Hey Hey, My My: Aging Rock Fans Still Hold Their Lighters High

April 9, 2017

By TAMMY La GORCE NYTimes.com 4/07/17

Pete Townshend of the Who struck a nerve with rock ’n’ roll rebels in 1965 with the line “I hope I die before I get old.”

But something has happened in the five decades since he wrote “My Generation”: The boomer generation got older, yet continued to love rock ’n’ roll. Now, as many of those early fans enter retirement, they are still boarding buses and trudging through muddy fields to see their favorite bands.

“It used to be that when you retired, you went to Leisure World or the old retirement complex,” said Mark Hover, a 65-year-old who lives in Moreno Valley, Calif., and retired in 2004 after 30 years working for the United Parcel Service. Now, he said, other options are more appealing to him.

“What you’re supposed to do in your golden years is more of what you love,” he said. “What I’ve loved all my life is going to see live music.” He attends more than 100 shows a year, spending thousands of dollars traveling to concerts and multiday rock festivals like Bonnaroo, in Manchester, Tenn., which he plans to attend in June. He finds that he is far from the only “old guy” — his term — rocking out.

Concerts aimed at old guys are big business. According to the music industry tracking firm Pollstar, the six-day music extravaganza Desert Trip, featuring the Who and fellow rock veterans like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Neil Young, took in $160 million last year. Held in Indio, Calif., the festival catered to “an older, more affluent crowd,” Pollstar said. Mr. Hover was there, and paid $399 for his ticket.

Tickets to other concerts and festivals likely to draw audiences old enough to remember Woodstock — among them the just-announced Classic East and Classic West, with the headliners Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, scheduled for New York and Los Angeles this summer — are also selling robustly.
Photo
Yonder Mountain String Band. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Mr. Hover said he likes younger acts, such as the Raveonettes, too. The online ticketing service Eventbrite found in a 2015 study conducted by the Harris Poll that 44 percent of those ages 51 to 70 are attending more live shows now than they did in 2005. Of those concertgoers, 40 percent say they want to stay abreast of current tastes.

“My generation had this thing about, don’t trust anyone over 30,” said Sheldon Donig, 70, a retired developer from San Anselmo, Calif. “But age doesn’t seem to be an issue at the festivals I go to. Younger people don’t seem to be ageist.” He said he plans to take his R.V. in June to the Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonville, Calif., and in August to the Oregon Eclipse in Crook County, Ore.

For many retirees, concertgoing is a lifestyle, and not a new one. “It’s not like we were playing golf and all of a sudden quit and started seeing shows,” Mr. Donig said. “We’ve been doing this since we were in our 20s.” The difference now, he said, is that they can do more of it.

Bob McAdam, 74, a retired CVS pharmacist from Bourne, Mass., also dived deep into live music after retiring in 2014. He says he attends roughly 150 concerts or festivals a year, twice as many as when he was working. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t play golf, and I don’t have a second home in Florida,” he said. “Music is my only hobby.”

Mr. McAdam has built a social network through his showgoing. “You get to know people, and you keep in touch with some of them,” he said. He has little time for peers of his who have given up on contemporary music.

“A lot of people not even my age, but a lot younger, have this idea that Led Zeppelin was the best thing you could listen to, and that there’s nothing worth listening to anymore,” Mr. McAdam said. “That’s just wrong. Also, hearing new music keeps you current.”

Occasionally, it can exhaust you. “Festivals are thought of as a younger person’s game because it can be challenging to be out in the summer sun from morning till dusk two or three days in a row,” said Jeffrey Schneider, 54, a lawyer from Dix Hills, N.Y., who plans to retire in the next year or two to focus on concertgoing. “You need stamina. But as Warren Zevon said, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’”

Festival logistics can be especially hard on retirees with health issues, like Timothy Sanford-Wachtel, 68, a presiding Workers’ Compensation judge in Riverside, Calif., who has survived cancer. Mr. Sanford-Wachtel is planning his impending retirement around concerts and festivals. “Sometimes it’s tough to navigate my walker around 100,000 people,” he said. “But I always tell people I’m not going to quit until the Rolling Stones do.”

Dan Berkowitz, chief executive of CID Entertainment, a Philadelphia company that offers concert travel packages, said retirees tend to expect a smooth operation. “People who are a bit older have the reputation of being demanding,” he said, because they know they should not have to wait in line 45 minutes to get past security, and should not be stuck behind a billboard so they can’t see the stage. Because of retirees’ influence, he said, festival organizers, especially at shows like Desert Trip, which he described as “generally luxurious, as far as festivals go,” operate more carefully.

