How the Intersect Music Festival Demonstrates the Risks of the Band/Brand Relationship

Many brands try to create enduring emotional ties with people by being culturally relevant. Cultural relevance is about connecting with an audience through their beliefs, interests, and behaviors. Forming marketing relatinships with musicians is a way for businesses to achieve cultural relevance. The deal works like this: the brand uses its muscle to give the musician exposure; and the musician lend a cool factor to the brand with a desired audience, such as Millennials and Gen Z. Hence, YouTube affiliates itself with the Coachella Music Festival, and Red Bull embraces music through content such as the Red Bull Music Festival, to name a few examples (of which there are legion). But cultural relevance is a two-edged sword, as the Amazon Web Service (AWS) Intersect music festival illustrates.

What Is Intersect?

Intersect — officially Intersect by AWS — will be held December 6–7 in Las Vegas. Yes, that’s right. AWSone of the world’s largest the largest cloud hosting providers, is putting on a music event. Here’s how the Intersect website describes it:

At the place where music, technology, and art converge, you’ll find Intersect, a new kind of festival coming to the Las Vegas Strip this December 6–7. Presented by AWS, the most broadly adopted cloud platform, and produced by Production Club, the team behind some of music’s most state-of-the-art live experiences, Intersect was born out of the massive after party for AWS’s annual re:Invent conference, held in Vegas since 2012, with over 25,000 guests last year alone. Now open to the public for the first time ever, the festival offers an inspiring two-day journey to culture and tech’s leading edge.

And the line-up sure looks compelling, with right kind of mix of headliners (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Kacey Musgraves) emerging, critically acclaimed voices such as Weyes Blood.

But there’s just one problem: many musicians are speaking out against the festival.

How No Music for ICE Crashed the Intersect Party

The launch of Intersect has galvanized more than 1,000 artists and industry types (as of this writing) to sign a petition pledging not to participate in Amazon-sponsored events. The boycott is known as No Music for ICE. What’s their beef with Amazon and AWS? Well, it turns out that the mighty AWS cloud hosts the software for Palantir, a data company holding $150 million in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). AWS also works with the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s what the petition says:

We pledge to not participate in Amazon-sponsored events, or engage in exclusive partnerships with Amazon in the future, until Amazon publicly commits to:

* Terminate existing contracts with military, law enforcement, and government agencies (ICE, CBP, ORR) that commit human rights abuses

* Stop providing Cloud services & tools to organizations (such as Palantir) that power the US government’s deportation machine

* End projects that encourage racial profiling and discrimination, such as Amazon’s facial recognition product

* Reject future engagements w/ aforementioned bad actors.

We will not allow Amazon to exploit our creativity to promote its brand while it enables attacks on immigrants, communities of color, workers, and local economies. We call on all artists who believe in basic rights and human dignity to join us.

In addition, two musicians originally scheduled to appear at Intersect, The Black Madonna and Japanese Breakfast, claimed they were not told of AWS’s affiliation with event. The Black Madonna raised such as stink on Twitter that she was released from her contract to perform. Her name no longer appears on the event’s website.

How No Music for ICE Reflects Changing Times

No Music for ICE illustrates the impact of changing times. In context of the fractured political climate and culture wars that grip the United States today, many musicians have embraced a social and political voice (a topic I blogged about here.) Their values reflect the surging Millennial and Gen Z populations, who are more likely to hold businesses accountable for their impact on society. In that context, AWS finds itself thrust into a conversation that the company most certainly does not want to be part of.

The Intersect boycott is especially significant because we’re talking about indie artists who could use the exposure, as opposed to a politically active musician such as Roger Waters, who can afford to pick and choose his venues. Fortunately for AWS, the headliners such as Kacey Musgrave have stayed out of the controversy. There is plenty of time for the issue to blow over (although there is also plenty of time for the protest to gain steam). AWS’s best bet is to keep the PR around the event focused on the big names and the up-and-coming acts on the bill who are committed to the event. Tell a narrative that focuses on their music.

The Lesson for Brands

The lesson for brands: tread very carefully when you make a play for cultural relevance through a relationship with an artist. You might get what you asked for, but not in the way you envisioned. Find artists who align with your brand (and, to be fair to AWS, it looks like the company has succeeded with the exception of Black Madonna and possibly Japanese Breakfast). And accept the baggage that comes with today’s climate of political and social consciousness in music.

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The Myth of Fat Elvis

History has been cruel to Elvis Presley. Last impressions are usually the enduring ones, and our last impression of Elvis is the “Fat Elvis” of the 1970s: a sweaty, blubbery shell of his former self, spaced out on drugs in his gaudy Elvis suit as he butchers his song catalog on a Las Vegas stage. This impression is accurate for the latter years of his life, but it is not a complete one.

The Elvis of the 1970s — especially the early 1970s — was an innovator onstage. Invigorated by his stunning 1968 TV special, Elvis had returned to live performing after a lengthy layoff while he churned out horrible movies for most of the 1960s. He was hungry. He wanted to feel the heat and thrill of connecting with an audience in person. In Las Vegas, he found what he was looking for. But Elvis didn’t just play Las Vegas. He changed Las Vegas.

By the time Elvis came along, Las Vegas was struggling for relevance with younger audiences. The city too square for contemporary rock stars. And being too square for rock and roll was a big problem in the post-Beatles era. Sure, Las Vegas would always attract hard-core gamblers. But the old-guard stars such as Frank Sinatra, who provided essential entertainment for the gamblers, were fading.

And then Elvis hit town. Talk about right place and right time. Elvis rescued Las Vegas as a vacation destination and an epicenter for entertainment. He didn’t just parachute out of the sky and play songs like a country rube that many people thought he was, either. He hand-picked his band down to his back-up singers (including Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother). Elvis being Elvis, he also imported an orchestra to fill out the large stage he was about to call his home for two performances for weeks at a stretch at the International Hotel (which would become the Las Vegas Hilton). He told them what sound he wanted, arranged the show the way he wanted it, and rehearsed the band until they sounded as electric as he felt. As he rehearsed, he wore weights around his ankles and wrists to build his stamina.

