The Surprisingly Savvy Weird Al Internet Machine

July 21, 2014

Actually, really, truly, the music parody master’s wild success can teach us something about media in 2014.
Robinson Meyer 7/19/14

Think of legacy media brands (as you probably often do) and some seemingly stodgy names come to mind. Newsweek. The Chicago Tribune. CBS News.

These companies and products have largely lost the Internet wars, at least so far. Their audiences have aged, and they have failed to change their product or their ways of distributing it. Revenue and prestige have both sagged. Others brands, meanwhile—like The New York Times or NPR—are still struggling, but they seem to have fared better.

To this litany of old media institutions, let me add a somewhat unorthodox one: Weird Al Yankovic.

Oh yes. And while he may not seem a regular Cronkite, Al’s old-school media credentials are legit. He came up on syndicated FM radio. His first targets were Michael Jackson and Madonna, icons of 20th-century recording artistry. And, most importantly, he’s been in the game for a long time: Thirteen-year-olds who giggled at “Eat It,” from his second album, are now 43.

So as we try to make sense of Mandatory Fun, Al’s fourteenth studio album—and as we round into the fourth decade of his career—it’s becoming clear that his old-school/new-school media business playbook is a little genius. In many corners of the English-language Internet, this week has been Al-saturated, his new music videos and songs unavoidable. How does he do it? Where will it lead? And will this be his media strategy forever?

Like Leno’s couch, some stops have become obligatory on the Internet publicity tour. The Reddit Ask Me Anything is chief among these: A big deal back in 2011, each celebrity appearance demanded a little kerfuffle of aggregational blog posts. Now, it’s de rigeur. (Perhaps President Obama’s 2012 visit was the AMA’s apotheosis.)

So Weird Al’s AMA this week was actually his second. (His first happened more than a year ago, after the release of his children’s book.) It was, as he titled it, an AMAA—ask me anything, again. When a fan inquired during this AMAA if anything had changed over his nearly three-decade career, Al replied:

The mechanics are pretty much the same, and in fact, because I’ve been doing it for so long I like to think that I’ve gotten better at it. The synapses in my brain are hard-wired that way now. The challenge for me is in finding new ways to be funny (i.e. not repeating myself too much), as well as finding ways to differentiate myself from the millions of other people now doing parody videos on YouTube.

Elsewhere in the interview, he admits that he wanted to write a Star Trek: The Next Generation-themed spoof of the hit from Disney’s Frozen: “Let It Go” becoming “Make It So.” But then he “checked online, and of course, somebody had done that already.”

The phenomenon Weird Al describes here is actually well described by a genre of scholarly literature—by business scholarship, of all things. It’s disruptive innovation, the buzzword so buzzwordy that the New Yorker devoted a thinkpiece to it (in print!). Disruptive innovation describes what happens when new products create a new market for that type of product, which winds up challenging the existing one.

When he talks about his business being threatened by YouTube parody video-makers, he’s talking about the fact that the public’s yen for parodies is being met by amateurs. Earlier this week, a young woman turned an infamous recording of a Comcast customer service call into a belty ballad. Between the release of that recording and its conversion into digital video fodder, fewer than 24 hours had elapsed.

This is an extreme case, but it would be staggering to ask Weird Al—who has a brand to worry about—to turn around a parody in under 24 hours. How is he even going to book a recording studio in that amount of time? Dude can’t compete.

But first, it makes sense to step back to an earlier episode in Al’s career, a story both darker and rosier which transpired three years ago. April 2011. Lady Gaga’s glittery poptimism ruled everything from award show climaxes to the tinny speakers of grimy convenience stores. Her second studio album was about to arrive, and its eponymous track—and number-one single—was “Born This Way,” a synthpop paean to the racially and sexually oppressed.
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Touring in Australia, Al was inspired. With some metric manipulation, he realized, “Born This Way” could become “Perform This Way,” and the song could be rewritten to parody Gaga’s outlandish glam. It was a fun idea: an anthemic statement about Gaga’s genre of anthemic statements. Weird Al had an album coming out in a few months, though, and he had to write the parody fast. So (at least according to an account he gave to The New York Times), on the same night the thought occurred to him, he wrote the parody’s lyrics.

Weird Al did something else, too, that he always does when writing a new parody. That is, his people got in touch with Gaga’s people. He wanted the new lyrics to have her blessing. While fair use permits Al to create and release any spoof—parodies are expressly protected in U.S. law—he’s always sought an artist’s permission first.

Gaga’s people said they needed to hear the song. Al thought this sounded strange—it was their song!—but he rushed through a recording. He recorded it. He sent it to them.

They said no.

Gaga said no.

Or, at least, that’s what Al was told. He uploaded “Perform This Way” to YouTube with a sad, somewhat confused explanation. He wanted to release the song on his upcoming album, he said, but without Gaga’s blessing he wouldn’t.

But what YouTube wrought! As print and online outlets alike rushed to cover the parody, Gaga’s people announced they were in the wrong. Her manager had declined the parodist without ever running “Perform This Way”’s existence by Gaga herself. She more than approved the song, she loved it. “Perform This Way” could appear on the album Alpocalype, released that June.

Pop was saved.

Looking back, the parable seems the epitome of 2011-ness. There’s Gaga, there’s buzz about a song posted to YouTube!, there’s a flurry of articles in the wake of both. (Some things, I suppose, have yet to change.)

There’s something redeeming about the whole episode, too. Web technology permits what wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. YouTube let Weird Al announce and distribute “Perform This Way” for free, delivering it to middle-schoolers and Gaga herself alike. Weird Al relied on YouTube, placed himself in the role of the lone amateur, and brought about a better mass-cultural outcome. Produced pop goes online, professional borrows the tool of amateur, and everyone seems to win.

But perhaps the best evidence of Al’s membership in entertainment’s ancien regime is this: Just as it feels a little odd to academically, familial-ly, call Elvis “Presley”—he’s Elvis, like Ringo’s Ringo—we’re on a first-name, broadcast-intimate basis with Al. It feels disrespectful to call him “Yankovic,” like we don’t get the joke somehow. The Economist can call him Yankovic. To us, he’s Al—like Beyoncé’s properly Beyoncé.

No wonder, then, that this week Al has mimicked the tactics of the preeminent Knowles. From last Monday to this upcoming one, he released a new music video every day, eight videos in total. There are few songs on his new album that will lack a video, meaning that, in medium and marketing, he’s pulling a sort of time-extended Yoncé.

But not all eight videos are going straight to YouTube. Weird Al is spreading that goodness around.

His parody of Pharrell’s “Happy” is hosted by Nerdist, a sprawling online entertainment empire that achieved fame through its eponymous podcast but which now encompasses a news website, a network of audio and video shows, and a television program on BBC America. Al’s Lorde spoof, meanwhile, went to competing digital content factory, CollegeHumor. It did go to YouTube, but is marked “Exclusive” and a “CollegeHumor ORIGINAL.” A “Blurred Lines” send-up sits on Yancovic’s Vevo page.

Yahoo—trying to transform itself into a content company—produced and hosts “Handy,” his Iggy Azalea parody. It’s marked a Yahoo! Original. And comedy house FunnyOrDie hosts (and holds a similar exclusive) on Friday’s release, “Sports Song.”

Now, perhaps these are the only distributors Al could find for his videos. I doubt it, though. From outside, this seems a web-enabled precision video delivery operation, and evidence of some serious digital distributional forethought.

