Beyoncé Finds a New Muse

April 27th, 2016 by ddeal

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Was anyone ready for the new-look Beyoncé?

After creating a body of work that celebrated self-empowerment through sexuality, Queen Bey has released searing music that tackles themes such as black femininity, social inequality, spirituality, and marital politics. In other words, she has become culturally relevant. Striving to be culturally relevant does not always work for artusts, as Sean Penn’s embarrassing attempt to inject himself into the national conversation about drugs demonstrates. But for Beyoncé, courting controversy through social commentary has made both her music and her personal brand bigger than ever.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to use their art and fame as a platform for social commentary, but it’s hard to do without coming across as preachy or without putting the message before the artistic quality of the song. And being culturally relevant by commenting on topical issues can be risky even if the artist has sincere intentions. Lady Gaga has successfully built a reputation beyond her music by being a champion of LGBTQ rights. But the Dixie Chicks nearly killed their careers by speaking out against the War in Iraq in 2003.

For years, Beyoncé’s music has focused largely on love and sexuality, while tiptoeing around social issues such as race. But her personal life has been another matter. She has publicly supported human rights issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s empowerment. She and Jay Z met with the families of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray in the aftermath of Brown’s and Gray’s controversial deaths at the hands of police officers. She has expressed sympathy for people in Baltimore protesting Gray’s death.

“Formation”

Now her music is catching up to her life. First came “Formation,” her potent celebration of black identity that she dropped during Super Bowl weekend this year. The song’s video sparked a controversy with its images suggestive of police brutality and insensitivity. The controversy became even more pointed when she performed the song during Super Bowl 50 with back-up singers dressed like the militant Black Panthers. Law enforcement authorities denounced her and called for boycotts of her Formation Tour, which kicks off April 27.

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The Coachella 360-Degree Live Stream Disappoints

April 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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Hey, Coachella: I want my glorious live stream back.

For years, the Coachella music festival has set the gold standard with event live streams largely because its camera crews make you feel like you’re right on stage with the artists. Last week, for instance, the live streams of Ice Cube, Grimes, and the 1975 gave me close-up angles like these:

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It felt like the artists were performing in my living room 2,000 miles away from the festival, as these screen shots taken from my iPhone demonstrate.

But for Weekend 2 of the festival, Coachella has compromised the live stream with the introduction of the 360-degree viewing experience on YouTube — which is, of course, the exact opposite of what Coachella intends.

The 360-degree view is supposed to give you a more immersive experience. With your mobile phone or a supported browser on your laptop (and Safari is not one of the supported browsers), you can change your vantage point as you’re watching a performance, which sounds kind of cool at first. And indeed, with a swipe of a screen on your mobile phone or by using an arrow tab on your laptop, you can watch the artist or slowly pan the stage and even see the crowd from the performer’s vantage point.

The 360-degree functionality works fine, and the sound is as good as ever. (Incidentally, the vaunted spatial audio feature you might have read about does not apply to the live stream.) But there are two major problems.

First, you can’t get those awesome close-ups of the artists themselves. You’re at the mercy of a stationary camera situated at the lip of the stage, which results in a decent, but less interesting view, as this image of Gary Clark Jr. shows:

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The only way to get a great view (from what I’ve experienced so far) is to hope for the artist to step out to the lip of the stage (which, thankfully, Run the Jewels have done).

Second, the ability to change vantage points gets boring after about 1 minute. The ground in front of the stage really isn’t very interesting unless you enjoy looking at equipment. As for the views of the audience: if you’ve seen one sea of heads and arms, you’ve seen ’em all:

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I give Coachella props for pushing the boundaries of the live stream experience, and I appreciate that we’re in a test-and-learn phase. But testing and learning should not be done at the expense of your audience. So far, the 360-degree experience is actually a step backward, namely because I’ve lost that you-are-there experience that came with those astonishing camera angles of the artists. Coachella and YouTube have advertised an experience that is just not ready for prime time, to the detriment of their brands.

I don’t particularly want to see what the artist sees unless you’re literally going to show me, say, what Jehnny Beth experiences when she surfs the audience during a Savages performance, or we’re getting to better appreciate the interplay between Matthew Healy and Adam Hann of the 1975. I don’t want to see the artists reduced to blurry little figures on my screen, either. I want to be onstage with them, which is exactly what I was getting until now.

Remember, Coachella: it’s all about the artists. And I miss them dearly based on what I’m seeing.




