Al Green: The Spirit Is Willing . . .

When I told my sister Karen I was going to see Al Green perform at the Chicago Theater May 7, she replied, “You mean Reverend Green.”

Yes. Reverend Al Green. The Al Green who sold millions of records singing about love and sexuality before becoming an ordained pastor at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, where he preaches today.

When I was a 10-year-old growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, Al Green was my world. He made me fall in love with music, a love that remains today. Whenever I could save up enough money, I’d ask my mom to take me to Kmart, where I sought out 45s from his Memphis record label, Hi. He was more than an entertaining singer with a sweet falsetto voice. He introduced me to feelings of love and longing through songs such as “You Ought to Be with Me” and “Call Me.” He was also the only black person I knew, or at least I felt like I knew, in our neighborhood north of town in the country. To a lonely kid afraid of the world, Al Green felt like an exciting voice from a grown-up place, assuring me of experiences yet to come with people from unexplored paths who looked and sounded different than me. He also figured into some family history, too, as I’ve described in my post “Al Green and the Family War.”

As I grew older and my musical tastes branched out, I never lost sight of Al Green’s brilliance. That cooing voice, punctuated by the Memphis horns and the tight rhythms conjured up by Willie Mitchell’s smooth production, always brought me back to those magical days of musical discovery in Battle Creek. Meanwhile Al Green embraced gospel for a lengthy run and then returned to secular music in 2003, releasing generally well-received albums over a period of five years. But after 2008’s Lay It Down, he stopped recording. So a few months ago, I was surprised to hear that out of the blue, he had decided to do a tour of eight venues, including the Chicago Theater. I scooped up two tickets for me and my wife, Jan.

I did not quite know what to expect. Al Green had recently turned 73 years old. Mick Jagger, two years his senior, remains a powerful force in concert, but he maintains a rigorous physical regime (as evidenced by his rapid recovery from a recent heart valve replacement). Artists such as Robert Plant have shown that they can turn their aging voices into a strength by adapting their vocal styles. They choose songs that not only accentuate their maturing voices, but also open up new vistas of musical discovery for themselves and their audience. But Robert Plant hones his voice through ongoing touring and songwriting. Al Green had not toured in years. Judging from recent photos, he looked heavier. But this might be the only chance we’d have to see him live.

So on a spring Tuesday evening, Jan and I took our seats in the balcony of the Chicago Theater to find out what Al Green had to offer. After an opening act, a 15-piece band blasted a salvo of strings and horns, and out sauntered the reverend, holding roses in his arms, singing “It Ain’t No Fun to Me.” He sounded huskier, but he hit those high notes with conviction. He wore a red vest and dark suit that barely contained his stocky frame. He prowled about the stage and handed roses to the women. He waved to the balcony and yelled “I love you Chicago!” often. We could feel his charisma even from where we sat. When a woman tossed her sweater onstage, the audience roared with approval.

I cannot remember the last time I heard a singer yell “I love you!” to his audience and seem like he meant it. Maybe I never have. A few years ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was performing at the Riviera when a fan yelled “We love you!” Darnielle replied, flatly, “No you don’t. You don’t even know me.” Al Green would have none of that disaffection. He fed off the audience’s obvious affection and gave it back to us.

The roses and the “I love you’s” were great theater. The gestures also captured the essence of Al Green. This is a man whose signature tune is “Love and Happiness” and who once released an album entitled Al Green Is Love. This is a man who was also a notorious lothario. At the height of his fame, a married woman he was romantically involved with, Mary Woodson White, became distraught when he refused to marry her. She poured boiling grits on him while he was bathing and then shot herself in the head. The story is essential to the Al Green mythology — the sinner who loved liberally before tasting hell and turning to the gospel for personal redemption. In reality, the lover-turned-preacher myth is not so clean-cut, as stories of domestic abuse dogged him into the early 1980s. In 1982, the same year he recorded the album Precious Lordhe admitted to spousal abuse. Whatever demons might have consumed him, he recorded more than a dozen gospel albums in the 1980s and 1990s, as he focused on preaching and singing for God.

He is also a man whose falsetto pierces your heart. Such is the power of artistic expression that a loyal audience casts aside the inconvenient facts and believes the myth. It was clear from the enthusiastic response from the audience at the Chicago Theater that we were surrounded by believers. He blitzed through his classics, such as “Let’s Get Married” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?” He delved into country (“For the Good Times”) and briefly transformed the Chicago Theater into the Full Gospel Tabernacle with a tender “Amazing Grace.” When he sang “Let’s Stay Together,” I shed a tear. He passed out more roses.

But about midway through the show, the myth began to fade. He became winded. He sat in a chair for a few songs, which made me think of an aging Phil Collins, now performing entire concerts seated in a chair owing to chronic back problems. He occasionally took off his jacket, lay it on the floor, and then slowly put it on again, an odd gesture that seemed to serve no purpose but to give him an excuse to stop singing and take a break. He paused to walk over to a table laden with bottles of Gatorade and water, and he took leisurely swigs, taking his time to unscrew the caps instead of singing.

And the reverend began to cheat. He cut corners with his songs. He sang incomplete verses before walking away from the microphone to hand out more flowers. He coasted through medleys, which allowed him to pick the least-demanding parts of the songs before moving on to the next one. He leaned on the audience to sing along with him, inviting them to handle entire verses for him. I knew what he was doing, and Jan did, too: taking a rest and letting the audience do the work we’d paid him to do.

Jan would later tell me that he reminded her of a visibly winded Axl Rose performing at the United Center in November 2017. But whereas Axl Rose could lean on the powerful guitar work of Guns N’ Roses bandmate Slash for a rest, Al Green didn’t have a foil onstage. But he did have the audience, and maybe it was appropriate that he leaned on us. After all, we were his wellspring of energy.

I wanted badly to like what I was hearing and seeing. And Al Green’s charm draws you into his orbit. I also wanted to relive those days when I would flip through the singles at Kmart in search of an Al Green song and then celebrate the moment when my eye caught that black Hi Records label. So this is what it must have been like for all those Elvis fans watching the bloated King labor onstage in his caped Elvis suit in the 1970s — longing and wanting, not for the man onstage but for an experience they could not have again. Perhaps if you shut your eyes, you could hold on to the myth.

After about an hour, the opening strains of one of his signature songs, “Love and Happiness,” filled the hall. “Love and Happiness” is recorded with a gentle guitar strum, a simple tapping of two feet on a Coke carton, and a whoosh of an organ, all atmosphere and nuance. But at the Chicago Theater, the song sounded like an anthem, engineered to fill the entire auditorium with a loud stampede of trumpets and a stanza repeated while the reverend handed out more flowers before disappearing and leaving us alone with his band and a table littered with plastic bottles of water and Gatorade. The lights came on. There was no encore.

But he was still Al Green. In the flesh. As the Reverend Green could quote from scripture, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

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Unsigned and on Fire: Alexis Saski of Tennessee Muscle Candy Writes Her Future

What would you do if you were a young musician with a record label interested in you — but you realized that your future with the label meant singing songs you didn’t believe in? Would you somehow make it work? Now let’s up the ante: you just moved to Nashville, you’re far from home, and you have no means to support yourself. What would you do?

If you’re Alexis Saski, leader of the Nashville band Tennessee Muscle Candy, you turn your back on the label even if it means performing in the streets to make ends meet.