Al’s new videos aren’t being released willy-nilly: They’re going one-at-a-time to massive online video entertainment networks. CollegeHumor, FunnyOrDie, Nerdist, and Yahoo—especially Yahoo—each have their own audiences, and Al can capture the largest one possible by stringing them together. And that’s just what’s happening, in selectively activating these distro-tainment networks: Nerdist reaches an avowedly geeky if upmarket set, College Humor’s long-running fratty aesthetic captures more bros, Vevo has long-running deals with YouTube, and Yahoo is just stupid-big.

Working through networks that others have built, he can funnel content to the teenagers who help grow his audience and to the former teens who supplant it. He didn’t build these networks. One of the perks of old-media celebrity is that you just have to arrive at the party and people will fawn over you.

And that’s changed since 2011. Instead of relying on a sole YouTube video upload and the force of buzz (“Hey! Look what Weird Al did!”), the superstructure of web video has been developed. If you’re a big-enough name, you can rely on these honed networks to fire your image across the Internet, alighting on Facebook pages and tallying page views. As content companies have gotten more adept at turning the levers of the web, and as Google and Facebook have improved their relations with those content giants, the Internet has become just one more distribution network.

Which is more important than mere business prognostication would indicate. Check the medium of what Al’s doing: Eight videos in eight days. Eight music videos. Many of these, like the “Blurred Lines” and “Happy” spoofs, mirror the cinematography or conceit of their respective originals. This isn’t new for Al—an early Michael Jackson parody of his was shot on the same set as the original MJ video, and mimicked it shot for shot. But in the span of his career, popular awareness of music videos waxed and waned and waxed again. Al’s 2003 album, “Poodle Hat,” didn’t even have an accompanying music video. This one, released at the high age of web video, has eight.

And it’s not quite as easy as I’m making it sound, of course. It’s still novel to release all your content at once, to wrest social media dominance through the Yoncé Maneuver. It won’t be in the future: Old media might be figuring out in fits and starts how best to distribute itself, but the Internet’s ability to atomize is not to be underestimated.

Asked during his AMAA what life held for him after the current tour, Al hinted that all the attention and press paid to Mandatory Fun might belie its importance. Mandatory Fun, he implied, might be the ultimate Weird Al-bum—not only the form’s apogee, but also its final installment.

“I haven’t made any real plans beyond the release of my current album, but since everybody’s asking,” he wrote:

I’ll probably just be releasing singles (possibly EPs) going forward – I really don’t think the album format is the most efficient or intelligent way for me to distribute my music anymore. I highly doubt that I would sign with another label. I guess I might be open to a distribution deal, but… we’ll see.

Sony Threatens to Bypass Licensers in Royalties Battle

July 13, 2014

BEN SISARIO 07/10/14

A month after the Justice Department said it would review the decades-old regulatory agreements governing the music licensing agencies Ascap and BMI, the world’s biggest song publisher has threatened to end its relationship with those groups if the changes it wants are not made.

The announcement, made by Sony/ATV Music Publishing — whose catalog of more than two million songs includes Beatles classics as well as current hits by Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga — comes as the music publishing world ponders major structural changes, in response to the rise of online streaming services like Pandora, Spotify and YouTube, which critics say pay too little in royalties.

In a letter to tens of thousands of Sony/ATV songwriters, Martin N. Bandier, the company’s chairman, addressed some of the issues facing the world of music publishing, including the Justice Department review and Ascap and BMI’s legal battles with Pandora over licensing.

If those matters turn out badly for the publishing world, then Sony/ATV would consider “the potential complete withdrawal of all rights from Ascap and BMI,” Mr. Bandier wrote in the letter, sent Wednesday.

Executives at major publishers like Sony/ATV and Universal Music Group have, in the past, discussed leaving Ascap and BMI, which handle the licensing of performing rights to outlets like radio, television and online services.

But Mr. Bandier’s letter highlighted the speed with which big publishers are preparing for a possible future without the two agencies. Two weeks ago, Universal announced a plan to make all of its song catalog data available online, a move that could allow it to bypass the licensing agencies. Sony/ATV is said to be working on a similar effort.

A publisher exodus would severely diminish Ascap and BMI, which together process almost $2 billion in royalties each year.

Musicians of all kinds have long complained about minuscule earnings from streaming services, which usually pay fractions of a cent each time a song is played. But songwriters say that outdated licensing rules — and the decline of separate royalties from CD and download sales — have made their losses particularly acute.

“It’s almost like their 401(k)’s have been wiped out in a heartbeat,” Mr. Bandier said in an interview on Thursday.

Despite the small sums that musicians sometimes report, streaming music has proved the music business’s only growth area. For the first half of 2014, 70.3 billion songs were streamed through on-demand services like Spotify and YouTube.

Pandora’s litigation with Ascap and BMI was prompted by the publishers’ attempts to change their relationship with the licensing agencies by making “partial withdrawals” of their rights. Under this plan, Pandora would be forced to negotiate directly with publishers — and thus pay higher licensing fees — while Ascap and BMI would continue to represent the same songs for other kinds of outlets, like radio and TV.

That effort was rejected by judges, but publishers — as well as Ascap and BMI themselves — have asked the Justice Department to amend their regulatory agreements to allow them.

Stuart Rosen, BMI’s general counsel, said in response to Sony/ATV’s letter that the Justice Department should give publishers flexibility in how they use the rights agencies to license their music. “An all-or-nothing choice is not in the best interest of songwriters, composers and publishers,” Mr. Rosen said.

Jesse Harris, a Sony/ATV songwriter best known for writing some of Norah Jones’s biggest hits, pointed out that songwriters often relie on royalties more heavily than performing artists.

“These royalties are important to us,” Mr. Harris said


July 9, 2014

Nielsen Music 2014 Mid-Year US Release – FINAL

For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story

July 9, 2014

The Singer-Songwriter Says Artists and Fans Will Still Form Deep Bonds, but They Will Do It in New Ways
Taylor Swift 07/07/14


Where will the music industry be in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years?
Before I tell you my thoughts on the matter, you should know that you’re reading the opinion of an enthusiastic optimist: one of the few living souls in the music industry who still believes that the music industry is not dying…it’s just coming alive.

There are many (many) people who predict the downfall of music sales and the irrelevancy of the album as an economic entity. I am not one of them. In my opinion, the value of an album is, and will continue to be, based on the amount of heart and soul an artist has bled into a body of work, and the financial value that artists (and their labels) place on their music when it goes out into the marketplace. Piracy, file sharing and streaming have shrunk the numbers of paid album sales drastically, and every artist has handled this blow differently.

Ms. Swift is a singer and songwriter, and the winner of seven Grammy Awards.
The Future of Everything

The Wall Street Journal published its first edition on July 8, 1889. Explore the history of the past 125 years through the Journal’s headlines, see an interactive version of the first front page, and track the companies that have been in and out of the Dow.

In recent years, you’ve probably read the articles about major recording artists who have decided to practically give their music away, for this promotion or that exclusive deal. My hope for the future, not just in the music industry, but in every young girl I meet…is that they all realize their worth and ask for it.

Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.
Arrows Through the Heart

In mentioning album sales, I’d like to point out that people are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone. It isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multiplatinum-selling album, and as artists, that should challenge and motivate us.

There are always going to be those artists who break through on an emotional level and end up in people’s lives forever. The way I see it, fans view music the way they view their relationships. Some music is just for fun, a passing fling (the ones they dance to at clubs and parties for a month while the song is a huge radio hit, that they will soon forget they ever danced to). Some songs and albums represent seasons of our lives, like relationships that we hold dear in our memories but had their time and place in the past.