The Future of Concert Live Streaming: Social Virtual Reality

April 17th, 2016 by ddeal

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Music is the star of the annual Coachella festival, which kicked off April 15 for the weekend and resumes April 22, but virtual reality is starting to grab its own headlines. Coachella and Vantaget.tv recently announced the launch of its own virtual reality app, which allows owners of VR headsets (either the fancy kind or the cardboard variety) to get limited VR content such as enhanced performances and virtual tours of the grounds.

Ironically Coachella targets people who are at the event in person by offering ticket holders the app and cardboard VR viewers (which sound like a dorky experience if you’re actually there). But it seems likely that Coachella, and festivals like it, will more overtly court remote viewers by offering immersive, live-streaming VR experiences, and with social components, too — especially as social VR and live-streaming converge. (An update from a fast-moving space: on April 18, a day after I wrote this post, YouTube announced the launch of 360-degree live streaming and spatial audio, which will be available for select artists appearing at Coachella April 22-24 — a big step forward in this conversation that underscores my point about festivals making the live stream more immersive.)

VR start-up Livit has already developed a way to live stream event content as a VR experience to mobile users. The Livit app, connected wirelessly to a 360fy panoramic video camera, delivers VR content to users who have downloaded the Livit app on Android and iOS devices (with no headset required).

Livit Founder and CEO Adam Blazer told FoxNews.com, “We create an experience for people that can’t physically be there to really have an immersive experience as if they were there. The combination of VR plus live is really the closest form of teleportation that we have come to yet.”

And Livit has done so already at the Ultra Music Festival.

Meanwhile, on April 17, StereoStitch launched a real-time, 360 3D video stitching software for VR live streaming. With StereoStitch, an event such as Coachella can deliver immersive, panoramic video (video stitching creates the panoramic views) using StereoStitch software and drone-mounted 3D cameras. (Another update: on April 18, after I wrote this post, GoPro announced a wireless 360-degree VR streaming experience. According to GoPro, the LiveVR system will be used in the coming months by MotoGP, AMA Pro Flat Track, and MotoAmerica.)

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Author screen shot of Ice Cube via 2016 Coachella live stream.

Livit also makes it possible for people to communicate with each other through comments posted on the live stream — a form of social VR, which got a big boost recently when Facebook demoed social VR experiences at its annual F8 Developers Conference.

Experiencing events is inherently a social experience. Usually watching an event socially from the comfort of your living room means tweeting or Facebooking as we watch events such as the Academy Awards, Coachella, and the Super Bowl together. Virtual reality, coupled with social sharing, could reinvent the entire concept.

Imagine a Coachella concert goer in Chicago entering a Coachella virtual reality room to watch the Cvrches with other huge Cvrches fans, a scenario that is very plausible thanks to AltspaceVR. This company has created software that allows users with the appropriate VR headsets to communicate with each other in VR settings (think of Skype or Google Hangouts taken several steps further) while they either meet or enjoy an experience such as watching House of Cards together on Netflix in a VR room.

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Author screen shot of Grimes via 2016 Coachella live stream.

And events could monetize these experiences by cozying up to advertisers with many kinds of branding opportunities, such from title sponsorships and having branded elements in VR rooms.

Coachella is the perfect venue for the converging worlds of social virtual reality and live streaming. Coachella already does an excellent job streaming concerts to people (like me) who cannot be there in person, and Coachella hosts a chat room for live streamers (and while chat rooms are hardly state-of-the art, the fact that Coachella hosts one demonstrates that the event organizers are moving in the direction of curating live social experience beyond the usual social media platforms). Clearly, Coachella digs VR. Soon, the concept of streaming Coachella may seem quaint as we hop into listening rooms, pump our arms in the air, and swoon over new music from Grimes or the 1975, right in the room with us.

 




Empathy at Trader Joe’s

April 14th, 2016 by ddeal

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In X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Brian Solis asserts that experience is the new brand, and he devotes an entire book discussing how companies can create “memorable moments for your customers through every encounter they have with your brand — all day, every day.” He says that customers want empathy, not impersonal treatment, and companies that know how to be empathic enjoy a huge competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Empathy comes from humans, not technology. And empathy happens in everyday moments. Let me give you an example.

As tax day approached April 14, I glumly mailed two checks to the U.S. Treasury and the Illinois Department of Revenue and then decided to overcome the depressing with the mundane: I ran an errand at a Trader Joe’s near my home in Downers Grove, Illinois. Rendering unto Caesar is important; but so is restocking skim milk and coffee.

I filled my cart with the usual assortment of TJ’s bagels, juice, fruit, and other goodies, jumped into a check-out lane, and inserted my debit card for payment. A cashier named Stephan greeted me with a warm smile, like just another dude trying to spread good cheer.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Ah, well, you know . . . ” I replied with an unhelpful shrug.

