Beyoncé Finds a New Muse

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Was anyone ready for the new-look Beyoncé?

After creating a body of work that celebrated self-empowerment through sexuality, Queen Bey has released searing music that tackles themes such as black femininity, social inequality, spirituality, and marital politics. In other words, she has become culturally relevant. Striving to be culturally relevant does not always work for artusts, as Sean Penn’s embarrassing attempt to inject himself into the national conversation about drugs demonstrates. But for Beyoncé, courting controversy through social commentary has made both her music and her personal brand bigger than ever.

It’s not uncommon for musicians to use their art and fame as a platform for social commentary, but it’s hard to do without coming across as preachy or without putting the message before the artistic quality of the song. And being culturally relevant by commenting on topical issues can be risky even if the artist has sincere intentions. Lady Gaga has successfully built a reputation beyond her music by being a champion of LGBTQ rights. But the Dixie Chicks nearly killed their careers by speaking out against the War in Iraq in 2003.

For years, Beyoncé’s music has focused largely on love and sexuality, while tiptoeing around social issues such as race. But her personal life has been another matter. She has publicly supported human rights issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s empowerment. She and Jay Z met with the families of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray in the aftermath of Brown’s and Gray’s controversial deaths at the hands of police officers. She has expressed sympathy for people in Baltimore protesting Gray’s death.

“Formation”

Now her music is catching up to her life. First came “Formation,” her potent celebration of black identity that she dropped during Super Bowl weekend this year. The song’s video sparked a controversy with its images suggestive of police brutality and insensitivity. The controversy became even more pointed when she performed the song during Super Bowl 50 with back-up singers dressed like the militant Black Panthers. Law enforcement authorities denounced her and called for boycotts of her Formation Tour, which kicks off April 27.

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The Coachella 360-Degree Live Stream Disappoints

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Hey, Coachella: I want my glorious live stream back.

For years, the Coachella music festival has set the gold standard with event live streams largely because its camera crews make you feel like you’re right on stage with the artists. Last week, for instance, the live streams of Ice Cube, Grimes, and the 1975 gave me close-up angles like these:

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It felt like the artists were performing in my living room 2,000 miles away from the festival, as these screen shots taken from my iPhone demonstrate.

But for Weekend 2 of the festival, Coachella has compromised the live stream with the introduction of the 360-degree viewing experience on YouTube — which is, of course, the exact opposite of what Coachella intends.

The 360-degree view is supposed to give you a more immersive experience. With your mobile phone or a supported browser on your laptop (and Safari is not one of the supported browsers), you can change your vantage point as you’re watching a performance, which sounds kind of cool at first. And indeed, with a swipe of a screen on your mobile phone or by using an arrow tab on your laptop, you can watch the artist or slowly pan the stage and even see the crowd from the performer’s vantage point.

The 360-degree functionality works fine, and the sound is as good as ever. (Incidentally, the vaunted spatial audio feature you might have read about does not apply to the live stream.) But there are two major problems.

First, you can’t get those awesome close-ups of the artists themselves. You’re at the mercy of a stationary camera situated at the lip of the stage, which results in a decent, but less interesting view, as this image of Gary Clark Jr. shows:

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The only way to get a great view (from what I’ve experienced so far) is to hope for the artist to step out to the lip of the stage (which, thankfully, Run the Jewels have done).

Second, the ability to change vantage points gets boring after about 1 minute. The ground in front of the stage really isn’t very interesting unless you enjoy looking at equipment. As for the views of the audience: if you’ve seen one sea of heads and arms, you’ve seen ’em all:

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I give Coachella props for pushing the boundaries of the live stream experience, and I appreciate that we’re in a test-and-learn phase. But testing and learning should not be done at the expense of your audience. So far, the 360-degree experience is actually a step backward, namely because I’ve lost that you-are-there experience that came with those astonishing camera angles of the artists. Coachella and YouTube have advertised an experience that is just not ready for prime time, to the detriment of their brands.

I don’t particularly want to see what the artist sees unless you’re literally going to show me, say, what Jehnny Beth experiences when she surfs the audience during a Savages performance, or we’re getting to better appreciate the interplay between Matthew Healy and Adam Hann of the 1975. I don’t want to see the artists reduced to blurry little figures on my screen, either. I want to be onstage with them, which is exactly what I was getting until now.

