Slain in the Spirit of Father John Misty

September 23rd, 2017 by ddeal

Author screenshot of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

I don’t go to church as often as I used to, but I always attend Father John Misty’s services when he is in town.

For a Father John Misty concert is a religious experience, one I have witnessed time and again, most recently September 20 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Onstage, he morphs into every kind of spiritual persona I’ve ever known. He is as cerebral as a Presbyterian who rules the pulpit with scripture and reason. As emotional as a Nazarene tent preacher speaking in tongues. As provocative and socially conscious as a Jesuit priest. Father John Misty, the stage name adopted by musician Josh Tillman, is partly the product of a troubled but important spiritual past. His ability to draw on his past to create compelling music makes him an artist, not just an entertainer.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

I first noticed Father John Misty late one evening a few years ago when I was watching a livestream of the Coachella music festival on my laptop. He prowled the stage like a lion, twirled his arms above his head, and gyrated so wildly that I thought he was going to burst out of my screen.  Who was this guy? I was reminded of when I was a child and my mother took me to church tent meetings in dusty fields of central Illinois to watch preachers whip an audience into an emotional frenzy by waving Bibles in the air and shouting scripture to occasional bursts of music from horns and organs. Those worship services were exciting and a little scary. And so was Father John Misty.

Author screenshot of Capitol Theatre livestream.

The next day I bought a copy of Fear Fun and got to know him better. His lyrics — sophisticated, honest, and droll — made me think of Bob Dylan. His song phrasing was like a cross between Frank Sinatra, Jim Morrison, and Harry Nilsson on acid. Here was someone who was breaking through to the mainstream without sounding like another American Idol finalist.

Fear Fun LP cover art.

Since then, I have fallen more in love with his music and eagerly awaited the release of each of his albums. I have followed his thoughtful news interviews and eccentric social media behavior. I have not always understood him, changing his name on Twitter to Farmer Jah Mis’ry, Feather Jam Ministry, Jon “Trxxxth” Misty, posting stream-of-consciousness tweets, deleting his Twitter and Instagram, reinstating his Twitter, then deleting his account again. Maybe his social media actions have simply reflected his self-proclaimed LSD use. Maybe he has been just fucking with us or himself. I don’t know — but I like not knowing.

I Love You, Honeybear LP cover art.

Father John Misty once said that entertainment is about forgetting about your life, and art is about remembering your life. And his spiritual past informs his art. It’s widely reported that he grew up in a restrictive Christian home that traumatized him. As he told Rolling Stone, “It was the most suburban, bleached-flour kind of scenario you can imagine — aside from the Messianic-Judaism, Pentecostal, speaking-in-tongues, getting-slain-in-the-spirit, having-demons-cast-out-of-you stuff. For my parents, heaven and hell were real. It’s bizarre to contemplate eternal damnation as an eight-year-old.” (Author’s note: “slain in the spirit” is a phenomenon in which worshippers fall to the floor in a state of spiritual ecstasy.)

Pure Comedy LP cover art.

His spiritual upbringing has also informed the writing of music such as Pure Comedy. As he told Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio:

I think the way that I grew up really plays heavily into [Pure Comedy]. On the one hand, there is Ecclesiastes, which is my favorite book in the Bible and in that way a positive. And on the other, just the alienation and confusion that I experienced as a child growing up in this really Pentecostal environment. Every adult I knew was deeply suspect to me. And they were telling me just insane things. I grew up speaking in tongues and slain in the spirit – but also being told none of this is real. So, having to make these really non-intuitive decisions about life. When everything you are told is inverted in this way that nothing you can touch, see or feel is real. This is all just some sick joke, and we all go to heaven and sing forever, which sounded horrible to me. The idea of just singing all the time? No, I don’t want to do that. But I think I brought a lot of that perspective I felt growing up into this record.

And therein lies the irony, of which he seems to be fully aware: experiences that alienated him also helped make him the shamanistic Father John Misty.

Like any good preacher, he delivers a message based on scripture (his own). At the Auditorium show, he comments, “Some of my songs challenge you, and some of them wrap you up in a warm blanket.” For instance, the exultant “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me” soars like a glorious Psalm, and he delivers the song with his arms upraised, as if to ask the audience to join him for an altar call.

On the other hand, “Ballad of the Dying Man” evokes Misty’s favorite biblical book, Ecclesiastes, with its existential heartbreak:

Eventually the dying man takes his final breath
But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss
And it occurs to him a little late in the game
We leave as clueless as we came
From rented heavens to the shadows in the cave
We’ll all be wrong someday

Now compare the lyrics to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, verses 16-17:

I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind.

The parallels between his work and the Bible are easy to find elsewhere, including an album sleeve for Pure Comedy, which quotes Ecclesiastes. The title song “Pure Comedy” confronts society in the tradition of Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah, with lyrics like,

Their languages just serve to confuse them
Their confusion somehow makes them more sure
They build fortunes poisoning their offspring
And hand out prizes when someone patents the cure
Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?
What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable?

Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution,” with its apocalyptic vision of a self-imploding world, evokes the book of Revelation through Father John Misty’s eyes.

These are powerful songs that, at turns, inspire, delight, and sadden me. They always move me. And how he delivers them! One moment he calmly holds the microphone and stands still, as if pausing to reflect on the meaning of his own words. During those times, he captures your attention and holds it. You notice how tall and lithe he is, like El Greco’s painting of John the Baptist assuming human form to gaze at an auditorium of supplicants.

Image source: Ryan Egan.

But then he explodes, running across the stage and waving those arms, then lying down on his back, emotionally spent, like being slain in the spirit.

Image source: Ryan Egan.