While clients in their 50s and older represent about 15 percent of his business, they account for about half the attendance at shows that cater to them, like Desert Trip and Fare Thee Well, a 2015 series of concerts by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. One client in this age group, who has been going to Bonnaroo for eight years, regularly arranges for five or six buses to travel to the festival through CID. “He’s done well for himself, and when it comes time for him to have a bit of fun, he likes to bring his family and friends along,” Mr. Berkowitz said.

Millennials are often said to value experience over material things, but Mr. Berkowitz says he associates that sensibility with his most senior clients. “They know they’re not going to remember that one year they bought a new TV, or got a car with an upgraded moon roof,” he said. “They’re going to remember seeing their favorite artists with family or friends.”

Jill Seagraves, 61, of Upper Montclair, N.J., couldn’t agree more. “My parents used to like to watch golf on TV with drinks on a Sunday afternoon,” she said. “That’s nothing that ever interested me.” Instead, traveling to see festivals like Desert Trip has kept her occupied, and happy, since her children left home; she is a retired homemaker.

“There’s going to be a day where people like Neil Young don’t play anymore, and I want to be at their last tour,” she said. “I want to die with a wristband around my wrist.”

It’s Not Their Pop Idol, but a Bot. Fans Cheer Anyway.

April 4, 2017

BEN SISARIO NYTimes.com 4/03/17

In January, Christina Ausset, a 24-year-old Maroon 5 fan in France, spotted an enticing Twitter post from another of the band’s followers: “I just had a conversation with Maroon 5! Awesome!”

The interaction, it turned out, had been conducted on Facebook Messenger with Maroon 5’s chatbot — an automated program designed to respond to basic commands. Not exactly a conversation with Adam Levine, Ms. Ausset noted, but it didn’t matter. She now happily talks to the bot, too.

“Having Maroon 5 on Messenger,” she wrote in an email, “makes you feel really close to your favorite artists!”

For celebrities who already use Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to lend a personal touch to their interactions with fans, the next frontier of social media is a deliberately impersonal one: chatbots, a low-level form of artificial intelligence that can be harnessed to send news updates, push promotional content and even test new material.

In the music world, “bot” is often a dirty word, conjuring up the tools used by high-tech ticket scalpers. Yet 50 Cent, Aerosmith, Snoop Dogg and Kiss have all deputized chatbots as their automatic, ever-alert greeters on Facebook Messenger, handling the flood of inquiries that would overwhelm any human.

When someone connects to Maroon 5 on Messenger, a text bubble pops up: “Hi,” it says, “I’m the Maroon 5 bot. Want to be the first to know when we release new music?” A series of questions with multiple-choice answers follows, leading the fan down a path lined with emojis and video clips; social media links then point other fans back to the bot.

It is a purposely simple interaction, created through technology developed by a start-up named Octane AI. Yet even in their programmed responses, chatbots can convey human personality, said Christina Milian, a singer and actress who has been among the earliest proponents of the technology, and helped found Persona Technologies, an Octane competitor.

“I feel like it’s personal,” Ms. Milian said of her own chatbot. “It’s definitely in my words. It’s how I talk. My fans know how I talk.”

Not all celebrity bots are quite up to the level of verbal verisimilitude, however. Aerosmith’s, for example, responds to virtually every inquiry with “Rock on.”
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Matt Schlicht, left, and Ben Parr founded Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot. Credit Drew Anthony Smith for The New York Times

But Ms. Milian said her bot’s intelligence surprised even her. “When I’m communicating with my own chatbot,” she said, “sometimes I see something and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s so me!’”

The chatbots may also offer a glimpse of the music industry’s future, which is already beginning to involve virtual-reality concerts, playlist algorithms and virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, said Cortney Harding, a consultant to music technology companies and the author of “How We’ll Listen Next: The Future of Music From Streaming to Virtual Reality.”

“As A.I. develops, everything is going to go into a mixed-reality world,” Ms. Harding said, “where you could dial up a hologram of your favorite pop star and have ‘real conversations’ with the artificially intelligent version of that person.”

Octane AI, founded about a year ago, is one of a handful of technology companies tailoring these programs to the entertainment industry, with clients including Interscope Records, the label behind Maroon 5 and 30 Seconds to Mars. Matt Schlicht, Octane AI’s chief executive, said that with more than a billion users, Messenger — the chat app connected to Facebook — was too large for celebrities to ignore. And once they are paying attention, his company’s bots can help them make efficient use of it.

