It’s official: Old Hollywood is back. Top Gun: Maverick, a product of Old Hollywood studios, has broken a Memorial Day weekend box office record with an estimated four-day opening of $156 million. According to Variety, approximately 55 percent of the movie’s audiences are 35 years or older. This is important because that demographic has been most reluctant to return to theaters since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
People are definitely returning to theaters. Entertainment analysts believe that ticket sales for 2022 won’t approach the $11.4 billion generated in 2019, but even so, sales should almost double the $4.4 billion collected in 2021. With movie theater attendance picking up, we’re seeing a change in the contentious relationship between the New Hollywood streaming companies and the Old Hollywood movie distribution system.
Streaming companies — Netflix in particular — have long been at odds with movie theaters over film distribution. In the pre-pandemic days, theaters insisted on exhibiting films for 75-to-90 days before they were distributed via video and streaming. Old Hollywood studios played ball. But this model didn’t quite work for New Hollywood streaming companies such as Netflix, which believed that giving movie theaters exclusive access to Netflix productions would cannibalize potential streaming subscribers. Why give away audiences? So, Netflix quarreled with movie theaters over the distribution of Netflix titles such as The Irishman.
The pandemic tilted the balance of power to New Hollywood. When movie attendance virtually disappeared, suddenly New Hollywood was holding all the cards. Exclusive streaming windows for theaters seemed pointless. Old Hollywood studios, saddled with enormous sunken costs for movies they’d created already, negotiated with streaming companies to distribute their films, bypassing theaters completely. Disney, an Old Hollywood studio with a New Hollywood distribution platform (Disney+), controversially released movies simultaneously in theaters and through streaming. This approach is known as a day-and-date release.
Top Gun: Maverick was originally slated for a 2020 release, but the pandemic changed that. Tom Cruise, one of the movie’s producers and its marquee attraction, said at the Cannes film festival that he never considered distributing the movie to a streaming service. He held out for a movie theater release, and it looks like his strategy is working.
Top Gun: Maverick isn’t the only blockbuster movie to crush it in movie theaters, too. Spider-Man: No Way Home is one of the sixth highest grossing movies ever (globally) with all of that money coming from in-theater tickets sales. The big-summer blockbuster movies such as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and The Batman enjoyed strong showings in theaters. More potential theater-friendly hits such as Jurassic World Dominion and Thor: Love and Thunder are waiting in the wings. And, movie theaters appear to be more flexible about insisting on a 75-to-90-day exhibition window: 45 days is the new standard.
Meanwhile, Netflix’s fortunes have fallen. Netflix recently announced that it had lost 200,000 subscribers during its first quarter — the first time that had happened in 10 years. To put that numbers in perspective: Netflix had predicted an increase of 2.5 million subscribers for the first quarter. Netflix also predicted the loss of 2 million subscribers over the second quarter. The company’s stock value plummeted. The news also led to an outpouring of existential angst about the future of streaming — especially as the post-pandemic, stay-at-home economy experienced a slowdown.
But even still, the times remain uncertain for everyone, movie theaters included. Theaters are still on shaky financial ground. Another COVID-19 surge could drive moviegoers away from theaters.
I believe that:
Netflix will become more flexible about allowing theaters to distribute its movies during the 45-day-window. This will happen for a number of reasons. First, Netflix’s previous strategy of living and dying by subscriber growth alone will change with the introduction of an ad-supported tier. Generating revenue from ads will lessen the need to grow through sheer subscriber volume. Second, Netflix needs to recoup the cost of movies. The most popular Netflix movie ever, Red Notice, cost $200 million — but it captured none of the buzz and staying power of Netflix’s limited series such as Stranger Things. Third, distributing films in theaters will help Netflix attract more Old Hollywood artists who prefer having their movies appear on the big screen.
New Hollywood will expand its presence through the Old Hollywood distribution system, too. A few New Hollywood companies actually own theaters: Netflix owns the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the Paris Theater in New York. Disney owns the El Capitan Hollywood theater, where it plays its own movies. Owning a limited number of brick-and-mortar theaters gives New Hollywood a means to hold special events and build buzz for major releases without competing with chains. But would it make sense for a streaming company to expand even further? One fascinating possibility is for Amazon to scoop up some cash-strapped theaters, as has been speculated. I could see movie theaters becoming cash cows for Amazon to hustle its private label brands in the lobbies and offer special rewards for Prime members. The time may or may not be right for Amazon. The company suffered a rare loss in its most recent earnings announcement. But then again, theater chains are still hurting financially. And Amazon is clearly moving into brick-and-mortar industries such as retailing (most notably via the acquisition of Whole Foods a few years ago). Will Amazon make a move now?
Flexibility is the theme of 2022. Studios are increasingly comfortable distributing films — especially blockbusters — through movie theaters first under the new 45-day window. The Batman was closing in on $800 million worldwide before it became available to stream — which raises an intriguing question: might a shorter 45-day window actually create buzz in advance of its streaming release?
It will be a big summer for blockbusters that play well in theaters. But studios may take a different approach for quieter, “serious” fall and winter releases especially as the pandemic rears its head with occasional spikes as it will.
Buckle up, everyone. It’s going to be a bumpy but exciting ride.
Whose house? Harry’s house! It took just 72 hours for Harry Styles’s “Harry’s House” to break the record for the biggest vinyl sales week in the U.S. since data began being tracked in 1991. One reason why: he knows where his fans are – at places such as Target.
