NEW YORK -- When the publishers of Masters of Rock realized that there only so many readers still interested in Led Zepplin and AC/DC, they did an abrupt about-face, closing shop for a year before reappearing as contemporary rock-oriented Nerve.
"It's not easy starting a music magazine nowadays. In the '70s, you could put the Rolling Stones on the cover, or Led Zepplin or John Lennon. I don't know who's selling magazines right now," ** says Nerve Publisher John Holmstrom.
If it hopes to survive, Nerve will have to solve that problem quickly. Although music magazines have come and gone with each musical fad, the field of Rolling Stone wannabes has never been stronger, with four strong contenders vying for survival.
Besides Nerve, whose first issue hit the stands in April, newcomers to the music magazine business include California-based Ray Gun and Vibe, a joint venture between Quincy Jones and media conglomerate Time Warner.
In many ways, the battle is not to overtake Rolling Stone, which has 1.3 million subscribers. Instead, most new magazines are eyeing the No. 2 spot, currently held by Spin. Like Creem before it, Spin faces the challenge of defining itself once the novelty of being the younger person's Rolling Stone alternative has worn off.
"We're going after Spin's readers, it's that simple. They're vulnerable," Mr. Holmstrom says.
Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr., however, says his eight-year-old publication is in good shape. With 360,000 readers, Spin has not suffered any circulation drop, although it made little profit last year. Mr. Guccione attributes this to a business decision to channel all excess funds into higher-quality paper and higher-priced writers and photographers. The changes leave Spin virtually the only alternative for Rolling Stone readers, he says.
"It would be arrogant to say that they aren't competition, but the question is how meaningful. I would say that it's too early to tell yet," Mr. Guccione says.
Indeed, the new magazines are so new that they do not have audited circulations yet, although Vibe is guaranteeing advertisers 100,000 readers. Ray Gun currently prints 50,000, but is planning to add 80,000 this fall. Nerve prints 37,000.
According to Samir Husni, a University of Mississippi professor who publishes an annual guide to new magazines, music magazines have grown along with the introduction of MTV, cable television and the atomization of musical interests.
"It's a boom area. We counted more than 30 new music magazines introduced last year, the most ever," Mr. Husni says. Most of those new titles were infrequently published "fanzines" or annual reviews, although monthly magazines are also growing in response to the public's increasingly specialized tastes, Mr. Husni says.
Among the competitors, Vibe has struck out in the boldest new direction. Instead of trying to slice up the rock audience, it is going after rhythm-and-blues, rap and hip-hop fans. Vibe chief operating officer Keith Clinkscales says this does not necessarily mean a black audience, but one that is not satisfied with rock-dominated music magazines.
"We feel that most magazines are too rockcentric. Sure, the others will cover the Ice-Ts of the world, but they don't get the coverage they should. We're trying to give more of a soul perspective," Mr. Clinkscales says.
Vibe published a test edition last fall, with response so strong that regular publication is due to start this fall, Mr. Clinkscales says. The magazine is due out 10 times a year.
Jim Ledbetter, a Vibe contributing editor and music-magazine analyst for the Village Voice, says that although the Vibe readership will be mixed, its primary audience probably will be black. This poses the challenge of overcoming distribution problems that have plagued black-oriented products, Mr. Ledbetter says.
"There's always been a disconnect between the black consumer and the distribution channels set up around whites," Mr. Ledbetter says.
Vibe's challenge will be to find alternative distribution channels, Mr. Ledbetter says, such as through neighborhood stores and specialty music stores. A major advantage, he says, is that the magazine has the financial muscle of Time Warner and Mr. Jones' business experience.
More traditional in its goals is Ray Gun, a Los Angeles-based magazine. After successfully penetrating the speciality music stores last year, Ray Gun will be on sale this fall across the country in convenience stores and newsstands -- matching Spin and Rolling Stone outlet for outlet.
"The problem with Rolling Stone is that guys in their 20s don't want to read something their fathers are reading," says Ray Gun editor and publisher Marvin Jarrett.