Backstage at the Oscars

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Simply watching major events like the Academy Awards and Grammys is a passé experience. These days you can go backstage and rub elbows with the stars thanks to second-screen capabilities offered by forward-thinking organizations like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Of course, the Oscars are a notoriously hit-and-miss affair, with onstage entertainment reaching soaring highs and lows — sometimes in the same act. On February 24, the Oscars hit a home run by giving fans the kind of entertainment we crave: access to the stars. And a brush with fame is the perfect antidote for today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.

The Oscars Backstage Pass gave anyone with a computer screen a chance to tour the audience through the eyes of the camera operator, hang out with the news media and watch Anne Hathaway pose with her Oscar in the news room, and get a glimpse of George Clooney, Ben Affleck and Grant Heslov celebrating their Argo Best Picture award backstage.  If you were patient, you could catch glimpses of stars having relatively unguarded moments — such as Jamie Foxx breaking into spontaneous dance while he awaited an official photo op.

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One of my favorite backstage moments occurred when I noticed Quentin Tarantino, looking torn and frayed with his Best Original Screenplay Oscar, in obvious thrall of Jack Nicholson — then putting on his serious game face for his official photo op:

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Meantime, in the audience, you could feel the tension on Anne Hathaway’s face before the Best Supporting Actress Award was named, and then the relief when she won:

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The Backstage Pass offered five different screen choices, ranging from the audience shot to the host view. The clarity of the resolution was excellent, and even the somewhat muddy resolution of the backstage lounge added to the “you-are-there” charm (as was the case with the Grammy Awards behind-the-curtain access).

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Queen of My Soul

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Music, sweet music. You’re the queen of my soul.

Those words come from a soaring Average White Band song, “Queen of My Soul.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that song during a week defined by my love of music. On Tuesday, a popular Pink Floyd news resource, Brain Damage, published an interview with me about how music has intersected with my professional and personal lives. (Befitting the focus of the website, the Q&A included lots of discussion about Pink Floyd.) The next day, I hosted a Social Media Week New York conversation onstage with musician Daria Musk and Google’s Caroline McCarthy regarding how Musk has relied on the Google Plus social media site to launch her career. Being interviewed and then being the interviewer was rewarding. Both experiences affirmed the role of music in shaping my life.

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Me, Daria Musk, and Caroline McCarthy

The Brain Damage interview was highly personal. I discussed how the music of Pink Floyd got me through hard times in life and bonded me with my brother one memorable summer. I fairly gushed about my love of Pink Floyd for aspiring to create art. My interviewer, Eduardo J. Lopez-Reyes, asked me why some people form a close bond with music, while others do not. I answered, “Listening to music is like dating: you can enjoy it at a casual and superficial level until someone comes along who changes your life. When you connect with someone else at a personal level, you form a relationship that matures as you experience whatever life throws at you.”

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Do you know what I mean? If you don’t, I feel sorry for you.

Our conversation also veered into the territory of social media. I was asked whether album-oriented artists like Pink Floyd could make it today. I replied, “Digital gives emerging artists a chance to share album-length music through performance . . . For instance, musicians such as Daria Musk and Pomplamoose are using social media platforms and services like Google+ Hangouts and StageIt to perform global concerts on shoestring budgets. Social media also gives artists ways to connect with fans more personally.”

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Musk told her own story of social media success on February 20. In the Hearst Tower, Musk, McCarthy, and I pulled off a first for Social Media Week: we held a panel discussion about how Google Plus has helped Musk find her audience, conducted a live Google+ Hangout with a global audience (projected on a giant screen behind us), and injected music through a performance by Musk and her bandmate RAM Rich.

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Musk recounted how she began writing songs as a child, found her voice as a musician, and then found her audience through social media after banging her head against a wall playing dives. Google Plus, the 500-million-member network launched by Google in 2011, gave her a platform to play her songs through marathon concerts performed through the Google Hangout feature (the equivalent of Skype for people on Google Plus). Her concerts attracted a global audience of more than 2 million fans in countries ranging from Croatia to Sri Lanka. And as she explained during our conversation, she’s been monetizing social media through corporate sponsorships with brands such as Verizon.