Vinyl is enjoying a renaissance, reaching $1 billion in sales in 2021, according to the RIAA. MusicWatch says that 25% of those shoppers are aged 13-24; if you factor in the 25-34 age bracket, that figure surges to roughly half. Target is a cultural touchstone for this demographic. Per ClickZ, Gen Z “loves Target. And according to C+R Research, college students, the oldest members of Gen Z, love it the most.”
Gen Z go on Target runs together. They talk about Target on social (on TikTok, posts with the #Target hashtag have been viewed 12.4 billion times and counting). And they’ve made Target Harry’s House.
In 2020, his fans triggered a run on Cashmere Vanilla by Target’s Threshold candles when a rumor spread that the product smelled like his favorite perfume. Long before “Harry’s House” was available at Target, fans scoured the Target website for clues about the album’s release date and cover art. They talked up their findings on social media. When the album dropped — via a translucent yello special edition only available at Target – fans rushed the store and snapped photos of themselves with their merchandise on social, giving new meaning to the term “Target Run.” Just search for “Target” and “Harry Styles” on Twitter to get a taste of the commentary, including:
Think about all this from Target’s perspective. By being at the epicenter of culture, Target does more than sell merchandise. Target builds brand loyalty.
Harry Styles is a master of social media, but he also understands offline branding. Target is but one example. His pop-up shops that operated during the weekend of May 20 were packed (my wife and I were at the Chicago store. The line to get in was insane).
By understanding where his audience is, and Harry Styles creates fandom and shapes culture. Target is right there with him.
Beware false narratives. A false narrative is an unsubstantiated conclusion that snowballs (usually online). There might be kernels of truth in the narrative, but the viral nature of a false narrative makes the facts irrelevant. Case in point: Spotify’s financial performance.
During the week of January 24, Spotify’s stock value dropped amid the #BoycottSpotify backlash that happened after musician Neil Young demanded to have his music removed from Spotify because Spotify hosted Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast. A narrative rapidly spread that the controversy was hurting Spotify’s stock. But it was a false narrative.
In fact, Spotify’s stock price had been dropping 45% year over year amid disappointing quarterly results. What happened the week of January 24 was not exactly an aberration. It was also difficult to untangle Spotify’s declining stock price from factors such as an overall market cooling off, political instability abroad (e.g., the Ukraine/Russia crisis), economic uncertainty in the United States (e.g., inflation), and the ripple effect of Netflix’s gloomy forecast in its own disappointing quarterly earnings (Netflix is a bellwether for digital-first stocks).
The questionable nature of the “Neil Young crushed Spotify’s stock” narrative that proliferated among news media was underscored when the value of Spotify’s stock soared on January 31 — only to plummet again on February 2.
So what happened on January 31 and February 2?
Well, on January 31, an analyst issued a bullish analyst rating on the company. And we also possibly witnessed opportunistic investors “buying the dip” following the previous week’s stock plunge. But then on February 2, Spotify reported another quarter of underwhelming financial results, leading to another big drop in the company’s performance.
I’m not ignoring the potential for the Neil Young Joe/Rogan controversy to affect Spotify’s stock price, too. Hey, the controversy could be a factor. But we just don’t know to what extent the matter has played a role due to the other factors cited above. I suspect the false narrative with Spotify happened for a few reasons:
It is a compelling story. David versus Goliath. The hippie versus the evil corporation. The truth seeker versus the spreader of false information.
It is a negative story. People love to pile on when they see someone stumble and when stocks tumble.
Digital, well . . . digital spreads narratives like brushfire. All takes is one retweet to keep the narrative snowballing.
Spotify hasn’t commented on the potential impact of #BoycottSpotify. We don’t know, for example, how many people who use Spotify for free simply deleted the app (versus paid subscribers fleeing, which would be more serious). From a financial standpoint, we may not get any fact-based insight from Spotify for another quarter yet. Sometimes it takes time for the to facts to emerge.
One narrative you can be sure of: quarterly earnings move stock prices. It’s why disclosure rules exist.
Two leading voices of their generation, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, are leaving Spotify because the streaming service hosts controversial podcaster Joe Rogan. On January 26, Spotify took down Young’s music after he issued an “either Rogan goes, or I go” ultimatum regarding Spotify’s most popular podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience.” The podcast has been accused of spreading misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines.
Mitchell, a kindred spirit of Young whose roots with the rocker go back decades, then posted the following statement on January 28: “I’ve decided to remove all my music from Spotify. Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives. I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue.”
It is premature to conclude that dropping Neil Young and Joni Mitchell is hurting Spotify’s bottom line. Between them, their monthly listeners total 9.8 million (6.1 million for Young and 3.7 million for Mitchell) — a sizable number, but nowhere near the 47 million+ monthly listeners that Spotify’s Top 20 artists have as of January 2022. And it remains to be seen how many listeners will #boycottSpotify. My guess is that the boycott will have less impact on among the coveted Millennial and Gen Z listeners, who care more about the Weeknd and Dua Lopa than Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. The super users will be reluctant to delete their carefully curated playlists, too.
To be sure, rivals such as Apple Music are going to benefit by luring disenfranchised listeners, which Apple is currently doing by cleverly stepping up the promotion of its Neil Young catalog (and most certainly its Joni Mitchell library now).
Now, what would happen if Gen Z and Millennial friendly artists pulled their music? Like The Weeknd, the most popular artist on Spotify with 86.3 million monthly listeners? Or Taylor Swift, with 53.8 million monthly listeners – and plenty of clout in the music industry? Keep an eye on these heavy hitters. If they stand up to Spotify (as Top 5 artist Adele has done twice throughout her career for other reasons), then Neil Young will have sparked a fire.
