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

October 15, 2014

Scott Feinberg Hollywood Reporter 10/14/14
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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 POST.com 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 out.com 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 medium.com 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 WashingtonPost.com 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 Ft.com 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.

From Lorde to Jessie J, the Hits Keep Coming for A & R Superstar Jason Flom

October 2, 2014

Lately, the chief executive of Lava Records has been on a winning streak
By Matthew Kassel observer.com 10/01/14

On a recent afternoon in late August, Jason Flom was about to listen to one of tens of thousands of songs that have passed through his ears, with or without consequence, since he joined the music business in the late 1970s. Mr. Flom, now 53 and the head of Lava Records, receives dozens of song links via email every day, about half from “reliable sources,” as he calls them—friends, lawyers, managers, employees—and the rest unsolicited. This one had come in over the transom from a “very brilliant” acquaintance outside the music industry whose taste Mr. Flom respects, so he clicked through to a YouTube video and decided to hear the band out.

The video, impressively done, was a horror movie in miniature, shot in crisp black and white. It featured a kind of post-apocalyptic cityscape with eerie imagery: writhing bodies, lonely streets, creepy faces. The song itself felt frantic and unsettling, with lots of screaming and intense electronic pulsation throughout—Aphex Twin meets Ozzy Osbourne, a generous assessment could conclude. It was the kind of music that might be heard at a vampire rave.

As the song ended, a moment’s pause went by before Mr. Flom, slouched behind his desk in an eighth-floor office in Midtown Manhattan, delivered his verdict. “I think the video is incredible,” he told me, gnawing on an unlit cigar. “But the song is not much of a song—it’s more like a groove.” He dashed off a quick response, explaining that the music wasn’t … commercial enough—it had no melodic hook, no afterglow, didn’t rest in the mind the way a good pop song should—and thanked his friend for passing it along.

It is difficult to say exactly what occurs inside Jason Flom’s modestly sized head when he hears a hit—what alchemical process, which neural receptors alert him to the fact that his ears have landed on something big. “My hope when I turn something on is that it’s going to suck or it’s going to be great,” Mr. Flom said. “Because if it sucks I can delete it, and if it’s great I’ll call you up and say where do I find this guy? But the other ones, they’re close.”
‘My hope when I turn something on is that it’s going to suck or it’s going to be great,’ Mr. Flom said. ‘Because if it sucks I can delete it, and if it’s great I’ll call you up and say where do I find this guy? But the other ones, they’re close.’

The song we had just listened to was indistinct and un-poppy, which made the decision easy. Of course, we’d all like to assume that, in the moment, we could identify a hit pop song, too. How hard is it to figure out that Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is indelible? But the art of identifying hits does not consist only of discovering good songs. A true record man—women, it’s worth pointing out, are in short supply at the top of the industry—must have the capacity to spot not only a top 100 tune, but the raw talent to sustain a career. “David Geffen calls it an instinct, and I don’t know how else to describe it,” Mr. Flom told me somewhat mindlessly, as though he were reluctant to dwell too much on a good thing. “You either have it or you don’t. Of course, it’s all subjective. Until they’re on the charts, it’s all subjective.”

Lately, Mr. Flom’s instincts have treated him particularly well at Lava. Last year, he signed the young New Zealand prodigy Lorde, now 17, whose debut single, “Royals,” won two Grammys and was perched atop the Billboard Hot 100 for two months. He found her through an email. “Not sure if it’s for you but wanted to pass along,” read the note, which came from a trusted industry source and included a single link to the artist’s Soundcloud page.

Most recently, Jessie J, the English pop star whom Mr. Flom signed in 2011, has surged in the charts thanks to “Bang Bang,” the critically acclaimed, gospel-inflected single featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. The tune, which has rested firmly in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for eight weeks, will be featured on Jessie J’s upcoming album, Sweet Talker, to be released later this month. On July 31, two days after “Bang Bang” came out, it hit No. 1 on iTunes as Mr. Flom was hiking in Aspen, an outing that happened to coincide with his 35th year in the record industry. “I was like, ‘Hmm, I guess I still got it,’ ” he said.

