Jermaine Dupri Wants to Save R&B with New Jagged Edge Album

October 23rd, 2014 by ddeal


If you want to get a rise out of music legend Jermaine Dupri, ask him about the new Jagged Edge album, J.E. Heartbreak II. Dropping October 27, J.E. Heartbreak II reunites Dupri with the group he signed to his So So Def record label in 1997. And Dupri promises that J.E. Heartbreak II will deliver the kind of lush, harmony-rich ballads that helped Jagged Edge become an R&B and pop success 14 years ago.

“The new album is straight Jagged Edge,” he says in the following exclusive interview. “It’s what Jagged Edge does and what it has always done.”

What Jagged Edge has always done is create music that defines the sound of R&B and also succeeds commercially. When Jagged Edge emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  Jagged Edge songs such as “He Can’t Love U” and “Let’s Get Married” captured the groove-heavy romance of R&B and also ranked high on both the R&B and pop charts. Jagged Edge’s breakthrough album, J.E. Heartbreak, released in 2000, topped the R&B charts, made the pop Top 10, and sold more than 2 million copies. Throughout the 2000s, Jagged Edge remained an R&B mainstay, recording six albums (its last album was recorded in 2011) even as R&B began to lose its mainstream appeal.

Dupri also believes J.E. Heartbreak II may also serve a larger purpose: to rekindle music fans’ love of R&B, which Dupri believes has been kicked to the gutter.

“R&B used to be the most popular of all music,” he says. “Now you have to go seek out R&B artists on the right radio stations.”

Fourteen years have gone by since the massive success of J.E. Heartbreak. As Dupri discusses in our interview, J.E. Heartbreak II captures the Jagged Edge sound, which is to say the sound of pure R&B. All the hallmarks of Jagged Edge are evident in the recently released single off J.E. Heartbreak II, “Getting over You.” With J.E. Heartbreak II, Dupri seeks to draw attention to the R&B genre just as Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash reignited interest in country music through their collaboration in the 1990s.

Read on for more insight into a new collaboration forged in R&B.

How would you describe the new Jagged Edge album, J.E. Heartbreak II?

The new album is straight Jagged Edge. It’s what Jagged Edge does and what it has always done. Jagged Edge creates love songs. Jagged Edge sings songs like “Let’s Get Married,” or the new single, “Getting Over You,” which is not the kind of thing you hear in rap or hip-hop. This is a group that has a fan base already. This album will appeal to that fan base. J.E. Heartbreak II is for people who are wondering where are you guys been?

How did you guys get back into the studio together?

I was just doing what Jermaine Dupri does what he’s supposed to do: always moving. Always looking for opportunities to make great music. Jagged Edge was ready to make new music. Jagged Edge is part of my legacy. So working together was a natural and easy decision.

J.E. Heartbreak II captures the sound of R&B. How would you describe the state of R&B?

R&B is headed in the direction that country is in already: it’s a marginalized specialty music that you have to look to find it as opposed to a form of music that you listen to everywhere. R&B used to be the most popular of all music. Now you have to go seek out R&B artists on the right radio stations just like you have to find real country on specialty stations.

Why has R&B become marginalized?

Music has become so fragmented, and R&B is a victim of that fragmentation. R&B has become typecast as the kind of music your mother and father listen to. But, in fact, younger generations will listen to it and love it when they hear it. On my Twitter feed, which represents pop America, people are telling me how much they like what they’re hearing from the new R&B album coming from Jagged Edge.

Generations coming into the industry in the digital age are not learning about R&B, and artists with distinctive R&B sounds are being overlooked in the generic American Idol era. If Al Green were starting out today, he would not become a star because the record industry would keep his music in an R&B box. Here’s the problem: Al Green has a distinctive voice that helped him break through in the 1970s. But that distinctive voice would hold him back today. Why? Because he doesn’t sound like the kind of generic artist who American Idol has conditioned the public to hear. But the greats don’t sound like everyone else. Al Green does not sound like Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson does not sound like Prince. Prince does not sound like Luther Vandross.


Today it’s hard to find the separation of styles necessary to make R&B its own style.

