New Venture Seeks Higher Royalties for Songwriters

October 31, 2014

BEN SISARO 10/29/14

Smokey Robinson, the Eagles, Bruno Mars, John Lennon and Megadeth would not seem to have much in common.
But they are among the famous names attached to a new music publishing venture led by Irving Azoff, the former chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, that is the latest challenge to the $2 billion market for performing rights dominated by Ascap and BMI. The company, Global Music Rights, is part of Azoff MSG Entertainment, a joint venture established last year with the Madison Square Garden Company.
The management of performing rights — how royalties are paid when songs are played on the radio, streamed online or performed in public — has been a steady part of the music business for a century. But lately the field has been primed for disruption by advances in technology and a series of lawsuits over how songs are licensed to online services like Pandora.
Ascap and BMI, which represent more than 95 percent of the songs available in the United States, are governed by decades-old regulatory agreements with the Justice Department that restrict how they negotiate with outlets that use music. Recently some big music publishers have complained that these rules lead to low royalty rates, and threatened to leave Ascap and BMI if regulatory changes were not made.

Irving Azoff, who represents acts like the Eagles, Van Halen and Fleetwood Mac, leads the company, Global Music Rights.

For the last year, Mr. Azoff — a longtime artist manager who represents acts like the Eagles, Van Halen and Fleetwood Mac — has quietly been building a rival by controlling the catalogs of a handful of superstar songwriters. Those include members of Journey, Foreigner, Fleetwood Mac and Soundgarden, as well as current hit makers like Pharrell Williams, Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco and the country songwriter Shane McAnally, and the estates of Lennon and Ira Gershwin.
“I vowed when I started this company that I was going to take care of artists,” Mr. Azoff said in response to questions about the company. “So I tried to identify places where I felt that artists were not getting a fair deal, and the performance rights area jumped out at me. It was a place where I felt I could help our writers.”
Global Music Rights has lured clients with the promise that it can wring royalties that are as much as 30 percent higher from radio stations and online outlets than they can get through Ascap or BMI, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
On Monday, the Madison Square Garden Company — which has committed $175 million in backing to Azoff MSG Entertainment — said it wouldconsider splitting itself into two companies, one for its sports properties and the other for entertainment. MSG declined to comment about the future of Mr. Azoff’s venture. But if MSG is split, Azoff MSG Entertainment is expected to remain part of the entertainment unit.
The hunt for performing royalties has become a priority for musicians as sales of CDs and downloads decline. The National Music Publishers’ Association said in June that while the publishing business in the United States generates $2.2 billion a year in revenue, another $2.3 billion is lost because of “outdated copyright law and government regulations.”
On the other side of the issue, Pandora, radio broadcasters and others argue that the regulation is necessary to prevent anticompetitive behavior in the music industry and to keep music licensing costs from being burdensome.
Global Music Rights is not subject to the same regulations as Ascap and BMI, which gives it far greater control in negotiations, including the ability to refuse permission to its songs. (Another privately owned performing rights group, Sesac, is also exempt from that regulation.) Ascap and BMI, on the other hand, offer so-called blanket licenses covering everything in their catalogs, and they cannot turn down a request for music by an outlet.
Pandora, which pays music publishers about one-twelfth what it pays record labels, has become a popular target for complaints from songwriters. Randy Grimmett, a former Ascap executive now at Global Music Rights, said a hit song with around 40 million plays on Pandora would collect just $2,200 in publishing royalties under the Ascap-BMI system.
Mr. Azoff’s venture is expected to demand higher rates from radio stations and online music services and not adopt some Ascap and BMI practices like the payment of bonuses for high-charting songs, which can reward current hits at the expense of other songs.
“What Irving did was look at what songwriters were earning historically and offer them a premium,” said Barry M. Massarsky, an economist who specializes in music publishing and is not affiliated with Global Music Rights. “He believes he can carve out a higher value for those songs from radio and pay less in administration fees, so that ultimately the songs would make more money than they have from Ascap or BMI.”
Most of the songs by Global Music Rights clients are covered under licensing agreements that were made while those writers were still at Ascap or BMI. But those agreements will begin to expire over the next several years, which could result in many popular songs disappearing from online services or even radio stations if new deals are not made.
Pandora declined to comment, and William Velez, the executive director of the Radio Music License Committee, which negotiates on behalf of radio stations, said his group had only had early “exploratory discussions” with Mr. Azoff’s company.
When asked about former BMI songwriters now affiliating with Global Music Rights, Michael O’Neill, the president of BMI, said in a statement that his organization stood by its methods.
“We believe that the departure of certain affiliates for such new organizations is driven not by any concern with this methodology,” Mr. O’Neill added, “but, rather, by the latitude that these unregulated organizations have to address the needs of the modern rights marketplace

Robert Fripp, interview: ‘I’m a very difficult person to work with’

October 31, 2014

Rob Hughes   10/31/14

Happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least according to Robert Fripp. In the early part of 2012, having given up playing live altogether, he found himself in a curious position. “I began to be happy, personally happy,” he explains.
“But while paradise is a wonderful place to be, nothing happens. My wife told me that I was in danger of becoming dull. So what I’m doing now was partly a personal necessity. When you’re happy, it’s time to pull out the pointed stick.”
Fripp’s response was to try things he might not otherwise have done. Having more or less retired from public life, the first visible manifestation bordered on the perverse: an appearance on TV’s All Star Mr & Mrs, with wife Toyah Wilcox.
The second was the revival of his band King Crimson.
Founded in 1968, Crimson were pack leaders in what became known as progressive rock. The dizzying intensity of their recorded work – a dense fusion of freak-rock, jazz, ambient textures and neoclassical fugues – took the band into places that most others were simply incapable of reaching.
At the hub of things was Fripp, a guitarist of extraordinary fire, locking masterful technique to free improvisation. The results were often devastating. Albums like In The Court Of The Crimson King and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic achieved near-legendary status.
But King Crimson also came with a certain reputation. Or, more pertinently, Fripp did. With a line-up whose only constant was a state of flux, some band members described him as difficult, a forbidding autocrat with exacting standards.
Drummer Bill Bruford once called him an amalgam of Stalin, Gandhi and the Marquis de Sade. The music press were generally quick to wade in too, admiring the music but being less effusive about its guiding force. By 1974, just as they were poised to become as big as Pink Floyd, Fripp dissolved the band. Touring had never been fun, he declared, adding that King Crimson was “completely over for ever and ever.”
In person, Fripp appears to bear little resemblance to the mythic caricature of the ’70s. He’s eloquent, garrulous and frequently funny, fielding my questions with the kind of intellectual rigour – and alarming capacity to pin stories to exact dates – that you just don’t find in most rock musicians. We’re sitting on the balcony of a café, just across the street from his Georgian-fronted home in a bijou corner of Worcestershire. He looks immaculate in waistcoat, shirt and patterned tie, sipping tea and pointing out the building a few doors away that houses his extensive library.
One of the more impressive facets of Fripp is his sheer candidness. “When I read interviews with old King Crimson bandmates, they suggest that the difficulty lies with me,” he offers in his West Country lilt. “And I agree with that.
I’m a very difficult person to work with, because in King Crimson there was a founding statement to be honoured, going back to ’69. And if what is available fails to meet what I see as a responsibility to the larger Crimson, then that gap has to be met by someone. And it would fall to me. So it’s not a comfortable place.”
King Crimson in 1970
Fripp was so disillusioned after the first split that he withdrew from music soon after: “Everything was mad. But you can’t say to people – musicians, management, record companies and the rest – that huge commercial success is really an insane thing. So I left and went off in retreat. And when I re-emerged, I had no intention, ever, to go back to it.”
But come back to it he did. Another defining strand of Fripp’s career has been his collaborative work. Perhaps the most high-profile fan is David Bowie, who enlisted him to play “hairy rock’n’roll” on 1977’s landmark “Heroes” album.
The title track, one of Bowie’s best-loved songs, features some of the most soaringly expressive guitar of Fripp’s career. He later reprised his role on Scary Monsters, adding convulsive leads to standouts like Fashion and It’s No Game. Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Daryl Hall, Blondie and Talking Heads (that’s his Afro rhythm on the funky-as-chips I Zimbra) were just some of the people who sought out his services in the ’70s and early ’80s. Having decamped to New York around the time of punk, Fripp discovered that “I increasingly became sucked back into the life I never intended to return to.”
The following decades haven’t always been easy. Fripp has recorded solo albums and revived King Crimson in various formats over the years, including a series of splinter versions under the ’ProjeKCts’ banner. But his professional career has been soured by a long-standing legal dispute with Universal, over rights and royalties, that he traces back to 1991. This in itself was the result of being deceived by the money men at his old label, EG, in the ’70s. Fripp sums up his professional career in one word: “wretched”.
He’s explaining the finer details of this protracted wrangle when he suddenly catches sight of his other half, emerging from the driveway of their home. Toyah waves over, he waves back and even digs out his camera to take a picture.
“There’s my lovely wife, driving off in my car,” he muses, almost to himself. “I must’ve done something right to have Toyah as my wife. She’s a lot sharper than me, she has a very fine critical intelligence.”
Besides his loved-up domesticity, Fripp’s life does have a silver lining.
His dogged corporate pursuit was finally resolved last year, when he received an out-of- court settlement from Universal. Does it feel like a weight has been lifted? “Yes, it’s as simplistic as that,” he says. “For the past 29 years, my main work has been with guitar students, with [Fripp-led musicians’ courses] Guitar Craft, the Guitar Circle and The Orchestra Of Crafty Guitarists. I wasn’t even able to consider creative work in a professional fashion until the professional issues were resolved.”
The upshot of this new beginning has been to assemble an eighth incarnation of King Crimson. It was an idea that first took hold in the summer of 2013, in characteristically precise form. Fripp envisaged an Anglo-American seven-piece this time, with (improbable as it may sound) no less than three drummers. All of those involved have played in Crimson-related line-ups in the past, including renowned bassist Tony Levin and sax player Mel Collins, who first joined the group in 1970.
It’s gone swimmingly thus far. King Crimson have recently completed a hugely successful tour of the US and, all being well, there’s more to come.
“It’s the first Crimson where I don’t sense any animosity or resentment from at least one member in the band,” says Fripp. “Excepting, no doubt, that the responsibility for that falls at my feet. This is a group from the get-go, the money is divided equally.”
So will we see them play here anytime soon? “I’ve discussed the possibility of working in Europe next year, including the UK in September. There are still problems to do with the quality of venues, but it’s being looked into.”
At the age of 68, Fripp finally seems to be addressing the unrealised potential that all this represents to him. “I was looking for a sense of completion in King Crimson,” he admits, “so that if the last performance we ever gave was in Seattle this October, I would be able to let it go. My personal interest is in coming to a form of conclusion and satisfaction with this band.”