Spotify’s biggest threat consists of a stock price that has lost 45 percent of its value over the past year amid a general market pullback, disappointing financial results, a slowdown in subscriber growth, and a declining marketshare. The company’s stock price dropped the week of l’affaire Neil Young, but I am always cautious about attaching a stock price fluctuation to a single event. On any given day, many factors influence a stock price, including forces outside the control of a business, such as the larger market slowdown occurring in January amid inflation and the Ukraine/Russia crisis. I put little credence in news media stories assigning immediate cause and effect. If we are going to conclude that the Neil Young/Joe Rogan controversy caused Spotify’s stock price to drop, then what are we to make of the fact that the company’s stock began to climb in after-hours trading after Joni Mitchell made her announcement? We do not yet know the long-term impact of what is happening. For now, Spotify has a growing PR battle on its hands going into its February 3 earnings announcement.
And for Neil Young, who sparked the firestorm? His next move appears to be to expand his argument. On January 29, he posted an update in which he doubled down on his stance on Joe Rogan and then re-introduced a longstanding beef he has had with the sound degradation on streaming services. Here is his letter:
I believe Neil Young risks overplaying his hand. He has been complaining about digital sound quality for years, and frankly most of the world does not care. He risks diluting his original message and coming across as an out-of-touch elitist. The above letter is a case in point. He literally buried the lead — a passionate articulation of his position on free speech — at the end of a convoluted, poorly written diatribe about sound fidelity. Also, in his letter, he praises Apple Music’s sound fidelity, and a casual Google search shows that he has taken shots at Apple Music, too, which now creates a distracting question about why Apple Music is now acceptable — thus detracting from his original position. Put it this way: there would be no #DeleteSpotify if he had come out of the gate with the above letter. If Neil Young wants to expand his argument, how about taking on Spotify’s notoriously poor compensation of artists?
As the world knows, Adele recently unleashed her new album, 30, amid the fanfare and fan love that we are accustomed to seeing whenever she records new music. Adele is an artist who understands the power of big moments to create awareness and to build loyalty. She also cares about how her music is shared and sold — which is why she has clashed with streaming services over the years. For instance, in 2015, she initially restricted her album25 from Apple Music and Spotify because she believed that they devalue music by giving too much of it away for free. This time around, she’s taken Spotify to task for how it serves up albums to listeners through random shuffle play. And she has enacted a change that will benefit artist and fans.
Adele’s Victory Explained
For some time, when we listen to albums on Spotify, the app has defaulted to playing the entire album on auto shuffle. This means that Spotify has prompted listeners to experience songs in some random order dictated by Spotify instead of people listening to songs in the sequence that the artist intended. Well, until Adele put her foot down.
She tweeted that she has convinced Spotify to disable the default auto shuffle mode. Going forward, an album can still be played on shuffle mode if a listener chooses that. But Spotify will default to playing an album in its intended order of songs.
She tweeted, “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason. Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.”
Now that’s what I call leverage. One artist enacts a change that will affect all artists.
Why Adele’s Victory Matters
So, why does all this matter? When I shared an article about the demise of default auto shuffle on Facebook, my post inspired several comments. They fell into two camps:
1 It’s high time that Spotify respects musicians and fans.
One of my Facebook friends put it best, “Spotify strongly discourages users from listening to albums: its absurd, mystifying UX design makes that very clear. The service wants me to shuffle and graze an infinite playlist, and I refuse to do that, for the same reason I won’t read a single chapter of a novel or memoir and then set it aside to read another chapter by another writer with similar background or influences. I listen to music the way Adele makes and releases it.”
Here’s another representative comment: “GOOD. I hate spotify for that very reason. Artists create their albums in a certain way for a reason.”
2 Music listeners really don’t care.
On the other hand, I noticed a number of comments asking whether music listeners will even notice or care about Spotify presenting albums in their original order of songs the way artists intend.
One writer commented that people who actually listen to albums from start to finish are a vanishing breed. “ . . . our style of listening is disappearing, as surely as 8-track tape,” wrote one Facebook friend who grew up in the era of album-oriented music.
Another commented, “Modern and younger listeners are single-driven and the current pop scene generates singles and assembles album listing order aesthetically, with no underlying theme or concept. It is almost non-existent to have a concept record. Last popular one that comes to mind is Green Day’s American Idiot record.”
My take: Adele’s victory over Spotify matters. Here’s why:
Human beings matter more than algorithms. A machine no longer decides for you. A human being does. That’s a victory for humanity in my book.
Music listeners and artists win. Yeah, we like to remix music. Customized playlists are fun! In fact, music listeners have been making their own mixes since the days of cassette tapes. But it’s important that listeners have a choice by having access to the original source material recorded and shared the way the artist intended rather than have an app choose for them. Adele did something right for the listener. She restored the integrity of the artist/fan relationship.
”Singles first” is neither new nor permanent. It’s true that today listeners are conditioned to consume music in bite-sized morsels while we go about our days exercising, working, and playing — which means we gravitate toward singles. But this behavior is not new. People consumed music mostly through singles decades ago until artists such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles ushered in a new era of album-oriented music, aided by the popularity of FM radio. But the resurgence of vinyl record sales underscores the reality that people do care about listening to albums. The point is that Spotify needs to allow listeners to adapt their preferences to their lifestyles, and that’s what Adele is forcing Spotify to do.
There are times when artists respond to fans. There are times when artists lead fans. Adele is leading through her actions.
