Snap Makes a Run at Affluent Millennials

September 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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As soon as Snap Inc. announced the launch of its Spectacles video recording shades, the digerati began comparing Spectacles to Google Glass and pondering whether Spectacles would capture consumers’ imagination in ways Google Glass failed to do. But I don’t believe Snap CEO Evan Spiegel cares whether Spectacles finds a widespread audience. I think he’s trying to target a smaller audience of affluent millennials, the kind who can afford to drop a bundle at Coachella each year.

Whether you’re Facebook, Instagram, Snap, or Twitter, the name of the game is to create a brand that stands apart and builds a loyal audience. Facebook already owns the social media category. Every business that describes itself as social media will forever operate in Facebook’s shadow. Spiegel has kept Snapchat from becoming just another social media also-ran by positioning the app as a visual storytelling experience for millennials, who now constitute the largest age cohort in the United States, bigger than baby boomers.

By changing the name of his company from Snapchat to Snap Inc., Spiegel is trying to position Snap as a bigger millennial lifestyle brand beyond the app, which is where Spectacles come into play. (I like the way Brian Solis characterizes Snap as a digital lifestyle company.) The colorful shades, which will cost $130 when they hit the market, look playful and fun, and therefore millennial-friendly. They won’t make anyone look like a dreaded Glasshole.

But being millennial-friendly doesn’t mean being friendly to all millennials. The millennial generation is large enough and diverse enough to accommodate products and services targeted to smaller segments of their population. The 92 million millennials (born roughly between 1980 and 2000) who live in the United States are a diverse generation in many ways, including economically and culturally. Ranging in age from roughly 16 to 36, they include digital natives in high school, millions who are just starting out at the bottom rungs of their careers, and millions more who are achieving affluent status as they approach middle age (the median age in the U.S. is 36.8). As a whole, millennials’ median college loan debt is rising. They are more likely to be living in their parents’ home than with a spouse our partner in their own household.

In other words, many millennials don’t have $130 sitting around to spend on shades that you can use only to record 10-second videos on Snapchat, but they’ll continue using Snapchat because it’s free. But Snap does not need all millennials to buy Spectacles — just a chunk of the 44 million millennials aged 25-36 who are actually generating more sizable disposable incomes. (According to FutureCast 6.2 million millennial households in the U.S. earn $100,000 or more each year.)

I believe Evan Spiegel wants Snap Inc. to be something like Alphabet, rolling out different products and services that will make Snap indispensible to millennials. Some will be more broadly applicable than others. Spectacles represent Spiegel dipping his toes in the water with a very targeted market.

As Spiegel told The Wall Street Journal, “We’re going to take a slow approach to rolling them out. It’s about us figuring out if it fits into people’s lives and seeing how they like it.”

But not all people’s lives — rather, his people’s lives. And Evan Spiegel understands affluent millennials. After all, he is one.

 




Every Picture Tells My Story

September 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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When you reach your 50s, you start to experience the cruelties that life visits upon you if you hang around long enough, such as losing people you love or a job that puts bread on the table. The 50s are also a time of reflection, whether you’re patting yourself on the back for building a marriage or regretting that you never moved to the desert when you had the chance. My spiritualty keeps me balanced during this chapter in my life, but God also gets a major assist from music. Case in point: Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, recorded 45 years ago. Improbably enough, a 26-year-old rock star on the rise created music that connects with my 53-year-old self in a way that few albums do.

When I was in high school during the late 1970s, Rod Stewart was something of a joke. I knew him as the campy singer of cringe-worthy songs whose titles, such as “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Hot Legs,” betrayed their juvenile nature. But after high school, probably because of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, I listened to Every Picture Tells a Story. The album revealed a more sensitive, nuanced side of Rod Stewart’s music, such as the gentle mandolin that introduces “Maggie May.” The album sat on my shelf for years, periodically played and enjoyed as a 40-minute song cycle, usually after Stewart’s name came up in conversation, or one of the album’s songs was used in a movie such as Almost Famous.

And yet, Every Picture Tells a Story never connected with me personally until now. I got immersed in the album this summer after reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — the Year that Rock Exploded, an engaging book that contains an insightful appreciation of the album and Rod Stewart’s early career. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the master appears. I discovered that the passage of time has prepared me to uncover a deeper bond with the themes that reveal themselves on the album. Two songs in particular, “Every Picture Tells a Story” and “Mandolin Wind,” say everything there is to know about being at this stage of your life.

“Every Picture Tells a Story” is a sprawling track about a young man’s coming of age as he leaves home and sees the world. Although Stewart was in his 20s when he wrote the song, he belts the lyrics with the gusto of an older man happily looking back and allowing himself to indulge in some joyful nostalgia. I see myself all over the song. When Stewart sings, “Spent time feelin’ inferior standin’ in front of my mirror/Combed my hair in a thousand ways, but I came out lookin’ just the same,” he sums up my high school years in two lines. I well remember the awkward teen dressed in jeans and a T shirt, trying to screw up the courage to ask a girl out on a date, and then experiencing the crushing rejection of getting turned down. But I always had my studies, and my grades, to buoy my spirits, even if getting A’s meant creating expectations and pressures to succeed.

