Can U2 Be Cool Again?

December 29th, 2016 by ddeal

U2 has something in common with its corporate partner Apple: they both make a lot of money. And they both struggle to be cool.

U2 earns gigantic paydays with high-profile concert tours that appeal to its Baby Boomer fan base. According to Forbes, U2 was one of the highest paid musical acts of 2016 based on the success of its latest tour, Innocence + Experience, which earned $55 million.

But the band’s songs have barely put a dent in the Billboard charts throughout the 2000s (how many U2 songs from the 2000s do you listen to regularly?) and U2 has become joined at the hip with Apple, a brand that has been about as exciting as vanilla ice cream since Steve Jobs passed away.

U2 wants to change that perception. In 2017, U2 will hit the road for a tour that will celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, thus introducing one of the group’s coolest works to the digital generation. Reportedly the tour will include an appearance at Bonnaroo, one of the key music festivals for establishing credibility and coolness with digital natives and millennials. And for entertainers, especially musicians, being relevant to the present-day generation of tastemakers (digital natives and millennials today) is important to being cool. Led Zeppelin is cool. Chance the Rapper is cool. Coldplay is not cool.

Artists can lose and regain their coolness for many reasons. In the late 1960s, Frank Sinatra lost his coolness when he tried too hard to connect with a younger audience by recording horrible cover versions of songs like Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” He regained his coolness when he stopped trying to be cool and focused on being Frank Sinatra. In the 1980s, Johnny Cash lost his coolness when he rejected his inner rebel and slipped into a comfort zone of touring as a feel-good gospel act. He regained his coolness when he partnered with producer Rick Rubin to make the American Recordings series of albums, which re-established his contemporary relevance through covers of rock songs such as “Hurt.”

U2 defined cool in the 1980s and 1990s by making music with bite, emotional depth, and boldness. Throughout the 1980s, U2 was the defiantly soulful and socially conscious alternative to the synth-heavy sound of the second British invasion, and The Joshua Tree demonstrated that you could be spiritual and cool at the same time. In the late 1980s, U2 suffered a temporary lapse of coolness during the Rattle and Hum tour, when the group’s pious tendencies turned into messianic self-indulgence. But U2 regained its equilibrium by recording experimental, edgy works such as Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Even if those albums were not always critically successful, U2 was challenging and pushing its audience in new directions.

But in the 2000s, starting with the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind in 2000, U2 committed the Johnny Cash mistake of settling into a comfort zone — in U2’s case, by churning out straightforward pop songs, all of which have pretty much sounded the same. According to U2: The Definitive Biography, by John Jobling, the commercial success of All That You Can’t Leave Behind helped U2 emerge from a financially troubled time — which might help explain why U2 has tried to repeat that album’s formula ever since, resulting in music that no longer resonates.

U2 also hurt its own coolness by falling out of touch with the listening habits of digital-era consumers. In the post-Napster era, U2 relied on the record album to tell its story and in doing so clung stubbornly to a dying format. When U2 realized that people no longer buy record albums, the band infamously tried to force an album on unsuspecting listeners by collaborating with Apple in 2014 to distribute U2’s Songs of Innocence as a “gift” download through iTunes. The unwanted distribution of Songs of Innocence caused U2’s social media sentiment to plunge by 41 percent in one week and exposed how irrelevant the band had become to the digital age, with Twitter users asking questions such as, “Who is U2? And why do their songs keep popping up in my iPhone?”

Since The Songs of Innocence debacle, U2 has continued to struggle with a perception of no longer mattering. In 2016, U2 offered to play a private concert as part of a promotion for (RED), which Bono cofounded to eradicate AIDS in Africa. The private concert promotion on Facebook has inspired plenty of laudatory comments from fans, but you don’t have to search very hard to notice the snarky pronouncements proliferating among the fan reactions, such as “I wouldn’t open the curtains if you were playing in my back yard. And don’t foist your mawkish MOR noise on my iPod ever again either while we’re at it!” (via Facebooker Cathy Smith).