Some artists have built brands on social. Others have launched new music. Musk has made a career.

But as interesting as the discussion about social media was, what struck me most about her was her obvious passion for music. That love for song was evident as we prepared for our appearance. Her sound check the night before was became something of a mini-concert, as she and RAM Rich played with energy and soul for an audience consisting of me and a few audio technicians who were fine-tuning the acoustics in the theater. You would have thought she was playing the audition of her life as she let her vocals soar and her guitar sing.

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Her performance the next day was a natural extension of the song she sings every day. She could not even have a conversation with me without bursting into song occasionally, as the Livestream of our conversation shows.

Music is a way of life for Daria Musk. And music flows through me like blood.

Ahmet Ertegun: The Man Who Changed Music

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What do you have on your Spotify playlist right now? Chances are that Ahmet Ertegun had a hand influencing the music you’ve chosen. As founder and president of Atlantic Records, Ertegun signed and nurtured musicians who shaped the sound of modern popular music, ranging from Ray Charles to Led Zeppelin. Ahmet Ertegun is an example of what I call a market maker. I recently introduced the term market maker to describe business people who act like artists and change the world with their personal visions. Successful marketers sell things; but market makers inspire people to act, to believe, and to live their lives differently. And Ahmet Ertegun changed lives. He is one of four market makers, including Steve Jobs, Anita Roddick, and Guy Kawasaki, whom I profile in my white paper, How to Be a Market Maker. Ertegun’s story shows how a willingness to take risks and a personal commitment to the success of other people can launch an industry and create sweet music that endures forever.

Ertegun is a fascination mix of catalyst (someone who inspires by sharing the ideas and talents of others) and product creator (who is directly involved in creation of an idea or content that changes others). He had enough musical talent to write one of the first hits recorded by Ray Charles, “Mess Around,” which was important to the development of modern soul, and he was in the studio singing and helping to produce the song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” an enormously important song that helped launch modern rock. But he himself understood that his real talent was not being a musician but finding and developing them.

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The son of the Republic of Turkey’s first ambassador to the United States, Ertegun developed a passion for jazz early on, assembling a huge collection of jazz records and traveling to Harlem and New Orleans (something sons of ambassadors in the 1940s just did not do) to find musicians he discovered on wax.  In 1947, he founded Atlantic Records with Herb Abramson. He had zero business experience but possessed passion and determination to uncover great music. Robert Greenfield’s eminently readable biography of Ertegun, The Last Sultan, recounts how in the early days of Atlantic Records, Ertegun and his business partner borrowed a car and crisscrossed the “crowded, smoke-filled juke joints and roadside honky-tonks in the Deep South where the smell of spilled whiskey and beer and the overwhelming funk of sweating bodies on the dance floor made it hard even to breathe.” They trudged through muddy fields to segregated sections of town to uncover musicians like Blind Willie McTell, Professor Longhair, and Ruth Brown. They developed a network of scouts in clubs and concert halls in major cities, too.

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One of his artists was Ray Charles, who, under Ertegun’s tutelage in 1953, launched the genre of music we now know as soul through his song, “I Got a Woman.” During that pivotal year, Ertegun and Jerry Wexler helped an artist named Big Joe Turner cut a song, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” that is generally regarded as the precursor of rock.

Writes Greenfield, “In the short space of six months, Atlantic had released two songs that would define the future of the record business in America. ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ helped begin rock and roll. ‘I Got a Woman’ established soul.” Atlantic, under Ertegun’s leadership, played a phenomenal role in desegregating American popular music.

Throughout his career, Ertegun would have an active hand in developing and promoting the careers of musical giants across several genres. In the 1970s, Atlantic rescued the Rolling Stones from the brink of financial bankruptcy and elevated the band to mainstream cultural icons.