However, some artists will be like finding “the one.” We will cherish every album they put out until they retire and we will play their music for our children and grandchildren. As an artist, this is the dream bond we hope to establish with our fans. I think the future still holds the possibility for this kind of bond, the one my father has with the Beach Boys and the one my mother has with Carly Simon.

I think forming a bond with fans in the future will come in the form of constantly providing them with the element of surprise. No, I did not say “shock”; I said “surprise.” I believe couples can stay in love for decades if they just continue to surprise each other, so why can’t this love affair exist between an artist and their fans?

In the YouTube generation we live in, I walked out onstage every night of my stadium tour last year knowing almost every fan had already seen the show online. To continue to show them something they had never seen before, I brought out dozens of special guest performers to sing their hits with me. My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored, and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient. We want to be caught off guard, delighted, left in awe. I hope the next generation’s artists will continue to think of inventive ways of keeping their audiences on their toes, as challenging as that might be.

There are a few things I have witnessed becoming obsolete in the past few years, the first being autographs. I haven’t been asked for an autograph since the invention of the iPhone with a front-facing camera. The only memento “kids these days” want is a selfie. It’s part of the new currency, which seems to be “how many followers you have on Instagram.”
Fan Power

A friend of mine, who is an actress, told me that when the casting for her recent movie came down to two actresses, the casting director chose the actress with more Twitter followers. I see this becoming a trend in the music industry. For me, this dates back to 2005 when I walked into my first record-label meetings, explaining to them that I had been communicating directly with my fans on this new site called Myspace. In the future, artists will get record deals because they have fans—not the other way around.

Another theme I see fading into the gray is genre distinction. These days, nothing great you hear on the radio seems to come from just one musical influence. The wild, unpredictable fun in making music today is that anything goes. Pop sounds like hip hop; country sounds like rock; rock sounds like soul; and folk sounds like country—and to me, that’s incredible progress. I want to make music that reflects all of my influences, and I think that in the coming decades the idea of genres will become less of a career-defining path and more of an organizational tool.

This moment in music is so exciting because the creative avenues an artist can explore are limitless. In this moment in music, stepping out of your comfort zone is rewarded, and sonic evolution is not only accepted…it is celebrated. The only real risk is being too afraid to take a risk at all.


I predict that some things will never change. There will always be an increasing fixation on the private lives of musicians, especially the younger ones. Artists who were at their commercial peak in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s tell me, “It was never this crazy for us back then!” And I suspect I’ll be saying that same thing to younger artists someday (God help them). There continues to be a bad girl vs. good girl/clean-cut vs. sexy debate, and for as long as those labels exist, I just hope there will be contenders on both sides. Everyone needs someone to relate to.

And as for me? I’ll just be sitting back and growing old, watching all of this happen or not happen, all the while trying to maintain a life rooted in this same optimism.

And I’d also like a nice garden.

Independent Music Labels and Young Artists Offer Streaming, on Their Terms

July 7, 2014


The rise of streaming music services like Pandora, Spotify and Beats Music has been a boon for listeners, serving up songs for a modest monthly fee or, with ads, free. But their effect on artists, especially those with smaller audiences, has been less positive.

But rather than fight what looks like an inexorable shift in how consumers listen to music, some independent record labels and their artists are embracing the streaming revolution — but on their own terms.

Last month, Sub Pop Records, an independent label that introduced artists including Nirvana and the Shins, announced a partnership with, a subscription streaming and download service. Fans who sign up for the Sub Pop feed on will pay $10 a month in exchange for albums, singles and special exclusives from the l

Sub Pop is among the most prominent indie labels experimenting with subscription models that connect them directly to their fans. Labels like Fool’s Gold, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian have signed on with the two-year-old in an effort to attract fans with exclusive music, a sense of community and an intimate connection with bands and artists. Other younger, digitally savvy musicians are starting their own services to appeal directly to their fans, like Nicolas Jaar’s Other People and Ryan Hemsworth’s Secret Songs.

Richard Laing, Sub Pop’s director of sales, sees the partnership with as a way to capture some of the same intense brand loyalty the label engendered in the CD-and-cassette era of the early 1990s.

“Instead of people seeking out recommendations from any kind of algorithm, they’re seeking that out from our label and what we’re looking to put out,” he said.

With their limited musical offerings, and its ilk are niche products unlikely to appeal to a wide audience. But they are giving indie labels a chance to cultivate and monetize their most loyal fans amid the growing number of streaming services. And the ability to sell their music has become an increasing challenge. Digital downloads declined nearly 12 percent in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2013.

“That’s what labels like ours were built on,” Mr. Laing said. “People bought Sub Pop records and hopefully still do based on seeing the label. So hopefully this is a digital equivalent of that.”

Streaming services make sense for mainstream artists like Rihanna and Katy Perry, who are popular enough to generate substantial revenue from the royalties they make from streaming (usually a fraction of a cent every time a song is played).

But for independent artists, the economics of streaming is a tougher proposition. Consider Mr. Jaar, who has developed a small yet loyal following since the release of his 2011 debut album, “Space Is Only Noise.” As an electronic artist who experiments with what could roughly be called “psychedelic future jazz,” he lacks mainstream appeal and cannot rely on the masses to stream his music over and over again.

“No musician I know is making their living from selling their music,” Mr. Jaar said. “Everyone’s making their living from touring and playing shows.”

Last August, Mr. Jaar started Other People, a subscription service that distributes his music and that of friends and collaborators. Subscribers pay $5 a month or $50 a year for a weekly offering of songs, all of which can be downloaded through the service’s website. The venture started paying for itself within six months, Mr. Jaar said.

“The truth is that touring can be really bad for making music, bad for the creative process,” he said. “When I started Other People, I was really trying to find a way to have a self-sustainable label so I don’t have to be touring all the time.”

Even as it does little for their earnings, indie labels see some benefits from the large streaming services, as they solve the distribution and audience access problems that have historically hindered them. But ultimately, Spotify and the other platforms that make virtually all the music in the world available don’t foster the obsessive music fan culture that nurtures indie labels.

“Spotify, the YouTube service, the Beats service, that’s like going to a big grocery store, and you can find any kind of food you like,” Mr. Jaar said. “But for me personally, I prefer inviting someone over to my house and cooking for them.”

Advice From Ian Anderson

July 3, 2014 6/30/14
We don’t usually ask for “call backs” for interviews but we did just that for Ian Anderson. A few years ago the Jethro Tull frontman talked to Pollstar about how he’s figured out how to have profitable tours, while some artists can’t seem to make money on the road.
We mentioned that we’d love to hear more about that someday and he was kind enough to chat with us again, this time while touring Homo Erraticus – which, just like 1972’s Thick As A Brick and its 2012 sequel – is penned by the fictional lyricist Gerald Bostock. The 2014 LP is an impressive piece of music with intimidating lyrics (“I came to woo you at behest of Uncle Leo, did my best to charm and flatter, sooth, lay thoughts of scheming Saxon Prince to rest,” etc.)
Although we talked about the album, Anderson definitely had a lot to say about tour management and he’s really passionate about paying taxes.