Elvis also did his homework. So studied Tom Jones — by now a dynamic star of the Strip — and learned some tricks for winning over Las Vegas, such as using his body like a weapon. In the 1950s, Elvis had taught the world the power of swiveling your hips onstage, but it was a long way from the Louisiana Hayride to Las Vegas, a stage where he’d actually flopped when he played the New Frontier Hotel in 1956. He’d never performed night after night on a stage as large as the one he was going to play at the International.

He didn’t want to take his audience down memory lane, either. Now in his 30s, he was getting on in years by rock standards of the time. His musical instincts told him he’d need to play contemporary songs to be relevant — but they needed to sound like Elvis songs. He wasn’t going to make a fool of himself as Frank Sinatra had done in the late 1960s, trying to adapt his voice to rock songs that made him sound even more out of touch and a bit desperate. He wisely chose fresh songs that sounded timeless, such as the swamp funk of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Proud Mary,” as well as songs he’d just recorded in Memphis, such as “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto” (which would, of course, become hits).

In August 1969, he went onstage and completely changed everything — maybe not on the scale he once did in the 1950s, but in a big enough way to shape the future of a city. No one had brought a rock-and-roll show to Las Vegas like he did. And the critics loved what they saw and heard.

Richard Goldstein, writing in The New York Times, said that seeing Elvis “felt like getting hit in the face with a bucket of melted ice. He looked so timeless up there, so constant.” Ellen Willis wrote in the New Yorker, “Presley came on and immediately shook up all my expectations and preconceived categories. Their reactions were typical. Elvis was a smash.

Elvis stuck around for many years, and into the early 1970s, he refined his act, incorporating more stage moves (such as karate chops) and songs. But he didn’t just play Las Vegas. He transcended it. Frank Sinatra had been a legend in Las Vegas, but he was for the gamblers. Elvis was so big he attracted people who came to see him first and foremost. The entertainment industry noticed: instead of touring, a star could stay put in one location and perform for fans who came to the star. And so the modern-day residency was born. Over the years, artists such as Elton John and Lady Gaga would make fortunes off residencies. Elvis paved the way for them. He also arguably opened the door for hugely popular shows such as the Cirque du Soleil “Love” tribute to the Beatles, which would become attractions in and of themselves instead of a second-tier alternative to gambling.

As Richard Zoglin, author of Elvis in Vegaswrote in The New York Times, “Elvis brought something new to Las Vegas: not an intimate, Rat Pack-style nightclub show, but a big rock-concert extravaganza. He showed that rock ’n’ roll (and country and R&B too) could work on the big Vegas stage. And he brought in a new kind of audience: not the Vegas regulars and high rollers, but a broader, more middle-American crowd: female fans who had screamed for Elvis as teenagers, families who made Elvis the centerpiece of their summer vacation.”

You can get a taste of Elvis at his early 1970s peak by watching a video clip of “Polk Salad Annie.” Before he even sings a note, he’s in total command of the stage. First off, he looks like he owns the room: lean, tan, and confident, his trim frame almost a little too slender for the tasseled white suit he wears. He smiles and introduces the southern-fried tune with a short introduction that transports you to the country fields of the Deep South. And then he launches into the song, not only with his smoldering voice but with his lithesome body. He gyrates, shakes his legs, punches the air, and moves his shoulders like a singing gyroscope. Watch him closely, especially his right arm. He’s doing more than dancing and crouching: he’s using his body to control the tempo of his backing band. He’s running that show with his voice and his body.

Throughout the 1970s, he also recorded compelling music — the great Back in Memphis in 1970, the excellent Elvis Country in 1971, and the very good Promised Land and Good Times a few years later. Even a decent-but-not great effort like Moody Blue, released the year he died, contained moments of brilliance. Fortunately, some of his live performances from this time period were recorded, too, including Elvis in Person at the International HotelOn Stage, and That’s the Way It Is.

Unfortunately, the magic wouldn’t last. The pressure of performing twice-nightly shows for weeks got to him. He took pills to stay awake and get to sleep. He ate. His shows became sloppy. And you know the rest of the story. But he never lost his voice. Regardless of how out of shape he became, his voice retained that power. And the power of that voice endures for me.

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How the University of Kansas Made Snoop Dogg Dangerous

God bless Snoop Dogg for proving that music still has the power to provoke.

On October 4, the famous hip-hop artist lit up the University of Kansas Allen Fieldhouse basketball court by performing some of his profanity-laden hits, while dancers gyrated on makeshift stripper poles. He also peppered a lively audience with fake $100 dollar bills (featuring his likeness, natch) shot from a money gun.

Snoop’s appearance was part of the KU athletic department’s “Late Night in the Phog,” an annual preseason celebration that happens along with scrimmages by the men’s and women’s basketball teams. And no one does late night like Snoop Dogg. Not surprisingly, the moment went viral:

But not everyone appreciated what went down. After Snoop’s performance, KU’s Athletic Director Jeff Long — apparently the only person in the United States who failed to grasp what Snoop Dogg is all about — issued a statement of apology:

We made it clear to the entertainers’ managers that we expected a clean version of the show and took additional steps to communicate to our fans, including moving the artist to the final act of the evening, to ensure that no basketball activities would be missed if anyone did not want to stay for his show. I take full responsibility for not thoroughly vetting all the details of the performance and offer my personal apology to those who were offended. We strive to create a family atmosphere at Kansas and fell short of that this evening.

KU Men’s Basketball Coach Bill Self fielded questions about Snoop, in addition to the usual questions about basketball, although he took the questions in stride:

Few reporters really wanted to talk about the basketball team. They wanted to talk about Snoop. And who could blame them?

Apparently the students loved it. “I thought it was super cool that we even had him here,” KU Student Geneis Garcia told WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “You know who Snoop Dogg is. You know he’s a rapper and comes from a background. Don’t bring your kids to his events.”

Exactly. Just what was KU thinking if they wanted a family atmosphere?

Now, by contemporary standards, the Doggfather’s performance was actually tame. The songs he performed, such as 1993’s “Gin and Juice,” cover familiar ground of drinking, smoking reefer, and sex — pretty standard themes for hip-hop. You can find mainstream movie stars such as Jennifer Lopez gyrating on stripper poles in one of America’s most popular movies right now, Hustlers. Snoop Dogg himself is so mainstream that he co-brands with Martha Stewart.