While it is safe to assume that most pop music fans are not interested in record executives and their machinations—the covert scouting that goes into creating, and manipulating, stars—their influence in American culture is practically immeasurable. Pop music, unlike the latest Steven Spielberg film or Donna Tartt novel or David Mamet play, is inescapable. You don’t have to choose it; pop music is there by default, pouring out of speakers at nightclubs, blasting from passing car stereos, purring gently into your psyche at a shopping mall.

While wildly successful, Mr. Flom—a kind of Wizard of Oz of mainstream music—is probably the most undersung hitmaker of the past 30 years. Why is not entirely clear. Maybe his relatively mild lifestyle precludes attention, or it could be that his position at an underdog label brings him an underdog status. Perhaps he does not possess the charisma of a David Geffen or the eccentricity of an Ahmet Ertegün or the mysterious aura of a Clive Davis. Whatever it is, Mr. Flom, who arguably possesses one of the biggest pop culture footprints of the past three decades, deserves a place in that rarefied pantheon.

Throughout his career, which began at Atlantic Records, Mr. Flom has signed and broken a veritable who’s who of top-selling artists and groups including Tori Amos, Stone Temple Pilots, Twisted Sister, Matchbox 20, Jewel, Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, Hootie & the Blowfish and Katy Perry. Mr. Flom specializes not only in acquiring talent, but discovering it, an old-school trait that has been somewhat diminished in the digital age. No longer do talent scouts wander into Greenwich Village cafes to find the next Bob Dylan. The Internet is comprised of 1 million Greenwich Villages. But curators are still a vital asset at a time when any artist, regardless of talent, can throw his or her songs onto iTunes or YouTube or Soundcloud to see what sticks—and good music is drowned out by the din of mediocrity.

“Jason’s definitely in a rare league of people who find artists and make hits,” said Glenn Peoples, a senior editorial analyst at Billboard magazine. “He can attract good talent, he can work with that talent and he can turn it into success.”

Though he downs five shots of espresso every morning —“That’s not an exaggeration,” he said solemnly, “always five”—Mr. Flom, a college drop-out, gives off a slacker’s vibe and seems unusually sedate in an industry where brashness is the norm. He is funny, vulgar, self-deprecating, absent-minded and exudes the kind of anti-establishment nerdiness one might find among the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.

At his office not long ago, his 2-year-old bulldog, Lulu, sat on a couch in the corner, ripping a foam football to shreds. Mr. Flom wore a pair of thick-rimmed rectangular glasses, a tattered Black Crowes T-shirt and blue jeans. He is obsessed with Instagram and talks about it incessantly, pointing out new jokes he’s made—Mr. Flom has dabbled in stand-up comedy—or funny pictures he’s discovered. An engraved metal nameplate sitting at the front of his desk crudely declares: “Fucker in charge of you fucking fucks.”

The punk rock ethos does not feel disingenuous. Mr. Flom, who was born and raised in New York City, once wanted to be a rock star, and he likes being around them. “I’ve always been focused on signing rock stars,” he said, “as opposed to records or songwriters or singles.” He gave up on becoming a guitarist in his late teens, adhering to a deal he made with his father, the late corporate attorney Joseph H. Flom, who told him he could take one year to make it big as a musician. After failing to do so, the young Mr. Flom enrolled at New York University and got a job at Atlantic Records as a field merchandiser, putting up posters in record stores back when there were lots of them. He made $4 an hour, plus free records.

“I thought it was the best job in the world,” said Mr. Flom, who is a father of two locked in an acrimonious divorce battle over his reported $100 million fortune. We ate a dinner of chicken and salad prepared by a friend who takes care of his dog, at his 67th-floor apartment across the street from the Lava offices near the very un-punk Columbus Circle. (He lives above Puff Daddy, a friend.) We sat in his dining room, which is decorated with photos of him posing with rock stars as well as musical memorabilia, like the guitar autographed by Steven Tyler that reads, “Jason ‘Flom This Way.’” The living room, which overlooks Central Park, is filled with upbeat Pop Art.