But he’s not just performing. He’s sharing his gifts. In doing so, he creates a bond with his audience, sometimes unspoken, sometimes overt, as when he strokes the head of a concertgoer in the front row and accepts a beer from a fan taking his photograph.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

There is preaching to be done, too. At one point during the Auditorium show, a voice from the audience cries out, “I feel a connection with you!” Instead of running with the comment, Misty pauses his singing to introduce the Democratic Socialists of America, who are at a booth in the lobby. He encourages people to talk with them and learn about their message, which elicits a polite but reserved response from the audience. He then asks, “Did I lose the connection?”

His angst, lamentations, and wry confrontation of society all cry out for a connection. You feel his longing for the hand of another in tender moments such as the end of “Pure Comedy,” when he sings, “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we got.” You feel that desire to bond, even for a fleeting moment, if you meet him in person after a performance, as my daughter and I did after the Auditorium show along with a cluster of fans. He is warm, gracious, and appears to be genuinely happy to be with people who want to be with him. When I shake his hand, I introduce myself and my daughter. He responds simply, “Hi. I’m Josh.”

Author photo.

Before he came out to greet everyone, I thought maybe I’d be lucky to get one selfie with him, but it becomes clear immediately that he will accommodate everyone. I take as many photos as I’d like, get an autograph, and, most importantly, enjoy watching him have a conversation with my daughter. He even brings his own Sharpie to sign autographs. No handlers. No formality. Just people sharing – with him and each other, including some incredibly cool members of the Facebook Father John Misty Can Flub (they are the source of the photos used in this post unless otherwise noted). What strikes me the most is that he seems to want to be with us, to achieve closure to the evening. He wants to accept our warmth and linger awhile. And you want to hug him.

All of us, gathered together in a Chicago alley closing in on midnight, are all we got, creating our own spiritual moment.

Apple Extends Its Reach into Healthcare

September 13th, 2017 by ddeal

Apple continues to shape the future of healthcare.

At its September 12 special event, Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams announced something less sexy than the $1,000 iPhone X but no less important: new health and fitness features through watchOS 4, the operating system that powers the Apple Watch. They include:

  • Improved heart monitoring. The Apple Watch already performs basic heart-monitoring with Cardiogram (In fact, according to Williams, the Apple Watch is the most-used heart rate monitor in the world.) But with watchOS 4 (available September 19), Apple Watch will also report resting heart rate and recovery heart rate (the latter metric tells you how quickly your heart rate drops after a workout). As Williams said, a lower resting heart rate and a quicker recovery rate can be signs of improved fitness.

  • Alerts on elevated resting heart rates. Williams noted that many Apple customers wrote to Apple about how their Apple Watches helped them detect unusually high heart rates at unexpected times. So the Apple Watch now notifies owners when the device detects an elevated heart rate and the owner does not appear to be active — thus alerting the watch owner about potential heart problems.
  • Better support for your workout. For example through the GymKit technology platform, watch OS 4 will make it possible for people to sync fitness data between their Apple Watches and cardio machines they use at the gym, thus delivering more accurate fitness information such as calories burned or distance traveled during your workout. The sync feature will only work with newer pieces of gym equipment — so that functionality might be limited.

Apple also announced that the company is working with Stanford Medical Center to determine whether the Apple Watch can accurately detect abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. As noted by Jessica Conditt of Engadget, Apple would like for the Apple Watch to be able to detect common – but often undiagnosed — heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. According to a study done by Cardiogram and the University of California, San Francisco, the Apple Watch already detects the most common type of heart arrhythmia with a 97 percent accuracy rate. With the Apple Heart Study, Apple will manage its own research with Stanford Medical Center.

“In our Initial studies, Apple Watch has been effective at surfacing irregular rhythms,” Williams said. He noted that the Apple Heart Study “will use data from Apple Watch and analyze arrhythmias including [atrial fibrillation] and notify users.” Thomas Tamblyn of The Huffington Post provided additional detail on how the study will work:

To try and better detect, diagnose and then in turn treat these irregular heart rates, Apple will anonymously send health data from participants through its HealthKit SDK straight to the research team at Stanford Medicine.

Just like the previous studies on dementia, Apple’s HealthKit allows research teams the rare chance to gather huge sample rates of data while still making sure that all the data is anonymised.

The Apple Heart Study will be an app that users in the US can download for free onto their Apple Watches and it will simply run in the background.

The first phase of the study will be available later in 2017 on the app store.

Apple’s Aspiration

These developments are part of Tim Cook’s vision to make Apple a healthcare market maker. Market makers do more than sell products. They change the way people live. And Cook sees healthcare as a way for Apple to effect long-lasting change in how people and companies use data to manage health.

As I discussed in my recent report Dr. Apple Will See You Now, Apple has been developing tools such as HealthKit and working with medical centers such as Johns Hopkins to help patients manage their wellness and clinical care – including heart monitoring, managing epilepsy, and many other health needs and issues. I believe Apple aspires to be the data backbone for patient care. That strategy has two key elements:

  • Software for patients and providers to monitor and share data, which is where apps such as HealthKit come into play.
  • Hardware: the Apple Watch and iPhone to create an ever-present device platform. (According to Cook, the Apple Watch is now the Number One watch in the world.)

The September 12 special event underscored this strategy especially with software and the Apple Watch.

Cook Articulates a Vision

Cook recently articulated this vision to Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. When Lashinsky asked Cook about Apple’s interest in healthcare, Cook replied:

We’re extremely interested in this area. And, yes, it is a business opportunity. If you look at it, medical health activity is the largest or second-largest component of the economy, depending on which country in the world you’re dealing with. And it hasn’t been constructed in a way where the focus at the device level is making great products from a pure point of view. The focus has been on making products that can get reimbursed through the insurance companies, through Medicare, or through Medicaid. And so in some ways we bring a totally fresh view into this and say, ‘Forget all of that. What will help people?’

