Monday, September 28, 2009

Break Up... if only they had.

Not so long ago I had the opportunity to see a screening of Julie and Julia before it was released... it made me wish I was Superman. If I were the "man of steel" I could fly around the earth fast enough to turn back time, find Nora Ephron in her editing bay, and use my ex-ray vision to destroy the Julie half of the movie. Listening to Break Up, the new release from Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, made me want to don that cape again.

The changes that need to be made on Break Up aren't as black and white as those necessary on Julie and Julia... but something needed to be done. The songs, for the most part, are engaging enough but the vocals and the production are... well... uneven. Here's the surprising part, it's Scarlett Johansson's work that shines. That's something I never thought I'd say after hearing her 2008 album, Anywhere I Lay My Head. On that earlier work she sounded distant and disengaged. On Break Up she sounds very present, very innocent and very sexy all at the same time. Pete Yorn, on the other hand, sounds like he settled for scratch vocals. My guess is that he would defend the approach as a purposeful juxtaposition of male and female... hard and soft... rough and smooth. Unfortunately, the end result is simply sweet and sour.

The production is understated, which fits the material, but on almost every track there is a sound or a riff or a lyric that takes you out of the moment. It could be the line from the song Relator (lifted from The Beatles', All My Lovin')... or the just a bit too loud and distorted guitar that pops up repeatedly throughout the album... or Yorn's ragged vocals that break the spell... but the magic always seems to get marginalized.

Here's the real tragedy... this album could have been a great one. Instead, it's a mildly engaging record that makes you wonder what Scarlett Johansson might have done with similar material... and no Pete Yorn.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A Diamond Born of Pearls

I spend a lot of my time online searching through the trash heap of user generated content for something remarkable. Most of what I find is... well... awful. On the rare occasion when I do stumble upon something captivating, it's usually easy to categorize. By that I mean, it falls into a standard art format such as music or video... but every so often... I uncover a wonderful surprise.

Pogo is a young lad from Australia. I don't know how young exactly, but judging from his MySpace pics I'd say somewhere around 20. He likes to create new music and video from pieces of his favorite movies. The end product is much more than your standard mash-up. Somehow he manages to combine the borrowed bits with original electronic tracks to create amazing new works of "mediart". What is even more amazing is that his creations not only capture the magic and spirit of the movies he mines... they enhance them.

I'm not going to try to analyze what he does or justify the ethics of using other artists work as components in new, albeit derivative, pieces. What Pogo does is fresh and inspiring, and I hope that the filmmakers whose movies he dissects will grant him the freedom, and the rights, to continue to use what he harvests to create new artistic life.

Here are a couple of links to Pogo's projects:

Imogen Heap... Connected?

I'm one of those fans Imogen Heap made her new record for... I loved her maiden effort! I was impressed at how she found a way of fusing electronic music with emotion... she gave the Tin Man a heart.

I also enjoyed her tweets as she moved down the road towards the completion of her sophomore effort. I felt connected... but something happened on the way to the Emerald City. Somewhere along the path the scarecrow lost some straw. Sure, the new album has her iconic electronic tracks and her lyrical stories sound as though they were taken from different pages of the same journal... but something is missing. The music still has a heart... but the pulse is weaker.

Maybe being connected to her fans clouded the creative process instead of giving it clarity. What if that lonely feeling she felt the first time around actually strengthened her heart and enhanced her creative vision. Would Van Gogh have been a better painter had he felt connected?

Still, I count myself as an Imogen Heap fan and look forward to a long and prolific career from her. Most artists suffer a bit of a sophomore slump and, fingers crossed, that may be all this is. I only hope that the next time out her music will do the lion's share of the connecting and that Imogen will remain just enough of a loner to allow a few more tears to hit the keys.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Age and Wisdom... not always a package deal.

No doubt about it, the boomer generation was musically blessed. Still, many of my contemporaries listen to nothing but oldies, or songs that sound like oldies. They deride most new music as shallow and transient while they pine for the good ol' days. Their creative cortices have atrophied.

I'm not making the argument that old is bad and new is good, I'm just saying that old is old and new is new. Art changes. Van Gogh was rejected in his time. Warhol would have been burned at the stake in the century before he ruled the art world. Perhaps music IS more shallow and transient now... but so is the world it reflects.