This is what agility looks like: Netflix launched Squid Game globally on September 17. By October 4, Netflix was selling official Squid Game merchandise on Netflix.shop, Netflix’s e-commerce site. By October 11, Netflix and Walmart had launched a Netflix Hub on Walmart.com, where shoppers could find merch based on Netflix shows, including Squid Game. Netflix has always had a knack for creating culturally relevant shows that connect with people through their beliefs and behaviors. Now Netflix is reading the pulse of culture and cashing in through retail.
Netflix.shop Launches a New Revenue Stream
Netflix launched Netflix.shop on June 10 to sell merchandise based on Netflix shows (as Disney has done so well with entertainment since the dawn of time). With the help of Shopify, Netflix uses artificial intelligence to quickly spot trends in consumer tastes and sell culturally relevant merchandise — which is exactly what is happening with Squid Game, the most popular debut show ever on Netflix.
Netflix.shop is an important foray into e-commerce for Netflix. The existence of the store represents a shift in thinking for the company that has define New Hollywood success. Netflix’s stock continues to eclipse previous all-time highs, but the company is spending $13.6 billion on content in 2021. Rising costs, coupled with a decline in subscriber growth, has led to ongoing speculation that the company will adopt advertising in some form. But so far Netflix has resisted an ad-supported tier as its competitors have done.
Selling licensed products is a revenue opportunity too big for a content creator to ignore. Sales of licensed products tied to shows, films and characters were about $49 billion in the United States in 2019, and $128 billion globally, according tothe most recent study of the industry by Licensing International, a trade group.
These relationships — hybrid in-show product placements plus real-world merchandising — offered a glimpse of how Netflix would monetize its titles more broadly. Notably, the tie-in capitalized on the growing popularity of Stranger Things, which was a turning point for Netflix’s commitment to merchandising.
But even then, Netflix viewed merchandising and co-brands as a way to gain exposure Netflix shows as opposed to being a serious revenue stream. CEO Reed Hastings said that Netflix did not want to “get distracted with alternative revenue sources,” because its subscriber engine is what drives revenue, Hastings said in the earnings interview.
“The core focus is, create all these merchandising opportunities, tie-ins, touch points, so that you feel the ‘Stranger Things’ energy so that more people join,” Hastings said. “We do monetize all that. It’s just we’re monetizing it through our giant engine rather than through little sidecar vehicles.
A Change in Strategy
That’s not the case now. In 2020, Netflix hired Nike and Disney veteran Josh Simon to lead its Consumer Products division. Since he came aboard, Simon has tripled the size of the Consumer Products team. In addition to the partnering with Walmart, he’s been behind Netflix arranging distribution deals with Targetand Amazon to sell Netflix-inspired clothes, toys, beauty supplies and housewares.
Simon toldThe New York Times that Netflix.shop operates as a boutique, with Netflix instead focusing its efforts on more deals with store chains and fashion brands. “Practically speaking, the revenue will come more from those partners around the world in terms of sheer footprint and number of locations and magnitude,” he said.
And this is where Walmart comes into play. The online hub is Netflix’s first such site on another retailer’s site. A dedicated hub makes it easier for shoppers to find Netflix merchandise and also raises Netflix’s profile with customers of the world’s largest retailer. In addition, Walmart said that an initiative known as Netflix Fan Select will make it possible for fans to vote for the merchandise they would like to see from favored Netflix shows. Steven Mallas of Seeking Alpha says the relationship gives Netflix two pricing tiers:
First, the Netflix shop destination at its own site could focus on higher-priced items, including limited editions and other collectibles. Higher price points allow the company to more efficiently sell its items: i.e., take more money per unit and carry less units, which reduces risk compared to a mass-merchandise production plan.
The other side of the coin, the Walmart deal, will presumably focus on the latter merchandise model. These will be items that are priced to sell for a wider swath of the Netflix fandom.
Indeed, for Squid Game, Netflix and Shopify have unveiled merchandise ranging from $50 hoodies to $35 custom tees.
The products capture some of the iconic moments and characters in the violent show about people playing for their lives in a deadly series of games. The Netflix Hub on Walmart sells similar Squid Game merchandise, including tees and caps, but at a lower price.
Mallas also says that Netflix Fan Select opens up some intriguing possibilities:
Crowd-funding is something I always believed Amazon (AMZN) would have pursued to an effective degree/scale by now, but Netflix/Walmart easily could exploit this form of funding. It would reduce risk of production by collecting capital upfront from the very consumers who want to buy the product. And if both companies are serious about taking this website beyond online shopping carts and search engines, perhaps special exclusive filmed entertainment content could be crowd-funded and sold.
Imagine a short film based on the Stranger Things universe brought into existence by the fans, and then sold as a digital download, or even as an NFT… it just depends on how far the two partners want to go. It would be an easy way to create brand extensions at attractive economics; consider a toy company such as Hasbro (HAS), which has a history of seeking financing from fans for crowd-funded projects. Why simply vote for a product when you can also pay for it too? There does exist a consumer willingness to help corporations out in this regard, so long as there is sufficient demand for a certain concept.
Meanwhile Netflix has now engineered a way to stoke the fires of cultural relevance with its content and brand. If Netflix sees a show trending on social media, it can move nimbly — an approach Nike is taking by building its Nothing But Gold site. The need for speed influenced Netflix’s decision to work with Shopify to run Netflix.shop. Shopify President Harley Finkelstein told The New York Times that Shopify understand how to handle big merchandise drops ranging Taylor Swift albums to sneaker releases, “We’ve been battle-hardened around some of the largest flash sales on the planet,” he said.