Even awkward boys leave home and start to find their way, as I inevitably did when I spent a summer in Germany and France after my senior year in high school, a time of unfettered freedom from expectations and the limitations of how I was defined at home. I moved on to four years of college, where self-discovery continued, sometimes painfully, sometimes happily. Stewart captures this time with lyrics like “Paris was a place you could hide away if you felt you didn’t fit in.” This was a period of creative growth and exploration, which I would not experience again for many years until I embarked on an unexpected but rewarding second life as an actor at the Bristol Renaissance Faire on summer weekends.

Even the absurd lyric, “My body stunk but I kept my funk” has meaning, for I remember the period of living alone in my own bungalow during my senior year of college, when having no money was a badge of honor. I supported myself washing dishes and pumping gas at places where I was in over my head, covered in grime and oil.

But the part of the song that resonates the most is this:

I firmly believed that I didn’t need anyone but me

I sincerely thought I was so complete

Look how wrong you can be

This passage speaks to the experiences that make us grow, especially after you think you’ve settled into a groove after college and you’re forging your own successes. You think you’ve discovered the formula for personal prosperity and growth until you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, as I did when I met Jan. You realize that needing someone means changing your thinking and assumptions about how the world works, although the realization doesn’t always happen right away. How well I remember our early years of living in an apartment in Chicago, when cleaning the house together meant playing Paul McCartney songs very loud and turning work into fun. Cleaning the bathroom no longer became a detested chore as we navigated the new. Those little ordinary moments are the times when you understand that the assumptions you formed the first 25 years of your life will not carry you through the rest of your years. You start to figure out how to stop tackling problems (even little ones, like the apartment needing a thorough cleaning) in terms of “What am I going to do about this?” to “What are we going to do about this?

The most famous song on the album is “Maggie May,” with its Graduate-like narrative of a young man falling into an aimless slide as he recovers from a romance with an older woman. The song imparts a sense of life passing by (“It’s late September and I ought to be back in school”) and time being wasted, which is surely a theme anyone sliding into middle age can understand. But it’s the song that follows “Maggie Mae” that stands out for its quiet power. “Mandolin Wind” is a folksy number that sounds like it came from another era. The song is an ode from an aging farmer to his wife, who stays at his side through a harsh time. Stewart delivers the lines with an understated grace that feels almost like a poetry reading set to music:

Oh the snow fell without a break

Buffalo died in the frozen fields you know

Through the coldest winter in almost fourteen years

I couldn’t believe you kept a smile

Now I can rest assured knowing that we’ve seen the worst

And I know I love you

 

I recall the night we knelt and prayed

Noticing your face was thin and pale

I found it hard to hide my tears

I felt ashamed I felt I’d let you down

“Mandolin Wind” is a song about that part of growing older where life visits cruelties upon you, such as job loss. I can easily remember the experience of having my job eliminated in 2010. That day, I had been asked into a 5:00 p.m. meeting for a vaguely defined reason. Something didn’t feel right, and I had the entire day to worry. It didn’t help matters that I was working in an unstable industry, and layoffs were common. When I walked into the sterile office where the meeting was to be held and saw a member of HR sitting with one other company executive, a large white envelope sitting on the desk in front of them, I already knew I no longer had a job. The meeting itself followed a script that I knew well, as I had laid off members of my own team recently. I could have said all the words and saved them the trouble.

They say you should never take getting laid off personally, but it’s your job and your livelihood disappearing. Inevitably, you ask what you could have done differently, although it’s sort of like asking what you could have done differently to cheat death. When your time is up, your time is up. But when you lose your job, you still have to call your wife to explain what happened, and you feel like a total loser, just like the farmer in “Mandolin Wind” who says, “I felt ashamed/I felt I’d let you down.”

But with Jan, there was no doubt we were going to endure together and support each other. We moved on, and kept moving on, leading up to the place we are now, working hard to create a future for ourselves and our daughter. Our life of self-employment affords many joys such as being able to take a break in the middle of the day and go on a hike in the woods. There are also some frustrations, such as paying for our own health insurance and taxes, and trying to save enough for tomorrow. We have cold winters. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve experienced other rejections beyond job loss. But we handle them together.

I don’t know if we’ve seen the worst yet, but I know we love each other, which brings me back to “Mandolin Wind.” It’s the right song for right now in my life.

 




SIM Partners Makes It Easier to “Ride There with Uber”

August 25th, 2016 by ddeal

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Location is a catalyst for the $57.6 billion on-demand economy.

Case in point: today SIM Partners, a location marketing technology platform provider (and one of my clients) announced that the company has made it possible for brick-and-mortar businesses ranging from restaurants to retailers to add a “Ride There with Uber” button to their location pages.

