The “Stairway to Heaven” Lawsuit: How Permanent a Victory?

June 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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Led Zeppelin’s successful defense of “Stairway to Heaven” against an accusation of copyright infringement over the song “Taurus” is a victory for creativity — but how permanent a victory?

The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” share, at best, a passing similarity to a brief chord progression in “Taurus,” written by singer Randy Wolfe, who performed with the band Spirit. (Compare “Taurus” at the 45 second mark to the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven.”)

Had a jury found that Zeppelin plagiarized “Taurus,” songwriters would have another good reason reason to second-guess themselves as they create new music (and I’m not referring to lyric writing). The next David Bowie might not write the next “Starman” for fear of sounding too much like someone else’s work (in fact, Bowie based the chorus for “Starman” on “Somewhere over the Rainbow”). But the victory was by no means a slam dunk. Over the years, a number of other high-profile plagiarism cases similar to this one have gone against defendants. For instance:

  • In 2015, the family of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing upon Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” when Thicke and Williams wrote “Blurred Lines.” Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million (a judge reduced the award to $5.3 million; Thicke and Williams are appealing).
  • Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood of the Hollies successfully sued Radiohead over similarities between Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” As a result, Hammond and Hazlewood now share royalties and songwriting credits for “Creep.”
  • In the 1980s, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarism because Lewis felt that the melody for Parker’s 1984 hit “Ghostbusters” was too similar to Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug.” The two parties settled out of court.
  • In 1976, a judge determined that George Harrison had committed “subconscious plagiarism” in writing his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord,” whose melody is similar to that of the 1962 song “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Harrison was liable for nearly $600,000.
  • In the 1960s, the Kinks successfully sued the Doors over similarities between the sound of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” Consequently, the Kinks and Doors share songwriting credit for “Hello, I Love You” in the United Kingdom.

Why did Led Zeppelin prevail with “Stairway” when other musicians in similar situations did not? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, which speaks to the subjective nature of these cases. From what I can tell, the following two factors seem to influence the outcome of these cases:

  • How distinctive is the music in question? This issue doomed “My Sweet Lord.” The melody for “He’s So Fine,” while forming only a small part of the song, is so distinctive that even casual listeners could recognize its similarity to “My Sweet Lord.” And the judge decided that being distinctive means being original.
  • How integral is the music to the entire song? In the case of the Hollies suing Radiohead, at issue was the overall similarity between the two songs’ compositions as opposed to a single melody that acted as a smoking gun, if you will. The same holds true for “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” The recurring backbeat and chorus that underpin both songs were deemed to be too similar.

On the other hand, copyright infringement cases due not need to prove that the defendant knowingly stole the music to find the defendant liable, as the George Harrison “unconscious plagiarism” ruling shows.

Of course, all kinds of intangibles can come into play. For instance, did the appearance of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin the courtroom wow the defendants with a bit of celebrity firepower? Robert Plant in particular was said to be especially charming and engaging as a witness.

In the case of “Stairway,” the jury ruled that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are not similar enough to justify the plaintiff’s argument that Led Zeppelin was guilty of plagiarism. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the juries — but I suspect the two issues of how distinctive and integral the music informed their decision. To wit:

  • The disputed portion of “Stairway to Heaven,” while sounding similar to “Taurus,” consists of only a few fleeting seconds — so the passage was not integral to the overall feel of the seven-minute plus “Stairway.”
  • Both the plaintiff and the defendant produced musicologists who argued about the distinctive nature of the disputed music. Team Led Zeppelin argued that the musical progressions date back to the 1600s, thus attacking how distinctive the riff in “Taurus” and “Stairway” really are. Team Spirit produced technical evidence arguing that “Taurus” uses a distinctive structure.

Ultimately, the arguments of Team Spirit around those two issues did not convince the jury.

In the context of the “Stairway” lawsuit, it will be interesting to see how the copyright infringement lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s song “Photograph” plays out, as well as one against Justin Bieber for his song “Sorry.” Sheeran has been sued for $20 million by songwriters Martin Harrington and Tom Leonard. Harrington and Leonard claim “Photograph” has a “striking similarity” to the song “Amazing” which they wrote for a onetime winner of The X Factor, Matt Cardle.

Harrington and Leonard assert that the chorus of Sheeran’s “Photograph” and Cardle’s “Amazing” share 39 identical notes, and that the two songs utilize similar overall structures, melodic rhythms, and harmonies.