What John Coltrane on the Billboard Charts Tells Us About Music Sales in 2014

October 26, 2014

Nick Messitte 10/21/14

For all of you who didn’t know, the legendary John Coltrane has a new album out, released forty seven years after his death. Offering: Live At Temple University showcases Coltrane in his ultimate, brilliant, and arguably, most alienating epoch: jettisoning the earthly tethers of his classic quartet, and yearning for the galaxies of Interstellar Space.

The concert was recorded just seven months prior to Coltrane’s death, and it provides fresh glimpses into a sound which consumed him in his final months—or at least, so I’ve been told.

To be candid, I haven’t put in anywhere near the time I’d like to sit and reckon properly with this record.

Why? I assure you I’m not on some contrarian, anti-Coltrane bent; I have always been a fan of this saxophone colossus: following the record’s release, each day has brought at least one shudder of regret to my shoulders; by all rights, I should’ve had this album in my hands at least two weeks ago.

The reason I haven’t acquired the LP until recently is far more banal (and lazy) than I’d like to admit: you see, there is no download or streaming distribution for this record as of yet.

You won’t find Offerings on the iTunes music store, nor will you spot it within Amazon’s download section. You won’t find this record streaming on any outlet: there are samples of select tunes for perusal on, but you won’t find an entire song.

Similarly, there exists no YouTube posting of this album in its entirety (at least, not at press time), and even the Spotify link provided on the billboard Jazz charts won’t take you to the correct place.

A phone call to Resonance Records—the non profit label shepherding Offering’s release—confirmed the digital matter: for the moment, this album exists only in the physical world; if I wanted to own the record, there would be no instantaneous solution provided.

Unfortunately for me, most of the large record chains have collapsed here in the United States, and since I live near no independent record shops, malls, or book-stores-in-name-only, my only option was to go through an online retailer like Amazon—an act that would put the fate of physical possession squarely into the hands of UPS (a risky prospect, as anyone living in an unmanned New York City apartment building can attest to).

But you know what? This is all petty griping—at least, it is now, for presently I have the joyful noise of Coltrane’s newest record blasting on the monitors; indeed, everything is right with the universe.

English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo …
English: A portrait of John Coltrane by Paolo Steffan (amateur painter, Wikipedia user), 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It only took me three weeks (thanks a lot, UPS) but I’ve finally obtained the record; as I write this, “Naima” churns on my sound-system. John Coltrane has made his way back to earth after blasting through a cosmos of ideas, and now Alice Coltrane (John’s pianist/wife) is taking her solo, and what a solo it is:

It’s more than a solo, it’s a vindication—as a teenage wannabe Jazz guitarist raised by intellectuals on the Upper West Side, I came into constant contact with academic Jazzheads claiming Alice was a hack, remarking, often and loudly, that she only got the Coltrane gig through nepotism.

If ever there was a solo to prove them wrong, it’s on this record (never mind that Alice McCloud—her name before marriage—boasted a solid reputation before she married Coltrane, when she supported Jazz notables like Barry Harris HRS +0.84% and Yusef Lateef).

But let’s forget all that too.

Yes, let’s forget even attempting to provide a spot-on review for this highly complex music, which to be honest, would require at least a year of listening and reflection before I could develop anything resembling a cogent argument to offer you.

For now, we can leave it at this: Offering is complicated, demanding stuff. You’ll get out of it exactly what you put into the listening of it, but like I said, let’s forget all that for the time being.

Because presently, in this moment, something else is pressing on my mind, something that I think bears putting in print: as we’ve established, this album sports no digital or streaming distribution. The record exists entirely within the physical realm.

But for the last three weeks, Offerings has been a staple of the Billboard Jazz charts, first at number two (not even Coltrane can compete with flashy Mother Monster), then at number nine, then at number eleven.

The album had enjoyed a two week stint in the top 100 of sales across all genres on AMZN -8.43%; now it sits comfortably within the top 250.*

Without a single ephemeral sale, this record has held its own America’s premier chart of music sales (albeit in the segregated division of Jazz). It’s also consistently moved units through America’s leading internet retailer, enough to keep the album on Amazon’s charts as well.

This tells us that a decent number of people are laying their actual, physical dollars—or actual physical pieces of plastic—on the line for this record.

Which leads me to a question:

When an album released solely within a physical framework holds its own against major label competitors with digital backing (one thinks of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett again), what does it say about the state of music sales in 2014?

The question bounced around in my mind for weeks—long before I heard the record—so I consulted with people in the industry whom I trust.

I also held conversations with two people partly responsible for Offering’s release: George Klabin and Zev Feldman, President and Executive Vice President (respectively) of Resonance Records, the nonprofit record label which stands at the helm of this offering.

After weighing all the opinions, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

1) An artist can reach the charts with fewer sales than ever.

This is hardly news, but if ever there was an illustration of this principle, it’s the strong showing of this album, whose sales (numbering in the thousands) were tallied entirely based on physical units.

Previous records of a similar nature—a posthumous release of John Coltrane with Thelonious Monk at Carnegie Hall, let’s say—have garnered much higher sales. But nine years ago, so did everything.

While it’s hardly news, this conclusion dovetails nicely with point number two:

2) Regional sales in the US matter more than they have in a long time.

Sales are down, as the old refrain goes. This means fewer sales get you onto the charts, as we’ve just established.

But take a look at the music offered on Offering: it’s one of the most complex contributions from one of Jazz’s most complex practitioners.

The press around this album has not suggested anything to the contrary, largely because there is nothing contrary to suggest: consider the snippets offered from this NPR review.

I think it’s safe to say that anyone interested in such music is either a lover of Coltrane or a lover of avant-garde Jazz, or both.

While I’m sure there are such people in the middle of rural Montana, they would, by the nature of avant-garde scenes in general, constitute statistical outliers:

It is simply impossible for Avant-garde Jazz communities to thrive in the vacuum of a single fan; such scenes requires a stable of practitioners and audience members, often interchangeable (in my personal experience, avant-garde Jazz concerts are usually attended primarily by avant-garde Jazz musicians), but always interconnected: because of the esoteric nature of this genre, it requires a community of active listeners in order not to disappear entirely.

That this record has sold as much as it has proves that such communities still exist, and more than that, such communities have undeniable spending power—enough to land freewheeling avant-garde Jazz records onto the charts.

Because this music requires a community—and because it requires a rather recondite one—such scenes tend to reside in specific places—in the cities historically fostering avant-garde Jazz movements (New York, Chicago, Baltimore, et cetera) and in college towns of the sort academic scholars/aficionados of Coltrane tend to populate.

Thus, the fact that this album has stayed on the charts for three continuous weeks is a testament to the buying power of specific regions.

This is a situation recognized by the label: when I asked Zev Feldman where people have been picking up Offering, he replied that “people have been going to the places that they buy music. I think it’s as simple as that.”

Of course, these communities wouldn’t have flocked to the record if there hadn’t been extensive marketing targeting such scenes in the first place, which brings us to our next point.

3) Niche marketing – those dreaded buzz words – really does hold sway.

“We wanted to give the project everything that it deserved,” Feldman told me. “That included being strategic with the promotion and the marketing, going months before the release date to talk about this to the people that needed to know, from the retail accounts to the writers and the magazines.”

Indeed, they hired publicist Matt Merewitz and gave him the record “five and a half months before the release,” because, as Zev explained, a “long lead time is really important—we’ve seen records get dropped and then right before they come out they go to press. It doesn’t sync up!”

By marketing effectively to the right niche markets, they were able to achieve synchronicity, generating buzz on the internet as early as last April, when sites like ran articles on the record’s release. The ensuing promotion in both Jazz circuits ( and larger markets (NPR) created a groundswell: not only did the record display a strong showing, but Resonance Record’s Facebook page skyrocketed to 19,000 fans; Feldman remarked that Coltrane “definitely brought more people to our door…it’s gotten more people to our page.”
4) Boutique audiences—such as those who like avant-garde Jazz—still buy music.

This claim isn’t only borne out both by Offering’s sales. There’s also the widely-reported fact that independent sales have been regularly beating the numbers of any one major label since 2012.

I can relate a more personal observation that supports the point, if only on an anecdotal level: the majority of the avant-garde jazz I’ve seen in New York City in recent years has been pass-the-hat—suggested donation, in other words; the majority of audience members I’ve seen at these concerts pay the suggested donation every time.

As made clear by the increasingly predominant sales of independent music versus major label counterparts, this communal ethos of mutual scene-specific support seems to hold sway in other boutique markets too.

Indeed, when it comes to selling music, we’re living in a time that, in many ways, resembles the post-punk era of the early eighties: alternative venues, independent means of promotion, and grass-roots touring schedules can do more than garner you a sizable fan base—they can actually get you on the charts (because of our first two conclusions: 1) you don’t need much in the way of sales to make it onto the charts, and 2) regional sales matter more now than they have before).

5) The audience that buys Jazz still buys physical.

Not only are the sales of this record exclusively physical—a good deal of them are vinyl, with the full complement of liner notes and artwork accompanying. It should be noted that the both the CD and the LP are quite a bit more expensive than your average discs, and yet, they are selling well enough to make the charts.