Well Positioned to Grow
That Netflix could launch Squid Game merchandise so quickly is remarkable. Squid Game seemingly emerged from out of nowhere to take the world by storm, with its popularity based on word-of-mouth marketing.
Netflix is well positioned to grow its e-commerce business. But the company also as challenge: it’s one thing to cash in on a show such as Squid Game that builds enormous buzz early on. But other shows can take time to build the kind of fan loyalty that translates to a steady stream of merchandise sales. And lately Netflix has been quick to cancel shows in their infancy. In 2020 alone, Netflix canceled 18 original series, prompting Ken Renfro of Insider.com to note that “Netflix has a TV-show problem.” The company may need to be more patient to allow shows to become merchandise-friendly brands.
Adele demonstrates the power of mystique. Merriam-Webster defines mystique as “an air or attitude of mystery and reverence developing around something or someone.” Adele creates that air of mystery by holding back. She avoids TikTok. She has tweeted only nine times in 2021, and her tweets consist of bland announcements probably written by someone on Team Adele. On Instagram, she has shared 14 posts in 2021 (and a recent Instagram Live chat with her fans). Avoiding social media is the wrong move for anyone trying to build a brand in our hyper-social attention economy. And yet, Adele’s new song “Easy on Me” has broken a Spotify record for most single-day streams even though she has not released any new music for six years.
Adele’s approach works for her. But why? Crucially, she built a devoted fan base when her breakthrough album, 21, took off in 2011. She attracted fans who were (and are) not necessarily into following music trends, social media, and pop culture — but who are into Adele. As Nielsen analyst Dave Bakula commented when Adele’s 25 was released in 2015, “[Adele is] an outlier of outliers because she brings in people who are not regular music buyers,” he told Billboard. “Maybe they haven’t bought a record since Adele’s 21.”
Adele has inherited the mantel of heartfelt singer-songwriter from the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Her fans connect with her songs at an intensely personal level. She is known to draw from her real-life relationships, which gives those songs an authenticity that resonates even more. “Easy on Me” is reportedly based on her divorce from Simon Konecki, as is her forthcoming album, 30.
Having a low profile on social strengthens that connection by keeping her fans focused on understanding Adele through her music, not through her social posts. Being on social risks exposing cracks in the Adele persona and can distract from her narrative. In 2020, she posted on Instagram a rare unguarded photo of herself wearing her hair styled in Bantu knots while she wore a Jamaican flag bikini. The post sparked accusations of cultural appropriation, a rare moment of public shaming. This was not the kind of attention that suits her narrative.
Social media is about creating impressions — little moments that create a steady stream of visibility. But Adele is in her element when she creates The Moment. Like hosting Saturday Night Live.
Or becoming the first person to appear simultaeously on the cover of both the U.S. and British Vogue.
She can control these moments. And then she can retreat behind the veil of mystique. She is like Steve Jobs with his big product reveals when he ran Apple. Adele’s latest big reveal is 30, being dropped on November 19. On Adele’s terms.
I swore I would never write one of those “Lessons I Learned from the Rolling Stones” blog posts.
And yet, here I am doing just that.
Well, a few nights ago, I came upon a YouTube video of them performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” onstage September 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. I decided to watch it even though I already know the song well, and I’ve seen them perform it live. Frankly, I was curious to know how they sounded. After all, they’d just lost an essential member of the band, drummer Charlie Watts, who died August 24 after being their backbone for 60 years. On the other hand, they’d been holed up for months, grounded by the pandemic. The Charlotte concert was only the second show of their No Filter Tour. Would they sound energized by the road after all this time? Would they perform in sync with their replacement drummer, Steve Jordan?
Within seconds, I had my answer. These guys were on fire. Mick Jagger sliced through the air and skipped across the stage like a kid on a playground. Ron Wood and Keith Richards traded guitar licks like a garage band with something to prove. Richards crouched, twirled around, glanced at the heavens, and laughed. Wood swiveled his hips, tilted his guitar, and spat out lick after lick.
This was a moment of passion.
Then I came across them performing “Satisfaction” a few nights later in Pittsburgh. Here was an eight-minute version of a three-minute song we’ve heard countless times — and yet, every second felt fresh and exciting, with the band building up to an explosion of energy.
I have reflected on these moments. These guys are pushing 80 — Mick Jagger is 78, Keith Richards, 77, and Ron Wood, 74. Now, I don’t point out their age in a “Wow, they can still play into their 70s!” way. Their age matters because when you see someone several years older than you exuding that kind of joy and passion, well, you cannot help but feel encouraged that you can keep your inner flame alive, too, year after year.
I mean, it’s one thing to find your passion. But how do you keep it? Make it stronger? It’s easy when you’re just starting out in your career, whatever that is for you. You’re flush with the excitement of learning your craft. Of figuring out how to collaborate with a team. But then, the responsibilities of life start to compete for your energy. Professionally, you encounter hassles. Maybe you have a run of bad bosses or deal with a toxic co-worker. Maybe your job gets cut, and you need to learn a new gig with someone else. And then, there are the personal distractions that creep up on you, like monthly rents, student loans, and the endless minutiae of adulting. At some point, more serious personal setbacks that can crush your spirit enter the picture: like losing loved ones or handling a health issue of your own. All those things happen, and if you’ve somehow been spared and cannot relate to what I’m writing, well, just give it some time.
The Rolling Stones have endured all those setbacks. The loss of Charlie Watts is the latest. They’ve also lost other band members before Charlie, sometimes tragically. They’ve endured the same pressures that less-famous people like you and me face, including serious financial issues (they were broke in the early 1970s), legal scrapes, self-inflicted problems such as drug addiction and health scares (including heart surgery for Mick Jagger in 2019). Any of those obstacles could have sapped their spirit.