“When I first started out, Sony wanted me to be a Christian artist,” she told me in a phone conversation on a recent Friday afternoon. “They moved me to Nashville to work with a producer for a month. But on my first night out in Nashville, I met two brothers from a rock band known as the Gills, Matt and Andy Prince. They had the most dynamic rhythm section I’ve ever heard. I realized I didn’t want to be a Christian artist. I wanted to play my own music.”

So Alexis dropped Sony and started her own band on her own terms. She learned how to sing live on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, performing for tourists and the homeless. Today, she is one of the most charismatic, powerful singers I’ve ever heard perform live, singing as part of a loose collective of musicians that includes popular guitarist Ricky Dover, Jr. She is Tennessee Muscle Candy’s undisputed leader and chief songwriter with a singing style that evokes Brittany Howard, Amy Winehouse, and Tina Turner. When she sings live, as she did recently at the Cobra in Nashville, she owns the floor, twisting her curvy frame, shaking her head, spinning like a tornado, and dropping to her knees at the lip of the stage.

Her band is unsigned, and her future is uncertain. But she is doing what she loves, creating art on her own terms, and performing concerts that can make you put down your drink and run out to a dance floor.

Riding a Wave of Energy

“When I am onstage, I feel like I am literally riding a wave of energy, and I just follow it,” she said. “Everything you see onstage — my confidence and my attitude — came from playing in the streets of Nashville. It’s weird that I had to leave a major label to find that. I had the freakin’ dream. I had what everyone wanted. But I was not happy at all.”

When I saw her onstage on May 4, my wife Jan and I were hanging out at the Cobra watching different acts take turns with short sets. We had no idea who was playing that night. We’d spent the day as tourists bombing around the city and wanted to chill out. We were tired and tempted to head back to our Airbnb. We were glad we stayed. From the moment Alexis, three guitarists, a keyboardist, and drummer hit the stage, they generated an electric garage-band energy that ignited the narrow, sweaty room. Ricky Dover, Jr,. and guitarist Matthew Paige (also of the Blackfoot Gypsies) traded licks with a ferocity that made me think of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s famous double-barrel guitar sound. Alexis dominated the stage with her muscular singing, while giving everyone around her room to shine.

Jan and I both rushed to the front of the stage, drawn to the grungy rock sound, immersed in a crowd that moved with its own energy force field. I had not felt this motivated to move in a very long time. Afterward, Jan and I lingered. Post-show, Ricky Dover, Jr., and Matthew Paige were quiet and courtly, but Alexis was effusive. She accepted our hugs and basked in the energy her band had just created.

When our trip to Nashville ended, for all the great music we experienced that weekend, I thought most of Tennessee Muscle Candy. Where did this band come from, and where were they going? I just had to know. It was easy to find Alexis — one Instagram private message to the band’s account was all it took. We set up a time to talk, swapped a few texts, and I listened to her story.

“Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes”

She told me she was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and raised in Rockport, a beach town with 7,000 people that was recently ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. Music was her world from the start. Her dad drummed for a Christian rock band and instructed her to write a song a day. Her mom performed for a rock band that played everything from Heart to No Doubt. Alexis remembers doing her homework while watching her mom rehearse.

“I was completely in awe of my mom,” Alexis said. “None of the other kids’ moms were in rock and roll bands. I basically wanted to be my mom.”

She loved singing as early as age 5, when she sang hymns in Sacred Heart Church. By age 15, she was organizing a praise and worship band in her local church, where her mom is choir director to this day. She taught herself how to play guitar, while earning recognition for her talents. She won a music scholarship to study at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Music to her was about singing gospel songs, although hearing Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?opened up her ears to the power of rock and roll. After hearing Hendrix, rock called to her like a distant siren — and just might have gotten under her skin.

“Growing up, I was Miss Catholic Goody-Two-Shoes,” she said. “I was a role model. But it was a lot to maintain. It really is tough living up to expectations, especially in a small town. You can make no wrong moves.”

She would shatter those expectations before going to college — in fact, her first night away from home. At a bar she saw 311, the rap-rock band from Nebraska that was becoming a national phenomenon, with albums such as Music and Grassroots. After their performance, she hung with the band.

“I partied with them all night before my first classes began,” she recalled, noting the irony of meeting the band at the same bar where her mom often performed. “After that, the only class I attended was surfing.”

She was consumed with a passion to perform — not four years from now, but now. So, she dropped out of college. When her parents asked her what she was going to do with her life, she replied, “I’m going to sing.”

She traveled to Las Vegas to sing in a contest, Talent Rock, where she won a car. She sold the car to finance an R&B demo that she shopped around to different record labels. Warner Bros. Records came calling.

Nashville

Everything was happening so fast. At an age when her peers were either in college or working local jobs in Rockport, Alexis was tasting the first fruits of commercial success. As Bruce Springsteen once said about being an unknown talent, when you get your shot at making it, you say yes to everything, even if saying yes to everything isn’t always in your best interest. Warner Bros. introduced her to a record industry executive who asked her how she would feel about singing Christian pop music, at the time enjoying an explosion of popularity.

“I said, ‘Fine,’’’ she recalls. “I answered without thinking.”

The next thing she knew, she was in New Jersey making a Christian music demo with Anthony Krizan of the Spin Doctors — yes, the band that gave us “Two Princes” back in the day. The demo caught the attention of Sony Records. Sony sent her to Nashville to start recording songs for its Provident label.

Land-locked Nashville held little appeal to a woman who grew up in a beach town. But she needed to surround herself with talented producers and musicians to break through, and Music City is where they are found. Sony put her up in hotels and then a lake house to work with different songwriters and producers. She was paying her dues and finding her voice as a Christian pop artist. But just as a chance encounter with 311 changed her life, so did her random encounter with Matt and Andy Prince of the Gills, unleashing her passion for rock music. And so began her education on the streets of Nashville.

Alexis and the Prince brothers decided to try performing together. So Alexis moved out of the lake house.

“The lead singer of the Gills, Jesse Wheeler, stealthily helped me move my stuff out of the lake house,” she remembered. “It was like an escape.”

Alexis moved into a house in Antioch with the band and practiced. It was January. They were broke. They could not afford to pay their heating bills. Things got so bad that they used an open oven to keep warm. They decided start performing in the streets to earn enough money just to pay the bills.

Lessons from the Streets

“Playing in the streets is the best education you can give yourself,” she said. “You have to play for people who don’t have any reason to see you. You have to send a charge of energy to attract them. I felt like I had this power in my chest, like a magnet in my heart: energy force, engage!”

The band played covers such as Jerry Ragovoy’s and Bert Berns’s “Piece of My Heart” (made famous, of course, by Janis Joplin), Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and Journey’s “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’.” If you search YouTube, you can find amateur footage of the trio playing on the sidewalk. Her talent is evident even in the rough fan footage. In her cover of “Piece of My Heart,” she nearly drops to her knees as she caresses the microphone like Tina Turner, then uses the microphone stand like an instrument. She is pure energy, drawing a crowd around her.

In 2011 fan footage of the band singing “Rock and Roll,” you can hear the random passers-by gasp and break into spontaneous dance, while Alexis jumps and sings.

“Oh my gosh, this is unbelievable,” a voice exclaims.

But Alexis believed.

“A Bottle of Soda That Was Being Shaken Forever”

“I was a bottle of soda that was being shaken forever, and then someone finally took the lid off,” she remembered. “Playing in the streets took the lid off.”

People began to ask them who they were. They needed a name. Tennessee Muscle Candy resulted from a prank Facebook status that the Prince brothers posted.

