Facebook’s Media/Entertainment Roadmap

May 16th, 2016 by ddeal

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(Image source: Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

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

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

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

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

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

VR/AR

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

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

Music

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

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

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




When Brands Mess with Our Emotions

May 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




You Don’t Have to Hug Your Fans

May 8th, 2016 by ddeal

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Beyoncé Finds a New Muse

April 27th, 2016 by ddeal

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Was anyone ready for the new-look Beyoncé?

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

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

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

“Formation”

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

Read more »




The Coachella 360-Degree Live Stream Disappoints

April 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The Future of Concert Live Streaming: Social Virtual Reality

April 17th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Author screen shot of Grimes via 2016 Coachella live stream.

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

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

 




Empathy at Trader Joe’s

April 14th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

“How you doing?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




“How We Listen Now” Confronts the Music Industry

April 12th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 




How James Kaplan Paints Music with Words

April 7th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What books have inspired you to be a better writer?

 




How I Fell in Love with Rock & Roll

March 19th, 2016 by ddeal

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

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

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

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

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

“What is this?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related:

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

Would Led Zeppelin Succeed Today? ” August 3, 2015

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

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

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