So how can U2 reestablish its relevance and coolness? Here is what I’d do if I were managing the U2 brand:

  • Maximize the value of The Joshua Tree. Digging into the past is a wise move, as Guns N’ Roses proved through its successful Not in This Lifetime tour, which reestablished GNR’s relevance in the digital age. Playing at Bonnaroo would be a start. U2 should also hit the millennial music circuit with stops at venues such as Coachella and Lollapalooza. Surprise shows at smaller millennial-friendly gigs would help U2 connect on a more personal level with younger generations of fans.
  • Unleash The Edge. As a standalone figure, The Edge is way cool. (Check him out as he slays the guitar in It Might Get Loud.) I’d create a stronger narrative about his status as one of the great guitar gods, through advertising, social media posts, and music trailers promoting the upcoming shows. Putting a bigger spotlight on The Edge as the great guitar innovator that he is would demonstrate that even if U2 has not always progressed musically, he’s always been on the vanguard of guitar, similar to the way Slash has symbolized all that is good and cool about GNR.
  • Be visible in the right places. The band’s takeover of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in 2015 reminded the world of how funny and cool U2 could be. Jimmy Fallon is the kind of personality whom Baby Boomer musicians cozy up to in order to be relevant. U2 has plenty more opportunities to shine in the right shows, especially via digital — how about Bono appearing on Carpool Karaoke, for example?
  • Release great music. The most important step U2 can take is to create music that is relevant and interesting, which Songs of Innocence was not. In 2017, U2 will release its follow-up, Songs of Experience. Certainly the time is right for U2 to recapture its fire and grit if U2 wants to do so. We live in very uncertain and troubled times, which could make that socially conscious side of U2 more relevant again, as has been the case with Roger Waters and The Wall

For rock and roll acts, growing older does not mean losing your coolness quotient, as AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Neil Young have demonstrated. But you do have to state a case for your relevance when you continue to play music for decades, as I’ve discussed on my blog. By announcing a series of shows celebrating The Joshua Tree in 2017, U2 has taken a step in the right direction, as The Joshua Tree will never grow uncool. But will U2 create new music that resonates in 2017?




How DJ Khaled Uses Visual Storytelling to Sell His “Keys”

December 24th, 2016 by ddeal

Even though album sales continue to decline, album cover art is more important than it was during the days when vinyl ruled the world.

As I have discussed on my blog, today album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories. By contrast, back in the glory days of the album, the primary role of cover art (from a marketing standpoint) was to make the work stand apart in record store bins. An excellent demonstration of the new role of the album artwork is DJ Khaled’s Major Key, one of the most memorable album covers 2016.

DJ Khaled released Major Key in July 2016. The album received generally positive reviews for delivering his distinctive blend of dance and hip-hop with guest artists such as Drake and Jay Z. Major Key also featured the most imaginative album cover of his career. It takes a special kind of self-assurance and badassery to have yourself photographed on a throne next to a lion, and DJ Khaled pulled it off. The cover is not only visually striking, but it also makes a statement about the artist: the lion suggest power, and the flowers, elegance. Like a Pharaoh, DJ Khaled is unsmiling. He doesn’t need to. The successful musician and producer rules his universe his way.

But the album and the music inside it are linked to a bigger story. DJ Khaled fans instantly recognized the name Major Key — stylized as a golden key emoji — as an extension of the DJ Khaled brand on Snapchat. He is easily one of the biggest names on Snapchat, where he dispenses life lessons that he calls “major keys to success.” He typically uses the key emoji to accompany his little snippets of wisdom, which focus on living positively.

The album cover was a code for his fans as well as an attention getter for more casual listeners of his music. If you liked what he was selling on Snapchat, Major Key was a clarion call to get even more immersed in his own brand of wisdom through song. And it turns out that the cover was a harbinger: in November, Khaled published the book The Keys, which collects his wisdom into lengthier essays on successful living, categorized under themes such as “Stay Away from They” and “Don’t Deny the Heat.” Released just in time for the holidays, The Keys also features a familiar image: a majestic lion, resting on the same purple bed of flowers scattered about the album cover.

