One of the ways I learn about musicians is to pay attention to their stage patter on record albums, and fortunately the vinyl resurgence makes this particular form of immersion easy to do. On a live album, a musician’s interaction with the audience can reveal something important about the artist. On the Doors album Absolutely Live, when Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” at a chatty audience in the middle of “When the Music’s Over,” you are hearing an important moment in Jim Morrison’s life when he was experimenting with the confrontational performance technique he’d learned at the Living Theatre in Los Angeles.
Then there’s Mick Jagger on Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, teasing his audience with, “I think I busted a button on my trousers. Hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” This quintessential Mick Jagger moment, all ego and sexual bravado.
Sometimes stage patter becomes as memorable as the music. On One More From the Road, when Ronnie Van Zant famously asks, “What song is it you wanna hear?” the audience’s lusty “Freeeee-birrrd!” response becomes a defining moment for fan zealotry. (Whenever you hear someone at a concert jokingly shout “Freebird!” you now know where the joke originated.)
One of my favorite albums with interesting stage patter is Charley Pride’s In Person, a 1969 recording of a concert in Ft. Worth, Texas.
His personal story is one of overcoming poverty and racism on his way to becoming something very rare: a Black country music superstar. He was born to a family of poor sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1934. At age 14, he learned how to play guitar. Throughout his life, he thought his ticket out of poverty would be professional baseball, and indeed he played a considerable amount of minor league ball until an arm injury cut short his dreams. After his baseball career ended, he worked construction and unloaded coal from railroad cars in Montana, a dangerous job. Well, all this time, he was singing. And he was good at it. When he was playing ball, he sometimes sang before games, which increased attendance and earned him some additional income. After baseball, he keept at it, playing gigs in regional bars. He became good enough to land a recording contract at RCA Victor in the 1960s. RCA believed in him, but it was hard to get record promoters to play country music by a Black musician. But fortunately for Charley Pride, when his songs such as “Just Between You and Me” got played on the radio, where white listeners did not know the color of his skin, he caught fire.
As his popularity rose, he started to perform live to white audiences who were in for quite a surprise when a Black man walked onstage to sing the songs that they’d fallen in love with. The audience did not always welcome you with open arms. But he quickly won them over with his charm and enormous talent. The album In Person captures the essence of Charley Pride – his easygoing singing style and his warmth. “Oh, you’re mighty fine,” he says from time to time, acknowledging the enthusiastic applause. (It’s clear his audience loves him.) During two important moments, he also reveals profound truths about his difficult past. Before he launches into the rollicking “Shutters and Boards,” he says, gently, “I’ll tell you, it’s getting a little warm up here, but I’ll guarantee, I’d rather be seating up here than picking that cotton in Mississippi.” If you’re distracted, while you’re listening you might miss the remark – but when you hear it, you think of the album in an entirely new context. That one remark says everything about where he’s been and his motivation for succeeding. And then, before the final song on the album, “Cotton Fields,” he makes that motivation even more clear when he introduces the song. He says “Cotton Fields” is personally important to him because “It reminds me of what I never want to go back to doing. It hurts my fingers, my back, and my knee. When I go onstage, I try to sing the best I can, because I don’t want to go back to doing it anymore.”
For Charley Pride, there was no going back. He would go on to record 52 top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and 30 of those made it to Number One. After he became an undisputed star, he most certainly put his life on the line performing in Belfast at the height of the Troubles in 1976 – at a time when it was too dangerous for anyone to travel there to perform. That’s the kind of man Charley Pride was. Brave enough to risk his safety to perform his music. Brave enough to travel down the lonely road of becoming a Black country singer. Brave enough to open up about himself onstage. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2020, he died at age 86 of complications from Covid-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed suffering on a global scale not seen in our lifetimes. As if waves of sicknesses and death were not bad enough, businesses everywhere were rocked to the core, resulting in job loss and economic hardship. And it’s not over. But amid the turmoil, some businesses are as strong or even stronger than they were before the pandemic changed everything. Here are their stories, and the lessons we may learn from them.
1 Take Care of Your People: Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers Rallies through a Hard Times
Todd Graves saw the storm coming. Graves, the co-founder and CEO of fast-food chain Raising Caine’s Chicken Fingers, followed the spread of Covid-19 in China before the virus was news in the United States. He read about lockdowns happening to contain the virus. He quickly grasped the potential impact of Covid-19 on his business. So he and his management team went into crisis mode even though there was no crisis to react to yet.
The executive team canceled a scheduled management retreat to celebrate its five-year plan and started to change how the chain operated. Raising Caine’s quickly implemented CDC guidelines for social distancing and placed an “uber-intense focus” on sanitizing every location, as discussed in QSR magazine. Managers were trained on how to conduct team meetings in socially distanced fashioned so that operations would not be disrupted. Fortunately, most Raising Caine’s locations have drive-through service. So the company changed the focus of its marketing to put a full-court press on its enhanced safety measures and its drive-through service.
Almost all Raising Cane’s 500 locations stayed open and did a thriving business. Thirty-three non-drive-thru locations temporarily closed, but Graves kept employees in closed locations busy sewing masks and supplying local hospitals amid a mask shortage.
Raising Cane’s purchased sewing machines and supplies for the group. Two teams worked in shifts to comply with the company’s social distancing procedures. They created more than 600 masks in their first week and upped production to 100 a day. The mask sewing initiative gave employees in closed restaurants a sense of purpose as they gave back to the community. And beyond those efforts, Raising Cane’s launched fund raisers to help frontline workers in hospitals putting their lives on the line to fight the pandemic.
All the while, Graves refused to furlough or lay off any of the 23,000 workers.
“Our mantra then was no crew member left behind,” Graves told QSR. “I wanted the team that went into this pandemic to be the team we come out with. And so we’re going to work like heck to get through it.”
Initially, the chain suffered a hit as the pandemic upended our lives. Sales were down as much as 30 percent. But by late April, they had returned to pre-pandemic levels even as other restaurants struggled — a stunning turnaround.
This was a story we all needed to hear in the early days. Raising Cane’s gave us hope and put its people first.
2. Sense and Respond: Amazon, Target, and Walmart Ascend to Greater Heights
Some businesses prospered during the pandemic. You know three of their names: Amazon, Target, Walmart. All of them crushed their quarterly earnings announcements throughout 2020 and enjoyed all-time valuations on the stock market.
All three of them benefitted from the rise of the stay-at-home economy, in which people increasingly bought what they wanted from their sofas. Amazon already had a lock on ecommerce, and both Target and Walmart wielded an advantage with their curbside pick-up capabilities. People who preferred to order groceries, clothing, and housewares from their homes, then pick them up without leaving their cars, chose Target and Walmart. As a result:
Target’s curbside pickup service sales jumped by more than 700% during its fiscal second quarter.
Walmart’s eCommerce business jumped 97 percent year over year, partly because the popularity of curbside pick-up services.
Amazon just kept powering through, showing 37% year-over-year growth for the third quarter ended September 30, 2020.
Were they in the right place at the right time? No. They prospered because they know how to sense and respond.
Target and Walmart had been steadily building ecommerce services and curbside pickup over the past few years. They both saw the rise of a mobile consumer who preferred the immediacy of driving to the store but didn’t have time to go inside to make their purchase. When the pandemic made many people frightened to shop inside stores, curbside pickup served Target and Walmart well.
Amazon, building off its already strong ecommerce operation, had made a major investment in its own delivery capability, including its own air cargo fleet. The move triggered a war with FedEx and raised questions about whether Amazon had overreached. But as retailers struggle with maxed out supply chains in the 2020, Amazon seizing control of its own destiny now looks smart and forward-thinking.
In addition, by building out its cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services, Amazon positioned itself well when stay-at-home living in 2020 caused a surged in online usage. Amazon Web Services is the backbone for digital platforms ranging from Facebook to Netflix — a $10 billion business.
Leaders always think ahead — during good times and hard times.
3 Act with Purpose: Netflix Invests in Racial Justice
Netflix put its money where its mouth is.
As the world erupted with protest over racial inequality in 2020, businesses sought to have a voice. Many responded with gestures of support on social media. Others took action, and Netflix was one of them. In early June, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced that he was donating $120 million to support scholarships at Black colleges and universities. On June 30, Netflix announced it was allocating up to $100 million of its cash holdings into financial institutions and organizations that directly support Black communities in the United States. As reported in The New York Times, the action would help Black-owned lenders inject more capital into Black-owned businesses.