But cultural context makes an artist dangerous. Snoop Dogg performing “Gin and Juice” at the Las Vegas House of Blues is not news. But University of Kansas is another matter. KU wants to maintain an image as a sparkling institute of higher learning and noble athletic endeavors. But it’s been hard for KU to do that lately. On September 23, the NCAA charged KU with a lack of institutional control in its sports program, including responsibility violations by Coach Self. The charges do not specify what KU did wrong. But it’s public knowledge that KU men’s basketball has been associated with an FBI probe of illegal payments made by an Adidas consultant. And guess what? Adidas brought Snoop Dogg to Late Night in the Phog — in fact, Bill Self had promoted the concert ahead of time, wearing gold chains and an Adidas T shirt.

Snoop Dogg gave KU what they asked for. But somehow KU didn’t quite see the connection between Bill Self wearing gold chains and then Snoop Dogg making it rain with fake $100 bills. KU pushed boundaries, realized it had gone too far, and backpedaled.

Snoop Dogg was doing what he’s always done. He was true to his brand. He’s always been about weed, sex, and partying. He only became dangerous when KU responded with an uptight and clueless apology. This is how art become a threat: when institutions of authority make the artist dangerous. Perhaps KU would have been better to let the matter drop. Instead, they’ve tried to demonize Snoop Dogg and in doing so, have made him a hero, while exposing the university’s own hypocrisy.

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Hold on to Your Butts: Why Samuel L. Jackson and Alexa Broke the Internet

Why are we so excited about Samuel L. Jackson’s voice coming to Alexa? 

On September 26, Amazon announced that Jackson will be the first celebrity to lend his voice to the Alexa voice assistant. Later in 2020, if you use Alexa, you’ll be able to add a Samuel L. Jackson skill, meaning that you can ask Alexa to perform a number of tasks in the voice of the beloved actor. He’ll do everything from tell jokes to sing happy birthday. And yes, the skill comes with both a G-rated and a profane version, in case you’d like Alexa to unleash full-bore Big Kahuna-munching Jules Winnfield on your living room through your Amazon Echo speaker.  

You can’t make Alexa talk like Jackson all the time – the skill is limited to whatever it’s been programmed to do. The skill employs neural text-to-speech technology (TTS), which translates written text to spoken word with a tone and voice to reflect a personality. Businesses are exploring TTS to inject personality into voice-based interfaces such as bots and content that requires voice-over narration. 

The Internet Rejoices

Even though the Jackson skill sounds basic, just the notion of having Samuel L. Jackson dropping F bombs as he delivers the weather report sent the internet into a tizzy of joyful celebration. Social media celebrated a life in which Alexa would sound like the man who told us to hold on to our butts in Jurassic Park and pondered the path of the righteous man in Pulp Fiction:

And journalists did, too:


But why did the news trigger such an outpouring of excitement about an Alexa skill that performs rudimentary tasks? 

Voice Assistants Catch On

Well, for one thing, voice assistants are rapidly catching on. An estimated 40 million Americans, or 12 percent of the population, own an Echo, versus 30 percent who own iPhones – not bad penetration for a product that was released (in limited distribution) only five years ago. All told, about a third of Americans say they use voice assistants regularly in some form. 

Moreover, the Amazon Echo — and the Alexa voice assistant that powers it — most certainly enjoys strong name awareness due to Amazon’s marketing muscle. Amazon announcing a new Alexa skill featuring the voice of Samuel L. Jackson is going to generate buzz, more so than if, say, Microsoft did the same for Cortana. Super Bowl commercials are now featuring Alexa, as a sign of how how familiar we are with Alexa.

A Need for the Familiar

But I believe the enthusiastic response points to something deeper: a need for the familiar. Voice-based technology is coming on strong, as the big tech companies–Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft–race each other to lead a voice-first future. The makers of voice-based apps are betting that the general population is ready to transition from text-based search to using our voices to get what we need, whether we’re searching for a nearby restaurant or finding out the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So they’re barraging us with a slew of products for the home and on the go.  

But the hype around voice can be disquieting. We’re still getting used to the idea of a machine listening to us and talking to us in the most intimate places in our lives, including our bedrooms. There is a fear that these AI-fueled devices will insinuate themselves into our lives in the creepiest way possible. As The Atlantic’s Judith Shulevitz discussed in the November 2018 article “Is Alexa Dangerous?”:

For the moment, these machines remain at the dawn of their potential, as likely to botch your request as they are to fulfill it. But as smart-speaker sales soar, computing power is also expanding exponentially. Within our lifetimes, these devices will likely become much more adroit conversationalists. By the time they do, they will have fully insinuated themselves into our lives. With their perfect cloud-based memories, they will be omniscient; with their occupation of our most intimate spaces, they’ll be omnipresent. And with their eerie ability to elicit confessions, they could acquire a remarkable power over our emotional lives. What will that be like?

Recent news reports about voice devices recording what we’re doing – and employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft listening in on our private conversation – have ratcheted up the discomfort to a general alarm. Now we have to worry about machines and people eavesdopping on us?

In response to the backlash, tech companies explained that they monitored select voice samples to do quality control and to teach the machines to get smarter; they also rapidly discontinued the practice. In addition, Amazon recently announced new features to give people more control over their privacy when they use Alexa

Nick Fury to the Rescue

In this context of unease, along comes Samuel L. Jackson lending his voice to Alexa. He has starred in more than 130 movies, including blockbusters such as The Avengers and cultural touchstones such as Pulp Fiction.

And we’ve heard his voice in animated entertainment such as The Incredibles and Grand Theft Auto. It’s a stretch to say that he’s warm and cuddly. But he is familiar and, well, just about everyone’s personification of cool. As with Morgan Freeman, part of his allure is his voice – in Jackson’s case, confident, reassuring, in control, but righteously emotional when the situation calls for a display of passion.

When the chips are down, you want the Nick Fury who Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in The Avengers on your side. And we want him on our side when we venture into a voice-first future.