“Right now people are looking at bots and saying, ‘I don’t know, maybe they’re cool, maybe not,’” Mr. Schlicht said. “But based on the data we’re seeing, it’s not crazy to think that a year from now it’s going to be their No. 1 distribution channel.”

Chatbots have become a common part of online interaction for major consumer companies; Domino’s, for example, lets customers use one to order a pizza. They have quickly spread since April of last year, when Facebook made it possible for developers to build bots on Messenger.

The change made Messenger a more useful channel to broadcast information to numerous recipients, and for many artists and marketers it solved a frustrating problem: As Facebook has grown, its news feeds have become more crowded — not to mention pruned by algorithms — making it harder and harder to reach followers.

Chris Mortimer, the head of digital marketing at Interscope, said Messenger was now a critical way for his artists to reach their fans.

Octane AI’s clients say response rates to its chats are extraordinarily high. According to the company, when its bots send a new notification, 50 to 75 percent of its subscribers open the message and click a link within 10 minutes. Bots have become popular for musicians even though they have been slow to catch on over all; at a conference in September, a Facebook executive called the technology “overhyped,” and said that early examples were unimpressive. Still, Ms. Milian said her Messenger account had attracted two million people since she introduced her bot in October.

Maroon 5 also demonstrated its value for commercial research. In February, a day before the band released its single “Cold,” it sent a 10-second clip of the song to its chatbot followers. Within 24 hours, fans sent 100,000 messages to the bot, and shared the clip widely on social media.

“You can get pretty strong sentiment analysis in a snap,” said Ben Parr, Octane AI’s chief marketing officer.

Chatbots’ high engagement rates may be helped by their novelty. But as they spread, they will have to be reconciled with the sour perception of bots among the general public, which has been building for years because of the use of bots in fake social-media accounts and, especially, ticketing. Bots have become such a scourge in the global scalping market that last year President Barack Obama signed a federal bill outlawing their use in buying event tickets.

“I hate the word bot,” said Josh Bocanegra, Persona’s chief executive, who founded the company with Ms. Milian. “It’s never been associated with anything positive.”

Mr. Bocanegra entered the business last year, after making a Selena Gomez bot to entertain his daughter. Persona creates custom chatbots for clients including Snoop Dogg and one for the “50 Shades Darker” character Christian Grey, which tells fans that if it cannot trust them, “I’ll have no choice but to spank you.” Bocanegra said a basic bot could be ordered for $2,500 plus maintenance charges.

Octane AI, which lets anyone use its technology to build a bot, does not charge for its services. The company is supported by $1.6 million from investors including the venture capital firm General Catalyst, and says it will introduce revenue-generating features soon.

So far, the bots’ ability to create interactions with pop stars — even if those interactions are programmed in computer code — has been enough to intrigue fans.

Sue Winett, a Maroon 5 fan in the Los Angeles area, proudly notes that at age 61 she is far older than the average admirer of the band. But she said that her love of the band had led her to all forms of social media — her Twitter handle is @AdoreAdamLevine, after the band’s lead singer — and that aside from a few kinks in the programming, she was enjoying the band’s chatbot.

“I know it’s a robot,” Ms. Winett said. “Does it creep me out that it’s a robot? No.”

U2 Producer’s Other Job: Selling CDs in Indonesia’s KFCs

April 4, 2017

By JON REGEN NYTimes.com 4/03/17

Steve Lillywhite knows a thing or two about making music that sells. That six-time Grammy winning producer has worked on multiplatinum recordings with artists including U2, the Killers and the Rolling Stones.

Now Mr. Lillywhite is proving he knows how to sell music, too, although in a very unexpected way. He is the chief executive of Jagonya Music & Sport Indonesia, a company in Jakarta, Indonesia, that bundles recorded CDs with fast food at Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants throughout that country.

At a time when the United States music industry has seen physical CD sales in free-fall — according to the latest report from the Recording Industry Association of America, 99.4 million full-length discs were sold in the United States in 2016, the fewest since 1986 — Mr. Lillywhite’s company, a subsidiary of KFC in Indonesia, sells 500,000 CDs a month alongside menu items like the Chick ’N Fillet sandwich and the Colonel Yakiniku Rice box.