Let's wait for the digital revolution to play itself out before we judge it. I suspect that there is a group of "mediabeatles" out there somewhere right now ready to lead a "cyber invasion". Remember, the world rarely recognizes brilliance until it become obvious... and even then it's all too often missed or dismissed.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Idea Diet

Those who can... do. Those who can't... blog. It's easy to rattle on about the next big thing, but it's an entirely different matter creating it. I should know, I do it all the time. Having always been a perfectionist, I obsess on every detail. Sometimes that trait has served me well but more often than not it bogs me down in an endless cycle of doubt, indecision and ultimately, inaction. Every idea is perfect in my mind but the edges get rougher when I translate those visions into reality. It's so much easier to just write about how something should be done than to actually do it. That's why I've decided to muscle-up my willpower and embark on an Idea Diet. Just as food diets limit certain "bad" calories, the Idea Diet seeks to control "bad" ideas. What's a bad idea? As it turns out, the vast majority of ideas aren't inherently bad. It's what's done with them once they've arrived, that's where the discipline in needed.

The Idea Diet doesn't require me to go "cold turkey" when it comes to daydreams and epiphanies. Instead, it seeks to filter the intellectual wheat from the idealistic chaff. For example, let's say I catch myself thinking about writing a song. The Idea Diet wouldn't attempt to stop that process... it would simply require me to sit down at my keyboard, fire up the proper program and actually write the song! Ouch... this may not be so easy.

So, this is day one of my Idea Diet. I'll check back in from time to time with updates but it should be fairly easy for you to track my progress. If I start writing about music... that's bad... if I actually start writing music... SUCCESS!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The "Free" Jury

Lately there has been a lot of debate about the economic concept of "Free", especially when it comes to music. Has "Free" ever worked? Yes, in certain instances. A free food sample at Costco might make you purchase a larger quantity to take home. In the area of music, a free MP3 might make you more interested in buying a ticket to a band's concert.

I'm not, however, as convinced as some that "Free" is ultimately beneficial for all of the creative arts. Time may prove that it is, but at this point I don't see the empirical evidence. Yes, there is much more music out there, but the quality across that mass isn't anything to praise. True, there is more video available on YouTube than all of the footage network television produced since its inception, but again... quality?

The expanding access that is part and parcel of today's internet is a wonderful thing. No doubt it will allow artists who never had a shot before, gain some level of notoriety. The question is, will they have to drive a cab their entire lives to pay for it. I think the jury is still out on that one.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

One Stop Pop Culture Shop

Where are they... The MediaBeatles? That team of new creatives who realize they don't need anyone but themselves to flip pop culture on its back. How long until the day of destiny dawns... that "ah ha" moment when an artistic alliance of composers, performers, videographers, writers, webmasters, game designers, blog jockeys and code monkeys unite to launch the net big thing? Care to hazard a guess?

Monday, May 18, 2009

The No-Age Music Movement

When is the last time an "old" new artist burst upon the scene? Not a previously successful artist with a new project, but an artist over the age of 30 with a first release. Go ahead... I'll wait.

Most of my contemporaries love to listen to the music of yesterday. It's a very pleasurable experience: steeped in nostalgia and devoid of challenge. I'm not ashamed to admit that I also like to revisit the classics from time to time but to be completely honest, I simply can't take too much of it. It's boring. I prefer hearing something unexpected, something captivating... something new. But why does "new" have to be synonymous with "young".

Yes, when Rock 'n' Roll began it was youth personified: one part energy, one part rebellion and one part sex... OK, maybe two parts sex. It was created by kids, for kids and let's face it... "adults" just didn't get it. Somewhere along the rocky road, however, all of that changed. Rock 'n' Roll never got old, and the generation that invented it never really grew up.

So, why are there no "old" new artists? The answer is simple... record companies won't allow it. Those corporate keepers of the gate who have, for too long, set the agenda, regulated radio and controlled the marketplace have repeatedly just said, "No!" How would they market it, and more importantly, how would record executives look hanging out with people their own age? Yikes! Still, there's good news, bad news and disturbing news.

The good news: record companies are dying fast! Digital music and the internet have conspired to dethrone the old guard and it's working.

The bad news: they aren't dead yet and they still have complete control of radio. Also, as they flail around in their dance of death, they can potentiality inflict a lot of damage through the reams of bad legislation they are lobbying for in Washington (check out

The disturbing news: None of the indie labels are doing much to break down Rock 'n' Roll's age barrier. There are lots of new artists getting exposure these days but virtually none over the age of 30.

It's time for a new movement in music... the no-age movement. A collective realization that music, even Rock 'n' Roll, has no inherent age. What we need is a mighty mass of music lovers, who don't care if a new artist is six or sixty, demanding choice. Oh, and one true indie visionary with the balls to say, "It starts here... it starts now!"

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Free? The answer may define the future state of creativity.

Music has become virtually free and while that has certainly broadened access and increased quantity... it hasn't done much for quality.