Cook has good reason to focus on healthcare, especially wellness and fitness, or initiatives to keep people healthy. The PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) cites wellness care as one of the top forces shaping the future of healthcare industry, with wellness accounting for $276 billion of the $5 trillion U.S. healthcare ecosystem.

And a recent study by Technavio says that the global heart rate monitoring device market to grow at a compound annual rate surpassing 13 percent during the forecast period 2016-2020 as people become more comfortable using wearables to monitor their health in order to avoid costly medical treatment for health problems.

Healthcare Is at a Digital Inflection Point

According to the widely-read Internet Trends 2017 report from Kleiner Perkins analyst Mary Meeker, healthcare is at a digital inflection point. The proliferation of wearables and health apps and consumers’ willingness to share health data are among the factors transforming health into a data-driven industry connected through digital. As if to underscore Meeker’s points, Cook mentioned to Fortune,

One of the things that we’ve learned that we’ve been really surprised and delighted about is [the Apple Watch], because of the monitoring of the heart, has essentially alerted people through the collection of the data that they have a problem. And that spurred them to go to the doctor and say, ‘Look at my heart rate data. Is something wrong?’ And a not-insignificant number have found out if they hadn’t come into the doctor they would have died.

As I have blogged, Apple is well positioned to power the future of healthcare as the industry reaches a digital inflection point. Apple has the financial muscle, brand strength, and relationships with a vast healthcare ecosystem to deliver on Cook’s vision. The Apple Heart Study with Stanford is but one example. Apple products are also preferred by physicians (75 percent of doctors in the United States own some form of Apple device, according to a study by Manhattan Research.)

The future of healthcare is here. And Apple has helped to create that future.

Laugh When You Fall

July 19th, 2017 by ddeal

Photo credit: Wayne Hile

One recent Sunday afternoon, the unthinkable happened: I stumbled and fell onstage in front of a large audience. I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Foolish. But I recovered by owning my mistake with a laugh instead of pretending nothing happened.

For context: on summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, on a day in 1574 when Queen Elizabeth came to town. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. I portray a pompous barrister and guild master Nicolas Wright, who is one of the residents guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are my stage.

One of the day’s highlights is the Queen’s Parade, which occurs shortly before 1:00 p.m. Marching in the parade is an honor that requires the cast to sing, wave, and shout praises to Queen Elizabeth as we walk through the dusty streets in a choreographed procession. I never grow tired of marching in the parade through the front gates and into the crowded streets, where the crowds lining the parade route create an electric feeling with their own cheering and shouting.

On July 16, I was marching alongside my fellow cast mates on Guild Hall Row, a narrow stretch of road flanked by shops and trees. I was prancing and preening as Nicolas Wright always does when I came upon a makeshift hopscotch court formed by flowers in the middle of the parade route. The egotistical Nicolas Wright just had to jump through the hopscotch court, with an exaggerated twist and twirl of his large green-and-black surcoat. Somehow while leaping around on one foot, I caught my foot in my billowy trousers and lost my balance. One moment I was soaring in the air, and the next moment I found myself on the ground, a tangled mass of surcoat, dirt-covered pants and shirt, and stunned ego.

As I landed with an audible thud amid cast mates and patrons, I could hear some gasps. It felt like every eye in Bristol was watching. I prayed that none of the news photographers or camera crews from visiting news media saw what happened. I was too embarrassed to look anyone in the eye. What a screw-up!

A cast mate approached me to help me get up. At that point, the training I receive as a Bristol actor kicked in. Instead of accepting his help, I waved him off with a loud laugh. I got up on my own power, twirled, and shouted, “Wasn’t that grand? Just as I had planned all along!” Then I bowed as if I had just delivered a Shakespearean soliloquy, shouted “God save the Queen!” and raced ahead to hand out trinkets to parade goers.

Inside, I was still reeling from the fall, but forcing myself to laugh and embrace the gaffe kept my stress from showing – and also helped me work my way out of my temporary funk.

As a performer and public speaker, I know from experience that usually the best way to deal with a mistake onstage is to simply move on as if nothing happened. If you forget a line or stumble over a word, you don’t want to call attention to the miscue. In fact, oftentimes, an audience won’t even notice a mistake (even if you do). Pausing to acknowledge and correct yourself can disrupt the momentum of a performance or presentation.

But as I have been taught at Bristol, there are times when the best way to handle a mistake is to take the opposite approach and absolutely own the gaffe — which is especially appropriate when the nature of your performance is supposed to be improvisational and comedic, as is the case with Bristol. Turning an accident into a performance is ideal when the disruption is just too obvious to overlook. Improvising with a screw-up creates unexpected theater. Doing so can also create a bond with your audience so long as you act with grace and humor.

Creating comedy out of my fall also conveyed in just seconds that I had not hurt myself and was as happy and outgoing as ever, which defused any potential tension that might have resulted from the incident.

However you handle a mistake onstage, the worst response is to show stress. As the saying goes, never let them see you sweat. The audience takes their cues from you. When you express annoyance, you send a negative vibe that can kill a performance. There will be time to express your angst backstage later. But if you laugh off your problem, you may make the negativity melt away, anyway, which is what happened to me.

As Keith Richards was quoted in Victor Bockris’ Keith Richards: The Biography, “There are musicians who make faces when they miss a note. I am glad when it happens, and I think, ‘Hang on, that may be the birth of a new song.’ Analyze your mistakes, learn from your mistakes.”