“My job is basically like running a record label, except this record label also happens to sell chicken,” said Mr. Lillywhite, 62, who acts as a curator, choosing the music that goes into the Indonesian KFCs. (At the moment, the songs come exclusively from Indonesian artists, though he hopes to expand.) “Record companies pitch artists to me and I’ll say either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Or I’ll approach an unsigned artist and say, ‘I will guarantee you a slot in KFC if you sign directly with us,’” he said in an interview at Electric Lady Studios in Manhattan, while listening to a new U2 song he’s producing. The company orders CDs from a distributor and pays a percentage of the sales to KFC, as well as royalties to the artists.

Mr. Lillywhite’s journey from Englishman known for championing soaring choruses to creative guru of the Indonesian fried-chicken music market began six years ago, when he was asked to give a speech at a 2011 music festival in Singapore. He met some people who later invited him to produce music for the Indonesian band Noah. When he traveled to the band’s home to work on songs with them, “I immediately fell in love with the country,” he said.

“I loved the food, the people and the way they saw music as an experience. My synapses were overloading,” he added. “I imagined I would stay a year. I had nothing planned — I just thought I’d investigate the music.”

Mr. Lillywhite moved from Hollywood to Jakarta in 2014, and produced albums for artists like Iwan Fals, whose music he describes as “a mix of Springsteen and Dylan.” In March 2016, a mutual friend introduced him to Ricardo Gelael, director of PT Fast Food Indonesia, which owns 570 KFC outlets throughout Indonesia, as well as Jagonya Music & Sport, the company that places music in those restaurants. “He was looking to solidify and expand his company’s connection between CDs and chicken, as he realized he had become the new king of music distribution,” Mr. Lillywhite explained. When Mr. Gelael offered him a job to run and expand the company, Mr. Lillywhite immediately accepted.

“Steve has a proven track record in music as well as a love of Indonesia,” Mr. Gelael said in a text message. “So I thought he’d be the perfect person for the job.”

“CDs are still the No. 1 way to get music in Indonesia,” Mr. Lillywhite said, noting that a small percentage of the population has credit cards and internet connections are slow, hindering streaming. “In Indonesia, CDs are $4,” he continued. “And since nearly all of the record stores have closed down due to the cheap influx of pirated CDs, KFC is really the only place to buy them these days. People no longer go out to buy CDs on their own, but they do go out to buy chicken. And now buying a CD has become part of that experience. We even do concerts at KFC with some of our artists. So music and chicken have become intertwined.”

KFC has a more upscale reputation in Indonesia, where the flagship restaurants “are more like Hard Rock Cafes than fast food outlets,” Mr. Lillywhite said. Stores keep a display featuring 10 to 15 CDs on hand for browsing, and the cashier asks customers if they want a CD bundled with their meal. Mr. Lillywhite estimates that 98 percent of their music sales “are to people who go in to buy chicken but see the CDs and say, ‘Ooh, I’ll have a CD too!’”

When selecting music for KFC, Mr. Lillywhite draws on what he has learned “makes people’s emotions go wild.” He explained: “They love ballads, they love smooth jazz and they love to cry. I also always offer a kids’ album, as well as releases by big Indonesian artists like 19-year-old pop singer Rizky Fabian, the legendary rock band Slank and compilation albums too.”

He is considering a “duets” album pairing Indonesian and Western artists and a venture into streaming is also in the works. A smartphone app is starting this year.

Kasey Mathes of KFC public relations in Louisville, Ky., said that the company “doesn’t have any plans to bring this to the U.S. at this time.”

Whether or not this business model would work stateside is up for debate. “This is reminiscent of when quick service restaurants in the U.S. sold CDs of popular artists and compilations at a value price,” said Larry Katz, a music industry lawyer and the former senior vice president for business affairs at EMI Records, who once brokered a deal between EMI and McDonald’s that sold millions of CDs over a 30-day period in the mid-1990s. Considering the dominance of streaming in the United States, “Selling CDs at fast food restaurants here is likely a thing of the past,” he said, “but it’s not surprising that it still works in other areas of the world.”

John Burk, president of Concord Records — a company that experimented with placing CDs in Starbucks — said the concept “certainly has worked,” but also cited the rise of digital music as a deterrent now. “If you want to buy an album and put it on your phone, which is what most people want to do, it’s easier just to download it,” he said.

These days, while Mr. Lillywhite still takes the occasional trip to produce bands like U2, he is content in his new surroundings. “When I go into something, I go in feet first, with all my enthusiasm,” he said.

And what do the members of U2 think of his new venture?

“They think I’m barking mad,” he said. “Bono is obsessed with it. He’s always telling people: ‘Do you know what Lillywhite’s doing? He’s working for KFC!’”