During dinner, he had a couple of glasses of wine, which he only started drinking again five years ago. He succumbed to drugs and alcohol in the 1980s and got sober at a Minneapolis rehab, setting off years of abstention from all things mind-altering. “I got tired of Diet Coke,” he told me simply. “That’s a lot of Diet Coke.”
Mr. Flom discovered Lorde through an email. ‘Not sure
if it’s for you but wanted to pass along,’ read the note, which came from a trusted industry source and included
a single link to the artist’s Soundcloud page.

At his first interview at Atlantic for a position in the A&R (artist-and-repertoire) department, Mr. Flom had not yet learned to balance his anti-authoritarian flair with the more polished aspects of corporate culture. Doug Morris, then the president of Atlantic and a mentor to Mr. Flom, was not amused.

“He looked like he was—what’s another word for a bum?” Mr. Morris, now the head of Sony Music Entertainment, told me by phone. “He had dirty clothes on, his hair actually was down to his butt—seriously, I give you my word, maybe a little past his butt—and I said to him, ‘Jason, I really am not a person to criticize anyone’s appearance. That goes against everything I believe, but you look fucking terrible, and I’m a little taken aback.’ ”

Mr. Morris told him he would never make it in music if he didn’t cut his hair. So the next day, Mr. Flom reappeared for the interview in a suit, hair substantially above his butt, and got the job. He hasn’t grown it out since, though he does wear sneakers with his suits on occasion. (He also jokingly complains that Mr. Morris then hired Val Azzoli, who had a mullet, as Atlantic’s chairman.)

Mr. Flom’s first big break in the industry came after signing the New Orleans rock band Zebra, in the early 1980s. Mr. Morris had been reluctant to do so until, driving home to Long Island one night, after listening to a Zebra cassette that Mr. Flom had made for him, he heard the then-unsigned group on WBAB radio. The DJ announced that it was the most requested song in the history of the station, and Mr. Morris realized his young charge might have a more promising pair of ears than he’d suspected.

Mr. Flom quickly proved himself to be something of a prodigy in the industry and rose through the Atlantic ranks, eventually running the A&R division for several years before founding Lava in a partnership with the record company in 1995. Still, the label’s inception was not heralded with the kind of fanfare one might expect of a new corporate endeavor. Mr. Flom had had a successful run, signing such acts as Twisted Sister, Skid Row, Hootie & the Blowfish and Collective Soul, but music was changing, and the higher-ups seemed to think his tastes were outdated.

“They set it up because I was sort of a rock head,” Mr. Flom told me at dinner as he forked slices of jalapeno into his mouth. “I think they thought that music was changing and becoming this indie rock sound and that I didn’t know what I was doing. So they wanted to move me to the side without firing me.”
Mr. Flom plucked Lorde out of relative obscurity in New Zealand. (Photo via Kevin Getty Images)

Mr. Flom plucked Lorde out of relative obscurity in New Zealand. (Photo via Getty Images)

He was given three employees and very few resources. “They thought it was going to fail,” Mr. Flom said bluntly. Instead, Lava sold hundreds of millions of records in eight years, after which Mr. Flom became head of Atlantic. Business was so good, Mr. Flom told me, that a sales clock was placed in Lava’s reception area to count the number of people served, rapidly increasing like the Metronome installation in Union Square.

One of his biggest artists then was Kid Rock, who was not an easy sell, as it happens. He was a virtual unknown when Mr. Flom found him, despite three records. No one but Mr. Flom and a couple other employees took him seriously, though Mr. Flom was convinced he had found a rock star.

