My Sweet George

Why are we sometimes moved to tears when famous artists die? I thought of this question while pondering the anniversary of George Harrison’s death today. I did not know George Harrison. I never met him. Yet when I learned of his passing on November 29, 2001, I wept.

Artists wield a ferocious power. Sometimes they shape your identity with their work. Sometimes they penetrate your soul. George Harrison created music that reflected an important part of my identity, especially the songs from his masterpiece All Things Must Pass. “My Sweet Lord,” perhaps Harrison’s best known work as a solo artist, expresses my own spiritual longing over the years. As a boy I sought spiritual comfort amid a traumatic childhood. As an adult I turn to God for wisdom and comfort, always seeking answers and guidance, but finding those things to be elusive more times than I’d like. As Harrison sang:

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you, Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

In the song “Hear Me Lord,” Harrison articulates the reasons why I often find spiritual fulfillment to be elusive: because I’m not listening to God. I become lost in the stress and worries of everyday life or my mind becomes cluttered by material things and worldly distractions:

Forgive me lord

Please, those years when I ignored you

Help me lord, please

To rise a little higher

Help me lord, please

To burn out this desire.

And in “All Things Must Pass,” I see myself on my best days, drawing upon my spiritual well to accept change and counseling others to do the same:

Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day.
All things must pass,
All things must pass away.

These songs matter to me because I identify with the spiritual journey Harrison shares in them. But why did George Harrison himself become important to me? Because when someone creates music that moves you so deeply, you want to believe that the artist is worthy of the songs they create. I want to believe that the man who wrote “My Sweet Lord” was a profound spiritual seeker. And if you have never meet the artist personally, it becomes that much easier to create your own narrative about them.

In George Harrison’s case, I can certainly glean some clues about his life from his biographers. I cannot deny he often failed to live up to the noble sentiments expressed in his songs. History tells us he was an unfaithful husband and capable of childish, judgmental behavior. But he never claimed to be perfect. By his own statements and actions he was indeed a flawed seeker. He once said, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot.” His search famously resulted in the Beatles traveling to India to seek enlightenment in 1968, which unlocked a creative lode of songs that made their way on to The White Album. George Harrison attempted to improve himself and the world around him. The fact that he stumbled makes him more relatable and personal.

When I look at George Harrison’s sober face on the cover of All Things Must Pass, I see myself — the part of me that broods, worries, and ponders matters of the spirit. Because I was not present when he was photographed for the album cover decades ago, I am free to construct my own narrative and identify with him, or at least the image of George Harrison as portrayed to me. And here is why the death of an artist you don’t know personally can move you to tears: because you do know them. They’ve opened themselves up to you with their art. You’ve bonded with their words and their music. And you’ve allowed yourself to internalize their art, to identify with it. When an artist you love passes away, they take part of you with them.

 

Why I Listen to Bad Sinatra

On a cold November afternoon, I’ve immersed myself in a bad Frank Sinatra album from 1974, Some Nice Things I’ve Missed. Why would I do that? Because experiencing an artist’s lesser work helps you understand them better, like reading chapters of a revealing biography.

Some Nice Things I’ve Missed gives me a deeper sense of how Sinatra tried to remain relevant during his comeback following a brief retirement in the early 1970s. Sinatra, pushing 60, was recording less and performing more, especially in Las Vegas, where Elvis Presley had entered the final phase of his own career. On Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, Sinatra tried to capitalize on the popularity of several songs that were charting during his retirement. He covered everything from Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree” to Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” both of which were hits in 1973.

Here, Sinatra was attempting to force a sense of contemporary relevance by chasing popular tastes. And he failed miserably. The 10 songs he chose were unsuited for the orchestral treatment given to them by the album’s producer and arranger, Don Costa. And he interpreted the music with indifference, at best. For example, his phrasing on “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” sounded forced and rushed, lacking the warmth and humor of Jim Croce’s original.

