Alternative Press has long since established itself as the Rolling Stone of the Warped Tour generation. Now the music industry’s epicenter is moving closer to it, as the Cleveland-based magazine experiences unprecedented success in new areas — with the help of some unlikely bedfellows.

AP’s one-off summer special Summer of Rock is the first magazine to make the Billboard Top 200 chart, thanks to its enclosed CD with music from 20 featured bands. The week of July 13, it landed at no. 165. The special, a promotional collaboration between the independently owned magazine and Sony’s RED distribution group, is available exclusively at all (American) Wal-Marts. According to preliminary figures, the special package moved close to 4,000 copies.

RED and AP first collaborated on the distributor’s 2008 summer music special, which also featured contributions from indie magazines such as heavy metal journal Decibel. For this year’s edition, RED — which distributes more than 50 independent labels, including Victory and Fat Wreck Chords — had the magazine’s staff produce the entire 56-page issue. RED and AP selected bands.

President/founder Mike Shea says the magazine didn’t veto any of the bands but didn’t have to, because none of the suggestions was a Nickelback clone or aspiring boy band. “The staff of RED get it,” says Shea.

More curious is the partnering of the indie mag with Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which according to its online facts sheet has 4,100 facilities in the United States and an additional 3,100 worldwide. Wal-Mart also a spotty track record on labor relations and racial issues. Shea says he put a lot of thought into going exclusive with the corporation.

“I used to be apprehensive,” explains Shea. “But there are tremendous amounts of kids who can’t get AP or music at any other place than a Wal-Mart. There’s more benefit to working with them than the [potential] sell-out-able-ness of the AP brand [being] in with Wal-Mart.”

Packaged in a plastic bag, each Summer of Rock includes a CD, guitar picks, stickers, collectible cards, and one of four AP-favorite bands: A Day to Remember, Aiden, All That Remains and Cage the Elephant. Not only is the kind of package you can’t download; it’s the kind of collectible item fans want to buy more than one of. Wal-Mart is stocking it exclusively in the music section, further establishing its Billboard eligibility.

“The whole point,” says Shea, “as retailers are cutting back on the number of artists they’re taking, you need to create ways to get your artists out who might be in a third or a fourth or a 25th of Wal-Marts.”

It’s working. AP won’t have to wait long to see test the synergy from the project. The magazine is in the middle of announcing its fourth tour, the Fall Ball, which will hit 44 cities in the Autumn. The spring edition sold out 42 of its 43 club dates, with the help of Warped 2009 breakout stars 3OH!3, a Denver party-rap duo.

So far, the magazine has announced two supporting acts: UK buzz band You Me at Six and the Secret Handshake. The rest of the lineup should be announced via AP’s Twitter feed by July 24.

With the March collapse of Blender magazine, Alternative Press moved unquestionably into the Top 3 of U.S. glossy rock magazines. And considering the tough times in the music and concert businesses, Shea says he’s surprised as anyone that Alternative Press’ hot streak is spilling over into other aspects of the entertainment industry.

“When I founded the magazine, I never thought about five years later where we were going to be, and we still don’t,” says Shea. “Anything that’s happening to us, we are surprised, because so many people are hurting, doing massive layoffs. We’ve always been the little magazine that could. We continually try to keep ourselves going.” —D.X. Ferris

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