In Search of a New Rock Star

The moment was freighted with poetic symmetry: I was on my sofa reading Joe Hagan’s newly published Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine when I noticed our postal carrier dropping off the latest issue of Rolling Stone. The cover of Hagan’s book features Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner standing in front of a gallery of rock legends such as Mick Jagger. The latest issue of Rolling Stone features Elon Musk on the cover.

Welcome to the new generation of rock stars. The giants of Wenner’s generation wanted to change the world with music. Today’s rock stars want to use technology to re-imagine how we live.

The contrast between the old and new felt stark as I read the first third of Sticky Fingers, when Wenner launches a magazine in 1967 as rock gods walk the earth. The first issue of Rolling Stone featured John Lennon. Think about that for a moment. You launch a new magazine with zero promise of ever succeeding and no credibility. And coming right out of the gate you land one of rock’s most influential artists ever. John freaking Lennon.

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Slain in the Spirit of Father John Misty

Author screenshot of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

I don’t go to church as often as I used to, but I always attend Father John Misty’s services when he is in town.

For a Father John Misty concert is a religious experience, one I have witnessed time and again, most recently September 20 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. Onstage, he morphs into every kind of spiritual persona I’ve ever known. He is as cerebral as a Presbyterian who rules the pulpit with scripture and reason. As emotional as a Nazarene tent preacher speaking in tongues. As provocative and socially conscious as a Jesuit priest. Father John Misty, the stage name adopted by musician Josh Tillman, is partly the product of a troubled but important spiritual past. His ability to draw on his past to create compelling music makes him an artist, not just an entertainer.

Image source: Lynn Lippert.

I first noticed Father John Misty late one evening a few years ago when I was watching a livestream of the Coachella music festival on my laptop. He prowled the stage like a lion, twirled his arms above his head, and gyrated so wildly that I thought he was going to burst out of my screen.  Who was this guy? I was reminded of when I was a child and my mother took me to church tent meetings in dusty fields of central Illinois to watch preachers whip an audience into an emotional frenzy by waving Bibles in the air and shouting scripture to occasional bursts of music from horns and organs. Those worship services were exciting and a little scary. And so was Father John Misty.

Author screenshot of Capitol Theatre livestream.

The next day I bought a copy of Fear Fun and got to know him better. His lyrics — sophisticated, honest, and droll — made me think of Bob Dylan. His song phrasing was Continue reading

How an Album Cover Helped Unleash an Outlaw

nelson-willie-611-lDuring the golden age of album-oriented rock, when a Led Zeppelin double album could sell a million copies before its ship date, country music was for rednecks who wore manure-crusted boots to bed — or at least, that’s what the recording industry believed. But in 1975, Willie Nelson released an album that helped make country — and outlaw country at that — a national phenomenon. His masterpiece, Red Headed Stranger, tells a striking story of loss, sorrow, and redemption that resonated with the record-buying public. Not only is the music memorable, but the album cover art told a visual story long before anyone had ever heard of visual storytelling — which is why I have featured Red Headed Stranger in my series of posts on memorable album covers.

After years of making other singers famous with his songwriting skills, Willie Nelson was starting to enjoy success as a solo artist when he recorded Red Headed Stranger. Based on the 1953 song “Red Headed Stranger” (written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz), the album tells the story of a preacher on the run after he kills his unfaithful wife and her lover. The songs, a combination of covers and originals, are violent, beautiful, reflective, and romantic, as they relate different episodes in the preacher’s life as an outlaw. The album applied to country all the devices of album-oriented rock, which was at its apex: a cohesive theme, songs arranged in a thoughtful manner, and album art that complemented the music inside.


Photo credit: Philip Gould

Designed by Monica White (with art direction by Howard Fritzson), the album cover art not only molded Nelson in the image of an outlaw but also contributed to the rise of the entire country outlaw movement, which catapulted the careers of Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. For starters, there is the front cover, which consists of a drawn portrait of Nelson. With his piercing eyes, pitiless gaze, long hair, grizzled beard, and cowboy hat, he looks like a Wild West gunfighter who knows how to deal out rough justice. His name and the album title are rendered in an old-time script over a thick red border, as if branded on a fence post.

On the back cover, pencil drawings guide the reader through the album’s songs, akin to a graphic novel. The outlaw’s life is laid bare. One panel depicts a scene from the song “Red Headed Stranger,” in which the preacher shoots his wife and her lover in a bar. The drawing captures the moment when the lover tastes one of the preacher’s bullets. His head jerks back, his hat goes flying, and his hand remains closed on a glass of whiskey even as the drink spills. The preacher’s wife is slumped on the table, her head down. (Apparently, she was the first to go.)