Given the murky history of song plagiarism lawsuits and subjective nature of their outcomes, the long-term impact of Led Zeppelin’s successful defense remains to be seen. Meanwhile, songwriters would do well to heed the advice of producer and blogger Bobby Owsinski:

“[S]ongwriters beware, there’s nothing new under the sun given the 12 note scale that western musicians use, so you’re probably copying a previous song without even knowing it. And today, that’s enough to get you sued.”

Related:

Consequences of Sound, “10 Famous Cases of Musical Plagiarism,” by Matt Melis and Michael Roffman, May 29, 2016.

The Daily Beast, “If Led Zeppelin Goes Down, We All Burn,” by Aram Sinnreich, June 17, 2016.

The New Yorker, “The Unoriginal Originality of Led Zeppelin,” by Alex Ross, April 14, 2016.

Time, “11 Suspiciously Sound-Alike Songs,” by Melissa Locker, August 21, 2013.

WatchMojo.com, “The Top 10 Rip-off Songs,” May 17, 2014.




Augmented Reality at Cedar Point: First Impressions

June 22nd, 2016 by ddeal

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Virtual reality is grabbing the headlines right now, but augmented reality has a bigger near-term future. My recent experience with a new AR-based game at Cedar Point Amusement Park illustrates how AR can make an already excellent customer experience better.

The Augmented Reality Boom

By 2020, augmented reality is expected to be a $120 billion market, versus $30 billion for virtual reality, according to Manatt Digital Media. And it’s easy to see why businesses ranging from retail stores to theme parks are creating AR experiences. VR usually requires headsets to transport users into make-believe worlds and demands more of a person’s time and attention. On the other hand, AR, while being less immersive than VR, integrates virtual content into real-world settings (e.g., projecting an interactive map on your table top at home).

In June, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, launched an experience that shows how AR can use immersive gaming to take a fun day at a theme park to another level. As my buddy John Hensler and I discovered when we tried out the new Battle for Cedar Point game June 16, AR in a theme park works best when it enhances a natural part of your visit, such as turning a queue line into an opportunity to score an achievement.

About Cedar Point

Cedar Point bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world and for good reason. The 365-acre park (nearly four times the size of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom) boasts 18 roller coasters, including the recently opened Valravn, billed as the “tallest, fastest, and longest dive coaster in the world.” John and I have been to the park several times with family and friends, and we keep going back because the rides are flat-out terrifyingly fun. But when you’re not losing your stomach on a thrill ride, you spend a lot of time doing things that happen in all theme parks, such as walking around and waiting in lines (unless you have the budget for a Fast Lane pass). With Battle for Cedar Point, the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company has turned downtime and park navigating into game time.

The Battle for Cedar Point Read more »




Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy

June 14th, 2016 by ddeal

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Mobile gave rise to the on-demand economy. But voice search will fuel its future.

Google demonstrated how voice will form the foundation of an on-demand search ecosystem when Google announced the Google Assistant intelligent search tool at the company’s I/O event in May. Then Apple, at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 13, showcased a smarter and more ubiquitous Siri voice-activated intelligent agent for using our voices to do everything from order an Uber ride to make restaurant reservations. Both developments underscore how voice is rapidly shaping the way we research and buy in the moment.

On-Demand Everywhere

In a June 7 blog post, I discussed how mobile triggered an uptake in on-demand living by making it easier for consumers to use their phones to quickly find things to buy and places to visit. Google calls these moments of rapid decision making “micro-moments.” Uber sensed the popularity of micro-moments by launching its now wildly popular service through which we use mobile devices to get rides when we want them. Amid Uber’s ascendance, businesses ranging from Amazon to Walmart have embraced various models of on-demand commerce.

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How Facebook and Google Are Bringing Virtual Reality to the Masses

June 11th, 2016 by ddeal

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When a hot startup launches a virtual reality product, influencers and investors notice. When Facebook and Google bet on virtual reality, the whole world notices. Recently these two market makers unveiled their VR visions and plans at their own bellwether events, Facebook F8 and Google I/O. Both their plans are important because Facebook and Google possess the resources and reach to make VR more mainstream to everyday consumers faster than any startup ever could. Both their visions are intriguing. I believe Google’s is more compelling and far-reaching.