While Stephan took care of business behind the counter, my ears detected a sweet funky vibe overhead courtesy of the in-store music play. I thought I recognized the tune from the 1970s playing, but I could not place it. I looked up at the ceiling where the music was coming from. So did Stephan.

“I know that song,” I said. “Kind of like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition . . .'”

“But not quite,” he completed the sentence. “I know what you mean.”

I know what you mean: suddenly I looked at Stephan in a new light, as a member of the universal brotherhood of music.

“The song might be Billy Preston,” I said. “I think the music source is too far away for Shazam to recognize it. But isn’t it a great tune?”

He smiled in agreement, pulled out his own phone, and found the Shazam music discovery app on it.

“Hang on,” he said. “I know I’ve heard this song, too. I think I’m tall enough to get Shazam to pick up the song from the ceiling.”

The app didn’t load right away on his phone. A customer was behind me in line.

“I don’t want to hold you up,” I said.

He nodded his head and smiled. “We got this.”

We got this. Now we were a team on a quest to uncover a funky musical mystery.

He got Shazam to work, held up his phone to the ceiling, waited a moment, and smiled victoriously.

“You’re right! “Outa-Space’ by Billy Preston!”

We smiled and high fived like two guys at a concert, not at a Trader Joe’s checkout line. I even jumped up and down. Man, I had not heard that song for some time.

Little moments of empathy. Like Stephan empathizing with my love of music, and, I think, sensing that perhaps I was not having the best of days. A human connection made.

If you shop at Trader Joe’s, you’re probably not surprised to hear my story. Its stores are more than attractive products with reasonable prices. They’re all about the human experience. The people who work at the Trader Joe’s near me (its address is 122 Ogden Avenue, Downers Grove) always seem like nice folks.

In X, Brian Solis writes, “All business is personal.” It sure is. Trader Joe’s is a $9.4 billion business consisting of hundreds of stores. All it takes is a personal dose of empathy from a cool guy named Stephan to humanize the brand.




“How We Listen Now” Confronts the Music Industry

April 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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Cortney Harding is on a mission to wake up the music industry.

The writer and music industry consultant has recently published How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations about Music and Technology, a provocative examination of two different worlds: on the one hand, consumers are experiencing music on their own time, in their own place, and on their own terms. They’re not just streaming music; they’re also discovering great music through games, in hotel lobbies, movies, and many other media. And they’re not just listening to music anymore — they’re remixing their favorite songs and reposting those moments on apps, video- and song-sharing platforms, and everywhere else they can express their passions. But on the other hand, musicians, music labels, and other members of the music industry continue to struggle to keep up with the new reality of how people experience music, clinging to old models of music sharing, such as hoarding songs on record albums.

Harding sees music executives and musicians as viewing their world in black and white terms: everything that happened before Napster and everything that has happened afterward. In fact, she asserts correctly, Napster was just a precursor to several waves of change that occur to this day. Her book assesses those changes, ranging from streaming to user-generated content. How We Listen Now argues that only musicians and executives who constantly adapt to a constantly changing new normal will succeed. And the consumer defines that new normal.

Hers is a book that constantly asks questions. Why do artists make record albums anymore when it is patently clear that consumers don’t discover music through albums like they used to? Why do artists insist on releasing singles in the traditional 3-minute, verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus format at a time when younger listeners especially like to listen to shorter snippets of content that they can remix into their own Vines, Instagrams, and Snaps? Why aren’t more artists more active on Twitch? Why doesn’t Spotify launch a music label and get into content creation as Netflix has?

For instance, she bluntly calls for artists to kill their obsession with record albums: “For some artists, who really want to present a body of work and tell a story, fine, keep [the record album],” she writes. “For everyone else, just scrap it.” She goes on to write that in the CD era, record albums became bloated filler, and consumers rejected them when Napster unshackled them from having to buy an entire collection of often-times mediocre songs when all they wanted to do was sample one or two songs from a new artist. And yet, with record albums in a permanent state of decline, artists cling to the format because it’s familiar to them. Even worse, artists insist on hoarding songs and releasing them every few years in album format. And artists cannot afford to be invisible for months at a stretch.

“So just start putting stuff out there,” she writes. “Kids are fine with imperfections . . . Release little clips of tracks and see what the response is. If it doesn’t get a bite, toss some more chum in the water.”

It’s not that Harding is on a war against record albums; in fact, she objects to long-held assumptions that hold back artists from succeeding in the record industry, and the record album is a prime example. She also rethinks the singles format, noting that in 2014 Spotify reported that one in four songs get skipped before the five-second mark.

