The Train Is Coming

The minstrel warned us that the train is coming.

On an oppressively hot June night in Chicago, Robert Plant sang 13 songs of longing, joy, and carnality with a voice that has grown sweeter and softer over 69 years. His concert was mostly a joyous celebration of life. But if you listened closely as he dipped into his rich songbook, you could hear the minstrel conjuring narrators who contemplated aging, loss, and mortality. Midway through the evening, Plant assumed the voice of a man about to be executed, pleading for the hangman to give him a little more time in “Gallows Pole”:

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile

I think I see my sister coming, riding many mile, mile, mile

Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand

Take him to some shady bower

Save me from the wrath of this man

On “The May Queen,” an aging celebrant sang of time’s passage:

A heart that never falters

A love that never dies

I linger in the shadows

The dimming of my light

An old blues man gazed at death in “Fixin’ to Die”:

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord

I believe I’m fixin’ to die

Well, I don’t mind dying

But I hate to leave my children crying

The older you get the more likely you will learn what it is to experience the effects of age, if not on yourself then on someone in your life. In his 69 years, Robert Plant has faced the loss of close family and friends, and nearly the loss of his muse when he almost quit singing after the death of his son, Karac, in 1977. But he is not one to dwell on the past. Since the break-up of Led Zeppelin in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham, Robert Plant has record 14 albums, six of them after he turned 50. He scoffs at those who would question how he stays inspired at an age when many have retired from their work, and he writes songs that celebrate living, not losing. Continue reading

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Shareable Custom Alexa Skills Bring Us Closer to a Voice-First Future

Amazon continues to create a voice-first future.

In April, Amazon launched Alexa Skill Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses, with no coding required. And now Amazon has made Alexa Skill Blueprints shareable through channels such as Facebook, text, Twitter, and messaging apps.

With Alexa Skill Blueprints, voice becomes a source of user-generated content, such as creating skills that help the babysitter find things in your home or skills that help you learn new subjects through your own voice-based flash cards, among many other potential uses. Here’s an example of how to create your own family trivia game:

Empowering people to create their own Alexa skills without any coding experience is important to Amazon’s vision for making voice the connective tissue of commerce and everyday living. Alexa fuels an entire voice-based commercial ecosystem that includes, for example:

  • The use of Echo smart speakers to manage our smart homes, listen to music (preferably by streaming Amazon Music), and order products and services. Echo is Alexa’s primary vessel, enjoying a commanding 70 percent marketshare.

For Amazon to achieve its vision, consumers have to become comfortable using their voices to accomplish tasks that we’re accustomed to doing with our fingertips. So far, Continue reading

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Why GDPR Isn’t Coming to the United States

Will draconian privacy laws ever come to the United States as they have in Europe in recent days? The question is reasonable in light of ongoing news stories about Facebook’s cavalier treatment of user data. Now that the European Union has enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), we now have a template for stronger protection of consumer privacy, with businesses being held to more stringent privacy standards and facing steep fines for failing to uphold those standards.

The likelihood of GDPR-style regulation coming to the United States was one of several topics I discussed with a panel of journalists and industry practitioners recently. The panel, hosted by Chris Heine of the Bateman Group, focused on the many possible impacts of GDPR. Participants ranged from Gartner Analyst Andrew Frank to Kevin Scholl, director of digital marketing and partnerships at Red Roof Inn. My take: GDPR isn’t going to come to the United States anytime soon – especially during the Trump administration. Here’s why:

  • Data privacy is not a priority at the Federal level. We’ve already experienced the mother of all data breaches – and nothing happened. Remember Equifax, whose failure to protect user data affected millions of Americans? If ever there was a reason to usher in more serious privacy laws, Equifax handed it to the administration on a platter. But in fact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau actually scaled back its investigation of Equifax. And Americans moved on. Meanwhile, influential businesses such as Alphabet and Apple have too much lobbying power for GDPR regulation to take hold widely. (Google alone spent more than $18 million on lobbying efforts in 2017.) The corporate-friendly Trump administration will likely place the adoption of widespread privacy measures low on the priority list.
  • The American won’t demand widespread regulation anytime soon. We may claim we care about privacy when we are asked– but our actions say otherwise. For example, the brutal Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal created a #DeleteFacebook spasm, which died away. It’s not that we want to give businesses unfettered access to our data. But we don’t have the time and energy to police them. Who really takes time to read the mind-boggling user agreements we are periodically asked to review when we update our Apple operating system or when LinkedIn or some other platform revises its practices? (Here’s LinkedIn’s privacy policy. I’m sure you’ve reviewed it carefully because you care about privacy, right?) In addition, and perhaps more importantly – big tech has the upper hand. We’re hooked to our devices and platforms. They fuel our lives. We’ve given them permission to manage us – which is a big reason why #DeleteFacebook died. We may be annoyed with Facebook the brand, but we want Facebook the community.