Listening to the new album, it’s rather Joycian and quite daunting. What’s the feedback been like?
If you’re going to do stuff that is sometimes quite heavy and has serious imagery attached to it and conceptually is a bit out of the comfort zone for a lot of people, whether it’s in Latin or in English … you have to make it entertaining. You’ve got to draw people to it. …
If you’re going to go see a new movie, it’s got to be entertaining. People rarely go to see a movie they’ve seen before. They’ll possibly watch it if it happens to be on television … but generally speaking you don’t get out your house, drive your car, park it and pay the money to see something you’ve seen before.
But in rock music, that rule doesn’t seem to apply. If the Rolling Stones came out with a new album and played it in its entirety on stage, it would be a very prolonged pee break for most of the audience. People don’t want a new album from the Rolling Stones; they want a new old album. They want a clone of Exile On Main Street or something. Frankly, you can’t do that. It’s 30 years too late.
So you’ve got to make it seem like it’s a new movie. That’s what my job is. By making it entertaining theatrically and visually, hopefully I can keep people’s attention for an hour then, after a 20 minute break, play an hour and 15 minutes of the best of Jethro Tull. It may seem like an award for their patience but, in its own right, it’s a lot of fun for me to do. I enjoy the second half of the show just as much as the first. In fact I might enjoy the second half more because it’s easier to play (laughs). There’s much less concentration. There’s not as many lyrics to remember, and the flute playing is easier. I can relax a bit more knowing that in an hour and 20 minutes I’ll be back in my dressing room and … enjoying an ice-cold beer.
There are a lot of lyrics in Homo Erraticus. I would assume that even though you’re familiar with them, it would be difficult for you to keep them all straight!
It’s easy to get tongue-tied. There are a lot of words and syllables and pronunciations. And diction is important. I think it’s true that I will stumble over something every night. Hopefully, the audience won’t know. It’s not so much forgetting a line of lyrics. It’s more stumbling over words because they are fast and furious in places, and you’ve got to make them short and sharp. And you’ve got to enunciate them clearly [so] they can be actually be understood, if the acoustics of the venue permit. It’s quite a challenge to do, but that’s what life is about for me. It’s certainly, at this stage of the game, more important for me to rise to the challenge than settle into the comfort zone and wrap everybody into my cozy, blue comfort blanket that might serve the purpose but wouldn’t achieve anything hugely rewarding for me.
I need the challenge. Whether I rise to it or not has to be the judgment of others, but I’m certainly having fun doing my best.

Since the last time we talked, are you still managing your own tours?
I don’t have a tour manager because I don’t want to have another guy who will spend my money and do things differently to me. I know exactly where I want to stay. I know exactly which airline and what time I’m going to fly, and what aircraft I’m not prepared to fly and, in a few cases, which airline I’m not supposed to get into for fear of dying.
There comes a point where you really don’t want to let somebody else mess things up when they’re going perfectly fine the way they are. Happily, let’s say in the last 15 years, the Internet has provided me with the opportunity to do the research of a tour, anywhere in the world. I can find how I’m going to get there, where I’m going to stay, what I’m going to do – every aspect of the whole thing can be ascertained by internet access. And while you’re there, you might as well press the button that says “buy flight” or “pay for hotel now.” There’s little point in doing all of this if you then give it to somebody else. It will take you twice the time and cost you a whole lot of money. And there’s always a chance that somebody screws it up. I’m perfectly happy being a Sunday afternoon travel agent.
That’s one of my hobbies. On Sunday afternoons, if I’m not on the road, I sit and book flights and hotels and travel arrangements, and do tour itineraries. I find it a lot of fun. It’s a hobby.
You mentioned in our last interview that you were giving Mike Rutherford advice about making touring profitable. Can you elaborate some more as to how you know touring strategies rather than a tour manager – allegedly the person who knows all this good stuff?
Well, a tour manager isn’t going to do tour budgets and have the experience or the ability to deal with all the aspects of withholding tax and issues that are perhaps way beyond his remit. A tour manager is essentially a shepherd with an unruly flock. A tour manager is a guy who probably has some experience of travel more than anything else, but his role is fundamentally to be traveling with the band and escorting them through airports and train stations and on and off buses.
But I don’t work with sheep. I work with musicians. My experience has always been that if you give people the responsibility of behaving like professional musicians, they will rise to the occasion. If you treat them like sheep, they very quickly become sheep. Having a shepherd is not an ingredient that is part of my way of doing things. …
You have to imagine the majority of people in rock bands probably do sit down once in a while and say, “I’m going to take my family to, oh, the Carribbean,” and they’ve got to go online and check out some hotels, flight options, whatever, or maybe they’re so incredibly inept and boring that they call their travel agent and say, “I want to go somewhere nice! Send me some tickets!” I’m guessing but I think most people are capable of booking their own holiday for themselves and their family.
And that’s the way I look at it when I’m booking tours. It’s me. It’s my friends and family. It’s my musical family and I’m looking out for them, making sure they get safely from A to B, that they all have access to their flight booking reference numbers, and they can check in online, choose their seats and so on, all of which they’re very capable of doing. And I see them on the plane! I don’t have to escort them through an airport. They’re grown up lads; they know what to do.
That’s interesting considering the number of tour managers out there – even artists that visit our office, in a van, will have a tour manager.
I can think of one young lady who’s extremely famous and successful, and she just turns up on her own at a radio station, sits down with a guitar and plays and sings, and does an interview. She doesn’t go with a minder. She can remember what it’s like when she did have to travel alone and get on a bus or train and, like me, she likes that independence. She doesn’t want to be chaperoned everywhere she goes. … If she can do it, I’m sure I can.
So there are people like me who just get on with it and don’t like the fuss and bother of being treated like someone special. I use public transport wherever possible [rather than] traveling alone in a motor vehicle to having a private jet or something absurd. It is a very costly way of traveling [as far as the] environmental impact. It’s a really selfish thing to do.
Public transport unfortunately doesn’t apply in America except on flights [because] you really don’t have the world’s best train network (laughs).