What Happens Next

Amazon was careful to point out that Jackson is the first, not the only, celebrity, to lend his voice to Alexa. In fact, technically he’s not even the first. In a popular 2018 Super Bowl ad, Alexa assumed the voices of celebrities such as Cardi B and Anthony Hopkins.  You know where this is headed, right? It’s only a matter of time before Alexa will assume the form of A listers with familiar voices such as Benedict Cumberbatch (for when we need British cool) and Scarlett Johansson (who famously played the voice of an AI voice assistant that forms a relationship with a human in the movie Her).  

Meanwhile, Amazon may gain something important from a relationship with Samuel L. Jackson: cultural relevance. Through a relationship with Jackson, Amazon hopes to make its brand more relevant to the beliefs, attitudes, and interests that bind us as a culture. Through his popular persona, Samuel L. Jackson is part of our cultural fabric. Amazon is a popular utility on which we buy things; it helps us live our lives. But we don’t feel an emotional bond with a utility. Amazon wants to give its brand a face – and a voice – to start forging one. 

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“Absolutely Live”: A Portrait of Jim Morrison’s Creative Rebirth

Absolutely Live is the only official live album the Doors released in Jim Morrison’s lifetime. It’s also a misunderstood album. Rock historians remember Absolutely Live, released in 1970, as a document of an artist in decline. In fact, Absolutely Live captures a time when Jim Morrison was finding a new muse through avant garde theater.

“I’ll Be Good for Nothing but Nostalgia”

Understanding Absolutely Live means going back to early 1969, an unhappy time for the Doors. The band had released three albums in 18 months, had toured heavily, and was working on its fourth album, The Soft Parade – a punishing workload. The Soft Parade had turned into a beast to create, partly because Morrison was drinking heavily and becoming an unreliable, disruptive force in the studio. 

The pressure of being a rock star was getting to Jim Morrison. He was also struggling creatively. According to The Doors: The Illustrated History, in 1969 he told composer Fred Myrow, “If I don’t find a new way to develop creatively within a year I’ll be good for nothing but nostalgia.” He was writing fewer songs, and his band mates (especially guitarist Robby Krieger) needed to pick up the slack by contributing more to The Soft Parade.

In late February, something happened that had an impact on the band’s fortunes, although no one knew it at first:  Morrison discovered the Living Theatre, and in doing so, found a creative muse.

The Living Theatre

The Living Theatre was a theatrical troupe that broke down the fourth wall and confronted the audience. For instance, in the production Paradise Now, the actors provoked arguments and goaded the audience into participating in the show. The performers protested the inhibition of personal freedoms, including not being allowed to smoke pot or take off one’s clothing. The production culminated in everyone taking to the streets for a parade and demonstration. Open nudity was part of the show.

Morrison had always been fascinated with the visual theater of music – the ability to draw energy from the audience and throw it back in a whirlwind of song and dance. He watched multiple performances of the Living Theatre when the troupe performed in Los Angeles, according to Doors co-founder Ray Manzarek.  As discussed in The Doors: The Illustrated History, Morrison attended a showing of Paradise Now on February 28: “Jim was mesmerized, and he eagerly joined in when the audience was asked to participate; with his beard, most people didn’t realize it was Jim Morrison.”

The Doors were scheduled to perform a concert at the Dinner Key auditorium March 1, in Coconut Grove, Florida, an event that would go down in the annals of rock history as “the Doors Miami incident.” According to Manzarek, Morrison decided to do his own version of the Living Theatre there. 

The Miami Concert

On March 1, 1969, he took the ideas of provocation to an extreme at the now-infamous concert. He berated and taunted the audience. The song “Touch Me” (which he didn’t write) was by then a hit (the band’s last Number One single). Morrison was fully aware that to his fans he was still a sex symbol despite his declining physique. He mockingly exposed his body onstage – including his genitalia, or so the Dade County Sheriff’s Office would contend when charging him with lewd and lascivious behavior, indecent exposure, profanity, and drunkenness afterward. Here’s how Manzarek would describe that night to NPR in 1998:

We’re in Miami. It’s hot and sweaty as a Tennessee Williams night. It’s a swamp and it’s a yuck — a horrible kind of place, a seaplane hangar — and 14,000 people are packed in there, and they’re sweaty. And Jim has seen the Living Theater, and he’s going to do his version of the Living TheaterHe’s going to show these Florida people what psychedelic West Coast shamanism and confrontation is all about.

He takes his shirt off in the middle of the set. He says, ‘You people haven’t come to hear a rock and roll band play some pretty good songs. You came to see something, didn’t you? What do you want? . . . OK, how about if I show you my c—k . . . Isn’t that what you wanted to see?”

Eventually, Morrison challenged the audience to storm the stage. “No limits! No laws! Come on!” he shouted. “This is your show. Anything you want goes!” He urged everyone to take off their clothing. Fights broke out. The stage teetered on the edge of collapse. The house lights came on. Morrison joined the general chaos in the audience even though the rest of the band fled for their safety. He headed a human chain through the venue before leaving for his dressing room. 

“How Long Are You Going to Let Them Push You Around?”

Manzarek insisted that even though Morrison simulated the act of removing his clothing and exposing parts of his body, he never actually flashed his genitalia. The Dade County Sheriff’s Office disagreed. Within days, Morrison was charged with multiple crimes. An actual trial would not commence until August 1970. He would later be sentenced to six months in prison and fined $500. He would never serve the time. 

You can actually hear some audio of him that night. It makes for an ugly listen. At one point, he says,

You’re all a bunch of f—–g idiots! Letting people tell you what you’re going to do! Letting people push you around! How long do you think it’s going to last? How long are you going to let it go on? How long are you going to let them push you around? How long? Maybe you like it! Maybe you like being pushed around. Maybe you love it. Maybe you love getting your face stuck in the s—t. . . you love it don’t you? You’re all a bunch of slaves, letting everyone push you around. What are you going to do about it?