In context of DJ Khaled’s brand as a pop culture sage, the Major Key album cover acts as a brilliant touchstone. Khaled and that lion are everywhere, ranging from his Instagram feature photo to his Facebook banners.

On his home base of Snapchat, he continues to rely on the key emoji to express his personal brand.

It remains to be seen how successful The Keys will be, but Major Key is DJ Khaled’s first Billboard Number One album. Meanwhile, the book is receiving positive notice from the likes of The New Yorker, which is the kind of attention that will make his brand as digital self-help guru more mainstream. His ability to brand himself through visual storytelling is the key.

Note: check out my SlideShare, Memorable Album Covers of 2016, for insight into more compelling visual stories from the year.




Memorable Album Covers of 2016

December 20th, 2016 by ddeal

The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.

But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.

Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.

Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:

  • Capture your attention through striking design.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.




Uber’s Future: Snapchat on Wheels

December 15th, 2016 by ddeal

I recently received an invitation to check out some behind-the-scenes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story videos and watch cartoon images of Star Wars X-Wings fly through the streets of Chicago. There was only one catch: the experience was available exclusively on my Uber app and viewable only after I had requested an Uber ride. I believe the Rogue One content points to a new future for Uber: one in which the app serves as a content-sharing platform for brands, like a Snapchat on wheels. Soon, musicians will launch new song videos on Uber before anyone else can see them. When Wes Anderson creates another slick short-form holiday film, Uber riders will see it first. Get ready for Uber to become a hot media brand.

Uber has been blurring the lines between ride sharing and entertainment for some time. In July, Uber hosted a secret concert with musician Wale, and the only way to attend was to unlock the location through Uber. In September, Uber introduced Rider Music, through which riders can tap into their own Pandora and Spotify playlists through Uber — in essence, taking their favorite curated music with them while they’re getting an Uber ride. Rogue One marks a first: branded entertainment content embedded in the app.

And there’s no reason why Uber needs to limit itself with entertainment experiences. In fact, Uber already offers branded content through relationships with other businesses, just not in the slick, in-app way that Disney does with Rogue One. In January, Uber launched “Trip Experiences,” which relies on integrations with third-party apps to make it possible for brands to serve up content ranging from restaurant reviews to news. It’s taken some time, but businesses are figuring out how to take advantage of the functionality. The Washington Post recently launched an integrated viewing experience through which readers can browse content on The Washington Post app while checking the status of their Uber ride. Moreover, Uber recently announced that users could order Uber rides off the websites of nearby businesses and receive branded content from those businesses en route. Cole Haan and Guitar Center have already beta tested the functionality.

Becoming a more full-blown media app for content sharing makes perfect sense for these reasons:

  • Uber is sitting on a treasure trove of data about the 50 million people who have taken 2 billion Uber rides, including who they are, where they are going, and what they’re doing. (Uber has received criticism over its use of customer data, too.) The company can offer advertisers very targeted opportunities to reach segments such as millennials. And Uber regularly puts its customer insight data to use, forming partnerships with brands such as Starwood that want access to Uber’s customers to provide offers such loyalty program points for customers that use Uber.
  • Uber could use from the revenue the app could gain by forming relationships with brands. The company lost a reported $1.2 billion in the first half of 2016, with a failed expansion into China proving to be especially costly. The company is eager to show that it can monetize effectively in advance of an expected IPO.
  • By its nature, Uber is a utility that people have to open in order to use. The downtime that users experience during Uber rides is a natural moment for brands to share content to keep users engaged with Uber so long as the content is engaging. Picture those annoying screens that play in the back of taxicabs (if you still take taxicabs anymore) only with content that is more interesting and useful — because Uber is consistently an interesting and useful brand. Rogue One, for instance, is not a randomly curated piece of content. Uber has timed the sharing of the behind-the-scenes video plus the playful in-app Star Wars space craft experience during the run-up to the official opening of Rogue One to capitalize on a time when users are going to be more naturally interested in viewing the content. The Rogue One/Uber experience is all about relevance.

