Memorable Album Covers of 2017

Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.

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How Apple Got Its Groove Back

Three years ago, Apple looked like a music dinosaur. The company was reeling from the embarrassment of foisting upon iTunes customers digital copies of U2’s Songs of Innocence – an incident that laid bare Apple’s reliance on downloading at a time when the music industry was marching inexorably toward streaming. But Apple has regained its groove, and the purchase of irresistibly fun and popular music discovery app Shazam is but one indication.

After licking its wounds in the aftermath of the U2 debacle, Apple focused its considerable resources on launching a streaming service, Apple Music, in 2015 — and then proceeded to show how quickly one of the world’s most powerful brands can right the ship.

Apple Music now boasts 30 million paid subscribers. Although its biggest rival Spotify has double that amount, Apple has eclipsed nearly everyone else in the streaming industry within 24 months, making it and Amazon the only alternatives to Spotify to lead the streaming music business. Just as remarkably, Apple had developed its own brand of cool by building a well-regarded catalog and affiliating itself with the right artists through endeavors such as Beats 1 radio.

A Deep, Well-Curated Catalog

Apple Music’s mix of algorithms and human curation appears to be working. The company put the right talent in place to curate its catalog, starting with Scott Plagenhoef, Apple’s global head of programming and editorial. Formerly editor of the oh-so-hip Pitchfork, he joined Beats Music in 2012, and then joined Apple in 2014 when the Apple bought Beats. And although Apple Music’s playlists haven’t gained as much acclaim as Spotify’s vaunted artificial intelligence-based curation, Apple is earning respect. Recently Apple Music scored a major coup when hip-hop tastemaker Andrew Barber agreed to curate Apple Music’s New Chicago playlist, which provides exposure for up-and-coming Chicago talent as Barber’s Fake Shore Drive blog has done for years.

Artist Affiliation

No longer is Apple the brand that forced uncool U2 down our throats. Apple Music is now where you go to stream radio shows hosted by the likes of Charli XCX, Drake, Frank Ocean, Continue reading

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Three Predictions for Virtual Reality in 2018

In the United States, only 9.6 million people use virtual reality (VR) at least once a month, and by 2019, VR will penetrate 5.2 percent of the population, according to eMarketer. And yet, the VR industry has already become a complex ecosystem. As the VR Fund’s VR Industry Landscape illustrates, the ecosystem encompasses a multitude of companies spanning applications/content, tools/platforms, and infrastructure:

When I recently did a Google search for VR, my top 20 search results revealed diverse uses of VR spanning architecture, entertainment, healthcare, pornography, retail, sports, and travel/hospitality. Why has VR spawned such a complex ecosystem touching many industries when so few consumers actually use it? A few reasons stand out:

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In Search of a New Rock Star

The moment was freighted with poetic symmetry: I was on my sofa reading Joe Hagan’s newly published Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine when I noticed our postal carrier dropping off the latest issue of Rolling Stone. The cover of Hagan’s book features Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner standing in front of a gallery of rock legends such as Mick Jagger. The latest issue of Rolling Stone features Elon Musk on the cover.

Welcome to the new generation of rock stars. The giants of Wenner’s generation wanted to change the world with music. Today’s rock stars want to use technology to re-imagine how we live.

The contrast between the old and new felt stark as I read the first third of Sticky Fingers, when Wenner launches a magazine in 1967 as rock gods walk the earth. The first issue of Rolling Stone featured John Lennon. Think about that for a moment. You launch a new magazine with zero promise of ever succeeding and no credibility. And coming right out of the gate you land one of rock’s most influential artists ever. John freaking Lennon.

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Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg Want to Change How We Live

Recently Amazon and Facebook announced new products that will extend their reach into the corporate world:

  • Amazon’s Alexa for Business, unveiled November 30, is a platform for a business’s employees to use the Amazon Alexa voice assistant (in Amazon Echo speakers) to manage everyday tasks such as scheduling conference calls and managing calendars. Amazon believes that with Echo smart speakers embedded in corporate conference rooms and offices to manage the mundane things, people will be freed up to focus on more productive work.