Facebook’s Vision

At F8, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated a simple, clear vision for VR: social VR, or connecting two or more people in the virtual world. Social VR is intuitively easy to grasp even if you don’t know how we’ll get there. Facebook users (wearing Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets, naturally) can explore virtual worlds together, ranging from virtual Ping-Pong matches to virtual excursions to Bali, which makes posting information on each other’s wall seem quaint by comparison.

Zuck

During his F8 keynote, Zuckerberg said, “VR has the potential to be the most social platform because you have the ability to be right there with another person.” But Facebook doesn’t just talk vision — the world’s largest social network shows it. Accordingly, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, wearing an Oculus Rift headset and using controllers, demonstrated a shared VR experience with Michael Booth of Facebook’s Social VR team, who was 30 miles away and also using Oculus Rift. Together, they visited London through VR — or at least their avatars did, projected on a giant screen. The F8 attendees oohed and aahed as their floating avatars checked out Piccadilly Circus and took a selfie together in front of Big Ben.

Oculus

The moment was a brilliant bit of theater that instantly injected excitement into the Facebook brand and gave us a glimpse at what social VR can look like. Afterward, Lance Ulanof of Mashable spoke for many pundits watching when he wrote, “Bravo, Facebook. Social VR is now officially something I want in Facebook. You made me want it, damn you.”

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This Is the World Uber Has Made

June 7th, 2016 by ddeal

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Uber has become so pervasive that the company is changing our vocabulary.

In everyday settings, we use Uber as a verb (as in “I’ll Uber to the ball game tonight”). In business settings, we use the term “uberization” or “uberfication” to refer to companies creating on-demand services such as home delivery of groceries or healthcare on demand. The Uberization of our vocabulary is a perfect example of how technology enables a change in consumer behavior. Thanks especially to the uptake of smartphones and apps, consumers are making purchasing decisions faster, and we’re expecting businesses to respond on our terms. The Uberization of our own consumer behaviors explains why Amazon has been embracing the use of automated drones to deliver goods faster and why brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from Nordstrom to Walmart are partnering with ride-sharing services to offer home delivery as well.

But is an on-demand world a happier one?

Walmart on Demand

On June 2, Walmart’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Bender announced that the $482 billion brand is piloting a grocery delivery program in select markets. Customers using the service will place grocery orders online and designate a delivery window. Walmart personnel will prepare their orders and may have a ride service such as Deliv, Lyft, or Uber deliver the items to the customer’s door. Customers will pay a delivery fee directly to Walmart as part of their online order rather than fuss with paying a driver along with the grocery order. If the process works as Walmart intends, customers will be able to order what they want online once, and all the prep and delivery will occur behind the scenes. As noted on Walmart’s blog, Sam’s Club has been piloting a similar program in Miami since March.

On-Demand Businesses Read more »




Paul Wrote “Hey Jude” for Me

May 21st, 2016 by ddeal

You don’t listen to great songs. You experience them personally. They feel like they were written just for you. They take on different meaning each time you experience them because as your life changes and the context of the song changes.

Sometimes even a song you’ve heard a million times can sock you in the gut. This morning I had a few spare moments and watched the famous video of “Hey Jude” from The David Frost Show, in which the Beatles share a moment of joyous communion with fans on a stage. Even though I had seen the video many times, I thought, why not? About three minutes into the song, I felt myself getting choked up.

Who can say why? Maybe the power of the words and music renewed my spirit. Maybe seeing the faces of John and George reminded me of mortality and loss — and brother, I’ve lost some important people over the past few years. Maybe I wished I could have been in the room with the lucky fans singing along with the Beatles.

Perhaps all those explanations are true or none of them is. But I’m grateful a song can move me even if I can’t put my finger on the reason why. In fact, I’m glad I cannot explain my reaction. When a song becomes personal, it burrows its way into your soul to the point where you cannot properly elucidate the power of its connection, just as you cannot rationalize the power of religious faith. An emotional bond does not require explanation.

Try experiencing a beloved song you’ve not heard for a while. Does the moment still move you?




Facebook’s Media/Entertainment Roadmap

May 16th, 2016 by ddeal

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(Image source: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Facebook has hit a few speed bumps lately as the world’s largest social network heads down the path of becoming a media/entertainment business. About a week ago, company was accused of suppressing content from conservative news outlets in its Trending Topics news feed. Then, on May 16, Facebook, in a supremely ironic moment given the news of the previous week, botched a live video interview with President Barack Obama.

But make no mistake: Facebook’s transformation into a media/entertainment platform is inevitable.