Remember, Coachella: it’s all about the artists. And I miss them dearly based on what I’m seeing.

The Future of Concert Live Streaming: Social Virtual Reality

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Music is the star of the annual Coachella festival, which kicked off April 15 for the weekend and resumes April 22, but virtual reality is starting to grab its own headlines. Coachella and Vantaget.tv recently announced the launch of its own virtual reality app, which allows owners of VR headsets (either the fancy kind or the cardboard variety) to get limited VR content such as enhanced performances and virtual tours of the grounds.

Ironically Coachella targets people who are at the event in person by offering ticket holders the app and cardboard VR viewers (which sound like a dorky experience if you’re actually there). But it seems likely that Coachella, and festivals like it, will more overtly court remote viewers by offering immersive, live-streaming VR experiences, and with social components, too — especially as social VR and live-streaming converge. (An update from a fast-moving space: on April 18, a day after I wrote this post, YouTube announced the launch of 360-degree live streaming and spatial audio, which will be available for select artists appearing at Coachella April 22-24 — a big step forward in this conversation that underscores my point about festivals making the live stream more immersive.)

VR start-up Livit has already developed a way to live stream event content as a VR experience to mobile users. The Livit app, connected wirelessly to a 360fy panoramic video camera, delivers VR content to users who have downloaded the Livit app on Android and iOS devices (with no headset required).

Livit Founder and CEO Adam Blazer told FoxNews.com, “We create an experience for people that can’t physically be there to really have an immersive experience as if they were there. The combination of VR plus live is really the closest form of teleportation that we have come to yet.”

And Livit has done so already at the Ultra Music Festival.

Meanwhile, on April 17, StereoStitch launched a real-time, 360 3D video stitching software for VR live streaming. With StereoStitch, an event such as Coachella can deliver immersive, panoramic video (video stitching creates the panoramic views) using StereoStitch software and drone-mounted 3D cameras. (Another update: on April 18, after I wrote this post, GoPro announced a wireless 360-degree VR streaming experience. According to GoPro, the LiveVR system will be used in the coming months by MotoGP, AMA Pro Flat Track, and MotoAmerica.)

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Author screen shot of Ice Cube via 2016 Coachella live stream.

Livit also makes it possible for people to communicate with each other through comments posted on the live stream — a form of social VR, which got a big boost recently when Facebook demoed social VR experiences at its annual F8 Developers Conference.

Experiencing events is inherently a social experience. Usually watching an event socially from the comfort of your living room means tweeting or Facebooking as we watch events such as the Academy Awards, Coachella, and the Super Bowl together. Virtual reality, coupled with social sharing, could reinvent the entire concept.

Imagine a Coachella concert goer in Chicago entering a Coachella virtual reality room to watch the Cvrches with other huge Cvrches fans, a scenario that is very plausible thanks to AltspaceVR. This company has created software that allows users with the appropriate VR headsets to communicate with each other in VR settings (think of Skype or Google Hangouts taken several steps further) while they either meet or enjoy an experience such as watching House of Cards together on Netflix in a VR room.

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Author screen shot of Grimes via 2016 Coachella live stream.

And events could monetize these experiences by cozying up to advertisers with many kinds of branding opportunities, such from title sponsorships and having branded elements in VR rooms.

Coachella is the perfect venue for the converging worlds of social virtual reality and live streaming. Coachella already does an excellent job streaming concerts to people (like me) who cannot be there in person, and Coachella hosts a chat room for live streamers (and while chat rooms are hardly state-of-the art, the fact that Coachella hosts one demonstrates that the event organizers are moving in the direction of curating live social experience beyond the usual social media platforms). Clearly, Coachella digs VR. Soon, the concept of streaming Coachella may seem quaint as we hop into listening rooms, pump our arms in the air, and swoon over new music from Grimes or the 1975, right in the room with us.

 

Empathy at Trader Joe’s

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In X: The Experience When Business Meets Design, Brian Solis asserts that experience is the new brand, and he devotes an entire book discussing how companies can create “memorable moments for your customers through every encounter they have with your brand — all day, every day.” He says that customers want empathy, not impersonal treatment, and companies that know how to be empathic enjoy a huge competitive advantage over those that don’t.