The ramblings of a drunk? Yes and no. Yes, he’s drunk. And yes, he rambles. But if you listen carefully to the audio, you hear the Doors trying to play the song “Five to One,” a 1968 Morrison composition that taunted flower children with lyrics such as:

You walk across the floor with a flower in your hand

Trying to tell me no one understands

Trade in your hours for a handful of dimes

Gonna make it baby, in our prime

Morrison was taking the ethos of the song to an extreme: question. Confront. Provoke. Now, think of the Miami incident in context of this clip from the Living Theatre:

It’s impossible not to notice the similarities, such as when one of the actors in the above clip yells, “America owns the world! We’re all enslaved!” Notice, too, nudity in the context of the performance. 

But the Living Theatre was avant garde. The Doors’ audience was not interested in avant guard. They wanted to hear “Touch Me.” Many venues canceled Doors concerts. But even still, the Doors played more than 40 dates between 1969 and the first half of 1970. Absolutely Live is stitched together from performances from that stretch of 1969 and 1970.

Absolutely Live

Although Morrison sparked no riots or arrests during those subsequent concerts, he had forever shed any semblance of being a rock star. He was now a theater performer who happened to sing as part of that performance. And when he was on, the entire band was smoking hot. In fact, at a May 1970 performance at Cobo Hall, the Doors played so hard that they didn’t end until well after curfew, which led them to being banned from Cobo Hall – ironically not for obscene behavior but for doing what they did best: play music. Absolutely Live is a snapshot of Morrison as he was morphing into the theatrical shaman who eclipsed Morrison the rock star.

When I listen to the album today, I am struck by how hoarse and nasal his voice sounds at times. But his delivery is hypnotic as he embraces different personae. He is a demonic pied piper on the opening song, “Who Do You Love,” his words bouncing along with John Densmore’s Bo Diddley beat. When he sings the Bo Diddley lyrics “Tombstone hand and a graveyard mine/Just 22 and I don’t mind dying,” he chillingly prophesizes his own death, which would happen only months after Absolutely Live was released.

On the introduction to “Break on Through,” he assumes the spirit of a fallen, wasted preacher. To the piercing sound of a gong, he works up the audience by shouting these words: 

When I was back there in seminary school

There was a person there

Who put forth the proposition

That you can petition the Lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

Petition the lord with prayer

You cannot petition the lord with prayer!

He pauses dramatically before shouting the final line, as the band launches into “Break on Through.” Of course, Doors fans know that the “When I was back there in seminary school” spoken verse actually comes from the song “The Soft Parade,” from The Soft Parade. But he applies it to great effect as a build-up to the explosive “Break on Through.” His delivery on Absolutely Live is electric. 

The difference between Morrison the singer in the studio and Morrison the shaman on stage becomes vivid when you listen to both versions of the spoken introduction side by side. Here’s the studio introduction. And here’s the live preamble. In the studio, he is reciting words to no one. He sounds resigned to sadness. Live, he feeds off the audience’s rapturous cheers to create a crackling energy.

On “When the Music’s Over,” he interrupts the song and berates the chatty audience. “Shut up!” he screams, in full Living Theatre mode. Then he gently shushes everyone before asking, “Is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?” Then he scolds the audience and pleads, “Give the singer some” . . . before launching into the climactic “We want the world and we want it now!” line. It’s as if he was making a statement recorded for his and future generations: if we want the world, then you need to stop your idle chatter and join me. (Imagine him saying that in 2019 to an audience of mobile phone waving millennials and Gen Zers.)

On the centerpiece of the album, “Celebration of the Lizard,” he transforms into a tormented poet, speaking of lions roaming the street, and a beast caged in the heart of the city. “Is everybody in?” he asks. And then, 

Wake up!

You can’t remember where it was

Had this dream stopped?

Is everybody in? Yes, we are, even from the comfort of our suburban homes decades later, as we listen to a shaman on vinyl.

Mr. Mojo Risin

Jim Morrison was in conflict with who he was and what he had become. But in the spirit of the Living Theatre, he did not hide his inner torment from anyone. He embraced theater as catharsis. In doing so, he rekindled his creativity. In the 24 months following the Miami incident, the Doors released two albums, Morrison Hotel, and L.A. Woman, which are widely regarded as classics.

Both contained songs featuring some of Morrison’s strongest writing – “Riders on the Storm,” “L.A. Woman,” “The Spy,” and “Peace Frog,” among them. (After the Miami concert, the Doors also released The Soft Parade, considered their weakest album, but as noted, most of it had been written and recorded before the concert took place.) Unfortunately, the winning streak of brilliant albums would come to an untimely end on July 3, 1971, when Jim Morrison died at age 27, a victim of his own hard living. He could channel his torment creatively, but he could not conquer his inner demons completely. In the act of trying, though, he left behind a compelling creative legacy. Absolutely Live is a powerful portrait of an artist rediscovering his muse through theater. 

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How to Fail Early and Often

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

If you want to learn something about dealing with failure, try to do some improvisational acting. Because when you act, you fail a lot. On stage. In front of everyone.

During summer weekends, I am part of the cast of the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor theater near Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Faire is a recreation of Bristol, England, in 1574. Faire guests pay $25.95 to immerse themselves in a world that recreates the sights, sounds, and smells of a Renaissance-era village. There are stage shows, shops, restaurants, and actors dressed up in period garb walking around to play with visitors.

I portray a character named Nicolas Wright, and my friend Kendall Monaghan plays Dandy Goodwell. We are two of the characters guests meet in the streets. In essence, the Bristol streets are our stage. Our job is to engage with people quickly and figure out how to uplift them through improvised talking and joking that usually lasts a few minutes per encounter.

Photo credit: Denise Beidler Bennorth

We do this kind of street improv all day, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. And we are good at it. We know how to read people and find a way to engage them with our improvised comedic bits. People are asking us all the time how we do it. Well, we’re good because we fail a lot and learn from failure.

Photo credit: John Karpinksy

When you meet and greet people all day in an outdoor theater, you’re going to mess up. You’re going to make a joke that falls flat. You might approach a Mom just when she’s distracted with a fussy child. Or maybe you’ll forget the name of someone you met 5 minutes ago. This is the nature of street improv.

One recent weekend, Kendall and I really screwed up. We wanted to stage a water balloon toss with some patrons on a particularly hot day. We thought the idea was brilliant. Who wouldn’t want to play catch with a water balloon and see it splash all over dusty streets?