‘We sign music we love. We’re not sniffing around to find the new thing all the time’

February 7, 2017

Kenny Gates Pias.com 1/24/17

You can’t always derive much about a record label’s identity from its name.

Matador founder Chris Lombardi, for example, pinched his company’s brand from a Pedro Almodóvar movie in a snap decision spurred on by design deadlines.

Yet there are certainly characteristics of the bullfighter which rather suit the history of Matador, which turns 28 this year – particularly a penchant for the powerful and provocative, and a fearlessness in the face of peril.

Since Matador was created in Lombardi’s Tribeca apartment in 1989, it’s gone on to introduce audiences to the likes of Superchunk, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Pavement, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo and Interpol.

More recent successful signings have included Kurt Vile, Savages, Cat Power and Queens Of The Stone Age – who scored their first ever US No.1 album in 2013 with Like Clockwork… on Matador after years signed to a major label.

Lombardi met his Matador colleagues Gerard Cosloy and Patrick Amory before the label existed, when the trio worked at indie Dutch East India Trading.

He says that he initially started his record company “as a hobby – to document some bands playing in New York at the time”.

[PIAS]’s Kenny Gates sat down with Lombardi to get the story of Matador’s origins – and gauge his view of the music industry today…

Am I right that the first record you put out on Matador was by an Austrian band?

Yes, a band called H.P Zinker. Gerard recommended I go see them. It was supposed to be a 7″ deal – just a song, but they recorded a mini-album, six tracks. That was more than I expected.

At the same time I was friends with some other bands in New York. I quickly had four or five albums coming out – including The Dustdevils, Railroad Jerk and Superchunk.

All of a sudden I had a number of releases to responsibly promote, press and distribute.

You had to pay bills, then?

Yeah – and it wasn’t easy to get paid in those days. A Lot of the indie distributors weren’t the quickest to write a cheque, especially if you didn’t have a hot record.

Did you have startup capital to get going?

I borrowed some money from my dad. Not very much. Probably $40,000 over two years. That helped keep the lights on.

The Railroad Jerk record did pretty well and the Superchunk record did pretty well, and Gerard had also gotten this cassette from the guys in a band called Teenage Fanclub. He had been shopping that around to a few different major labels at the time, but between [Cosloy’s label] Homestead and Matador we said: ‘Let’s put that out together.’

That’s when we started working together. We signed Teenage Fanclub and things really started to take off.

So that was your breakthrough record?

Yeah. It was also a time where things were starting to change with the mainstream for the indie music business. There were a number of different labels cropping up – Sup-Pop, Matador, Merge. And then in 1991, Nirvana really started to heat up.

During that frenzy of alternative rock, the major labels were trying to grab a piece of something they didn’t quite understand. At the time there was a lot of LA hair metal bands, Guns’N’Roses and Poison, and pop music.

The bands we were signing were starting to sell real records and we did a distribution deal with Atlantic at the start of 1993.

Why did you do that? You needed the cash?

One thing we’ve always been able to do, which is a pretty amazing luxury, is that somehow we found a way to put out whatever we wanted while never really having to concern ourselves with the commercial viability of it – because we’ve had partners who’ve allowed us to do what we wanted.

We’ve been able to do these joint venture deals, grow the company and hold onto our artists while not compromising on our artistic taste.

How does it work with you and Gerard?

We’re both the A&R guys. We sign the bands that we like and the music we want to hear. It’s really about the music that we love.

The thing that’s been great is for the past 27 years we’ve only worked with artists we like. We’re not sniffing around to find the ‘new’ thing all the time or meeting every band that comes to town.

Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?

Probably in the pure sense that I work for myself and do what I want.

In terms of being a businessman, no. I never thought of myself as a businessman first.

How did you deal with the company expanding? Did you go to business school?

No I only went to college for three months, and Gerard also went to college for a few months. So… instinct!

We had business managers to deal with royalties and the more complicated aspects of a larger roster with 30 employees, but [the growth in the business] was mostly us just figuring it out.

It’s hard to become a ‘boss’ all of a sudden. We really just employed our friends for a long time. Our oldest employee, Rusty Clarke, is Director Of Sales at Beggars [US]. At the time, the only requirement of people we hired was to love the music we loved and be able to talk knowledgeably about it.

Previous history in the music business was actually considered a downside. If you’d worked for a record company, it probably meant you’d been influenced by someone else.

Rusty was a waitress, but she went to every show we were at. It was hand-to-mouth for quite a while.

How long did it take before you were able to actually make a salary out of the business?