By the time the parade was over, I was feeling as energetic and confident as I had when the gates of Bristol opened. Laughing in the aftermath of the fall helped me recover my mojo even though I was not laughing on the inside at that moment. I faked it untiI made it. Afterward, I thought about what had happened and asked what I might do differently next time I want to perform a physical stunt. I realized I need to become more accustomed to moving in my billowy trousers, which are a new pair I’ve not worn in past seasons. I need to practice leaping and running until I’m used to how the trousers fit when I move. But sometimes, there is nothing to do differently.

Finally, the training I receive as an actor at Bristol made all the difference. The cast and our directors discuss these scenarios all the time in rehearsals, never knowing when we might apply what we learn. On a warm Sunday afternoon, my opportunity came along.

How do you handle mistakes when everyone sees them?

Here are more posts about my Bristol acting experiences:

Spin Creative Gold with ‘Yes, And .  . .’” January 17, 2017

A Place of Magic,” August 12, 2016.

Your Audience Is Always Watching,” July 28, 2016.

Own the Stage,” September 3, 2015.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.

Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.

How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014.

Why Amazon Bought Whole Foods: To Beat Walmart

June 16th, 2017 by ddeal

Why did Amazon buy Whole Foods? To beat Walmart in the war for the on-demand grocery shopper.

As announced June 16, Amazon and Whole Foods have agreed that Amazon will acquire Whole Foods Market for $42 per share in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately $13.7 billion. Whole Foods will operate under its own name. The acquisition will give Amazon ownership of 460 stores in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom as well as Whole Food’s built-in ecosystems of customers and suppliers.

Amazon’s expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery industry is well known (as is the company’s general encroachment into offline retail.) To date, Amazon’s strategy has been to build and pilot its own stores. So why would Amazon buy a chain of grocery stores rather than develop its own? I believe Walmart is forcing Amazon to accelerate its expansion.

Chronology of a Retail War

As I have blogged, Amazon and Walmart are in an intense fight to own the future of retail, including the $600 billion grocery industry. Both businesses are racing to win loyalty from the on-demand consumer who expects a frictionless buying experience both online and in the store:

  • Amazon has been piloting its own models for using physical stores to provide on-demand grocery services, examples being the launch of Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh Pickup. Amazon Go is supposed to provide a completely frictionless buying experience via physical self-service grocery stores where anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app can simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. With AmazonFresh Pickup, customers can order groceries online and have their orders ready for pick-up at designated AmazonFresh Pickup physical locations — in as little as 15 minutes.
  • Walmart has been making moves of its own, some of which are aimed directly at the grocery-buying experience. In 2015 the company launched Walmart Pay, which shoppers use on their mobile devices to purchase goods in-store. In 2016, Walmart’s began piloting Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees. These developments have occurred in context of Walmart developing a stronger way to battle Amazon by developing its own ecommerce business and to gain more efficiency through its offline infrastructure. For instance, in 2016, Walmart purchased hot ecommerce company In 2017, Walmart announced it has been testing a service whereby Walmart employees deliver packages to customers on their way home, which raises the possibility that employees could also deliver groceries.

Both Amazon and Walmart are in a strong position to win the war for the future of retailing. They both have brand muscle and deep pockets. Amazon is killing Walmart (and everyone else) in online retailing, and Amazon is successfully moving into our homes and cars with on-demand devices and technologies such as the Dash button and Alexa voice assistant, which make Amazon a more ubiquitous and convenient presence in our lives.

Walmart possesses many strengths, too, including scale and a powerful physical ecosystem that includes not only its stores but network of partners, over whom Walmart wields considerable power. Walmart also knows how to experiment, learn, and leverage its scale. For example, after launching Walmart Pay in 2015, Walmart quickly expanded Walmart Pay across 4,600 stores. Walmart has also added services to Walmart Pay that cater to the needs of on-demand consumers, such as the ability for shoppers to refill prescriptions and skip pharmacy lines. Walmart understands the intersection of the mobile and physical worlds – and has the power to act on its understanding.

Whole Foods Gives Amazon an On-Demand Ecosystem

Buying Whole Foods gives Amazon:

  • A pre-built infrastructure and customer base to accelerate on-demand services such as in-store pick-up and delivery — possibly even a way to develop the Amazon Go model without needing to build new stores. So far, the Amazon Go frictionless shopping experience has encountered glitches as the in-store technology struggles to keep pace with consumer foot traffic when the Amazon Go store gets busy. Amazon has delayed the launch of a public-ready Amazon Go. Whole Foods give Amazon an intriguing way to roll out the model once Amazon works out the kinks in the system.
  • An affluent customer base to cross-promote Amazon services and products such as its Echo voice-activated smart speaker in an offline environment. Moreover, Amazon can conceivably build upon its already popular Echo speaker to offer voice-activated ordering capabilities via Whole Foods.

And don’t underestimate the role of Echo. Echo customers are using the device to do a wide variety of tasks such as playing music and checking the news. Integrating Echo with the offline shopping remains unconquered territory for Amazon – but not for long, I suspect. Businesses such as Domino’s Pizza have activated product ordering via the Echo, giving us a glimpse of the future of online/offline commerce. Amazon wants to own that future.

Why the On-Demand Consumer Matters

Amazon and Walmart have good reason to fight for the on-demand consumer. The rise of the on-demand consumer is one of the compelling trends defining the 21st Century economy. As Google has reported, we’re living in the era of the micro-moment, when consumers, armed with mobile devices and apps, can research and purchase goods and services on their own time and terms. Businesses ranging from Panera Bread to 7-Eleven have responded to the on-demand consumer with services such as online ordering and drone delivery.