Nashville was, as it is today, a large collective of musicians who are always hustling side gigs in addition to their main careers. If you need to find band mates to play with, it’s a wellspring of talent so long as you accept the fact that the guitarist you perform with in April might not be the same one you record with in May. Soon Alexis started meeting other musicians and playing on their gigs, such as Magnolia Sons:

She met guitarist Matthew Paige at the High Watt club in Nashville after a Blackfoot Gypsies show. Paige asked her to sing back-up vocals on a record (she continues to sing back-up for them today). After that, she met Ricky Dover Jr. while she was gigging with Magnolia Sons. Meanwhile, Andy Prince joined a band full-time, Manchester Orchestra. Matt Prince got married and moved to Pensacola, Florida. (“We will always be family, but our paths are different,” she noted.) Tennessee Muscle Candy evolved.

Songwriter

She also began writing songs, which capture a vibe all their own. Her first single, “Walk That Walk,” produced and co-written by Reno Bo, is described on the band’s Facebook page as a “catchy three-minute jolt of psychedelic garage pop,” which is an apt description, especially with the theremin solo that whines like a drone. That fuzzy theremin evokes Jimmy Page’s theremin solo on the live version of “Whole Lotta Love” you hear on Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

“Weird Around You,” is all rock and soul. But “Lights On” and “So Good” grab you with a full-on Led Zeppelin-esque wall of sound. In “So Good,” Alexis unleashes a furious, tough bluesy vocal that sounds even earthier live.

These are songs made from the gut and meant to be played loud and live. The Tennessee Muscle Candy line-up we saw May 4 did the songs justice, with a tight set that sounded as if they had been playing together for years, which is impressive when you consider how often local bands like theirs change personnel.

“Everyone brings their own ingredient to the mix,” she said. “It’s not always easy to define our sound. We’re a mixture of punk and those old 1960s garage bands.”

“You Have to Own That One Thing”

When I told her the band’s live sound reminded me of early Doors, circa London Fog 1966 or Led Zeppelin on their first tour, she laughed. She recalled playing Led Zeppelin covers such as “Whole Lotta Love” and mentioned that the Doors are an influence.

“A lot of people want to be Jim Morrison,” she said. “But no one can be Jim Morrison. You have to own that one thing that you bring that no one else can.”

That “one thing” for her is being the uncorked soda bottle onstage. Somehow, she manages to own the stage without suffocating everyone else playing with her, though. When other bandmates play solos, she even kneels beside them, as if offering a tribute. How does she pull off that balance?

“It’s about empathy,” she replied. “A lot of front men go wrong that way. They can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what other people in the band are feeling when they are onstage with you. Empathy is in my nature. When I kneel in front of them, it’s a chance to thank them.”

But make no mistake: she commands the stage, draws energy from the audience, and shoots that energy across the room. “You have to go big,” she said. “Performing with my body is like strutting as animals do to attract others.”

She added, “I don’t have to be ashamed of my body. I am not heroin chic. I am a full-figured woman. There are a lot of young women who approach me after the show and thank me because of who I am. Performing is great for body positivity. It’s good for young women to see someone with body confidence. It’s a feeling that this is what I am meant to do. It feels really good.”

And now, ahead of her, comes more recording and possibly touring. In June, she will record in Nashville studio Bomb Shelter with a line-up that will include Matthew Paige and her regular guitarist, Jon Little. Her producer (and owner of the studio) Andrija Tokic, recorded the Alabama Shakes’s breakthrough album Boys and Girls.

“I would love to tour,” she says, “Building a following happens with touring. We need to get a good single out and hit the road with that.”

“A Foolish Sense of Hope”

And, ultimately, what does Alexis Saski want? How will she define success?

“I just want respect, and I want to support myself,” she said. “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be self-sufficient. We’re over the dream of being fabulously wealthy.”

She has no health insurance and not enough money to support herself. So why do it?

“A foolish sense of hope,” she laughed. “My love for music.”

I’m on Twitter @davidjdeal

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Why the Next-Generation Google Assistant Could Be a Game Changer for Google

The business that monetizes the voice ecosystem will lead the voice-first economy. During Google’s I/O developer conference May 7-9, Google previewed a major development in its fight with Amazon to be that leader: the launch of a faster Google Assistant, described as “game changing” by Gartner Research Director Werner Goertz. A Google Assistant that responds more effectively to voice commands is certain to make Google a more appealing utility as people continue to use the voice interface to accomplish everyday tasks. And offering a utility remains Google’s chief strength as a brand. The only question is whether Google will move quickly enough to capitalize on its advantage by making the next-generation Google Assistant widely available.

Google Launches On-Device Speech Recognition

Google announced that Google Assistant, Google’s voice assistant, is getting faster with on-device machine learning. In other words, Google devices using Android will offer a voice interface directly through the device rather than rely on the cloud.

This news might have come as a surprise to people who assume that their conversations with voice assistants are managed on their devices solely. In reality, the software that manages Google Assistant actually resides on the cloud. Similarly, when you use the Apple Siri voice assistant on your iPhone, Apple relies on the cloudAnd so does Amazon when you use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant on an Echo smart speaker. By moving the voice assistant software from the cloud to your phone, Google says Google Assistant will deliver answers to voice requests up to 10 times faster. According to Manuel Bronstein, Google’s vice president of product development, Google Assistant:

Running on-device, the next generation Assistant can process and understand your requests as you make them, and deliver the answers up to 10 times faster. You can multitask across apps—so creating a calendar invite, finding and sharing a photo with your friends, or dictating an email is faster than ever before. And with Continued Conversation, you can make several requests in a row without having to say “Hey Google” each time. 

He also wrote, “This breakthrough enabled us to create a next generation Assistant that processes speech on-device at nearly zero latency, with transcription that happens in real-time, even when you have no network connection.”

The next-generation Google Assistant will become available on Google Pixel phones later in 2019. Google has not yet announced its availability beyond the Pixel. Now that Google has taken the wraps off the improved product, Google needs to act quickly to make Google Assistant more widespread across the Android world while Google has first-mover advantage. 

Why a Faster Google Assistant Matters

Making voice faster and responsive is crucial for Google to be a leader. Years ago, Google became synonymous with the entire search category because the Google search engine offered (and still offers) a utility. Users could type commands and get useful, reasonably accurate answers quickly. Fast-forward to 2019. Google still dominate traditional search. But Google does not lead the voice-first experience as it does traditional search. For example, in the United States, Amazon owns 63 percent of the market for voice-activated smart speakers (although its share is declining). Globally, Amazon and Google are neck and neck in this category

Google has a strong motivation to overtake Amazon: the use of voice assistants is expected to triple from 2.5 billion digital voice assistants in use to 8 billion in 2023. With on-device voice:

Google Can Make Voice More Reliable

Google Assistant has been evaluated as being a more reliable assistant than Alexa based on accuracy of responses. By making Google Assistant faster, Google makes its voice technology even more reliable, thus building on its strength. At Google I/O, Google demonstrated vividly just how useful voice technology can be with the faster Google Assistant:

As Andy Boxall noted in Digital Trends, “Speed is everything, because with it comes convenience. Without it, there’s only frustration. You can reply to messages now using dictation, but you have to go through a series of steps first, and Assistant can’t always help. Using voice is faster, provided the software is accurate and responsive enough. Google Assistant 2.0 looks like it will achieve this goal, and using our phones for something more than only basic, often-repeated tasks may be about to become a quicker, less screen-intensive process.”

With speed and reliability comes trust. As consumers see just how useful voice can be, they’re going to move beyond the current state of using voice to do simple things such as check the weather and move on to more doing more complicated tasks such as making purchases — and businesses are eager for that day to come.