Video

If you look at the big picture, aka 10-year road map, you see a company immersed in virtual reality, augmented reality, and video (among many other things). As Facebook shared at its most recent F8 developers conference, video is an important part of Facebook’s growth over the next five years. At F8, Facebook noted that 70-percent of all mobile traffic will be video by 2021, and Facebook wants to succeed as the shift occurs. In April, Facebook made a big step in that direction with the launch of Facebook Live.

What fascinates me about Facebook Live is how commonplace it seems to be already, just weeks into its existence. Say what you will about the technical glitches that marred the Barack Obama livestream, but Facebook is making live streaming an everyday part of the Facebook content sharing experience. Through Facebook Live, I’ve already taken a tour of new virtual reality products courtesy of Robert Scoble and discovered the Here Active Listening sound app with Guy Kawasaki. I’ve also watched Slash take a boring limousine ride down the backstreets of Las Vegas, but, hey, there’s a lot of drivel along with Game of Thrones on TV, too.

The point is, Facebook is not just talking: it’s delivering. Already brands ranging from World Wrestling Entertainment to iHeart Radio are using Facebook Live. On May 12, video gaming company Activision Blizzard announced it will publish daily live programming on Facebook, thus making Facebook at threat to Twitch. Boom, just like that: Facebook is a platform for the growing e-sports industry. Oh, and everyday folks are streaming childbirths. Why? For the same reason brands are streaming: to engage a big audience, which Facebook certainly delivers (1.6 billion and counting).

VR/AR

Longer term, Facebook plans to realize the potential of its 2014 purchase of Oculus Rift by making virtual reality (and augmented reality) a major content delivery platform. The company has supported this vision by making Oculus Rift available for purchase and unveiling a Surround 360 camera that captures 360-degree video easier for Oculus Rift headsets. Facebook is also training high schoolers to make VR.

Appropriately, VR and AR are longer-term plays whose uptake depends on a number of variables, including the well-founded skepticism that the public won’t be willing to shell out big dollars for a headset that makes you look like a total dork. But Mark Zuckerberg has a vision and patience to integrate VR and AR into a social experience that is more immersive, playful, and entertaining, like gaming. What’s more, the market is moving in his direction: AR and VR are expected to become a $150 billion market by 2020, and major players such as Google and Microsoft are developing VR capabilities right along with Facebook.

Music

While video and VR get the attention, Facebook is embedding music into its roadmap. As noted by Billboard, Facebook and Warner Music Group are testing a new feature known as Slideshow, which makes it possible for users to create soundtracks for video and photo albums by using music from major labels. A version is expected to be rolled out in Australia soon. Slideshow sounds like an answer to Flipagram or Musical.ly, which have become destinations for musicians such as Fetty Wap and Cam to have their music used by fans in their own visual stories.

Facebook is clearly making a move to become more legitimate as a music platform. In November 2015, the company unveiled a feature through which users can share clips of songs. Meanwhile, the real excitement for Facebook as a music platform comes from the artists (such as Metallica, which live streamed on Record Store Day). But it’s only a matter of time before Facebook ups the stakes for music live streaming — remember, Facebook Live is only weeks old, and it’s a natural way for Facebook to extend its reach into entertainment.

As a news delivery site — the “media” part of media/entertainment — Facebook has some major issues to iron out, and the alleged content bias is just one of them. Frankly I think Facebook’s equally difficult challenge is that its news feed is so stale and boring that it’s an irritant, not a value add. But Mark Zuckerberg will lick his wounds and figure out a way forward, just as he did when Facebook was criticized for not getting mobile a few years ago. Facebook makes plenty of mistakes, but Zuck always figures out a fix. With Facebook Live, he’s figuring out video (in a hurry). Whether VR and AR play out exactly he intends remains to be seen. But remember, it’s a 10-year roadmap.




When Brands Mess with Our Emotions

May 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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Jess Goulart of BTRtoday recently asked me how I think branding has changed over the years. I told her that although businesses are sharing their brand stories in more inventive ways than ever before, some of the traditional elements of a successful brand remain unchanged. For instance, a company’s name and logo are powerful elements of a brand. Case in point: the Internet firestorm caused by Instagram’s new logo and Budweiser’s temporary name change.