The grocery industry is well suited to an on-demand model. People need to restock groceries often, and obviously perishable goods have a limited shelf life. But as writer Mark Rogowksy notes in Forbes, the on-demand grocery model has been fraught with its share of failure, one of the reasons being that grocery delivery is not as “on-demand” as it sounds. In fact, it’s a lot easier for mobile consumers to order and pick up groceries on the go rather than wait around in their homes for delivery. So grocers need a way to accommodate shoppers on the go, which is where physical stores (such as Walmart and Whole Foods) come into play.

Buying Whole Foods gives Amazon a way to exert its will on the on-demand economy. Your move, Walmart.


Is HomePod Apple’s Death Star in the Music Streaming Wars?

June 5th, 2017 by ddeal

Apple’s newly announced HomePod smart speaker is more than Apple’s answer to Amazon Echo and Google Home in the battle for your home – it’s quite possibly Apple’s major advantage in the music streaming wars.

In unveiling the HomePod June 5 at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple announced that the voice-activated speaker will be a music-first experience that combines both the quality of high-fidelity Sonos speaker and the intelligent interface of the Amazon Echo – with a focus on providing users access to the Apple Music catalog. As Apple noted in a press release,

Designed to work with an Apple Music subscription for access to over 40 million songs, HomePod provides deep knowledge of personal music preferences and tastes and helps users discover new music.

At WWDC, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said the speaker has “amazing sound and incredible intelligence that will reinvent home music.”

Why the focus on a high-fidelity experience with an emphasis on music? One reason is that Apple wants to be the leading music streaming provider – badly. After disrupting the music industry through iTunes and the iPod, Apple found itself looking behind the times when consumer tastes shifted from downloading songs on iTunes to streaming them on apps such as Spotify. And looking outdated is strange ground for Apple. Apple’s desire to play catch up with streaming was a big reason why the company paid $3 billion for Beats in 2014. Months after buying Beats, Apple launched its own service, Apple Music, in 2015.

The good news for Apple is that within two years, Apple Music has become the Number Two streaming service as measured by paid subscribers. And these are heady times for streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify. In 2016, for the first time ever, streaming music platforms generated the majority of the U.S. music industry’s revenues. As the RIAA noted, the biggest contributor to growth was a doubling of revenues from paid streaming services. But for Apple, there is also some bad news:

  • Amazon has been rapidly encroaching upon music streaming. It offers a limited service to Amazon Prime customers (Amazon Prime Music) and recently launched a subscription service, Amazon Music Unlimited.

Spotify and Amazon are significant competitors with their own strengths and weaknesses:

  • Spotify enjoys the strong brand affiliation with music, its customer base, and outstanding personalized playlists, but the company is losing money.

  • Amazon enjoys an advantage with its deep pockets and the popularity of Echo speaker, which provide a natural platform for streaming music. But Amazon Music Unlimited is an upstart (and Amazon Prime Music is a feature of Amazon Prime, not a pure streaming service, per se).

The Echo factor is big. Echo has experienced astounding growth to dominate the market for voice-activated home speakers, as people become more comfortable with the voice interface. It’s like a Swiss Army knife for doing everything from controlling the temperature in your home to ordering products.

And in addition, Echo is also a platform for playing music through voice commands (“Play the new Lorde song”), something Spotify does not offer. In 2017, according to eMarketer, 35.6 million Americans will use a voice-activated assistant device at least once a month, and 71 percent of them will use Echo. (Google Home has the second highest marketshare behind Echo, at 24 percent, but Google does not release user figures for its Google Play streaming service.)

No wonder Amazon offers Amazon Music Unlimited at its lowest price to owners of Amazon Echo speakers: Echo is a Trojan Horse for Amazon’s music streaming product.

But Swiss Army knives, while being useful, are not great at everything. The Echo is not engineered specifically to listen to music. HomePod is. At WWDC, Apple Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Phil Schiller said that HomePod will provide the high quality of a Sonos speakers and the smart interface of the Echo.

“These aren’t smart speakers, Schiller said of Sonos. “They don’t sound so great when you listen to music,” he said of the Echo. But HomePod will sound great and act as a home musicologist, he said.

He indicated that the HomePod will make it possible for consumers to call up music using complex voice searches and then listen to music through a product that provides state-of-the-art sound including spatial awareness, which adjusts the audio depending on where you are sitting in the room.

But the ace in the hole is the integration with Apple Music. As Apple announced,

By saying, “Hey Siri, I like this song,” HomePod and Apple Music become the perfect musicologist, learning preferences from hundreds of genres and moods, across tens of thousands of playlists, and these music tastes are shared across devices. Siri can also handle advanced searches within the music library, so users can ask questions like “Hey Siri, who’s the drummer in this?” or create a shared Up Next queue with everyone in the home. HomePod, Apple Music and Siri deliver the best music experience in the home that streams ad-free directly to HomePod.

HomePod will also provide the same functionality as Echo, providing functions ranging from turning on the lights in your home to providing sports and weather information.

The HomePod should be available in December at a cost of $349, a cost that is significantly higher than Amazon Echo and Google’s own Home speaker. By pricing the HomePod at the high end, Amazon is banking on consumers:

  • Accepting Apple’s position as a premium brand.
  • Caring enough to pay more for better sound.
  • Subscribing to Apple Music because it’s so easy to listen to music with voice commands on HomePod. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple offers an incentive for bundling Apple Music paid subscriptions and HomePod.)