It turns out Netflix had been planning the capital reallocation since April. The New York Times reports that the company’s decision makers were influenced by book “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap,” by Mehrsa Baradaran, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine.
Netflix’s financial commitment reflects the company’s culture in other ways. For example, Netflix’s marketing arm Strong Black Lead, is committed to hiring people of color and supporting their voices. (Read more about Strong Black Lead here.)
Netflix’s actions point to a bigger role that businesses have to be purposeful, a major news theme of 2020. Corporate accountability to society really took hold as the Covid-19 pandemic spread. In March, According to a recent Kantar study of the public’s attitudes about COVID-19, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of people surveyed said they wanted to see brands talk about how they’re helpful in the new everyday life. And 77 percent wanted to see brands to inform consumers about their efforts to face the situation. Meanwhile 62 percent of people around the world surveyed by Edelman said that their country would not make it through this crisis without brands playing a critical role in addressing the challenges. Then, in June, the conversation turned toward race. An Edelman survey revealed a widespread public outcry for businesses to take a lead tackling racial inequality. Sixty percent of Americans surveyed by Edelman said that businesses must speak out publicly against racial injustice. Sixty percent said that brands need to use their marketing dollars to advocate for racial equality and to educate the public on the issue.
Airbnb was on the brink of collapse. Under CEO Brian Chesky, the company had built one of the most storied brands in the digital age by creating a network of property owners willing to rent homes to travelers. Airbnb had become so successful that it was threatening the established lodging industry without owning a single hotel. It’s no exaggeration to say that Airbnb helped invent the modern-day sharing economy, in which people profit by sharing their assets for a fee. But Airbnb was like traditional lodging industry in one important aspect: Airbnb and its network of entrepreneurs needed people to travel and book lodging. And as the pandemic took hold, travel had practically ground to a halt. Overnight, bookings plunged. By mid-March, Airbnb saw $1.5 billion in bookings vanish.
Airbnb’s stellar trajectory was halted. A planned initial public offering was out of the question. Chesky laid off a quarter of his staff, slashed expenses, and sought capital to keep the business afloat. Things did not look good as the weeks went by. Even as people emerged from lockdowns, traveling was not popular.
Or was it?
In fact, Airbnb’s data scientists noticed something happening: people emerging from lockdowns were traveling. But their preferences had changed. Instead of looking to fly to cities and stay in tony urban locations — a mainstay of Airbnb’s revenue — travelers were looking to rent homes in smaller locations within 200 miles of their homes. People were ready to get out of their homes and travel. But they wanted to rent entire homes instead of sharing them with other people (and risk contracting the Covid-19 virus), and they wanted to drive, not fly. So as reported in The Wall Street Journal, the company quickly changed. Airbnb redesigned its website and app so that its algorithm would showcase travelers interesting locations such as cabins.
Incredibly enough, by July guests were booked stays at the rate they were just before the pandemic crushed the travel industry. By December, Airbnb had recovered so fully that it launched a successful IPO after all.
“People are now discovering small towns, small communities,” Chesky said. “They’re discovering national parks, falling in love with the outdoors, and realizing they can go to all sorts of other places. This is an irreversible trend.”
And Airbnb was ready to capitalize on that trend.
Airbnb needed to do a lot more than reposition itself to short term travelers in order to survive the tumult of 2020, but listening to its customer data and adapting were essential. In 2021, Airbnb says it appeals to a new type of traveler — people redefining their staycations, traveling in small pods of families and friends, or visiting different towns with an intent to relocate permanently. You can be sure Airbnb is adapting to them, too.
5 Be Bold:Disney Saves Its Future
It’s quite possible that “pivot” is the most overused word in 2020, used to any business that adapted during the pandemic. But Disney really did pivot its business, and may well have saved it.
It has been painful to watch the COVID-19 pandemic crush Disney’s fabled parks and resorts. In September, Disney announced it would lay off 28,000 employees across its parks, experiences and consumer products segments. Disney blamed prolonged closures and capacity limits at open parks for the layoffs.
On November 12, Disney reported its first annual loss in 40 years, and declining attendance at its parks had a lot to do with that decline. Disney said that the pandemic cost it $7.4 billion in operating income in the fiscal year, and $6.9 billion of that loss came from theme parks and experiences division.
But by November, Disney had already made a very important move to change course. On October 12, Disney reorganized its media and entertainment divisions in order to focus on streaming content, namely its wildly successful Disney+ platform. Kareem Daniel, the former president of consumer products, games and publishing, would now oversee the new media and entertainment distribution group, responsible for content distribution, ad sales, and Disney+.
In an announcement, Disney said that its “creative engines will focus on developing and producing original content for the Company’s streaming services” — meaning that Disney’s creative teams, ranging from Pixar to Lucasfilm, will be all-in to support streaming, focusing on Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+, all streaming brands owned by Disney. Meanwhile, a newly created Media and Entertainment Distribution group under Daniel would be responsible for monetizing and distributing that content.
Disney didn’t wait for its restructuring to change the way it operates, either. In September, Disney bypassed movie theaters in the United States and released its feature film Mulan on Disney+ (while distributing the movie in theaters internationally). Mulan received mixed reviews and lackluster box office receipts globally. But as Kay McGuire of Screen Rant discussed in an analysis of Mulan’s financial results, Disney+ was a lifeline for Mulan.
These were big-time moves, but they did not emerge from left field. In 2019, Disney had already laid the groundwork for its newfound focus on digital content — first, by taking ownership of the popular Hulu streaming service, and then by launching Disney+. Hulu gave Disney an instant streaming audience of 28 million (at the time) and a prestigious content library with popular titles including The Handmaid’s Tale. Disney+ gave Disney an arm to unleash its powerful library of content, including the coveted Marvel franchise, as well as new titles such as the wildly popular The Mandalorian, which tapped into the eternal appeal of Star Wars.
Little did Disney know that a global pandemic would trigger a massive shift in people’s entertainment options, from going to the movies to streaming them. By the end of the 2020, Disney+ subscribers had grown to 86.8 million, and Hulu paid subscribers had grown to 36.6 million.
And the financial results reflect the increase in subscribers. In its earnings announcement, Disney said that its Direct-to-Consumer and International division, which includes streaming, had generated $4.85 billion in revenue, up 41 percent year over year.
Disney knows where its near-term future is: streaming. And so it doubled down. And its stock value, incredibly enough, increased even as its theme parks continued to struggle.
Disney demonstrated an eternal truth about industry leaders: when times are tough, the make bold moves. Disney’s digital-content first approach was reflected elsewhere in the entertainment world, too, most notably when Warner Brothers said it would release its entire slate of movies on the HBO Max streaming platform as well as in movie theaters.
These are hard times. Businesses that want to survive them can learn from Disney.
Hope in 2021
Weeks into 2021, we see glimmers of hope for a sustained rebound from the ravages of the pandemic. The travel industry as a whole is showing some signs of life. The live events business, crushed by the pandemic, could return as early as the fall of 2021. Initial public offerings area actually booming. Much uncertainty and hardship remains. But new stories will be told and lessons learned. Stay tuned.
How does a business say farewell? Family is showing us how: with grace, humanity, and gratitude. On January 5, Family Video went out of business. All its brick-and-mortar stores closed. But the brand is still alive — ironically in the digital world that helped usher in the company’s demise.
Family Video’s corporate Facebook page is something to behold. On Facebook, Family Video continues to share tributes from customers and ex-employees saying farewell. Keeping the digital lights on and letting letting the Family video community comment openly on social media is a branding masterstroke. Here are some sample posts:
“I’ll never forget how it felt to walk through a video store and pick up some rentals along with some food and drinks for a special movie night with your family. It was an irreplaceable nostalgic feeling… A sense of awe and wonder in my childhood when I would go to the video store.”
“I used to go to my local store every Sunday after work, met some great people who worked for the company and bought hundreds of movies.”
“My husband and I met working at your Fond du Lac, WI location. We dated for 5 years, and have been married for almost 8, and have a 4 year old son together. We are together because of FV.”
“We will miss Family Video and the employees that we became friends with!!!!!”
“I spent 8 great year with family video and 6 of it as an assistant manager. I’ve shared so many memories with my children and many others in my community. To this day everyone who sees me, reminds me how much they miss me and the store, almost like were one in the same, apparently.”
“So appreciated the free kids videos when my kids were young and I was young and poor! Sad to see you go.”