In another panel drawing, the preacher accosts a would-be horse thief: he leans back and casually plants a bullet in the chest of the thief, a woman with blonde locks and a pink dress. But the back cover also contains a larger story arc, depicting the preacher dancing with a newfound love in one scene and relaxing at a riverbank in another. The episodes on the back of the album also contain song lyrics that go along with each scene — a clever approach that tells a story and advertises the songs.

The front and back cover made a statement: Red Headed Stranger was not a typical contemporary country album but rather a journey to another time and place. And the album itself fulfilled the promise. Featuring little more than Nelson’s plaintive voice, a guitar, a mandolin, drums, and a harmonica, the music was a radical departure from the lush arrangements that typified country. The songs themselves consisted of a collection of originals and covers, such as “Red Headed Stranger,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” and “Hands on a Wheel,” which spanned a gamut of themes such as loss, remorse, and redemption — everything the album cover advertised, and more. Once you heard those songs in one sitting, you understood the symbolism of Willie Nelson’s face on that album cover: Nelson wasn’t just channeling the Wild West; he had become the red headed stranger of his own songs, a moniker and mythology he would own for the rest of his career.

The album reached Number One on the Billboard country charts, and eventually achieved multiplatinum sales. Nelson’s cover of Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” became Nelson’s first Number One hit. The album also earned critical praise. According to Mother Jones, “Texans have known for 15 years what Red Headed Stranger finally revealed to the world – that Nelson is simply too brilliant a songwriter, interpreter, and singer – just too damn universal – to be defined as merely a country artist.”

And therein lies the appeal of Red Headed Stranger: the songs sounded country enough to please traditional country fans, but Nelson’s singing style and the themes he chose to dwell upon hit a universal chord. The album also made the record industry realize that yes, country artists could unleash massively popular best sellers just as rock stars could. Country enjoyed a commercial breakthrough, with albums such as Wanted! The Outlaws and Waylon & Willie enjoying massive success. For the rest of the 1970s, Nelson would ride a wave of popularity as the de facto leader of country’s outlaw movement until he became a more mainstream pop singer (albeit with country roots). Meanwhile, Red Headed Stranger would go on to be positioned among the Top 500 albums of all time by Rolling Stone (the album was ranked 184) and Number One in Country Music Television’s 40 Greatest Albums in Country Music. In the August 28, 2014, issue of Rolling Stone, Associate Editor Patrick Doyle, profiling Nelson, would note that the Red Headed Stranger album cover, combined with the music, made it feel like “Nelson was stepping into the boots of a John Ford character.”

Today visual storytelling is so important to image building that entire books are written on the topic. (The Power of Visual Storytelling, by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio, is the visual storytelling Bible for brands.) Nearly 40 years ago, Red Headed Stranger set a high standard for visual storytelling — and changed an industry.

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

Also related:

From Goldfrapp to Pink Floyd: How Great Album Covers Tell Visual Stories

Can Wu-Tang Clan Save the Record Album with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin”?


Why Every Year Is the Year of Miley Cyrus


It’s time for the Miley Cyrus bashers to wake up to a stark reality: Miley Cyrus ain’t going away. Not in 2014. Not anytime soon. Why? Because when you peel away the layers of twerk-inspired controversy, Miley Cyrus is creating good pop music. And with a major North American tour launching February 14, Miley Cyrus is going to be in our faces even more than she was in 2013.

I waited until now to pass judgment on Cyrus’s latest album, Bangerz, even though it was released three months ago. Frankly I needed some emotional distance from the phenomenon of Miley (which was wearing me out) in order to objectively explore the music of Miley. After listening to the latest edition of her constantly reinventing sound, I have to say, yeah, she delivers some fun, engaging pop on her first non-Disney album — the kind of pop that will endure if she plays her cards right.

You already know about the big moments from Bangerz — how could anyone escape the much discussed and spoofed video for “Wrecking Ball?”

Miley Cyrus swinging around naked on a wrecking ball got tongues wagging. But the video is just a way (and an effective one at that) to get attention amid the white noise flooding our multi-tasking lives. On the song itself, she reveals the kind of talent that will sustain her. Her vocals soar with the kind of epic style that Alicia Keys attempted with “Girl on Fire,” but without any of Keys’s self-conscious posing.

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How One Tweet from Jimmy Page Turned “Ramblize” into a Media Sensation


How did an obscure song that was languishing on YouTube for two years suddenly capture the interest of music journalists? Two words: Jimmy Page.