“To me, this points to the fact that listeners want something shorter, more akin to the length of Vine or Instagram videos, than the standard verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus etc etc format they’ve been served for the past several years,” she writes. “But this would also force a radical reimagining of what a song actually looks like.”

She challenges artists to share “clips and stems of tracks” and invite listeners to remix them and create their own tracks. Why? Because listeners are already doing so with their own customized soundtracks to their lives, which they post on Snapchat and YouTube all the time. And the same holds true for videos: consumers, especially younger ones, are creating their own musical soundtracks on video platforms such as Flipagram. She urges artists to get proactive about sharing their music for use on Flipagram. “What if the true use for music is not to be consumed but to act as a platform for further creativity?” she asks.

And the music industry has been catching on. Since she wrote the core of the essays that comprise the ebook, Flipagram has signed licensing deals with labels and artists to permit them to share their music in an official capacity on the platform. To Harding, platforms such as Flipagram play an important role in the future of music. The more artists share their music on platforms where consumers live, work, and play, the sooner they will find an audience. And those platforms include Spotify. She is unsympathetic to artists who refuse to accept streaming. Spotify may not pay the bills — but it’s where audiences are built. And you cannot monetize music without first finding an audience.

After pointing out the disconnect between how artists share music and how people experience it, Harding talks with visionaries, thought leaders, and musicians who are closing that gap. Tellingly, the forward thinkers include people who do not conventionally fit the description of a music industry insider — such as Andy Weissman, a partner at Union Square Ventures whose portfolio includes Soundcloud. The conversations with people living in the thick of changes make for interesting reading. You get to know how indie musicians earn their livings, finding audiences through licensing deals, finding day jobs when needed, and building a support infrastructure around them. If you read the conversations closely, you get the message: the time has long come and gone when artists could succeed by leaving the business end to someone else. Artists need to wear many hats to succeed: musician, social media maven, merchandise seller, distributor, and overall hustler.

How We Listen Now provides a snapshot into a changing landscape. If you want to stay abreast of those changes, I suggest you follow Cortney Harding’s column and get to know her better through her website, and subscribe to her email newsletter. Her book is a great way to get started on your own journey.

Related: “‘Be Prepared to Never Make Money on Your Work‘”: A Music Insider Speaks,” July 8, 2015.

 




How James Kaplan Paints Music with Words

April 7th, 2016 by ddeal

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes you want to become a better writer. You cannot always predict when those breakthroughs will happen. A case in point: James Kaplan’s two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman (the latter of which was published in October 2015). I read the sprawling books to immerse myself in one of the most storied lives in show business. And although Frank Sinatra’s life makes for riveting reading, with its dramatic peaks and valleys, Kaplan’s lyrical phrasing, like Sinatra’s singing, shimmers, soars, and inspires.

Sinatra’s story is well known, and Kaplan covers it all: his rise of greatness as a teen heart throb, his breathtaking fall from the top, his return from nowhere with his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, the torch he carried for Ava Gardner, his seedy association with the Mafia and pathetic relationship with John Kennedy, and, of course, the performance and recording of some of the greatest works of singing in the 20th Century or any century for that matter.

Kaplan shares one juicy anecdote after another, such as Sinatra’s cringe-worthy temper tantrums and dustups, cocktail swigging, high rolling hijinks with fellow rat packers, and transcendent moments in concert and the studio. Other biographers have covered this ground, too. But Kaplan goes beyond telling stories to share his own insight on Sinatra, thus adding the context of meaning, as in the following:

He lived with loneliness: the solitude of the only child who grows up with inexpressible feelings of otherness, the self-inflicted isolation of the man who’d brutally pushed Lauren Bacall away, the aloneness of the great artist who mused on the sonorities of Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams while feeling compelled to pal around with hoodlums . . . He was a kind of hunger artist, one who starved himself so the rest of us could feel better about our own hunger.

In one passage, Kaplan expresses both Sinatra’s contradictions and appeal through the lens of loneliness, one of the defining attributes that would shape his life, and essential to understanding his art and his actions. Elsewhere, Kaplan calls upon some kind of extraordinary writing muse to drop brilliant phrases on the reader like polished word diamonds. For instance, Kaplan describes the complex web of relationships in Sinatra’s life as his “strange orbit.” Ava Gardner, for whom Sinatra infamously left his wife, Nancy (triggering his career nosedive in 1950), “kept a kind of pilot light of agitation burning in his life.”

Of Judith Campbell Exner, the call girl who Sinatra introduced to John F. Kennedy, Kaplan writes, “The light of truth bends around her presence in any historical narrative, because of the gravity of her known associations — with Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and John F. Kennedy.”