So what can other tours do to help their budgets?
The economy of scale is everything. If you end up with four guys in the band and 20 crew, you’re probably doing something wrong. I mean, there may be an artistic reason for doing that but it’s most likely that you’re way, way overemploying people. And, of course, people will make themselves indispensable … and therefore make [musicians] dependent on them. That’s what I mean when I say if you treat musicians like sheep they become sheep.
So yeah, I think you’re probably talking about a ratio of 1-to-1 depending on a few variables. But if you’re planning on a lot of production then you’ve probably got twice as many crew because you have lighting guys and sound guys and drivers and buses and trucks. But for an average rock band, think in terms of one truck and one bus. That’s probably all you really need, unless you’re Madonna or Lady Gaga.
So you’ll find a bus is the most economic thing in the USA. It’s for sure the best way to do it as long as you don’t give everybody the luxury of hotels as well, except on days off.
In my case, try to play five nights a week on average. Otherwise your days off will be very expensive. … You’ve got to make tours cost-effective, it’s economy of scale, do enough dates to make it worthwhile. It’s about sitting down and planning it in the first place. A simple spreadsheet gives you the answers.
Someone comes up to me with an offer for a show, or two or 10, the first thing I do is a quick trial budget. Say we’re going to Australia. It’s only going to take me five minutes to check out the flights. It might take me a quick double check to see withholding taxes in that country, how I might offset it with expenses and so forth. Maybe 10 minutes to do a trial budget based on the information. Let’s say 20 minutes, half-hour tops I know whether that tour is worth pursuing. I can go back to my agent and say, “Frankly, it’s not quite worth it for me to do this.” Or, “Let’s go ahead with it. Maybe they can pay another 10 percent higher fee than what they’re offering. See what you can get.” Or I can say, “I think they’re paying us a little too much here and I think they’re taking too big a risk so why don’t we try and negotiate, give them a little headroom to try and make a profit and reduce the fee.” Which, on occasions, I might well do.
But it all depends on that first, crucial decision to spend half an hour on that analysis. It’s not a huge chore. I like that I can do it fairly quickly. I can go into my standard insurance costs and administrative costs amortized across the year. All that stuff is built into the spreadsheet. I just hit the return key and see if there’s a meaningful profit at the end for me to put into my bank account before I pay my 50 percent tax that I do in the U.K.
Well, thank you for your time. I have one last question and then …
Wait! Let me throw this one in! At the end of all of it, as a taxpayer, I get pretty tired of people going to the ends of the earth to avoid paying taxes. The richer they get the more they want to avoid paying taxes. Adopt a plan that I learned long, long, long ago, back in the early ’70s. Feel good when you sign the check to pay your tax bill. Learn to feel good about being a contributor to your country, to the economy, to the people who depend on the taxpayer to fund all the things taxpayers have to fund, whether it’s military, schools, hospitals, health care. Frankly, if you’re paying a lot of tax it means you’re earning even more and therefore already in that privileged, wonderful position where you can afford to pay that tax. Don’t feel bad about it. Walk around with your head held high saying, “Look at the tax I paid this year! What a great guy I am!” And the world will clap you on the back and say, “Good man! Well done for doing that, rather than goofing off and trying to hide your money in a Swiss bank or a Bahama offshore fund.” So, yeah, I’m a taxpayer and proud of it.
There are artists out there that will leave their countries to avoid taxes.
Oh I know. And we did too. Back in 1972 we were advised by our accountant to do that. It was the first year of receipt of any real money because our record royalties were beginning to trickle through in 1971. We actually went abroad to take up residency in Switzerland. We were recording the album that was to become A Passion Play and I got a phone call from my friend in Switzerland, Claude Nobs (founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival) who said, “Congratulations! Your residency papers just came through today! You’re now officially Swiss residents!”
And I turned around to the guys and said, “We’re Swiss residents. We’re all eligible now to officially live here and pay almost no tax.”
And we all looked at each other – and I swear this is the truth – 24 hours later we were on the plane back to Britain because of the awful reality of what we were doing. In some cases it was an ethical or moral thing; in some cases I suppose it was the idea of living in a foreign country and leaving your friends and family. For whatever reason, we jumped on the next plane and went back to England and started re-recording the whole album.
We’ve been there, didn’t do it. (laughs) We could have just jumped ship. The lifeboat was waiting. We could have sailed into the sunset rather than stay on the sinking ship, which was the British economy during the early ’70s. But we went home and it was the best thing we ever did.
But Rod Stewart would have a different tale to tell. So would U2, The Rolling Stones and a whole bunch of other acts that really went out of their way to avoid paying taxes. But there are others I think probably have more of a philosophy like mine which is, hey, this is where I was born, grew up, got my career break. This is where I want to pay my tax. I’m guessing Elton John’s one of those. I think The Who are amongst the bunch of acts that said, “Hey, I’m going to stay here.”
I suppose there are plenty of people who want to pay taxes not because of moral or ethical reasons but because they don’t want to be the next Willie Nelson getting harassed by the IRS. Not worth it.
I had a very expensive tax adviser back in the ’70s and I took him out to lunch and he said, “Don’t think that because you’re paying for lunch that I’m going to give you any free advice.”
I said, “That’s not why I’m inviting you for lunch. I just want to ask you a question not about me but about you: If you were earning the same amount of money that I’m earning this year you, as a tax adviser, what would you do? Would you take up foreign residency? Would you try and create an elaborate series of companies to try and reduce your personal tax bill and take advantage of various corporate expenses and everything else? What would you do if you were earning that money?”
He thought about it and said, “I would sit down and write out a check for (whatever the tax rate was at the time). And I would go to bed and go to sleep easily. That’s ultimately what I would do. But my job as a tax adviser is to tell people how to create elaborate schemes to avoid paying taxes. But you won’t sleep easily. You’ll always be worried, for the rest of you earning life, that a tax scheme might be overturned retroactively, that you could be liable to a huge tax bill. My personal philosophy is pay the tax you owe, write out the check, forget it, and go to bed easily.”
That’s the best advice I ever received. That’s from the same guy who literally a few months before had been advising us we had to live in Switzerland. That was a good lesson; that’s the reality of it. It’s about sleeping easy. …
In my case we have a 45 percent income tax rate plus something we call National Insurance that is effectively a tax based on income so I’m paying somewhere in the region of 50-55 percent of my personal earned income to tax. In USA my rate of income tax is about 39 percent. I pay state taxes on top of that. And every year I get a certain refund on state taxes. It’s a complex accounting issue but you do what you have to do. Of course there is a double-taxation agreement, don’t get me wrong. The percent I pay in the U.S. is offset by my U.K. tax liability when I remit the money to the U.K. So it works both ways. A rich American guy in Britain has to remit his money under U.S. law and under double taxation agreement he’ll get his U.K. tax liability to offset his U.S. liability. That’s the way our sophisticated systems work.
But they work for a reason and, by and large, honest people justify those systems being in place whether they’re rock musicians or corporate executives. It’s just that rock musicians aren’t renowned for their, um, financial sophistication. But my advice is try and get there. Pick it up as you go along, talk to people, take advice, ask questions. Don’t just leave it to folks to do it for you. Going back to the tour manager thing – same with your accountant, same with your manager, your agent. You have to get behind what they’re thinking is. Get to know their job. You don’t have to do it for them but understand what the ground rules are and the principals upon which you work. I think all of that adds up to sleeping easy at night.
I don’t have a care in the world when I’m on tour because I know business has been taken care of. I know that because I did it. And I didn’t rely on somebody else to make up all these rules for me. It’s not rocket science. If I can do it, so can the average person. I’m Joe Average. If I can do it, the person making his first garage album can do it too.
Pick up the reins and steer the horse in the way you want it to go.

Indie Music’s Digital Drag

June 25, 2014

Small Music Labels See YouTube Battle as Part of War for Revenue

The booze flowed freely in New York last week at the Libera Awards, a three-year-old alternative Grammys for the world of independent music, as awards went to prestige indie acts like Arcade Fire and Arctic Monkeys and executives at small labels congratulated one another about what a great year it was for their music.

But despite the celebratory atmosphere, anxiety about competition and fairness in the digital marketplace runs deep in the independent sector of the music industry. Small labels complain that consolidation by the major record companies has left them squeezed in negotiations with the online music services that now account for a majority of their revenue.

Executives and advocates for the indies say they are vulnerable to strong-arm tactics by Internet giants like YouTube, which has recently threatened to block some labels’ videos unless they sign new licensing deals. Like the standoff between Amazon and the book publisher Hachette, the dispute has crystallized a fear that access to the online marketplace controlled by a few has become a privilege affordable only by the biggest and richest players.

Picketers outside the Google offices in Manhattan protesting large tech companies like YouTube that they say do not fairly compensate them. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
“In the growth of the Internet, what was to be a utopian leveling of the playing field, a democratization for all, what is actually happening is a form of cultural apartheid,” said Alison Wenham, chief executive of the Worldwide Independent Network, an umbrella group for small labels.