One independent record store clerk I talked to held the liner notes responsible, asserting that the packaging made the product desirable.

When I fielded the question to Zev Feldman, he said, “First of all, I’m an LP collector…I know what makes me excited…so when I build something for people to buy in whatever format it’s in, you know, I want it to be the best it can be, and that includes having a lot of content.” Indeed, he echoed the old sentiment: “it’s like Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.”

The sales of this record show two things: 1) Feldman was right–he helped build it, and they came. 2) In the absence of digital, physical is still a viable medium.

Put in other words, don’t sleep on physical: since you need fewer sales to be recognized, since regional sales matter more now than before, since niche marketing has been shown to work, and lastly, since boutique audiences still buy music, strongly pushing your physical product along the aforementioned lines can bring success.

Having said that, one last statement remains incontestable:

6) The greats are still the greats: they still have selling power.

Ultimately, what’s selling this record is the name, history, and legacy: John Coltrane is a man whose influence reaches far and wide; his mark is just as palpable on sub-genres of Rock (jam-band, for instance) as it is on Jazz. The people at Resonance Records know this—indeed, have been counting on it:

“It’s John Coltrane! John Coltrane is timeless,” and here Zev Feldman was brimming with pride. “It just puts it all back in focus in terms of why John Coltrane is so important…I hope the record continues to turn people on, and we continue to talk about Coltrane.”

*Statistics provided to me by Resonance Records via email on October 20th 2014.

New Radicals’ Gregg Alexander Grants First Interview in 15 Years (Exclusive)

October 15, 2014

Scott Feinberg Hollywood Reporter 10/14/14
The frontman of the 1990s band behind the hit single ‘You Get What You Give’ was lured back into the business, after a long self-imposed exile, to write the songs for ‘Begin Again,’ including best original song Oscar contender ‘Lost Stars’

It couldn’t have been scripted more poignantly. Last week, as I waited in the lobby of a New York hotel to meet Gregg Alexander — the frontman of the 1990s band The New Radicals who, shortly after releasing their smash-hit “You Get What You Give” (“You’ve Got the Music in You”), disbanded the group and turned his back on fame and fortune — for his first interview in 15 years, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry bounded past me, out the doors and into a throng of fans who mobbed him, clamoring for autographs, selfies and a chance to touch greatness, or at least celebrity. Past this scene strolled Alexander, a rail-thin 6’4″ bald man whom none of those fans noticed, despite the fact that his own music was side-by-side with Aerosmith’s on the Billboard charts in the late nineties. “Did you see that?” he asked me with childlike wonder — and not a hint of envy

As we made our way up to the room in which this interview would take place and took our seats, Alexander struck me as the furthest thing one could be from the stereotypical rock star — perhaps because it’s been so long since he was one. He was sweet, sensitive, self-effacing and effusively appreciative of my interest in talking to him. Was he putting me on? He, after all, had provided me with an integral and cherished portion of the soundtrack of my youth — I don’t think there was a party during my high school years at which “You Get What You Give” wasn’t played. I still listen to and love it. And, until recently, I periodically wondered what had happened to the guy who sang it.

Alexander, through an intermediary, had offered me his first interview because I have been a vocal fan of John Carney’s Begin Again — for which he came out of his self-imposed exile to write/co-write some wonderful songs, including best original song Oscar contender “Lost Stars” — since it premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival under the title Can a Song Save Your Life?. Few, if any, creative endeavors have ever meant as much to him as this low-budget indie about the power of music, as well as the perils of the music industry — the things that drove him to walk away from it, in a sense, all those years ago, and which he feels are even worse today.

But before we get into all of that, we have to go back to where it all started for Alexander: in Motown. “Me and my mom would get in the car, drive around and listen to A.M. radio in the metropolitan Detroit area,” he tells me. Raised a Jehovah’s Witness and with a diverse group of friends, all of his favorite music was soul and rock and roll. He remembers listening to “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney, the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown,” George Clinton, and the like; fooling around on the family piano, “just instinctively writing my own melodies because I couldn’t really learn other people’s”; and then later focusing on the guitar and drums. “But the game-changer for me was seeing Prince in Purple Rain at 13 or 14,” he says, noting that he snuck into the R-rated movie. “‘Let’s Go Crazy’ knocked me over my head, but then when I heard ‘The Beautiful Ones’ it was all over. At that point I knew I was gonna be running away to California.”

His initial trip to Los Angeles was with his mother — ostensibly out of a desire to visit his aunt, but really as “a covert research and development trip,” he says with a laugh. There, he felt “that post-sixties spirit that was still alive in the mid-eighties,” visited an open-mic night and “literally snuck into the Grammys,” where he saw “all of my heroes” and “everything seemed within reach.” He knew he was home. That summer, while back in Detroit, he recalls, “I said to my parents, ‘I’m running away to California to be a rock star.’ My mom knew I was serious, but my dad said, ‘Well, make sure you’re back home in September for school if it hasn’t come together.”

His summer in L.A. could be the focus of a movie itself. He lived in Compton, Studio City and North Hollywood — “It was the black community that really took me in,” he says, “and thank God for that or else I would have been sleeping on the streets” — and he would regularly lug his raw demo tapes — “me pounding out in a some crappy studios in Detroit, howling at the top of my lungs” — down to Sunset Blvd., where he received a lot of encouragement. “Not everybody was like, ‘We’ll give you a record deal, kid,’ but it felt, in a strange way, that there was some angel looking over my shoulder a bit.”

It’s hard to doubt that was the case: by September, he had met record producer Jimmy Iovine, who had a production deal with A&M Records, and who offered him a record deal. He was just 16, and would not be permitted to sign it until he was 18, but he was given an “allowance,” of sorts, in the meantime. There would be no going back to Detroit.

For the next two years, he rode the buses to the beach and wrote songs all day. When I ask him what sort of a future he envisioned for himself upon turning 18 in 1988 — a solo career, being part of a band or perhaps something else — he is overcome with emotion. “That’s a sad question,” he says, wiping away tears. He says that he believed, at the time, “that a song and a sentiment would be able to right the wrongs of the world and make people actually love each other.” But his sense of idealism and optimism would soon be threatened by the business side of his art form.

For the next nine years, he had “a consummate blast, in a lot of ways,” much of it spent traveling around Europe while writing songs and honing his craft. But his career unfolded like a rollercoaster. The A&M deal lasted for a while, but his first record came out just after Polygram bought A&M for a half-billion dollars — “right around when the business started becoming, sadly, big money” — and his record got totally lost. He was soon a free agent again but, two years later, against great odds, he landed another record deal, this time with Epic Records. His second record, however, came out at the height of grunge — “and died because I refused to sound like that because it wasn’t me. I couldn’t fake that. I had to follow my heart creatively.” Then he lost that record deal, too. At 27, he had already experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and he says now, “I already felt like an old soul.”

By this point he was “used to making records that never got heard,” so, as he set about writing new songs, he “completely ripped up” the “few rules that applied to my first two records” and produced the third one himself. He recalls, “Most of that record was me pulling favors with studios or musicians that had played on earlier records and were like, ‘Oh, Gregg’s down on his luck — let’s go play on his demo for the hell of it, we’ll have a good laugh, have a couple of beers and maybe smoke a jay or whatever.'”

In the end, though, the album was impressive. He reflects, “We captured something that I thought that the music business, even at that time, had become too big-business and corporate to acknowledge. But, to my pleasant surprise, somebody wanted to sign me [again]. I couldn’t believe it.” That somebody was Michael Rosenblatt, who had signed Madonna, and who was sent Alexander’s demo tape by a friend. It was all but unheard of for an artist to get a third record deal after “failing” with the first two; usually you’re lucky if you get one shot. But, not for the last time, Alexander proved the exception to the rule.

The album was titled “Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too” and released in 1998 as a work of “The New Radicals.” Almost immediately, one single on it, “You Get What You Give,” catapulted into the top 40 on the Billboard charts. Alexander smiles and recalls, “I was on Sunset Blvd. walking down the street shortly after the record came out and I heard the song blasting out of someone’s car — and my immediate instinct was, ‘Oh, my God, someone stole my demo tape!’ I was really serious, too. And then I heard it coming from another car like a minute later and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how did all these people get my demo tape?!” He howls with laughter at the memory. (In the ensuing years, U2’s The Edge would name “You Get What You Give” as the song he’s the most “jealous of,” Joni Mitchell would assert that it rose “from the swamp of ‘McMusic’ like a flower of hope” and VH1 would choose it as one of the “100 Greatest Songs of the ’90s.”)

Alexander was now a full-fledged rock star, with all that came with it. He remembers, “Touring was fun. Playing live was exciting. I just wish there would have been an off-button, you know? If modern pop-culture was just about the work and performing and creating some sort of euphoria for those who are inclined to like what you do, if there was a way to turn it off when you’re offstage, it would be the greatest job on the planet.” Alas, it involves much more.

“My favorite writers and artists had a human-politics aspect to their work, and that was something that drove me, as well,” he says. But, he laments, “I felt — perhaps too early on — that it was going to be a challenge to get even a portion of that sentiment across.” He elaborates, “As an experiment on the song ‘You Get What You Give,’ I had what at the time was one of the more political lyrics in a long, long, long time, to the point where some of the people I was working with were horrified: in a pop song, I was going after health insurance companies and corruption — ‘Health insurance rip off lying'; the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the hypocrisy of the war on drugs, which was not real; ‘big bankers’ and Wall Street. To allude to all that stuff in a pop song was, in retrospect, a naively crazy proposition.” Immediately after that political riff in his song, he inserted, “almost as a joke,” lyrics knocking Courtney Love and other pop-cultural figures of the time. “But to put them next to each other, and then to notice that everybody focused on the so-called “celebrity-bashing” lyric instead of this lyric that was talking about the powers-that-be that are holding everybody down—” He trails off. “That was something that I was kind of disillusioned by.”