We chose a heavily trafficked spot in the park and placed several water balloons on the ground. Then we called out to different patrons. Would they like to have a water balloon toss?

Guess what: no one cared. In clusters of two, three, and four, the patrons just kept walking past us like we didn’t exist. Every once in a while, we might convince someone to stop and play, but it was obvious they were bored out of their skulls. It didn’t help that the balloons never broke, and everyone’s aim sucked, leading to several moments where one of us needed to stop, scurry off, and retrieve a rolling water balloon.

We called an end to the toss after about 5 minutes, which seemed like five years. Here’s what we did next:

  • We went backstage and had a good laugh. Could you believe how bad we bombed? we asked each other. And how about the 20-something dude who looked like he was ready to doze off in the middle of the balloon toss? Could we have failed any more spectacularly?
  • We figured out what we needed to fix. We realized we’d made two crucial mistakes: first, we’d chosen a location near the entrance of the park. Well, when people are just walking through the front gates, they don’t want to stop and play with two actors in 16th Century garb. They’ve usually decided to go see one of the stage acts or the joust, and they are focused on walking to their destination. We were a distraction to their day, not a source of fun. And, second, we tried too hard to get people to play with us. We were like the desperate kid brother and sister who beg everyone to play. We were too needy.

Based on our analysis of what we did wrong, we adapted our approach. We chose a spot where people tend to tarry a bit and take in the day. We carried out our water balloons in big reproductions of 16h Century military shields for a little visual theater. And then we started tossing the balloons at each other without asking anyone to participate.

As it turns out, when people see two people playing and having fun, something happens: they stop eating their turkey legs and watch. They become curious. What’s going on? What’s up with the flying water balloons? And some of them want to join in.

Within a few minutes, patrons just started naturally picking up the balloons we’d set on the ground. We formed a circle and started tossing water balloons until one of us dropped them, leading to laughter when the balloons splattered on the grass. Sounds kind of silly, right? Well, when you’re dressed up in a funny costume, something as mundane as a water balloon toss seems amusing to other people.

Photo credit: John Karpinsky

The bit worked so well that we repeated it over a few weekends. Then we experimented with a watermelon toss, which really went over well. A water balloon splattering on the grass is funny. A watermelon exploding all over the place is spectacular.

Success!

The key to dealing with failure: we laughed. We owned the failure. But we learned and got better.

How do you bounce back from public failures?

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Vinyl Vibe: Willie Nelson’s “Family Bible”

Don’t let an algorithm define your tastes. Get out there and discover art with reckless abandon.

Last weekend, I visited a vinyl record store, Plaza Records, in Carbondale, Illinois. I had not been there in three years. All record stores are different. Their inventory reflects regional tastes of their buyers and sellers. You have to visit them and explore to really figure them out. Amazon won’t do that for you. At Plaza Records, I discovered a small but well curated country section that included the album Family Bible by Willie Nelson. I almost left the album in the bin. I am glad I didn’t.

Willie has recorded some of the best country albums of all time. But he’s also put out some bad records, too. He is to music what Michael Caine is to acting: always working, and not particularly choosy. Family Bible, released in 1980, certainly did not invite further exploration, with a washed-out album cover suggesting a slipshod effort. But the track listing intrigued me: all gospel songs, with no one but Willie and his sister Bobbie Nelson performing. The album cost $6, and I do not know a whole lot about Willie’s gospel side. Why not? 

Since last weekend, I must have played that album 10 times in five days. Almost immediately, with the multi-tracked harmonies on “By the Rivers of Babylon,” the album’s warmth drew me in. The songs are the kind of old-timey standards that evoke a longing for the comfort of the past. Many are in the public domain. Willie sings them with grace and strength; his phrasing has seldom been better, as evident on songs such as “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings.” When he sings “You who are weary, come home” on “Softly and Tenderly,” I want to answer the call right then and there. In a world full of bombast, he offers a soft, warm invitation to rest your weary spirit. 

Willie Nelson wrote the title track in 1957. The story goes that he was inspired by his grandmother, who would read from her Bible and sing “Rock of Ages” after supper. But, facing financial problems, he sold it to Paul Buskirk, who is credited along with Claude Gray and Walter Breeland as the songwriters. That’s the way the world works sometimes. You sell your work, and then you sing it decades later with the credit going to someone else. But when he sing the words, his voice soaring over the strumming of the guitar he reclaims the song as his own:

There’s a family Bible on the table 

Each page is torn and hard to read 

But the family Bible on the table 

Will ever be my key to memories 

At the end of day when work was over 

And when the evening meal was done 

Dad would read to us from the family Bible 

And we’d count our many blessings one by one 

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages cleft for me 

Now this old world of ours is full of trouble

This old world would also better be 

If we’d find more Bibles on the tables 

And mothers singing rock of ages cleft for me

I can see us sittin’ round the table 

When from the family Bible dad would read 

I can hear my mother softly singing rock of ages 

Rock of ages rock of ages cleft for me

He and Bobbie play together with a familiarity and ease that makes you feel like they are in your home, gathered around a piano, filling the evening with song. Bobbie’s rousing piano introduction to “There Shall Be Showers of Blessings” sounds like it came from a dusty Nazarene tent meeting somewhere in the Illinois corn fields. 

I suppose if this album were recorded today, we might think of it as Willie Unplugged. Willie is listed as the producer. And he made the right call by employing a simple sound. These songs are meant to work their way into your heart gently. But you have to find these moments of communion with song. You have to dig through the crates in strip-mall record stores, take a risk on that one more album even though you’re already spending more than you should. And then return home, stop what you’re doing, and listen.

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Roman Polanski: Why I Separate the Art from the Artist

On September 7, Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, where viewers gave the film a standing ovation. An Officer and a Spy has also resurrected a longstanding conversation about how we are to deal with repugnant people who create great art.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of high-profile artists accused of horrible behavior, partly because of the advent of the #MeToo movement, and partly because digital news coverage amplifies scandals quickly. Chuck Close, Placido Domingo, Morgan Freeman, Paul Haggis, James Levine, Bryan Singer, and Kevin Spacey are among the notable artists who have been accused of sexual misconduct. These accusations have been unsettling, with some of the most beloved names in entertainment being viewed in a new light.