It’s an interesting bet. Consumers have been indifferent to sound quality on mobile devices, not caring enough about sound quality to buy high-end mobile streaming products such as Pono. Meanwhile in the home environment, the growth and popularity of Sonos speakers for years showed that people would pay for premium sound  – but then Amazon’s encroachment on Sonos suggest that consumers were willing to sacrifice the fidelity of Sonos for the convenience of Echo. And now Apple believes consumers will do the same with HomePod.

Apple won’t put a dent in Echo’s 71-percent market share anytime soon, but Apple doesn’t need to. Apple is not offering a utility that competes on price as Echo does. Apple is selling a high-end experience first and utility second. Apple Music is central to that experience. Will HomePod be a catalyst for Apple Music to eat into Spotify’s lead?

Where Is Your Creative Hustle?

June 3rd, 2017 by ddeal

When an idea comes to you in the middle of the night, do you act on it, or do you yawn, roll over, and return to the arms of Morpheus, even though the original spark of inspiration may dissolve into the recesses of your unconscious mind? When you sit down to create – whether you write blog posts or poems – do you give yourself over to the power of the muse, or do you squeeze in creativity amid a flurry of tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube clips?

If you possess creative hustle, you don’t wait around for the right time to create. You choose to dig into the well of ideas even when doing so means staying up late — even when you’d prefer the comfort of your pillow. You record every idea no matter how silly or rough because any idea can become something great. You choose to push yourself. And you reap the rewards of taking an idea to full fruition because you cared too much to let it remain a rough draft in your head.

Gregg Allman, who passed away May 27, was a creative hustler. Throughout his life, ] with the Allman Brothers and as a solo performer, he wrote or co-wrote some of the landmark songs in the history of rock, such as “Whipping Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.” He wrote and sang of hard living, relationships gone sour, and lawless living in the tradition of the great blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta, but with his own personal style suffused with grit and grace. And his thirst to create was insatiable. In the autobiography My Cross to Bear, he tells the story about how he answered the call of creativity to write one of the Allman Brothers’ signature songs, “Whipping Post,” in the middle of the night while he was staying as a guest in someone’s house. It’s a lengthy passage but worth sharing in its entirety because it says everything about the essence of creative hustling:

So that first night, I laid me down to go to sleep on my attic couch, and I dozed off for a while. All of a sudden, I woke up, because a song had me by the ass. The intro had three sets of three, and two little steps that allowed you to jump back up on the next triad. I thought it was different, and I love different things. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I wish the rest of them had come like this – it was all right there in my head, all I had to do was write it down so I wouldn’t forget it by the morning.

I started feeling around for a light switch, but I couldn’t find one anywhere. I was in my sock feet; I just had on my drawers and a T-shirt. I found my way into the kitchen and it was pitch-dark. I had my hands out and I touched an ironing board – thank goodness, instead of tripping over it, which would have made a terrible noise.

I was feeling all around the counters for a piece of paper. I couldn’t find any paper or a pencil anywhere, but I did find a box of kitchen matches. A car happened to go by, and its lights flashed long enough to allow me to see that red, white, and blue box. I knew I could use the matches to write with, because I had diddled around enough with art to know what charcoal would work.

I figured the ironing board cover would work as a pad, so I’d strike a match, blow it out, use the charcoal tip to write with, and then strike another one. I charted out the three triads and the two little steps, and then I went to work on the lyrics:

“I’ve been run down, and I’ve been lied to . . .”

I got it all down on that ironing board cover, in the closest thing to shorthand as I could muster up.

That passage has always convicted me as surely as a Biblical verse. I think of all the times I’ve frittered away ideas because it was just too inconvenient to stop what I was doing and run with them. Too often I manage the creative process like a to-do list, like something I just handle when I can, not when I need to. I marvel at how Gregg Allman describes a song taking hold of him, like a tick that gets into your skin and won’t let go. And he won’t allow the lack of available tools to stop him. He is willing to blow out match after match until he has enough charcoal to capture the moment.

But what if he’d rolled decided to get a good night’s sleep when the urge to create had taken hold? He might have gotten out of bed the next day barely remembering that moment of inspiration. He might have lost “Whipping Post” to the demands of the day. And the song might have become nothing more than a vague memory in Gregg Allman’s head.

Gregg Allman was a servant to creativity. He took the creative gifts bestowed upon him and hustled. Do you?

Image source: George Rose, Los Angeles Times

How Well Do You Manage Your Brand’s Moving Parts?

May 11th, 2017 by ddeal

Consumers often associate a brand with its sensory elements – what we can see and touch. The sensory aspects create emotional connections that form the building blocks of a brand. But a successful brand requires many moving parts to operate in sync, and not all of them are obvious to the customer. My recent experience with Apple illustrates the point.

I live in a house of Apple fans. My wife, daughter, and I all own Apple products because they are user friendly and well designed. We’re also Apple stock holders. But even one of the world’s most valuable brands commits its share of misfires. In 2013, I bought a MacBook Pro that turned out to be a lemon. The unit suffered one malady after another, ranging from a broken track pad to frequent hard drive crashes. Each time I took the unit to the store for repair, the Apple service technicians were responsive and skillful, but the moment they fixed one problem, another would appear like an annoying mole in a Whack-A-Mole game.

Days ago, after the laptop experienced a meltdown, I visited the Apple store in Oakbrook, Illinois, and asked to speak to the manager. I explained that the MacBook was plagued with problems but that I wasn’t quite ready to buy a new one. Was there any kind of accommodation Apple could make even though the MacBook’s warranty had expired?