SIM Partners clients that use the company’s Velocity platform to add the Uber button to their pages will provide an easy way for anyone to order an Uber to their location. The button will appear along with the usual content, such as store hours and addresses, which you find on a brand’s location page when you use your smart phone to conduct a search for things to do and places to go nearby. So, for example, a shopper interested in checking out a sale at a shoe store can order an Uber right off the store’s location page, as shown in this image:

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Velocity manages location pages for businesses with multiple brick-and-mortar locations. So for a brand with thousands of location pages, the addition of a “Ride There with Uber” button can convert searches to in-store business at scale. As SIM Partners noted in a press release, 76 percent of people who conduct a local search on their smartphone visit a business within 24 hours, and 28 percent of those searches result in a purchase. SIM Partners aims to help its clients capture their share of those searches by nudging searchers one step closer to the store.

The announcement comes at a time when the addition of buy buttons on sites such as Pinterest has amplified the role that digital plays in the growth of an on-demand economy in which consumers can get what they want faster than ever before. Indeed, according to an August 2016 Harvard Business Review article, online businesses account for the largest category of on-demand spending. Brick-and-mortar businesses are responding by developing on-demand services that rely on a mix of digital and offline delivery tools. Brands such as Domino’s Pizza, Nordstrom, and Walmart are creating partnerships with business such as Uber, and developing integrations with technologies such as Amazon Echo, which promise shoppers faster delivery of goods and services from brick-and-mortar stores. Others, such as Shoe Carnival have succeeded by providing mobile wallet offers that lure shoppers to stores in order to enjoy time- and place-sensitive deals.

Uber is the engine of the on-demand economy, both online and offline. According to Business Insider (and reported by SIM Partners in its press release), Uber completed 62 million in July, a 15 percent increase over the previous month. As I have noted previously, Uber ushered in the on-demand economy by tapping into unmet consumer needs and offering services that have disrupted industries ranging from retail to healthcare. SIM Partners clients span multiple industries in which brick-and-mortar locations are at the center of the customer experience. It makes perfect sense for SIM Partners to add Uber functionality for its clients’ customers.

Technology becomes pervasive when it permeates multiple industries and when everyday people use it, which is the key to the success of brands such as Apple. Uber enjoys that kind of success. Anyone with a smartphone can order an Uber. Integrations with companies such as Foursquare and SIM Partners make Uber more pervasive for businesses, too — and make it even easier for people to use Uber to get what they want on their own terms. It helps that Uber makes its API available to businesses. Uber simplifies life for both consumers and businesses. Simplicity is the key to the on-demand economy, which is attracting 22 million consumers annually — and investments from some of the world’s most valuable brands. As the services being developed by the bellwether companies such as Walmart take hold, look for brick-and-mortar businesses to grab an even bigger share of the on-demand economy, with location being the battleground.

 

 




How Uber Feeds an Appetite for Disruption

August 19th, 2016 by ddeal

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The news about Uber rolling out self-driving cars later in August underscores the reason why Uber has become a multi-billion dollar brand within seven years: Uber’s core competence is not ride-sharing — it’s disruption.

Uber has consistently developed and modified its business model to either drive or participate in disruption. Consider these examples:

  • In 2009, Uber initially upended the auto transportation industry by launching a ride-sharing service that liberated consumers from the tyranny of taxicabs that dictated terms and pick-up schedules to passengers. The launch of Uber was the big bang, which ushered in an era of on-demand, peer-to-peer services in multiple industries.
  • Uber set its sights on home delivery with the launch of UberRUSH in 2015 and UberEATS in 2016. UberRUSH delivers goods for retailers ranging from Nordstrom to boutique florists. UberEATS focuses on food delivery for restaurants. The service is moving its way across the United States by forming relationships with dining establishments in major cities such as Philadelphia, where more than 100 restaurants partnered with UberEATS on the first day of its launch.
  • The deployment of self-driving automobiles is part of a broader disruption of the automotive industry, which has involved an interesting partnership between automakers such as Ford and Silicon Valley titans such as Google, as car manufacturers seek to change their own industry with autonomous vehicles before someone else does. Self-driving vehicles, following their initial use in Pittsburgh, will permeate both transportation and delivery, potentially outmuscling the use of drones that other businesses are adopting.

How does the company continue to ride waves of disruption, even challenging the very service it launched in 2009? Three factors play a role:

  • A knack for wedding technology with an understanding of human behavior. Uber initially succeeded not because it provided a cool app but because the company understood that people ordering taxicabs require responsiveness, ease of use, and transparency in pricing — needs that were unmet by the status quo. The Uber app filled the void by making it ridiculously easy to order a ride when you want it and where you want it. No longer was it necessary to navigate clunky phone trees to request a cab and then wait around wondering when your ride was going to show up.
  • Creation of partnerships with like-minded brands. Uber doesn’t go it alone. For ride-sharing services, Uber has created relationships with businesses such as Foursquare to make it even easier to order an Uber. The success of UberRUSH and UberEATS relies on Uber’s ability to partner with retailers and restaurants. It’s no accident that one of UberRUSH’s delivery partners is Nordstrom — a company known for its innovations in customer service. (I expect Uber will expand its relationship to go beyond delivery and offer customer service options akin to a Nordstrom town car, shuttling loyal customers around for a day of shopping and in-car entertainment as an exclusive service.) Similarly, Uber is partnering with Volvo with self-driving cars.Uber finds not just any partner, but the right fit for Uber.
  • A willingness to adapt. UberEATS initially rolled out in 2014 as a feature on the Uber ride-sharing app. But the experience was wonky. Uber realized that people are in two different frames of mind when we order rides and food: when we want a ride, we want to get from point A to point B. We don’t want to bother with ordering food delivery. So Uber decoupled the feature as a standalone app. Uber has also constantly changed its ride-sharing app, introducing greater levels of information transparency. Now Uber is revised its business model with a driverless service. Uber also recently introduced UberPOOL, which encourages passengers to share rides and split their transportation costs. UberPOOL could cut down on congestion and pollution by combining multiple rides in one car. UberPOOL has reportedly taken 7.9 million miles off the roads and 1,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the air in Los Angeles within its first eight months of use.

What’s next for Uber? What industries might the company upend? Here are some candidates:

  • Entertainment. Uber can become an entertainment brand in a number of ways. Live Nation and Uber already have a basic ride service partnership for people to order rides to events, but I think Uber is capable of much more, especially by bundling entertainment with ticketing and transportation. Uber is big enough to offer the entertainment itself through partnerships with artists. Uber already hosts private concerts for customers. Uber may also capitalize on the car itself as a source of entertainment. The company already offers ad-free streaming via apps such as Pandora, which just hints at the kind of in-car entertainment options Uber could provide, ranging from music to streaming movies for longer rides. Cars provide much more than transportation. They’re already mobile content machines.
  • Healthcare, by bringing medical providers to patients (and vice versa) and by managing the delivery of pharmaceutical products. Companies such as Pager exist already to bring physicians to patients’ locations on demand. But Uber has the scale to pull off on-demand medical care nationwide. Already Uber has a relationship with Relatient to offer transportation services to patients. More to come here.

Uber could also expand payment, customer loyalty, and advertising services through partnerships with other companies, becoming an all-purpose customer acquisition and service platform based on the data the company collects on its customers.

Uber will also go beyond the app interface if it needs to do so. If the economics make sense, Uber could penetrate wearables to provide even more frictionless, on-demand services.

What do you think Uber will do next?




A Place of Magic

August 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Brian Schultz

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now . . . Come further up, come further in!” — C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Do you have a happy place, a special source of joy that uplifts your soul every time you are there? Let me tell you about mine.

The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a make-believe 16th-Century English village that recreates a day when Queen Elizabeth has come to visit. Bristol is located within sight of the world of concrete roads, orderly outlet malls, and generic motels that cluster around Interstate 94 just north of the border between Illinois and Wisconsin. From the road, Bristol looks like a patch of green wood enclosed by a fence. Bristol is in the world but not of the world.

The world of Bristol is a tangle of trees, dusty lanes, cozy wooden shops, elaborate stages, still ponds, glades, and meadows. Entering Bristol requires visitors to pass through a set of gates, like the Pevensie children entering Narnia through the doors of the wardrobe. My family and I have been visiting Bristol for years. My daughter, Marion, and I are now part of the cast of actors who become Bristol residents for Saturdays and Sunday during the summer.

I have often been asked why on earth I choose to dress in heavy 16th Century garb and drive two hours round trip on Saturdays and Sundays to bake in the summer heat. I have offered some answers through my blog during the past few years. But my posts are, at best, clues, as is the one I’m writing now. For Bristol is a mystery, like a rune that casts a spell on you. Bristol is a place of strong magic, like Middle Earth or the island in Lost.

Over the years, I have experienced the setbacks that beset you if you hang around long enough, ranging from job loss to death of family and friends. Bristol is a healing balm. Early on Saturday and Sunday, long before the gate opens, and before many of my cast mates arrive, I walk through the trees that stand like guardians beside a private lane where cast members enter the grounds. I feel the trees whispering to me that the time has come to put aside all the world’s cares and surrender to Bristol.

The spell of Bristol grows throughout moments of the day, like when I walk past the fairy village in the morning. The miniature buildings and trees of the village are set off from a meadow by a little fence, seemingly still but humming with energy. Or when I smell wood smoke and notice white wisps rising from cooking pots simmering in the open air at the Dirty Duck Inn across from the Cheshire Chase Action Stage.

The day brings more smells, sounds, and sights. Like the drone of a hurdy-gurdy in the distance as you stroll down the wide expanse of High Street and Shoplatch Lane. The harmonic voices of the Bristol Buskin Frolic dance company or the jingle of the bells on their feet as they walk by. The sight of fairies, their faces painted yellow, green, and blue, dancing amid the trees or hiding in bushes. The shadows that fill Shakespeare’s Meadow, creating tall, animal shapes that dissolve in the trees. In the evening, I sometimes detect a splash of incense wafting from the shops, like a natural perfume in the air, which energizes me during moments when my body grows tired from having roamed the streets all day, interacting with patrons as I portray a character named Nicolas Wright.