Well, we didn’t really work like we had salaries. We’d just about pay our rent and buy pizza. We lived with the label.

I had thousands of H.P Zinker records at my loft. You kind of forget how much space that many boxes, 3,000 sleeves, inserts and pieces of vinyl fill up. They don’t come assembled!

We’d invite friends and the bands over, get some beers in and some drugs and stuff the records for a few hours. It was great. It felt home-made, which it was.

Let’s go back to your time with Atlantic Records – in hindsight, was it a good or bad era?

I won’t say those experiences were ideal relationship-wise. I don’t think we got much from it really. But we did get capital, and with their investment we were able to grow the company further.

We had a pretty liberal arrangement with them. We were a fairly in-demand company at the time. And we weren’t super-greedy; we weren’t trying to sell ourselves.

It ended at the end of 1995, which was kind of the beginning of our first-hand experience of the major label revolving door. We saw record company executives we’d begun our relationship with go away. The guys we did our deals with, first at Atlantic and then Capitol, they moved on.

These executives are really there for themselves, they’re dictated to by a corporation, sales goals and publicly-traded companies. They come and go, and they go to the next place that gives them the best deal.

The next guy wants to get rid of the other guy’s [ideas] as soon as he can. He doesn’t want someone else to get the credit, and certainly he doesn’t want someone else’s failure on his hands.

You signed to EMI/Capitol after Atlantic. Why?

Our guy from Atlantic, Danny Goldberg, moved on and so it was time for us to find someone else who was sympathetic to what we do.

That ended up being Gary Gersch at Capitol – the guy who signed Nirvana to Geffen. He was at Capitol for about two years, and then he left. And so we were getting used to this major label situation.

You sold 49% of your business to EMI? How do you get past that?

We did. The Capitol deal bought us out of the Atlantic deal, then when we finished up with the Capitol deal we did a distribution agreement with DNA, part of Valley, and we were fully an independent company again.

You got an advance for your distribution and paid back Capitol?

Yes. Then Valley/DNA went bankrupt. We were able to get our stock out. And, of course, we owed them money – but they were bankrupt. So we walked free and clear and did a deal with ADA.

And finally, you found the ideal suitor…

By 2001, we wanted a more engaged partner; a partner who was more established outside of the United States where we’d struggled for a long time.

We had various distribution deals [around the world] at that point. We contacted Martin Mills and talked to him about partnering up. And by the end of that year we sold 50% of Matador to the Beggars Group. And it’s been a tremendous period of stability and growth ever since.

Martin and the Beggars Group have really allowed Gerard, Patrick and I to do what we do best and not worry about…

All the shit.

Exactly. All the shit.

Being able to represent ourselves as a truly global company is remarkable. It’s been amazing.

Beggars has given us excellent stability as well as great insight – they’re a cutting edge entertainment company. They’re at the forefront of all the new media stuff.

You made a comment when Queens OF The Stone Age went to No.1 in the US that you felt “numb”. Why?

It’s hard to go up from No.1. When Queens went to No.1, I wasn’t looking for it – it wasn’t our goal. We’ve never felt competitive in that kind of way.

It’s never been about volume of sales or being a commercial market leader for us. It’s just been about putting out the best music. We want our records in as many people’s pockets as possible, but we’re not about having hit records.

So was it scary?

No. It didn’t feel like it wasn’t ‘us’ at any point; we’d been fans and friends of Queens since the very beginning. That didn’t feel weird.

We’ve gotten pretty good at what we do, and it’s not every day you get one of those achievements. But that’s not our focus.

Were you proud?

Yes, but I was more happy for the staff and the band; they deserve to experience having a No.1 record. I was proud to say an independent label like Matador was able to give a giant rock band like Queens Of The Stone Age their first No.1 record – that was a satisfying moment for sure.

If the Chris Lombardi from 1989 could see the Chris Lombardi of today, what would he think?

He probably wouldn’t believe it. But with hindsight, I probably would have done a few less drugs. [Laughs].

I think we’ve done good. I love coming to work every day and working with the folks in this office. My days are spent having meals with unbelievably talented musicians – people who are musicians because they have to be. They’re not trying to score a hit record; they have to express themselves in a unique way.

I’m pretty emotional about my business. It’s all about caring about and believing in the people you’re working with – and convincing people to take the time to check out something you believe is truly special.

Did you ever get up in the morning, look in the mirror and think: ‘I’m not up to this. I can’t do this?’

No. I’m a fairly optimistic person. I’m certain there were some times where we were flying by the seat of our pants. But those are kind of the funnest times – when all of your senses are at their rawest and you’re just trying to figure it out.