The problem was that he allowed desperation to cloud his judgment. Instead of choosing songs that played to his strengths as a vocalist, he used a song’s proven chart position as the litmus test for covering it. As a result, to modern-day reviewers, Sinatra “sounds disinterested in the project, as if he can’t wait to leave the studio,” in the words of reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

Now let’s go back to 1967, when Sinatra, in his early 50s, was staring down the threat of rock and roll. Although he committed mistakes that he would repeat on Some Nice Things I’ve Missed, he also recorded a masterpiece, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, that was unlike anything he’d ever done.

Jobim was a leading composer of the bossa nova style of music that had gained a global following of its own. On Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra discovered a new direction with sensitive, nuanced performances on songs such as, “The Girl from Ipanema” (for which Jobim shared a composing credit). Sinatra sounded cool and relevant, because not only was the genre hip, but he also sounded hip. As biographer James Kaplan wrote in Sinatra: The Chairman, “Sinatra sang with an exquisite tenderness he hadn’t tapped since The Wee Small Hours, 12 years before.”

In fact, Frank Sinatra created a timeless sound that has outlived a lot of rock and roll from that era. I’ll take Sinatra singing “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” over Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” any day. He didn’t try to compete with rock and roll. Instead, he explored territory that no rock and roller could touch.

Listening to Frank Sinatra at the top of his game is one of life’s great pleasures. But listening to bad Sinatra invites more inquiry into his life, too. Bad Sinatra makes me appreciate the insecurities and struggles of a man who fears being irrelevant as he grows older. If you’ve never felt that insecurity or fear that Sinatra experienced — trust me, my friends, that day will come. On your best days, you will respond with grace. But sometimes you will stumble, as Sinatra did. Listening to Sinatra struggle on an album such as Some Nice Things I’ve Missed makes him more human and relatable.

I love Sinatra when he’s brilliant. I get Sinatra when he fails.

Five Great Songs about Summer

Welcome to the season of sticky sno-cones, loud suburban street festivals, and music spilling out of open windows of fast cars. And music always makes the summer season. To celebrate the arrival of summer, check out these five great songs about el verano and make sure your playlist is up to date:

Hot Fun in the Summertime,” Sly and the Family Stone

Like so many great summer songs, “Hot Fun in the Summertime” is awash with nostalgia, recalling a fleeting romance that ends with the inevitable coming of the fall. But oh them summer days in between the end of the spring and the first of the fall! You can take the song to mean the literal arrival and passing of the summer months or read something deeper into the lyrics: growing older, looking back, and reflecting.

Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince

Drums, please! It’s time to kick back and unwind with a soft subtle mix while you cruise in your car. School is out. The temperature’s about 88. And you’re invited to a barbeque that starts at 4. What’s not to like? In “Summertime,” DJ Jazzy Fresh and the Fresh Prince take us to the Belmont Plateau in Philadelphia, where “Little boys messin’ round with the girls playing double-dutch/While the DJ’s spinning a tune as the old folks dance at your family reunion.” The song hints at a nostalgia we often hear in other summer songs, but it never loses its sense of time and place thanks to the smooth lead rap, vivid lyrics, breezy background vocals, and irresistible backbeat. You’ll keep coming back to the plateau. Continue reading

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

Memorable Album Covers of 2017

Don’t let anyone tell you album covers are dead. Album artwork continues to express the visions of artists and the musical content of the albums themselves as powerfully as covers did in the era of album-oriented rock. Memorable album covers of 2017 reflect a year in which artists made compelling political and personal statements.

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Memorable Album Covers of 2016

The success of Adele’s 25 triggered speculation that maybe, just maybe, record albums were coming back as an art form following years of declining sales. But by July, album sales figures released by Nielsen Music brought those hopes crashing down to an ugly reality. Consumers had purchased 100.3 million album units, down 13.6 percent compared to the same period in 2015, putting 2016 on pace to be the worst selling year for albums since Nielsen began tracking the data in 1991.