“The 10 years that I worked for and managed Family Video stores were some of my favorite years. I formed many friendships that I still have to this day . . . Thank you for all of those years. They have helped me become the manager and person that I am today.”
“We had our ten year vow renewal photos taken at Family Video. True story!”
“We had our engagement photos taken at Family Video. True story!”
Common themes emerge:
Family Video meant tradition. Going to the store, stocking up on movies, and buying other goodies for movie night made the movie watching experience special in a way that flipping on the TV and watching movies on demand through a streaming service does not. And the availability of streaming services does not always mean availability of a movie you want to see. The Family Video inventory mattered. You could find popular movies and also some more obscured choices in back catalogue.
Family Video was about connecting people with each other. This was certainly true of my experience. I always got a kick out of talking with the dudes behind the counter who reminded me of the stoner surfer Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You cannot connect like that with someone on Zoom.
But all those advantages that made Family Video special were doomed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Going to the video store and being with other people became, well, outright dangerous in 2020. And Family Video never recovered.
The Family Video Facebook also continues to share content such as movie-related posts and crowdsourced memes, cartoons, and even some humor that pokes fun at its own demise.
The brand is consistent, too: on socials such as Instagram and Twitter, Family Video cross-promotes customer stories and comments itself actively with the same grace and sense of humor:
And I’m going to guess that selling Family Video merchandise will perpetuate a retro vibe with the cool kids:
The Family Video business is dead. Long live the Family Video brand.
Bruce Springsteen is catching some flak for appearing in a Jeep ad. He does not need the money. So why would the Boss do a commercial? Here’s the answer: he wants to keep his personal brand relevant and visible. And that’s a lesson everyone should heed, no matter who you are or what you do for a living.
Bruce Springsteen broke through during the album-oriented era when heavy radio airplay, touring, and mass-media PR helped his music find an audience. When MTV came along, Springsteen adapted to the video format by learning how tell stories visually. His career became bigger than ever. But even then, video was a mass-market play.
Then digital changed everything.
Today, Springsteen can only hope to gain a sliver of anyone’s attention while his music competes with Fortnite, Netflix, Facebook, and a ton of other distractions that did not exist in the 1970s. Music has become background noise while we exercise on our Peloton bikes. The idea that an artist like Springsteen can expect anyone to listen to a record album from start to finish is laughable.
To his credit, Springsteen saw what was coming when Napster exploded on the scene in the early 2000s and killed the record album. He found new ways to stay relevant, such as performing at the Super Bowl in 2009 (which introduced him to Millennials and older Gen Zers who were about 12 years old at the time), speaking at the oh-so-trendy SxSW festival, and doing a Broadway show. He also relied on one of his great strengths — concerts — as the touring industry exploded in the 2000s in way it never did in the 20th Century.
But Springsteen cannot tour during the pandemic. A commercial (especially a Super Bowl commercial) amplifies an artist’s voice the way radio used to do when Springsteen hit it big. He’s doing what he needs to do in order to keep his brand relevant and visible.
He’s not the only Baby Boomer artist who has learned the lesson of brand relevance in the digital age. Many, many others have gone down this path. One of them, John Mellencamp, used to skewer artists for doing advertisements with corporations. And then he licensed his song “My Country” for a Chevrolet advertisement around 2007. His fans howled with outrage. But he had seen the writing on the wall when artists of his generation were not getting the attention they used to receive. As he explained in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview discussing the licensing of “My Country” to Chevrolet:
Chevrolet is talking to me, and I ask, “How many times are you going to play this commercial?” They said, “You’ll have more airplay than on any record you’ve ever had.” I couldn’t believe it. I believe it now.
Or as Mellencamp put it to The New York Times, “The bottom line is, I’m a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not suggesting it for anybody else. This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business.”
What are you going to do in order to reinvent yourself and stay in business as the world changes around you?
Everyone loves a comeback story, and the music industry is full of memorable ones. I recently examined one of the most compelling comebacks in music, Elvis Presley’s return to greatness in 1969. Today, let’s take a closer look at the king of comebacks, Johnny Cash, who had more than one throughout his storied life.
Johnny Cash and Elvis have a lot in common. Like Elvis, Johnny Cash changed popular music — in Cash’s case, country, folk, and pop — by recording with Sam Phillips in Sun Studios. Cash served in the Army before Elvis did. Like Elvis, he suffered from a drug dependency. Both Johnny Cash and Elvis also restored flagging careers by collaborating with the right creative partners. Elvis revived a moribund career through his work with producer Chips Moman, which resulted in some of the best music of his career. In 1994, Cash returned to artistic greatness when he and producer Rick Rubin released American Recordings at a time when Cash thought his recording career was over.
And Johnny Cash working with Rick Rubin was a collaboration that no one saw coming.
The Meeting of a Lifetime
In February 1993, Johnny Cash had a meeting that changed his life. He was performing in a rinky-dink club in southern California for an audience that numbered, at best, a few hundred — a far cry from the days when he could pack a large arena. He’d been told that a record producer named Rick Rubin wanted to meet him. Cash had no idea who Rick Rubin was, but he agreed to a meet.
The backstage encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes. At first, they seemed to have little in common. Rubin was a 30-year-old music impresario who had produced Beastie Boys, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Slayer. Cash was a 63-year-old country star on the downside of his career. Cash wore black. Rubin walked around barefoot.
As Cash would remember in an interview included in the liner notes for the anthology album Unearthed, Rubin came across as “the ultimate hippie, bald on top, but with hair down over his shoulders, a beard that looked as if it had never been trimmed, and clothes that would have done a wino proud.”
But they had everything in common. And Rubin knew it.
Rubin was interested in producing Cash, because he wanted to record with someone who was “great and important, but who wasn’t doing their best work.” And Cash fit the bill. Rubin was fascinated with Cash’s dark side. He thought the man who once wrote, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was as much an outlaw as the most hard-core rapper from Compton.
At the same time, he saw in Cash’s work the voice of a vulnerable outlaw who wrestled with remorse and pain. Over the years, Cash’s music had lost that dark edge, which made him less interesting.
Rubin wondered if he could capture that voice again on the American Recordings label that Rubin owned and operated from his home studio near the Sunset Strip.
Cash remembered Rubin telling Cash he’d like to record him.
“What for?” Cash responded. Indeed, what for? Cash had a recording contract with Mercury Records, but no one had demonstrated an interest in producing him for years.
“I think if you let me record you singing the songs that you love, that you want to sing, that we’re going to find some that the people are going to like and are going to buy,” Rubin replied.
Rubin went on to pitch the idea of recording Cash alone and unplugged.
“You would take your guitar, sit down in front of a microphone and sing me the songs you love,” Rubin said. “Just sing me everything you want to record.”
Cash was intrigued. It turns out he’d once thought of doing an album like that. And he saw a conviction in Rubin’s eyes — a man of music who believed in what he was doing with probably more passion that Cash himself possessed at the time.
“Why don’t you give it a try?” Rubin asked.
“All right,” Cash replied.
How far had Johnny Cash fallen when he met Rick Rubin that day?
Very, very far.
He had not released a Top 10 country album since 1976. He was no longer a concert draw. His long-time record label, Columbia, had dropped him in 1986, and his current label, Mercury, treated him with indifference. He was writing lackluster songs that relied on tired formulas. He sometimes made embarrassingly bad music, including the notorious “The Chicken in Black” song in 1984, which was about a three-way brain transplant. Its video featured Johnny running around in a weird costume.
“The Chicken in Black” was a far cry from songs such as “Folsom Prison Blues,” “I Walk the Line,” and “Ring of Fire” — music that had challenged popular music tastes by fusing Americana, folk, and country. At the height of his fame, he was a singular talent akin to Jimi Hendrix — someone whose style was so distinctive that no one could really play and sing like him. He stood apart from the rest.
His 1968 album At Folsom Prison had made him a hero to the burgeoning rock culture. He cemented that role with a popular and progressive TV show, The Johnny Cash Show, which featured both country and rock acts alike. On his show, he introduced younger generations to a body of work that included the great hits that had defined his career: brutal, honest, but hopeful songs about outlaws and searchers. He also invited rock greats such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young to perform, which made The Johnny Cash Show culturally relevant.