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His personal commitment to Led Zeppelin — not only signing them to Atlantic but hanging out with the band all night amid post-concert backstage debauchery — helped propel a band that dominated and influenced modern hard rock.

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When he died after tripping and hitting his head backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in 2006, his loss was so widely felt in the music world that Led Zeppelin eventually reunited after 25 years to play a concert in his honor.

Ahmet Ertegun’s greatest gift to music was his eye for talent and the will to mold that talent into wildly popular music that broke through different genres. He and legendary Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler “could hear the talent in its rawest form before even the talent knew what it wanted to do.” But he did more than find talent — he shaped it. He played the music of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey for Ruth Brown to teach her blues and develop her singing style. He actively collaborated with Ray Charles in the studio in 1953 and pushed him until Charles found his break-through with “I Got a Woman.”

An important distinction needs to be made: he was not a tastemaker or molder of talent just because he loved music and he wanted to make a ton of money (although music and the creature comforts that come with wealth were important to him): he loved his artists. As Neil Young said at a tribute to Ertegun held in 2007: “Ahmet was our man. I just hope today’s musicians have someone like Ahmet taking care of them.”

Ahmet Ertegun Hugging Neil Young

Ahmet Ertegun was a market maker in the truest sense of the word. He was also a risk taker — and a willingness to take risks is a major attribute of market makers. Market makers are willing to try and fail. Founding a pop record company in the 1940s was in fact an enormous risk: there were no rules, no best practices, and no mentors from whom to learn.  When Ertegun and his business partners attempted to get the business off the ground in its early days, Ertegun nearly went broke, and Atlantic nearly went out of business. And we all know about the risks that another market maker, Steve Jobs, took (not all of which worked, such as the NeXT). The Body Shop had no reason to succeed: Anita Roddick had zero business experience and was taking on a well-entrenched industry. Guy Kawasaki left the comforts of Apple to essentially create his own brand. Their willingness to risk reflects their ability to dream.

You don’t need to introduce the next Led Zeppelin or launch another iPod to be a market maker. You just need to have the willingness to instill your personal imprint on your everyday job and emulate the characteristics of market makers, such as risk taking. In future blog posts, my profiles of other market makers will illustrate more of those characteristics.

Are you a market maker?

A Slice of Hip-Hop: “Game Light,” by Signs

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I met hip-hop artist Signs (aka Sunny Ade) on a cold Chicago sidewalk, when he handed me his album All I Need and told my wife how beautiful she looks (which is an effective way to get my attention if you want me to listen to your music). The album consists mostly of life-affirming songs that veer into holy hip-hop territory — but with a dose of gritty realism, too. One such example that has grown on me is “Game Light,” which tells the story of “trying to survive the streets just to be a success.” In “Game Light,” Signs addresses pain. The lyrics alternate between asking for God to transcend obstacles and just giving up and maybe checking out permanently — a real struggle with no promise of making it but a resolve to deal with life. And the music just adds to the mood, especially the samples, which combine Isley Brothers style funky keyboards and a killer horn riff a la Isaac Hayes.

According to Signs, the song “Is about inspiration and faith,” but he does not consider the song to be about religion, either.

“This is not a Christian song,” he said to me in an interview conducted over Facebook. “It is simply a song about struggles in life and how we are to constantly maintain ourselves within those struggles by believing because the just shall live by faith and not by the problems they see.
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“Game Light” is what happens when you catch someone’s ear with music and a story. In this case, the story happens to be spiritual in nature. You can usually tell when an artist sets out to make a statement, whether spiritual, political, or social: too often, you get cringe-worthy crap. Why? Because the artist who focuses on the statement foremost forgets that you have to make compelling art, too.

That’s why it makes total sense for Signs to sing about his spiritual inspirations but also claim that he’s not creating a “Christian song.” And because he puts the songwriting first, “Game Light” succeeds.

Check out the entire All I Need record here and meet Signs on Facebook here.