The YouTube battle involves a long-delayed effort by the online video giant to develop a paid, advertising-free premium version to compete against subscription music services like Spotify, Rdio and Beats Music. YouTube, a division of Google, has made licensing deals with Universal, Sony and Warner, the three major labels, but it has stalled with the independents, which contend that YouTube has offered them inferior terms.

As the indies tell it, the dispute is typical of their disadvantage in the larger digital sphere. On Wednesday, Darius Van Arman, a co-founder of the Secretly Group, whose acts include indie stars like Bon Iver and Dinosaur Jr., will speak before a House Judiciary subcommittee as part of a hearing on music licensing. In a statement supplied to the subcommittee in advance, Mr. Van Arman said that in the streaming age, “the three major recording companies have become proficient at extracting a disproportionate share of copyright-related revenue from the marketplace.”

In the YouTube negotiations, no label has come forward with specific complaints about the contract terms in dispute. But details published by Billboard magazine and the blog Digital Music News, which purport to be from leaked contracts, reveal sticking points like a “negative most-favored nation clause,” meaning that if YouTube strikes a lower deal with any label, it can reduce all rates accordingly.

Which labels and bands will be affected — and what will happen to their videos — is not clear. According to a number of people who have been engaged in talks with YouTube, the company is threatening to block videos from indie labels’ official channels; videos uploaded by users would remain on the site, but yield no advertising revenue. Yet how much money is at stake is unknown. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, which primarily represents the major labels, YouTube and other so-called on-demand, ad-supported services made $220 million in revenue for the music industry last year, about as much as vinyl records; by comparison, download sales were $2.8 billion.
A YouTube spokesman said the company had already signed deals with 95 percent of its label partners, but declined to comment further on negotiations.

“Our goal is to continue making YouTube an amazing music experience, both as a global platform for fans and artists to connect, and as a revenue source for the music industry,” the spokesman, Matt McLernon, said in a statement. “We’re adding subscription-based features for music on YouTube with this in mind.”

One of the independents’ main complaints about the major labels with which they compete is how market share is computed. According to Mr. Van Arman and Richard Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, a trade group, the big labels overstate their share of the music market by counting not only recordings that they own, but also those that they distribute and that are owned by independents. Each of the big labels has distribution subsidiaries that handle hundreds of independents, leading to a wide gray area in which both the majors and the indies claim control.

Universal, the world’s biggest music company, sells or distributes 38.9 percent of the music in the United States, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. But measured strictly by copyright ownership, Universal has only about 28.5 percent of the market, while independents collectively hold about 34.6 percent, according to the American Association of Independent Music.

Market share is important leverage in negotiations with digital services over licensing terms, and the independents claim that the majors’ inflated share allows them to demand higher royalty rates as well as other payments like minimum guarantees and large advance payments. Those payments may be unavailable to indies, or available only in much smaller amounts.

The fight with YouTube is only the latest to galvanize the independent sector, as technology companies like Apple, Amazon and Pandora have become the most powerful outlets for music and years of mergers have resulted in a concentration of power among just three major labels.

“Even if the market shares were more accurately measured, we would still have the inescapable fact that the three big labels account for the majority of music sales and the indies only have an impact as a collective,” said Mark Mulligan, a digital media analyst and consultant.

Representatives of the three major labels declined to comment on how market share was used in licensing negotiations.

In some ways, the new digital marketplace has helped the indies flourish. Music on smaller labels tends to perform better on digital outlets like Spotify and iTunes than it did when the market was dominated by brick-and-mortar stores, and the cost of promotion presented a higher barrier. Merlin, an agency that negotiates digital deals for hundreds of indies, said that streaming services brought $89 million in revenue to its members from May 2013 to April 2014.

Yet indie executives say the YouTube and Amazon deals show how fragile access to the marketplace can be. “I don’t have any idea what this business is going to be like in a year, much less five years,” said Bruce Iglauer, the founder of the Chicago blues label Alligator Records who received a lifetime achievement award at the Liberas.

Last week, the dispute spilled out into the streets of New York. On Saturday afternoon, a few dozen supporters of the Content Creators Coalition, an artists’ advocacy group, picketed Google’s office in Chelsea, playing New Orleans-style marches on horns and carrying signs like “Economic justice in the digital domain” and “What YouTube pays? Nothing.”

Marc Ribot, a guitarist who has played with stars like Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, summarized how the larger conflict over streaming revenue affected artists’ careers.

“If we can’t make enough from digital media to pay for the record that we’ve just made,” Mr. Ribot said, “then we can’t make another one.”

Post-Casey Kasem, what is ‘Top 40′ music, exactly?

June 17, 2014

Casey Kasem’s ‘American Top 40′ marked an America united by pop music in the era of commercial radio. But with the Internet, what constitutes a hit today is elusive.

Mark Guarino 6/16/14

Legendary broadcaster Casey Kasem tabulated hit songs and played them every week to Americans from “coast to coast.” The winners and losers that climbed up and fell from his weekly countdown presented a portrait of Americans unified by pop music; for many years, it was a reliable way to assess mass tastes.

However, as Mr. Kasem’s time before the microphone dwindled, the format he created to determine pop music popularity became less relevant. With the splintering of radio formats, followed by the advent of digital media, it became more of a challenge to quantify hit songs, no less figure out what American consumers, as a collective, were listening to together and at once.

“The notion of a ‘No. 1 record’ began to be outmoded even with the rise of FM Radio in the 1960s, which became the cutting edge music on radio,” says Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York City.

“Nowadays, with streaming on Spotify and downloads on iTunes and a dozen other places setting the standard for what is the most popular recording, the impact of commercial radio play is fading,” he adds. “A new kind of chart, based on all of these Internet factors, is needed.”
Test your knowledge 1960s plus 50: How well do you know the tumultuous decade? Take the quiz!

Kasem died Sunday in Gig Harbor, Wash., according to the Associated Press. “American Top 40,” the show he hosted for a total of 24 years is now handled by “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest.

A former deejay in Flint, Mich., Kasem launched “American Top 40” in 1970, a time when commercial FM radio was entering its glory years. At that time, Kasem relied on data from the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, which weighed its rankings based on songs played on jukeboxes, radio play, and sales at brick-and-mortar stores. That since has changed to reflect changing times: Billboard now constructs its chart using Nielsen SoundScan sales data, both at retail and digital outlets, as well as radio play and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora.

At the start of Kasem’s show, the chart was problematic in that it favored only the sales of commercial singles, which meant it weighed heavily in favor of pop artists, and not those who concentrated on full albums.

That created a distortion since many of the best-selling artists at the time, who dominated the emerging FM radio format, were rock groups like Yes, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin, all of whom were considered “album-oriented” artists. That meant that a band like Led Zeppelin might have an album at, or near, the top of the charts, but would rarely make the Top 10 of Kasem’s countdown.

According to “The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, Ninth Edition” by Joel Whitburn, the problem continued up until Dec. 5, 1998, when Billboard revised the Hot 100 to include songs that were not commercially available as singles. As radio formats became more segmented in terms of genre, the magazine followed suit, creating separate charts for a range of musical tastes such as dance, hard rock, country, and more.

But by that time, Kasem had switched to a new way to assess the hits: Mediabase, a service that monitors radio play in nearly 200 North American markets. However, by the 1990s, the digital era transformed how consumers accessed music. Today, it is downloaded and streamed on smartphones, tablets, and via automobile dashboards, in addition to home entertainment systems. The revolution has created a chaotic marketplace of new services, from Shazam to Amazon to SiriusXM, vying for listener ears.