His own growing celebrity was also increasingly troubling to him. “Artists are supposed to observe life,” he says, noting that it became harder to do that without people observing him. Moreover, people wanted to know about his personal life more than his art. “My favorite artists — Prince, [David Lee] Roth-era Van Halen, even Madonna when she was doing cutting-edge work — they were mysteries to me and my friends,” he emphasizes. “That was part of what made their work compelling, was that we didn’t have their opinions tweeted and Facebooked every 30 seconds. I didn’t know what Prince was having for dinner, thank God. So that was some of what I idealized and thought would be more present in my life as an artist” — only, that era had already begun to pass.

But perhaps most intolerable to him was the insistence by the industry itself — “the big business that run these corporations and multinationals that own the record companies and all of the conduits through which artists get their music out there” — that he and other artists “whore out” themselves in order to continue to make art. An example? “Things like doing station P.A.s, you know, where you have to go, ‘You’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ [The Party Pig was the mascot for the LA area's now-defunct KQLZ 100.3 AM.] You know? ‘This is Gregg from The New Radicals and you’re hangin’ with The Party Pig!’ ‘Hangin’ with the Party Pig’ is a metaphor for all the sort of stuff that artists, to this day, have to do, and as bad as it seemed back then, it has multiplied a thousand times. It seems like a sad trade-off for artists. It’s the deal with the devil: if you want your work to be seen, it’s unfortunately not just about the work. And when it becomes less about the art, then the art suffers.”

“I simply missed feeling like an artist everyday and being able to write songs everyday and not feel like my time was being controlled and managed to answer to corporate shareholders,” Alexander says. Moreover, he adds, “I missed my old life.” So in 1999, just one year after “You Get What You Give” neared the top of the Billboard charts, he disbanded The New Radicals, turned his back on fame and fortune and simply walked away.

15 years later, I ask him if he ever feels like he pulled the plug too soon on his life in the limelight. “I have a lot of fantastic memories and there were a lot of amazing things about it,” he says, citing heartfelt fan interactions as a particular highlight. “As they say, hindsight is 20-20. In retrospect, maybe I could have and should have doubled-down and just kept the blinders on and the foot on the accelerator. But at 28, when my life was all about making music, all of a sudden it started morphing into supporting the machine and things that felt like the antithesis of creativity.”

At that point, Alexander moved to London, where he aimed to find a way to remain musically creative but also anonymous. “Thank God for the British record business and ‘Uncle Lucian,'” he says in reference to the Universal Music Group’s chief Lucian Grainge, who gave him “an open door policy” to write and produce songs for UMG artists while using pseudonyms. “I wanted people to either like or not like a song on its own volition,” he explains. “It gave me something to do and it gave me a feeling that my music was being heard in my absence of being the person out there doing the dog-and-pony show.”

In short order, he had penned about a half-dozen pan-European hits, including “Murder on the Dance Floor” for Sophie Ellis-Bextor and “Life Is a Rollercoaster” for Ronan Keating. And then Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, paired “The Game of Love,” a song that Alexander and Rick Nowels had co-written, with the artist Santana — “It was such an unlikely song for Santana to record,” he marvels — and the result was a smash hit for which Alexander won a Grammy. “I used another name, and did that for about five years.” But even from a distance, he continued to feel that the music business “was morphing and becoming even more corporate,” and “I kind of took a step back [again] at that point.” He began splitting time between Europe, New York and Los Angeles, and took on work completely unrelated to music, such as advocating on behalf of clean water projects, poverty alleviation and the Robin Hood Tax to promote the taxation of offshore accounts and derivatives.

Then, about two years ago, Alexander got a phone call from the writer-director-musician John Carney. Carney had been given Alexander’s contact info by fellow Irishman Bono, who had always been supportive of Alexander’s work and felt that he could be a great help on Can a Song Save Your Life?, Carney’s music-centric follow up to his 2007 Oscar-winning indie Once (which Alexander, a “cinephile,” had seen and loved). “We were on the phone for about 90 minutes, just talking about film and music, and it became evident rather early on that he is definitely a genius,” Alexander recalls.

Carney then sent Alexander a draft of his script about a young couple, Gretta (who Scarlett Johansson was originally attached to play, but who was ultimately played by “incredibly brave” singing novice Keira Knightley) and Dave (pop star Adam Levine), who grow apart after he becomes a star and she gets left behind — only to be discovered by a down-on-his-luck record exec Dan (Mark Ruffalo). Alexander recalls, “When I read the screenplay, it completely threw me for six.” He acknowledges, “I saw myself, to some degree,” in all of the principal characters — Gretta’s pure love for music, Dave’s jarring experience with stardom and Dan’s disillusionment with the state of the business today — and couldn’t resist the chance to be a part of the project. “It gave me the impetus to walk away from my break,” he says, and once he decided to do so, “I was all guns blazing; I started writing songs immediately.”

Now no longer a kid in his late twenties, but a man in his early forties, he was back — not in front of the mic himself anymore, but aiming to provide those who were with the best possible product to perform. And he felt great pressure to nail one song, in particular, around which Carney had constructed much of his film, and which was tacitly the inspiration for the film’s then-title: the one that Gretta would write — and sing as a soulful, “innocent” tune — as a Christmas gift for Dave; Dave would then cover as “a more superfluous, up-tempo dance version” and turn into a hit; and that would ultimately be performed a third and final time in a way that would determine the fate of their relationship. It was a song that would need to sound good in each of these different incarnations and that he saw as the film’s “Purple Rain,” in “the humblest sense” of being “the song at the end of the film that hopefully ties everything together.”

Alexander and co-writers Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley and Nick Southwood worked furiously on the number, which they called “Lost Stars.” He recalls, “The goal was for each lyric and sentiment to be a story and a thought unto itself, but also to the greater mystery of life, which is that we are all just coming and going in this life. We are just a lost star. We are a spark on the horizon.” He continues, “The song was probably the saddest songs that I’ve ever written in my life, to the point where I had to morph the melodies and the chords to try to make it uplifting.” It worked. Carney loved it. “When I gave ‘Lost Stars’ to John I got back the most beautiful email saying that he had been crying on his keyboard. That was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had as a collaborator.”

When Alexander first saw the finished film, which revolves so much around his music, he found himself in tears, and, since the film’s theatrical release over the summer under the new title Begin Again, he has been deeply touched by how many people have indicated that “Lost Stars” was meaningful to them. “The fact that some people hear the song and feel tears of joy instead of tears of sadness? That’s the most satisfying part of it.” It has also made him want to continue to find outlets for music in films, since he believes that films are now the ideal vehicle through which artists can put out meaningful music. “Independent films and studio films that have an important message and are willing to fight the power are the new rock and roll,” he insists.

So… is he “back” now from what he termed his “extended hiatus and sabbatical”?

Well, the concerns that drove him away from the business in the first place certainly aren’t gone. “Rock and roll has, sadly, flat-lined, it has dissipated,” he says mournfully. “It’s heartbreaking to see lyrics playing second-fiddle to beats and sounds, which there’s always a place for, but my favorite artists brought it all together.” Moreover, he still can’t get over “the corporatization and the celebrity-centric dumbing-down of music — signing artists based on what they look like, or how many YouTube plays their ego-centric, quirky videos get, instead of trying to find the next Dylan or Prince — the bedroom weirdos, the people that are making music in their bedrooms, the outcasts and the eccentrics. That was always the job of the music business.” And the celebrity obsession of the culture has only gotten worse: “For artists the dream is to touch people with your art. Now it seems like artists are props for selfies.”

And he doesn’t exactly miss being the guy out front — “Only walking on stage and feeling that electric energy,” he says, adding, “That was so beyond me. It was almost like this mysterious alternative universe that I didn’t really belong in — but it was fun.”

Still, he says, “I’m back in so much as I want to keep writing the best music I’ve ever done and hopefully find a way to say things that may not otherwise get said in the arts,” and also “to find the right voices or the right projects that can hopefully takes those songs to the world.”

Is there any chance that his might once again be one of those voices? “Oh, gosh,” he says with a laugh. “Let me get back to you!”

Sony/ATV set to ditch licensing firms over streaming dollars

October 13, 2014

Richard Morgan NY 10/12/14

The No. 1 music publisher has decided to go it alone in the battle to boost digital royalties paid to songwriters.

Sony/ATV Music Publishing — whose catalog includes Beatles classics along with Taylor Swift’s current chart toppers — plans to dump the industry’s oldest and biggest performance-rights organizations by the end of the year, The Post has learned.

Bypassing BMI and ASCAP, which collect royalties for songwriters when their tunes are played on the radio, streamed online or piped into a store, would allow Sony/ATV to negotiate directly with services such as Pandora, Spotify and YouTube.

Songwriters complain that BMI and ASCAP are bound by outdated government rules that result in paltry royalties from digital outlets. The pain is especially acute as CD sales and digital downloads are in decline, while streaming services are the only area of growth.

In July, Sony/ATV Chief Executive Martin Bandier, in a letter to his songwriters, warned that he might withdraw from ASCAP and BMI so he could better fight for higher streaming royalties.

Sony/ATV already tried a partial pullout from the professional-rights organizations, forcing companies like Pandora to negotiate directly for a license to stream music.

Pandora sued, arguing that music publishers couldn’t make partial withdrawals from BMI and ASCAP, which are bound by decades-old consent decrees with the Department of Justice that determine royalty rates.

The federal courts agreed: Either the publisher’s entire catalog of licensable songs remained with the licensing groups or none did.

Sony/ATV has appealed the courts’ all-or-nothing rule and is imploring the DOJ to review consent decrees it considers antiquated.

As a result of the court rulings, the royalty rate Pandora pays Sony/ATV reverted to the 1.85 percent by decree from the 5 percent that Sony/ATV exacted through direct negotiations.

No. 2 publisher Universal Music Publishing Group is also anxious to enter into direct negotiations over digital rights. But sources close to the company say it’s more willing to wait out both of Sony/ATV’s appeals.

Sony/ATV, however, isn’t nearly as patient.

In his July letter, Bandier cautioned that “because the DOJ and legal process is not fully within our control, we may have no alternative but to take all of our rights out of ASCAP and BMI.”