As it turned out, she could make an accommodation, and she did. After consulting the laptop’s extensive repair record, she replaced it with a new MacBook Pro at no cost. The moment the technician brought out the sealed box containing a silver laptop, my heart sang. When we unboxed the unit, I was so excited I snapped a photo for my Snapchat followers. The technician helped me get everything set up in the store. Problem solved! I went home a happy customer with my faith in Apple products restored.

The emotional appeal of opening up new laptop, feeling the smooth surface, and getting used to the touch of the new keyboard was a sensory experience and a victory for the Apple brand. And yet, many moving parts needed to work in sync for that moment to happen, some that were visible to me, and some that were not. Let’s break it down:

  • The manager possessed customer empathy. She listened to my problem and apologized for my bad experience. Her empathetic manner set the right tone. Behind the scenes, someone in Apple HR whom I may never meet made a smart hire.
  • As empathetic as she was, the manager also needed a way to verify my complaint. Sometimes customer unhappiness results from user error or negligence. Fortunately Apple’s technicians have a policy of meticulously recording every service issue behind the scenes. The store manager was able to see for herself the machine’s trouble-ridden service history.
  • The manager was empowered to replace my laptop at no charge. She did not have to spend the evening checking corporate policies and getting permission. As a result, I didn’t have to wait for hours or days to learn the final verdict. And she was not the first Apple employee I’ve met who has the authority to make judgment calls on the spot. Her ability to do so is a reflection of Apple’s culture.
  • The replacement product needed to be in stock for the magical moment to happen right then and there – which requires effective logistics management behind the scenes. If you’ve ever heard the “Sorry, the part is not in stock” line as you are on the cusp of making a purchase, you know what a letdown it is when you realize you’re in for a wait. For me, waiting for a resolution was unacceptable. I need my laptop to do my job as a writer and consultant. My laptop is my office.
  • As I noted, the packaging added to the experience – the equivalent of the attractive design of a new Shinola watch that creates an immediate emotional appeal.
  • The technician possessed empathy, too. He gave me a tour of the new MacBook, pointing out a few of its features that are different than my old one, and he helped me set up the new unit. In fact, all the Apple technicians I have worked with over the past few years have possessed tremendous empathy.

And many other important elements came into play that evening, which I almost take for granted, such as the ease of scheduling a repair appointment in Apple’s Genius Bar; the attractive, warm layout of the store; the comfortable furniture; and the spacious desks that make it possible for you to hang out while you’re waiting. Being able to comfortably sit and read or chat while you’re at the Genius Bar certainly softens the blow of having to get a repair done.

The layout of the Genius Bar also encourages collaboration between the technician and the customer. It feels like you’re sitting at your dining room table at home when you’re at the Genius Bar. There is no barrier between you and the Apple employee. No desks. No registers. The design creates an approachability that puts you at ease – a little detail that acts as a calming influence when you’re experiencing a service issue.

At the end of a long day, driving to the store to return a broken product is low on the list of things you want to do. But the inviting Apple store environment helps restore your spirits. At the same time, just to make the store welcoming, Apple needs to employ designers and retail specialists behind the scenes. Here again, unseen elements — the employees responsible for the store design and management of the Genius Bar — affect what I experience.

Finally, there is the variable over which Apple has no control: me, the customer. Ultimately the Apple brand comes down to my perceptions. And perception is reality. After getting my new laptop, I had a decision to make: how did I feel about what happened when I got a new laptop? Was I going to take the attitude of “Well, that’s the least they can do,” or was I going to be so happy that I’d blog about my experience? It has been said that your customer owns your brand, but businesses can pull many levers to influence a customer’s brand perception. Apple pulled all the right ones.

Now it’s up to Apple to reinforce trust through the reliable performance of my new laptop.

Let Us Now Praise Jeff Bezos

May 10th, 2017 by ddeal

Jeff Bezos is the Abraham Lincoln of the business world: he doesn’t let critics stop him from making history.

The success of the Amazon Echo encapsulates his resiliency perfectly. eMarketer recently reported that Echo owns more than 70 percent of the market for voice-assisted devices, whose usage grew nearly 130 percent in 2016. During 2017, 35.6 million Americans will use voice-activated assistants at least once a month, which means 25 million of them will use Echo. And during the 2016 holiday season, Amazon sold nine times as many Echo devices as it did the year before. But the ascendance of Echo was hardly assured when Amazon launched the product in November 2014.

In fact, Amazon’s Echo caused a good deal of criticism, ranging from concerns about violations of personal privacy to skepticism over its value to do anything useful for its owners.

Echo Faces a Rocky Start

The Echo surfaced at a time when Bezos was fielding taking heat for the failure of the Amazon Fire phone, which Amazon had released earlier in 2014. And although the Echo made some positive impressions coming out of the gate, the product didn’t exactly overwhelm the media influencers. The voice-activated speaker inspired bemused reactions from publications that were not quite sure what to make of it, including The Verge, which described Echo as “a crazy speaker that talks to you.” An analyst at Wedbush Securities told Bloomberg, “I think it’s just a two-way speaker, but why isn’t there an app that lets me do the same thing without having to spend $99 on hardware? I think this is a solution that is seeking a problem.” And Consumer Reports criticized the Echo for being too rudimentary.

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Fyre Festival Debacle Shows the Difference between Marketing and Branding

April 28th, 2017 by ddeal

The Fyre Festival has become the train wreck you can’t ignore. The event organizers, rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur Billy McFarland, promised attendees “two unforgettable weekends of mystery and music” with acts such as Blink-182 and Major Lazer appearing on a private island in the Exumas April 28-30 and then May 5-7. But by early morning April 28, the event was trending on Twitter as “the luxury party that turned into the Hunger Games,” with attendees reporting massive disorganization, inadequate housing, food shortages, and unbelievable chaos. The Fyre Festival is now scrambling to evacuate stranded attendees after canceling the event.