Daria Musk and Google+: The Making of a Rock Star

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Musician Daria Musk has famously built a career through Google+. She’s part of the emerging generation of artists whose success hinges on social media. Instead of simply building brand awareness with social media (which is standard operating procedure for savvy artists now), she’s cannily relied on Google+ to perform concerts, generate a global following of fans, find ideas for songs, and build relationships with brands. If you caught her February 14 Valentine’s Day Hangout Concert, you know what I’m talking about. Days before the performance, she adroitly used her Google Plus page to promote the concert and then during showtime, she charmed a global audience with her warmth and her gift of song — essentially lighting up the digital world for one evening, as shown in this rebroadcast:

Her use of Google+ has also been a godsend for Google, helping to legitimize the fledgling social media community during Google Plus’s first critical months of existence and leading to improvements in Google+. On February 20, at Social Media Week New York, I will interview Musk and Caroline McCarthy of Google at the Hearst Tower in order to uncover lessons learned from their collaboration, including how brands can build closer relationships with their audiences. The session occurs at 2:30 p.m. EST at the Hearst Tower. If you are at Social Media Week New York, please register here. Meantime, to give you a sense of the ground we will cover, I posted a brief Q&A with McCarthy on the iCrossing Great Finds blog, available here. Check it out for Google’s perspective on the Daria Musk story, and come see us in New York.

Flip off a Judge and Become a Celebrity

File this one under “Only in America”: on February 4, a Florida teen named Penelope Soto flips off a judge at a hearing for a Xanax possession charge, which earns her a 30-day contempt of court sentence.  The moment is captured via courtroom video. The video goes viral and becomes a story on CNN and CBS. Soto generates another cycle of news by issuing a tearful apology on February 8, which creates the perfect story arc and more mainstream media attention, including coverage from The Huffington Post. And, wouldn’t you know: she gains attention on social media, too, with a Facebook Fan page and Twitter feed making her out to be a victim of the U.S. “war on drugs and the poor.”

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How to Be a Market Maker

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Steve Jobs is like the Beatles: we admire them, but how many of marketers believe we can change the world like they did? Well, my newly published white paper, How to Be a Market Maker, shows you how you can inject the spirit of great leaders like Steve Jobs into your everyday life. How to Be a Market Maker assets that you don’t need to unleash another iPad to change the world. By instilling your personal imprint on your everyday job (as artists do), you can go beyond selling things to influence how other people act, think, and believe. How to Be a Market Maker uses a storytelling approach to bring to life the attributes of market makers such as Jobs, Body Shop Founder Anita Roddick, Alltop founder Guy Kawasaki, and Atlantic Records Founder Ahmet Ertegun.  Periodically I’ll blog about some of the ideas in How to Be a Market Maker. In addition, Fast Company has published an excerpt here. Meantime, I hope you read the PoV and let me know what you think of it.

Rapper Mike Lo: “Those Beats Talk to Me”

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He’s Mike Lo if you didn’t know.

Underground rapper Mike Lo sings with the swagger of Eminem and smirks like one of the Beastie Boys. He lives in two worlds — the one he needs to make ends meet and the one he creates for himself. His day job consists of tending tables in the Chicago suburbs, where he is known for being exceptionally polite and considerate. But even when he’s tending tables, he has one foot in the world he built — full of swagger, drinking, and raw sexuality. While at work, he frequently uses his cell phone like an artist’s palette, recording snatches of dialogue and building lyrics into the songs he raps at bars and parties.

Those songs become videos — where he parties with his own posse (“Rack City”), lands in jail after drinking and driving (“Bars After Bars”), and laughs like could care less.

His recently released 17-track mixtape, Fully Lo Did, reveals a sound that is at times aggressive (“Fully Lo Did”) and reflective (“Up All Night”) — but it’s always moving fast, with catchy beats (check out the beginning of “This Is Wack” or “Floatin”) and cocky bravado. His songs remind me of what Dr. Dre once said about his own songs — music made for adult ears.