But not the Stones. They’ve released dozens of albums. Their work includes some of the greatest rock music ever recorded, and some not-so-great albums, too. But all of their music matters. Their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town,” was powerfully relevant to pandemic life.
And they keep touring.
On the surface, they don’t need to tour. They have all the money they need. Touring means travel. Being away from families. Enduring the rigors of road life. But I believe those video clips on YouTube say something else: touring is what fuels their passion. Touring means performing, and performing onstage ignites an inner spark. If you’ve ever performed onstage — whether acting, singing, or presenting at a conference in front of an audience — you know how that live dynamic feels. The energy. The nervousness. The “What if I suck?” doubts. Well, all that energy — both the nervousness and the excitement — creates a spark. And that spark keeps them vital.
Mick Jagger recently commented on performance when he was asked how and why he keeps touring into his 70s:
I’m very passionate about touring. Every time you go onstage it’s a very exciting moment, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always different. A lot of unexpected things happen. Each show is a new event. You’re in a different place with a different audience. It’s a very exciting couple of hours and it’s a very intense relationship with the audience.
Keith Richards was more succinct in a Rolling Stone interview: “It’s what I do, man. Give me 50,000 people and I feel right at home. The whole band does.”
It’s what they do. What do you do to keep your passion alive?
In 1985, I crossed paths with Danny Sugerman, co-author of the controversial biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive. By the mid-1980s, a global Doors revival was in full swing, and No One Here Gets Out Alive, released in 1980, had a lot to do with that. Sugarman and co-author Jerry Hopkins cast the Lizard King as a modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun, a tortured poet trapped in an ugly world of rock stardom. No One Here Gets Out Alive also speculated that Jim Morrison might have faked his death at age 27 in 1971 — an unsubstantiated claim that sparked much debate and critical backlash. Well, accurate or not, the book sold millions of copies.
I was working at a book publishing company in 1985, where I was editing a book about rock and roll, You Say You Want a Revolution: Rock Music in American Culture. I wanted to use a photo of Jim Morrison and had written Elektra Records asking for permission. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from Danny Sugerman. In his laid-back California drawl that suggested Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, he explained that he held the rights to the photo I wanted. Then he asked me about the book I was editing. I explained how the book captured the essence of rock music’s influence on American culture, and a photo of Jim would be perfect. He didn’t ask me another question about the book or the rights to the photo. Instead, we spent two hours talking about Jim Morrison and the Doors. I told him I’d been to Paris for the 10th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death. He talked of the power of Jim to change lives singlehandedly — Danny’s life and many people he’d met since publishing No One Here Gets Out Alive.
When we hung up, I was reminded of how powerful Jim Morrison’s gravitational pull could be. Clearly, Danny Sugerman would forever remain under Jim’s spell. I also realized the phone call had nothing to do with rights and permissions. Danny had wanted to share his belief in rock and roll mythology, specifically the mythology of Jim Morrison, the rock god and poet. Somehow early in the conversation he must have sensed I was another believer he could bond with. He didn’t come across as a historian. He seemed to me like a disciple. I also saw No One Here Gets Out Alive in a new context: an important addition to rock mythology. That’s how I view it today.
Why Rock Mythology Matters
Since that conversation with Danny, I have come to understand and appreciate the essential role of rock mythology. Rock mythology is important because it liberates us from the mundane realities of life through its epic scope and sometimes sensational storytelling. For true believers — those of us whose lives have been changed by music — rock mythology imparts meaning. We need to believe that the rock gods who influence us also live and die in extraordinary ways.
Since No One Here Gets Out Alive was published, many more myth-makers have emerged, such as Stephen Davis, author of another controversial and salacious book, Hammer of the Gods, about Led Zeppelin. The surviving band members criticized the book for being inaccurate, but the criticisms missed the point: Davis had canonized Led Zeppelin as the ultimate gods of decadent cool, and most certainly did them a favor by elevating them to mythic status. In 2005, Bob Dylan published a memoir of mythology, Chronicles: Volume One, in which Dylan chose episodes of his life to create the portrait of a poet minstrel. Martin Scorsese built on that mythology with the release of the 2019 documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese. The movie focused on Dylan’s famous 1975 tour that included a band of merry minstrels (such as poet Allen Ginsburg) and musicians. The movie confused many watchers by including authentic-looking interviews with actors who, it turned out, were playing people who did not exist, or real-life people who fabricated stories. The audience was left to wonder how much of the documentary was authentic and how much was made up. And critics were annoyed that they’d been duped. In retrospect, it seems to me Scorsese was playing with the concept of rock mythology by mixing fantasy with facts.
Elegantly Wasted Rock Gods
Rock mythology needs to have enough elements of truth to be believable, but it also needs to amplify the larger-than-life details. Rock mythology might also be based on stories that are generally agreed upon to be true — but the mythology omits details that are inconvenient. For example, the mythology about Keith Richards being a dangerously romantic rock star has been earned by well-documented drug addictions and scrapes with the law. But the closest Richards has come to dying (as of this writing) was actually from slipping and bashing his head on a palm tree trunk, a pedestrian story that is usually omitted from his rock mythology.