Empathy comes from humans, not technology. And empathy happens in everyday moments. Let me give you an example.

As tax day approached April 14, I glumly mailed two checks to the U.S. Treasury and the Illinois Department of Revenue and then decided to overcome the depressing with the mundane: I ran an errand at a Trader Joe’s near my home in Downers Grove, Illinois. Rendering unto Caesar is important; but so is restocking skim milk and coffee.

I filled my cart with the usual assortment of TJ’s bagels, juice, fruit, and other goodies, jumped into a check-out lane, and inserted my debit card for payment. A cashier named Stephan greeted me with a warm smile, like just another dude trying to spread good cheer.

“How you doing?” he asked.

“Ah, well, you know . . . ” I replied with an unhelpful shrug.

While Stephan took care of business behind the counter, my ears detected a sweet funky vibe overhead courtesy of the in-store music play. I thought I recognized the tune from the 1970s playing, but I could not place it. I looked up at the ceiling where the music was coming from. So did Stephan.

“I know that song,” I said. “Kind of like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition . . .'”

“But not quite,” he completed the sentence. “I know what you mean.”

I know what you mean: suddenly I looked at Stephan in a new light, as a member of the universal brotherhood of music.

“The song might be Billy Preston,” I said. “I think the music source is too far away for Shazam to recognize it. But isn’t it a great tune?”

He smiled in agreement, pulled out his own phone, and found the Shazam music discovery app on it.

“Hang on,” he said. “I know I’ve heard this song, too. I think I’m tall enough to get Shazam to pick up the song from the ceiling.”

The app didn’t load right away on his phone. A customer was behind me in line.

“I don’t want to hold you up,” I said.

He nodded his head and smiled. “We got this.”

We got this. Now we were a team on a quest to uncover a funky musical mystery.

He got Shazam to work, held up his phone to the ceiling, waited a moment, and smiled victoriously.

“You’re right! “Outa-Space’ by Billy Preston!”

We smiled and high fived like two guys at a concert, not at a Trader Joe’s checkout line. I even jumped up and down. Man, I had not heard that song for some time.

Little moments of empathy. Like Stephan empathizing with my love of music, and, I think, sensing that perhaps I was not having the best of days. A human connection made.

If you shop at Trader Joe’s, you’re probably not surprised to hear my story. Its stores are more than attractive products with reasonable prices. They’re all about the human experience. The people who work at the Trader Joe’s near me (its address is 122 Ogden Avenue, Downers Grove) always seem like nice folks.

In X, Brian Solis writes, “All business is personal.” It sure is. Trader Joe’s is a $9.4 billion business consisting of hundreds of stores. All it takes is a personal dose of empathy from a cool guy named Stephan to humanize the brand.

“How We Listen Now” Confronts the Music Industry

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Cortney Harding is on a mission to wake up the music industry.

The writer and music industry consultant has recently published How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations about Music and Technology, a provocative examination of two different worlds: on the one hand, consumers are experiencing music on their own time, in their own place, and on their own terms. They’re not just streaming music; they’re also discovering great music through games, in hotel lobbies, movies, and many other media. And they’re not just listening to music anymore — they’re remixing their favorite songs and reposting those moments on apps, video- and song-sharing platforms, and everywhere else they can express their passions. But on the other hand, musicians, music labels, and other members of the music industry continue to struggle to keep up with the new reality of how people experience music, clinging to old models of music sharing, such as hoarding songs on record albums.

Harding sees music executives and musicians as viewing their world in black and white terms: everything that happened before Napster and everything that has happened afterward. In fact, she asserts correctly, Napster was just a precursor to several waves of change that occur to this day. Her book assesses those changes, ranging from streaming to user-generated content. How We Listen Now argues that only musicians and executives who constantly adapt to a constantly changing new normal will succeed. And the consumer defines that new normal.

Hers is a book that constantly asks questions. Why do artists make record albums anymore when it is patently clear that consumers don’t discover music through albums like they used to? Why do artists insist on releasing singles in the traditional 3-minute, verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus format at a time when younger listeners especially like to listen to shorter snippets of content that they can remix into their own Vines, Instagrams, and Snaps? Why aren’t more artists more active on Twitch? Why doesn’t Spotify launch a music label and get into content creation as Netflix has?