At the same time, his close relationship with televangelist Billy Graham made him beloved by the Christian Right. As a result, in the early 1970s, he found himself in the improbable role of being loved by two opposing ends of a vast spectrum, which maximized his commercial appeal by broadening his audience. He toured heavily and pulled down large paychecks each time he performed. His record albums sold well. He was a TV star.
But, unfortunately, he overextended himself.
Everyone wanted a piece of him, and he said yes to everyone. Unfortunately, recording episodes for The Johnny Cash Show sapped his creative energy. And when he wasn’t taping TV shows, he was touring. When he wasn’t touring, he was appearing at Billy Graham religious crusades. When he wasn’t crusading for Jesus, he was crusading for various social causes, such as prison reform. He also made artistic choices that distracted him and spread him thin — like his costly and ill-advised trip to Israel in 1971 to produce a movie about Jesus Christ. The Gospel Roadturned out about as well as you might expect from someone with zero film-making experience.
Truth be told, the business of being Johnny Cash was costly and time-consuming. Not only did he have a family to support, but he had a lot of people on the payroll, especially when he toured with a large retinue of supporting musicians. He also liked expanding his horizons, but projects such as The Gospel Road were a drain on his finances. In addition, his involvement in the Billy Graham Crusades and his social causes came from a desire to do good.
Not surprisingly, he had little time to write songs. So he began phoning them in. And they were not very good. For instance, one of his songs, “Strawberry Cake,” was a trite tale about a bum who spots a strawberry cake in a fancy hotel, grabs a slice, and runs away. The song was an embarrassing attempt to connect with a blue-collar audience the way Merle Haggard was successfully doing with his own albums and songs. But Cash wasn’t putting in one-tenth the song-craft that Haggard invested into his gritty songs about working-class people struggling to get by. No one could relate to a strange tale about an everyman stealing a piece of strawberry cake.
Living in a Comfort Zone
But deeper problems were eating away at Cash’s creativity beyond lacking time to write. He was also easing into a comfort zone. And comfort zones can be deadly for artists.
Cash’s comfort zone consisted of his role as a good-time gospel singer and noble Christian, which he embraced fully after he became a father to his son with June Carter Cash, John Carter, in 1970, and got more involved in Billy Graham crusades.
The man who once wrote songs about murderers had become a warm, cuddly teddy bear who sang at Billy Graham conventions and waxed poetically about his faith in public. There’s nothing wrong with a secular artist performing inspirational gospel songs, as Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley can attest. But what made Johnny Cash great was how he drew from a well of inner conflict and wrote about both his demons and his angels.
Inner conflict had driven him to artistic heights. He had written “I Walk the Line” to express his commitment to being a faithful husband (even though in real life he was unfaithful). But he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” too. He sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And he also sang, gleefully, about killing his woman in “Cocaine Blues.”
That was Johnny Cash at his artistic peak: a searcher and a scoundrel. But when he got too comfortable being a moralist, he lost his edge. As Robert Hilburn wrote in his excellent biography, Johnny Cash: The Life:
When it was time to go into the studio, Cash would just bring in the last batch of songs that had caught his ear. He didn’t sit down and plan them. There wasn’t a feeling of life and death about them anymore. He had other priorities.
Years later Cash told me he was lulled by his success in the 1960s and early 1970s into taking his music for granted. He felt he could devote most of his attention to his family and spreading God’s Word and still have plenty of time left over to make records. But suddenly, it seemed like everything dried up. By the time he realized what was happening, he didn’t know what to do about it. Besides, he enjoyed those new priorities.
An even more insidious problem ate away at him: drugs. He’d battled an addiction to pills off and on throughout this life. In the 1960s, he suffered the public humiliation of multiple busts for possession of pills, and it’s widely believed that he was under the influence of drugs when he started a forest fire that destroyed 508 acres in the Los Padres National Forest. Although he kept churning out albums during the 1960s, he became an unreliable performer and entertainment outcast.
But with the help of June Carter, he’d gotten sober in 1970. He stayed that way until 1977, when he began abusing amphetamines again. And the drugs killed whatever creative spark he might have possessed at this point. This description of a disastrous recording session, courtesy of Johnny Cash: The Life, speaks volumes:
He showed up wearing brown knee-high boots, only to look down and declare there was no way that he — the Man in Black — should be recording in brown boots. While the musicians watched, he sat on the studio floor and carefully painted the boots black. Then he learned that Julie Andrews was recording in the studio down the hall, and they recorded a song. After all this delay, Cash started recording the gospel album. With just two songs done he announced he was going out to get some milk and cheese.
Hilburn noted that after going out to buy his milk and cheese, Cash never returned to the studio. Instead, his car got stranded in a ditch in a field, and then spun the wheels so hard that the grass caught fire and burned up his car.
Cash was no John Lennon and Paul McCartney making Revolver with a nudge of LSD, or Keith Richards on heroin creating great guitar licks for Exile on Main St. Johnny Cash had run out of great songs. And the drugs kept it that way. He eventually entered the Betty Ford Center in 1983 and would return for treatment at various hospitals in 1989 and 1992.
After he emerged from his 1992 rehab, something happened that offered a glimpse of Cash’s artistic turnaround. In February 1993, Bono invited Cash to do a guest vocal on a song he’d penned with Cash in mind: “The Wanderer,” for U2’s largely techno-fused album Zooropa. At first, Cash wondered what on earth he could contribute to what seemed like an experimental electronic album. But when he read Bono’s lyrics, he felt encouraged. He went into the studio and laid down his track. Afterward, he was sure that Bono would wise up and re-record the vocals in his own voice. But Bono called Cash to say that U2 loved his performance and that “The Wanderer” was going to be on the album the way Cash sang it.
This was a huge moment. Cash felt a spiritual connection with U2 that transcended their musical differences. He was also flattered to be part of an album that would reach millions of people, something that Cash could no longer do on his own.
Later that month, Cash met Rick Rubin.
At Rick Rubin’s House
Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash began recording on May 17, 1993. Rubin had paved the way for Cash to record with him by striking a deal with Mercury that allowed Cash to record under Rubin’s label. He made Cash feel right at home — Rick Rubin’s home, to be exact. Rubin had set up simple recording equipment in his house near Los Angeles, where Rick sat barefoot with his dogs and listened to Cash play. (Rick Rubin would later recall for the Unearthed liner notes that the sound of his dogs barking would sometimes ruin one of Cash’s takes — the occasional price of his laid-back approach.) True to his word, Rick Rubin encouraged Cash to play the songs that Cash felt like playing, just Cash and his guitar. He said to Cash, as they got to know each other better, “I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs.”
In his interview for the Unearthed liner notes, Cash explained,
I went to Rick’s home in California. He had the recording equipment in a big room, fully equipped with everything — but actually all he needed was a couple of microphones. One for me, one for my guitar. And I started singing. And this went on for days it seemed. Day after day I would go in with the guitar, sit down, and start singing. One song after another . . . and it gave me a profound sense of déjà vu. It very much reminded me of the early days at Sun Records. Sam Phillips put me in front of a microphone at Sun Records in 1955 for the first time and said, “Let’s hear what you got. Sing your heart out,” and I’d sing one or two and he’d say, “Sing another one, let’s hear more,” and on and on and on I would sing for Sam Phillips until I had something he wanted to record — which was “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Hey Porter,” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” He kept saying, “Let’s hear what you got, let’s hear what you got,” and I kept on singing. It was the same thing with Rick, the same kind of freedom, but with a more laid-back attitude.
Having Johnny Cash strum his guitar and sing whatever he wanted sounded like a simple approach — but it was also a challenging one. Cash had never recorded all by himself. Even when he recorded with Sam Phillips, he’d brought musicians with him. With Rick Rubin, Cash’s sound was stripped to its bare essence.
Rubin had a reason for recording Cash this way. As recounted in Johnny Cash: The Life, when Rubin recorded with musicians, he usually talked with them first in order to understand the people behind the music. But Cash was a man of few words. Rubin encouraged Cash to speak through his music. He also wanted to rebuild Cash’s confidence.
At first, Rubin did not turn on the recording equipment — he just asked Cash to start playing. Cash dipped into his songbook to play a range of music, from gospel to train songs. On their second night playing together, Rubin became intrigued by a song, “Oh, Bury Me Not,” an old folk song that Cash had learned to play as a boy. Cash opened the tune with a two-minute spoken poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer.”
As he told Robert Hilburn, “It got back to the sort of mystical root of who Johnny Cash is. It was something that sounded like it was coming from someplace deep inside of him. It was epic, and that’s what Johnny Cash was to me — epic.”