Uber also consistently demonstrates a willingness to adapt its business. As I’ve contended on my blog, Uber’s core business is disruption, not ride sharing. Uber has entered markets ranging from food delivery to healthcare by wedding technology with a keen understanding of consumer behavior, by the creation of partnerships with other brands, and by consistently trying new models. Uber tests, learns, and corrects its model quickly. Right now making a content push is Uber’s latest test-and-learn initiative.

Businesses can play in a number of fascinating ways. In addition to serving up exclusive content, brands could provide broader experiences that span the online and offline worlds. The next musician who offers a secret concert via an Uber relationship could also provide exclusive music through Uber while fans ride to the concert. Imagine a hotel offering rides to its guests via Uber and providing exclusive in-app games for riders en route to their destination.

Uber is a palette for content. Businesses just need to figure out the right kind of branded content that engages riders. Rogue One offers a glimpse of how that content will look.




How a Swedish Grocery Store Beat Amazon Go to the Punch

December 7th, 2016 by ddeal

The Internet is buzzing about Amazon Go, Amazon’s new self-service grocery store. At the flagship Amazon Go in Seattle, opening in January 2017, anyone with an Amazon account, a supported smartphone, and the Amazon Go app will simply take what they want from the store and leave with no check-out required. Customers will then receive a bill from Amazon, which uses a technology called Just Walk Out to detect when products are taken or returned to a shelf. The excitement over the disruptive potential of Amazon Go is justified. But a small grocery store in Sweden named Naraffar beat Amazon to the punch nearly a year ago. Naraffar’s story illustrates how small businesses can innovate quickly — but how big brands like Amazon can refine an innovation and make it mainstream.

Since January 2016, Naraffar, located in the small town of Viken, near the southern tip of Sweden, has been providing unstaffed 24-hour self-service. Customers use a smartphone app to unlock the store’s entrance, take groceries, and leave. Customers receive a bill later. Customers can also influence how Naraffar stocks its inventory by requesting items not in stock.

An enterprising Viken resident named Robert Illijason opened Naraffar after he noticed an unmet customer need: his own. After dropping his last bottle of baby food by accident, he needed to replenish his supply pronto. But the accident occurred when all stores were closed in the 4,200-town of Viken. Only after driving miles to another town did he find a store open.

In the aftermath of the experience, he wondered: why not open a 24-hour store in Viken? But the cost of hiring people to operate the store around the clock turned out to be prohibitive. So he designed a store that requires no people — not even to open or close the front door.

So far, Naraffar has succeeded as a small-scale, 7-11 type convenience store that offers staple items on demand, such as diapers and milk. Ilijason reports no issues with shoplifting. Customers need to identify themselves through Sweden’s BankID system. Security cameras monitor the store, and if for some reason the front door remains open for longer than 8 seconds, Ilijason receives an alert.

As noted by Tarunika Tolani of the Harvard Business School, Naraffar is a natural progression from click-and-collect buying, in which customers order what they want online and pick up goods in brick-and-mortar stores. The number of click-and-collect points in Europe grew by 20 percent in 2015, especially in the United Kingdom, where London alone can accommodate several collection points. Whether he realized it, Ilijason was tapping into a larger trend in consumer behavior by opening a store that removes a layer of friction from an increasingly popular click-and-collect approach.

But Naraffar lacks scale. Amazon possesses the scale, brand strength, and resources to make the Amazon Go model a mainstream experience. As is so often the case, start-ups can experiment and innovate. But the big brands such as Amazon can take innovation to another level. Amazon can test, learn, and refine an idea, whether its own or someone else’s. For instance, Naraffar requires shoppers to scan items with their smartphones and then confirm purchases — a two-step process. Amazon Go customers literally pick up their inventory and leave without any scanning their devices.

Naraffar offers limited inventory in a small location. Amazon Go’s flagship facility resembles a convenience store (with 1,800 feet), but already Amazon is exploring multiple grocery store formats, including much larger facilities, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Even Naraffar required the cooperation of a big brand to launch: Apple needed to approve its app for the smartphone technology to work.