A more likely scenario: Facebook will take the fall. The company will become subject to more regulation and scrutiny, thus reframing a potentially more widespread issue as the problems of one company. Instead of inspiring Federal action to regulate privacy more broadly, Facebook’s failures will instead marginalize the issue. We’re already seeing Apple capitalize on Facebook’s problems by attempting to demonize the social media platform.

Tougher privacy laws may take hold at the state level, but don’t hold your breath waiting for a dramatic change to occur nationally.

For more insight into our panel, check out:

Adweek, “4 Big GDPR Concerns for Brands, Agencies, and Vendors,” Chris Heine, May 9, 2018.

Bateman Group, “Here Are 4 Big GDPR Concerns for Brands, Agencies and Vendors,” Chris Heine, May 23, 2018.

CNBC, “People will forget about data privacy issues soon — at least, that’s what ad experts expect,” by Michelle Castillo, April 12, 2018.

DMNews, “7 Ways GDPR Will Affect Your Marketing Efforts — According to Top Marketers,” Hillary Adler, May 28, 2018.

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Voice Looms Large for Apple and Mary Meeker

Apple and Mary Meeker agree: we’re living in an increasingly voice-first world. But how well is Apple adapting?

On May 30, Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Mary Meeker, one of the most influential pundits in digital, released her annual Internet Trends report. The uptake of voice-based digital interfaces was a significant theme. She identified voice as one of nine areas where innovation and growth are occurring as U.S. internet usage continues to growth.

“With voice, we’ve hit technology liftoff with word accuracy and we’ve certainly hit product liftoff with Amazon Echo’s install base estimated to be around 30 million plus,” she said, as she presented her report at the 2018 Code Conference. And she presented slides to illustrate her point.

It’s worth noting that in her 2016 report, she quoted Andrew NG, chief scientist at Baidu, who said, “As speech recognition accuracy goes from say 95% to 99%, all of us in the room will go from barely using it today to using it all the time. Most people underestimate the difference between 95% and 99% accuracy – 99% is a game changer . . . “

According to Meeker’s 2018 report, we’ve now approaching that point where accuracy rates will trigger widespread adoption.

As Meeker noted, sales of the Amazon Echo have been phenomenal – an example of a technology company identifying a need that people did not know they had.  And the Echo is an important, but not the only, barometer of voice’s uptake. Businesses such as Amazon, Continue reading

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“This Is America” Reignites a Musical Resistance

The musical resistance just came roaring back with the release of the searing “This Is America,” by the irrepressible Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover). Here is a song that reminds us of music’s power to provoke and confront society in the tradition of great protest work such as Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The video invites frame-by-frame dissection with its disturbing, powerful images — such as a Jim Crow caricature, gun violence, images of dancers frolicking amid chaos — and lyrics such as:

This is America

Don’t catch you slippin’ up

Look at how I’m livin’ now

Police be trippin’ now

Yeah, this is America

Guns in my area (word, my area)

I got the strap

I gotta carry ‘em

Released on May 5, “This is America” has gone massively viral, accumulating 23 million views within two days and sparking discussion among social mediaand news media ranging from The Atlantic to The Guardian. Although the song stands alone as a strong statement, “This Is America” assumes even more gravitas when you view the work in context of the political and social consciousness that has gripped popular American music in recent months. Continue reading

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The Best and Worst Musicians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Music purists love to trash the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a creaky institution run by out-of-touch guardians of all that is old and irrelevant.

And yet, music writers can’t stop talking about the Hall, which, ironically, makes the organization relevant to the ongoing conversation about music. Take, for instance, a May 2 article from Vulture’s Bill Wyman that ranks every single Rock Hall of Fame member from best to worst. The article went viral shortly after Wyman unleashed this sprawling analysis that attacks and praises Hall of Fame members with equal passion, depending on his personal preferences.

The tone of his article, alternating between bitchy and smug, invites the kind of anger-laden debate that characterizes a well-written ranking. Wyman mercilessly attack Bon Jovi (ranked 214 — dead last) for producing “only one passable chorus in a 30-year-plus history” while fawning over the Ramones, a band he ranks in greatness above Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Along the way, Wyman makes some mighty controversial choices. Here are some that stand out:

  • Prince, Ranked Number 6. Prince created his own style of rock and funk crossover — but are we prepared to accept a world in which Prince is ranked ahead of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Rolling Stones, Al Green, Little Richard, and Otis Redding? Seriously? Prince was great, but how many Prince albums and songs do you regularly listen to from his catalog post-Sign ‘O’ the Times?
  • The Doors, Ranked 172. The Doors represent everything that is great about rock: pushing boundaries, rebelling, and embracing inner chaos. Jim Morrison was not only one of rock’s greatest front men, he also created the template for musicians as visual artists. Anyone who aspires to captivate an audience through the power of live theater — Arcade Fire comes to mind — owes a debt to the Doors. The Doors also created an incredibly diverse and influential body of music in just five years, fusing psychedelia, jazz, and blues. But Bill Wyman dismisses them as nothing more than a “dreary band.” I get, it, though: when you challenge the status quo and redefine a genre, you anger people who want to keep rock in a well-defined box.
  • The Ramones, Ranked 7. The Ramones are the kind of band that critics love to hold up as the shining example of “real rock,” as in some stripped down kind of music devoid of pretension. And don’t get me wrong — I love the Ramones, or, more specifically, two or three highly listenable Ramones albums from the band’s peak. But they’re more famous for representing a movement, which elevates their music too high on Wyman’s list. The Ramones did one thing really well, but they were limited to their loud-and-fast formula. The Rolling Stones, ranked 15, were punk before the Ramones defined Punk.
  • The Rolling Stones, Ranked 15. Wyman’s ranking is a head scratcher. First off, let’s names some of the groups he ranks ahead of the Stones: the Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and, as noted, the Ramones and Prince. Really? Nirvana is more important than the Stones? But rather than defend his rationale, Wyman dives into a puzzling harangue about why the Stones’s original keyboardist, Ian Stewart, was allowed to be inducted along with the group — sort of like a historian ranking Millard Fillmore as a greater president than Abraham Lincoln and then launching into a discussion about the vagaries of the Electoral College. I’m left mystified as I listen to Beggars Banquet for the 500th time.
  • Michael Jackson, Ranked 58. In Wyman’s view, Michael Jackson is guilty of not being Elvis or the Beatles (“virtually everyone who bought a Presley or Beatles record was doing something they’d never done before. That’s different from what Jackson did.”) Fair enough. Jackson was neither Elvis nor the Beatles, both of whom are ranked reasonably in Wyman’s Top 5. But Jackson didn’t need to be Elvis or the Beatles. He reinvented pop music with his own sound. He also transformed pop for the visual age, turning the medium of video into a cultural phenomenon. Songs such as “Beat It” crossed racial boundaries in powerful ways. I think Wyman’s beef is not so much with Jackson as his fans. And Wyman takes out his resentment on the king of pop.

But however confounding Bill Wyman’s list is (and this isn’t the only one he has written), the music world would be a lesser place without it. Lists trigger arguments. Discussions. Agreements. The creation of more lists. Lists act as gut checks on our own tastes. So, check out his list and let me know what you agree with — and disagree with. Long live rock.

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Why Amazon Prime May Be the Future of On-Demand Living

Amazon fed investors a smorgasbord of impressive performance statistics in its quarterly earnings announcement April 25 – such as a 43-percent increase in year-over-year revenues and the generation of $1.4 billion in operating income for Q1 2018.

But by the tine Amazon announced its Q1 earnings, the company had already disclosed an even more intriguing statistic via CEO Jeff Bezos’s April 18 letter to shareowners: 100 million. That’s the number of Amazon Prime members, a figure Amazon had never before shared. Amazon Prime is bigger than Costco. Amazon Amazon Prime also represents the future of Amazon and possibly the on-demand economy

Prime Is Amazon’s Future

For a fee (which is increasing to $119 annually), Amazon Prime members enjoy a number of advantages unavailable to non-Prime customers, such as free two-day delivery on orders and access to exclusive entertainment content via Prime Video.

With Amazon Prime, Amazon is redefining convenience as a premium service by creating an on-demand lifestyle. Just as Starbucks convinced people to pay more for fast coffee, Amazon wants us to pay more to get access to an even more exclusive tier of on-demand services. Continue reading

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Boom! Amazon Makes Voice a Whole Lot Bigger

Amazon just extended its influence on how everyday people live.

Today Amazon announced the launch of Alexa Blueprints, which makes it possible for anyone to create their own Alexa skills and responses with the popular voice assistant – and no coding is required.

In doing so, Amazon has found a way to build on its lead in the smart speaker category, where Amazon is crushing its competitors with a 70-percent market share through its Echo product powered by Alexa. But Alexa is more than the heart of the Echo. Alexa is helping to change the way people live through voice-based experiences.

Not long ago, the idea of using our voices to play music, organize recipes, manage our smart homes, and order pizzas seemed far-fetched in a world dominated by text-based searches and commands. But Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have been steadily developing assistants intended to get people to use our voices to manage machines. Now nearly half of Americans use voice assistants on their mobile phones alone. By 2022, 55 percent of Americans will have installed a voice-powered smart speaker in their homes.

Amazon is leading the way in the adoption of voice. Alexa is the most widely used voice assistant and enjoys higher rates of engagement than competitors such as Apple’s Siri. In fact, Alexa is the heart of a rapidly evolving network that relies on voice commands to manage our lives. Home base consists of the Alexa-powered Echo smart speaker, which reside principally in our homes. Since launching Echo in 2014, Amazon has sold an estimated 20 million Echo units on its way to achieving a commanding lead in the market for smart speakers.