For instance, she bluntly calls for artists to kill their obsession with record albums: “For some artists, who really want to present a body of work and tell a story, fine, keep [the record album],” she writes. “For everyone else, just scrap it.” She goes on to write that in the CD era, record albums became bloated filler, and consumers rejected them when Napster unshackled them from having to buy an entire collection of often-times mediocre songs when all they wanted to do was sample one or two songs from a new artist. And yet, with record albums in a permanent state of decline, artists cling to the format because it’s familiar to them. Even worse, artists insist on hoarding songs and releasing them every few years in album format. And artists cannot afford to be invisible for months at a stretch.

“So just start putting stuff out there,” she writes. “Kids are fine with imperfections . . . Release little clips of tracks and see what the response is. If it doesn’t get a bite, toss some more chum in the water.”

It’s not that Harding is on a war against record albums; in fact, she objects to long-held assumptions that hold back artists from succeeding in the record industry, and the record album is a prime example. She also rethinks the singles format, noting that in 2014 Spotify reported that one in four songs get skipped before the five-second mark.

“To me, this points to the fact that listeners want something shorter, more akin to the length of Vine or Instagram videos, than the standard verse-chorus-verse-solo-chorus etc etc format they’ve been served for the past several years,” she writes. “But this would also force a radical reimagining of what a song actually looks like.”

She challenges artists to share “clips and stems of tracks” and invite listeners to remix them and create their own tracks. Why? Because listeners are already doing so with their own customized soundtracks to their lives, which they post on Snapchat and YouTube all the time. And the same holds true for videos: consumers, especially younger ones, are creating their own musical soundtracks on video platforms such as Flipagram. She urges artists to get proactive about sharing their music for use on Flipagram. “What if the true use for music is not to be consumed but to act as a platform for further creativity?” she asks.

And the music industry has been catching on. Since she wrote the core of the essays that comprise the ebook, Flipagram has signed licensing deals with labels and artists to permit them to share their music in an official capacity on the platform. To Harding, platforms such as Flipagram play an important role in the future of music. The more artists share their music on platforms where consumers live, work, and play, the sooner they will find an audience. And those platforms include Spotify. She is unsympathetic to artists who refuse to accept streaming. Spotify may not pay the bills — but it’s where audiences are built. And you cannot monetize music without first finding an audience.

After pointing out the disconnect between how artists share music and how people experience it, Harding talks with visionaries, thought leaders, and musicians who are closing that gap. Tellingly, the forward thinkers include people who do not conventionally fit the description of a music industry insider — such as Andy Weissman, a partner at Union Square Ventures whose portfolio includes Soundcloud. The conversations with people living in the thick of changes make for interesting reading. You get to know how indie musicians earn their livings, finding audiences through licensing deals, finding day jobs when needed, and building a support infrastructure around them. If you read the conversations closely, you get the message: the time has long come and gone when artists could succeed by leaving the business end to someone else. Artists need to wear many hats to succeed: musician, social media maven, merchandise seller, distributor, and overall hustler.

How We Listen Now provides a snapshot into a changing landscape. If you want to stay abreast of those changes, I suggest you follow Cortney Harding’s column and get to know her better through her website, and subscribe to her email newsletter. Her book is a great way to get started on your own journey.

Related: “‘Be Prepared to Never Make Money on Your Work‘”: A Music Insider Speaks,” July 8, 2015.

 

How James Kaplan Paints Music with Words

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that makes you want to become a better writer. You cannot always predict when those breakthroughs will happen. A case in point: James Kaplan’s two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman (the latter of which was published in October 2015). I read the sprawling books to immerse myself in one of the most storied lives in show business. And although Frank Sinatra’s life makes for riveting reading, with its dramatic peaks and valleys, Kaplan’s lyrical phrasing, like Sinatra’s singing, shimmers, soars, and inspires.

Sinatra’s story is well known, and Kaplan covers it all: his rise of greatness as a teen heart throb, his breathtaking fall from the top, his return from nowhere with his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, the torch he carried for Ava Gardner, his seedy association with the Mafia and pathetic relationship with John Kennedy, and, of course, the performance and recording of some of the greatest works of singing in the 20th Century or any century for that matter.