Here’s the scoop: on November 15, the guitar god shared via Twitter a cryptic message about legendary rapper Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious B.I.G., with a link to Page’s website, Visitors to Page’s website encountered a new song streaming: “Ramblize,” which is a mash-up of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” and Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” The song, which combines bits of Page’s acoustic guitar, Notorious B.I.G.’s rap, and some snatches of Robert Plant’s vocals, created an instant sensation, with publications such as Rolling Stone, Ultimate Classic Rock, and XXL writing fairly gushy articles about its emergence on Rolling Stone asked, “Who knew Jimmy Page was a hip-hop head?

But who actually made the mash-up and when is unclear. A version dated May 2011 appears on YouTube and was uploaded by YouTube user @theLionsRampant. In the comments field, one user Continue reading

5 Customer Experience Lessons from Rolling Stone’s 50 Greatest Live Acts Now


If you want to improve your customer experience, read the recently published Rolling Stone overview of the 50 greatest live acts now. The best live acts do something all brands aspire to do: create an experience that make their fans want to come back for more. It’s a simple formula for building brand love — and yet many companies struggle to master the art of the customer experience. According to the annual Temkin Experience Ratings, only 37 percent of companies received “good” or “excellent” scores for their customer experience. Here’s what 50 great live acts (rated by musicians, critics, and industry executives) can teach brands about treating their customers right:


1. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels

Number 1 on the list of greatest live acts now is a 63-year old legend who could coast on his reputation and still make this list. Yet, Bruce Springsteen plays with the urgency  of an unknown act trying to prove himself.  He continues to give everything he has onstage (in Finland, he played for 4 hours and 16 minutes, his longest show ever). He abandons his set list to play requests from the audience, which keeps his band from falling into a  rut. He commands the stage. After all these years, he’s not simply “doing well for an older rocker” — he’s setting the standard for excellence, period. Another well-established act, Radiohead, “refuse to rest on nostalgia,” in the words of Rolling Stone, with the band members challenging themselves to bring fresh material with each tour. But Bruce Springsteen is the one artist who exemplifies all five lessons on this list.

2. Create Audience Intimacy

The artists, critics, and industry types who selected the Top 50 laud Jay Z for making “personal connection with the audience at every show.” Similarly, U2 “have this ability to create intimacy” even in large arenas, according to Continue reading

Is rock dead?

What does the future look like for rock and roll? It’s a question that will surely be on the minds of participants at the 2012 South by Southwest Music festival, which kicks off this week. I believe the future of rock and roll is very bright — if you’re willing to think of rock as the sugar in someone else’s tea.

Rock was, at best, a supporting player at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, with major rock awards such as Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album being relegated to the Grammy pre-telecast. And if Billboard magazine is any indication, rock is actually being assimilated into a more diverse palette of genres ranging from pop to rap. Rock was barely an afterthought in Billboard‘s Year in Music for 2011 issue. Pop acts like Adele and Justin Bieber ruled the year based on sales figures, with club music asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Billboard’s 2010 Year in Music issue noted that in 2010, only one rock band reached the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 (Train, with “Hey, Soul Sister”).

In fact, no rock act has cracked the Top 10 in the annual Billboard Top 200 in either 2010 or 2011. The list of Top 15 Billboard artists in 2011 says it all: Continue reading

Nice guys finish first

Last year I blogged about how Twitter was a catalyst in the forming of a co-branding relationship that I formed with indie musician AM and Razorfish (where I was in charge of marketing). Since then, digital has once again helped launch a relationship – this time between AM and musician Shawn Lee. On the strength of a trans-Atlantic collaboration formed entirely in the digital world, AM and Lee have launched a new album, Celestial Electric, which was just named one of Yahoo Music’s “Ten Utterly Fantastic New Albums” of the week.

As discussed by Mashable and my post on the iCrossing Content Lab, AM and Lee essentially used digital to launch a new sound, “electro soul.” The initial fruits of their work, the single “Dark into Light,” caught the attention of publications such as Rolling Stone. AM and Lee are now on tour (with Thievery Corporation) to support Celestial Electric, whose positive critical reception includes reviews such as this one and this one.

Seeing AM succeed is satisfying on a number of levels. I have been captivated by his sophisticated style of music since hearing him in concert in March 2010. But I’m also glad to see a genuinely likable and cool guy like AM and his collaborator Shawn Lee get the attention they deserve. AM’s personal warmth is evident the moment you meet him, and I’m lucky to have worked with him.

Success (especially in the fractured music industry) does not always come to decent and talented people. AM and his manager Mia Crowe are not waiting for success to come to them; they have worked hard to help AM find an audience for his music, which has been described as a mélange of “the best of musical worlds, rippling through classic roots sounds: pop and rock, steamy soul and R&B, Brazilian tropicalia, British Invasion, and ‘60s Bay Area psychedelia.”