What’s the worst moment in your career?

I don’t think I have one! I honestly haven’t really had any shitty moments.

I guess my worst moment was we had a much too large staff after our various major label partnerships. We had staffed up to resist their involvement.

When we became fully independent our cash was a lot tighter and we had to be more responsible with our overhead. We had to slim down and let go of some staff that weren’t necessary. [Getting too big] wasn’t the best decision my part, and that was hard.

Who are your mentors; people who inspired you to do what you do?

It’s the bands. They’re who inspire me. There’s no executive who inspires me.

Are you a romantic?

I’m a pretty romantic guy. But I’m romantic about now. I don’t romance the past. I like what I’m doing right now – I’m enjoying talking to you. I’m talking about myself, though, which is…

You’re a bit uncomfortable talking about yourself?

I don’t feel great about it.

Streaming. What do you think of it?

It’s great. I meet kids who are more knowledgeable about my artists than I am, and that’s because of streaming. They have entire catalogues at the tips of their fingers.

When we were growing up, it was like if they were out of stock, they were out of stock.

What about an industry that’s 90% streaming? You think we’ll still be able to break bands?

Yeah. If it’s good, it’ll float to the top. I don’t really beat the dead horse of physical. I actually always think there will be a physical aspect.

But the fact is, many, many more people will be able to listen to our music and we’ll get paid for it. That’s exiting for us and our artists.

Why do you still get up in the morning and do this? What’s your purpose?

To help support and spread the message of people I feel are hugely talented.

I have the best job in the world. I really do. And I’m very lucky it fell into place the way it did

With Grammys Near, Will Prince’s Music Make a Big Return?