  • Facebook’s Oculus for Business, announced October 11, is a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses apply virtual reality (VR) to do everything from train employees to design cars. In fact, although VR has experienced slow adoption among consumers, the corporate world is a different story, where VR is penetrating industries including entertainment, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail. Facebook believes that by making it easy to purchase hardware, accessories, and associated services needed to employ VR in the workforce, more companies will adopt Oculus over competing products.

These announcements are more than landmark moments for Amazon and Facebook. Alexa for Business and Oculus for Business are also manifestations of something else: the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg to be market makers with artificial intelligence-based voice assistants and virtual reality.

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How a Healthcare Crisis May Fuel Virtual Reality Adoption

Sometimes a crisis can fuel innovation. With an opioid problem gripping the United States, medical providers are looking for ways to treat patients’ pain without resorting to addictive drugs. Those potential solutions include the use of virtual reality (VR) at institutions such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center.

VR’s usage to treat pain is limited. But a heightened awareness of widespread opioid addiction, the efforts of progressive healthcare providers and technologists, and insurers’ mounting costs to pay for opioid addiction may spur an uptake of virtual reality for medical treatment. The cooperation of an ecosystem spanning businesses and the government will be required for VR to break through for chronic pain treatment.

VR Takes Hold

To casual observers, VR is an immersive experience for playing games and watching movies. In fact, companies use VR for non-entertainment functions such selling cosmetics, training workers to assemble machinery parts, and designing automobiles. In fact, medical providers have been using VR to treat pain for a few decades by tapping into VR’s ability to entertain by transporting users to a different world.

The University of Washington Harborview Burn Center created the first virtual world designed expressly to reduce pain. Known as SnowWorld, the experience distracts patients from intense pain typically experienced during procedures such as burn wound-care sessions. While patients endure a painful treatment, they use a virtual reality headset to enter another world where they can fly through a make-believe canyon and throw snowballs at snowmen and penguins. SnowWorld is the result of research into VR as a pain treatment tool going back to the 1990s at Harborview.

Patients using SnowWorld report experiencing 50 percent less pain than patients using other means to distract themselves (e.g., music). Why? Because virtual reality rewires the Continue reading

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Musical.ly: A Proving Ground for Digital Natives

On November 9, app Musical.ly made headlines when it was reported that Chinese media startup Jinri Toutiao was buying Musical.ly for between $800 million and $1 billion. The reported sale price was especially impressive since Musical.ly (based in Shanghai) was founded only three years ago. The news was also notable for many other reasons, among them:

  • Musical.ly is probably the first Chinese-created social app to penetrate the United States and has managed to operate independently of the Four Horsemen (Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook).
  • Musical.ly has demonstrated how to capture and engage the attention of Gen Z, the cohort of digital natives that is growing up mobile and app savvy.
  • The app has become a multimillion dollar powerhouse even though many casual observers have absolutely no idea what anyone really does on Musical.ly.

Musical.ly has often been described as a “lip-syncing app,” and indeed, the app permits its reported 60 million users to record elaborately staged lip syncs. But Musical.ly is a lot more than that. With its attendant app, Live.ly, Musers can broadcast livestreams of themselves hosting amateur shows where they engage with other Musers for hours at a stretch. Musical.ly is really a proving ground for digital natives to learn how to become self-made brands. The livestreams and lip syncs create ways for teens to figure out the art of engagement.

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Will Apple Take Augmented Reality Mainstream?

Apple critics have been quiet lately.

The company is worth more than $900 billion after beating Wall Street’s expectations in its November 2 earnings report. The iPhone 8 is selling better than expected. Consumers are lining up to buy its most expensive iPhone ever, the X. And the iPad just might be making a comeback.