Google Can Make Voice a Better Mobile Experience

Google Assistant is available on one billion devices, up from 500 million in May 2018. Why? One big reason: mobile phones powered by Google’s Android operating system use Google Assistant by default. Android has acted as a Trojan horse to make Google Assistant live on mobile phones. As Manuel Bronstein told The Verge “The largest footprint right now is on phones. On Android devices, we have a very, very large footprint.” And here Amazon can’t touch Google, whose real rival is Apple for leadership of voice on mobile phones. 

Now, mobility means more than using our phones, as evidenced by Amazon, Apple, and Google fighting to embed their voice assistants in automobiles. To that end, at I/O, Google also introduced driving mode, which makes any Android-powered phone using Google Assistant more valuable for driving. As Google announced,

In the car, the Assistant offers a hands-free way to get things done while you’re on the road. Earlier this year we brought the Assistant to navigation in Google Maps, and in the next few weeks, you’ll be able to get help with the Assistant using your voice when you’re driving with Waze.

Today we’re previewing the next evolution of our mobile driving experience with the Assistant’s new driving mode. We want to make sure drivers are able to do everything they need with just voice, so we’ve designed a voice-forward dashboard that brings your most relevant activities—like navigation, messaging, calling and media—front and center. It includes suggestions tailored to you, so if you have a dinner reservation on your calendar, you’ll see directions to the restaurant. Or if you started a podcast at home, you can resume right where you left off from your car. If a call comes in, the Assistant will tell you who’s calling and ask if you want to answer, so you can pick up or decline with just your voice. Assistant’s driving mode will launch automatically when your phone is connected to your car’s bluetooth or just say, “Hey Google, let’s drive,” to get started. Driving mode will be available this summer on Android phones with the Google Assistant.

Now, consider how a faster Google Assistant could help you as you’re driving and using your voice as a device for wayfinding, making restaurant reservations, and communicating. It’s easy to see how faster replies matter even more when you’re driving, especially when you drive through an unfamiliar area or cities with complicated routes. 

Insanely Powerful, But Can’t Be Used

As noted, the faster Google Assistant will first launch on Google’s new Pixel phones, which are reportedly the fastest-growing smartphones in the United States. So far Google has not yet said when widespread availability beyond the Pixel will happen. But Google will need to make the faster on-device Google Assistant available on any Android-powered device to make a real difference. As Yahoo! News wryly noted in a recent headline, “New Google Assistant is insanely powerful, but can’t be used.”  It’s hard to believe Google would restrict an on-device Google Assistant to Pixel phones. Google cannot afford to do so. The opportunity is too great, and the stakes are too high, for Google to play conservatively.

The Prize

What’s the monetary pay-off for Google making Google Assistant smarter? As I noted earlier this year, being the backbone of voice protects the company’s online advertising business, which accounts for more than 70 percent of Google’s revenue. Google needs to keep giving people reasons to use products such as the Google search engine, Google Maps, and Google Chrome. That’s why in 2018, Google launched Google Duplex, an AI-powered bot that mimics the human voice to book reservations and perform other tasks with businesses. (Google Duplex was launched on Pixel phones and is now available on the web.) By keeping people on Google’s ecosystem, Google can continue to deliver audiences to advertisers and learn from audience behavior.

As Amazon’s own advertising products take flight, and with Amazon stealing consumer search traffic from Google, Google is under tremendous pressure to protect and extend its reach in the home and on the go. As we move toward a voice-first world, is Google moving quickly enough? 

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Why Amazon and Kohl’s Need Each Other

Amazon and Kohl’s are expanding a relationship that appears to be working for the two frenemies. As announced recently, all 1,150 Kohl’s stores across the United States will accept Amazon returns, thus expanding a program the two companies began to pilot in 2017. Kohl’s will accept eligible Amazon items (without a box or label) and return them for customers for free. As a result, Kohl’s becomes a product return center for Amazon. 

How Amazon Returns Work at Kohl’s

In early 2018, I visited a Kohl’s location in Woodridge, Illinois, shortly after the store began accepting Amazon returns. A giant banner at the front of the store made it clear that Amazon returns were welcomed. The designated Amazon returns station was set up near the entrance. I asked a sales associate why the Amazon returns center was at the front of the store. Wouldn’t it be better to place the center in the back, which would generate more foot traffic throughout the store? She replied that Kohl’s already operated its own returns counter at the back of the store, and having an Amazon returns counter at the same area was confusing to customers. But to encourage foot traffic, Kohl’s gave Amazon customers coupons with discounts for in-store purchases.

In April 2019, I visited the same store. I noticed that the Amazon returns desk had been moved to the back to an all-purpose service counter for customers of Amazon and Kohl’s (for both online pickup and returns). Signs throughout the store directed Amazon customers to the consolidated returns center.

Each person at the service counter accepted all returns, whether from Kohl’s or Amazon. It was clear that the associates had been trained to fulfill both types of returns based on how quickly they managed the process. An associate also confirmed that Kohl’s continues to provide coupons (with a one-week expiration date) to encourage Amazon customers to stay in the store and shop for Kohl’s merchandise. Someone at Kohl’s must have gotten the message: when you see an opportunity to get customers walking through your store, you take it. With the passage of time and the assistance of clear signage, customers will figure out where to take their returns.

In addition, near the entrance, an Amazon-branded pop-up store offered a wide range of Amazon products, including different Echo speakers and Fire products. Here was an attempt to make Kohl’s a distributor for Amazon as well via a pop-up store. But apparently the attempt failed to take root. Amazon recently announced the discontinuation of pop-up locations including those at Kohl’s stores. It should be noted, however, that Kohl’s will stock Amazon products, just not in an Amazon-branded space. So Kohl’s has become a retail outlet for Amazon after all. Why bother with a pop-up store if Kohl’s will stock your merchandise, anyway?

Does the Strategy Work?

Data from Earnest Research suggests that the partnership is paying off for Kohl’s. After Chicago stores began accepting Amazon returns in 2017, “Chicago sales, transactions, and customer growth all outpace the same metrics nationwide for 2018,” according to Earnest.

And the relationship certainly makes sense for Amazon even if the pop-up stores have failed. Having Kohl’s as fulfillment partner attacks one of the headaches of buying online: ease of returns. And Amazon enjoys the services of a returns counter without having to own a brick-and-mortar store. Of all Amazon’s services, such as retail, advertising, cloud computing, retail remains particularly costly. It behooves Amazon to find better ways to contain expenses (which the company is doing based on its latest quarterly earnings report). Even the mighty Amazon needs partners 

Meanwhile Kohl’s is maximizing the value of its floor space in other ways, such as by leasing locations to Planet Fitness. And Kohl’s is not the only retailer leasing floor space. Macy’s has been leasing space to retailers such as Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters

What’s Next?

It will be interesting to see how this relationship unfolds. Will Amazon lean on Kohl’s to sell more of its products, such as its fast-growing stable of house brands? In fact, Motley Fool speculates that Amazon could buy Kohl’s outright. The notion isn’t that far-fetched (see Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods). Retail apocalypse or opportunity? Stay tuned.

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What Comes Next After K-Pop’s Big Week?

K-pop is having a moment in America, and for once, BTS is not the only reason. But is K-pop truly achieving mainstream popularity Stateside beyond its fan base? 