For Kid Rock’s first Atlantic showcase at SIR Studios in New York, Mr. Flom made sure that the artist would make a lasting impression on the audience full of skeptical execs. At one point, Joe C., Kid Rock’s late dwarf sidekick, rode into the room on a pony, in a pimp suit, holding a pistol. “It was met with utter disdain and essentially disgust from the Atlantic staff, most of which walked out after,” Kid Rock’s manager, Lee Trink, recalled. “To me, it was the funniest thing ever.” The album, Devil Without a Cause, has sold close to 11 million copies since its release. A signed, framed poster circa 1999 that rests in the bathroom in Mr. Flom’s apartment reads: “Thiers [sic] no way 2 ever thank you enuff… u got all my respect. thanx. Kid Rock.”

Mr. Flom’s track record is not unbroken. Unlike some executives, he has to genuinely like the music to get behind the artist, a position that can lead to occasional regrets. He passed on 3 Doors Down, the early 2000s grunge-lite band known for “Kryptonite” and “Here Without You.” “There was research that showed it was going to be a hit because it played on the radio in this one market, and it was blowing up,” Mr. Flom recalled. “But I went to their show, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I just didn’t like it, and then it sold millions and millions of copies, and I was like, ‘Well, that was dumb.’ ”

Mr. Flom is relatively unreflective in conversation, partly, one assumes, because that is the way he is, but it may also be because second-guessing is a debilitating activity in his industry. I asked him how many platinum records he thought he’d missed in his career. “Oh, I don’t know,” he told me, somewhat exasperatedly. “I go to therapy so I don’t have to think about that.”

He estimated that he’s batted about .300 so far, which isn’t all that bad, considering Derek Jeter just ended his career with a lifetime batting average of .310—and Mr. Flom isn’t through with his run. “The music business is like baseball,” Mr. Flom said. “No one bats .500, ever.”

Lately, Mr. Flom has been on a winning streak. He became the chief executive officer of Atlantic in 2005 and left shortly after to head up Virgin Records—where he signed Katy Perry—and, after a merger, Capitol Music Group. Lava was put on hiatus, but in 2009, he re-established the label, which is now operated through Republic Records, a division of Universal Music Group, the largest music corporation in the world.
I asked him how many platinum records he thought he’d missed in his career. ‘Oh,
I don’t know,’ he told me, somewhat exasperatedly. ‘I go to therapy so I don’t have to think about that.’

Things at Lava are not unlike how they were before. The label is still an underdog, and Mr. Flom has three employees, none over 30. He hasn’t asked for more manpower, despite his success, claiming that one must be “lean and mean” in a protracted business that, he says, is slowly recovering from the threat of piracy in the early aughts. “Everything about the music business has changed,” Mr. Flom said. “It’s all pretty fucking confusing, but the good news is people still like to buy music.”

Mr. Flom, who is active in a number of philanthropic endeavors, said his proudest achievement was when he had dinner with Bill Clinton, in the last year of his presidency, and successfully petitioned Mr. Clinton to grant clemency to 17 nonviolent drug offenders who were serving sentences that ranged between 15 and 85 years. He still keeps in touch with Mr. Clinton as a result of that dinner. Mr. Flom is a founding member of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing. His interest in the cause was piqued in 1992 after reading an article about a kid who was serving 15 years to life for a nonviolent cocaine offense. Mr. Flom, with the help of a lawyer friend, was able to get him out of jail. “It was a pretty transformative experience,” he said.

As far as his music industry achievements are concerned, a good portion of them he chalks up to being in the right place at the right time—the Lorde email, for instance, which he could easily have overlooked, or Doug Morris hearing Zebra on the radio. He discovered Tori Amos when he found a cassette that was sitting on another person’s desk in the Atlantic offices. He picked it up, listened to it, and that was that. He does, however, give credit to his own persistence and, of course, his instincts.

Not all of the artists Mr. Flom has signed on the latest iteration of Lava have produced blockbusters, like Lorde and Jessie J, and because he has so few resources, he has to be very careful about signing weak artists to a roster only 10 acts long. They include the goth-pop band Black Veil Brides, the Norwegian singer Ida Maria, the Swedish outfit Royal Concept and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whom Mr. Flom described as “the biggest Christmas act in the history of Christmas—since Jesus, anyway.” So far, no major blemishes.

