll, something that reflected the changes that we saw. We had no particular business plan of any kind, didn’t know anything about the business. I was 21. I had no idea whatsoever about magazine distribution or advertising sales or financial management or planning or forecasting or marketing. Zero.

ALISON BEARD: So, how did you figure that out? How did you get readers?

JANN WENNER: Well, you just learn on the job. We found a magazine distributor in San Francisco at the last minute whose main business was selling yachting magazines and boat magazines. The distributor would send it out to cities around the country, and we sent out 40,000 copies in boxes. We got like 35,000 of them back, unopened, boxes. They were sent to distributors who had never ordered them or didn’t ask for them. You’d just send them out blind. A few stuck out there, and it got into a few people’s hands, and we started getting letters back from people who had seen it and wanted to see more. There was enough letters, like, I don’t know, 20 or 30 letters, that say, “Oh, keep going.”

ALISON BEARD: And, how did you decide which musicians and bands to feature? Obviously, there were very famous musicians at the time, but particularly the up-and-coming ones. How could you and your team predict what might resonate with people?

JANN WENNER: Well, we didn’t try. We discovered what we liked. We didn’t think about what was up and coming or not. There was no thought. It was just what we liked. And, what we liked was John Lennon and The Beatles. And John Lennon was on the first cover.

We didn’t cover what we didn’t like. We only covered what was accessible to us. The implication of all your questions here is that there was some kind of methodology or premeditated intent or knowledge that went into all this. None. It was completely on the fly, spontaneous, catch-as-catch-can, serendipity, other random acts of chance and luck went into it. That was the predominant way this stuff was done.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. In the book, you describe some early growing pains, editorial differences of opinion, where you had to step in and say, “No, this is the direction I want this magazine to go.” So, talk to me a little bit about that move toward a little bit more hierarchy or methodology or a plan.

JANN WENNER: Well, again, it was all intuitive. I had my instincts and my ideas about what the magazine should be and what it should stand for and what it should cover. As I brought in other people to help with it, including, by this time, people who were getting paid and had some professional experience, but still, again, very low on the ladder kind of people who wanted to work for $75 or $100 a week, and quit some other job, or doesn’t have another job. There were differences of opinion, and they were passionately expressed. In those days, everybody was young, in their early 20s. They were working for a purpose that they believed in, not really for money. And, if they disagreed with me, then they would leave. I felt very strongly about my vision.

My vision was that the culture and the messages that music carried on the notions and thoughts of people like Bob Dylan and The Beatles and the Stones. They were expressing what the yearnings of this generation were.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And I will say that your descriptions of those early working environments there was a ton of drug use by yourself and others in the magazine. So, how did you function both personally and as an organization during that time? It seems sort of shocking in retrospect that Rolling Stone became such a success.

JANN WENNER: Well, the drug use was off the premises, except at late-night deadlines, but it wasn’t a daily drug bacchanal by any means. It was the recreation of the time and that culture. It didn’t really bother anybody or get in the way of anything. A lot of time was wasted in having fun, but it didn’t interfere with any of our processes. But also, the idea of having fun, of being happy, infused both what we did and what the message was, which was not a hedonistic have fun, but a life should be happy. Your work should also be fun. You should be gratified and fulfilled with your work. If you’re really good at something and you can do it well and in a way that’s gratifying, and what you’re putting out is helpful for people and helpful for society, then enjoy yourself.

ALISON BEARD: You also identified and worked with some of the greatest writers of the late 20th century: Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe, many others. First, how did you know that they were or would be great? How did you spot them?

JANN WENNER: Well, they were great to begin with. I read a book of Hunter’s about the Hell’s Angels, and thought he was terrific, and I looked him up, and invited him to write for us. And he did, and right from the beginning, he was producing amazingly well-written and funny and precise stuff. Tom Wolfe, again, I was a reader and a fan of his when I was younger, in college and just out of college. He had already been writing for the New York Herald Tribune and New York Magazine, and I looked him up and got him to write for us. So, I had known of these writers. They went on to produce their best work at Rolling Stone for sure, and I offered them the kind of home and place and editing and space that they so wanted and so took advantage of, and the kind of topics and freedom that really nurtured them.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Yeah, distinctive voice seems to be something that you looked for, certainly identified and help them honed. But, they are big creative egos, right?