Keith Richards was friends with Gram Parsons, and both of them shared serious drug addictions. The life of Parsons, who left this world in 1973, is the stuff of powerful mythology. He was a boyish Southern gentleman who threw away a pampered existence (he came from a family of wealth) to embrace the hard life of an elegantly wasted rock star. Like Jim Morrison, he was a tortured soul; he was scarred by the suicide of his father when he was 12 and the alcoholism of his mother. Oh, and in his early 20s, while battling the demons of a heroin addiction, the rock god Gram Parsons cut two record albums that influenced the rise of modern-day Americana. Because gods of mythology live very, very large.
Of course, he did not die like any mortal. No, Parsons succumbed to a drug overdose in a lonely motel in the desert. But the story does not end there. His loyal road manager Phil Kaufman (who, in the tradition of rock mythology, was once a cell mate of Charles Manson) stole Gram Parsons’s corpse and burned his body in Joshua Tree National Monument. According to rock mythology, Parsons had wanted his body burned in the desert. Apparently Kaufman was the only person Parsons had bothered to tell, but there can be no other reason why Kaufman would have gathered a posse to steal the body and burn it. In any case, verifying details is not important to rock mythology; what’s important is the highly impressionistic portrait that has emerged of Gram Parsons as a romantic, gone-too-soon, fragile soul. This mythology is so strong that visitors to Joshua Tree (including me) who know the story of his death make it a point to find the spot where his ashes were scattered. (Google “Gram Parsons Joshua Tree site,” and see for yourself.) Who can say for sure where his ashes were actually scattered or whether indeed he wanted his body burned in the desert? But mythology is about storytelling, not pinpoint factual accuracy.
Why is the myth of the rock star who lives fast and dies young so compelling? Perhaps because according to popular mythology, rock and roll itself is a subversive force that emerged from the depths of hell to corrupt the young. Rock and roll is supposed to be dangerous. After all, Ian Drury sang, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” Rock stars are supposed to be dangerous. And under the subversive influence of the devil’s music, rock stars are vulnerable to the temptations of rock life. They may even become agents of the devil himself. Rock mythology says that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil; it tells us three members of Led Zeppelin also forged a contract with Satan. Many others, such as Ozzy Osbourne, might not have been known to sell their souls to the devil, but according to mythology, they did the devil’s work.
Thanks to the internet, anyone can create their own rock mythology to endure for the ages. If our myths became challenged by the facts, we can either ignore all but the most unavoidably inconvenient truths or incorporate them into a new mythology.
A good case in point is the recording of the last Doors album with Jim Morrison, L.A. Woman. Popular rock mythology says that when the Doors went into the studio to record L.A. Woman, Jim was a bloated has-been who’d run out of ideas and needed to plumb the depths of his childhood journals to find something fresh. After Jim Morrison’s infamously chaotic performance in Miami in March 1969, the band suffered from a slew of canceled concerts. Jim Morrison was charged with obscenity, a process that drained him and the band. Cast adrift, they struggled. By 1970, when the Doors were recording L.A. Woman, the Doors sounded so bad in rehearsals that their producer, Paul Rothchild, quit them, fuming that the Doors sounded like a cocktail lounge act. But somehow — so goes the mythology — Jim Morrison managed to tap into some muse that was still burning inside, and he forged a new instrument from his hoarse, beaten voice.
That enduring perception is probably true, and probably false. Who knows? That’s the point of rock mythology — to paint pictures we hold onto for those moments when our mortal lives feel too ordinary. And so, the myth of L.A. Woman persists.
“Riders on the Storm”
A recently unearthed demo of “Riders on the Storm” challenges the mythology that Jim Morrison was in decline when the Doors made L.A. Woman. The demo, uncovered by album co-producer Bruce Botnick, suggests that Morrison’s voice sounded better than ever, even gaining some depth and soul missing from his earlier recordings. Known as the Sunset Sound demo, it feeds into a mythology that I’ve embraced: the rise of the shamanistic Jim Morrison who was enjoying a creative Renaissance, contrary to the has-been Jim mythology.
According to the myth of Jim Morrison as shaman, he had decided to leave behind his Dionysian past and morphed into Mr. Mojo Risin, a blues persona who sang in a gruffier, lower register. Mr. Mojo Risin is best appreciated on the title track for L.A. Woman (in which he name-checks Mojo Risin, which turned out to be an anagram for Jim Morrison), “The Changeling,” and “Been Down So Long.” But Mr. Mojo Risin actually appears before L.A. Woman, notably on “Road House Blues” from Morrison Hotel, which was released in 1970.
How do I know all this about Jim Morrison’s creative renaissance? I don’t know. I believe. But the belief is well-founded. L.A. Woman was a critical success, and it was no fluke. Morrison Hotel was equally well-received. On those last two albums, the Doors released some of their strongest songs, which sounded nothing like the psychedelia of their celebrated first two albums — a sign of a band growing and experimenting with its sound. And on live albums recorded from the few concerts the Doors could book after the Miami incident, Morrison sounds like a man who is experimenting with different personae onstage. Absolutely Live captures Jim applying the confrontational theater style he’d learned from the Living Theatre in Los Angeles. On Live at the Aquarius: First Performance (recorded in July 1969, but not released until decades after the fact), you can hear Jim Morrison experimenting with the Mr. Mojo Risin persona. He improvises the song “Back Door Man,” by incorporating lyrics from the yet-to-be released “Maggie M’Gill” from Morrison Hotel: “Well, I’m an old blues man and I think that you understand/I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began.”