Listeners now exist in a niche world of culture and enjoy the freedom to curate their own tastes without the guiding hand of radio programmers. That’s why megahits are no longer quite as mega as in Kasem’s time.

“The problem of identifying ‘No. 1’ songs has certainly become more complex in recent years. No longer can a charting organization look to one or just a few types of sources to calculate a song’s success,” says Ed Arke, a communications professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Even what constitutes a hit is now elusive: Social media buzz can catapult a song like the 2013 hit “Harlem Shake” by Baauer to instant mass attention and skyrocketing download sales without outside exposure, for example. Viral popularity based on views and not retail sales is often difficult to assess, but it has not gone unnoticed, which is why Nielsen Soundscan now tracks major streaming services.

“What we’re seeing is more artists who are having small to medium success and fewer megahits, a trend likely to continue because the number of sources to factor into such a rating systems have grown so much, it is becoming increasing more difficult to gather all of the relevant data from across the country and around the world,” Professor Arke says.

Even the world of countdown shows has multiplied since Kasem departed the airwave. In addition to Seacrest’s “American Top 40,” other countdown shows exist on SiriusXM, CMT, VH1,, Hype Machine, among other outlets – many based on different metrics and showcasing different results

The Woman on Top of the World: Beyonce

June 16, 2014

By JODY ROSEN NY Times 06/03/14

A few years ago, Beyoncé Knowles was like any other record-breaking pop star in an already crowded field. Then something changed.

If you’ve ever seen Beyoncé Knowles astride a concert stage or a red carpet, you know she is a woman with a flair for dramatic entrances. But no previous coup de théâtre prepared the world for the arrival of the singer’s fifth full-length solo record, “Beyoncé,” the “visual album” that airdropped onto iTunes at midnight on Dec. 13, 2013. For months, the music press had seethed with speculation about Beyoncé’s delayed record release, with rumors of disastrous studio sessions and dozens of scrapped songs. “There is utter disarray in Beyoncé’s camp,” the website hissed. It was an unheard-of turn of events for Beyoncé, whose career had been a testament to, as it were, array: a regal, orderly parade from hit to hit, milestone to milestone, strength to strength.

Sure enough, the alleged behind-the-scenes chaos turned out to be the usual behind-the-scenes order, in disguise: While the gossip mills whirred, Beyoncé stealthily recorded 14 songs and shot 17 videos, which she unleashed in that December sneak attack. Purely as a feat of information management, “Beyoncé” was impressive. The National Security Agency couldn’t stop its secrets from spilling all over the place; Beyoncé kept the lid on a project which, conservatively, involved hundreds of individuals — studio musicians, cameramen, key grips, personal assistants, even record executives, as a rule the least trustworthy people on the planet. The arrival of all that music, all at once and out of the blue, was an unprecedented shock-and-awe move, which rocked the record industry back on its heels and convulsed the Internet. A single Beyoncé video is capable of staggering the senses; the simultaneous release of 17 of them — an onslaught of sound and spectacle and costumes and choreography and, in the case of a video like the one for “Rocket,” stately slow-motion images of billowing silk sheets and water droplets tumbling onto Beyoncé’s bare midriff — it was a lot to process. We can only imagine the feelings of Beyoncé’s pop diva competitors, whose carefully plotted monthslong album rollouts were instantly rendered quaint, and moot. That whining, whirring sound you heard on Dec. 13, mingling with the strains of “Drunk in Love” — that was Lady Gaga, in her gloomy castle keep, chainsawing a meat dress into sackcloth.

Beyoncé is 32 years old. She was 9 when she began singing with Girls Tyme, the group she formed with friends in her hometown, Houston; when the successor to Girls Tyme, Destiny’s Child, first cracked the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, in 1998, Beyoncé was just 16. She never seemed like an ingénue, though: Even as a teenager, she had gravitas. In one of the centerpiece songs on the new album, Beyoncé gazes backwards: “Look at me — I’m a big girl now . . . I’m a grown woman.” But the innocence-to-experience cliché doesn’t square with Beyoncé’s life, or art. From the beginning her message has been professionalism, perfectionism, power — ideals exemplified in her fearsome live performances and dramatized in songs that view romance through the lens of finance. Hits like “Bills, Bills, Bills” (1999), “Upgrade U” (2006) and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2008) have found Beyoncé figuratively hunched over a balance sheet, weighing the costs of affections dispensed and luxury goods accumulated. She’s a fit star for our new gilded age, and an apt match, musical and otherwise, for her husband Jay Z, another arch-capitalist. In recent years, Beyoncé has toned down the materialism a bit, but ambition remains her calling card. In the torrid 2011 single “Run the World (Girls)” she sang: “We’re smart enough to make these millions/Strong enough to bear the children/Then get back to business.” The song is a postfeminist anthem, sure. It’s also a business plan that she’s followed to a T.

In 2014, Beyoncé’s grip on the zeitgeist has become a stranglehold. A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit revolved around the gag that Beyoncé-worship has become compulsory in the United States, that Beyoncé refusniks will be tracked down and eliminated by deadly government goons, the Beygency. (“He turned against his country . . . and its queen,” boomed the voiceover.) As “SNL” suggests, Beyoncé has become something more than just a superstar. She is a kind of national figurehead, an Entertainer in Chief; she is Americana. Someday, surely, her “Single Ladies” leotard will take its place alongside Mickey Mouse and the Model T Ford and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet in a Smithsonian display case.

Historically speaking, this is no small achievement. Black women have always been dominant figures in American popular music, but no one, not even Aretha Franklin, has reached the plateau that Beyoncé occupies: pop star colossus, adored bombshell, “America’s sweetheart.” Inevitably, Beyoncé is also a flashpoint, provoking ire from naysayers and ideologues of all stripes. In March, Bill O’Reilly decried “Partition,” a song that details a Beyoncé-Jay Z tryst in a limousine, for setting a poor example for “girls of color.” (Postmarital sex between consenting adults: immoral.) Last month, the black feminist author and activist Bell Hooks told an audience at a New School symposium: “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact antifeminist, that is assaulting — that is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” There is a growing scholarly literature on Beyoncé; the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Rutgers University has offered an undergraduate course called “Politicizing Beyoncé.” Beyoncé is, as a cultural studies professor might put it, popular culture’s most richly multivalent “text.” The question these days is not, What does the new Beyoncé record sound like? It’s, What does Beyoncé mean?.

Of course, the meaning begins with sound — with the tone and timbre of Beyoncé’s voice, one of the most compelling instruments in popular music. Beyoncé has traditionalist skills. She can belt an adult contemporary ballad like Barbra Streisand; she can deliver a fiery gospel testimonial; she can channel Michael Jackson (“Love on Top”) or imitate Prince’s falsetto (“No Angel”). But she is unmistakably a product of the hip-hop era, a singer who has assimilated the aggression and slippery rhythms of rap into a virtuosic and strange vocal style. We have gotten so used to Beyoncé, it may be hard to grasp what an oddball she is, how different her approach to rhythm, melody and harmony are to those of previous generations. You can hear that eccentricity in the wild timbral shifts and skittering syncopations of “Drunk in Love,” a half-sung, half-rapped hit that sounds, in the best sense, like a song Beyoncé is improvising from scratch in real time. Like all innovators, Beyoncé has pushed back boundaries, expanding our sense of what music should sound like. To the extent that we hear Beyoncé as “pop,” it’s because she has taught us to do so.