I think genius comes with that. So, how did you pick their assignments, get them excited about it, get them focused, and then actually reign them in with editing when obviously they were some of the best in the world?

JANN WENNER: Well, I think, first off, my experience is the best talent is oftentimes the easiest to work with, certainly in the area of writers. They are disciplined. They have a vision. They know what they want to do. I think that part of what you have to do is find the right things for them to do. You need to help steer them where they’re naturally inclined to go. So, I would understand both with Tom and with Hunter the kind of things that interested them and the kind of things that sparked their passion, the kind of topics that they could bring some of their insight to, and just encourage them along the way. I didn’t tell them how to do anything. You have to let them do their own work.

It’s just monitoring, and it’s like nudging a little. You don’t do big, abrupt moves. The big, abrupt move is to pick, “Oh, your assignment is going to be cover the election,” say for Hunter. With Tom, his territory was American culture, American society. And so, I said, “Write a piece of fiction about New York,” knowing New York was coming alive at that particular time, and we commissioned Bonfire of the Vanities. And, it’s the classic novel of New York at that time. I don’t know. It’s insight and sympathy, and tolerance, humor, inspiration, passion, patience.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I bet a lot of patience. So, there weren’t ever any sort of battles over cutting paragraphs or changing headlines or…

JANN WENNER: No, no, no. Again, you don’t want to intrude on something. If you’re good, like I was with Hunter, I could intuit what he was planning to do or where he was planning to go. You didn’t change much. The biggest issue with Hunter was that he was always writing on deadline, and I knew how to edit or finish his stuff up when he didn’t have the time to do it. I knew where he was going and what he wanted to do.

ALISON BEARD: Because you followed so many musicians and their managers, did you see parallels in how musicians were steered and focused in a way that made them more successful?

JANN WENNER: Yeah, I think so. I think probably one of my best gifts was being able to understand talent and how it behaves, and how to bring the most out of it. I really do have a good understanding of what it takes to make a record, and I could understand how to manage creativity, and I think that was one of the most successful things I did, both with the artists that we covered and with the writers who worked for us, and photographers, and designers.

ALISON BEARD: You were fairly chummy with all the big musicians and record label heads. So, some might see that as a conflict of interest. How did you handle it, the fact that you were covering your friends?

JANN WENNER: You have to make decisions according to your journalist instincts and your sense of news. We never shrank from that, even when there were some strong conflicts, when people didn’t want us to write about things. But, by and large, it was very easy, because nobody expected anything different from us. We started small, we started independent. We grew up as not being part of that system. Artists did not expect us to give them favored record reviews or slander anything. Our value to them and to the readers was that we were independent, that we had integrity, and nobody every questioned that or acted in a way as if we weren’t going to do what we intended to do, what we didn’t feel was right. That was the ground rules that we established with everybody, including the people who became my very close friends.

It rarely led to any difficulties, because the people were artists. They were people making records, making music, making life better for people and for themselves. These people were not producing shoddy cars or digging up coal or running for office with real scrutiny and investigation. These were people making records.

ALISON BEARD: Right. As Rolling Stone grew and expanded internationally, how did you mange to sustain the entrepreneurial or rock and roll culture, and make sure that it didn’t become too corporate or bureaucratic?

JANN WENNER: Well, first off, it was a smallish business. At our peak, I think we had 400 people or something like that. Certainly, I was always in charge, and quite clearly so. I owned the joint, so I could say what was going to happen and wasn’t going to happen. Clearly, there was a harmony of purpose among the staff, not just the editors, but the business people. And everybody felt a sense of common purpose. So, I had relatively little politics and bureaucracy to deal with. Having said that, of course, you can’t tell everybody all the time… You have to enlist people’s enthusiasm. You have to lobby for what you want. You have to convince people to go along with it, in the same manner you would run anything. You really have to be persuasive as well as commanding. And bureaucratic, but again, I was capable of making quick and fast decisions.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And then, you had always been good at spotting writing talent. Were you also good at spotting managerial talent?