When you visit Bristol as a patron, you can easily spend hours bouncing from one attraction to the next: the knights jousting, the comedy shows, the musical troupes, the Danse Macabre, the shops selling silver rings, ancient maps, and wooden swords, among other things.

Video source: the YouTube Bristol Renaissance Faire channel

The street improv acts create an energy that can keep you buzzing all day. As a cast mate, I enjoy all those things as much as I did when I was a patron, but I also appreciate the quiet moments when I savor life as I did when I was a child and things were simpler. Like lying in the grass behind a tree and studying the clouds before the mid-day parade begins. Or letting a breeze wash over me during a mid-afternoon lull in the hidden garden of the noble’s glade. Or following the graceful, swooping motions of a falcon after the creature is unleashed by royal falconer. Little moments that deepen the spell.

Video source: the YouTube Boston Mama Knits channel

The spell works its way through the cast and also the patrons, like Daniel, a military veteran who I’ve occasionally encountered in the streets. He is quiet, barely saying a word as he moves slowly from shop to shop. Normally he wears sunglasses and a cap with the name of his military unit stitched on the front. We sometimes trade smiles and small talk in fleeting moments. One time in 2014 he told me that Bristol is his happy place, where he walks off his memories of fighting in the Middle East. He thanked me for being part of the magic that heals him.

I never forgot that conversation — what he said, where I was standing in the shadows of Guild Hall Row when he confided in me, and his sunglasses and cap. I didn’t see much of him in 2015 or this year, until a few weeks ago, when I was marching in the mid-day parade. The parade snaked its way through Bristol, all of us kicking up little eddies of dust. As always, I made brief eye contact with a sea of faces, waving and shouting. Near the lane, I noticed a familiar, quiet grin behind a pair of sunglasses. I did a double take. I knew that face — Daniel’s, without the cap.

“I know you!” I shouted.

His grin became a broad smile.

“You will always be my friend!” I continued, as he disappeared from view.

Seeing Daniel filled my soul. He looked happy and healed. I wondered if I would see him that afternoon. You can see someone for just a moment in Bristol and never again. Every second counts. But a few hours later, at St. John’s Crossing, a little lane of shops and food stands, there he was, wandering alone. I held out my arms, and we embraced like brothers. Not a word needed to be spoken.

Video source: YouTube FunBlast TV channel

Everyone on the cast can tell you stories like mine. I hear them every day — tales of people transcending the world that sent them into Bristol, through encounters with Queen Elizabeth, learning how to country dance, or meeting a knight. These are but snapshots of a place, flat images that capture a glimpse of something unknowable. Magic cannot be known. Like faith, magic requires belief. I believe in Bristol magic even though I do not understand it fully. I am grateful that I have a place in my life for the unexplainable.




Why Ed Sheeran Might Need to Pay up in Copyright Infringement Lawsuits

August 10th, 2016 by ddeal

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Ed Sheeran is having a tough summer. In June, the writers of Matt Cardle’s single “Amazing” slapped Sheeran with a $20 million copyright infringement lawsuit, claiming that Sheeran’s 2014 song “Photograph,” from his album X, copied “note-for-note” Cardle’s “Amazing,” written in 2009. On August 10, Sheeran was hit with another copyright infringement lawsuit, this time by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who composed and co-wrote the lyrics for Marvin Gaye’s classic song “Let’s Get It On” in 1973. The latest lawsuit claims that Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” (Sheeran’s first Number One single, also from from X) possesses melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements that are “substantially and/or strikingly similar” to “Let’s Get It On.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how these lawsuits are settled, but an unfavorable verdict against Sheeran could have ramifications on songwriters everywhere.

In both cases, Sheeran is being sued because, in essence, the musical structure of his songs is too similar to someone else’s. For instance, the “Photograph” lawsuit alleges “The chorus sections of Amazing and the infringing Photograph share 39 identical notes – meaning the notes are identical in pitch, rhythmic duration, and placement in the measure.”

These types of cases, which come down to musical, as opposed to lyrical, similarities, seem to be up for grabs. In 2015, attorney Richard Busch, who is representing the writers of Matt Cardle’s “Amazing,” successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in a copyright infringement case that claimed Thicke’s and Williams’s song “Blurred Lines” was too similar in musical structure to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge awarded Marvin Gaye’s family $5.3 million and a share of future royalties. On the other hand, in June, Led Zeppelin successfully defended itself in a copyright infringement lawsuit that claimed the opening chords to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized guitar chords in Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

Why did Led Zeppelin emerge victorious over musical infringement but Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did not? The answer will determine whether Sheeran is liable for millions of dollars in damages. And, as I blogged recently, the matter is a murky one. These factors will likely decide the outcome:

  • How integral is the music to the entire song? This issue will likely determine whether Sheeran wins or loses. Thicke and Williams were successfully sued because the recurring backbeat and chorus that form the structure of “Blurred Lines” was too similar to that of “Got to Give It Up.” On the other hand, although the opening chord progression of “Stairway to Heaven” is similar to a guitar part in “Taurus,” the resemblance lasts but a few seconds. Thicke and Williams might have emerged victorious had a jury believed the same was true with “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” In Sheeran’s case, the lawsuits are basically arguing that Sheeran stole the foundation upon which he built his songs, as opposed to nicking just a few elements here and there. Based on the outcome of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, Sheeran is definitely in a tough position with both his lawsuits. He may very well need pay up.
  • How original is the music in question? Team Led Zeppelin argued that the songs “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” were based on common chord progressions that date back to the 17th Century and can be heard in songs such as the Beatles’ “Michelle.” In other words, the musicians were adapting music that is in the public domain, and any similarity to other songs was entirely coincidental. On the other hand, in the 1970s, George Harrison was successfully sued for copyright infringement because his song “My Sweet Lord” was too similar to a very distinctive, original melody in the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine.” Team Sheeran may find themselves needing to prove that the songs in question are not entirely original — an argument that comes down to successful homework and producing musicologists who sound convincing enough. But this point can be difficult for a defendant to successfully argue. With “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven,” a jury determined that despite Team Led Zeppelin’s arguments, “Taurus” was original enough to justify Spirit owning its copyright.

In any event, songwriters have been put on notice: attorneys are watching your every move. What you determine to be creative inspiration could land you in court. And you might not possess Led Zeppelin’s deep pockets to defend yourself. The band paid $800,000 in legal fees in the “Stairway” case. Your creative reputation could come down a judge, a jury with zero musical knowledge, and a whole lot of money.




“Revolver”: Great Art Endures 50 Years Later

August 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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I cannot let Friday end without commenting on Revolver, which was released 50 years ago today.

I didn’t get into the album until after I’d freed myself from the Beatles’ mythology, broadened my own musical tastes, and learned to appreciate the album for its musical merits alone. In context of the Beatle’s maturation as musicians, Revolver endures as a masterpiece – the moment when their personal visions, increasingly sophisticated song writing, and spirit of adventure in the studio coalesced to create an artistic statement that surpassed every other album they would create, including Sgt. Pepper’s. The album also stands as a testament to the production genius of George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, whose book, Here, There, and Everywhere, is highly recommended for an inside look at how the band created its best moments in the studio.

Sgt. Peppers was the album that transformed rock from a musical genre to a cultural phenomenon. But it’s far from my favorite album. The production and very idea behind the Sgt. Peppers make it stand head and shoulders above most anything anyone had created at that time. But the songs are not all uniformly great like they are on Revolver, and Revolver has just as many moments of musical genius. There is the biting satire of George Harrison’s “Taxman” alongside Harrison’s spiritual meditation in “Love You To”; the dark loneliness of Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” followed by John Lennon’s hazy, trippy “I’m Only Sleeping”; the romantic heartache in Macca’s “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and Lennon’s psychedelic tour de force, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in which he famously instructed the other Beatles that he wanted his voice to sound like “the Dali Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”

Sgt. Peppers is like Moby-Dick – influential literature you’re supposed to read. Revolver is great music that stands the test of time. But I didn’t know that when I was growing up and discovering music in context of the Beatles’ legacy. When I was a senior in high school, John Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. Like many of my contemporaries, I learned about Lennon’s death while watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell, the controversial broadcaster, announced the news in his unmistakably nasal and self-important sounding voice.

The adjective “shocking” gets overused when describing dramatic word events, but Lennon’s death truly was shocking. The idea that some crazed person could just gun down a living legend shattered our illusions that godlike rock stars lived a cloistered existence – vulnerable to their own excesses, to be sure, but not to the same kind of maladies that befall everyday mortals. Lennon’s death would lionize him, to Paul McCartney’s chagrin. The loss of John Lennon also made it impossible for me to view him as an artist properly. Instead, he was a saint. You dont think of saints as songwriters.

It took the passage of time for me to explore enough music on my own and to gain the perspective I needed to critically analyze his vast contributions to the Beatles, which is to say, popular music. And Revolver is his personal triumph. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “She Said She Said” are the acidic complement to Paul’s sweetness, the powerful voice that gave Revolver an unmistakable edge. He would never again command an album with the Beatles as he did on Revolver. The Beatles became Paul’s band afterward.

Each time I listen to Revolver, I take comfort that I can continue to discover art with the wonder that I felt when I was a child. Listening to the album is like revisiting Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago. I appreciate something different each time – a little nuance, like the striking jangle in the multi-tracked guitars on “And Your Bird Can Sing” or the unfettered joy on Macca’s voice when he utters the word “Good” in “Good Day Sunshine.”

Revolver takes me on a journey with each listening. The twists, turns, and destination never feel the same.




Memorable Album Covers: “Exile on Main St.”

July 29th, 2016 by ddeal

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Whenever I see the cover of Exile on Main St., I think of my courtship with Janice Deal in the late 1980s. We learned about each other through our vinyl collections during that time. Jan’s Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel albums gave me a glimpse into her poetic artistry that would manifest itself in the short stories and book she would publish years later, The Decline of Pigeons. My albums, ranging from Al Green to Led Zeppelin, often revealed my fascination with the interplay between music and the visual power of album cover art, which I would eventually document on my blog and on visual storytelling platforms such as Instagram. Exile on Main St. captures that time in our lives perfectly.