On the Content Lab for iCrossing (where I am vice president of marketing), I provide more insight into the story behind AM’s success. And you can learn more about AM on Facebook, Twitter, his website, and on YouTube.

The marketing genius of “Led Zeppelin IV”

Imagine if Apple unveiled the latest iPhone without a logo or if Lady Gaga had released Born This Way without her name, face, or album title on the cover.

That’s what Led Zeppelin did 40 years ago when the band issued its fourth album with a cover consisting solely of a dreary photo: an old man, hunched over with wood sticks stacked on his back — no title, band name, song listing, record label logo, or even a catalog number.

In doing so, Zeppelin committed a masterstroke of marketing brilliance that still resonates today.

The album many of us simply refer to as Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso) is the subject of an August Classic Rock cover article by Barney Hoskyns, author of Led Zeppelin IV (Rock of the Ages). His article is a worthwhile introduction (although certainly not the only one) to a work that has sold 23 million copies and is ranked among the greatest rock albums of all time by authorities ranging from Rolling Stone to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hoskyns not only documents the recording of the album and its landmark songs (“Stairway to Heaven” among them); but he and author Dave Lewis (Led Zeppelin historian and editor of Zeppelin magazine Tight but Loose) also discuss perhaps the most famous album packaging in the history of rock music – a combination of runes and puzzling artwork that inspires conversation even in a digital era that treats albums like relics.

In this post, I expand on the significance of the album design: how it complements the music of Led Zeppelin IV and influences the album’s timeless, mystical appeal. In my view, the success of Led Zeppelin IV is a lesson in creating brand mystique by not over-explaining and instead revealing a few well-chosen clues that provoke discussion.

No Title? No problem

To appreciate the impact of Led Zeppelin IV, I think it’s helpful to understand the album’s historical context. As many rock historians have reported, Led Zeppelin was at a crossroads when it released the album that would help make Zeppelin “one of the biggest bands on the planet” in Hoskyns’s words.

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The reincarnation of Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse is the latest example of how sudden death ignites the career of a down-and-out, self-destructive artist. You see it happen time and again: a troubled celebrity dies unexpectedly. Said celebrity then realizes a surge in PR popularity and revenue.

I blogged about the phenomenon in 2008 in the wake of the death of Heath Ledger. And Rolling Stone more famously did so back in 1981 by analyzing the wild popularity of dead rocker Jim Morrison (“He’s Hot, he’s sexy, and he’s dead”)

And now Amy Winehouse – who only weeks ago was booed offstage in Belgrade – is a star again.

Her break-through album Back to Black, released in 2006, re-entered the Billboard charts, and her lesser known effort, Frank, saw a surge in units sold.

She has became a social media phenomenon, with her Facebook page gaining 200,00 fans a day, and Twitter reacting with a predictable surge of activity as people remember her (and breathlessly report her death long after her demise is patently obvious).

Meantime, Microsoft got itself a black eye for encouraging people to honor her memory by purchasing her music on Microsoft Zune. (Apple escaped criticism although it was featuring her music on iTunes.)

And you can be sure we’ll see some unreleased Amy Winehouse music on the market.

So why do self-destructive artists become so popular in death – especially the likes of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, whose careers were obviously in decline at the time of their passing? I think Ryan O’Connell offers a telling perspective in his Thought Catalog post, “Why Do We Care So Much about Amy Winehouse’s Death?”

In American culture especially, we worship celebrities. They’re our version of royalty and I suppose that’s why we take celebrities’ deaths so personally. For some reason or another, their life meant something to us. In some ways, we might be more involved in their lives than our own. It’s for that reason that I found myself annoyed that people were going apeshit about Amy Winehouse dying. I felt like I and many others grieved her death out of some misguided sense of duty. It hit us so much harder because Amy Winehouse never got her shit together. Americans love to tear celebrities down (Amy included. I’m sorry but the American press and “fans” weren’t particularly kind to her. She was mocked relentlessly.) and then we love to bring them back up. We love a comeback even more than a downfall. And what’s perhaps most tragic about Winehouse and the reason why so many people flipped out over her death is that she never got her happy ending. We were never able to rehabilitate her and put a bow on her next album. That’s what we wanted most of all, right? To see her happy and healthy? But it’s hard to tell if those wishes were ever genuine. It’s hard to discern whether or not we truly gave a shit about Amy Winehouse or if we just needed her to fit the typical celebrity narrative.

Americans love the arc of the comeback story. When a celebrity won’t give us the comeback that we want, we create it ourselves.