In the United States, retailers are experimenting with several models that might exist alongside each other, including self-service stores of various sizes; variations of click-and-collect (see Walmart’s Pickup and Fuel concept stores, where customers order online and then drive to Walmart to have their groceries loaded into their cars by employees); and delivery on demand (which Walmart has been famously piloting with Lyft and Uber). An independent self-service store relying completely on an app might be a better fit for a remote small town that requires fewer goods and exists. But I could see Amazon building larger Amazon Go stores (certainly larger than 1,800 square feet) in cities where a critical mass of shoppers and infrastructure exists to support a bigger store.

Retailers such as Walmart and Amazon will continue to experiment with different store formats. 2017 is already shaping up to be an exciting year.

Lead image source: geeksnewslab.com

Related:

Business Insider, “This 24-Hour Convenience Store in Sweden Doesn’t Have a Single Employee — Here’s How,” by Chris Weller, 29 February 2016.

The Huffington Post Canada, “Naraffar, Unmanned Swedish Grocery Store, Open 24 Hours,” by Emma Prestwich, 16 March 2016.

Reuters, “Broken Baby Food Jar Leads to Sweden’s First Unstaffed Grocery Store,” by Ilze Filks, 14 March 2016.

Brian Solis (via LinkedIn), “Amazon Go Brings Retail Experience into 21st Century,” 6 December 2016.

The Wall Street Journal, “Amazon Working on Several Grocery-Store Formats, Could Open More Than 2,000 Locations,” by Laura Stevens and Khadeeja Safdar, 5 December 2016.




Content Master: The Morton Arboretum

November 21st, 2016 by ddeal

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As the leaves of autumn give way to the bare branches of winter, the Morton Arboretum is a place of both refuge and inspiration. The preserve west of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for hiking and bicycling amid the trees, ponds, and fields that comprise the 1,700-acre grounds. But the arboretum doesn’t assume that its reputation alone will attract visitors. To ensure that the natural playground remains top of mind amid the many digital and offline distractions vying for its patrons’ attention, the Morton Arboretum also happens to be a powerful content machine.

The arboretum’s content strategy is twofold: use digital to attract visitors, and offline content to support the organization’s mission of protecting and appreciating the natural world.

Visual Storytelling the Digital Way

The Morton Arboretum creates awareness and engagement by sharing content across the digital world where its patrons share their own content, on social spaces ranging from Facebook to Instagram, thus demonstrating that if you want to attract an audience, you need to be present where they live and search for things to do.

And the arboretum speaks the language of its audience: imagery. For instance, in October and November, the arboretum’s Instagram account offered an explosion of fall colors enticing the Instagram community to experience the bright red leaves of a sour gum or a golden yellow cork tree. The arboretum’s growing Pinterest community takes advantage of Pinterest’s organizational tools, with images organized under boards ranging from Gardening Ideas to Winter Trees. On YouTube, the arboretum offers more immersive tours that give potential visitors a taste of what they’ll find if they stop by. For instance, the arboretum recently posted a video tour of Illuminations, during which the grounds come alive with a festive light show at night. But YouTube is also a learning destination, offering how-to videos on topics such as tree pruning and watering plants and trees.

On Facebook, the arboretum also includes user-generated images, thus drawing from a broader palette of images and creating more engagement from its Facebook followers. Facebook and Twitter also act as sources of updates on the events that the arboretum offers around the year. In fact, its Facebook page is a textbook example of a how an organization can use a local page to generate awareness where people conduct searches for things to do nearby. The arboretum makes it easy for visitors to learn about events such as its Boo Breakfast for children, and the arboretum cross-promotes content on other social spaces, including TripAdvisor reviews. By being transparent and informative, the arboretum makes Facebook an important digital touch point that complements its website, which serves as its hub for learning more about things to do there. Patrons can also sign up for an email newsletter that curates content as frequently as needed.