But fortunately, musicians didn’t give up on albums. Beyoncé and David Bowie were among the artists who created albums meant to be experienced as complete song cycles, not as chopped up morsels of content. Beyonce’s Lemonade challenged our notions of what an album could be, released as a “visual album” aired via an HBO special along with the songs themselves. And the music inside Lemonade was a brilliant statement about race and femininity.

Lemonade was also notable for its simple yet powerful cover depicting a spent-looking Beyoncé in fur and golden cornrows, hinting at the statement inside the album. Lemonade was one of many examples of albums that intrigued not only because of their music but also because of their cover art. As I’ve written before, album cover art is alive and well even as album sales decline. In the 21st Century, album cover art acts as a visual imprint repeated across a number of touch points: the artist’s website, social spaces, merchandise, outdoor advertising, and many other places where artists tell visual stories.

Ironically, album covers have even more reach than they did back in the days of album-oriented art for the very reason that the artwork can reach music fans through so many digital and offline channels and devices. The best of the covers do what album cover art has always done:

  • Capture your attention through striking design.
  • Express the essence of the artist.
  • Say something about the musical content of the album itself.

The examples I’ve chosen from 2016 consistently live up to those three functions of a cover, ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Loretta Lynn’s Full Circle. Check out the best examples from my new SlideShare to restore your faith in the power of album cover art to tell visual stories.

You Don’t Have to Hug Your Fans

 

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Building fan love doesn’t mean pandering to your audience. Radiohead, which dropped its new album A Moon Shaped Pool digitally May 8, builds fan devotion by challenging and even confounding its audience, which is the right approach for a group whose music has always been one step ahead of everyone.

Radiohead’s actions in recent days — sending weird postcards to select fans and erasing its digital presence briefly — flies in the face of the “Taylor Swift lessons on customer engagement” articles that are floating all around the Internet. The Taylor Swift school of fan engagement emphasizes accessibility and warmth, with Taytay constantly flogging social media and bending over backward to return fan love. But Radiohead creates fan love through a mystique that approaches aloofness. Both artists demonstrate the importance of engaging fans in a way that’s right for your brand, which is truly a lesson that applies to any business, whether you’re an exclusive Louis Vuitton or crowd-pleasing Motel 6.

Radiohead certainly reaches out to its fans, but in its own peculiar way. For instance, the weekend of April 29, some of its fans received a vaguely worded leaflet with the sinister message, “We Know Where You Live.”

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Puzzled fans posted the leaflets on social media, triggering what would turn out to be accurate speculation that Radiohead was about to drop some new music.

But Radiohead wasn’t finished. On May 1, fans began to notice that the band’s Internet presence was disappearing. Its website gradually faded to black, its tweets began to vanish, and the band removed its Facebook content. Yup: Radiohead literally cut its digital cord, including its presence on the world’s largest social media network.

The silence didn’t last long, though. On May 3, the band posted on Instagram a 15-second clip of a stop-motion bird tweeting, followed by a clip of animated figures accompanied by staccato music.

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As it turns out, fading to black and posting some enigmatic images was a prelude to the release of real music: the strange, scary song “Burn the Witch” on May 3 (where the chirping birds and animated figures appear) and then the appropriately titled “Daydreaming,” directed by P.T. Anderson, on May 6.

Oh, and the band reactivated its digital presence to let everyone know a new album was coming digitally on May 8 (because why not a dose of Radiohead for Mother’s Day?) and in physical form June 17. In typical Radiohead fashion, no other details were supplied — no title, no album art, just release dates.

Not exactly the warmest and fuzziest way to super serve your fans, is it?

But that’s how Radiohead rolls. This is a band that knows how to build fan loyalty by being unpredictable and progressive, such as surprise releasing the album In Rainbows online in 2007 accompanied by the we-don’t-give-a-crap move of allowing fans to set their own price for the download. Give Beyoncé all the credit she deserves for dropping new albums with no advance notice, but it was Radiohead that pioneered the concept. And then there was the time Radiohead decided to publish an old-fashioned print newspaper, The Universal Sigh, to accompany the release of the 2011 album King of Limbs. Not only was the distribution of a print newspaper in the digital age a typically against-the-grain Radiohead move, The Universal Sigh was full of stories, poems, and other content that kept everyone guessing as to its meaning.