A withdrawal would saddle Sony/ATV with significant administrative responsibilities historically handled by BMI and ASCAP. It would likely cripple the licensing groups as well.

But a source claims the $230 million BMI and ASCAP kept for themselves last year — after distributing $1.7 billion to songwriters, composers and publishers — suggests plenty of room for cost-cutting.

Sony/ATV could replace them with a much leaner operation, the source said, saving tens of millions a year. And at least half of those savings could also be repatriated to the Sony/ATV songwriters that BMI and ASCAP once served.

While Sony/ATV wouldn’t confirm that it is pulling out of the licensing groups, it acknowledged the option is on the table.

Calling it a done deal “would be very premature,” a Sony/ATV spokesman said.

Beyoncé Liberated

October 6, 2014

By Aaron Hicklin 4/18/14

If you pooled the collective memories of the staff at Parkwood, the small, can-do entertainment company that Beyoncé built, you would have enough material for the world’s longest biography. That it would also be a hagiography goes without saying; for those who work closest to her, Beyoncé is, quite literally, flawless. Again and again you will hear that she is the hardest-working person in showbiz, the most demanding of herself, the least complacent. And all of this, you will realize, is most likely true. But in all of the accolades and glowing character references, you will also find little shafts of light that fall on their subject in illuminating and lovely ways.
There is Angie Beyince, vice president of operations, who grew up spending her summers with her cousins, Beyoncé and Solange. “They loved Janet Jackson,” she tells me. “We’d talk all night and watch Showtime at the Apollo and my snake, Fendi, would just be crawling around. He’d sit on our heads while we watched TV.”
There is Ed Burke, visual director, who had never heard of Beyoncé when he met her 10 years ago, responding to a request from a friend to shoot her for a day. He spent the next seven years trailing her around the world with a camera. In Egypt, he and Beyoncé scaled a pyramid together as the rest of their group gave up or fell back. “It smelled like urine because there are no bathrooms up there,” he recalls. “She looked like Mother Teresa, wearing this white dress and a head wrap, and when we got to the top she sang Donny Hathaway’s ‘A Song for You.’ ”
There is Ty Hunter, her stylist, who was working at Bui-Yah-Kah, a boutique in Houston, when he first met Beyoncé’s mother, Miss Tina, on the hunt for outfits for Destiny’s Child. The two clicked. That was in 1998. “Miss Tina reminded me of my mother,” he says. “I call Bey and Solange and all the girls in Destiny’s Child my sisters. The family is just, you know, humble—not what people think it is. The picture [of Beyoncé] is ‘diva, diva, diva,’ but I’ve been here this long because she’s not.”
There is Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, the general manager at Parkwood, whose Boston childhood was informed by the music of Carole King, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. It was Callahan-Longo who came up with the arm motions that Beyoncé uses in her video for “XO.” “It’s so hilarious—I have a credit in the DVD for choreography,” she laughs, throatily. “If anyone knows me, I’m not a dancer. Never have been and never will be.”

And there is Yvette Noel-Schure, the publicist, a kind of den mother to them all. She grew up on the Caribbean island of Grenada, and has a soft, floral accent to prove it. “The only music in the house was Catholic hymns,” she recalls. “Once in a while I heard some calypso on the radio.” Noel-Schure was with Destiny’s Child in Los Angeles on September 11, 2001, when news of the attacks on New York and D.C. reached them. “My mom’s not here, so I guess you’re our mommy today,” she remembers Beyoncé telling her. “And I said, ‘My kid’s not here, so I think you guys have to be my kids today.’” She breaks into a faraway smile. “With or without this job, I will probably always feel connected to those young women in some way, shape, or form.”
If you want to get to know someone, it helps to get to know the people around them. In Beyoncé’s case, there was no alternative. The opportunity to write about her materialized with an unusual condition: There would be no face-to-face interview. The musician was in the midst of an intense international tour, dramatically overhauled to accommodate 10 songs from her new, eponymous album. And although I would get to fly to Glasgow to see her perform the revised set, I would have to settle for an email exchange for this story. But—and this was the silver lining—I would have unprecedented access to Parkwood Entertainment, the tight-knit, furiously devoted team at the heart of Brand Beyoncé. This was more than a concession—this was being invited into Bey’s inner sanctum.
That sanctum is hidden in a nondescript Midtown office block in New York, high enough to have good views of the city, and a short walk from Macy’s. Decorated like a boutique hotel—plush sectional sofas, hardwood floors, an enormous contemporary chandelier—the most visible sign of Beyoncé are the 17 Grammys that line one end of the conference room and a cool portrait of a young Michael Jackson, her idol. It was in that room, on the night of December 12 last year, that the staff at Parkwood (named for the street Beyoncé grew up on) gathered to mark the countdown to the surprise release of Beyoncé, her fifth album. For such a solid hitmaker, the new material was a departure, suffused with a raw, earthy sexuality that was more personal than fans were used to—and less polished. And by managing to keep the album under wraps until the moment of its release, Beyoncé was able to do something that has become all too rare for a global star: control the way in which her fans experienced her music. It’s hard to remember a major album of the past few years that wasn’t leaked in advance, or that didn’t reach the critics and overly opinionated bloggers before it reached the fans. As Noel-Schure likes to say, “Perception unchallenged becomes reality.” That’s actually a line from Motown: The Musical, but when she heard it earlier this year, it resonated. “The Internet is equivalent to a nice big jar of glue,” she tells me in her office. “It doesn’t go away.”

But there is a corollary to this: The Internet is one big beehive—or BeyHive, as Queen Bey’s vocal, possessive fans are dubbed. Like Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters, they are a powerful force if you know how to use them. In the 12 hours after its surprise release, the new album generated 1.2 million tweets, reaching a high of 5,300 tweets per minute at its peak. Within three days, Beyoncé had sold 828,773 digital copies, making it the fastest-selling album ever in the iTunes store (the fact that it was an iTunes exclusive helped; in response, Amazon and Target refused to stock the CD, a pissing contest they will likely not risk a second time. Amazon has since relented; Target hasn’t.). In the following weeks and months it would be augmented by a tsunami of viral fan stunts: three grandmas reading the lyrics to “Drunk in Love” (and confusing Jay Z for Kanye West in the process); the a cappela outfit Pentatonix abbreviating the entire album into a brilliant six-minute medley; and the inevitable appropriation of lyrics into the everyday vernacular. Right now, “I woke up like this—flawless” and “surfbort” seem to be tracking nicely to be on par with “put a ring on it” or “bootylicious.” (It’s a testament to Parkwood’s canniness that they had Flawless and Surfboard sweatshirts ready to sell soon after the album’s release.) And all of this was achieved without resorting to the traditional marketing machine: the endless rounds of interviews, the elaborate release parties, the in-store promotions. Instead, by appealing directly to the people who mattered most—the fans—Beyoncé and her team at Parkwood conquered the age-old challenge of politicians, business titans, and Hollywood moguls: to control the message.
But there was something else, too. Beyoncé was designed to be the most personal statement of the musician’s career, an album not crafted to fulfill the usual dictates of the industry. Beyoncé, in an emailed response to one of my questions, described the process as “much freer than anything I’d done in the past. We really just tried to trust our instincts, embrace the moment, and keep it fun.” As an illustration she singled out the video for “Drunk in Love,” a fan favorite. “We were in Miami for Jay’s concert, and it was just the two of us, on the beach, amazing weather, and one outfit! It’s beautiful in its simplicity. If you want something to feel real and urgent, you can’t overthink it.”
Of course, other artists—Adele comes to mind—have shown that the more visceral and personal an album, the less there is a need for bells and whistles. But Adele was still building her career when she released 21, and had less to lose. For Beyoncé, after 10 years at the top, the most obvious direction to go was down. Instead, with the aid of her stealth team, she pulled off a career high. “I really feel that 20 years from now—50 years from now—people will remember December 13, 2013,” Noel-Schure says. “People are going to remember because it will have shifted the way business is done in the record industry.”
This may seem like so much hot air in an industry that thrives on it, but you need only compare Beyoncé’s game plan to Lady Gaga’s, with Artpop, to realize just how successfully Beyoncé has managed to insulate herself from the brutal cycle of hype and backlash that has become the industry norm.
Out: Your new album is also your most sexually liberated project. The confidence and maturity and the fantasy speak to women almost as if in code. How do you create this conversation?
Beyoncé: I’d like to believe that my music opened up that conversation. There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist—whatever you want to be—and still be a sexual being. It’s not mutually exclusive.
It is a Friday night in February in Glasgow, Scotland, and the wind is whipping brutally around the corners of the Hilton, where team C of Beyoncé’s tour group is staying (team B is in the more charming Malmaison Hotel; the whereabouts of team A, which presumably includes Beyoncé, are a closely guarded secret). I have arrived from New York that morning, and after a quick excursion for a sandwich and a coffee, I make my way along the rain-lashed highway to the Hydro arena, where Beyoncé has been rehearsing for most of the day.