She’s taught the world to see music differently, too. The 17 videos for her latest album capture the star in a head-spinning variety of attitudes and alter-egos: as a beauty pageant contestant; as a moll with a flapper haircut; as a roller-disco queen; as the leader of a militant street mob with her hair dyed green; as a Houston homegirl, vamping on a street in the city’s hardscrabble Third Ward, with a nasty-looking dog on a leash; as a stripper, an ardent lover, a wife; and, in “Blue,” as an earth-mother-with-child, strolling a sun-dazzled strip of Brazilian coastline with her daughter, Blue Ivy. More than three decades after the rise of MTV, there are still those who view music videos as debased or “inauthentic.” But Beyoncé’s music is inseparable from her movie-star magnetism: the way she stares down a camera, strikes a pose, wears her clothes and, especially, the way she dances. And why not? Popular music has always been an audiovisual medium. If Beyoncé is the dominant figure in 21st-century music, perhaps it’s because pop has circumnavigated back to its 19th-century vaudevillian roots, to a time before disembodied voices came to us through hi-fi speakers or noise-canceling headphones, when music was, exclusively, a performing art. Beyoncé is the greatest old-fashioned singer and hoofer, the supreme show-woman, in an era when, once again, we’ve learned to love a splashy musical show.

Of course, she’s more than that. Literally and figuratively, Beyoncé is a moving target — it’s as difficult to get a fix on her as it would be to keep up with her on the dance floor. Beyoncé represents down-home earthiness and impossible glamour, soul-woman warmth and diva hauteur, a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and garish 1 percent excess. Her new album is sexed-up to the point of lewdness, with punch lines about body fluids on evening wear and intimations of rough sex. Yet the sex — in the limo, in the kitchen, everywhere, apparently, but the bedroom — is married sex, family-values sex, which, the album makes clear, produced a bouncing baby girl, a result perhaps even Bill O’Reilly can feel good about.

Beyoncé’s songs are packed tight with such contradictions. Think of “Single Ladies,” an anthem of feisty feminist solidarity that endorses the most retrograde diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend brand of transactional romance: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” Or consider “***Flawless,” on the new album, which throws together a dizzying mix of sounds and signifiers. There’s a clamorous trap beat and pitch-shifted vocals; there are shout-outs to Houston (“H-town vicious”) and to Jay Z’s record label, Roc Nation (“My Roc, flawless”). There are coarse mean-girl threats (“Bow down, bitches!”) and a sampled snippet from a TEDx talk by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “We Should All Be Feminists,” which wags a finger at mean-girl threats: “We raise girls to see each other as competitors.” The video intersperses an excerpt from 10-year-old Beyoncé’s appearance on the TV talent show “Star Search” with the current-day Beyoncé, clad in Kurt Cobain flannel, executing a spectacular dance routine in a dank basement surrounded by skinheads. It’s all tied together by a refrain — “I woke up like this!” — which, among other things, does double duty as a boast about effortless beauty and a mantra of enlightenment. What does Beyoncé mean? What doesn’t she mean.

Clear Channel chief gambles on wrestling its debt

June 9, 2014

By Sujeet Indap, Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson and Matthew Garrahan in New York..Financial 6/08/14

The entrance to Clear Channel Communications’ new Manhattan office makes it feel like a digital start-up, not a terrestrial radio and outdoor advertising company founded in the 1970s.

A sensory tunnel tunes smoothly between talk radio and music stations as visitors walk through. Inside, a small amphitheatre faces a massive digital screen showing one of the company’s concerts.

Bob Pittman, Clear Channel’s chief executive, is keener to point out the unfinished floors and exposed walls. “We wanted to prove creativity needn’t cost more money,” he explains.

Cost is no trivial matter for a company still shouldering more than $20bn of debt from its 2008 leveraged buyout, whose bonds are rated triple C plus by Standard & Poor’s.

The takeover by Bain Capital and Thomas H Lee was one of a flurry of buyouts agreed in the credit frenzy of 2005-07, but after debt markets seized up in 2008, it took months of litigation and a purchase price cut for the deal to close.

Mr Pittman, who at 15 worked as a radio announcer in Mississippi, joined in 2010 as chairman of Clear Channel’s radio unit, the largest in the US, and took over as chief executive in 2011.

The $5m investment he made in its equity – worthless unless he can wrestle its debts – means he has much at stake in improving its creativity and its cost structure.

The opportunity the former MTV and AOL executive saw in Clear Channel was that its local stations and billboards reach more people than Google, Facebook or broadcast television networks, but had never joined its local networks up to offer advertisers a national platform.

Mr Pittman has set about talking up radio’s value to an advertising industry still loyal to TV and more excited by digital music brands such as Spotify, Pandora Media and now the Apple-owned Beats.

“Radio is America’s companion,” he says, to explain its 245m monthly listeners’ loyalty to Clear Channel’s 800-plus stations, which feature everything from country music to the conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh.

Mr Pittman’s challenge is to persuade advertisers not only that radio can withstand the digital competition, but that they should pay more to reach its listeners. According to Nielsen, the ratings group, radio can generate a sales lift of $6 for every ad dollar spent. Yet radio pricing is a third cheaper than television, Mr Pittman says.

The endurance of car radios means “we’re the only company in America that loves traffic jams”, he says, and with an audience already accustomed to consuming its content on the move, he argues that the more mobile digital media becomes, the more it plays to Clear Channel’s strengths.

Clear Channel’s digital strategy centres on iHeartRadio, an internet and mobile radio brand that has used cross-promotion from its stations to amass nearly 50m registered users (Pandora has nearly 80m) and build a growing live music business.

With Spotify’s latest valuation above $5bn and Beats selling for $3bn, “every investment banker in the world” has suggested a spin-off, Mr Pittman says, though he argues that Clear Channel’s assets are worth more together.
“Six months ago, if you’d have told me I could refinance $850m of subordinated debt at 10 per cent, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy”

- Richard Bressler, Clear Channel’s chief financial officer

If he is making progress it is appearing only slowly. Its radio revenue was up just 4 per cent in 2013, adjusting for political ad cycles. Just over half of group revenue comes from radio with the rest from a more stable multinational billboard business, Clear Channel Outdoor, which is listed with a market capitalisation of $3bn.

Mr Pittman expects growth to accelerate, but even more important to averting bankruptcy has been a series of debt restructurings that have taken advantage of yield-hungry capital markets to push back a looming wall of maturities.

In April, an $850m refinancing pushed repayments back from 2014 and 2015 to 2018. However, it came with 10 per cent interest rate, double the rate on the debt it replaced. Clear Channel’s expected interest expense of about $1.6bn in 2014 is about equal to its free cash flow.

“Six months ago, if you’d have told me I could refinance $850m of subordinated debt at 10 per cent, I’d have looked at you like you were crazy,” says Richard Bressler, a Thomas H Lee partner who became Clear Channel’s chief financial officer last year. The demand for its debt is a sign of confidence, he says.

It also buys the company much-needed time. Clear Channel’s owners are “patient”, Mr Bressler says, and Mr Pittman has just signed a contract that will keep him at Clear Channel until 2019.

The debt burden gives him little room for error, but like an experienced radio pitchman, he sounds confident that his $5m gamble will pay off.

“If the company’s not going to grow I’ll get no money back,” he admits, but he adds that because Clear Channel has so much leverage, it “supercharges” any upside. His return, he says, will be “50:100 to one if it works”.


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