What about Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake? They are not only considered R&B by Billboard, but they obviously have enjoyed breakthrough success

Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake are making more of a strand of R&B. They are not making traditional R&B. Beyoncé is kind of like Usher. She has defined a different wave of music that draws upon R&B. Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Trey Songz are making more of a hybrid of R&B, rap, and hip-hop. Chris Brown is a pure singer. If he could clean up his act and present himself as an artist who wants to sing as opposed to a singer who wants to rap, he could become the biggest singer in the world.


What I’m talking about is traditional R&B. Go try to find it. You’ll have to look very hard. What’s going on is that artists who would have been R&B are instead rappers and hip-hop stars.

Did rap and hip-hop steal the audience for R&B?

A generation of kids that wanted to be in radio and wanted to run the record business all grew up in an era when rap became the most prominent music genre. The kids that are now growing up in the ranks, the A&R guys who find new music, first look for rap and hip-hop. They have no love for R&B. They don’t have a reason to love it because they don’t know about it.

But I know there is an audience for R&B. Young people who know about R&B are telling me, “JD, please bring back R&B because the music today sucks.” Fans want something different than what they are hearing today.

How are you promoting J.E. Heartbreak II? Read more »

Three Marketing Lessons from Bill McDermott’s “Winners Dream”

October 14th, 2014 by ddeal


Everyone loves a winner. But what are winners made of? According to Winners Dream, new book by SAP CEO Bill McDermott, winners know how to dream big, empathize with others, and sense and respond to change. McDermott’s book matters to marketers not only because he believes in the power of marketing to rally people around a dream, but also because his leadership lessons form a north star for anyone who aspires to be a CMO. Here are three marketing lessons from Winners Dream.

1. Dream Big

Winners Dream tells the story of McDermott’s journey from operating a corner deli in Long Island to becoming global CEO of a billion-dollar global brand in Germany. The core tenet of Winners Dream is that successful people consistently set ambitious goals for themselves. For instance when he goes to work for the corner deli to put himself through college, McDermott decides he’s going to own the deli, not just become the most reliable employee. After he graduates from college and interviews for a job at Xerox, he tells his interviewer, “Sir, one day I would hope to become CEO.” Still later, when he becomes president of SAP’s American operations, he startles the company by declaring that within three years, SAP America will earn 10 times as much growth as the organization has achieved in its past few years. You get the idea: no one leaps out of bed to win a silver medal.

Dreaming big sounds inspirational (and challenging enough) when you have only your own dreams to worry about. But how do you get others to rally around a dream, too? Here is where effective marketing comes into play. When McDermott is a high-ranking executive at Xerox, he takes on the challenge of inspiring the company’s under-appreciated Xerox Business Services (XBS) division to accelerate its growth. He needs to communicate to XBS employees that they are valuable to Xerox and that great things are expected of them. His answer is to create an internal branding campaign, Go4Growth, whose centerpiece is a high-concept kick-off meeting in San Antonio. The idea of a high-concept event bothers some Xerox executives because of the cost and effort required. But cost and effort are just the point: XBS employees need to see that Xerox is willing to invest in them. So he hires one of my clients, One Smooth Stone, to create an event with pageantry.

The event not only defines ambitious goals for a large group, it also sends the message that they are valued and that great things are expected of them. As he writes, “By the time our people left San Antonio and returned to their corners of the country, I believed, they would feel like valued members of a national team. And they’d produce. The alternative, circulating a memo or throwing a halfhearted kick-off, may have saved a chunky line item that quarter, but it would never unleash the level of engagement that we needed to sell an additional $2 billion of document management services.”

Lesson: if you want to inspire people to dream big, make a grand statement. Cold-cuts at the Ramada Inn don’t make winners dream.

2. Empathize

Time and again, empathy, or the ability to put himself in the shoes of someone else, serves McDermott Read more »

Is Apple Disrupting Industries Again?

October 3rd, 2014 by ddeal


Do you remember when Apple could change entire industries with its product launches? Apple just might be returning to its industry disrupting ways with the launch of Apple Watch. When the Watch was unveiled in September, not only was I was struck by the passionate reactions (ranging from praise to vilification), I was impressed by how many different industry publications offered opinions. We heard from markets as wide ranging as advertising, automotive, fashion, healthcare, and retail. In a recently published blog post for innovation consultancy BeyondCurious, I speculate on how Apple Watch might affect automotive and retail. As I note in my post, the Apple Watch’s impact on retail really hinges on the uptake of the Apple Pay mobile wallet. In other words, Apple Watch is part of a larger ecosystem that Apple hopes to build and therefore influence. And Apple just might succeed: the necessary financial institutions and major retailers are falling into line (although not all of them are). Is Apple the industry disruptor really back? Let me know what you think.