The genre of pop music born in South Korea is a global phenomenon, and although K-pop is bigger than BTS, the Korean boy band’s loyal and global fan base (the ARMY) is surely a major reason why BTS has been the face of K-pop in the United States for the past few years. During the weekend of April 12, BTS set a record for the song with the most YouTube views within 24 hours, racking up 74.6 million views for its single “Boy with Luv” (featuring Halsey) from an album, Map of the Soul: Persona– which had sold millions of copies long before its April 12 release.

And on April 13, BTS became the first K-pop group to appear on Saturday Night Live, prompting music veteran Bob Lefsetz to write, “What kind of crazy, f—ked-up world do we live in where a Korean boy band sings to track and blows away every performance on SNLthis year? . . . That’s right, the Koreans know more about music than the Americans, at least those in the music industry.” Meanwhile, Map of the Soul: Persona was on its way to becoming a Billboard Number One seller.

The Rise of Blackpink

And BTS has company. On April 12, Blackpink became the first-ever female K-pop act to perform at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival — and on April 19, Blackpink performed during Coachella’s second weekend. Blackpink’s appearance was a coup because Coachella caters to the largest demographic in the United States, millennials. Of course, Blackpink was participating in a larger festival featuring headliners such as Ariana Grande and Janelle Monáe. Even still, Blackpink’s appearance stole buzz from BTS, creating, I suppose, K-pop’s equivalent of the Beatles-versus-Stones rivalry during the British Invasion. And consider these popularity signals:

  • When BTS accumulated the most YouTube views within 24 hours, the band broke a record that Blackpink had just set for their song “Kill This Love” a week earlier. 
  • The group’s EP Kill This Love debuted at 24 on the Billboard 200 chart.

As of this writing, Blackpink is keeping K-pop visible on the charts, not BTS. But stay tuned.

How Big Is K-Pop?

Meanwhile, whether K-pop has become a mainstream phenomenon in the United States is open to debate. True, we’re seeing K-pop acts achieving prominent roles in mainstream TV shows and concerts (after Coachella Weekend One, Blackpink performed on The Late Late Show with James Cordon. BTS is appearing on CBS Sunday Morning April 21). And BTS’s 2019 tour sold out quickly

On the other hand, the singles and album charts are dominated by mainstream pop and hip-hop, with K-pop barely visible (as you can see by reviewing the Apple Music Top 100Billboard 200, Billboard Hot 100, and Spotify Charts). And BTS’s SNL performance, while lauded, did not exactly win over mainstream American viewers. SNL suffered low ratings when BTS performed, especially among the 18-49 age bracket, an important age cohort with spending power. As Ashley King of Digital Music News points out, the low ratings reinforce a perception that BTS’s fan base remains firmly entrenched among digital natives as opposed to a larger American audience:

Teen girls in the United States may love BTS, but SNL viewers do not.  Adding to the mismatch, BTS’ younger base is far less likely to care about live television — or even know how to access it.

King goes so far as to state:

The no-show raises the possibility that BTS’ popularity in America may be a flash in the pan, with finicky younger audiences eventually moving onto the next boy band. The numbers suggest that BTS may already be past its prime in the U.S. The K-pop group placed 7 tracks in the top 10 on iTunes last Friday, but they are mostly gone now. Last August, the group claimed all 12 top spots on the U.S. iTunes chart with tracks from the Love Yourself album.

Incidentally, all 26 songs from the Love Yourself album featured in the top 50 when it debuted. This rapid success on the charts has prompted plenty of media outlets to highlight the craze, making it seem like K-pop is a huge media sensation. In reality, the genre still appears to be popular among a particular niche of fans.

Adam Buckley of Digital Music News argues that a vocal and relentless fan base makes K-pop seem bigger than it really is. (Side note: are Adam Buckley and Ashley King the same person?) Buckley points out that K-pop songs fall off the charts as quickly as they rise, and he also notes the paucity of K-pop songs on the Billboard lists.

That said, the popularity of the BTS tour cannot be denied although I’m sure Adam and Ashley will fold their arms and ask just how many of the stadium fillers are of legal age. At the risk of bringing the wrath of music fans on my head, I will say this: when the Beatles first hit it big, no one thought they’d really break through beyond the teen market, even after their triumph on Ed Sullivan (a historic ratings breakthrough unlike BTS’s paltry ratings on SNL). Beatlemania was about screaming teenage girls. And then things changed.

K-pop is having a moment. What comes next?

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Amazon Prime Video Seeks Cultural Relevance with All Voices Film Festival

Amazon Prime Video wants to empower diverse voices with a new film festival. On April 8, Prime Video began accepting entries for the first annual All Voices Film Festival. According to Prime Video, the All Voices Film Festival is designed to uplift underrepresented communities. Prime Video invites filmmakers to submit short (40-minute) films with the following requirement:

The writer, director, cast or theme of the short must reflect underrepresented communities. This includes but is not limited to people of color, ethnic, gender and religious minorities, members of the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, veterans, young, aspiring filmmakers as well as older adults, and other groups that are underrepresented or marginalized in the US or globally. 

A panel of judges will select winning entries in July. Prizes range from a $25,000 royalty bonus and paid trip to visit Amazon Studios to a $10,000 royalty bonus. 

My take: the All Voices Film Festival is a smart move for Amazon Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service. The festival, if curated well, should lend cultural relevance to Prime Video, a follower to Netflix and Hulu.

Amazon Prime Video Plays Catch-Up

Amazon Prime Video distributes both third-party and original content (the latter made by Amazon Studios). Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has characterized video content as a stepping stone for creating more Prime members. As he once said, “We get to monetize [our subscription video] in a very unusual way. When we win a Golden Globe, it helps us sell more shoes. And it does that in a very direct way. Because if you look at Prime members, they buy more on Amazon than non-Prime members, and one of the reasons they do that is once they pay their annual fee, they’re looking around to see, ‘How can I get more value out of the program?’”

The problem is that being a stepping stone for selling more shoes detracts from the legitimacy of Prime Video. Prime Video has certainly distributed popular and prestigious content. But Prime Video doesn’t create buzz and shape mainstream cultural tastes as Netflix – and, to a lesser extent, Hulu – does. Netflix creates cultural relevance by shaping pop culture (see Stranger Things and its impact on 1980s nostalgia) and influencing behavior (as Tidying up with Marie Kondo has done by making so many people want to streamline their homes that resale shops are being overrun). 

A Step in the Right Direction

The All Voices Film Festival is a step in the right direction. Netflix has been building a reputation as a haven for New Hollywood visionaries who want to make personal movies that Old Hollywood won’t touch, an example being Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. The All Voices Film Festival may give Amazon Prime Video the high ground for emerging talent. And its focus on under-represented voices – ranging from LGBTQi to veterans – taps into an important national conversation about diversity and inclusion that is much bigger than the movie industry. Being a source of content that connects at a topical level nationally is what cultural relevance looks like.

As Latasha Gillespie, Amazon Studios’ head of diversity, equity, and inclusion, told Variety, “At Amazon Studios, we are looking for passionate storytellers who reflect and represent all backgrounds, specifically so that we can share their experiences and stories. We created this opportunity because we wanted a way for underrepresented voices to be heard.” 

A Warning Shot Across the Bow

The All Voices Film Festival also represents another warning shot across the bow of Old Hollywood. Although Netflix gets credit for challenging Old Hollywood, Amazon Studios was actually the first streaming service to release a movie nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (Manchester by the Sea). Its feature-length titles include Cold War, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Amazon Studios is also producing the anticipated Lord of the Rings television series. The All Voices Film Festival could give Amazon Studios the inside track to emerging talent and position Amazon Prime Video well against Netflix, too.