Newspapers and books are feeling the gravity of an expanding "freeconomy" right now, with no updraft on the horizon. The WSJ "Freemium" strategy, where basic content is free but premium content comes with a price tag, might work for a little while... but not for long. Consumers are already exhibiting symptoms of "subscription fatigue".

Ad models are currently being fashioned to try and fill the gap, but what will be the real cost to the consumer: The Mona Lisa... brought to you by Proactive? Seeking underwriting and soliciting public donations may be a piece of the puzzle... but as is the case with NPR and PBS, each year the pledge drives grow and the revenues shrink.

As monitors get larger and less expensive, and internet access gets faster and cheaper, the movie industry will see an inevitable "free fall" as well.

A storm is building, and it's a big one. The winds of change have already begun to blow down the structures of artist compensation. Soon, the rains of creativity which nourish us all, will be completely free... and maybe they should be. Perhaps it's time we turned our attention towards finding a way to monetize the clouds.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Picking the Hits

A few years back, I worked as an A&R director for a digital record label... it didn't last long. By the time I came on board, the Founder and CEO had already signed 11 artists. Unfortunately, only two of those artists should have ever been considered for the label... and to be completely honest, only one of them had a real chance of ever succeeding in the digital space. I quickly discovered that although the CEO had a passion for music, his ability to "pick the hits" was sorely lacking. He loved the music of his youth and was drawn to those same dated styles of music. Not that it was all bad, some of it was quite good, but it wasn't right for the market... or the times.

The company ran out of money before I could bring my first project to market. Luckily, an employee was able to connect some investors to the founder and the company reinvented itself as a media aggregator... although it never made a profit. A few months after the record company bit the dust, the COO said to me, "We should have never been in the business of picking hits, it was too risky. Nobody wants to be in that business." I disagreed then... and I still do today.

Every successful company is in the business of picking hits, whether it's software or soft rock. I understand that the concept of identifying what's going to be popular ahead of time is terrifying to most investors... but that's where the game is won... or, as in the case of my former employer, lost.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Shiver Me Cyber Timbers

OK, I admit my last few posts have drifted away from the traditional topic of this blog. I guess I let the wave of news stories focusing on the economy wash me away from my media mooring. I can't guarantee that it won't happen again... but for now my content Katrina has passed.

Modern Media is a powerful force. Just as it ripped me away from the digital dock I was tied to, it can also cast others away from their charted course onto the rocks of some unexpected cyber shore. Is there a way for a company to create such a media generate a virtual hurricane of attention so wide and engulfing that it captures countless web surfers and releases them on an island of content designed specifically for them? There is... but the waters are perilous and rarely easy to navigate... and my seafaring metaphors have become tiresome.

Let me conclude by simply saying, "Land ho!"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Corporate Greed... Smoke Screens... and the Working Man

Wal-Mart released Q4-08 earnings reports Tuesday (02/17/09). They were impacted by the ailing economy, stronger dollar and increased costs ($3.8 billion, or 96 cents a share, compared with year-earlier earnings of $4.1 billion, or $1.02 a share). Still, they turned a very hefty profit. With the pressure of the economy crushing everyone's spirits, and their wallets, saving a few bucks by shopping at Wal-Mart makes sense. But some of Wal-Mart's actions this past week don't make sense... at least not on a human level.

The company has announced that it's closing a return center in Georgia and laying off all 400 employees. That's the second round of job cuts the retailer disclosed this week. Last Tuesday Wal-Mart revealed that it's cutting 700 to 800 positions at its corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. In addition, The Economic Times has reported that the retail giant is considering outsourcing business processes to India... contracts worth 300 to 500 million dollars. Hey, that's good for America!

As all of this was taking place, a spokesman for the company announced that the retailer would create thousands of store level jobs this year... which makes everything alright. Eliminating higher paid jobs and creating lower wage positions is exactly what American workers need... no?

This is the kind of thing that threatens to drag the U.S. down into the depths of depression. Why can't the country's largest retailer wait until we emerge from the economic crisis we're in to address these business issues? Why? Because the bad economy is a great smoke screen to restructure the company so it generates more money for the Walton family and other major stockholders of Wal-Mart. The little working minions at the bottom levels of the corporation don't matter... it's the bottom line that's important.

The right thing to do would be keep all current employees working and create thousands of new jobs. The frustrating thing is, Wal-Mart could do exactly that and still be profitable! But then of course, we wouldn't get to transfer a little more wealth to the top... and that's what America's all about... right?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The American Dream?

Ah, the American Dream. Everyone who has grown up in the United States knows what it is... people in every corner of the globe know what it is. It's probably the central motivating force that brought thousands, if not millions, of people to these shores. Here in the good ol' U.S.A. anyone can make a million! But, perhaps it's time to take a second look at the American Dream because of what it has become... and maybe always was... simply a dream.