Rubin turned on the recording equipment and asked Cash to do the song again. It was time to start finding songs for an album.
Cash unleashed more songs. Murder ballads such as “Delia’s Gone,” which Cash had written in the 1960s. A Kris Kristofferson song, “Just the Other Side of Nowhere.” And one he’d written four years earlier, “Drive On,” a powerful song about a Vietnam veteran. The evocative “Drive On” was significant, because it proved Cash could still write great songs. And Cash knew, deep down, what a great song sounded like: he’d refused to record “Drive On” for Mercury, because he thought the effort would have been wasted. He was saving the song for someone who might come along some day and do it justice.
That day had arrived.
As important as “Drive On,” was, “Delia’s Gone” was an even bigger breakthrough. The song is a brutal recounting of a man who kills his beloved and then suffers the anguish of a lifetime of remorse. Here are some of the lyrics:
First time I shot her I shot her in the side Hard to watch her suffer But with the second shot she died Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone
But jailer, oh, jailer Jailer I can’t sleep ’cause all around my bedside I hear the patter of Delia’s feet Delia’s gone, one more round Delia’s gone
Even though Cash had written the song decades ago, Rubin had never heard it. He was ecstatic. This was the kind of song that connected Johnny Cash with contemporary hip-hop and rock at their grittiest and darkest — the emotionally bruising side of Cash that had been missing for years, but which could make him relevant again to contemporary culture. As he told Robert Hilburn,
I’m talking about the original Johnny Cash who loomed large and was surrounded by all this darkness, yet who still had vulnerability. I wanted, if you will, to take him back to the “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” Man in Black, and “Delia’s Gone” did it perfectly. He kills the girl, and then is remorseful. I loved how the brutal act was followed by this haunted life. I was trying to get him to go from all these years of thinking his best stuff was behind him and just phoning in records to thinking we could make his best albums ever. I don’t know if he really believed that, but he was willing to give it a try.
“Delia’s Gone” was a turning point. Cash was encouraged by Rubin’s enthusiastic reaction to the song. His confidence was building. After “Delia’s Gone,” Cash and Rubin roamed through more songs. Cash unleashed another compelling song he’d written, but was hiding, “Like a Soldier.” Rubin, emboldened, began to suggest songs for Cash to try, such as “Thirteen,” written by goth metal rocker Glenn Danzig, one of the musicians Rubin had worked with over the years.
As Danzig remembered when talking with Rolling Stone magazine,
I think somebody from Rick Rubin’s office or Rick called me and asked me if I knew who Johnny Cash was, and I said, “F — k yeah, I know who Johnny Cash is,” and they said, “Would you write a song for him?” . . . “ wrote [“Thirteen”] in, like, a half-hour, as soon as I got off the phone. It was that quick. The song was just my impression of who Johnny Cash was and what he meant.
Rubin saw a connection between Danzig and Cash — the dark, tormented songwriter. As he said to Robert Hilburn,
I wasn’t trying to look for songs that would “connect” Johnny to a younger audience . . . I was just trying to find songs that really made sense for his voice. By that I don’t mean baritone. I mean resonate with his character so he could sing the words and have them feel like he wrote them.
But even so, Rubin had to tread carefully and bring up “Thirteen” at the right moment. This was the kind of song that might have turned off Cash had Rubin brought it up earlier in the recording process. It might have come across like Rick Rubin was trying to force a marriage between Cash and goth metal. But in context of “Delia’s Gone,” “Thirteen” seemed like a natural fit:
Found me with a preacher man confessin’ all I done Catch me with the devil playing 21 And a bad luck wind been blowin’ on my back I was born to bring trouble wherever I’m at
Their adventurous exploration also resulted in one of the most stunning moments of Cash’s career: his cover of “The Beast in Me.” The song had been written by Cash’s former stepson-in-law, British rocker Nick Lowe, who had been married to Cash’s stepdaughter Carlene Carter from 1979 to 1990. Despite the dissolution of the marriage, Lowe and Cash remained on good terms. Lowe even wrote “The Beast in Me” with Johnny Cash in mind. Cash had heard Lowe play an unfinished version of “The Beast in Me” at one point, and was impressed by the work-in-progress. Here was a song that Cash himself could have written:
The beast in me
Has had to learn to live with pain
And how to shelter from the rain
And in the twinkling of an eye
Might have to be restrained
God help the beast in me
As Cash and Nick Lowe would later recount, Cash never lost sight of that song. Over a period of 12 years, he would ask Lowe, “How’s that song coming along?” Finally, Lowe finished a demo.
Cash rewarded his effort with a rendition that seemed to capture the essence of all the inner conflict that had made Johnny Cash great. The song would become a centerpiece of Cash’s concerts when he began to tour again after American Recordings was finished. As important as “Delia’s Gone” was, “The Beast in Me” was more personal and relatable to a broader audience.
Cash and Rubin experimented musically, too. When Cash took a break from recording to go on tour, Rubin brought in musicians, such as Tom Petty and Flea to overdub the basic tracks and fatten the sound, as producer Chips Moman had done with Elvis Presley famously in 1969. Rubin listened to the fuller, richer renditions and decided he preferred the stripped-down version. In later albums after American Recordings, Rubin would complement Cash with musicians to satisfying effect. But now was not the time to do that.
The sessions did not go perfectly. When it became clear that the song demos were actually materializing into a real album, Cash became self-conscious. He started to “perform” the songs instead of singing them with the natural ease of those first few days of recording. His delivery lost its organic appeal.
Rubin decided to do something about that: he booked Cash for a single-night performance in the Viper Room, a hip club on the Sunset Strip owned by Johnny Depp. (This was the same Viper Room where River Phoenix had died tragically on Halloween only weeks before Cash’s appearance.) Cash had never performed alone in concert, and he was terrified, which was just what Rubin expected to happen. Rubin hoped that singing in the Viper Room for a real audience — doing a real performance on a stage — would make it easier for Cash to get back into the vibe of singing alone in Rubin’s living room in a more informal way.
Rick Rubin knew what he was doing. The Viper Room had just the right kind of hip rock-and-roll vibe that Cash needed to see how relevant he could be to a contemporary audience. Rubin made sure that some of the stars he worked with, such as Tom Petty and members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would be in the room. So was Sean Penn, at the time in the full bloom of his career. They were the right kind of tastemakers, and they welcomed the Man in Black with gusto. Cash debuted songs such as “Delia’s Gone,” and the audience cheered him on. Fortunately, Rubin recorded the performance, and two of the songs made the cut for the album in progress.
The triumphant Viper Club performance was also a turning point for Johnny Cash. Up until then, he was accustomed to playing for tourists and retirees in decidedly unhip venues like Branson, Missouri. He hated the experience. Once again, Robert Hilburn’s Johnny Cash: A Life sums it up:
The atmosphere was touristy, leading him to wonder if the audience even cared about the music. Most of the crowd were bus tour groups who were simply attending shows that the tour organizers had lined up for them.
Playing for tourists and retirees made him feel old and irrelevant. He regretted ever signing up to perform in Branson. But the Viper Room reminded him that a more vibrant, music-loving audience could respond to his work. As Tom Petty recounted in Cash: A Life, “Johnny was so happy. He felt like he was starting to matter again.”
The performance also got Cash to loosen up when he returned to recording songs with Rick Rubin. They continued recording until they’d amassed enough songs to choose for an album. They picked 13 songs and listened to them from beginning to end in Rick’s house. No one said a word. Then Rick commented, “Wow, this is great. And since it’s not supposed to be anything other than great, that’s when you say, ‘It’s done.’” Rubin chose the title, American Recordings.
One thing about Rick Rubin: he knew how to promote music, as well as produce it. He pulled all the right levers with American Recordings, starting with an album cover design that made Cash look like some kind of wind-swept Gothic figure.
This was a different image of Cash than the smiling man depicted on his most recent album, Country Christmas. Rubin made sure that the most influential music critics received advance copies of the album. He signed up Cash to appear at important events, such as Glastonbury in England and the South by Southwest Festival in Austin.
The real masterstroke was the release of a brutal video for “Delia’s Gone,” which was so striking in its violence that MTV banned it. Getting banned by MTV was perfect PR for Cash. If there were any lingering perceptions that he was a cuddly, lovable man of God, the ban crushed them.