On “Riders on the Storm,” Jim achieved one more creative transformation. He conjured up a frightening Wendigo from Native American mythology to inhabit the soul of Mojo Risin. He’d had a longtime fascination with Native American culture. In a spoken recording, he once talked of a childhood incident in which his family came across an accident on a highway. Several Indians were scattered on the pavement, and the soul of one of the ghosts of the dead Indians inhabited Jim Morrison’s soul. He would also capture that moment famously in the song, “Peace Frog,” from Morrison Hotel. If this story alone does not constitute epic rock mythology, I don’t know what does. It’s fantastic enough to sound ridiculous if you are a skeptic. But if you are a believer, you can totally accept a younger Jim Morrison deciding he was inhabited by the soul of a dead Indian and then drawing from that belief to create art.
In “Riders on the Storm,” Morrison evokes the Wendigo to create a feeling of dread that pervades the song even in its rough form. The early take is simpler than the final version, which would be embellished with an echo of Jim Morrison’s voice and the thunderstorm special effects. But the evil spirit of the Wendigo emerges even in this early version, with Morrison’s words creating a powerful narrative:
There’s a killer on the road His brain is squirmin’ like a toad Take a long holiday Let your children play If you give this man a ride Sweet family will die
The Wendigo also expresses the chaos of existence in the line, “Into this world we’re thrown” (a lyric that Doors scholars believe was inspired by philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of thrownness, or human existence as a basic state). Throughout, Jim’s voice is haunting and dark, deep and pure.
He didn’t create the dread alone. “Riders on the Storm” represents a peak performance by the entire band (as well as guest bassist Jerry Scheff) and some brilliant production by the band and Bruce Botnick.
The song was still taking shape when the Sunset Sound demo was recorded. But Jim was already where he needed to be.
The Danger of Rock Mythology
Chasing rock mythology can lead you down self-destructive paths. Gram Parsons killed himself chasing the mythology of the elegantly wasted rock star (a mythology inspired directly by his association with Keith Richards), and in doing so, Parsons only added to that mythology, giving artists such as Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt a template to follow. Embracing rock mythology is like dreaming in the day, and as T.E. Lawrence said, dreamers of the day are dangerous men. But the alternative is to view rock stars like Jim Morrison as ordinary people, even unsavory people who lived and died in very pedestrian ways. This will not do. An everyday insurance salesman or an anonymous computer programmer didn’t give the world “Riders on the Storm” and “L.A. Woman,” did they? Those are not the works of ordinary people. They are gifts left behind by gods who walked the earth.
“Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages/Celebrate the symbols from deep elder forest,” Jim Morrison once wrote. We need to reinvent the gods to believe in ourselves and the choice we have made to believe in them through their music.
The NFL should have given the entire Super Bowl stage to Kendrick Lamar.
The NFL announced on September 30 an all-star line-up for the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, which happens February 13 in Los Angeles. Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar will represent three decades of hip-hop, with Mary J. Blige providing a hip-hop soul flourish. (Covering the news, Yahoo Entertainment said “Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop and more lead star-studded 2022 Super Bowl halftime show, thus relegating Mary J. Blige and Kendrick Lamar to “and more” status.)
The announcement showed how far the NFL halftime show has evolved and how far it has to go.
The halftime show come a long way since college marching bands Up with People.
It’s more diverse and sometimes more culturally relevant although not always in ways the NFL expects — such as when Beyoncé, a guest performer for the featured act Coldplay at Super Bowl 50, stole the show by performing her socially and politically charged song “Formation,” which sparked controversy and absolutely slayed.
The NFL likes to think of itself as make-no-waves family entertainment (make of that what you will). And the Super Bowl is a rare event that strives to appeal to a broadly defined global audience in an era of data-driven television narrowcasting. The NFL plays it safe with Super Bowl halftime entertainment — especially after the NFL made the mistake of allowing MTV to produce the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, resulting in the edgy performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that introduce “wardrobe malfunction” to our common vocabulary. After that, the NFL circled the wagons and featured safer acts such as Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Prince (not the younger, out-there Prince who gave us “Dirty Mind”), and the Rolling Stones (not the younger, dangerous Stones). The social gravitas of Beyonce’s “Formation” was the exception that the NFL did not plan on.
But there’s a problem with this approach: the Super Bowl is losing the 18–49 audience, which is crucial to attracting advertisers. Which brings us to the line-up for the 2022 Super Bowl. The NFL is trying to be more culturally relevant by emphasizing hip-hop and diversity in the line-up, but the performers are play-it-safe choices. We’re not going to see the raunchy and dangerous Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg of the 1990s, but three established brands that appeal to a broad audience (Eminem just opened a restaurant called Mom’s Spaghetti in Detroit). Between the three of them, they could slip in a surprise call-out to their edgier past, but I doubt that will happen. Mary J. Blige, who performed at Super Bowl XXXV and the 2012 Democratic National Convention, is also a safe choice.
Kendrick Lamar, though, is probably the most socially conscious and influential musical artist today. To say that his songs confront American racial injustice is an understatement. His music has become a rallying cry for social and racial justice; indeed, his “Alright” from To Pimp a Butterfly is considered to be the unofficial protest song of Black Lives Matter.
Kendrick Lamar owning that halftime stage would lend street cred to the NFL and attract more of the 18–49 age group. But I really don’t think the NFL wants to see another “Formation,” as exciting as Beyoncé’s performance was. In the NFL’s eyes, Black performers entertaining a global audience is great; Black performers getting political onstage is scary.
And yet . . . the NFL knows it needs to find a way to connect with younger viewers in a multicultural world. So, Kendrick Lamar will perform in an ensemble role. Th NFL is hedging its bet like a fund manager who offsets a higher-risk investment with safer choices.
But with more risk comes more reward — the kind that Kendrick Lamar can deliver. But you never know: if anyone can turn the moment into a breakthrough, Kendrick Lamar can.