How Robert Plant Reinvented Himself

October 1st, 2014 by ddeal


One of the consequences of fame is being pigeonholed. McDonald’s is so well known for serving burgers, fries, and milkshakes that the fast-food giant has struggled to become a credible alternative for salads and smoothies. Sean Connery found it difficult to transition his acting career beyond James Bond. And then there’s the case of Robert Plant. The story of Plant’s solo career reads like a case straight out of Harvard Business School: his audience was changing, he was aging, and the legacy he created with Led Zeppelin threatened to trap him in the past. In my new guest blog post for innovation consultancy BeyondCurious, I discuss how Robert Plant reinvented himself and the lessons that businesses can learn from his journey. As Plant’s career demonstrates, changing your brand requires being adaptable, having patience, and telling your story openly. What brands have successfully changed in your view?

GE Combines Content Marketing & Advertising with “Enhance Your Lighting”

September 30th, 2014 by ddeal

GoldblumConventional wisdom says that content marketing needs to be useful to be effective. Creating utility builds credibility and separates content marketers from advertisers. Hence, Intelligensia Coffee offers Brew Guides to teach consumers how to brew the perfect cup of coffee, and Birchbox creates how-to videos with beauty tips, such as how to get beach waves for short hair. But publishing how-to information is not the only way to be useful. As the new GE advertising spoof “Enhance Your Lighting” demonstrates, a brand can be useful by entertaining its audience.

“Enhance Your Lighting” is brilliant content marketing. The two-minute short consists of a mock infotainment segment starring Jeff Goldblum. Portraying “Terry Quattro, famous person,” Goldblum delivers an over-the-top pitch for GE Link LED bulbs that pokes fun at our cultural obsession with celebrities and meaningless product endorsements. With a combination of smarminess and arrogance, Quattro extols the virtues of “really great lighting” in building his celebrity image (and in doing so makes a self-deprecating joke about Goldblum himself being 62 years in the land of youth). Then he pitches the cost-effective GE Link light bulb (which costs “less than what I tip the guy who tips people for me”).

The segment is also a clever work of Trojan horse advertising: Goldblum hooks you with his jokes and, voila, the next thing you know, you are watching an advertisement for the GE light bulb. You hear everything you would expect in an ad: product features (it is smart-home friendly), benefits, and price. Yep, just like an ad . . . and yet “Enhance Your Lighting” is also content marketing.

“Enhance Your Lighting” is also significant for two other reasons:

  • The video is an example of how copmpanies are engaging audiences with branded entertainment. For instance, in 2013, Prada created tremendous PR for its brand by teaming with director Wes Anderson to present the short film Castello Cavalcanti. The seven-minute movie stars Jason Schwartzman as the race-car driver who discovers the joys of slowing down after being stranded in a small Italian town. (The Prada branding in Castello Cavalcanti occurs as a subtle product placement. When the storyline takes hold, you have to look closely to catch the Prada name appear on the back of the uniform worn by the driver.) Branded entertainment has existed for quite some time. In the digital age, branded entertainment helps create engagement: seven minutes of anyone’s time on a digital platform is worth gold for a brand like Prada.

  • The segment also helps GE continue to change perceptions of its company from that of ever-present utility to a cool brand. GE has earned accolades for innovative forms of content marketing such as its Tumblr site, which incorporates GIFs and images to visualize the “changing worlds of science and technology.” For instance, the site uses dramatic, in-your-face images to help you appreciate the dramatic scale of industrial technology. With “Enhance Your Lighting,” GE shows us that a $146 billion corporate conglomerate can be funny.

“Enhance Your Lighting” is the latest collaboration between BBDO New York and GE. Other productions include spots such as the weird “Ideas Are Scary” and wistful “Childlike Imagination.” With “Enhance Your Lighting,” GE delivers on its “imagination at work” positioning. Indeed, it takes a lot of imagination to make a daring mock commercial work, and GE succeeds. What do you think of “Enhance Your Lighting”?