The album sold 236,000 copies, a modest figure by 1994 standards and a far cry from the top-selling album of 1994, Ace of Base’s The Sign, which sold 3.8 million copies. But it was Johnny Cash’s best-selling album since 1971’s Man in Black, and the album rose as high as 23 on the country charts. And American Recordings resonated with the right people, including Rolling Stone critic Anthony DeCurtis, who gave the album five stars (the highest rating possible) and wrote, “American Recordings is at once monumental and viscerally intimate, fiercely true to the legend of Johnny Cash and entirely contemporary.”
DeCurtis’s reaction was typical of the critical acclaim. The album garnered rave reviews across the board. It also made Cash a culturally relevant hero to a younger generation. He became a hot concert draw, although health problems would eventually curtail Cash’s touring activity.
Rubin and Cash went back into the studio to make several more albums of covers and Johnny Cash originals, including “The Man Comes Around,” one of Cash’s last great epics, and “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song that drew attention with its devastating video.
They developed a close relationship that transcended music. They reportedly took Holy Communion together every day, even though Rubin was not particularly religious.
Commercially, their most successful effort would turn out to be 2002’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, which sold 1.6 million copies, largely because of the power of the “Hurt” video. But critically and culturally, American Recordings had the biggest impact. Rolling Stone would rank the album 384 among the Top 500 albums of all time.
Vinyl album sale are hitting historic highs in the United States, casting a spotlight on the importance of album cover art. Album sleeve design plays an essential role in expressing a musician’s vision and sparking curiosity through visual storytelling. In the digital age, album cover art is even more valuable. That’s because digital gives musicians more ways to raise awareness for their work through the visual power of an album cover — on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Tumblr, Twitter, and so on. The memorable covers of 2020 expressed the times we live in. The album sleeve for Taylor Swift’s Folklore captured the essence of social distancing and a newfound longing for nature that led to skyrocketing visits to national parks during the pandemic.
Duval Timothy’s Help reflected something we’ve been missing and wanting during the pandemic: the human connection . . .
. . . as did Heavy Light from U.S. Girls:
SAULT’s Untitled (Black Is), with its simple upraised fist, symbolized Black empowerment during a time of social upheaval.
Those themes of Black empowerment where everywhere, including Flo Milli, Ho, Why Is You Here? from Flo Milli . . .
. . . Legends Never Die from Juice WRLD . . .
. . . and Twice As Tall from Burna Boy:
But there was plenty of room for artistic expression on its own terms. The goofy design of Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters reflected a bit of whimsy, mystery, and arch sense of humor that has defined her work for years.
Madeline Kenney’s Sucker’s Lunch shared a sense of deadpan humor that works for any era:
How did you spend your Thanksgiving? Did you check in with your aunt on Zoom or perhaps take a walk around the neighborhood with your immediate family? Although some defied the CDC advisory about family gatherings and traveled to be with loved ones, it looks like many of us stayed home and . . . shopped online. According to Adobe Analytics, Thanksgiving Day spending online rose by nearly 22 percent year over year to $5.1 billion, hitting a new record. Black Friday was also a big day for online shopping, but what is Black Friday now, anyway, as retailers hold Black Friday sales online going back to October?
Welcome to the coronavirus holiday shopping season.
I reacted with mixed feelings. Did we really need to turn a time for family gatherings into a national day of shopping? But I also knew from my own first-hand research that Black Friday can be a social experience for families, and perhaps families would extend that particular form of bonding to Thanksgiving while they were already together.
Thanksgiving Grows Online
Well, shopping on Thanksgiving turned out to be a popular pastime, but the real story was its online growth year over year. It turned out browsing websites for deals complemented our TV viewing and turkey eating perfectly while we relaxed at home. And 2020 was no different — and yet it was very different. The big retailers were closed on Thanksgiving. And most of us were practicing social distancing. So, alone in our homes, we did what came natural: we shopped as we did in years past.
And why not? We’re living in unbelievably stressful times. The pandemic is exacting a heavy toll on our mental health. In April, nearly half of U.S. adults surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that their mental health had been hurt due to worry and stress over the virus, and the mounting stress continues to ratchet up anxiety levels. As The Lancet reported, “COVID-19 has resulted in an increase in known risk factors for mental health problems. Together with unpredictability and uncertainty, lockdown and physical distancing might lead to social isolation, loss of income, loneliness, inactivity, limited access to basic services, increased access to food, alcohol, and online gambling, and decreased family and social support, especially in older and vulnerable people.”
[A]ccording to a study done by University of Michigan researchers, shopping to relieve stress (otherwise known as retail therapy) was up to 40 times more effective at giving people “a sense of control” and that shoppers were three times less sad compared to those that only browsed for items.
And way back in 2013, Kit Yarrow, a consumer research psychologist, noted the distinct benefits of online shopping. She wrote, “In my most recent consumer interviews, online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini-mental vacation. It makes sense.”
No wonder online commerce has boomed in 2020 — so much so that the pandemic accelerated the shift to eCommerce by five years, according to IBM. Of course it did. Scared and stressed, we’re seeking retail therapy. But with many stores closed during lockdown, we’ve often had nowhere else to turn but online — and even when stores have been open, we’ve often felt anxious about visiting them.
Our economy needs us to shop. And we need to shop, too — for noble reasons such as supporting businesses and uplifting others with gifts — and also for therapeutic ones. Bring it on. We need the therapy.
Wonder Woman is changing with the times. When she squares off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984 (aka WW84) on December 25, she’ll do so in movie theaters and on streaming service HBO Max. That’s right: streaming services have been promoted to first-run status. Or maybe it’s the other way around: movie studios are crawling to the streaming services.
Welcome to the rise of New Hollywood during the pandemic.
Old Hollywood Is in Trouble
Old Hollywood studios are in a terrible bind. Going into 2020, they’d scheduled their usual slate of big-budget blockbusters for global release in theaters around the world. Those titles included tentpole films such as Warner Brothers’s WW84 and MGM’s No Time to Die, the latest James Bond thriller and the last to star the ever-popular Daniel Craig as Bond. Hopes were high for both: WW84 followed 2017’s lucrative Wonder Woman, and James Bond movies are perennial cash cows. These were also costly undertakings, with $500 million budgets between them.
That strategy depended on saturating movie theaters, the dependable cash-cow distribution system for Old Hollywood. True, going into 2020, movie theaters comprised a distribution system that was showing cracks in the seams, but it was still effective and dominant. Then the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everything.
During the pandemic, movie theaters have experienced closures and dramatic declines in attendance. They’re struggling to stay alive, thus denying Old Hollywood its essential revenue source. To put things in perspective:
Rival chain AMC Theatres reported that attendance had dropped from 87.1 million in the third quarter of 2019 to 6.5 million in the third quarter of 2020. Revenue fell from $1.3 billion to $119.5 million.
Meanwhile, the New Hollywood entertainment companies, whose businesses depend on streaming, are flourishing.
New Hollywood Rising
New Hollywood business such as Amazon Video, Hulu, and Netflix were already gaining considerable power by creating their own original content, winning Academy Awards, attracting visionary talent, and gaining subscribers. Some Old Hollywood brands such as Disney and WarnerMedia noticed and acted. Disney took an ownership stake in Hulu and launched its own vaunted streaming service, Disney+, in 2019, two moves that might have saved the company. WarnerMedia, through its ownership of HBO, launched HBO Max in 2020, thus creating a streaming outlet for the movie catalog from Warner Brothers (owned by WarnerMedia).
Disney acted just in time. In 2020, as people got used to staying home more during the pandemic, subscriber totals for streaming services skyrocketed, including an astounding 73 million for Disney+ in less than a year. The jury is still out for HBO Max. The service hit the market late, and it’s hampered by a confusing brand extension problem (to wit: how exactly does HBO Max differ from other HBO offerings available?).
Hard Choices for Old Hollywood
So what’s an Old Hollywood movie studio going to do with its movie inventory?
One option is to take your chances and distribute your films through movie theaters, which means taking the plunge now or postponing your release until audiences feel safe to return to theaters. Warner Brothers adopted the former approach by releasing Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, in theaters on September 3, and the movie is on pace to lose $50 million to $100 million.
But waiting until audiences feel safe to return to theaters presents a huge question mark: when will that date arrive? No one knows.