JANN WENNER: No. I kind of was weak at that. I was never looking for somebody to run it instead of me. I was always looking for people to manage it on my behalf. So, I didn’t quite let the reigns go there. We had some really good, wonderful, hard-working people on the business side in various capacities for a long time, but I just wasn’t interested in the rapid expansion of the business. So, I guess I kept it within the limits of what I could tolerate rather than opening up and saying, “Okay, let me go find a bunch of really extraordinary, entrepreneurial, hard-working, killer people to run it.”

ALISON BEARD: How do you think your leadership style changed over time? You started at 21, and then managed it into your late middle age.

JANN WENNER: I guess I grew up, I got a little less mercurial, more thoughtful, steady. I learned to delegate more. The typical things you do. I learned that once you start yelling at people, you’ve already lost your argument.

ALISON BEARD: I’ll need to remember that with my teenage children.

JANN WENNER: The same thing, though. If you start yelling at teenagers, they’ve already got you. Yeah. It doesn’t work there either. Sometimes it does. My managerial style was trying to inspire people to do their best. I think I was very tough. I wanted people to do a good job and do their best job, and if they’d do that, I didn’t care about the rest. I didn’t care what the days they were working or hours or too much how they got about it. It’s just, do your best, and be happy, and enjoy yourself, and give me your best. That’s what I demanded of people, and if they weren’t doing their best, if they were lazy, then I would let them go.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. From the beginning, the magazine made a point of covering politics very rigorously as much as music. Why did you make that decision?

JANN WENNER: Well, I was raised in a political family. My parents were both active Democrats. So, I grew up with politics and I loved politics, and it just became a passion of mine. The other reason was that the whole initial concept of Rolling Stone was that music was a voice for social and political change.

ALISON BEARD: Let’s also talk about environmental journalism. You had a lot of coverage at Rolling Stone. There was a short-lived magazine called Earth Times. You founded Outside. Why did you put such a priority on covering the environment and especially the climate crisis earlier than so many others?

JANN WENNER: Well, again, I think it probably has to do with the sensitivities of a generation that grew up with the promise of the Declaration of Independence, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And within that is this definite love of the natural world, nature, and not the spoiling the countryside around you, not exploiting all this stuff, that living cleanly on the earth is part of life, is part of your liberty, it’s part of the pursuit of happiness, a clean environment, a place to live that is safe. And, we saw this in danger. 1970 I think was the first Earth Day, and we were three years old, and we were very aware of this. We were also in the West Coast, which was the home of a lot of conservation societies and the Sierra Club. But, it became apparent that this was our responsibility. It was a part of our awareness, a part of our cause, and it just came naturally.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, among your many accomplishments, you also started the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In your view, what is the most important criteria for induction?

JANN WENNER: Well, I think that it has to do with creating a body of work that’s important and essential, that’s influential, that is original, a real excellence in what you do, a real originality, and that you make important, lasting music. It’s an award for creative excellence.

ALISON BEARD: And again, were there any battles of concerns over that when you were part of the nominating committee, or friends who got upset that they weren’t inducted quick enough?

JANN WENNER: Well, I know there are people who are upset that weren’t inducted. A few of them have expressed that to me. There were lots of battles because people are passionate about it. The critics, the music fans, everybody has their favorite… After about the first 10 or 15 years, when it was very obvious who should get inducted, then it’s just differences of taste and opinion and personal preference and what you grew up with and what you love.

And every single person brought so much passion to it. And many years and many artists, there’s obvious agreement on of course Ray Charles, of course this person belongs, or that. But then, as the years went on, as the talent and the styles got more diverse, it became everybody, again, had their separate different passions and the artists they were fans of. And so, the unanimity of choice got less and less. But again, the thing is that it’s just a matter of just passion and different taste. It’s all legitimate.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and as music became more diverse, your taste, as you said, the founding group’s tastes were squarely rock and roll. So, how did you make sure that the magazine and then the Hall of Fame acknowledged other genres? Country, rap, hip hop.