When Kaplan takes the measure of Sinatra’s music, he also descriptively and vividly, as when he describes Sinatra’s voice, worn down after a demanding tour in the early 1960s, as “a gorgeous ruin, deep and resonate, but hoarse and cracking periodically.” Kaplan’s triumph is capturing the essence of the songs Sinatra recorded — their color and impact — without getting tangled in technical jargon. Instead of describing sound, he paints impressions. For instance, he describes the 1961 Sinatra collaboration with arranger and conductor Billy May on Swing along with Me thusly:

From the rip-roaring castanet camp of “Granada” (May actually had his sidemen chant “cha-cha-cha!” at the end) to Frank’s magic-carpet-like vocal soaring over the twinkling, tinkling Arabian-bazaar melodrama of “Moonlight on the Ganges” to the thrill of the closer, “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You,” which starts as a caress and finishes as a powerhouse, a sprit of sheer fun infuses the Reprise LP, showing to what heights this artist was capable of ascending when he was artistically engaged.

He captures the legendary interplay between Sinatra and his musical collaborators with a keen ear for how words sound to the reader, as well as an eye for imagery, as in this description of the song “Lady Is a Tramp”:

Sinatra gave the tune a loving, lilting reading at a medium-swing tempo, launched by Bill Miller’s deliciously inventive piano reading (improvised and not written, and showing the great keyboardist, as in many other instances, to be his boss’s musical equal). Then, opening like a great jewel box, comes Riddle’s terrific chart, with its sequential reveals of strings, woodwinds, and brass (including Harry “Sweets” Edison’s dulcet, minimal trumpet fills).

Another writer might have provided a more technical description, as author Jonathan Gould often does in his book about the Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love. For instance, in discussing the Beatles song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” Gould writes, “In the second section, where the harmony equivocates between A major and A minor and the meter equivocates between 9/8 and 12/8 time, John [Lennon] seems to inhabit this predatory character.” There is nothing wrong with Gould’s style; he’s simply assuming a certain amount of musical knowledge on the reader’s part. Although it’s clear that Kaplan is steeped in the arcane language of music, he chooses a more impressionistic style with phrases such as “opening like a great jewel box.”

When he writes about music, James Kaplan crosses the line from impressing me to inspiring me. I often write about music, but I typically write about the music industry as opposed to music itself. Describing music can be intimidating. The writer must find a way to convey for the reader’s eyes an abstraction meant for the ears. Kaplan has challenged me to push myself to get better at this most demanding act of writing. A recent blog post I wrote about The Revenant music score is the result, and I am going to find more opportunities to write about music. Thank you, James Kaplan.

What books have inspired you to be a better writer?

 




How I Fell in Love with Rock & Roll

March 19th, 2016 by ddeal

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Led Zeppelin turned me on to rock and roll 40 years ago.

In 1976, I was 13 years old. My family had settled into a new home in Wheaton, Illinois, after moving from Battle Creek, Michigan, the year before. Music figured large in our lives. My older sister Karen enjoyed disco. I dealt with the loneliness of being a new kid in town by immersing myself in books and music. I was a huge fan of soul (especially Al Green), funk, R&B, and jazz (especially George Benson). Everything I knew about rock was based on what I could hear on singles-friendly AM radio, which meant a lot of soft rock along the lines of “Chevy Van” by Sammy Johns.

I knew who Led Zeppelin was because my older brother, Dan, owned all their albums. But Dan listened to music in the privacy of his bedroom, lost in a world defined by his collection of rock albums, black felt posters, and books about World War II fighter planes, and, it seemed, secrets I would never know. We lived in the same house but in two different rooms on different floors of the house, our doors always shut to each other.

My life changed one day when Dan and I were the only ones in the house. I was in my own room reading a book about baseball when I heard this strange, exotic, powerful tune wafting up from our family room downstairs. It sounded as though a collection of Middle Eastern musicians had decided to entertain themselves in our home. I tried to focus on studying baseball statistics. But the song just kept rising into my room like a dust storm from the desert. The tension built with each refrain, as strings, guitar, and a distorted drum complemented a man’s voice crying with angst.

I put down my book and cautiously walked downstairs. With each step toward the family room, I felt the rush of drums, guitars, and strings engulf me. Dan stood before me, his eyes locked on the vinyl record spinning on our family console stereo, a monolithic beast that housed my dad’s collection of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

“What is this?” I asked.

Without turning his head, he replied, “Kashmir.”

We spoke no words after that exchange. We just stood together and immersed ourselves in the song.