Is There Room for Brands on Ello? You Bet

September 26th, 2014 by ddeal


Meet Ello, the anti-advertising social network and gated community for the cool kids. Ello has already exploded in popularity by offering an ad-free network and by allowing members to use made-up names instead of their real names (unlike Facebook, which requires the use of your real name to have a personal account). Based on my own experience with Ello thus far, the site has already attracted a community of artists and designers, which is fitting because Ello was founded by artists and designers. (As has been reported widely, Ello also gained a surge of invitation requests and phenomenal buzz in recent days when members of the LGBT community joined Ello to protest Facebook’s identity policies). But being ad-free is not the same as being brand-free. Ello is already attracting brands such as Sonos and Adweek and may become a haven for content marketers as Tumblr already is. Moreoever, Ello will need relationships with brands to survive.

Essentially, Ello functions as a more private version of Tumblr. The site’s clean layout and uploading functionality make it especially easy to post visual content such as GIFs. The site is buggy, but it’s also in beta, and its coolness factor covers up a multitude of sins while users stand in line to be invited by Ello members or Ello itself (you can apply for an invite by visiting the site unless a friend invites you). But Ello is making headlines because of its attitude toward advertising, not its user-friendliness. As Ello states in its manifesto,

Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life

You are not a product.

You get the picture: “we’re not Facebook.” But if you join Ello looking to stay away from the gaze of corporate brands, you will be sorely disappointed. In fact, Ello provides another platform for companies (and individuals) to extend audience relationships via content marketing, which is not the same as paid advertising.

Content marketing — or building your brand by providing useful information and entertainment — has been a brand-building mainstay for decades, with John Deere producing a customer magazine, The Furrow, in 1895. According to Mass Relevance, 95 percent of CMOs believe content marketing is important to their business, and content marketing is a strong area of investment for customer acquisition, according to a report I wrote for Gigaom earlier in June 2014.

In other words, smart companies long ago complemented paid advertising by acting as publishers of branded content. And you can be sure smart brands are sizing up Ello right now, if for any other reason than to claim their own Ello identities in order to protect themselves from squatters. Lifestyle brands with strong design sensibilities may find homes on Ello. For instance, Ello is a potential platform for a company like Shinola, which creates and sells gorgeous watches and other products from its popular Detroit headquarters. (Ello co-founder Paul Budnitz has a brand page for his bike shop on Ello, by the way.) If Ello’s popularity with the LGBT community holds up, the site could also be a popular destination for LGBT-friendly brands. I also see Ello becoming something like another Etsty for artists. And forward-thinking celebrities could land here. (Lady Gaga could use Ello to drive traffic to her own Little Monsters community).

A note to parents: Ello will most certainly become a home for the adult entertainment industry based on its porn-friendly attitude (Ello will says it will enable NSFW flagging in order to help users screen NSFW content, as Tumblr does.)

I am careful to use “could” and “possibly” when I speculate about Ello’s future because Ello has a very long way to go in order to become a sustainable community. Joining a network is one thing; staying on one and being engaged is another, as Path demonstrates. Ello plans to support itself by charging users to add specific features to their accounts, but as Steven Tweedie of Business Insider points out, Ello’s ad-free model has already failed with Diaspera and

Ello enjoys a $435,000 seed investment from FreshTracks Capital. But if Ello is to have a future, I believe the network will need to find a way to create revenue-generating partnerships with brands and relax its “no-ad” stance (for instance, by permitting native advertising). If content marketers act like the publishers of engaging and useful information they are supposed to be, no one on Ello will mind.

Find me on Ello at

What NFL CMO Dawn Hudson Can Learn from the NBA’s Comeback

September 24th, 2014 by ddeal


Photo source:

Dawn Hudson has a lot of work to do. As the NFL’s newly appointed CMO, Hudson enters a maelstrom of controversy caused by the league’s failure to deal with repugnant off-the-field behavior of high-profile players like Ray Rice. But the NFL is not the only big-time sports brand that has faced hard times. In the early 1980s, the National Basketball Association was on the brink of failure due to the outlaw reputation of its players. In 1980, the Los Angeles Times famously reported that 75 percent of NBA players were regular cocaine users. The league was plagued by dwindling attendance and low TV ratings. But eventually, the NBA reclaimed the loyalty of sports fans. Hudson would do well to learn from the three reasons why the NBA battled back from the brink:

1. Change Starts with the Players

Fortune smiled on the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird joined the league at the same time during the 1979-80 season. They were not only great basketball players who turned the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics into contenders; they were outstanding ambassadors off the court. Bird and Magic were not choirboys (a reality that would hit home many years later with Magic Johnson’s historic announcement that he had contracted HIV). But during a period when they were needed most, they gradually created fans with their earnest (in Bird’s case) and joyous (in Magic’s case) approach to playing basketball and living their lives.