Although it is technically the 110th date of her eye-popping extravaganza the Mrs. Carter Show, it is only the second night of her dramatically revamped lineup. A few nights earlier she pulled an all-nighter to rehearse her new material before dashing to London for a last-minute appearance at the Brit Awards, only to dash back—still in her ball gown—to finish choreographing the show. This was no minor tweak—10 new songs were added to the lineup; others were abbreviated or turned into medleys to make room. Most artists would spend months working out the kinks. Beyoncé took three days. “She’s completely relentless in her pursuit of perfectionism,” her creative director, Todd Tourso, tells me as we sit backstage. “It sounds cheesy, but that’s why I’m willing to work so hard for her. When you have this type of leadership and muse and mentor, I think the sky’s the limit.”
Of the 15,000 fans snaking into the venue that evening, the vast majority are young women, mostly white (it is Scotland), and primed for a big night out. A good number wear flashing plastic bows in their hair, echoing the one Beyoncé sports so fetchingly in the video for “XO.” (In the damp Glasgow air they look less adorable.) The evening’s warm-up act is Monsieur Adi, the Italian-born, Paris-based producer whose remixes of Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, and Madonna have elevated him to a club favorite. Adi wears a permanent grin, like a kid who can’t believe his luck. A former architecture student-turned-fashion designer, Adi stumbled into remixing after a friend heard the music he’d made for his website. Now he was DJing his first concert tour. Two months earlier, he’d woken up in the early hours of December 13 to an email from Courtney Anderson, Beyoncé’s dance curator and A&R consultant. (“I always dressed to the beat of my own drum,” Anderson tells me. “I was that person who’d put on pajamas, a sarong, a T-shirt, and some flip-flops and go to school.”) Anderson wanted Adi to call him. “I gave him a call and he said, ‘Yeah, we’d like you to remix two tracks.’ ” says Adi. “I said, ‘Two tracks? Are you sure? I’m speechless…’ ”

Like most of the staff at Parkwood, Anderson was in the office at midnight when the album dropped. “I’ve never had so many grown men and women send me ‘OMG’ tweets,” he says with a laugh, recounting the hours he had spent handing out remixing assignments to his favorite producers. “The initial reaction was, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And I was like, ‘But it’s here! Isn’t it great? What’s your favorite track?’ And then the conversation quickly switched to the music.”
Which had been the point all along.
Out: On certain songs, like “XO,” your voice is a lot more raw (and beautiful) than fans are used to. Was it a conscious decision to be less polished?
Beyoncé: When I recorded “XO” I was sick with a bad sinus infection. I recorded it in a few minutes just as a demo and decided to keep the vocals. I lived with most of the songs for a year and never rerecorded the demo vocals. I really loved the imperfections, so I kept the original demos. I spent the time I’d normally spend on backgrounds and vocal production on getting the music perfect. There were days I spent solely on getting the perfect mix of sounds for the snare alone. Discipline, patience, control, truth, risk, and effortlessness were all things I thought about while I was putting this album together.
If you want to understand the origins of Beyoncé, start with Angie Beyince, vice president of operations at Parkwood Entertainment, and Beyoncé’s first cousin. The similarity in their names is no coincidence: Beyoncé’s mother—Beyince’s aunt—is Tina Beyince (the name comes from their Creole ancestry), and the cousins were so close growing up that they spent every summer together. “The last day of school, Aunt Tina would pick me up and I’d spend the entire summer at her house, and then be dropped back home the night before school started again,” Beyince recalls, quickly finding her stride as we sit in her glass-walled office one frigid afternoon in February. A big Chanel purse sits next to her desk; she wears bright orange nail polish with lipstick to match. When I ask what shade of orange it is, she shakes her head playfully. “A lady never tells!” she quips. “They call me the fourth member of Destiny’s Child. I’m like the original diva. I don’t tell my lipstick colors, my perfume. I’ve been wearing the same perfume for maybe 14 years, and I’ve never uttered the words to anyone.”
Back in the mid- to late ’90s, before she started wearing that mystery perfume, before she could afford a Chanel purse, Beyince was a fixer of sorts: tour accountant, travel booker, media liaison, laundry washer—if it needed doing, she would do it. She recalls hours spent finagling rooms at cheap hotels by trading T-shirts and autographed photos, washing outfits by hand or in machines at whatever semidecent hotel they’d booked themselves into, and hectic nights as a dresser, changing the girls’ clothes during the show. “I’d finish the show and go to the cash office with all the promoters and I’d count out the money, which is funny because I’m a very petite woman.” She shrugs. “But I refer to myself as a lioness. I’m a bad chick. I don’t play. I went in there with all male promoters, and I’d count that money out. The first day I did that they were a dollar short. And I said, ‘I’m missing a dollar.’ They said, ‘Oh no, baby girl,’ everything to shrink me, to diminish me—‘Oh no, sweetie pie, oh no, honey, no, no.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll count again.’ ” Beyince mimes the actions of counting bills, explaining that this whole process would typically take hours—she is abbreviating for me—but of course she eventually got her dollar.

“I shared a room with the choreographer at the time, and while she was sleeping I would stay up and count all the money, do the payroll, all the expenses,” she says. “I only got maybe two or three hours of sleep each day. Then I’d be back at that cash office: ‘Five dollars short.’ At the end of the tour, every single dollar was accounted for.”
Beyince is, of course, a perfect evocation of the kind of female resourcefulness and grit that Beyoncé was referring to when she described herself recently in Vogue UK as a “modern-day feminist.” The claim has been much debated on blogs, and you have to admire Beyoncé for daring to go there. A minor skirmish has erupted around a lyric in “Drunk in Love”: “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” apparently lifted from a scene of abuse in the 1993 Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do with It? For some, this strains Beyoncé’s credibility, but Beyoncé’s masterstroke was to find a way to ensure that none of this mattered, by getting her music to the fans before the critics, professional and self-appointed, had time to weigh in. That, too, is power.

Themes of money, gender, and power have coursed through Beyoncé’s music since 1999’s “Bills, Bills, Bills,” with Destiny’s Child, but the in-your-face sexuality of her new songs is reminiscent of Madonna’s Sex. “Gone are the days of people making you feel guilty because you’re sexual,” says Noel-Schure, who recalls the younger staff watching carefully for her reaction the first time she listened to the album. “This is not the old days. We need to teach the young responsibility, but you’re not gonna tell somebody, ‘Don’t be sexual.’ Let’s just call a spade a spade.”
Spade-calling is something of a nascent role for Beyoncé, who unleashed her inner activist on Instagram last year, posting messages of support for marriage equality and the Justice for Trayvon Martin campaign. Like Madonna, she appears to have found her voice as she’s grown and blossomed into a global star and businesswoman. It’s no small feat for a black woman to be able to express both her power and her sexuality without being reduced in the process to a whore who has forgotten her place. As she says in a new campaign designed to help young girls develop self-esteem, “I’m not bossy—I’m the boss.” It’s a hackneyed sound bite, but on stage, where Beyoncé is at her best and most powerful, you witness how that same confidence resonates and connects. With her all-female backing crew, the Sugar Mamas, Beyoncé gave her Scottish fans a show to remember that night, but she gave them something else, too: a role model.
Out: Your fifth album has been noted for being feminist, but a number of people in the LGBT community also identify with it. Were the lyrics ever written consciously with different groups in mind?
Beyoncé: While I am definitely conscious of all the different types of people who listen to my music, I really set out to make the most personal, honest, and best album I could make. I needed to free myself from the pressures and expectations of what I thought I should say or be, and just speak from the heart. Being that I am a woman in a male-dominated society, the feminist mentality rang true to me and became a way to personalize that struggle…But what I’m really referring to, and hoping for, is human rights and equality, not just that between a woman and a man. So I’m very happy if my words can ever inspire or empower someone who considers themselves an oppressed minority…We are all the same and we all want the same things: the right to be happy, to be just who we want to be and to love who we want to love.
When you talk with the team at Parkwood, it’s striking how often Thriller comes up in conversation as a kind of Holy Grail for the music industry. “The way music is distributed is so greatly different than it was in the ’80s and ’90s,” Lauren Wirtzer-Seawood, head of digital, laments one afternoon. “You don’t have those three or four iconic albums a year; you have 400 albums that came out in a year, and you have to remember what you listened to.”
At Beyoncé HQ, as the team embarked on the project of releasing the fifth album, the specter of Thriller became something of a catalyst—the model of a cultural moment that the music industry no longer seemed capable of engineering. Part of the challenge was how to win attention long enough to give the music a chance. “I watched a 20-year-old lady go through the Miley Cyrus record in less than 35 seconds on iTunes when it came out,” says Jim Sabey, head of worldwide marketing, grimacing at the memory. “She listened to seven seconds of each song, and I looked at her and she’s, like, ‘Ugh, it’s terrible.’ I said, ‘How do you know? You didn’t even listen to it.’ ”

This, then, is the flipside of the limitless new world in which musicians find themselves. No longer under the thumb of out-of-touch record executives, they find themselves instead at the mercy of ADD-afflicted music fans, surfing multiple sites at one time. You can imagine the anxiety at Camp Beyoncé as summer turned into fall, and they witnessed first Lady Gaga, then Katy Perry, stumble. Both those artists’ albums, ArtPop and Prism, came freighted with expectations, and both were leaked prematurely and almost immediately pronounced disappointments. “Beyoncé put two years of her heart and soul into this album,” says Sabey. “Any artist—a 13-year-old in Atlanta who puts together an album and puts it on YouTube—wants you to go on the journey. They want you to experience the art the way they intended it.”
But the 13-year-old in Atlanta doesn’t have the support team that Beyonce has so assiduously nurtured—a team that has known her for much of her adult life, and in some cases longer. “She’s kept true to the people who have kept true to her,” says Kwasi Fordjour, creative coordinator. “I think that’s amazing—you rarely see artists who keep hold of their A-team throughout their career.” (In an email, Beyonce returned the compliment, saying, “I call them the underdogs because so many people doubted the team I put together.”)
Much of Beyoncé was recorded in the summer and fall of 2012 in a purpose-built studio in the Hamptons. “It was kind of like Survivor or The Real World,” recalls Melissa Vargas, the brand manager. “We slept in there. Everyone had a room. There was only a certain number of people that could come, so if you were vibing with her and everything was going great, you would stay for longer. We had a chef, and every single person in that house sat down at dinner with Jay and Beyoncé.”
It was Beyoncé who decided not to preempt the release of her album with a single, or the typical campaign. She would simply upload it to iTunes, in one go. A big part of the challenge was how to fit the making of all those videos around Beyoncé’s global tour, which had kicked off last April. “Honestly, I was, like, ‘You want to do what?’ ” recalls Vargas. “How are you going to shoot videos when she’s on tour? I mean, directors need to prep.” Beyoncé, too, worried she was losing control toward the end of the process. “I was recording, shooting videos, and performing on the tour every night, all at the same time. At some point I felt like, What am I doing? Is this too ambitious? Even the day the record was to be released I was scared to death. But I also knew if I was that scared, something big was about to happen.” Vargas found herself on a plane to Paris to shoot videos for “Flawless” and “Partition” with the English video director Jake Nava (who’d made the video for 2003’s “Crazy in Love”), and proceeded from there to hopscotch around the world—Puerto Rico, Brazil, London, Paris, Australia, New Zealand, and Houston, where the video for “Blow” was filmed in a much-loved roller rink from Beyoncé’s childhood.
“What the visual album did for people was, they stopped and they watched the entire thing,” says Sabey. “There was no way you could listen to the first six bars of Beyoncé and skip to the next song. You were going to experience this album as a body of work.”
Or, as Carl Fysh, Beyoncé’s U.K. publicist, tells me over a pint of beer after the show in Glasgow: “My generation remembers the excitement of knowing an album was coming out—you saved your pocket money, you went to the record store, you queued up, you got the album and took it home, but you hadn’t heard a thing about it. You looked at everything, you put it on, and you played it 85 times. I think Beyoncé, by doing what she did, let this generation have that experience—of having the album to yourself.”