Considered by many to be the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main St. captures the sound and look of a band wallowing in its own decadence. The front cover of the album is a jumbled mess of off-kilter, black-and-white images of circus entertainers and assorted characters of unusual talent, including a dude with an amazing capacity for holding three oranges in his mouth. The back consists of a druggy pastiche of more black-and-white images, this time of the Rolling Stones, leering, yawning, and frowning. The band looks like they’ve been documented amid a chaotic, gypsy existence, which, in fact, they were living, having fled England to avoid paying an onerous tax burden. The images of one of rock’s most memorable covers reflect the nearly out-of-control sprawl of the album inside the cover.

The album itself confused critics and fans alike with its muddy sound. When you listen to songs like “Rocks Off,” you feel like you’re in the uncomfortably hot, squalid French villa where parts of the album were recorded. Mick Jagger slurs, drawls, and shouts the lyrics over scabrous guitar parts and a loose rhythm that feels two notes away from a chaotic breakdown. All the elements add up to an authentically dirty vibe that few bands have managed to capture.

I got to know Exile a little too late in life, long after I had been told countless times that Exile was The Masterpiece. It was impossible to really enjoy the album on its own merits, so thick was the legend (and myth) surrounding the songs and its recording in that French villa while Keith Richards was dropping heroin. Hearing the songs was like listening to Bob Dylan or classical music. You couldn’t relax and let the music pour over you; rather, you were conscious of the expectation that you were supposed to enjoy it, even songs with the juvenile names like “Turd on the Run.”

Only after leaving the album alone for a while and revisiting the songs when Jan and I were dating in the late 1980s could I start to enjoy Exile and the chaotic sounds that unified all four sides. At this point in their career, the Rolling Stones were mired in a fallow period, churning out formulaic-sounding albums like Dirty Work. The band sounded too polished and mechanical. Jan and I were spending a lot of time exploring Chicago neighborhoods, eating barbeque from a place called Leon’s (where a slice of white bread was served with your ribs), and just bombing around in the streets.

Sometimes we would order ribs from the Leon’s carry-out on north Clark Street and simply sit on the sidewalk and chow down on ribs, not caring how messy we looked. As we took long walks through areas such as Lincoln Park, I sang loosely remembered songs to Jan, throwing in a line from “Ventilator Blues” one moment before jumping into “Happy” when I couldn’t get the lines right. I was deep into the Stones’ early catalog then, perhaps as a reaction to how boring the band sounded in 1987. I scooped up copies of worn vinyl Stones albums at used record stores, including the earliest albums with those stark close-ups of their menacing faces. Jan, with her collection of Madonna, the Beatles, and Laurie Anderson, offered the counterbalance to the darkness that fascinated me, and I loved her for providing that lightness.

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During that period, I studied the album cover for Exile with fresh eyes and dwelled on each little square photograph, looking for clues that might shed light on the songs inside. I reappraised the dense and opaque collage of images as a reflection of the music. The unpolished and faded images of Jagger and Richards huddled around the microphone, and of the entire band smirking and gazing off screen with stoned expressions, coupled with the dude with the oranges and the freaks on the front cover, created a band portrait dipped in the kind of grime and grit I felt on my skin after walking through Chicago on a hot summer Saturday. I was finally able to enjoy the album on my terms. And Jan did, too. The Stones were walking the streets with us.

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If you own the album, you know why you have to listen to the songs all the way through to understand the cover. These are the Stones: unvarnished, real, and powerful.




Your Audience Is Always Watching

July 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Ivan Phillips

Your audience is always watching even if you can’t see them.

Years ago, I was hanging out at one of those sweaty summer suburban festivals where the food consists of elephant ears and the carnival rides look like they’re held together with rust. Amid the squirt gun games and cotton candy haze, I noticed a wiry woman on a small stage singing remarkable renditions of Joan Jett songs. I walked over to the stage and realized that lo and behold, here was Joan Jett in the flesh, writhing, strutting, and blasting through her energetic song catalog. She had an audience of maybe a dozen people standing in a dark corner of the festival, but she performed as if she were commanding an arena packed with thousands.

She looked like she was having fun. I marveled at her obvious joy and wondered how she conjured up such passion when she was performing for a small cluster of people she probably could not even see very well in a poorly lit corner of the festival.

A few weeks ago, I found out for myself.

As I have discussed on my blog, during summer weekends, I perform at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor living theater in Wisconsin that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. The character I portray, a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright, hosts an improv show with a charming and lovable guild master named Thomas Halfcake, portrayed by Benjamin Cormalleth. During our show, known as the Court of Common Pleas, we invite audience members onstage to be charged and tried for comical crimes such as kicking a fetid turnip or smiling without a license. We conduct a mock trail that always ends with our condemning the audience volunteer to perform a silly action onstage, such as howling at the sky as punishment for their “crimes.” The show relies entirely on our ability to create a bond quickly with an audience and strengthen that bond over the course of 30 minutes.