A Learning Experience

The arboretum’s not-so-secret weapon for engaging its audience is educational content. Its website modestly claims that we engage students, families, teachers, and life-long learners to dig a little deeper into the science of trees,” which is putting things mildly. The arboretum is practically a year-round school, offering lectures, classes on topics such as nature art and photography, and opportunities to get involved in conservation. The arboretum does a masterful job segmenting educational content for different audiences. Here are just a few examples:

  • School groups: for grades PreK-5, the arboretum hosts classroom visits in which educational leaders provide courses such as plant investigation and the basics of trees. Its half- and full-day field trips offer deeper dives into nature for ages ranging from kindergarten to high school. Kindergarteners might learn about using the five senses to explore nature, whereas high schoolers can get involved into the maintenance of the park by acting as restoration stewards during their field trips.
  • Adult programs: the arboretum empowers adult visitors to enrich their understanding of nature and discover their inner artists. During chilly winter Saturday mornings, visitors can take winter bird walks, in which small groups discover the habits of the birds who winter at the arboretum. The Nature Artists’ Guild encourages patrons to express their artistic sides through paintings, drawings, and other creative endeavors — really a form of user generated content.

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Image source: The Morton Arboretum

One of my favorite arboretum activities is to immerse myself in learning at the Sterling Morton Library. The curved shelves full of neatly arranged books, comfortable chairs, and high ceiling create a welcoming environment to learn the old-school way: by burying your nose in books about the natural world the arboretum has vowed to protect. The library reminds me that a location need not provide blinking lights, video, and pulsating music to be immersive. The silence that invites quiet exploration of the mind is as immersive as sound.

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All the content has a purpose: to support the arboretum’s self-proclaimed role as “the champion of trees.” The exhibits, the classes, and the tours all ladder up to a mission to get everyday people involved in protecting the natural world. And the arboretum supports its mission in obvious ways, such as the Vanishing Acts traveling exhibit. Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed with the Global Trees Campaign to raise awareness for threatened and endangered trees. What makes Vanishing Acts special is that you can take the exhibition with you. The exhibition is designed to be set up in public spaces appropriate for learning about tree conservation. As such, the arboretum offers a program to help others set up the exhibition, including a how-to guide for constructing the exhibit. Consider Vanishing Acts an old-school way of creating sharable content.

 Questions for Brands

  • Are you creating content that will engage your audience at a location level?
  • How well do you employ visual storytelling to share your brand?
  • Are you distributing that content where your customers are going to find it?
  • How well does your content support your mission?
  • How well do you involve your audience in the branded content you create?

Other Brands to Examine

  • Nordstrom, for its mastery of content on platforms such as Pinterest.
  • Starbucks, for capitalizing on social spaces to generate awareness for its stores.
  • Bass Pro Shops for providing activities such as 3D Archery
  • Weber Grill Restaurants for offering grilling classes and special events

For brick-and-mortar businesses, sharing meaningful content is increasingly essential to combat the ever-present threat of such as video games, Netflix, and apps that make it all too easy to remain planted on our sofas in the comfort of our homes. The Morton Arboretum can teach any brick-and-mortar business the power of immersive content.

Portions of this blog were adapted from a post I wrote for SIM Partners.

 




Al Green and the Family War

November 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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Art can divide a family.

In 1973, my family lived near a network of ponds and fields on the northern fringe of Battle Creek, Michigan. You can visit the neighborhood anytime through Google Street View and even check out our old house at 242 Wanondoger Trail. The area still looks pretty much the same: simple wood or brick ranch structures, the occasional split level, big lawns, trees, and, beyond the cluster of houses, an open expanse of grass that still invites kids to play war games in the summer and ride their snowmobiles in the winter, just as my older brother, Dan, and I did. I was 10 years old in 1973. Dan was 12. I had two older sisters: Karen, who was in high school, and Cathy, who had recently graduated, worked at a Dairy Queen, and lived at home. Our family lived uncomplicated lives, or so it seemed to me. Besides playing outside a lot, Dan and I listened to record albums, including Bible stories that our Grandma Deal bought us. And somewhere along the line, I had discovered the joy of Al Green.