Mr. Flom has found a recent niche discovering and molding young female pop stars, including Ms. Perry, Lorde and Hayley Williams, whom he signed, in 2003, at the age of 14, and who went on to form the pop-rock band Paramore. “I think that’s a coincidence,” Mr. Flom said of the trend. “I never set out to look for a particular thing.”

Russell Simmons, the music and fashion mogul who co-founded the hip-hop label Def Jam, said that for years he had known Mr. Flom as the guy who signed rock bands. “Then suddenly he started making these pop records that my little daughter liked,” Mr. Simmons said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, shit, he makes this other stuff, too.’ ”
Mr. Flom’s latest acquisition is Maty Noyes, a 16-year-old Mississippi native. (Photo by Melissa Dilger)

Mr. Flom’s latest acquisition is Maty Noyes, a 17-year-old singer-songwriter from Mississippi. (Photo by Melissa Dilger)

At his office, Mr. Flom was talking up a few upcoming happenings at Lava, which recently celebrated its “lucky 13th” anniversary—eight years at Atlantic and now five years at Republic—with a party at Tao. Lorde performed to an intimate crowd that included Salman Rushdie, Usher and Eric Schneiderman.

He clicked around on his desktop for a moment and played me an as-yet unreleased song by Ida Maria, which was bouncy, simple and infectious. The chorus went, to a basic four-four rhythm: “Can you make love like a Scandinavian / Can you make love like a Scandinavian / All night long.” It was easy to remember, and I found myself tapping my foot. Mr. Flom was pleased that I liked it and put on another song by the same artist, entitled “I’m Gonna Steal Your Boyfriend.” He said he was thinking about releasing the song to a couple of radio stations to see if it stuck. It was loud and aggressive and catchy and I didn’t like it as much as the one before it, but it had power. I could see why Mr. Flom would want to put it out first.

As for his other artists, Black Veil Brides will release a new album at the end of the month. Mr. Flom has especially high hopes for the group’s lead singer, Andy Biersack, who is rebranding himself as Andy Black for a solo venture. Mr. Flom played me a music video the 23-year-old put out in May.

Mr. Biersack, with many tattoos and piercings, usually dresses like a ghoul. But here he was wearing a black button-down shirt and tie for the video, and his hair was slicked back into a handsome pompadour. He sang “They Don’t Need to Understand,” an anthemic tune about self-determination that one could imagine emanating from a stage at Madison Square Garden.

“I’ve got very big plans for him,” Mr. Flom told me. “I think we can make him into a generational superstar, because he’s got the whole thing. He’s already bigger than the band.”

Rick Krim, formerly of VH1 and now the executive vice president of artist development at Republic, walked in to say hello, and Mr. Flom put the video on again. “It feels like he took the best of 30 Seconds to Mars, Nickelback and The Killers and threw them all together,” Mr. Krim said admiringly.

Mr. Flom said he had recently signed a 17-year-old singer-songwriter named Maty Noyes, a Mississippi native. He is very excited about her talent and her name, and believes strongly that she will be a star. He put on a song by her. It was sultry and seductive and, much like Lorde, did not sound at all like a teenager. “You find these girls who don’t sound their age, or look it,” Mr. Krim joked.

Before I left, I asked Mr. Flom to play the Ida Maria tune from earlier, which was still looping in my head. “That’s interesting that you responded to that,” he said, somewhat mystified. He put it on again, and I walked out with an earworm, courtesy of Jason Flom.

Exclusive: The Harvard Business School Report on Beyonce

October 2, 2014

Andrew Flanagan billboard.com 09/30/14

Last week, Billboard reported that the Harvard Business School had taken a close look at the release of Beyonce’s surprise, self-titled album, dropped upon an unprepared world last December. At the time of Beyonce’s midnight release, Billboard covered the event in depth, talking to the people involved and getting the inside scoop. But nearly a year later, Harvard Business School has dug even deeper into what went on behind the scenes of the reveal and Billboard got an exclusive sneak peek.