But for studios without their own streaming service, selling distribution rights isn’t an easy choice — not if you have already sunk millions into film costs and were relying on movie theaters to make a profit. MGM had originally slated No Time to Die for a May 2020 release. But as the pandemic worsened, MGM delayed the release of the movie to November 2020 — and then to April 2021. Meanwhile, as reported in Variety, MGM shopped No Time to Die to streaming platforms such as Apple TV+ and Netflix. But the film has a staggering $301 million budget, and to recoup that cost, MGM offered a price between $600 million and $850 million, which was unacceptably high to Apple and Netflix.
Now MGM is like a homeowner who sinks a fortune into improving the house only to find no buyers on the market. And James Bond is left cooling his heels unless MGM lowers its sale price or some sort of miracle happens in 2021 to convince people to go to theaters again. It should be noted that the stock for AMC and Cinemark rose after Pfizer announced a vaccine breakthrough — a glimmer of hope.
The WW84 Saga
Warner Brothers faced a similar dilemma with WW84. Warner Brothers originally planned to release WW84 as a summer tentpole movie in 2020. There was talk of a potential $1 billion gross in ticket sales. As the pandemic worsened, Warner Brothers moved the release date to Christmas Day. Deadline reported that Warner Brothers would postpone the movie release again until 2021. But Warner Brothers had already moved the release date five times going back to 2019, raising the question of whether further delays might cause audiences to lose interest completely. As Variety reported:
[T]he studio couldn’t delay the release of “Wonder Woman 1984” indefinitely. The movie was filmed and completed in 2018, which seems like an eternity ago given everything that’s happened in the last few months. There was a sense that sequel would get stale if they waited until summer or next fall — four years after “Wonder Woman” premiered. Even with several promising vaccines, there’s no guarantee that the world will return to some kind of normal in a matter of months.
Instead, Warner Brothers pulled the trigger with a hybrid approach for Christmas Day. The film will debut theatrically in international markets that do not have HBO Max on December 16, 2020. Instead of banking on WW84raking in $1 billion, Warner Brothers is counting on the movie to drive sign-ups for HBO Max, whose 8.6 million current subscribers pales in comparison to rivals such as Netflix (196 million subscribers), Amazon Prime (150 million), and Disney+ (73 million as noted). HBO Max also counts a potential 28.7 million HBO pay TV customers who are eligible to subscribe to HBO Max but have not activated their membership. Perhaps the movie will inspire them in addition to attracting more.
As for movie theater distribution, Warner Brothers will need to bank on international sales with half of all U.S. movie theaters closed — and who knows how many more will by December 25 as the pandemic worsens? As a sign of how desperate theaters are, AMC Theatres CEO and President Adam Aron said he supports WW84’s hybrid strategy, which normally would have been a slap in the face to theaters depending on the revenue from a first-run:
For many months, AMC has been in active and deep dialogue with Warner Brothers to figure out how best this cinematic blockbuster could be seen at AMC Theatres in these unprecedented times . . . Given that atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres, and atypical windows and releasing strategies, AMC is fully onboard for Warner Brothers’ announcement today.
Now movie theaters are not only onboard with the studios — they’re also forging new relationships with them. Universal has struck deals with both AMC Theatres and Cinemark to shorten the theatrical windows of Universal releases to 17 days, with Universal sharing video-on-demand sales with the theaters. These agreements are highly unusual. But desperate times call for new thinking.
Movie theaters were already in decline before the pandemic hit. In 2019, ticket sales in North America totaled $11.4 billion, down 4 percent from 2018. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times reported in March,
Looking at the last 20 years of attendance figures, the number of tickets sold in North America peaked in 2002, when cinemas sold about 1.6 billion. In 2019, attendance totaled roughly 1.2 billion, a 25 percent drop — even as the population of the United States increased roughly 15 percent. Cinemas have kept ticket revenue high by raising prices, but studio executives say there is limited room for continued escalation. Offerings in theaters may also grow more constrained. Even before the pandemic, major studios were starting to route smaller dramas and comedies toward streaming services instead of theaters.
Now theaters might be dead. The questions for Warner Brothers and WW84now are: is there enough life left in movie theaters, and will WW84 deliver a breakthrough for the fledgling HBO Max? The answers will shape the future of the film industry.
Could you have predicted that McDonald’s would be unable to keep up with demand for Value Meals during a global pandemic that has crushed the restaurant industry? Or that a song recorded by Fleetwood Mac 43 years ago would re-enter the Billboard charts? Or that a 90-year-old juice company would suddenly become cool?
All those things have happened in 2020 because of a perfect storm of media, personalities, and brands known as cultural relevance. Cultural relevance is something like a Holy Grail for brands because being culturally relevant is a way to build an emotional bond with people — and branding is all about emotion. Brands become culturally relevant when they connect with an audience through their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Sometimes cultural relevance means shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, too. (Netflix is an example of a brand that shapes attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in addition to connecting with them.)
Let’s take a closer look at a few examples from recent weeks.
McDonald’s and Travis Scott
When McDonald’s and hip-hop star Travis Scott launched the Travis Scott Value Meal on September 4, they tapped into a cultural relationship between fast food and hip-hop that arguably dates back to Run-DMC name checking KFC and McDonald’s in “You Be Illin’,” and NWA and LL Cool J both showing Burger King love in “I Ain’t That 1” and “The Bristol Hotel,” respectively. L.A.-based Fatburger achieved national fame in 1992 when Ice Cube name checked the chain in the song “It Was a Good Day.”
After that, Fatburger became the unofficial burger stand of choice for the hip-hop world, with artists such as Biggie Smalls calling out the restaurant either in song or word. Another famous L.A. eatery, Roscoe’s House of Chicken & Waffles, is so beloved by hip-hop stars that Snoop Dogg offered to buy the joint when it faced financial problems.
The fast food industry understands the power of hip-hop to confer cultural relevance, too. Back in 2005, McDonald’s enlisted the help of a marketing firm to recruit hip-hop artists to mention Big Macs in their songs. Having deep pockets doesn’t make you culturally relevant, of course. But you can borrow cultural relevance by forming the right relationships. And that’s what McDonald’s did by co-branding with Travis Scott recently.
The McDonald’s campaign with Travis Scott ran from September 4 to October 8. It featured not only the Travis Scott Value Meal, but also the sale of related merchandise such as a $90 pillow that sold out in days. Scott also starred in a commercial for Mickey D’s.
The campaign was so popular that McDonald’s could not keep up with the demand for the Travis Scott Value Meals. McDonald’s said that the campaign helped the company achieve the highest monthly same-store sales in nearly a decade.
McDonald’s US chief marketing officer Morgan Flatley told Business Insider that McDonald’s decided to team up with Scott because of his cultural impact, especially when it comes to younger customers:
His ability to kind of see where culture is going and have a hand in where culture is going is really unique. Then you couple that with his huge followership and his fans, social-media footprint, and . . . 3 billion streams. He just has an incredible audience.
The relationship with McDonald’s also spawned an amusing behavior among younger customers who rolled up to McDonald’s drive-through lanes and placed their orders for the Travis Scott Meal with their own creative spin, such as announcing cryptically, “You know what I want,” or “You know why we’re here,” and then blasting Scott’s hit song, “Sicko Mode.”
The “Sicko Mode”-style ordering also lit up TikTok, with fans posting their “Sicko Mode” moments on videos that went viral. Fans had so much fun coming up with their own distinct ways to order the Travis Scott Meal that McDonald’s executives sent a memo to employees, giving a heads up regarding the different vernacular one might expect in the drive-through lane, and encouraging employees to just roll with it.
“To reduce confusion, please make crew aware of these monikers or alternate ordering methods,” the memo said.
This is what cultural relevance is all about: influencing how people actually talk and behave. And all this happened in just weeks.
Choose wisely. The McDonald’s/Travis Scott relationship made McDonald’s more culturally relevant with hip-hop fans, and Travis Scott more relevant with fast food nation. Money alone did not create cultural relevance: good judgment in a branding partner did. McDonald’s benefitted especially because Travis Scott’s star was exploding in 2020, as I discussed recently in a Hacker Noon article.
Be true to your brand. Everything about the relationship was perfect for Scott’s larger-than-life personality. He’s like the Salvador Dali of hip-hop – a wildly creative artist who pushes boundaries, an example being performing while riding a roller coaster during his concerts. All the merchandise featured during the campaign, such as the oversized McNugget pillow and the sticker bomb hoodie, were perfect for his brand and McDonald’s. The Travis Scott Value Meal itself was simply the kind of food anyone can get at McDonald’s all the time – a Quarter Pounder with cheese, fries with BBQ sauce to dip, and a Sprite — repackaged for the campaign.