Everything now comes down to execution: developing potentially exciting new talent and using good marketing to promote it. Amazon has deep pockets. Money doesn’t buy you good judgment and cultural relevance. But Amazon Prime Video is off to a promising start.

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The Problem with Mick Jagger

America doesn’t know what to do with Mick Jagger.

Jagger famously captured the essence of rebellion and raw sexuality decades ago. At the height of his creative powers and cultural relevance in the 1960s, he was a threat to the established order and a voice for a younger generation. He was also aware of the limitations of that role. He once said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.”

Now he’s singing “Satisfaction” well into his 70s. Why? Because performing is what he loves. Being a musician is his passion. And so he continues to tour and record music, as the Rolling Stones have been doing since 1962. But we don’t know how to handle a 75-year-old Mick Jagger prancing onstage, shaking his butt, and singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Start Me Up,” and, indeed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” all of them staples of the Stones’s No Filter tour in 2018. 

Seventy-five-year-olds are not supposed to sing about sex and drugs. They’re supposed to move over and let a younger generation have the stage. It’s OK for older generations to occasionally entertain us so long as they do cute things such as escape nursing homes to attend heavy metal concerts. But Mick Jagger refuses to step aside and age quietly.

Our discomfort with Mick Jagger became clear when news broke that the Rolling Stones were going to postpone their 2019 tour because Jagger was suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. In due course, we would learn that he required a heart valve replacement, which was performed successfully April 4. Although the news triggered plenty of supportive comments, jokes about his age surfaced on social media, and The New York Times ran an ageist article that noted, “Jagger is not the first 1960s-era music icon to show signs of slowing down in old age” and chalked up his (then undisclosed) health problem as a result of the demands of touring.

I thought it was interesting and disappointing that The New York Times assumed Mick Jagger was suffering an age-related problem before anyone knew what was wrong with him. And citing the ravages of touring seemed odd given that Jagger has prided himself on how well he takes care of his body through a strict diet and rigorous exercise. If anything, touring energizes him. 

To be sure, the odds of requiring a heart valve replacement increase as you get older. But why is it necessary for publications such as CNN to point out repeatedly that Jagger is a 75-year-old grandfather and great grandfather when reporting the results of the surgery?  

We don’t know what to do about Mick Jagger because we don’t know what to do about the reality of growing old. We want to keep the elderly in the background because seeing them reminds us of our older selves. Perhaps this very personal fear of growing old helps explain rampant ageism in the workplace, as discussed in a recent Fast Company article, “Ageism is thriving, so what are companies going to do about it?” Ageism is not about rejection of The Other. Ageism is about negating our older selves. 

In fact, Mick Jagger is a reminder that our stereotypical notions about aging can be proven wrong. He’s a vibrant rock star dancing and singing about whatever he wants, even if the notion of a 75-year-old man singing about sex makes some people uncomfortable. Well, deal with it. And hope that your future is as bright as Mick Jagger’s.

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Old Hollywood Loses Its Grip while Netflix Soars

Steven Spielberg has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

At the 91stAcademy Awards, Netflix took home four Oscars including three for Roma, which had been nominated for Best Picture. In addition, Amazon Studios and Hulu both achieved Oscar nominations. Spielberg dislikes the notion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating movies from companies that stream movies in homes. So he reportedly wants to change the rules to block Netflix and its streaming competitors from nominating movies for the Oscars.

And Steven Spielberg is dead wrong. 

Spielberg believes in the purity of the big screen and the joy of experiencing a movie in a theater. He wants to keep a sharp distinction between movies shown in theaters and movies made by streaming services. As he told British TV network ITV News in 2018, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

With Amazon Studios, Hulu, and Netflix landing multiple nominations at the 91stAcademy Awards, apparently he’s feeling threated. A spokesperson for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”

Defenders of Old Hollywood believe the Academy’s nomination rules are too lax. A movie need not be distributed exclusively in a movie theater to qualify; a movie simply needs to appear in theaters. In addition, Hollywood studios follow an unwritten rule that movies should appear in theaters for at least 90 days before becoming available on video or streaming. Netflix doesn’t play be those rules. For instance, Netflix’s Roma appeared exclusively in theaters for only three weeks. A rule change could, say, require Oscar nominees to make movies available for a minimum period of time.  

Reports of Spielberg wanting to change the Oscar nomination rules have been disputed, but the controversy has drawn attention to his opposition of streaming services – an opposition is on the wrong side of history for a number of reasons, including: 

Viewing Habits Are Changing

There’s a reason Netflix has become one of the biggest brands in the world. Audiences want the flexibility of seeing movies on their own terms: at home, on the go, and in theaters. Streaming services are accommodating them. When recently I moderated a discussion about Old Hollywood versus Netflix on my Facebook page, Facebooker Brian Schultz summed one of the reasons why viewers want choice:

The theatrical experience isn’t what it used to be. Projection quality differs from theatre to theatre, too many previews, rude ass moviegoers, and high ticket prices make staying at home a better option.

You can see some movies from streaming companies in theaters, too. You could have seen Amazon Studios’ Cold War (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) and Roma in theaters, on a TV screen, or on a device. (I prefer seeing movies on big screens. But I don’t always have the time and money to go to the movies. I saw Roma at home and Cold War in a theater. Both experiences were equally satisfying.)

And streaming is becoming even bigger. Disney will soon launch its own service, Disney+. AT&T will launch its own streaming service, capitalizing on its ownership of Time Warner to feature content from WarnerMedia, a newly formed entity that includes HBO and Turner Broadcasting. 

Old Hollywood’s war against streaming is going to be harder to fight, especially with Disney putting its muscle behind streaming. You don’t mess with the Mouse.

Streaming Services Offer Alternatives for Artists

Roma is an intensely personal movie from Alfonso Cuarón, who previously won multiple Oscars for directing Gravity. When Roma won multiple Golden Globe Awards in January, Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema. He replied:

My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.

Anne Thompson of IndieWire recently provided some inside baseball on how Netflix ended up with Roma:

The studios could have acquired “Roma.” Participant showed ten minutes of footage to seven companies with global distribution. There were no passes and three offers. Four companies explained that because a black-and-white film in Spanish would not qualify for their Pay-TV output deals, they needed to see the film (which was still in post and not available to screen). Once they could see the film they’d be able to seek a waiver from their Pay-TV output partners, as The Weinstein Co. did on “The Artist.”

Participant explored the three offers and after a month-long negotiation landed on Netflix, which gave the most persuasive (and financially viable) marketing, distribution, and awards commitment. The studios weren’t willing to step up to Netflix’s bid for worldwide rights (a bit more than $20 million), which included a commitment for a substantial global theatrical release (excluding China — which Participant kept and will open in theaters, having just passed the censors).

Alfonso Cuarón  is not the only big-name director working with Netflix. Even an Old Hollywood stalwart like Martin Scorsese is leaping into the arms of Netflix. Scorsese’s forthcoming movie, The Irishman, will be distributed by Netflix in theaters and via streaming. The movie is reportedly a long-time passion project of Scorsese’s. Commenting on Netflix’s involvement in the film, he said, “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”

An Interesting Turn

The debate could take an interesting turn if a major streaming service such as Netflix cracks into the movie business. The idea is not far-fetched. In 2018, Netflix was rumored to be a potential buyer for Landmark Theaters but reportedly backed out due to the cost. Nevertheless, speculation remains that Netflix may crack into theaters in 2019. Rationale:

Given the enormous cost of developing content, Netflix may stay firmly rooted in streaming for the near term, making Amazon a more likely candidate to buy a movie theater chain (also not a far-fetched notion with Amazon expanding into the brick-and-mortar grocery and retail industries).  