On May 10, Budweiser went to “potentially ingenious, potentially absurd branding extremes” in the words of Fast Company‘s Mark Wilson by announcing that the King of Beers was changing the name on its cans and bottles from Budweiser to . . . America. In a press release, Budweiser noted that the renaming coincides with “what should be the most patriotic summer that this generation has ever seen, with Copa America Centenario being held on U.S. soil for the first time, Team USA competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” The voice of Bud noted that “that these cans and bottles aim to inspire drinkers to celebrate America and Budweiser’s shared values of freedom and authenticity.

The cans not only say America, but they contain text referring to the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star Spangled Banner, and America the Beautiful. The rollout for the special-edition cans and bottles features the tagline “America Is in Your Hands.”

Why the name change? Because nothing says America like swigging beer in the summer, right? And Budweiser has a history of appealing to patriotism with its branding. The renaming amps up something Budweiser has been doing already.

Not surprisingly, the rebrand evoked a response, and not all of it positive, as the predictable flood of tweets illustrates:

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On the other hand, the rebrand attracted a lot of coverage from A-list news media, such as Fast Company, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal — the kind of coverage, as they say, that you cannot buy with advertising.

For my part, on Facebook, I couldn’t help but consider the ironies of the rebrand in this most bitterly fought and surreal of election years. Would the special-edition American carry a corrosive taste resulting from bitter political squabbling and screaming into the social media void?

Meanwhile, as social media was going crazy over Budweiser, Instagram was changing its logo. And boy, did Instagram ruffle some feathers. By shedding its well-known image of a retro camera to a more conceptual, colorful image, Instagram annoyed the many members of the digerati who loved the old look.

Instagram unveiled a new logo Wednesday, and it may well go down as one of the biggest design fails of the year,” wrote Adweek‘s Tim Nudd in an article with the strident headline, “Instagram’s New Logo Is a Travesty. Can We Change It Back? Please?” Meanwhile, Chris Gayomali of GQ pouted, “Instagram spent YEARS building up visual brand equity with its existing logo, training users where to tap, and now instead of iterating on that, it’s flushing it all down the toilet for the homescreen equivalent of a Starburst. Sad!”

And, the Internet griped, as it did with Budeiser/’Murica. Liam Stack of The New York Times summarized much of the backlash in his article, “The Great Instagram Logo Freakout of 2016,” in which he pointed out some of the sarcastic Internet memes and otherwise widespread cringing that occurred.

Budweiser might have faced some backlash with a name change. But Instagram got crapped on.

Instagram

On Medium, Ian Spalter, Instagram’s head of design, analyzed the reasons for the logo change, which is a fine read if you want to dig into the rationale, but 99 percent of Instagram’s 400 million users don’t care for the backstory. They’re either going to like what they see or barf, and context be damned.

Why? Because names and logos create emotional connections, which is what branding is all about: the power of emotion. You can do all the left-brain analysis you want to measure the power of branding, using yardsticks such as brand lift, and you can analyze your reasons for the choices you make. But numbers and explanation don’t capture the emotional appeal of a brand.

People don’t like to have their emotions messed with, and when a business changes its name or its logo, that’s exactly what happens. But just as we get over romantic break-ups, the passage of time eventually heals the emotional break caused by a change in a name or a logo. Remember the uproar when Andersen Consulting changed its name to Accenture? The critics mocked the “accent on the future” meaning. Nobody’s laughing anymore, are they? On a less dramatic scale, Google raised eyebrows in 2015 when the company tinkered with its word mark. But now we are comfortable with the san-serif Google.

Yeah, we get over the hurt that comes when a brand crumples up our loyalty into a paper ball and tosses it in our faces. We scream and pout, but we move on. For that reason, I think the Gap made a mistake in 2010 when the company ditched its new logo amid howls of protest. Had the company remained patient, I can assure you no one would care about the old logo today except for fans of nostalgia.

At a time when consumers are supposedly more empowered than ever before, ironically the uproar caused by Budweiser and Instagram remind us of an essential truth: being empowered doesn’t mean we want to call the shots completely. We want a relationship with brands. And brands wield power in that relationship. Otherwise, why would we care so much about someone changing their name or logo?




You Don’t Have to Hug Your Fans

May 8th, 2016 by ddeal

 

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Building fan love doesn’t mean pandering to your audience. Radiohead, which dropped its new album A Moon Shaped Pool digitally May 8, builds fan devotion by challenging and even confounding its audience, which is the right approach for a group whose music has always been one step ahead of everyone.