Here we have a painful reminder of the difference between marketing and branding. When synchronized well, marketing creates a promise, and the brand delivers on that promise through an experience. The Fyre Festival certainly created quite a promise. The festival marketed itself as an exclusive event “for those with uncompromising taste and a burning desire for adventure” with tickets reportedly costing as much as $12,000 and some VIP packages costing as much as $250,000. Attendees were promised luxury cabanas, sumptuous meals, private island parties, cool music, and generally the most decadent experience money could buy. “Set against the surreal island backdrop of the Exumas where ordinary rules don’t apply, Fyre ignites the best in music, cuisine, innovation and hospitality,” according to the event’s Facebook page. To build awareness, the festival relied on high-profile influencers, including Victoria’s Secret models, to post teaser content on their Instagram accounts. And teaser videos such as this one certainly looked appealing enough to those with enough cash:

But it quickly became apparent that the experience was not living up to the advertising, as the first attendees to arrive complained of spartan living conditions in disaster relief tents. Many took to social media to report what was going on:

As reported in Variety, “According to reports from would-be concertgoers, the site is more like a hurricane disaster staging area, with incomplete tents and boxed lunches instead of luxury accommodations and celebrity chef-prepared meals.” Meanwhile, Blink-182 canceled its appearance. Within hours, the organizers abandoned any hope of putting on the event and turned their focus to evacuating stranded travelers.

Now, if you’ve been to enough music festivals, you expect to pay for a bit of discomfort. Enduring crowds and inclement weather is just part of the deal when a festival promises you access to cool music. In fact, enduring some discomfort is sort of a badge of honor — the price you pay to say you were there when Kendrick Lamar tore up the stage. But the Fyre Festival promised an elite experience. And as Brian Solis has argued passionately, your brand is all about the experience.

Your brand is also all about delivering the experience you promise. A promise creates an expectation. You can proclaim your marketing a massive success when your promise of private cabanas on a luxury retreat results in concert goers willing to fork over thousands of dollars to spend their weekends with you. But when the experience fails to deliver on a promise, you fail to meet expectations, and your brand dies a quick death.

The rapidly unfolding disaster is also an embarrassment for Ja Rule. How much damage to his personal brand results remains to be seen, but his Fyre Media company, founded in 2015, now faces a crisis of epic proportions. United Airlines may have dragged a passenger kicking and screaming off an airplane. But when you create huge buzz by relying on supermodels and influencers to hype an event and then anger an island crawling with affluent millennials with access to social media, you’ve created a whole new level of pain.

Will Fyre Media now show us how to recover from a brand disaster? Stay tuned.

Why Uber Remains Disruptive and Dangerous

April 27th, 2017 by ddeal

Uber is the Kanye West of Silicon Valley: bold and brilliant. Toxic and troubled. Disruptive and dangerous.

Uber’s willingness to play dirty and its dysfunctional culture are well documented, most recently in a New York Times piece, “Uber’s CEO Plays with Fire” that laid bare the controversial management style of CEO Travis Kalanick, including his “pattern of risk-taking that has at times put his ride-hailing company on the brink of implosion.” The company’s many scandals have given rise to the #DeleteUber movement, which has been an economic boon to rival Lyft.

And yet Uber remains as bold and disruptive as ever, as two recent news developments show.

On April 25, Uber announced that it will launch a network of flying taxis in Dallas and Dubai by 2020. The news places Uber front and center among the companies trying to define a market for electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (VTOLs), also known as flying cars (to the chagrin of purists). So-called flying cars could change the way people travel and the way transportation companies, delivery services, and even urgent care/on-demand health services operate, especially in urban markets hampered by congestion. Other prominent players trying to launch VTOLs include Airbus and  Kitty Hawk, a company backed by Google cofounder Larry Page, which released a demonstration video of a prototype on April 24.

The development and rollout of VTOLs faces some major hurdles ranging from regulatory barriers to constraints in battery life for the craft themselves. But if Uber has taught us anything, its the company’s ability to disrupt. This is the company that ushered in the era of the on-demand economy and disrupted the transportation and delivery industries. It’s also a business that knows how to scale an idea. As Alex Davies of WIRED reported, the company has formed partnerships with companies that are developing VTOLs as well as relationships with the businesses necessary to build out a flying car infrastructure. As he wrote:

And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.

Meanwhile, as flying driving cars and Uber’s scandals were making headlines, McDonald’s announced that the fast-food giant has teamed with Uber to deliver McDonald’s to your door. As McDonald’s pointed out, nearly 75 percent of the population in its five largest markets live within three miles of a McDonald’s, and McDonald’s has been testing the Uber delivery service since December (through UberEATS, Uber’s food delivery unit).

As Peter Frost of Crain’s Chicago Business reported, “Delivery is a natural sales channel for McDonald’s to pursue since much of its food already is consumed outside its restaurants. Some 70 percent of McDonald’s U.S. business goes through the drive-thru, and in urban areas, far more consumers take its food to-go versus eating inside.”

The McDonald’s relationship is an example of how Uber can partner with brands that have the muscle and reach to help Uber deliver on its vision, in this case, services that cater to the on-demand consumer. Uber does the same with hospitals to deliver on-demand healthcare as well.

Uber doesn’t need to play nice to be disruptive and dangerous. Uber does not even have to be a long-term success. Ideas are the fuel of disruption, and Uber knows how to scale an idea even as the company’s brand implodes.

Note: check out Uber’s 2016 white paper on VTOLs here.