Something Is Happening Here

Meanwhile, Netflix addressed the Old Hollywood-versus-Netflix story with a thoughtful Tweet:

Which evoked replies such as these:

Instead of trying to move the goal line for streaming companies, the defenders of Old Hollywood need to ask why exciting directors such as Alfonso Cuarón are turning to streaming companies and why businesses such as Disney are changing with the times, too. Old Hollywood can change just as record labels eventually adapted their business models for music streaming. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Spielberg? 

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A Nice Guy Tells His Story in “Wise Guy”

Venture capitalist, entrepreneur, author, and all-around business rock star Guy Kawasaki has succeeded the old fashioned way: by working hard and having uncompromising standards. 

He’s well known for what he’s done and how he’s done it. He changed the way businesses practice marketing through product evangelism. At the same time, Guy has been an advocate for the importance of exercising values and behaving with grace and dignity – an ethos that has influenced business leaders such as Gary Vaynerchuk. In his new book Wise Guy: Lessons from a Life, Guy Kawasaki shares some of the lessons he’s learned throughout his life. Wise Guy is not a biography in the linear sense. Combining a self-effacing sense of humor with clear-headed analysis, he tells stories about people who have taught him something and about incidents that have shaped his life (and continue to). 

You quickly learn that although he has accomplished a great deal in his life, his childhood was pretty ordinary. He did not overcome poverty to cure cancer by age 15. In fact, as a college student, he was interested in dating girls and someday owning a nice car. He tried out for football and quit. He studied law and quit. In other words, he grew up a lot like many of us do – which makes him more human and his story more relatable.

In the business world, though, he experienced epic adventures. For instance, at Apple he famously worked for Steve Jobs. And Wise Guycontains some fascinating stories that will make you grateful that you never worked for Steve Jobs. His career as an Apple product evangelist (he popularized evangelism as a marketing approach) and later as a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist makes for some engaging stories and lessons learned.  And there are many in Wise Guy. But for me, the most memorable and telling details in the book are not necessarily the most glamorous. (And I’ve read the book twice – an early draft for which I was privileged to provide feedback, and then the published version.) For instance: 

  • He once read the entire Chicago Manual of Style cover to cover. And let me tell you – The Chicago Manual of Style isa massive book with some excruciating details about the finer points of the English language. Why did Guy read such a book? Because a demanding high school English teacher instilled in him a respect for minding the details of the English language. If you’ve ever worked with Guy (as I have), you know he continues to apply high standards today and does not hold back with constructive criticism. Lesson learned: there are no short cuts to doing the job right. You have to understand every nuance of a skill to master it. 
  • He left a fortune on the table by leaving Apple— and then left a bigger fortune on the table by turning down a chance to interview for the CEO job at Yahoo! Guy freely admits he left Apple too early, long before it became one of the world’s most valuable brands – a decision that cost him tens of millions of dollars. And taking a pass on the Yahoo! opportunity probably cost him billions. In both cases, he did not grasp how big either company would become, something that still bothers him. But he does not regret why he chose something else over Apple and Yahoo! With Apple, he left to pursue a career as an entrepreneur. “[I]f I had stayed at Apple,” he writes, “my life would have been less interesting. I wouldn’t have started companies, become a venture capitalist, advised dozens of entrepreneurs, spoken at hundreds of events all over the world, and written fifteen books.” With Yahoo!, he chose time with his family over the demands of being CEO. “What price can you put on being around when your kids are growing up?” he asks. Lesson learned: stay true to yourself and your values. 
  • He learned ice hockey at age 48. And then he learned how to surf at age 62. These are not the easiest sports to learn at any age. In fact, Guy says that surfing is one of the most difficult challenges he’s ever tackled. There’s an obvious lesson learned here about continuing to push yourself no matter where you are in life – highly relevant as our population ages. In addition, his determination to learn is a tribute to hard work and the value of learning for the sake of learning. “The acquisition of skill is a process, not an event, and the process itself can be the reward,” he writes. “My path to surfing competency was the same as my path for speaking, writing, and evangelizing: grit, repetition, and hard work, not ‘natural talent.’”
  • Steve Case once honored a handshake agreement even though he didn’t have to. In the early days of AOL, Steve Case asked Guy to do some consulting for $2,000 monthly plus stock options. Guy agreed, and the arrangement lasted a few months. Many years later, he saw Steve Case, who asked him if AOL had ever given him his stock options. “I told him I hadn’t done much work, so the company wasn’t paying me, and I had never gotten the stock,” he writes. “I told him to forget about it.’” But Case insisted that he get options for two thousand shares. The options mushroomed into a lucrative payday. Lesson learned: be honorable in all that you do.

The Steve Case story is the most important. Guy Kawasaki writes and speaks often of acting with values, and treating people as you would have them treat you. In fact, he wrote an entire book about the business value of enchanting behavior, Enchantment. I think his legacy is that being a decent person in business is not only honorable but sensible – which is more important than being a marketing guru, an engaging author, or an exciting speaker. Wise Guy is Guy Kawasaki’s lasting statement. I recommend you buy Wise Guy — and learn from it.

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How Advertising Helps Amazon Change the World

Amazon is an advertising powerhouse.

The company is the third-largest digital advertising platform in the United States and the fifth-largest ad spender. But as CNBC noted in a recent article, Jeff Bezos wasn’t always a believer in advertising. Ten years ago, he said, “Advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service.” Why the change of heart? Because Jeff Bezos wants to change the world. And changing the world costs money.

How Amazon Is Changing the World

Jeff Bezos is a market maker. As I wrote in Fast Company in 2013, market makers do more than sell products. They influence beliefs and behaviors. Jeff Bezos is changing how people live and businesses operate through voice and cloud computing.

Voice First

Amazon is ushering in a voice-first world along with Google. With astonishing speed, Amazon has unleashed products such as AI-powered smart speakers that rely on voice commands to manage our homes, search for things, purchase goods and services, and navigate our cars.

In the United States, 74.2 million people will use a smart speaker in 2019, according to eMarketer, up 15 percent over 2018. The Amazon Echo smart speaker, introduced in 2014, owns anywhere from 63 percent to 70 percent of the market depending on which source you read. In addition, according to Amazon’s January 31 fourth-quarter earnings announcement, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant continues to make inroads in the home and the automobile. Meanwhile, Amazon is extending Alexa aggressively into the workplace. Here’s how Bezos’s vision for a voice-first world is playing out:

  • In the home: per Amazon, the number of devices with Alexa built-in more than doubled in 2018. More than 150 products have Alexa built in, ranging from headphones to smart home devices. Consumers can choose from 28,000+ Alexa-compatible smart home devices from more than 4,500 brands.
  • On the go: more than one million customers requested an invitation for Echo Auto, Amazon’s new Echo designed for vehicles, shortly after Amazon announced its availability. Several automotive partners announced support for Alexa at CES 2019. For example, Telenav, a provider of connected car and location-based services, announced a relationship with Amazon that makes it possible for drivers to use the Telenav Alexa-powered navigation system to do the same kinds of functional tasks that they can do with Google Maps.  
  • At work: in 2017, Amazon launched Alexa for Business to begin a voice-first transformation inside enterprises. Amazon wants employees of businesses to rely on Alexa to schedule meetings, manage their personal calendars, and handle a host of other tasks. Brooks Brothers and Conde Nast are among the companies that use Alexa for Business to manage meetings according to Amazon. In addition, businesses are creating Alexa skills to manage several functions. To wit: financial services firm TIAA recently announced a new Alexa skill that helps its customers get financial information and obtain customer service. And now that Amazon has made it easy for anyone to create Alexa skills, I predict that so many more businesses are going to adopt Alexa that the creation of an Alexa skill won’t be news. 