The Three Things Streaming Needs To Fix Next

October 5, 2014

Originally posted on Music Industry Blog:

I spent a couple of days last week in Barcelona for the annual Future Music Forum, which is developing into an important date on the music conference circuit.   Later this week I will post some of the highlights of my opening address but first I am going to spend some time developing some of the white hot issues surrounding streaming that were raised at the conference.

In a really strong field, two speakers in particular stood out: Beggars head of strategy Simon Wheeler and PledgeMusic founder Benji Rogers.   Their presentations and the conference as a whole were infused with a sense that streaming is changing everything, and more quickly than most people expected. This change is manifesting itself in three big issues:

  1. Deciding what streaming’s main role is
  2. What happens to the middling majority of artists
  3. How to monetize the relationship between artists and fans
  1. Time To Decide Whether Streaming Is…

View original 1,035 more words

Disruptive Delivery: Surprise Album Releases Change The Rules

October 5, 2014

Stefan Schumacher 9/30/14

Last Friday Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s iconic frontman, released a new album. As a surprise, on BitTorrent. While you may know BitTorrent as a vehicle for illegally downloading music, movies and TV shows — and you’d be correct — Thom Yorke’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes costs $6. It’s the first effort to sell music through BitTorrent’s technology.

For those not familiar, BitTorrent Inc. shares its namesake with the software process which allows users to share files peer-to-peer. Unlike Napster of times past, a torrent will download the file from multiple users at the same time, resulting in a much faster transmission. While BitTorrent has already used this process to officially distribute music from artists such as Kaskade and De La Soul, the difference here is that Yorke is the first artist on the platform to offer a “pay-to-press-play” model, requiring consumers to cough up that $6 fee.

The strategy seems to have worked — as of noon ET on Sept 29, just four days into the release, the metrics report over 430,000 downloads. While many of these can be credited to the free single and video (the number of paid downloads is being kept under wraps), profits from the deal will find Yorke retaining a stellar 90%, with 10% going to BitTorrent.

Yorke’s disruptive surprise album comes on the heels of U2 air-dropping their new album Songs of Innocence into our iTunes. You might say they “gave it away” or you could say it was forced upon us, creepily implanted in our digital apparatus without our consent. Both cases add momentum to a growing trend—major artists rewriting the rules, re-imagining the delivery system for their newest albums, bypassing traditional channels of distribution.
Music’s most powerful couple, Jay Z and Beyoncé, each released surprise albums in 2013, strolling into new directions.

Jay Z and Beyoncé each dropped surprise albums last year. Notably, Jay’s Magna Carta Holy Grail was offered free to the first one million Samsung customers who downloaded an exclusive app. Samsung footed the bill at a rate of $5 per album, depositing a cool $5 million in Jay’s pocket.

Beyoncé set the internet on fire by releasing her self-titled album exclusively to iTunes in the middle of the night in late December, 2013. Without any promotion or lead-up, she allowed bewildered and grateful Twitter users to spread the word via trending topics. At that moment she effectively turned her name into a verb — Beyoncé had Beyoncéd the internet. The album was certified platinum by the RIAA within one week, and it was the fastest selling album on iTunes in history, much to the dismay of Target.

Also in 2013, Kanye West’s Yeezus came out with no artwork or fanfare. Instead ‘Ye simply tweeted out the release date, while the video for the track “New Slaves” was projected onto buildings at locations throughout the country. In the absence of a traditional, months-long marketing campaign, fans were compelled to go for the impulse buy, pouncing while the hype was at its peak.

As we all know, physical album sales have been plummeting for years. When was the last time you went to a store to buy a CD? The thought isn’t just foreign at this point, it’s almost grotesque. It seems hardly worth the trouble for the record companies or the artists to package albums and try to sell them physically.

What U2 and Yorke have done makes an even more dramatic statement—that selling music through “traditional” digital storefronts like iTunes and Amazon is too cumbersome. In the new outlook, music needs to just arrive. Yes U2 arrived thru iTunes, in a move engineered by Apple, but that delivery was free and automatic, mandatory even.

“The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or ‘cloud’ malarkey,” Yorke said in a statement about his album. So that’s where we’re at now. Cloud malarkey? Just last Thursday the cloud seemed like the future.

What does all this mean for music fans? And more importantly, what does it say about music itself?
The Good News

By and large, the digital delivery of music is a fine thing. The user experience is exponentially better than it was 10 years ago. CDs were awful.

No one misses having to pay $17.99 for an album they hadn’t sampled, much less heard in its entirety. No tears shed over the jewel cases that would always break before you opened the package. And remember those long, wasteful cardboard boxes that clogged landfills when the compact disc was first introduced?

For the poor souls among us that still have to occasionally use CDs (I have a six-disc changer in my car with no ability to stream music or plug in an iPhone), it feels like having to heat your home with a wood-burning stove or hunt for food every day, as compared to the seamlessness of using Spotify or Amazon.

I have giant cases filled with thousands of CDs I’ve collected over the years, taking up huge amounts of space. They’re ugly and hard to organize. Having essentially the entire world of music on my phone or computer, accessible for free, feels almost too good to be true. And now it’s not even illegal thanks to the streaming platforms.
They’ve made it so easy to get music for free, it’s no longer worth your time to try steal it.

As the newest incarnation of digital music delivery, the Yorke model appears to be a great deal for all involved. New music is offered to fans instantly, with no hoops to jump thru, at a lower price, and artists keeps the lion’s share of the revenues.

These “make the album, drop the album” moments—and the buzz they create—are brilliant promotion in their own right. Fans get excited and want to join in the moment. With social media’s ability to spread the information to millions in lightspeed, perhaps we’re inching closer to that ideal business model for digital music distribution.

Yes, for the Beyoncés, Bonos and Thom Yorkes of the world, and their fans, this evolution is ideal.
U2 air-dropped their new album into users’ iTunes in September, 2014
But Here’s the Problem

Very few artists have the ability to create a media event by simply unveiling an album. Most are tirelessly perfecting their craft in bedrooms, garages and basements, largely unheralded. New artists are thrilled to play in dive bars and small venues, giving their blood, sweat and tears for every fan gained, for every album sold.

I saw one such group last weekend in the Chicago area, an indie rock band called Absolutely Not. They’ve got an infectious sound and give an exhilarating stage performance. I asked lead singer Donnie Moore how the digital revolution impacts them.

“It’s great to be on Spotify, Pandora, all that shit. People listen to our songs, they like us on Facebook,” he said. “But nobody buys anything!”

This is the story for vast majority of artists who aren’t quite yet cultural icons selling out arenas. Spotify has paid Absolutely Not… absolutely nothing. The band also doesn’t bother selling CDs, as no one wants them. And why would they in today’s environment? Artists sell vinyl and cassette because they’re a kitschy novelty; if the design is good, it’s something someone might want to make space for in their homes. So how does anyone in the music game, outside the mainstream, make any money?

Thankfully for those us who love music as listeners, creating music is such an all-consuming passion for these artists—from both the biggest stars and virtual unknowns alike — that they’ll continue to produce content, while we will continue to consume it in the most convenient way possible.

It’s gotten to the point where if I can’t get any song in the world, delivered to my phone, instantaneously, no matter where I am, for free, I’m furious! But pay $5 to download an album? Mmm, I’ll think about it.

In the words of Louis C.K., “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
Just Throw All Your Music Away

The continued streamlining of digital delivery is dangerous in that it sends a message to the masses: music is disposable.

Those of us who curate and obsess over music will always value holding it in our hands, but the easy access of streaming makes storing music feel more and more useless. Not long ago it seemed so advanced to digitize all your music and have it on an iPod or a hard drive. Now keeping all your music on a computer seems wasteful.

Can you imagine bringing a piece of music to someone’s house to listen to? The downfall of the album—a collection of songs built around a unifying concept—has been apparent for many years. Music is becoming a user-defined experience. We combine any set of songs, from any era or artist, and transfer them seamlessly from device to device.
Thom Yorke’s new album (right) is the first to be sold exclusively through BitTorrent’s technology.

Great new albums are coming out all the time. You have to seek them out or read up on them, rather than just plucking songs you like from whatever streaming service you’re listening to. Consider Radiohead. They’ve been at the forefront of technology since they released their 2007 album In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download.

Nowadays, because of Spotify, I hear so much more music and such a wider variety. Since I don’t have to pay to hear something new, I’ll take a risk and listen to lots of stuff outside my preferred genres. I can make these decisions based on criteria as trivial as the name of the group or the cover of the album. I can very quickly and easily categorize these songs so they don’t mix in with the stuff I know I like. And I can share my discoveries on Twitter or Facebook with a click of a button. Unfortunately for the artists, we’re not required to make the additional commitment of $5 to $10 to try out new music.
Here’s What’s Might Happen

A possible scenario: Spotify will go public and will be under pressure from shareholders to make money — lots of it. Like most online media, it will make money by selling advertising. If people don’t want to listen to those ads, they’ll have to pay a premium to avoid them. And if Spotify wants advertisers to spend money with them, it will have to draw more users with great content.