Photo source:

Their dedication to teamwork and single-minded pursuit of excellence were like a throwback to another time, when sports stars earned attention for the quality of their play instead of their rap sheets. But there was also something different about these two: they had personality, and they didn’t embarrass the league with their off-the-court behavior. Johnson was charismatic and boyish. Bird was the cocky but likeable country boy.

And then during the 1984-85 season, Michael Jordan took the best qualities of both Magic and Bird — Magic’s boundless enthusiasm and Bird’s tough competitiveness — and created something that the public had never seen in an NBA player. His ascendance in the mid-1980s (along with the winnowing away of the generation of players who dominated the 1970s) slammed the door shut on the bad old days of the NBA.


Photo source: Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images

Long before he became known as the leader of the world champion Chicago Bulls, Jordan had already created a brand onto himself that transcended the NBA. He not only played hard but, like Bird and Johnson, off the court he drew attention for all the right reasons. He was the kind of guy people wanted to like, not just root for during a game. What he did for the game has already been well documented, but you cannot overstate his impact: he made even non-sports fans love the NBA.

A lesson for the NFL: The NBA’s turnaround started when a newer generation of players convinced sports fans that it was safe to start believing in the athletes, who are the heart and soul of any sporting organization.

2. You Need to Show Fans a Commitment to Improvement Read more »

Hey, Beyoncé: Let’s Call a Fraud a Fraud

September 18th, 2014 by ddeal

beyonce-1_2966465bPhoto credit: Jeff Daly/REX

Beyoncé has been busted again. Nineteen months after being criticized for lip-syncing during the presidential inauguration, she was caught lip-syncing at a recent concert in Paris (and doing so badly). Look, I understand why Beyonce or any artist lip-syncs in concert. Beyoncé has a $450 million brand to protect. These days, an artist’s every move is watched and recorded, and God help the unfortunate soul whose musical flaws are isolated and mocked for digital eternity. But, let’s also realize this: each time Beyoncé lip syncs, she commits a fraud and damages the authenticity of her precious brand. It is time for artists to start being human. Otherwise, holograms will take their jobs.

The promise of a live event — the reason we’re willing to fork over $300 to see Beyoncé and Jay Z perform together — is that each show is a unique experience. Together, the performer and the audience create a dynamic unique to that concert. The bond forged between the artist and the audience, however illusory and fleeting, feels real at the time. And the live nature of the performance is essential to forming that bond — the inflection in an artist’s voice, the personality she injects into a song through her live interpretation, and the interplay between her vocals, the music, and audience all help convince us to pay a premium price for a show instead of streaming her music on Spotify for a whole lot less money. For instance, during her ArtRave tour, Lady Gaga has turned her anthem “Born This Way” into a more intimate moment of audience interaction by delivering a slower, more soulful version instead of simply duplicating the hit you hear on Born This Way. (Lady Gaga, who has spoken out against lip-syncing, also invites a fan to join her onstage during the song.)

Lip-syncing undercuts the live experience. Instead of singing, the artist becomes a professional dancer or gymnast, carefully orchestrating her every movement with a pre-recorded track — an experience, however impressive, that you can watch for free on YouTube. Moreover, the experience is inauthentic. You really are not hearing Beyoncé sing when she lip-syncs. You are not hearing the Red Hot Chili Peppers play music when their instruments are unplugged during a Super Bowl performance. What you get is a musician aping the songs you can stream for free (and, ironically, doing just what the artist wants to avoid — making a glaring mistake — when the artist accidentally falls out of sync with the backing track, as happened with Beyoncé during the Paris concert).