Roman PoIanski’s case is different. He has been convicted of an actual crime: the rape of a 13-year-old girl. In 1977, Polanski was charged with multiple crimes involving an incident that occurred at the home of actor Jack Nicholson: rape by use of drugs; perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under fourteen; and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. As part of a plea bargain, he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. By then, he was already a celebrated film director whose creations included landmarks such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. Not only did he face the potential ruin of his career, he also was looking at serious jail time. In 1978, he fled the United States. He remains a fugitive.

In subsequent years, he has continued to make movies, including The Pianist, which earned Polanski an Oscar for Best Director, and The Ghostwriter, which won Best Film of the Year from the International Federation of Film Critics. Meanwhile, a number of women have accused him of sexually abusing him when they were underage.

In 2011, he publicly apologized to Samantha Geimer, the victim of his 1977 rape. But his comments about his other accusers have been less charitable, characterizing the accusations “absurd stories by women I have never seen before in my life who accuse me of things which supposedly happened more than half a century ago.” He has remarked that being persecuted inspired him partly to make An Officer and a Spy, which concerns the historical case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French army who was falsely accused and imprisoned for treason in 1894. In response to his remarks, Jezebel’s Emily Alford sarcastically reacted with the article, “Roman Polanski, Convicted Child Rapist, Has Been Given Yet Another Award.”

She wrote, “Since his conviction, Polanski has been persecuted with an Oscar, two Golden Globes, and the Cannes Palme d’Or, which is exactly like the story he tells in his film except that Alfred Dreyfus didn’t do it, had to go to prison after he was convicted, and wasn’t given a wheelbarrow full of awards by people who never gave a sh — t about the crime he was accused of in the first place.”

I would never want Roman Polanski in my home, and I certainly would not want him anywhere near my family. Even so, when An Officer and a Spy is released, I will judge the film on its own merits. Regardless of what kind of person he is, he is a brilliant creator. I have copies of ChinatownFranticThe GhostwriterThe Pianist, and Rosemary’s Baby in my film library. These are deeply affecting works of art.

The fact is, Roman Polanksi has plenty of company. History is full of people who behave badly and create art that we hold dear. If you like the work of Picasso, you’re admiring the creations of a man who was abusive toward women. Composer Richard Wagner was antisemitic. In more recent years, Al Green admitted to assaulting his wife, and Mel Gibson made antisemitic remarks to officers after being pulled over for drunk driving. Really, the examples are easy to find.

And yet, I will continue to watch Mel Gibson movies, listen to Al Green’s music, admire Picasso, and appreciate the majesty of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” I believe that art separates itself from the creator whenever an audience receives it. I believe that when people release art into the world, they create a malleable artifact that anyone can claim and interpret as their own. The art takes on a life unto itself apart from the creator and, by extension, the creator’s personal attributes, negative and positive.

I realize that paying for tickets to see An Officer and a Spy puts money in the pocket of a fugitive and a rapist. And I have no easy solution to that problem because I believe in paying for art. This is an uncomfortable topic, and I respect those who choose to hold people accountable for their behavior by boycotting their work. But I cannot go through life denying myself the intellectual and creative self-growth that happens when I experience compelling art that speaks to the human condition. I cannot cut myself off from art because of how I view the artist.

So when An Officer and a Spy is released in November, I will separate the art from the artist.

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Nike Stays True to Its Brand Values by Pulling the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker

Nike just raised the stakes for what it means to be a culturally relevant brand.

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal, Nike is pulling from store shelves its special edition Air Max 1 USA shoes that had been created to celebrate the July 4 holiday. The shoe design incorporates the image of a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag because it was created during the American Revolutionary War. But as Nike was rolling out the shoe to retailers, the company encountered a hitch: activist, former NFL quarterback, and Nike brand partner Colin Kaepernick reportedly told Nike that he considers Betsy Ross flag to be offensive because it has been co-opted by extremist groups and because it symbolizes a time when slavery flourished in the United States.

So Nike is pulling the Air Max 1 USA from stores. As a Nike spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag” (a bland statement that misses an opportunity for Nike to articulate what it believes and why).

By heeding the advice of Kaepernick, Nike is demonstrating that its relationship with the embattled former NFL quarterback goes beyond a one-time advertising campaign. In 2018, Nike made a bold move by aligning itself with Kaepernick — then embroiled in a bitter dispute with the NFL over his refusal to bend the knee during the playing of the National Anthem during football games. The company released an ad that featured Kaepernick with tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

The ad fostered a public discussion about race, the symbolism of the American Flag, and the role of the athlete in society, mostly because of Kaepernick’s visibility and name awareness. In doing so, Nike added a layer of meaning and cultural context to its famous “Just do it” tagline — a brilliant move that resulted in Nike’s sales to jump. The ad worked for a number of reasons, namely: its audience was (and remains) receptive to brand activism and Nike has taken a stand on social issues for years. By being culturally relevant, Nike connected with its customers.

Nike could have stayed in a narrowly defined lane of relying on Kaepernick to be the face of the brand with more advertisements. But Nike has now shown that Kaepernick is more than a spokesperson. He’s a counselor affecting how the business operates.

Kaepernick is not the only one to take offense with the Betsy Ross flag. In 2016, a Michigan school superintendent issued an apology after students waved the flag during a football game. The superintendent said that the flag is “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.” In addition, Twitter users began speaking out against the Air Max 1 USA along with Kaepernick.

Nike read the social signals, listened to its appointed counselor, and took action. In doing so, the company has sparked a backlash and also a discussion about the history of the American flag and its appropriation in contemporary society. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has ordered the state to rescind financial incentives for Nike, and social media is exploding with criticism but also support and commentary. The ensuing conversation is likely the first time many people have learned that the Betsy Ross flag has been co-opted by modern-day extremist groups:

The long-term impact of the action remains to be seen. For now, the backlash underscores the reality that Nike is raising the stakes for what it means to be culturally relevant: by halting distribution of the Air Max 1 USA, Nike is connecting its actions to its ads.