And, yeah, his word play is clever and smooth, whether he’s celebrating the joys of partying or smoking, similar to rapper Wiz Khalifa, whose Tumblr site features fan-uploaded videos including Mike Lo’s. (“Bars After Bars” was featured on Viewhiphop.com as well.)

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I asked Mike Lo to describe his songs to me and explain how he constructs them. As it turns out, he lives by the beat. The beats talk to him and fuel his words, giving him energy that he processes and throws back at you through his songs. He lives off energy of the audiences where he performs, whether he’s at a party or a bar. As he says, “I feed off all energy. I even feed off negativity. It keeps me going.”

Here is Mike Lo — in case you didn’t know. Discover Mike Lo on Reverbnation, Facebook, Twitter, and Global 14.

How did you get started in music?

I come from a very diverse family. My mom is white/Puerto Rican and my father is white/black. I am from Elgin, Illinois, born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Music has always been around me. Riding in the car, I grew up listening to my dad playing songs on the radio in the car, and I sang along with everything I heard, whether from Snoop Dogg or NWA. As I got older and started really getting into music, I listened to Eminem and 50 Cent.

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I have always been into rapping. I have been writing lyrics since I was in sixth grade, and I’ve never stopped. Back in sixth grade, I played on the boys basketball team, and during road games on the back of the bus, you could find me writing and rapping.  I didn’t know I wanted to pursue music as a career until I was about 21. Whenever I heard a rap song, I would wonder, “Damn, why can’t I do this?” So I went out and tried it.

How did your diverse background affect you growing up?

I believe growing up with such a diverse family had a major effect on my life. I never really knew how to label myself, or knew which friends would accept me because I’m a certain color. Everyone was always asking me what my race was, and I simply respond “mixed.” Even if I had labeled “white,” people knew I wasn’t just white. It wasn’t until I was older that understood more clearly. My background encourages me to show people no matter where you come from or what your background may be, you can do whatever you want if you do it with passion and work hard at it daily.

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“Hey Kid, Catch”: How Coca-Cola and Mean Joe Greene Launched a Legend

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The Super Bowl is the quintessential American pastime. No other event captures the essence of American culture so perfectly: our love of sport, our admiration of spectacle, and our devotion to capitalism. How else do you explain why the Super Bowl advertisements have become as famous as the game itself? I’ve been watching the game for as far back as I remember, including the year I wore a replica Miami Dolphins uniform (including helmet and knee pads) to watch the Dolphins vanquish the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII. And I have enjoyed the advertisements closely over the years. Even though the ads have become increasingly slick and high-concept, my favorite remains one that graced our TV screens 33 years ago during Super Bowl XIV: the Coca-Cola “Hey Kid, Catch” spot featuring Pittsburgh Steeler “Mean” Joe Greene and a little boy who adores him. In 2011, Advertising Age readers voted “Hey Kid, Catch!” as their favorite all-time Super Bowl ad.  I believe the ad’s enduring power is a testament to the power of storytelling and the appeal of Greene’s personal brand.

A Compelling Story

The ad, created by McCann-Erickson, endures because partly it contains a tightly constructed story arc, written by Penny Hawkey: after a hard fought football game, the hulking Defensive Tackle Joe Greene limps into a stadium tunnel to lick his wounds in the locker room. He is tired and bloodied. His Pittsburgh Steelers jersey has been ripped off his shoulder pads. A young boy timidly approaches the football star and offers him a bottle of Coca-Cola to soften the blow of what has obviously been a hard day.

“You want my Coke?” the boy asks.

Greene, obviously in pain, shakes his head no.

“Really, you can have it,” the boy insists.

Finally, Greene relents, offers the boy’s Coke, and takes a long swig while the boy turns away, muttering, “See you around.”

Then comes one of the greatest payoff scenes in advertising: Mean Joe Greene, refreshed by a long swig from the Coke, turns toward the boy and gently calls out, “Hey Kid.” The boy turns around, his face revealing that universal Continue reading