Afterward, Dan wordlessly shared with me the album that had produced the song, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, which had been released the year before. I was accustomed to album jackets that contained one simple pocket. Physical Graffiti was something completely different: a sepia-tinged photo of a New York tenement building with the name of the album formed by die-cut letters peeking from behind different windows. The jacket housed two albums protected by their own sleeves fashioned to look like the cover. The tenement windows were adorned with a hodgepodge of images including band members, Queen Elizabeth, a bomb dropping, and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra. And the music inside would turn out to be a revelation.

I began to explore the band my brother loved. Physical Graffiti was an excellent introduction because the album destroyed every stereotype I held about the band. I had assumed Led Zeppelin was a group of heavy metal rockers, and I was quickly disabused of that notion. “Custard Pie” made me want to dance. “In My Time of Dying” felt like gospel. “Trampled Under Foot” resonated with my love of funk and soul, and the bucolic “Down by the Seaside” was certainly nothing close to hard rock. Listening to “Kashmir,” on the other hand, was like journeying to another land and time.

As a showcase of the many sides of Led Zeppelin, the album opened up my eyes to the diverse nature of album-oriented rock in the 1970s. As it turned out, my brother’s world was not as private as I thought it had been. Although he did not exactly encourage me to hang out in his room, he didn’t discourage me, either. Crucially, he allowed me to explore his album collection, including all the classics: The Dark Side of the Moon, Sticky Fingers, Who’s Next, and Fragile just for starters.

Rock and roll would loom large in my life from that point forward. I got caught up in the Doors revival of the early 1980s and visited Père Lachaise Cemetery on the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. The music of Pink Floyd helped me endure some of life’s ups and downs and created more moments of bonding with Dan, as I discussed with the leading Pink Floyd fan website, Brain Damage. I edited a book about the history of rock and roll and began writing about music extensively on my own blog. Rock has become a lifelong passion, and I can trace that passion all the way back to the moment when my older brother and I shared Led Zeppelin for the first time.

Related:

The Golden Shaman: Robert Plant’s Journey,” September 28, 2015

Would Led Zeppelin Succeed Today? ” August 3, 2015

Three Lessons I Learned from Jim Morrison,” July 3, 2015

The Marketing Genius of ‘Led Zeppelin IV,'” August 29, 2011

How a Janitor and ‘Hotel California’ Shaped Me,” July 8, 2011




The Case for Remixing Your Logo

March 17th, 2016 by ddeal

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For most brands, corporate logos are protected and revered. A business such as Disney invests substantial energy and budget into making its logotype a consistent expression of its brand essence, and for good reason: especially in the age of Instagram and Snapchat, a logotype is like a totem that instantly tells a story about your brand through repetition across the online and offline worlds. But Google is not like most brands. On a major occasion such as St. Patrick’s Day, you can always count on Google to remix its logo. And Google delivers through its Google Doodles, which re-imagine the Google logo on the brand’s website. On St. Patrick’s Day 2016, the multi-colored Google logo transformed into a dancing shamrock and turned green.

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GoogleDoodle

By remixing its logo, Google makes its brand culturally relevant.

Businesses can make themselves culturally relevant in many ways. One of Google’s most well known approaches is to remix its logo to celebrate cultural diversity around the world. As the Google Doodle archive demonstrates, Google creates different Doodles in different country markets befitting the interests and customs of those countries. On February 29, Google published a Doodle in India that honored classical dancer and choreographer Rukmini Devi on what would have been her 112th birthday. Google refashioned its logo as a flowing ribbon in a nod to Bharata Natyam, a traditional Indian dance form popularized by Devi.

RukmiDevi

By contrast, the Rolling Stones remix their famous “rolling tongue” logo to immerse themselves in different cultures in a playful, even provocative way. To promote the band’s recent tour of South America and Mexico, the Stones have cleverly recast their logo in context of striking designs that pay homage to the countries where they are playing, as this example shows:

Stones

Sometimes brands make themselves culturally relevant by making a statement about topical issues. For instance, the Honey Nut Cheerios cereal brand has temporarily dropped its bee mascot from boxes in Canada to draw attention to the declining numbers of bees and other pollinators worldwide.

HoneyNutCheerios

And of course many businesses practice cultural relevancy through their actions. But especially for large brands with high profiles, a logo remix is a powerful way to achieve instant cultural relevance.