Photo source: CNN

In essence, lip-syncers make their personal brands inauthentic. And inauthentic brands eventually alienate their audience. We live at a time when customers can use social media to challenge and confront brands that fail to deliver on what they say they will deliver. As journalist James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker recently, “[B]rands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos.” Marketing expert Scott Monty, an executive vice president at SHIFT Communications, argues that authenticity is essential for brands to succeed in an era when customers can easily smell out a fake. “Authenticity is the quality of being genuine, and ultimately of being trusted,” he wrote recently.

Like savvy, well-informed customers, fans are exposing the fakes with their smart phones and YouTube videos. Beyoncé is far from the only faker. She joins a hall of shame that includes artists as diverse as Luciano Pavarotti to Shakira. Fans don’t like the fakery. And who can blame them? At a minimum, performers owe concertgoers truth in advertising. Don’t advertise a live show if you use prerecorded tracks. Let your fans know what they are buying.

If you cannot be authentic, be honest.

Apple Pays Dearly for U2’s “Free” Music

September 12th, 2014 by ddeal


Photo credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP

Let’s get something straight: U2 did not give away its new album, Songs of Innocence. To be sure, if you have iTunes, on September 9 you received a free copy (without asking for it) of Songs of Innocence. But Apple paid U2 an undisclosed amount to distribute copies of U2’s album to as many as 500 million iTunes subscribers — a deal announced on September 9 as part of Apple’s roll-out of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. Now, let’s do some math: in 2013, Samsung paid Jay Z $5 million to distribute 1 million copies of Magna Carta Holy Grail. Consider the lucrative sum U2 must be scoring ($30 million according to one estimate). And ponder, if you will, the $100 million marketing campaign the band is getting courtesy of Apple. These old rockers from Ireland have found a way to make a killing off a dying art form.

The distribution deal has created some backlash for both Apple and U2. For instance, music blogger Bob Lefsetz wondered why U2 would choose iTunes as its distribution platform, when more popular (e.g., YouTube) and hip (e.g., Spotify) distribution platforms are available. “They’d have been better off releasing it on YouTube, that’s where the digital generation goes for music,” he wrote. “iTunes is a backwater. It may be the number one sales outlet, but it’s not the number one music platform, not even close.” Plus, the approach of a forced distribution of content on to 500 million iTunes accounts is being viewed by many as obtrusive.


Photo credit: Peter Neill

On the other hand, what is a rock group supposed to do in order to make money off its music in the digital age? Album sales have reached an all-time low. Getting noticed for your art is harder than ever at a time when music is just background noise for our digital games, advertisements, and movies. Musicians are not making money off streaming services, and YouTube is hardly a sure bet to monetize music. No wonder Kiss frontman Gene Simmons recently declared that “rock is finally dead.”

Yes, dropping content into our iTunes account without our permission is a controversial move. But the approach is fresh and new, and the old ways are not working anymore in the music industry. The relationship with Apple has given U2 two precious assets: money and attention. By participating in the most important and high-profile day in Tim Cook’s history as Apple’s CEO, U2 has turned an album launch into a global event. Tell me: who else can do that? The $100 million marketing campaign will keep the album in the public eye in the run-up to Universal’s official release of Songs of Innocence October 13 — and, more importantly, will serve as advance notice for the inevitable tour.

And you can be sure a tour is coming. Because that’s why albums still matter: as a launching pad for other revenue streams, such as tours and merchandising deals. U2’s last tour raked in $736 million from 2009-2011. U2 just primed the pump for what comes next.

Update, 22 September 2014: since I wrote this post, the backlash against Apple and U2 that I mentioned has intensified, obviously. As Adweek reported, social media sentiment dropped for U2 by 41 percent in the wake of the deal. My take: years from now, the U2/Apple (and similar Jay Z/Samsung album drop from 2013) will be viewed as flawed but necessary experiments in monetizing music, and others will improve upon those approaches.

How an Album Cover Helped Unleash an Outlaw

September 8th, 2014 by ddeal

nelson-willie-611-lDuring the golden age of album-oriented rock, when a Led Zeppelin double album could sell a million copies before its ship date, country music was for rednecks who wore manure-crusted boots to bed — or at least, that’s what the recording industry believed. But in 1975, Willie Nelson released an album that helped make country — and outlaw country at that — a national phenomenon. His masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger, tells a striking story of loss, sorrow, and redemption that resonated with the record-buying public. Not only is the music memorable, but the album cover art told a visual story long before anyone had ever heard of visual storytelling — which is why I have featured Red Headed Stranger in my series of posts on memorable album covers.