Tim Cook is talking like a visionary, positioning himself and Apple on the cusp of changes in technology and human experience. For instance, Cook recently declared on an Apple earnings call that augmented reality is “mainstream” and that “Apple is the only company” that could have made augmented reality mainstream.

His comments evoke Mark Zuckerberg’s bold announcement that Facebook intends to get one billion people to use virtual reality. And, like Zuckerberg, Cook is being ambitious, considering that only 12 percent of the U.S. population is expected to use AR at least once a month in 2017. But there is reason for AR backers to be optimistic: usage of AR is growing by 30 percent over 2016 according to eMarketer.

Apple’s strategy to accelerate the uptake of augmented reality is to provide a development platform for the creation of AR content and to  rely on popular Apple devices as Trojan Horses to deliver that content to consumers.

But to realize the potential of augmented reality for widespread consumer and corporate use, Apple might need to do more — such as the creation of an augmented reality headset.

Augmented Reality Breaking Through

Augmented reality refers to an experience that alters our perception of reality by overlaying computer-generated content on to a physical space. Augmented reality is being used in businesses ranging from hospitals to amusement parks to train and entertain by enhancing our worlds with digital content such as holograms and 3D objects with which we can interact. In the automotive industry, augmented reality might enhance driving by overlaying content such as signage on a driver’s windshield, reducing the need for the driver to strain to read street signs while navigating. For AR to break through to more mainstream consumer use, the experience needs:

  • Great content.
  • A ubiquitous, user-friendly delivery mechanism.

Apple provides the latter through the manufacture of its devices and is enabling content creation by providing the necessary tools and media platform.

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Topps Creates Baseball Memories on Demand

The clock is ticking.

As I write this post, Topps trading card company is offering a special baseball card that commemorates Los Angeles Dodger Outfielder Joc Pederson’s 7th-inning home run that helped the Dodgers beat the Houston Astros 3-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. The game ended about 16 hours ago. And the card is available for only 24 hours.

Welcome to the world of Topps NOW, in which baseball cards are printed and sold on demand.

For baseball fans, the 2017 World Series has been especially memorable, featuring close games, clutch hits, big strikeouts, and defensive gems. As the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers prepare for a winner-take-all Game 7 November 1, Topps has been capturing those moments in a brilliant way.

Through a limited-edition product known as Topps NOW, Topps has created slick, well-designed cards that commemorate key moments during the first six games, such as Dodger pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s sparking performance that shut down the Astros in Game 1, or the walk-off single by Astros infielder Alex Bregman that beat the Dodgers in Game 5.

Hours after each game concludes, Topps takes orders for the cards during a 24-hour window. After 24 hours, you cannot buy the cards from Topps.

Topps launched  Topps NOW in 2016 as a way of shaking up the model for selling collectible cards. Normally, Topps, like other trading card companies, sells licensed Major League Baseball cards months after a season has ended. So, for example, complete sets and packs of cards commemorating the 2017 season won’t be available until the spring of 2018. Selling cards select cards on demand injects immediacy and excitement into the purchase.

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Southwest Airlines Wants to Be A Music Tastemaker

Southwest Airlines is known for trying to inject fun into air travel, such as employees at an airport gate creating a spontaneous karaoke moment or a flight attendant turning a routine safety speech into stand-up comedy. The $20 billion company embraces an undeniable quirkiness, which is saying something for an airline. So it makes sense for Southwest to rely on the power of music to build its brand, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Since 2011, Southwest has featured surprise pop-up music performances on flights through a series known as Live at 35. The Live at 35 concerts give emerging artists such as Valerie June and Gavin DeGraw a chance to literally sing and strum their guitars in the aisles for whoever happens to be on a flight.

Live at 35 (#Liveat35) is part of a broader artist discovery program that includes efforts such as sponsorship of more conventional concerts in places such as Bryant Park in New York; and a website, southwest.fm, dedicated to sharing music content.

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