Let's say, in some alternate reality, there were ten people sitting around a table. On that table there was a jar containing 100 one dollar bills. Let's also say that to make a dream come true in this other world, a person needed 7 dollars. No problem, they each could take 7 dollars out of the jar and there would still be 30 dollars remaining. Now lets say that one of those people figured out a way to take 40 dollars out of the jar. Suddenly, at least two of the other 10 people wouldn't have enough for their dreams... and if the loss of the 40 dollars was spread evenly across the other nine people, only the one with 40 dollars could make his/her dream come true. Unfortunately, this alternate world resembles the United States more than you might think.

Some economists estimate that currently in the U.S., the richest one percent of the population controls 40 percent of the wealth. That's right, all of those Gates and Buffetts, Adelsons and Ellisons that we are taught to idolize and emulate have taken 40 dollars out of the jar. To be fair, these super wealthy individuals also give millions to charities and other worthy causes, which is admirable. But the fact remains, if we continue to transfer wealth to the top one percent of our population at an accelerating rate, there will be an increasing number of "American Dreams" that don't have a snowball's chance in hell of ever coming true.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Put America to Work!

Have you seen the list of the richest people in America according to Forbes Magazine?

Here’s the top ten:

1. William Gates III - 59 billion
2. Warren Buffett - 52.0 billion
3. Sheldon Adelson - 28.0 billion
4. Lawrence Ellison - 26.0 billion
5. Sergey Brin - 18.5 billion
6. Larry Page - 18.5 billion
7. Kirk Kerkorian - 18.0 billion
8. Michael Dell - 17.2 billion
9. Charles Koch - 17.0 billion
10. David Koch - 17.0 billion

These ten people have a combined wealth of over 270 billion dollars! You have to go over 400 numbers down on the Richest Americans list to even get under 1 billion dollars.

We should applaud these people for doing so well… after all this is America. Now, however, with the country teetering perilously close to a depression shouldn't we also ask these same individuals to show some personal responsibility… maybe even some nobility?

If these people decided today that their companies would not lay off workers, even if they had to dig into their own cache of cash to do it… well, it would hardly put a dent in their personal bottom line, but, it could make the difference between an economic downturn… and a national disaster.

What if they went even further and launched an American Enterprise Fund designed specifically to invest in thousands of new start-ups... with the condition that each of those companies had to put unemployed people to work. We all know that many, if not most of these companies would fail... as is the case with all start-ups. But, some companies would thrive. New ideas and new products would emerge and who knows, those investors might even get richer. At the very least, there would be a new wave of optimism and creativity that would sweep across this great nation.

So, I am challenging the American’s on that list to seize the day! Embrace this opportunity to make the difference of a lifetime. Put America back to work! We need you!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Getting into the Game

In December of 2008 a colleague of mine sent me a link to a story which appeared in the New York Times on 12/11/2008: YouTube Videos Pull In Real Money. At first glance the article would seem encouraging to all of those content creators out there. To be honest, I was encouraged... but before you go buying that HD camcorder and telling your boss where he can get off, take a long deep breath.

Michael Buckley, one of the subjects the article focused on, is an interesting case to study. You should take a look at a few of his videos: His program, "What the Buck" is basically a bargain basement rag fest. Like so much of the "most popular" content on YouTube, and traditional media for that matter, put downs and girlfriend gossip rule the roost. Michael may not be the "Queen of Mean" but he sure ain't the "King of Kindness". Mr. Buckley has one thing down pat: HE KNOWS HIS AUDIENCE AND NEVER DISAPPOINTS THEM!

As I watch Michael's videos it solidifies my contention that YouTube is High School, or to be more specific, a High School for the performing arts... because let's face it, most regular High Schools ostracize anyone who's different. Like High School, if you can't find a clique... you're invisible. Knowing that can be your ticket to the top at YouTube. Find your niche... your audience... and focus on them like a laser. Never shoot over their heads. Once you've captured them, don't ever let them go. Keep the content coming on a regular, scheduled basis.

If you get to the level where YouTube offers you a partner deal... well... that's certainly not the end of the struggle. Finding the money at YouTube can be a bit of a shell game. There's a reason why, as the NY Times article puts it, "YouTube declined to comment on how much money partners earned on average." They NEVER talk about money... even to partners. Trying to figure out what you can expect to earn, even in theory, is harder than hiking the Himalayas. It's nearly impossible to know if what you're being paid is indeed what you've earned and you do not want to get on their bad side. Remember, it's their game, their field, their ball and without their blessing success will be difficult to achieve. Still, if they let you play... who knows... you might just win.