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Why Netflix Isn’t Afraid of Disney

Will Disney’s U.S. subscribers outnumber Netflix by 2024? That’s the question Danny Vena of The Motley Fool asked in an article after a Morgan Stanley analyst predicted that the combined subscribership of Disney’s streaming services could surpass Netflix’s own subscriber base within five years. Now here’s another question: how much do these numbers matter? After all, we don’t even know what kind of business Netflix will be in five years.

Netflix Is an Entertainment Company

As recently as 2012, Netflix was a streaming service. Today Netflix is an entertainment company, creating television programs and movies that have won Academy Awards, Grammys, and Golden Globes. Netflix has become a thriving haven for New Hollywood artists, such as Russian Doll’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne, or Roma’s director, writer, and co-producer Alfonso Cuarón, who seek to make unconventional and daring art that requires Netflix to take risks. And whereas vanguard rivals such as HBO changed the course of television, Netflix has changed how we watch TV by ushering in innovations such as on-demand binge watching.

Netflix Is Diving into Gaming

The increasingly popular narrative about Netflix is that the company that disrupted the entertainment world now risks being disrupted by new entrants such as Apple TV+ and Disney+, two streaming companies launching in 2019. Disney+ in particular will offer a formidable line-up of original programming, tapping into its extensive catalog of Marvel titles.

But while Apple and Disney leap into streaming, Netflix is already adapting its business model, an example being its expansion into gaming. Netflix recently announced that by 2020 it will offer a mobile game based on the hugely popular Netflix show Stranger Things. The company also said that a game, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics,” will be launched as an adaptation of the Netflix movie The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (a prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 movie, which should appeal to the coveted Millennial audience).

A push into gaming makes perfect sense for Netflix. The gaming market is expected to reach $180 billion by 2021, fueled by the growth of formats such as mobile gaming (which will grow to $106 billion by 2021). Netflix can offer well-known entertainment titles that lend themselves to games and an audience that is receptive to gaming. According to Karol Severin, lead gaming analyst for MIDiA Research, 46 percent of Netflix’s weekly active users play games on mobile devices and 33 percent play on consoles, “which over-indexes significantly compared to the consumer average.” In addition, gaming keeps Netflix’s audience locked into its own platform. After you’re done watching Stranger Things, you can play the Stranger Things game without leaving the Netflix universe. In addition, gaming creates the potential for revenue through features such as in-app purchases, a model that Fortnite has mastered. And Netflix needs more revenue.

Netflix is already showing us another way the company is incorporating gaming — by embedding a gaming experience into the content itself, as we’ve seen with choose-your-own-scenario interactive film Bandersnatch that Netflix aired in 2018, and the choose-your-own adventure experience Minecraft: Story Mode. These are not games, per se, but interactive content in which the viewer participates in the storylines. Watch for Netflix to create more sophisticated social experiences that merge plots with games, perhaps with augmented reality and virtual reality.

Three Ways Ways Netflix Is Evolving

Netflix is changing in other ways, too, such as:

  • Becoming a licensing and merchandising companySpeculation abounds that Netflix will offset mounting operational costs by incorporating ads. In fact, Netflix is already monetizing its shows. Stranger Things alone has created a strong base upon which to build a licensing and merchandising business. For example, Netflix and bike maker Mongoose have agreed to offer a limited edition Mongoose based on a fictional bicycle used in Stranger ThingsAs reported in License Global, “The collaboration includes an in-episode promotion that will see Maxine ‘Max’ Mayfield from the series riding the bike in the upcoming season of the show. Starting later this month fans of the series will also be able to get their hands on a replica of the bike used in the promotion.” And Mongoose is hardly the only company co-branding with Netflix — as evidenced by co-brands launched in 2019 between Stranger Things and Burger KingCoca-ColaH&M, and Nike. These relationships — hybrid in-show product placements plus real-world merchandising — offers a glimpse of how Netflix will monetize its titles more broadly. In fact, Netflix has merchandised Stranger Things so extensively that Fast Company recently noted with derision that the show is turning into Sponsored Things.
  • Becoming a center for music exploration. Netflix is rapidly becoming a music brand. Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé recently demonstrated how powerful and relevant Netflix can be as a platform for music distribution. Miley Cyrus understands this reality, as witnessed by her using Netflix as to drop new music linked to her appearance on Netflix’s Black Mirror. Meanwhile, the new Netflix movie Beats has gained street cred for its use of hip-hop, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Director P.T. Anderson recently made a music video for Netflix. Netflix is especially ideal for artists such as Beyoncé who are savvy about using multi-media to extend their audiences. Stay tuned.

I could also see Netflix monetizing customer data. Netflix is sitting on a trove of data about its customers’ viewing habits and demographics. It’s possible that Netflix will build a revenue stream from that data, as Amazon does. In addition to providing customer demographic data to third parties, Amazon also offers advertising services both on the platform and across the digital world by using data it has amassed on customers’ purchasing habits. Netflix has denied it will offer advertising on the platform itself. But Netflix could conceivably sell customer analytics services and even develop advertising products beyond Netflix.

Netflix Succeeds with Cultural Relevance

Meanwhile, Netflix continues to play to one of its strengths as a content creator: tapping into cultural trends, a case in point being the launch of Tidying up with Marie Kondo. The show not only mirrored culture but shaped it by prompting viewers to return their used clothing to vintage stores in droves. Shows such as Tidying up with Marie Kondo and Stranger Things remain important: they attract and keep audiences. But creating great content alone is not the future of Netflix.

Netflix Embraces Risk

Netflix’s ability to adapt is a reason why Netflix Vice President of Original Content Cindy Holland recently said of Disney and Hulu, “I don’t think there’s any one that stands out as the competitor. We’ve anticipated that all of these traditional players would enter into our space. The more successful we were at building an on-demand subscriber base with content, the more likely they were going to stop licensing to us. It’s actually one of the reasons why we started original content in the first place. We believed this shift would happen. It’s just taken many years longer than we thought. So we welcome it.”

Netflix succeeds by doing the things you don’t see coming. Doing so means taking risks. And perhaps the ability to take risks is really Netflix’s greatest asset. As Holland said, “We are not afraid to try a bunch of different things, some of which may work, some of which may not. It’s part of our culture to embrace mistakes and failure and learn something from it.”

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