Away from street performers dressed as sort of sexy cops and cardboard Transformers, the new Rolling Stone Restaurant faces the California Pizza Kitchen on the upper floors of the Hollywood and Highland Center. In front of the restaurant, tourists mosey around, mouths open, cameras out, photographing the details of the mini-Vegas-meets-tiny-Times Square-styled complex.
The restaurant's exterior is mallish, the interior is dark and faux industrial Chicago sleek. A few stop young tourists stop to film the restaurant's menu displayed on an empty hostess' kiosk, then slowly pan up to the iconic Rolling Stone logo. They get their shot, turn around and leave.
Even for tourists, the Hollywood and Highland Center has all the appeal of a colon cleanse; just get it over with.
It is here that Rolling Stone chose to launch the brand's first's foray into a dining establishment, which will act as a test site before launching another restaurant in New York City, probably in midtown.
The much-delayed location by the iconic music and culture magazine -- which finally opened last February -- is the latest attempt by an economically troubled publication to try to regain cultural capital from outside their pages. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone announced a scattershot of new licensing initiatives, which, according to WWD, would slap their name on products "including electronics and gaming and fashion-based products that are inspired by the magazine's rock 'n' roll roots." But for the 40 year-old publication, whose current cover includes the ultimate rock 'n' roller -- who else but George Clooney -- the magazine, like many of its longtime readers, faces a mid-life crisis. Does it act young or act its age?
The inside of the Rolling Stone Restaurant feels like a cool dad's home office -- a cool dad with stories of hanging with bands back in the day, and photos on his walls to prove it. The Rolling Stone Restaurant has little decoration other than rock photos and magazine excerpts. It's all leather and dark wood. Cool dads don't brag too much, and the Rolling Stone Restaurant keeps it relatively subtle, for Hollywood. Unlike the Hard Rock Café, which is located in an adjacent wing of the Hollywood and Highland Center, the Rolling Stone Restaurant isn't a memorabilia museum, but it seems to struggle with its own memory, and where the brand wants to be today.
Inside, there is a wall devoted to classic Rolling Stone covers. A quick scan of them reveals a common trend: A photo of a relevant musical person, a headline and sub headlines announcing articles on wars, secret government agencies and global politics. The covers show that Rolling Stone has always wanted to be a political magazine, highlighting the "new" journalism of Tom Wolfe and gonzo antics of Hunter S. Thompson, but that music paid their bills. For charts, critiques, and musician profiles, Rolling Stone used to be a sacred text for all things music. Following eager readers were advertisers.
Today, music doesn't pay.
Like it or not, music is losing its value, both economically and culturally. Most music is illegally downloaded and any product that has no price tag has no intrinsic value. You can listen to a song, delete it, and download it again. Download sites have become an infinite borrowing library. So labels have adapted, cutting advertising budgets, often relying on "leaked" albums to get their music out there. Leaking albums costs labels nothing, but costs magazines everything.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but magazines, for the most part, are simply catalogs with a few photos and articles in between. The content is the sugar coated pill to help us digest the hard taste of capitalism dressed up as advertising.
If advertising is the lifeblood of magazines, and music doesn't need to be sold anymore -- it's free, right? -- then why would labels waste money on parceling their revenue up for the print side. With the decline in advertising, Rolling Stone, like millions of Americans, essentially lost their job.
So like the millions of Americans -- and Greeks and Icelanders and Irish -- who have gone on the prowl for new professions, Rolling Stone has started a new career, as a lifestyle brand. Perhaps it already was one, like Playboy, Esquire, and other magazines that hawk products as well as their content. But now, music is totally an afterthought, as Justin Beiber's porcelain face gazes out from Rolling Stone's cover. From leading music trends to following online teen sensations, maybe it's time for Rolling Stone to hang up its music journalist hat.
The Rolling Stone Restaurant itself is totally unobjectionable, the chef Christopher Ennis of Fig & Olive curates a pretty good menu (and yes, it's the best mall food I've ever had), and the atmosphere feels like many of the gastropubs across Los Angeles. Craft beers on the menu, brussel spouts with bacon, Edison bulbs. Not a bad place to lay low, if you're forced to be near the Kodak Theater. But the restaurant is actually hurt by the brand. If this restaurant had a different name, and a different location, far away from the touristic landfill of Hollywood and Highland, it may even be respectable. But Rolling Stone? Our waitress confessed that most customers were tourists, and that when a convention was nearby, they'd have busy days. But seemingly exasperated on the nearly empty lunch hour, she said that they're dying for locals to stop by. Hollywood and Highland is kryptonite for L.A.'s super locals. I even had to trick a friend to come with me. Los Angeles foodies tend to respect the name of a chef over the name of the restaurant, and "Rolling Stone" isn't exactly hip. It's not your father's music magazine -- oh wait, it is.
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So how far can a brand be stretched before it breaks? Maybe Rolling Stone is already broken. When does a brand lose its meaning, as its logo no longer represents the spirit that spawned it.
Or maybe it doesn't matter at all.
According to our waitress: "People will come in and sit down, thinking we're the Hard Rock Café anyway."