Kaplan shares one juicy anecdote after another, such as Sinatra’s cringe-worthy temper tantrums and dustups, cocktail swigging, high rolling hijinks with fellow rat packers, and transcendent moments in concert and the studio. Other biographers have covered this ground, too. But Kaplan goes beyond telling stories to share his own insight on Sinatra, thus adding the context of meaning, as in the following:

He lived with loneliness: the solitude of the only child who grows up with inexpressible feelings of otherness, the self-inflicted isolation of the man who’d brutally pushed Lauren Bacall away, the aloneness of the great artist who mused on the sonorities of Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams while feeling compelled to pal around with hoodlums . . . He was a kind of hunger artist, one who starved himself so the rest of us could feel better about our own hunger.

In one passage, Kaplan expresses both Sinatra’s contradictions and appeal through the lens of loneliness, one of the defining attributes that would shape his life, and essential to understanding his art and his actions. Elsewhere, Kaplan calls upon some kind of extraordinary writing muse to drop brilliant phrases on the reader like polished word diamonds. For instance, Kaplan describes the complex web of relationships in Sinatra’s life as his “strange orbit.” Ava Gardner, for whom Sinatra infamously left his wife, Nancy (triggering his career nosedive in 1950), “kept a kind of pilot light of agitation burning in his life.”

Of Judith Campbell Exner, the call girl who Sinatra introduced to John F. Kennedy, Kaplan writes, “The light of truth bends around her presence in any historical narrative, because of the gravity of her known associations — with Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, and John F. Kennedy.”

When Kaplan takes the measure of Sinatra’s music, he also descriptively and vividly, as when he describes Sinatra’s voice, worn down after a demanding tour in the early 1960s, as “a gorgeous ruin, deep and resonate, but hoarse and cracking periodically.” Kaplan’s triumph is capturing the essence of the songs Sinatra recorded — their color and impact — without getting tangled in technical jargon. Instead of describing sound, he paints impressions. For instance, he describes the 1961 Sinatra collaboration with arranger and conductor Billy May on Swing along with Me thusly:

From the rip-roaring castanet camp of “Granada” (May actually had his sidemen chant “cha-cha-cha!” at the end) to Frank’s magic-carpet-like vocal soaring over the twinkling, tinkling Arabian-bazaar melodrama of “Moonlight on the Ganges” to the thrill of the closer, “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You,” which starts as a caress and finishes as a powerhouse, a sprit of sheer fun infuses the Reprise LP, showing to what heights this artist was capable of ascending when he was artistically engaged.

He captures the legendary interplay between Sinatra and his musical collaborators with a keen ear for how words sound to the reader, as well as an eye for imagery, as in this description of the song “Lady Is a Tramp”:

Sinatra gave the tune a loving, lilting reading at a medium-swing tempo, launched by Bill Miller’s deliciously inventive piano reading (improvised and not written, and showing the great keyboardist, as in many other instances, to be his boss’s musical equal). Then, opening like a great jewel box, comes Riddle’s terrific chart, with its sequential reveals of strings, woodwinds, and brass (including Harry “Sweets” Edison’s dulcet, minimal trumpet fills).

Another writer might have provided a more technical description, as author Jonathan Gould often does in his book about the Beatles, Can’t Buy Me Love. For instance, in discussing the Beatles song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” Gould writes, “In the second section, where the harmony equivocates between A major and A minor and the meter equivocates between 9/8 and 12/8 time, John [Lennon] seems to inhabit this predatory character.” There is nothing wrong with Gould’s style; he’s simply assuming a certain amount of musical knowledge on the reader’s part. Although it’s clear that Kaplan is steeped in the arcane language of music, he chooses a more impressionistic style with phrases such as “opening like a great jewel box.”

When he writes about music, James Kaplan crosses the line from impressing me to inspiring me. I often write about music, but I typically write about the music industry as opposed to music itself. Describing music can be intimidating. The writer must find a way to convey for the reader’s eyes an abstraction meant for the ears. Kaplan has challenged me to push myself to get better at this most demanding act of writing. A recent blog post I wrote about The Revenant music score is the result, and I am going to find more opportunities to write about music. Thank you, James Kaplan.

What books have inspired you to be a better writer?