Radiohead’s actions in recent days — sending weird postcards to select fans and erasing its digital presence briefly — flies in the face of the “Taylor Swift lessons on customer engagement” articles that are floating all around the Internet. The Taylor Swift school of fan engagement emphasizes accessibility and warmth, with Taytay constantly flogging social media and bending over backward to return fan love. But Radiohead creates fan love through a mystique that approaches aloofness. Both artists demonstrate the importance of engaging fans in a way that’s right for your brand, which is truly a lesson that applies to any business, whether you’re an exclusive Louis Vuitton or crowd-pleasing Motel 6.

Radiohead certainly reaches out to its fans, but in its own peculiar way. For instance, the weekend of April 29, some of its fans received a vaguely worded leaflet with the sinister message, “We Know Where You Live.”

BurntheWitch

Puzzled fans posted the leaflets on social media, triggering what would turn out to be accurate speculation that Radiohead was about to drop some new music.

But Radiohead wasn’t finished. On May 1, fans began to notice that the band’s Internet presence was disappearing. Its website gradually faded to black, its tweets began to vanish, and the band removed its Facebook content. Yup: Radiohead literally cut its digital cord, including its presence on the world’s largest social media network.

The silence didn’t last long, though. On May 3, the band posted on Instagram a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting, followed by a clip of animated figures accompanied by staccato music.

Instagram

As it turns out, fading to black and posting some enigmatic images was a prelude to the release of real music: the strange, scary song “Burn the Witch” on May 3 (where the chirping birds and animated figures appear) and then the appropriately titled “Daydreaming,” directed by P.T. Anderson, on May 6.

Oh, and the band reactivated its digital presence to let everyone know a new album was coming digitally on May 8 (because why not a dose of Radiohead for Mother’s Day?) and in physical form June 17. In typical Radiohead fashion, no other details were supplied — no title, no album art, just release dates.

Not exactly the warmest and fuzziest way to super serve your fans, is it?

But that’s how Radiohead rolls. This is a band that knows how to build fan loyalty by being unpredictable and progressive, such as surprise releasing the album In Rainbows online in 2007 accompanied by the we-don’t-give-a-crap move of allowing fans to set their own price for the download. Give Beyoncé all the credit she deserves for dropping new albums with no advance notice, but it was Radiohead that pioneered the concept. And then there was the time Radiohead decided to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to accompany the release of the 2011 album King of Limbs. Not only was the distribution of a print newspaper in the digital age a typically against-the-grain Radiohead move, The Universal Sigh was full of stories, poems, and other content that kept everyone guessing as to its meaning.

Creating this kind of mystique is perfect for Radiohead. Its music is, at turns, enigmatic, confounding, and thoughtful — music that manages to remain popular even while sometimes dividing critics and listeners. To follow Radiohead is to immerse yourself in the jagged guitar and off-kilter drums that shaped OK Computer only to have the band change courses completely with the atmospheric, abstract sounds on Kid A. Indeed, critics have described its music at times as “intentionally difficult” although by and large, the band is a critic’s darling for constantly reinventing its sound.

Taylor Swift doesn’t give a hang about mystique, nor should she. She is all about accessibility. She connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought home-baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Taylor Swift hugs her fans. Radiohead challenges them, as Pink Floyd did at the height of their popularity.

Both approaches work. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift the top moneymaker of 2015. Radiohead has sold 30 million albums over the years — perhaps the only popular band still in existence that successfully relies on record sales, not singles, to build a fan base. Its new song “Burn the Witch” was viewed more than 8 million times within the first few days of its release, and pretty much the Internet went nuts following the band’s digital odyssey this past week. Its 2016 tour, playing limited dates, is expected to be highly successful. Just don’t expect Radiohead to serve cookies at the concerts.

I’m not suggesting that businesses examine the Radiohead approach for some pearls of wisdom. The larger point is that even in an age of customer empowerment, when your fans can say what they want about you on social media and demand rapid response, how you engage with your customers depends on the kind of brand you are building, and it’s a mistake to pander to fans. For instance, you won’t find warm fuzzies on the Prada website — as of this writing, the front page is actually jarring and even off putting after a few moments. For that matter, Red Bull doesn’t exactly hug its fans — Red Bull gets in their faces. Neither brand is rude, per se, but their choice of content and tone in their outreach creates a certain edge.

Always understand your brand’s north star — what you stand for. And then find an approach to fan engagement that works for your brand.




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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