After years of making other singers famous with his songwriting skills, Willie Nelson was starting to enjoy success as a solo artist when he recorded Red Headed Stranger. Based on the 1953 song “Red Headed Stranger” (written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz), the album tells the story of a preacher on the run after he kills his unfaithful wife and her lover. The songs, a combination of covers and originals, are violent, beautiful, reflective, and romantic, as they relate different episodes in the preacher’s life as an outlaw. The album applied to country all the devices of album-oriented rock, which was at its apex: a cohesive theme, songs arranged in a thoughtful manner, and album art that complemented the music inside.


Photo credit: Philip Gould

Designed by Monica White (with art direction by Howard Fritzson), the album cover art not only molded Nelson in the image of an outlaw but also contributed to the rise of the entire country outlaw movement, which catapulted the careers of Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. For starters, there is the front cover, which consists of a drawn portrait of Nelson. With his piercing eyes, pitiless gaze, long hair, grizzled beard, and cowboy hat, he looks like a Wild West gunfighter who knows how to deal out rough justice. His name and the album title are rendered in an old-time script over a thick red border, as if branded on a fence post.

On the back cover, pencil drawings guide the reader through the album’s songs, akin to a graphic novel. The outlaw’s life is laid bare. One panel depicts a scene from the song “Red Headed Stranger,” in which the preacher shoots his wife and her lover in a bar. The drawing captures the moment when the lover tastes one of the preacher’s bullets. His head jerks back, his hat goes flying, and his hand remains closed on a glass of whiskey even as the drink spills. The preacher’s wife is slumped on the table, her head down. (Apparently, she was the first to go.)


In another panel drawing, the preacher accosts a would-be horse thief: he leans back and casually plants a bullet in the chest of the thief, a woman with blonde locks and a pink dress. But the back cover also contains a larger story arc, depicting the preacher dancing with a newfound love in one scene and relaxing at a riverbank in another. The episodes on the back of the album also contain song lyrics that go along with each scene — a clever approach that tells a story and advertises the songs.

The front and back cover made a statement: Red Headed Stranger was not a typical contemporary country album but rather a journey to another time and place. And the album itself fulfilled the promise. Featuring little more than Nelson’s plaintive voice, a guitar, a mandolin, drums, and a harmonica, the music was a radical departure from the lush arrangements that typified country. The songs themselves consisted of a collection of originals and covers, such as “Red Headed Stranger,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Hands on a Wheel,” which spanned a gamut of themes such as loss, remorse, and redemption — everything the album cover advertised, and more. Once you heard those songs in one sitting, you understood the symbolism of Willie Nelson’s face on that album cover: Nelson wasn’t just channeling the Wild West; he had become the red headed stranger of his own songs, a moniker and mythology he would own for the rest of his career.

The album reached Number One on the Billboard country charts, and eventually achieved multiplatinum sales. Nelson’s cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” became Nelson’s first Number One hit. The album also earned critical praise. According to Mother Jones, “Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist.”

And therein lies the appeal of Red Headed Stranger: the songs sounded country enough to please traditional country fans, but Nelson’s singing style and the themes he chose to dwell upon hit a universal chord. The album also made the record industry realize that yes, country artists could unleash massively popular best sellers just as rock stars could. Country enjoyed a commercial breakthrough, with albums such as Wanted! The Outlaws and Waylon & Willie enjoying massive success. For the rest of the 1970s, Nelson would ride a wave of popularity as the de facto leader of country’s outlaw movement until he became a more mainstream pop singer (albeit with country roots). Meanwhile, Red Headed Stranger would go on to be positioned among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone (the album was ranked 184) and Number One in Country Music Television’s 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In the August 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone, Associate Editor Patrick Doyle, profiling Nelson, would note that the Red Headed Stranger album cover, combined with the music, made it feel like “Nelson was stepping into the boots of a John Ford character.”

Today visual storytelling is so important to image building that entire books are written on the topic. (The Power of Visual Storytelling, by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio, is the visual storytelling Bible for brands.) Nearly 40 years ago, Red Headed Stranger set a high standard for visual storytelling — and changed an industry.

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Also related:

From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories

Can Wu-Tang Clan Save the Record Album with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”?