I don’t remember when or where I first heard Al Green’s voice — probably on the radio during a family drive in our Monte Carlo. But I loved everything I heard. I was a quiet kid. By age 10, I had already lived in Peoria, Illinois; Atlanta; and Indianapolis, and I did not make friends easily. Mine was a lonely world defined by books, the fields, the pond, and Al Green’s voice. His music was like a companion. His soothing, sweet vocals on songs like “I’m Still in Love with You” made me want to sing. The romance and longing in songs like “Call Me” made me want to experience the passions that had inspired such powerfully emotional songs even though I was too young to truly understand what he was singing about. I lacked the money to buy his albums, but I could afford the occasional 45s, which I purchased at K Mart and kept in a small stack in our parents’ big wooden console stereo, right next to my dad’s copy of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

“You Ought to Be with Me” was my favorite Al Green single. I listened to it over and over. At the time, I didn’t know how songs were made. I thought singers and musicians performed them live as opposed to recording their parts separately and assembling the parts into a song. I wondered how Al Green made his voice become like an instrument in the opening few seconds, with his “Hey, yeahs” and drawn out “hey-ah” jumping an octave over a bed of horns and strings before pleading and asking someone to be with him. I always listened closely at the one-minute mark, when his teeth made a slight whistle sound as he sang the word “us” in “They don’t want to see us do.” I suppose someone else might have done a retake, but Al Green made every vocal tic sound like honey. And I thrilled at the way he made the word “night” sound like an extended “nigh-hi-ey-aye” as the song faded out. Whenever I saw the Hi Records logo on his 45s, I thought of that drawn-out “hi-ey-aey” and still do.

But Al Green was not an obvious choice for a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek. On the one hand, he was at the peak of his popularity as a soul singer. His sweet vocal style combined with Willie Mitchell’s slick production generated a slew of hit singles and albums that would help shape 1970s soul. But there was something about him that didn’t sit right with the masculine small-town culture that defined our neighborhood. Maybe it was the way his voice soared high and cooed. Maybe it was his occasionally florid choice of attire, such as the frilly coat and sleeves he wore on the cover of Al Green Gets Next to You. Never mind that he was a notorious womanizer in real life. He was just too sweet for the boys of Battle Creek.

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I soon experienced his impact firsthand when Cathy began to bring home boyfriends. They all looked big and rough to me in their greasy jeans, dirty flannel shirts, and long hair. When they hung out at our house, they always brought their records, and they played Cathy’s records, such as the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2) and Paul McCartney’s Ram. Sometimes they would discover my Al Green singles and play one, which always evoked the same incredulous “What is this shit?” expressions before the 45 was abruptly yanked from the turntable and replaced quickly with something more suitable, such as Deep Purple or Uriah Heep.

And Cathy was not exactly in a position to explain my odd musical interest. She really didn’t know me. We lived in two completely different universes. In 1973, she was soon going to turn 19. She was the oldest child, which meant being the first among us to experience the world, and I was the youngest, which meant I had experienced nothing, in her eyes. We were not hostile to each other, but we didn’t have anything in common. She tolerated me — but she accommodated her friends.

My mom and dad expected their kids to abide by the rules of the house, which, for Cathy, meant the usual prohibitions, such as on overnight guests without our parents’ consent, no drinking, no drugs, and generally no partying. It was fairly easy for my parents to enforce these rules so long as they were around.

But they weren’t always around.

My dad traveled a lot for his job as an insurance executive. We all grew up being accustomed to him living long stretches away from home. He would later keep an apartment in Chicago after he took a different job, and for awhile, the rest of us stayed behind in Battle Creek, as we had gotten used to him not being at home much. Part of my dad’s job involved attending annual company meetings in locations like St. Maarten. In 1973, he took my mom on one of these trips, and left the kids at home under Cathy’s care. Which meant Cathy had carte blanche to break the house rules. Which she did with relish.

She had her friends over. A lot. Overnight. With drinking. And maybe drugs. Probably drugs. I didn’t like it. Our house had been overtaken by a bunch of long-haired Vikings from the wild, drinking what they wanted, eating what they wanted, and sleeping where they wanted. And who could blame them, Cathy, or any other teenager once they discovered they had the run of the house? One morning, after a few nights of their general debauchery and hedonism had passed, I discovered my collection of Al Green singles had been reduced to a pathetic pile of sharp vinyl shards. I never found out who destroyed them, but it didn’t matter. Cathy had let them in. And they had violated my prized possessions. Even worse, Cathy didn’t care. Maybe she didn’t even notice.