If you are going to make your brand culturally relevant, it’s important to do your homework. There is a fine line between celebrating multi-culturalism and exploiting different cultures. And it’s not too difficult to find examples of businesses whose attempts to acknowledge different cultures have backfired miserably. Google gets it right through its logo mixes, which invariably strike the correct tone, being playful or reverent depending on the occasion. By making the Google Doodle a recurring practice, Google also makes its logo remixes feel less gimmicky. Google is and secure in its position as the world’s most valuable company. By remixing its logo, Google sends a message: we are part of the world, not the center of it.




My George Martin Memories

March 9th, 2016 by ddeal

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Sir George Martin crossed paths with me twice during my career in marketing, and both times he left his mark. I remember those two moments clearly as I reflect on the passing of the Fifth Beatle:

A Personal Encounter

I first met him in 2000 when I worked on the Accenture global marketing team. Someone had the presence of mind to book him to speak at one of those team-building meetings that features a blizzard of PowerPoint presentations and character-building exercises. He was a welcome sight. Drawing upon his career with the Beatles, he spoke about the collaborative nature of creativity and the give-and-take that must occur with any productive partnership. Certainly he was one who could speak with authority on those topics.

Afterward, he hung around and chatted with anyone who cared to linger. Of course, I took advantage of the opportunity. He patiently listened to me blather on about the Beatles (why is it that when you meet someone as famous as Sir George Martin, you can’t think of anything meaningful to say?). When I was done reciting my favorite Beatles songs, he did something I did not expect: he asked me about me. What did I do for a living? What inspired me? He noticed I was wearing a wedding ring, and so he asked me about my family. I mentioned how I wished my wife, Jan, could have joined me for the occasion. He replied, “I’m sorry you have to travel alone for work and that your wife cannot be here with you. Why don’t I sign something for both you and Jan?”

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I still have that autograph.

Hosting Sir George

Years later, when I ran marketing for Razorfish, it was my job to plan the annual Client Summit, which was conceive to inspire clients and employees to celebrate the state of the art in digital marketing. I thought it would be a great idea for Sir George to speak at the 2008 Client Summit, held in New York — not just because of his musical legacy, which was patently obvious, but because of that gentle warmth and charisma he’d displayed years before. After negotiating with the agency that represented him, I landed him as our closing keynote.

At this point in his life, he was in his early 80s, and it was public knowledge that he was hard of hearing and a bit more fragile. More than once, I was asked by colleagues, “Do you think everyone will know who he is?” and “Has he been in the public eye recently?” which were polite ways of asking whether he was too old for our event.

Fortunately, my boss, Darin Brown, and our CEO, Clark Kokich, were not among those asking those questions. With their support, the moment happened.

His handlers were very protective of him. They gave me strict instructions on details such as where to position him onstage so that he could listen to the audience properly with his good ear. His team inspected every element of the room including the event A/V system. Their attention to detail was understandable because his presentation relied on audio and video, including the use of different versions of “Strawberry Fields” to demonstrate the evolution of the song.

When he took the stage, all of his elegance and warmth were immediately evident. He spoke fondly not only of his experiences as the world’s most famous producer but also of his love for his wife and children. He discussed his career producing classical music and comedy records long before the Beatles came along; later in his presentation, he demonstrated how he applied that background in shaping the sound of the Beatles.

For instance, he applied his classical music background often. He played the baroque piano solo on “In My Life,” and it was his idea to use strings in “Yesterday.” And, of course, he also famously corralled the orchestra that plays on “A Day in the Life.” He drew upon his work producing comedy albums in some unexpected ways, such as digging into his catalog of ambient crowd noises to create the audience laughter that occurs in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I learned a lesson that day: there is no such thing as a wasted moment when you do the things you love, and if you have vision and patience, you can apply your skills and passions in unexpected ways throughout your life. Little did Sir George Martin know it when he was making comedy and classical albums in the 1950s and early 1960s, but those experiences helped prepare him for the most fruitful musical collaboration in modern music history. (Similarly, little did I know it, but getting a journalism degree in college prepared me to become a blogger years later.)

But most of all, I remember that personal warmth and grace shining through. He spoke with obvious pride when he described the work of his son Giles on the Beatles Love remix for Cirque du Soleil. He ended his presentation by sharing a memory about learning of the death of a good friend and realizing how happy he was to be a husband and father during a time of loss.

Ironically, I could not enjoy his company personally as I had done at the Accenture meeting. I had an event to run, and a million demands to address seemingly every minute. As he was speaking, I was in the producer’s booth, making sure the sound and video elements went off without a hitch. For instance, before Martin came onstage, I had instructed the sound engineer at the Client Summit to program “Revolution” to play when Martin left the stage. But as Sir George closed with a tender, personal memory, I turned to the engineer and said, “We can’t play ‘Revolution.’ It’s too harsh. We need to change the song to “All You Need Is Love.”