Creating this kind of mystique is perfect for Radiohead. Its music is, at turns, enigmatic, confounding, and thoughtful — music that manages to remain popular even while sometimes dividing critics and listeners. To follow Radiohead is to immerse yourself in the jagged guitar and off-kilter drums that shaped OK Computer only to have the band change courses completely with the atmospheric, abstract sounds on Kid A. Indeed, critics have described its music at times as “intentionally difficult” although by and large, the band is a critic’s darling for constantly reinventing its sound.

Taylor Swift doesn’t give a hang about mystique, nor should she. She is all about accessibility. She connects as personally with her fans as a pop star can. When she released her massive-selling album 1989 in October 2014, she surprised a few lucky fans by holding “secret sessions” consisting of exclusive previews of the album. She even brought home-baked cookies to the sessions. She is a constant presence on social media, commenting on her life, sharing visual stories, and reaching out to her fans on their own social accounts. Her social content is genuine, earning accolades from branding experts. Through social, she excels at “treating your fans like friends,” in the words of interactive marketing executive Joshua Swanson.

Taylor Swift hugs her fans. Radiohead challenges them, as Pink Floyd did at the height of their popularity.

Both approaches work. Billboard recently named Taylor Swift the top moneymaker of 2015. Radiohead has sold 30 million albums over the years — perhaps the only popular band still in existence that successfully relies on record sales, not singles, to build a fan base. Its new song “Burn the Witch” was viewed more than 8 million times within the first few days of its release, and pretty much the Internet went nuts following the band’s digital odyssey this past week. Its 2016 tour, playing limited dates, is expected to be highly successful. Just don’t expect Radiohead to serve cookies at the concerts.

I’m not suggesting that businesses examine the Radiohead approach for some pearls of wisdom. The larger point is that even in an age of customer empowerment, when your fans can say what they want about you on social media and demand rapid response, how you engage with your customers depends on the kind of brand you are building, and it’s a mistake to pander to fans. For instance, you won’t find warm fuzzies on the Prada website — as of this writing, the front page is actually jarring and even off putting after a few moments. For that matter, Red Bull doesn’t exactly hug its fans — Red Bull gets in their faces. Neither brand is rude, per se, but their choice of content and tone in their outreach creates a certain edge.

Always understand your brand’s north star — what you stand for. And then find an approach to fan engagement that works for your brand.

How AC/DC Turned Loss into Triumph with “Back in Black”

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The rock and roll world recently exploded with rumors that AC/DC was finally calling it quits. Unfortunately, those rumors included speculation that founding member and rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young was suffering a debilitating health problem. The band responded with some good news and bad news. The bad news was that Young was taking a break from recording due to an undisclosed health problem. But the band also affirmed its intent to stick together and make music. In fact, AC/DC has endured through hard times before. Thirty-four years ago, one of rock’s loudest, badass bands taught creative minds everywhere how to turn loss into hard-fought gain with the release of Back in Black, one of the greatest rock albums ever.

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In 1980, AC/DC was on the ropes. On the verge of achieving global superstardom, the band suffered a devastating loss when lead singer Bon Scott died after a night of heavy drinking. Losing a lead singer would be a crisis for any band, and especially given the circumstances, AC/DC considered breaking up. Not only was Scott’s loss tragic, but his throat-shredding vocals had helped define the band’s raw, head-banging sound and appeal.  But the band, consisting of brothers Malcolm and Angus Young (who was quickly establishing a reputation as a scorching lead guitarist), drummer Phil Rudd, and bassist Cliff Williams, decided to carry on. And then AC/DC made two decisions that would change its fortunes: finding front man Brian Johnson and deciding to release a tribute album to Scott.

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