McDonald’s is now trying to repeat its success with a new Value Meal that features Colombian reggaeton musician J Balvin – an obvious attempt to court a more global Latin audience. Let’s see if the J Balvin Meal extends the winning streak.
Nathan Apodaca, TikTok, Fleetwood Mac, and Ocean Spray
TikTok star Nathan Apodaca, who works in a potato processing plant when he’s not creating viral TikTok videos for millions of followers, is at the center of a feel-good story during a year that needs one.
On September 25, Apodaca posted a TikTok video of himself cruising on longboard beside a highway, swigging from a jug of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice, and lip syncing to the Fleetwood Mac 1977 song “Dreams.” In one of those gloriously sweet internet moments that no one can predict, the clip went viral, creating a huge sensation. More than 170,000 TikTok users created their own homage videos featuring “Dreams.” The original video generated millions of views and reactions.
Why? Partly because Apodaca already had a large following on TikTok, where viral stars and global influencers are made. But it was the chill vibe of the video that mattered most. In reality, he was heading to his job on a longboard because his car wasn’t working – and yet, he was unflappably cool, lip syncing to a perfectly chill song that instantly evokes 1970s nostalgia. The entire vibe was something we all aspire to, especially during these stressful times.
But the story didn’t end there. By mid-October, “Dreams” re-entered the Billboard 100 chart for the first time in decades. And Fleetwood Mac seized the opportunity to keep the momentum going. Stevie Nicks, who wrote the song, created her own response video, singing along with the original recording of “Dreams” while she sat on a piano bench next to a container of Ocean Spray and laced up a pair of roller skates.
Mick Fleetwood created a TikTok account to pay homage to the song and surprised Apodaca by thanking him live on a BBC interview.
“We owe you,” Fleetwood said, fittingly.
Meanwhile, Ocean Spray jumped in. CEO Tom Hayes joined TikTok to make his own response video.
Even better, Ocean Spray gifted Apodaca with a new truck to replace the broken vehicle that caused the need for creating a video in the first place. The Tom Hayes TikTok response humanized the corporate brand, and the truck gift was a perfect gesture that created goodwill for the brand at a time when people want brands to share positivity during hard times. (In a recent Twitter survey, 74 percent of respondents said brands should showcase acts of kindness during the pandemic, and 70 percent of respondents said brands should boost positivity and share positive stories.)
Meanwhile, Nathan Apodaca has taken a leave of absence from his job to manage the opportunities that have come his way, including potentially launching his own cannabis strain in California (he’d already been running a side hustle selling knitted beanies).
Be opportunistic and agile. Ocean Spray and Fleetwood Mac both seized the opportunity to create brand love by responding with their own TikTok videos. And they acted quickly while the viral sensation was peaking.
Be authentic. Neither Ocean Spray nor Fleetwood Mac did anything too “corporate.” Their videos felt authentic and not overly polished, befitting the TikTok platform. As TikTok Global Head of Business marketing Katie Puris told Adweek, “Brands don’t have to feel like they need to show up as being perfect. Our community doesn’t expect that from them.”
Do good. Both Mick Fleetwood and Ocean Spray showed class and created goodwill by publicly thanking Apodaca and, in Ocean Spray’s case, donating a truck. It was the least they could do for a man who put them both back on the map.
Nathan Apodaca’s TikTok video was the equivalent of a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack making 1970s hits popular again, or Stranger Thingstriggering a resurgence of interest in 1980s products such as New Coke. Brands cannot always know when a viral sensation will happen. But they can have a game plan for knowing how act quickly and capitalize on a culturally relevant moment.
As Katie Puris said, “You can’t plan for viral. Don’t just wait for a moment to be opportunistic, but plan for this to be a component in the way you think about building your brand all of the time, with an always-on strategy. And have a plan in place for when these opportunities do show up.”
Brands Will Keep Partnering with Musicians
Scott’s relationship with McDonald’s demonstrates how an elite group of musicians, the new music moguls, have become brands unto themselves, wielding power through their cultural relevance. Musicians used to align themselves with non-music brands such as McDonald’s to gain more power, visibility, and wealth. But an elite group of musicians, such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, have become so powerful that they’ve inverted the model. Some have changed the model completely by creating non-music brands. For example, Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line is credited for compelling the beauty industry to create more inclusive products, a phenomenon known as the Fenty Effect. Arguably, Rihanna as a fashion and beauty brand has eclipsed Rihanna the musician.
Travis Scott is inheriting the mantle from this high-flying group — a next-generation music mogul.
As for Nathan Apodaca? Whether his cannabis venture works out or not, he’s just going to keep doing what he’s doing. As he told Insider, “I just do me, that ain’t gonna change. I’m gonna keep skateboarding and doing my longboard videos because those make me feel good. My little dance videos, my little skits that I do, it’s just exciting to me. It’s fun and exciting because I get to see the joy that it brings people.”
Social media continues to erupt with comments about Eddie Van Halen, who passed away October 6, a victim of cancer. Most of the posts (including a few of my own) consist of very loud audio clips of Van Halen shredding the guitar with his famous finger tapping technique.
More than a few discuss his lifestyle of debauchery and excess (after all, he was a god who walked the earth, and being a rock god confers carnal privileges that mere mortals can only dream of). But my enduring Eddie Van Halen memory comes from hot, sweaty day in 1983 when a bearded dude named Bobby schooled me on Van Halen’s impact on popular tastes.
I was helping a family member move apartments – back-breaking work on any day much less a summer afternoon. I can’t remember exactly how Bobby fit into the picture. But he was a helping hand. And because I’m the last person you want to rely on to transport a fold-out a sofa without the thing opening up and pinning your volunteer moving crew against the wall, I greatly appreciated Bobby.
For most of the day, I stayed out of everyone’s way, which was the best move I could make for the safety and patience of all concerned. But I did strike up a few conversations with Bobby while he grunted and lifted and I looked busy doing nothing. Bobby, who wore cowboy boots and could have won a Kris Kristofferson lookalike contest, regaled me with his music passions, which were simple: country, rock and roll, and nothing else. Basically, if a song didn’t feature a hard driving guitar, a pedal steel guitar, and a testosterone-fueled lead singer, he had little use for it.
“But you know,” he said, in a laid back voice that predated the Dude by 15 years, “I gotta tell you something that really, really surprises me. I never thought I’d ever say this, but that new Michael Jackson stuff rocks hard! He’s got it down right.” And then he proceeded to play air guitar to Eddie Van Halen’s “Beat It” solo.
Michael Jackson didn’t need Eddie Van Halen to become a global superstar. By the time “Beat It” was released as a video and radio single in early 1983, the Thriller album was already taking off big thanks largely to “Billie Jean,” which exploded in January 1983. But it was “Beat It” that changed everything by fusing rock and R&B. “Beat It” not only made Thriller rocket to Number One, it also helped Michael Jackson become a crossover star, reaching a far wider audience, including cats like Bobby who would never have given Michael Jackson the time of day. At a time when music was becoming more programmed and segmented, “Beat It” defied expectations.
Michael left to go across the hall to do some children’s speaking record. I think it was “E.T.” or something. So I asked Quincy, “What do you want me to do?” And he goes,
“Whatever you want to do.” And I go, “Be careful when you say that. If you know anything about me, be careful when you say, “Do anything you want!”
I listened to the song, and I immediately go, “Can I change some parts?” I turned to the engineer and I go, “OK, from the breakdown, chop in this part, go to this piece, pre-chorus, to the chorus, out.” Took him maybe 10 minutes to put it together. And I proceeded to improvise two solos over it.
I was just finishing the second solo when Michael walked in. And you know artists are kind of crazy people. We’re all a little bit strange. I didn’t know how he would react to what I was doing. So I warned him before he listened. I said, “Look, I changed the middle section of your song.”
Now in my mind, he’s either going to have his bodyguards kick me out for butchering his song, or he’s going to like it. And so he gave it a listen, and he turned to me and went, “Wow, thank you so much for having the passion to not just come in and blaze a solo, but to actually care about the song, and make it better.”
The solo didn’t happen because Eddie Van Halen spontaneously walked into a recording studio. The solo happened because Jackson and Jones possessed the artistic vision and commercial instincts. And Eddie Van Halen brought the genius for improvisation. That’s why guys like Bobby discovered Thriller back in 1983. And why they do so today.