The engineer gave me an “Are you freaking crazy?” look. “I can’t do that,” he said. “We don’t have the song programmed in the playlist, and I can’t start searching for a digital file while I’m managing the sound for his talk.”

“Here,” I said, waving a CD of Magical Mystery Tour in the air. “The song we need is Track 11 on this disc. Let me do it.” So I opened a compact disc tray, inserted the CD, and queued up “All You Need Is Love.”

“But I can’t test the volume while he’s speaking,” the poor engineer replied. “How do you know the song won’t skip?”

“It will work,” I replied. “Just turn the volume up high. Trust me.”

And so we swapped “All You Need Is Love.” Everyone in the control panel breathed a sigh of relief when the opening chords of the song played while Sir George left the stage. And by the way, no one ever asked me why I had chosen Sir George after he enchanted the audience with his journey.

I cannot add anything to his musical legacy beyond what you’ve probably read already. My lasting impression of George is of warmth and love — warmth to strangers in a conference room, and love for both his family and his music.

 

 

 




The Overlooked Triumph of “The Revenant”: Music

February 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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The Revenant was robbed.

For all the Oscar nominations The Revenant has received, the movie was victim of a glaring omission: Best Original Score. The score, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (with additional music by Bryce Dessner of the National), creates a sonic tapestry that deepens the emotional impact of one man’s struggle against nature and other men. The score also succeeds on its own merits for delivering an affecting blend of ambient sounds and melody, worthy of your attention regardless of your interest in the movie.

The score works for many reasons. First, the music complements the tension and sadness of the story, its violence, and the film’s natural beauty instead of trying to amplify it. A more conventional composer might have “piled on” by overwhelming the viewer with lush orchestration and rousing drums to dial up the action and remind you that you’re watching a stunning vista — much the same way that boldface, all-caps, and italics often serve to underscore a written narrative, and usually unnecessarily so.

But Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner have something else in mind: the strings, percussion, and bass add texture and nuance to the movie’s many emotionally powerful moments.

For instance, “Goodbye to Hawk” builds slowly with a sad cello that gently suggests the emotion welling up inside the protagonist, frontier guide Hugh Glass, after he experiences a profound loss in the wilderness of 19th Century America. A single cello descends and floats for more than a minute. But at the 1:40 mark, “Goodbye to Hawk” changes course, taking on a more foreboding mood. A percussive sound repeats itself over a rising bed of strings and a thudding bass.

Within two minutes, anger and resolve overtake sadness, creating a kind of strength inside of Glass that he will draw upon throughout his perilous adventure. The strange, repeating electronic percussion sound feels something like a Native American drone. The composition is minimalist in nature — and yet signals a change in mood more powerfully than a wall of sound would have.

The score also combines melody with an unstructured ambience depending on the needs of the scene. The composers (principally Sakamoto and Noto) know when the music needs to suggest with ambient effect, rather than carry a scene with melody. For example, “First Dream” consists of a curious mixture of strings, piano, and percussive effects that narrate an otherworldly experience in which Glass dreams of his past life.

But the score sprinkles in melody at the right time, too. “Out of Horse” is a sad but sweet excursion, with the ondes Martenot instrument creating a flute-like melody that carries a key scene in which Glass seeks an unusual form of natural refuge from the elements.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has described working on The Revenant score as “the return from death” — and he is not exaggerating. He began work on The Revenant as he was recovering from throat cancer. At first he hesitated to work on the score. As he told Fact magazine, he was afraid he was too weak to collaborate with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has a reputation for being a difficult work partner. But he admired Iñárritu’s work and decided to seize what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 63-year-old man staring down mortality.

He explained to Fact his use an ambient music thusly: “Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature . . . So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”

In the same interview, Alva Noto added, “I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.”

The strength of The Revenant score, its understated interplay with nature, may very well be why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked it. The score is just not flashy enough. There are no moments that listeners can easily latch on to and hum along with, as with the Star Wars movies.

Both Sakamoto and Nova agree, as is evident in their interview the Fact. As Nova put it, “[The Academy] couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.”

Fortunately, music listeners don’t need the Academy to dictate our tastes. We have the power to immerse ourselves in music on our own. And I hope you will immerse yourself in score for The Revenant.

Related:

The Fader, “In Conversation with the All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Saxelby, 4 December 2015.

NPR, “Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, ‘The Revenant’,” Tom Moon, 30 December 2015.

The Wellesley News, “A Glimpse inside the Broody Soundtrack of ‘The Revenant,’ Scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Jiang, 10 February 2016.