Anita Elberse, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and Stacie Smith, a former student of Professor Elberse, have co-written the final word on how Beyonce landed like a meteorite on the dinosaurs last winter with their 27-page report titled, fittingly, “Beyonce.” The study — which will be taught in Elberse’s course “Strategic Marketing in Creative Industries” in early October — takes a bird’s-eye look at the music industry’s current standing and Beyonce’s early career, before moving on to the juiciest bits: Beyonce’s founding of her own company (Parkwood Entertainment, operated as a joint venture with Rob Stringer’s Columbia Records), her role at the company (CEO, lighthouse) and the planning of her opus.

For the report, Elberse and Smith interviewed key employees at Parkwood and Columbia, as well as those at Apple and Facebook directly involved in the release of Beyonce. Here are some of the most fascinating details:

How Beyonce Holds a Meeting
“[Beyonce] doesn’t often sit in her office,” Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, Parkwood’s general manager, told the pair. “She usually walks from one office to the other, speaking with the staff. She’ll come to my office and talk to me, or she will sit in the back and give notes on projects we are working on… She has got a really good sense of the business side, but she doesn’t like to live there always. We often laugh about how an hour into a business meeting she will get up and will start walking around. I can see it then — that I’ve lost her, and that I have satiated the amount of business that she wants to discuss that day. I’ll usually say something like ‘Let’s stop. You are going to say “Yes,” but you are not listening to me anymore.’ She knows herself, will laugh, and say ‘You are absolutely right, I am done.’ Because at the end of the day she is an artist, and her passion for art drives her.”
On the depths of Parkwood’s involvement with Beyonce’s career? Well… they even made commercials other people were paying for. “[Parkwood develops] most of the content that we put on our website, and we produce all the content for our brand partners — we produced webisodes and even a Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi, with whom we had a partnership,” said Jim Sabey, Parkwood’s head of worldwide marketing.

A Peek Inside Beyonce’s Hamptons Summer Rental
Most delicious of all, though, are the details Elberse and Smith unearthed about the process of creating Beyonce. They peek inside the Hamptons house she rented in the summer of 2012 to serve as production headquarters for the record, drawing in collaborators like Sia, Hit-Boy and The-Dream. Said Callahan-Longo: “We rented a house for a month. Everyone would have dinner together every night and break off into different rooms and work on music. She had five or six rooms going, each set up as a studio, and would go from room to room and say things like ‘I think that song needs that person’s input.’ Normally you would not see songs have two or more producers, but it was really collaborative.”

Beyonce wouldn’t be completed enough to consider a release strategy for a year, until the August following that Hamptons summer camp. Plans had to wait until the record’s chief executive had performed the halftime show of Super Bowl XLVII and undertaken a world tour.

Keeping the Beyonce Album Secret
Paramount was avoiding leaks: this project lived, or died, with the big reveal. Parkwood and Columbia reps took a meeting Apple’s Cupertino campus, after which it was agreed that Apple would receive the full Beyonce package to prepare it for the surprise release, which would see the iTunes Store landing page dominated by Queen Bey. “A worldwide launch like this, with music and video content, is something that only iTunes can do,” said iTunes vp of content Robert Kondrk.

Then on to another tech giant: Facebook. The team took a meeting with the Facebook team dedicated to liaising with high-profile concerns (athletes, musicians, actors, etc.) in order to determine what the company could offer them for the big reveal. “Facebook and Instagram are built for this kind of scale,” Facebook’s Charles Porch said. Added Callahan-Longo: “The biggest social-media platform will make sure every music fan will know about the album.” The Facebook collaboration also resulted in Beyonce’s team being one of the first to use the social network’s brand-new-at-the-time “AutoPlay” feature for videos.

Prepping for the Big Reveal
As well, they planned a 72-hour turnaround for the album’s physical release, production of which wouldn’t begin until the album had been unveiled online. “Once the album is out, the plan is to quickly print a black cover with ‘Beyonce’ in pink font which we can just slip over the package,” Jim Sabey said.