But Jeff Bezos wants Alexa to go beyond our living room. It’s already well known that automobile manufacturers are incorporating Alexa into their vehicles, and Amazon recently launched an offering to extend Alexa into the workplace. At CES 2018, businesses showcased a number of products integrating Alexa – ranging from smart glasses to bathroom fixtures.

These applications of Alexa do something important: make people more comfortable with the voice interface. As Bezos told Billboard, “Alexa is primarily about identifying tasks in the household that would be improved by voice.”

But Amazon needs Alexa to perform more skills for the assistant to become the common fabric of our lives. According to Amazon, Alexa performs 25,000 skills including checking your bank account balance and cooking thanks to interfaces with  third parties. And with Blueprints, Amazon puts the tools of production into the hands of the owners. By empowering end users to create personalized Alexa skills and responses without needing how to code, Amazon has created a compelling way to accelerate the uptake of Alexa. Now anyone can create their own content and customize the product to do what we want. The Amazon website offers a number of suggestions such as helping the babysitter find things in your home, mastering subjects with your own voice-based flash cards, and creating stories.

Making tools more accessible is a common approach employed by technology companies such as Apple and Google. Apple, of course, made smartphone adoption explode by opening up the iPhone to third-party app developers. More recently, Apple released ARKit for developers to launch augmented reality products. Google has taken an even more democratic approach over the years by releasing tools that you don’t need to be a developer to use, such as Google Analytics. Google is now ambitiously trying to make virtual reality more popular by launching tools to create VR experiences.

Apple and Google face bigger challenges making AR and VR more mainstream although Apple less so because AR is easier and less costly to adopt. On the other hand, voice-based experiences are becoming more intelligent and accessible. Plus, it’s far less expensive for people to use voice assistants especially as they become more embedded in products we own already.

With Blueprints, Amazon is widening its lead in the marketplace for voice assistants by changing how we live. Amazon is now Amazon Everywhere.

 

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6 Reasons Why Jack White is the Lord of Vinyl

In 2017, sales of vinyl records rose for the 12th straight year. Although vinyl records still account for only 8.5 percent of total album sales, their 14.32 units sold in 2017 represent the most since Nielsen began tracking record sales electronically in 1991. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story of vinyl’s resurgence. Buying vinyl is about enjoying the packaging – unwrapping the album, studying the album cover art, holding the disc, and collecting different formats, such as multi-colored discs and alternative covers. And few people appreciate vinyl as like Jack White does.

The man who led the garage rock revival has built a life around a celebration of all things analog, including the glory of vinyl records. If you’ve seen the guitar-god documentary It Might Get Loud, you understand White’s passion for the authenticity of analog music: in one of the movie’s more revealing scenes, he constructs a guitar out of found parts including a Coke bottle and plays it. His passion for the simplicity of analog music has manifested itself in some striking and sometimes curious ways. As 2018 Record Store Day approaches, let us count six of them:

1) His new album, Boarding House Reachhad the fourth-biggest sales week for a vinyl album since Nielsen began to measure vinyl sales in 1991. His 2014 album Lazaretto holds the record for the biggest one-week sales performance of a vinyl album.

2) He has released a trove of rare and eccentric vinyl, including 100 copies of a single that was stitched into furniture he upholstered.

3) In 2016, he launched the first phonographic record to play in outer space. A recording of “A Glorious Dawn” by composer John Boswell along with audio from Carl Sagan was launched in a balloon 94,000 of feet above the earth, where a “space-proof” turntable played the recording for more than an hour. Continue reading

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Artists Don’t Believe in Accidents

Artists create beauty from accidents.

One morning in Chicago’s Union Station, I found myself with a few spare moments before the work day began. I felt like watching some James Brown for inspiration and searched YouTube until I came across a 1974 performance of “The Payback” in Zaire. The performance did not disappoint. After a rousing welcome from an enthusiastic emcee (“This man will make your liver quiver!”), the Godfather of Soul entered the stage, slowly and deliberately like a lion in command of his kingdom. James Brown removed his overcoat to reveal a muscular body threatening to pop out of a powder blue and black jumpsuit. He then became a whirling force of nature. He did the splits – twice, in rapid succession. He twirled. He thrust his hips. He caressed the microphone, alternatively grunting, screaming and singing “The Payback.”

About 2 minutes and 20 seconds into the performance, he did something that happened so fast that I almost missed the moment: as he sang “I don’t know karate, but I know Ka-Razor,” he dropped his torso down to do yet another fluid leg split, and the tall microphone stand in front of him toppled over, landing on his right shoulder. As his legs Continue reading

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