Ben and I have worked together as cast mates for three years now, and we both love the experience of cavorting in the dusty streets of Bristol, making people happy from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Do you remember what it felt like when you were a kid and summer days meant playing outdoors from morning until nightfall? For us, being part of the cast evokes that sense of fun. Whether we are on the streets or onstage, we are energized by the spontaneity of improv.

Normally we do our show at noon on an intimate stage known as the Lord Mayor’s Forum. We can easily project our voices and attract attention at this centrally located spot. But on one recent Sunday, our show was switched to a different stage located at a busy crossroads. When noon rolled around, we took to the stage and sized up the audience — which consisted of exactly one cast member who had appeared to catch our act. Otherwise, we had zero patrons filling the benches. Maybe the layout of the stage was not inviting. Maybe the location was not ideal. But it was showtime, and we were on our own.

I glanced over at Ben. He looked as happy as he always does. Without saying a word, he flashed me a smile that said, “Let’s have fun.”

So we had fun. We dug into our characters to swap jokes about being a nefarious barrister and a charming baker who form a most curious pair. We performed improv bits. We dialed up our make-believe Elizabethan-era accents and projected our voices even louder than usual. We laughed like kids on vacation without a care in the world. It really didn’t matter how many people were in the audience or whether they were paying attention. We were enjoying the moment.

At first, no one seemed to notice, or at least it looked that way to me. The Faire patrons kept moving along the lane. But they were watching, even if we didn’t know it. Soon, a family sat down in the front row, curious to find out why these two guys onstage dressed in robes, stockings, and hats were cutting up so loudly. Then the audience began to grow as a few more families and couples decided to check us out. Then more people wanted to find out what the other people were watching.

We quickly had an enthusiastic crowd. Audience members shot their hands into the air when we asked for volunteers. A woman who looked to be in her 70s cracked jokes with us and shouted “God save the queen” with Ben. Two children joined us onstage to be tried for the crime of being happy brothers and sisters. They had so much fun that their parents had to coax them to leave the stage when it was time to call a new volunteer. By the time the show was over, the audience was in a groove with us. We had drawn them into our orbit.

As our 30 minutes came to an end, Ben and I floated off the stage. We both knew something magical had happened — one of those special moments that we would carry with us throughout the summer.

What if Ben and I had phoned in our performance just because we didn’t think we had an audience? We would have let down the patrons who were paying attention even as they walked by the stage without seeming to give us a second thought. We would most certainly have never filled a seat.

And we would have let ourselves down. But instead, we gave ourselves over to the natural joy of savoring a summer moment at Bristol, an experience we love.

It doesn’t matter how many people attend your show, watch your speech, listen to your podcast, or read your blog. Someone out there is paying attention. You don’t always see them. But you owe them your best effort. And you owe it to yourself to love what you do.

Here are other posts I have written about my experiences acting at the Bristol Renaissance Faire:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 




Memorable Album Covers: Elton John’s “Greatest Hits”

July 15th, 2016 by ddeal

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Have you ever come across someone who captures a style that you can admire but never hope to emulate? Elton John made me awestruck when I found a copy of Greatest Hits in my sister Karen’s room when I was a kid. The album came out at a time when greatest hits packages actually meant something, long before digital made it possible for listeners to create their own playlists. The best collections served as an introduction to an artist’s body of work and made it easy for you to enjoy in one listening singles that you otherwise had to catch on the radio if you were lucky enough to be listening at the right time. And Elton John’s first Greatest Hits collection was one of the best, not only for the music but the memorable album cover.

All the songs that defined his rise to superstardom were laid out for you like diamonds — hits like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Bennie and the Jets” (I always wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of pronouncing “Jets” like “jetssssss,” which gave the song its signature moment). My favorite was (and remains) “Daniel.” When he sang “Daniel, my brother, you are older than me/Do you still feel the pain” my mind drifted to my brother Daniel, who was two years older than me and who was indeed experiencing a lot of pain in his life. I’d heard all those songs — how could you not growing up in the 1970s? — usually riding in the car with my mom and dad, driving to places like Peoria, Illinois, or Mishawaka, Indiana, to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Even on a crappy car radio, his songs were unmistakable.

But when I found that album, I didn’t even bother listening to the music at first. I really didn’t need to. I just studied the album. Every detail. The creamy white suit, oversized glasses, and natty hat offset by the dark blue shirt and multi-colored bow tie. The over-sized pin of the dude looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One affixed to his jacket. And to top it all off, that elegant walking stick. On the back cover, there he was, playing his piano, wearing glitter shoes. I loved everything about his look, but I realized he had captured a style that was all his own. I was just a kid entering adolescence, with no sense of how to look. I was making that awkward transition from matching clothes to jeans and shirts, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too shy and awkward to try to attempt to look anything like presentable. On that album cover, Elton John gave me a glimpse of another world, of other possibilities beyond my imagination.

All I could do was press my nose against the glass and watch.