Jeff Bezos is so enamored with voice that he mentioned Alexa six times in Amazon’s fourth-quarter earnings announcement. In fact, Alexa is about all he talked about in a prepared statement:

Alexa was very busy during her holiday season. Echo Dot was the best-selling item across all products on Amazon globally, and customers purchased millions more devices from the Echo family compared to last year . . . The number of research scientists working on Alexa has more than doubled in the past year, and the results of the team’s hard work are clear. In 2018, we improved Alexa’s ability to understand requests and answer questions by more than 20% through advances in machine learning, we added billions of facts making Alexa more knowledgeable than ever, developers doubled the number of Alexa skills to over 80,000, and customers spoke to Alexa tens of billions more times in 2018 compared to 2017. We’re energized by and grateful for the response, and you can count on us to keep working hard to bring even more invention to customers.

Typically in earnings announcements, CEOs don’t dive into the details of how their products are evolving. But not so with Jeff Bezos. His words demonstrate his belief in the power of voice.

Bezos’s comments about making Alexa more accurate might make him sound a bit geeky, but accuracy matters. Amazon needs to make Alexa more effective at recognizing human speech to make us comfortable using the voice interface to buy things — which is what Jeff Bezos wants us to do while we are on Amazon. Right now, for the most part, people use their smart speakers to check the weather and listen to music. Jeff Bezos’s vision for voice is all about commerce, not checking sports scores. The question is not whether, but when, Amazon will realize that vision.

Cloud Computing

Going hand in hand with voice computing is Bezos’s ambition for businesses and people to manage their lives on a virtual network known as the cloud. Amazon founded its cloud computing business, Amazon Web Services (AWS), in 2006. Today AWS provides the backbone of Amazon’s entire voice ecosystem. When you use Alexa in your home, on the go, or at work, you use AWS.

Bezos envisioned the rise of cloud computing long before voice came along, though, and the cloud powers more than Amazon’s own voice ecosystem. In his 2007 letter to shareholders, he wrote of people using their Kindle e-books to read and record margin notes “on the server-side in the ‘cloud,’ where they can’t be lost.” Eight years later, in his 2015 letter to shareholders, Bezos spoke of the cloud in much more grandiose terms:

Whether you are a startup founded yesterday or a business that has been around for 140 years, the cloud is providing all of us with unbelievable opportunities to reinvent our businesses, add new customer experiences, redeploy capital to fuel growth, increase security, and do all of this so much faster than before.

And he was not exaggerating. By 2015, AWS was providing the backbone for businesses to adapt to the cloud. Today, AWS powers so many companies that it made $25.7 billion in 2018. For example, if you use Airbnb to book a room or Slack to send a message, you’re relying on a business that uses AWS. And Netflix famously relies on AWS to keep its 24/7 content stream going.

Meanwhile, cloud computing, led by AWS, Microsoft, Google, and Alibaba, continues to change how businesses operate – helping them provide services faster and more efficiently around the clock by freeing them from the confines of physical infrastructures. It’s the cloud that makes it possible for Lyft to provide ride-sharing services or Instagram to operate. According to Gartner, the global public cloud services market will grow by 17 percent in 2019 to total $206.2 billion. As with voice, Amazon faces plenty of competition, but Amazon commands the greatest market share.

Where would cloud computing be today without Amazon Web Services?

Vision Costs Money

But building voice and cloud-based products and services costs money. In 2018, Amazon increased its marketing and advertising costs considerably. As noted in CNBC, Amazon reported a $13.8 billion marketing expense for 2018, up 37 percent from the prior year. Nearly 100 million viewers of Super Bowl LIII saw some of that spend in the form of a number of 30-second spots promoting Alexa. Those spots cost $5 million each.

And here is why Amazon’s advertising services, bundled under Amazon Advertising, are so valuable. Amazon Advertising gives Amazon a way to recoup its costs though an increasingly lucrative revenue stream. Through Amazon Advertising, businesses on Amazon promote their products through various forms of display advertising and sponsored product displays that appear in a consumers’ search results on Amazon, similar to how advertising on Google works.

Amazon Advertising is the result of Amazon becoming an increasingly powerful search platform. More people begin their product searches on Amazon than they do on Google. It was only a matter of time before Amazon realized it could monetize that search traffic as Google has done. Businesses are responding. According to a recent study by Nanigans, about one in three marketers are shifting their ad spend from Facebook and Google to Amazon. Amazon Advertising generated $10 billion in 2018.

Amazon’s ambitions for advertising go beyond serving up ads on Amazon itself. As the New York Times reported, Amazon also targets ads to people across the digital world by tapping into the data it has amassed about consumers’ purchases made on Amazon itself. Since Amazon knows exactly what you’ve searched for and purchased on the site, Amazon can advertise for other brands with pinpoint accuracy, as these examples from the New York Times article illustrate:

When a chain of physical therapy centers wanted new patients, it aimed online ads at people near its offices who had bought knee braces recently on Amazon.

When a financial services provider wanted to promote its retirement advisory business, it directed ads to people in their 40s and 50s who had recently ordered a personal finance book from Amazon.

And when a major credit card company wanted new customers, it targeted people who used cards from other banks on the retail site.

The advertisers found those people by using Amazon’s advertising services, which leverage what the company knows better than anyone: consumers’ online buying habits 

Just the Cheese, a brand run by Specialty Cheese Company in Reeseville, Wis., makes crunchy dried cheese bars that have taken off as a low-carb snack. By using algorithms to analyze how Just the Cheese’s search ads performed on Amazon’s site, the ad agency Quartile Digital noticed that people who searched for keto snacks and cauliflower pizza crust, both low-carb diet trends, also bought a lot of cheese bars. So Quartile ran display ads across the web targeting Amazon customers who had bought those two specific product categories. Over three months, Amazon showed the ads on websites more than six million times, which resulted in almost 22,000 clicks and more than 4,000 orders.

That 20 percent conversion rate — a sale to one out of five people who clicked on the ads — was “amazing,” Mr. Knijnik said. “That is the kind of powerful granularity for building the target audiences that just Amazon can give you.”

Like other ad networks, Amazon uses cookies and other technical tools to track customers from its site onto other websites. They let the company know that a person who recently bought a diet book is now reading news on CNN and could be targeted on that site with an ad for a protein bar. Amazon does not tell the advertisers who that user is, but it does serve her ads on the brand’s behalf.

And, just like that, Amazon is upending the digital ad industry while creating a mini-industry of companies such as Quartile Digital that offer services related to Amazon’s advertising products. And herein lies an undeniable reality: Amazon giveth, and Amazon taketh. With advertising, Amazon takes business away from established players like Facebook and Google while spurring the launch of new companies that capitalize on Amazon. 

“Amazon Is Not Too Big to Fail” 

Advertising has helped Jeff Bezos pull off a feat that is extremely hard for a publicly traded firm to do: invest for the long haul while rewarding shareholders in the short term. He also does not take Amazon’s success for granted. As he told employees recently, “Amazon is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, not a hundred-plus years.” 

Whether Jeff Bezos is correct about Amazon’s future remains to be seen. In the meantime, he has helped unleash technologies whose impact is incalculable.

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