Once the release framework was in place, all that was left was to finish the album — work which continued through October, 2013 — and its inextricable video companions. All 17 videos were produced in a 12-week period in the fall, the final wrapping in mid-November, a few short weeks before the album’s release, which scuppered the album’s originally intended release date of Nov. 18. So Friday, Dec. 13 it would be.

“Why not let a 16-year-old fan in Bulgaria have the same capability to judge as someone who runs the biggest radio station in the world,” Rob Stringer rhetorically pondered to Elberse and Smith. “Beyonce has built that audience. And I can imagine the normal release process gets a bit monotonous for someone like her.”

“Normally albums come out on that day, so they can be tracked by Billboard for a full week,” Stringer recalled to Elberse and Smith, ”but then the boss asked ‘Why does the record need to come out on a Tuesday? We’re not putting it in stores, so do we care?’” Retailers did — Target refused to carry the record due to Apple’s exclusive, as did Amazon. (It was also pirated nearly a quarter-million times during its first week.)

As the midnight release loomed, Parkwood employees waited in their war room, refreshing the iTunes Store continuously and biting their nails. Beyonce was in St. Louis that night, and by the time the record had been introduced to the world at large, she was on her way to a show in Chicago. On to the next.

BitTorrent talks Thom Yorke: ‘Major labels have given up on selling music’

September 29, 2014

Stuart Dredge theguardian.com 09/26/14

BitTorrent’s Matt Mason: ‘Thom and Nigel took the time to understand who we were’ Thom Yorke: He ‘took the time to understand who we were’, said BitTorrent chief content officer Matt Mason Photograph: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Thom Yorke is no stranger to making waves in the digital music world, from the pay-what-you-like release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows in 2007, to his fierce criticism of Spotify in 2013, and now the release of his new solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes through a partnership with BitTorrent.

Matt Mason is the chief content officer at BitTorrent, and the driving force behind the company’s “Bundles” initiative, which gets musicians, filmmakers, authors and other creators to release their work packaged up as torrent files, with fans unlocking the full contents usually by entering their email address.

Kaskade, DJ Shadow, Moby, De La Soul, Pixies and Public Enemy are among the artists who have tried it, but Yorke is the first to use a new “pay-gate” feature. Instead of exchanging an email address for his album, fans pay $6 (£3.68). Mason talked to The Guardian about how the partnership came about.

“We started talking to Thom and Nigel [Godrich - Yorke’s collaborator and producer] about a year ago. I met Nigel on Christmas Eve just gone in London. We didn’t think they were doing anything: they’d just had a year off,” said Mason.

“We met up and talked about BitTorrent: where the internet should be going for artists, where they saw the opportunities and problems today, and one of those conversations got onto the idea of pay-gates in BitTorrent bundles. And Thom wanted to be the first.”

Mason says that he can’t think of a better musician to work with, given Yorke’s history with In Rainbows – a giveaway he says artists have struggled to repeat at a similar scale, at least until U2’s recent iTunes giveway (more on that later).

“This is now what we hope is the world’s first direct-to-fan publishing system that truly has a global audience,” he said, referring to the 170m active users of BitTorrent’s file-sharing software. “It’s the size of Spotify, Hulu and Netflix combined and doubled.”

Initially, Yorke and Godrich thought they had enough new material for a new EP, but when Mason met their managers Brian Message and Chris Hufford at the SXSW conference in March, they sprang a surprise: there’d be a full album

“This album was born out of these conversations we had on how the internet should work for artists: the vision we both share, which is that at present we don’t have a sustainable business model for artists on the internet,” said Mason.

“Major labels have really given up on selling music, it seems. Pushing Spotify to an IPO is what most of the senior executives at the major labels are concerned with, which might be something to do with the fact that they own a piece of Spotify, and will participate in that IPO. But it doesn’t bear any relation to an artist trying to make a living from their work on the internet.”

BitTorrent may be associated – especially by many people in the music industry – with online piracy, through the numerous filesharing services that use the company’s technology. But right now, the company is defining itself in opposition to Spotify and other streaming music services. An intriguing development.