JANN WENNER: Well, as it got into more recent, in the last 10 to 15 years, and it became more pop, especially hip hop, and other kinds of new forms of music, you just simply have to get younger people involved, people who are more sympathetic and grew up with that music. Really, the people who are being inducted now are not people I really am that familiar with. I know who they are, but I’m not familiar with their music. I don’t sit in judgment on it anymore or make those decisions, but there’s a committee of people that keeps being refreshed with people who are more contemporary, and the same with the magazine. I wasn’t that deep into the music of the last 20 years or so, but the music staff was younger and more on top of it, and I just basically trusted their judgment, and also had enough judgment to know if their judgment was good or not.

ALISON BEARD: I like that. So, in the memoir, you also talk in depth about your personal life, and in particular, you coming out publicly as a gay man in middle age. So, I want to know, how did that decision play out in your professional life? How did you tell your colleagues? And do you feel like there was a shift at work once you were able to be a more authentic person there?

JANN WENNER: Well, I didn’t tell my colleagues. That may have got around on the gossip mill, and there was some stuff in some of the local newspapers about it. But, it didn’t change anything at all, not a bit. The business, my relationships with my colleagues, my leaders… It changed nothing. Neither professionally nor personally. The people who were my best friends then, both inside and outside the creative milieu, remain the same. Not a thing changed. Isn’t that interesting?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So, do you wish that you had done it earlier?

JANN WENNER: No, I don’t, because I had a very happy marriage up until a point, and I had three kids, and I loved that life. And, that life during the time, the first 25 years, it was great. I wouldn’t change it at all.

ALISON BEARD: And then you fell in love.

JANN WENNER: And then I fell in love, which, unexpectedly, and then you go with that. And then, I have three more kids on top of it. I see all of them from ages 37 to 14 all the time.

ALISON BEARD:

And, one of your older children became very active in Rolling Stone, right? So, how did you manage that?

JANN WENNER: Well, my 30-year-old son came to work for me right after he graduated from college, and I didn’t expect he was going to end up taking over, but as it happens, we worked together really closely for four or five years. He got that knowledge and a training of what the magazine was about, and he sat in on my meetings, and it became clear that he had the talent and the aptitude to take it over. And when we sold the magazine, he did the sale, and he went with the magazine, and they put him on a contract, and they just renewed his contract. Although he has a piece of it still, he is the CEO of the company. Just worked his way up. And, the biggest issue was getting me out of there. I still thought, “Well, even though he’s running things, I get to be in charge and say what everything was going to be.” No, no, no. He had his ideas about it, and he politely eased me out.

He was not even telling me that it was time to go. I had to read it myself, and then I finally said, “Look, Gus, just tell me the truth. What do you want me to do?” “Well…” Nothing. And it was right. After 50 years, you have a hard time letting go of being in charge, especially of something you built yourself, and it’s your baby. You have a deep attachment to it. It’s your pride, your joy.

ALISON BEARD: And what do you hope that your legacy will be, both for the magazine industry and the music industry?

JANN WENNER: I think that in addition to being a really good editor and sponsored and discovered a lot of talent, and having promoted and advocated and proselytized for the great talent in one of America’s greatest art forms, which is rock and roll, that I also made a difference, made a consequential contribution to society and to progress, to what the nation stands for and looks for, what people are going to do, that somehow we furthered human justice.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for your time. Again, the book is terrific. It was really a pleasure speaking with you.

JANN WENNER: Goodbye, enjoy reading, and thank you very much.

ALISON BEARD: That was Jann Wenner, founder and longtime editor and publisher of Rolling Stone. His new memoir, Like a Rolling Stone, is out now. And more of our conversation can be found in the November/December magazine and in a few weeks on HBR.org.

If you liked today’s episode, we have more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team, and your organization. Find them at HBR.org/podcasts, or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. And Ian Fox is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.