Perhaps as Spotify and services like it grow, they can truly supplant the record companies. These digital media distributors would incentivise artists—newcomers and established acts—to produce great stuff so they can draw more traffic onto their platforms, and thus more subscription and advertising dollars. We already see this happening with video streaming services Netflix and Hulu.

The old model is beyond broken, it’s shattered to pieces. But it wasn’t a very good model to begin with. I’m not one of these people who thinks good music ended in some past decade—there’s a lot of high quality stuff coming out today. There may even be more of it, because music is so much easier to produce and distribute.

New artists no longer need a record label to be seen and heard. And as we’ve seen recently, artists that already have an audience can reach us anytime they choose, in rapidly evolving ways.

Pressing plants feel the strain with vinyl records back in the groove

October 5, 2014

Mark Guarino 09/28/14

The commercial revival of vinyl records is good thing for many people: Record labels, recording artists, audiophile collectors, independent record shops — all for whom the increase in sales each year is considered a jolt of life in what otherwise is considered a growing public disinterest in owning tangible music.

But for Matt Earley, more people wanting more vinyl records presents a problem: The six presses that make his records at Gotta Groove Records in Cleveland are more than 40 years old, which means extra shifts and increased production is a recipe for potential disaster, especially when orders are lined up for months.

“It keeps me up at night,” he says. “My biggest worry is what is going to break when, not if it will break. Everything breaks.”

So Early prepares by budgeting heavily, which he says is just the reality of operating a record-pressing plant. His is one of only about a dozen or so left in the United States that face similar challenges. Despite the increased public demand for vinyl records, spanning mass reissue campaigns of premium-quality vinyl by classic bands such as Pink Floyd to small seven-inch runs by local bands to sell at gigs, press operators say that profit margins are narrowing because of the increased costs involved in locating, refurbishing, installing, operating, and ultimately repairing machines that are no longer made but are pushed harder and faster than they were in their heyday.

“That old machinery will continue to run if you change the parts, but at what cost? If you run a press 24 hours, six or seven days a week, there is one rule of thumb: You are wearing the machine out twice as fast,” says Bob Roczynski, president of Record Products of America, a 38-year-old company in Hamden, Conn. that is one of the last in the United States that supplies machine parts to the existing plants in operation today.

He says the current refurbished machine stock was originally designed to run eight to 10 hours each day for one shift. Today, many plants report that demand is forcing their machines to run more than three shifts up to six days each week.

“What’ll happen is companies will continue to push them as long as they are getting the volume of records they need and they’re making money,” he says. “They’re just going to have to keep putting money to keep those things running if they want to keep their doors open.”

Keeping up with the market
This is a boom time for vinyl, so the doors are off their hinges. Between 2007 and 2013, U.S. vinyl sales increased 517 percent to 6.1 million units, according to SoundScan, and that doesn’t include overseas demand, or sales made directly from record-label Web sites. While CD and digital music sales still dominate music sales, both have taken hits due to streaming; sales for digital decreased for the first time last year.

At Third Man Records in Nashville, vinyl is all they sell. In fact, “Lazaretto,” the current solo album by founder Jack White, set the U.S. record for the biggest-selling vinyl record of any year since Pearl Jam in 1994. The album’s sales hit 40,000 in just seven days in June. Ben Blackwell, in charge of overseeing Third Man’s vinyl production and distribution, says combined U.S. and overseas pressings have already topped 100,000 copies.

“The thing will not stop selling,” he says. “That record has been on the press since the beginning of May and it hasn’t come off the press since.”

White is an avowed vinyl fetishist: Most Third Man records receive special colored, or multicolored pressings; his newest is the ultimate feat. It includes two hidden tracks beneath the label that play at different speeds, one side plays from the inside to the outer rim, and it also features a hologram that appears when the needle is placed in the “dead wax” area.

To make that happen, the label tapped United Record Pressing in Nashville, one of the oldest record plants in the United States, dating back to 1949 — Vee Jay Records and Motown were among its earliest clients — and now the largest. This summer, the company announced a $5.5 million expansion, adding 16 to its current stock of 22 presses, which are currently running 24 hours a day, six days a week, producing up to 40,000 records per day. A new building had to be acquired to get the additional presses installed and operational, and once that happens — “as soon as possible,” promises Jay Millar, United’s marketing director — the company will double its production.

Jack White’s “Lazzaretto” being pressed at United Record Pressing in Nashvill. (Jay Millar)
“Market demand” is why United is investing in the plant, Millar says, as the company typically deals with a backlog of orders that can stretch back several months. “Right now we’re so bogged down and trying to keep everybody happy, so it was the only way we could keep up,” he says.

There have not been any new record presses manufactured since the early 1980s, and the cost to do so is prohibitive, most plant operators complain. Roczynski has calculated that one new machine would need a retail price of about $130,000. Others say that price could be double. “No one is going to pay it,” he says. Which means that current plant operators are left to hunt for “anything out there that is left in mothballs or storage or rusting away someplace.” The available stock of machines is grabbing “premium dollars” because it can be refurbished “for [a] fraction of the cost” of buying new.

That scenario has created a global treasure hunt for presses among the dwindling number of plants that vow to stay in business. United said its expansion was made possible because it had planned ahead, stockpiling old presses over several years.Other plants say word of mouth, odd luck, and a large bankroll have led them to their finds, usually abandoned presses left dormant once CDs took hold and became the dominant format.

“It’s just like anything else — the harder you look, the more you are willing to spend, the easier it becomes,” says Chad Kassem, the founder of Quality Record Pressings, a plant in Salina, Kan. that manufactures audiophile-quality vinyl for reissue campaigns for bands like Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and many others.

Kassem has been operating a premium vinyl retail business called Acoustic Sounds since 1990, but in 2011 he started manufacturing his own records because he was tired of waiting in line four to eight weeks and not being in control of managing the quality of his product.

“I needed my records as soon as possible and I needed them the highest quality as possible,” he says. About $2 million of his own money is now invested in a 21,000-square-foot plant that was once a food storage facility. “A wise man would pause” at such an endeavor of retrofitting such a space for making vinyl records, he admits. “I’m just crazy.”

To locate the 10 record presses he now operates, Kassem searched both regionally and overseas and found many of his discoveries had already lapped the world, as far as South America and as close as Los Angeles. He says restoration costs totaled nearly $30,000 for each press. Then there are the infrastructure costs: cooling tanks, boilers, plumbing, and more. Today, his plant pumps out up to 6,000 records per day, over two shifts, five days a week.

A delicate balance
Once the machines are in place, learning how to operate and maintain them often requires coaxing older mechanics and engineers out of retirement for several months or more as consultants who can then transfer decades of experience to younger workers. Lack of apprenticeship in the early days of record pressing has led to this problem, as has the overall lack of skilled labor. However, most plants say once they find workers who can commit to the significant learning curve, they tend to stay.

“The majority of our [23] employees have been with us since the beginning,” says Earley, whose plant presses the ongoing catalog of Guided By Voices, the vinyl-centric Ohio band. “You have to find the right type of people who care about what they are doing and can go through many months of learning to try and do it right.”

The balance between increasing product demand and the bullwhipping of antiquated machinery is precarious and many say it is not yet known what impact vinyl’s popularity in future years will make on the ability of the plants to manufacture them.

“There’s a tipping point at some point, but I’m not sure who decides where that tipping point is,” says Blackwell.

In the meantime, most plant operators say they enjoy showing off their facilities because of a renewed interest by the public to see records roll off the presses. United, for example, holds Friday tours and bands often perform, or conduct photo shoots, on the plant floor.

“We are fans,” Kassem says of the appeal of his operation in Kansas. “I started this as a hobby and it’s still a hobby. We just tell people we’re storytellers.”

Universal Music Group in ad deal for music videos with MirriAd

October 3, 2014

Robert Cookson 09/29/14

Universal Music Group is set to enable advertisers to superimpose brands into music videos after they have been made, in a move that will allow product placements to be targeted at specific audiences.

The world’s largest record company will announce on Monday that it has struck a deal with MirriAd, a UK technology start-up that has developed a way to insert different brands into video footage even after filming has taken place.

The technology allows product placement to take place on a bigger scale than was previously possible. For example, MirriAd can insert different brands into the same video to suit the target audience or region. Someone watching one of Universal’s music videos in China might see different product placements to a viewer watching the same video in the UK.

Universal and MirriAd are working with Havas, the French advertising group whose clients including LVMH, LG, and Coca-Cola.

While product placement has existed for decades, traditionally it took place during production. As a result deals could take months or years to negotiate as advertisers and media companies quibbled over how the video should look.

One of the first results of the deal with Universal will be to insert Grand Marnier, the liqueur brand, into a video by Avicii, the Swedish dance music producer. Once the Grand Marnier campaign is finished, Universal will be able to open up the video to other brands – something that was impossible with traditional product placement techniques.

Advertisers spent an estimated $8.25bn on product placement worldwide in 2012, according to PQ Media, a research group. The vast majority of paid placements take place in TV and film, but they are increasingly finding their way into online video and video games.

People have become increasingly accustomed to skipping or ignoring online advertising, so advertisers have sought new ways to embed themselves within popular content.

“Being inside content is more valuable than being outside content,” said Mark Popkiewicz, Mirriad’s chief executive.

The music industry is no stranger to product placement, though it has traditionally been built into videos from the start.

Lady Gaga’s video “Telephone” features 10 different brands, including Virgin Mobile and Diet Coke. Though the video has attracted criticism for being so commercial, it has nonetheless attracted more than 200m views on YouTube.

MirriAd has developed an online platform that gives artists oversight over how, why and where a brand would feature in their music video.

Lucian Grainge, chief executive of Universal, said that the company would “ensure that artists’ and brands’ interests are aligned”.

Advertising has become an increasingly important source of revenues for the music industry, as recorded music sales have halved since 2000. Digital music streaming services such as YouTube, Pandora and Spotify derive much of their revenues from advertising.


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