“We’re not interested in streaming for the sake of lining the pockets of a few people at major labels. We’re interested in helping artists make money from their work in the long term. We’re designed to be used by artists without a label, or for labels to use with their entire catalogues,” said Mason.

“We’re a technology company, we’re really good at moving files. We’re not so great at being a label, a film studio or a book publisher. So we’re trying to make something that works for individuals, labels and aggregate publishers. I’m not trying to bash the people at the labels, but it does seem like the senior executives at the majors have said ‘we give up, let’s just make some money on the Spotify IPO, then go home and let the next generation sort it out.”

Since Yorke’s album was unleashed earlier today, I’ve seen two key criticisms voiced in my Twitter feed from people within the music industry. The first is why didn’t Yorke and Godrich work with another service – Bandcamp is the one mentioned most often – which can help them in their aim of “bypassing the self elected gate-keepers”?

“We love Bandcamp. If you want the main difference between us, it’s that we have over 170m users we can put bundles in front of. Over 40m people who use BitTorrent every day will see this. It’s a massive, massive user base,” said Mason.

The second criticism, which has been voiced regularly ever since BitTorrent started work on its bundles initiative, is that when a famous artist releases one, they’re teaching their fans to pirate music, because getting a bundle involves downloading BitTorrent’s software client.

Mason gives the question short shrift. “Should we blame Apple for selling you a laptop? Why not attack the guy who invented streaming or HTTP? People misunderstand BitTorrent and think it’s something just for piracy,” he said.

“If you look at BitTorrent, the stuff you’ll be offered in BitTorrent and uTorrent, our clients… If you’re just using our websites and products, there’s literally no way to get any illegal material. That’s not what they’re designed for.

“They point you to – aggressively I might add – licensed, legal pieces of content. We’ve got over 2m licensed pieces of legal content – music, films, photography, books – in the BitTorrent system. And pay-gates is about helping publishers put more stuff on BitTorrent legally.”

Inevitably, Yorke’s new album is already available on other torrent services as regular MP3 files, without a pay-gate in sight. Mason brought this up before I could, pointing out that the legitimate bundle “has a much larger swarm than any of the illegal versions – that’s huge for the industry”.

But about U2. The band opted to strike a deal with Apple to distribute their new album to every iTunes user, including – via the automatic downloads feature that a number of iOS users have turned on – pushing it to their iPhones and iPads.

Could or should they have talked to BitTorrent? By this point in the interview, Mason is on something of a roll.

“It’s interesting, the whole U2 thing. I’m an iPhone user, and I’m so pissed off that thing’s on my phone. I haven’t had time to delete it yet, but Apple’s removal website is probably the best thing that a technology company released in terms of a music product this year,” he said. “It’s been a pretty miserable time for innovation.”

He continued: “If that’s our best thinking – get the biggest band in the world to push something onto phones that everyone hates… The U2 thing is a way to encourage piracy more than anything we’re doing. Pissing off half a billion people is a really bad idea,” he continued.

“I don’t understand why you’d do that, if you don’t care about the result and the effect it has on other bands and musicians. With Thom and Nigel, every step of the way they kept asking ‘is this feature you’re putting up for us something everybody can use?’ They held our feet to the flames in building a better product for everyone.”

At the time of writing, Yorke’s BitTorrent bundle has been downloaded just over 54,000 times, according to the figure shown on its widget that can be embedded on websites. Over the coming days and weeks, as it’s downloaded and shared on, that will likely climb – Moby’s BitTorrent bundle was downloaded 8.9m times in 2013, as a comparison.

Mason said BitTorrent is already planning its next partnerships with artists. “There’s a group of people in the music industry really thinking about the collective future of the business, and how we can all work together,” he said.

“It shouldn’t be about ‘how can I make the most money right now?’ and screw the fans. That’s what I didn’t like about the U2 thing: it felt like that, which isn’t productive. Thom and Nigel took the time to understand who we were, and once they did, they made sure we worked our arses off to build a brilliant product.”


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