“Classic Rock” magazine gets physical

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If you appreciate the lost art of LP cover design, then get thee to a newsstand and grab the September issue of Classic Rock before they sell out. The issue painstakingly reproduces the extravagant artwork for the iconic 1975 Led Zeppelin album Physical Graffiti to illustrate the lead article by Barney Hoskyns concerning the making of the album that produced such rock epics as “Kashmir.” The magazine itself slips into a specially constructed outer sleeve depicting the same New York apartment building pictured on the original Physical Graffiti album, with titles of the album’s songs visible through die-cut windows, as was the case with the LP. And the article itself provides an in-depth examination of the making of Physical Graffiti, with tasty insights from the likes of sound engineer Ronnie Nevison.

The Physical Graffiti issue is a bold celebration of the power of a tactile experience that is unique to the world of print — and a firm “piss off” to the naysayers who claim that print media are dead. According to Classic Rock Editor in Chief Scott Rowley, it’s not the first time Classic Rock has done something bold and imaginative. Through an email exchange with me,  he explains that reproducing album sleeves dates back to a September 2007 issue that was a tribute to Led Zeppelin III. (In fact, Classic Rock got the original Led Zeppelin III artist Zacron to design the issue.) He also points out that Classic Rock issue 138, which celebrated 150 albums you must hear before you die, was designed like an album inner sleeve with the cover depicted as a record with spot varnish grooves.

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Classic Rock Issue 138

According to Scott, “We try to keep the packaging fresh, and earlier this year we came up with the idea of copying the style of the L.A. Woman sleeve to go with a Doors story we were working on [the August 2010 issue about about Jim Morrison’s last days.] The Zep idea came from that — it’s the 35th anniversary of Physical Graffiti, but really it was the thought of doing the mag in tribute to the original packaging which led to the feature . . . Our Art Director Brad Merrett then had to make it happen. Which wasn’t easy, considering those guys did it originally in the days before Photoshop — and credit’s got to go to him for delivering so authentically.”

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Classic Rock Issue 148

But why invest in such extravagant packaging and expense at a time when the print industry is in apparent decline?

“The print industry is suffering, as is the music industry,” he responds. “Our answer has been to make something special — an experience that can’t be downloaded and has a nostalgic/emotive pull.” For instance, the issue on 150 essential record albums also contained goodies like a 100-page book Let It Rock, an exclusive Classic Rock mouse pad, a Classic Rock car sticker, and a 15-track CD. (The insert for the Physical Graffiti issue also doubles as a glossy mini poster.)

And is the investment paying off?

Scott answers with an unqualified “Yes.” So far newsstand sales appear to be up 10-12 percent for the Physical Graffiti and L.A. Woman issues. “Our Led Zep III issue was our biggest-selling issue at the time, and the 138 ‘inner sleeve’ is still our second best-selling issue ever.” He adds, “Obviously I don’t believe that’s just down to the packaging — in each case I think the look was backed up by a great story, and I would hate for anyone to think it’s been style over substance — but it does suggest that the overall package is pressing the right buttons.”

Classic Rock has innovated in other ways since being launched in 1998. In 2009 Classic Rock launched a first-of-its-kind online subscription service that offers readers the chance to download albums before they are available in stores. The May 2010 edition (Classic Rock 144) was guest-edited by KISS. Also in 2010, Classic Rock published Classic Rock Presents: Slash, which gave fans Slash’s solo album a month before its general release along with a 132-page magazine about Slash. The Slash issue marks the first time a magazine publisher has topped an online album chart.

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Classic Rock Presents: Slash

And Scott adds, “We’re actually working on another idea right now and have a couple more up our sleeve.”

I think Classic Rock sets a standard not just for the publishing industry but for anyone who aspires to create a successful brand. Three lessons stand out:

  • Provide a memorable experience.
  • Offer content that people care about (whether you’re creating news stories or advertisements — people will engage with great content).
  • Take advantage of the unique attributes of online and offline — don’t simply reproduce the experience in both. For instance, the Slash download ahead of retail availability is an example of the former, and the elaborate album cover sleeve art is an example of the latter.

Did someone say print is dead? I don’t think so.

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4 Responses to “Classic Rock” magazine gets physical

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