That week, I discovered the meaning of revenge. I could never get those singles back, but I could get back at Cathy. So for the rest of the week, I kept a journal that described every rule violation that had occurred while my parents were away that week. Down to the minute, I recorded each party, each random cigarette butt tossed in our yard, each bottle of beer consumed by the Viking hoards, and every moment I had endured listening to their loud music. When the week was over, and my parents had returned home, I dutifully handed over the journal to my mom. Our parents never trusted Cathy to babysit the kids again, and they stripped her of the right to have any friends over for a long time, with or without my parents there. Essentially, the house became a prison for her, or so she thought. And my journal was to blame.

Today Cathy and I get along just fine. She lives not too far from me, and we share a deep love of music. But the journaling incident caused a rift that took years to heal. In Cathy’s eyes, I was nothing more than the worst kind of younger brother possible: a snitch. As I saw it, she was responsible for a horrible violation of my world. But I was willing to pay the price. You just didn’t mess with Al Green. Not my Al Green.




Content Is King in Virtual Reality

October 15th, 2016 by ddeal

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Virtual reality believers have had a lot to smile about lately, as Facebook and Google took big steps to make VR mainstream.

On October 4, Google launched its anticipated $79 Daydream View VR headset, part of Google’s toolkit to embed VR into our lives through Google’s ecosystem, whether we’re watching concerts on YouTube or navigate Google Maps. Two days later, Mark Zuckerberg wowed the technology industry by showing off a slick VR demo at the Oculus Connect developer summit, which showed how quickly Facebook is delivering on Zuckerberg’s vision to transformation social media into social VR.

These are indeed good reasons to be excited about the future of VR. But you know what really made me feel passionate about VR in recent weeks? Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Yep, an iconic song that was released more than 40 years ago gave me a more compelling glimpse of the future than any demos and new products coming out of Silicon Valley recently. Last month, Queen, Google Play, and studio Enosis VR collaborated to create The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience, an app that presents Queen’s masterpiece as an immersive journey “through frontman Freddie Mercury’s subconscious mind,” in Google’s words. After you download the app, you can experience the song with or without Google Cardboard in Android or iOS, as I did one recent afternoon. (Google Cardboard enables the VR experience, but without the viewer, you can still enjoy the song with a 360-degree view by tilting your screen — not quite VR, but a step toward it.)

And by “experience the song,” I do mean experience. Here is an inspiring, visually stunning re-imagining of Queen’s most endearing work. Drawing on animation that reminds me of Yellow Submarine, the video depicts a world of stars, floating snails, twirling figurines, moving album covers, forbidden caves, and members of Queen exploding in neon — just within the first few minutes of the six-minute epic.

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God knows how many times I had heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” before seeing the song this way. It’s the kind of song that I stop what I’m doing and pay close attention to each time I hear it. “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t need VR to be memorable. But VR gave me a fresh perspective. It made me experience the music in a new way by using spatialized sound, or sound that corresponds to different segments of a video depending on how you turn your head.

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“Bohemian Rhapsody” is the latest example of how Google is partnering with artists to show us the possibilities of VR. For example, through Google Spotlight Stories, Google and directors such as Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) make short movies in VR. And on October 16, the 600th episode of The Simpsons will feature a virtual reality sight gag developed with Google. “Bohemian Rhapsody” is probably Google’s most ambitious creative partnership yet. The song speaks to multiple generations and has become so far embedded in popular culture that future generations will be singing along with Freddie Mercury in 2926. The app entailed a collaboration with Queen guitarist Brian May, a braniac who has a PhD in astronomy and who also just happened to help develop a VR viewer through his directorship of The London Stereoscopic Company.

The Bohemian Rhapsody Experience illustrates two essential truths about VR:

1. The Content Has to Be Great

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is great. But “We Built This City” would suck in any reality. If you start with terrible content, experiencing VR is about as compelling as watching Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides in 3D: virtual crap. By working with acclaimed and popular artists such as Queen and Read more »




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.