February 7, 2017

Ben Sisario NY Times.com 2/6/17

At the Grammy Awards next month, the biggest question for fans may be whether Adele or Beyoncé takes home the prize for album of the year. For the music industry at large, however, perhaps an even bigger question is whether the show will finally usher Prince fully into the streaming age.
The Grammys ceremony, on Feb. 12, is the focus of a major marketing campaign set up by the music companies that have rights to release Prince’s songs, and by the streaming services that have been hungry to carry the music but were blocked from doing so by Prince himself before he died last year at 57. (Currently, Prince’s albums are only available on Tidal.)
If all goes according to plan, Prince’s music will be made available on virtually all streaming services around the time of the Grammys, where an all-star musical tribute to Prince is expected to be one of the show’s splashiest moments.
To promote the music’s availability online, Spotify is expected to run a number of promotional spots, including, perhaps, a television ad during the broadcast and a series of online teasers to begin as early as next week, according to several people with direct knowledge of the plans who were not authorized to speak about them. Spotify declined to comment.
But when it comes to managing Prince’s music, nothing is easy.
Despite the eagerness of the music industry to promote Prince’s music online, many issues with the estate remain unresolved. As a result, the plan to offer Prince’s music around the Grammys, first reported by Bloomberg News, remains uncertain and could still fall part, these people said.
“The drivers of what will happen with Prince will be the estate,” said L. Londell McMillan, a lawyer who represented Prince and is one of two experts advising the estate’s administrators on entertainment deals. “When you are looking to release product, you’re looking for the right moments. The Grammys may represent a moment in time, but it’s not certain that that’s going to be the case.”
Here is a look at some of the complications about the estate and the legacy of Prince’s music.
A Complex Estate
Since Prince died without a will, a Minnesota court is overseeing the estate, whose value has been estimated at up to $300 million. Major tasks still need to be completed, like valuing assets and confirming heirs, although the judge overseeing the case has indicated that the heirs will likely include Prince’s sister, Tyka Nelson, along with five half-siblings.
Those presumptive heirs have split into two camps over the management of the estate. One group, including Ms. Nelson and Omarr Baker, one of Prince’s half-brothers, have nominated Van Jones, the CNN commentator, to be a “co-personal representative,” a role similar to an executor. The other four favor Mr. McMillan.
In a nod to the feuding and finger-pointing of the proceedings, the judge, Kevin Eide, ruled last week that he would not appoint anyone to the role unless all heirs agreed and questions of conflicts of interest are sorted out. The estate’s next step, expected next week, will replacing one bank with another as administrator, a move that will bring in yet another round of lawyers and other overseers.
Music executives who have dealt with the estate say that these issues have not interfered with deal-making, but they raise questions about how the estate will be managed in the future and who will benefit from its business.
A Tangle of Rights
Prince maintained close control of his music rights, and wielded them to an extent few other musicians can. For instance, he used his ownership of music publishing rights — the copyrights for songwriting — to block his music from appearing on YouTube, Spotify and other streaming outlets.
But that control led to problems after his death. Prince withdrew his membership from Ascap, the organization that manages performing rights, and it was not until the very end of 2016 that his estate signed a new deal with Global Music Rights, a boutique competitor to Ascap. Performing rights are essential to having music played on the radio or streamed online.
Randy Grimmett, a Global Music Rights executive, said that before he died, Prince had been considering managing his performing rights himself, a burden that few musicians could manage. “He would have been the first — and only — major artist that I know of to have taken that on,” Mr. Grimmett said.
In November, the Universal Music Publishing Group announced that it had made a deal with the Prince estate to act as administrator for the publishing catalog, and signaled that it was ready to release his music widely. But as with most deals, it still needs approval from the estate.
A Vault of Recordings
The estate still has one more major musical asset to offer: the recordings Prince released after leaving Warner Bros. in the mid-1990s, as well as his storied vault.
That trove of unreleased recordings, including hundreds or even thousands of songs, was stored in two actual vaults at his Paisley Park complex outside Minneapolis, and has been the subject of fan fascination for years. The estate has shopped this material to the major record labels, but no deal has been struck yet; executives briefed on those talks have noted the difficulty setting a value for such a range of material, and Warner Bros. still has rights to a large part of it.
Some unheard recordings, however, are set to come out soon. After putting one long-bootlegged track, “Moonbeam Levels,” on a hits compilation last year, Warner Bros. is set to release a new version of Prince’s biggest album, “Purple Rain,” this spring, with a full disc of unreleased material.
A Lawsuit With Jay Z
When it comes to Prince and streaming, the estate faces a question in court: whether or not Tidal, Jay Z’s streaming service, has exclusive streaming rights.
Tidal and Roc Nation, Jay Z’s management company, have argued in court that Prince granted Tidal rights to his catalog. But the estate disputes that point, and in November sued Roc Nation for copyright infringement, saying that Jay Z’s companies have produced no evidence of a deal.
The suit has become a tantalizing sideshow; one document filed in court shows a lengthy marketing presentation for Roc Nation apparently intended to woo Prince. But so far it does not seem to have slowed down deal activity.
What Would Prince Have Done?
Even if the estate is able to get Prince’s music available on all streaming services, is that what Prince would have wanted? He was well known for policing his catalog carefully, pulling it down from services he found unappealing. “Spotify wasn’t paying, so you gotta shut it down,” he told Ebony in 2015.
But associates who worked with him say that Prince’s true intentions could be hard to divine. After writing the word “slave” on his cheek in protest of his Warner Bros. contract in the 1990s, he returned to the label in 2014 to make a deal that was highly favorable to him.
A high-ranking entertainment executive who worked closely with Prince said that after pulling his catalog down from streaming services in 2015, Prince continued to discuss with them the possibility of returning it. He was in those talks until the end of his life, said this executive, who spoke anonymously to avoid revealing details about working with Prince.
Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager in the 1980s and later the president of Prince’s label, Paisley Park Records, said that Prince’s attitudes toward technology in particular could be unpredictable but were focused on protecting his interests.
“Prince’s wishes were subject to change,” Mr. Leeds said. “His attitude toward technology was that when it served him he embraced it, and when it didn’t he turned his nose up. It varied day to day, depending on his mood.”

Stem Helps Split Royalties, and Takes Off as Music Distributor

February 7, 2017

By BEN SISARIO NY Times.com 2/5/17

When Frank Ocean’s album “Blonde” came out in August, it went straight to No. 1 and became the talk of the music business because it was released completely outside the usual channels of the recording industry. The mystery was how Mr. Ocean and his team did it.
One answer was revealed on Sunday in an online ad promoting “Blonde” as one of the most acclaimed releases of 2016 and noting that it was “powered by Stem.”
That service, which began only a year ago, has quickly become a player in a fast-growing corner of the music industry: online platforms that cater to independent artists by distributing their music to streaming services and organizing the many strands of royalties that accumulate from fans’ clicks.
Stem, founded by three 20-somethings in Los Angeles, has attracted a clientele of young artists who operate independently yet tend to collaborate frequently with other acts, some of them stars. For them, Stem’s attraction is its ability to easily manage the complex “splits” — the divvying up of royalties among multiple parties — that result from such collaborations. Stem Disintermedia, the company behind it, has raised $4.5 million from investors, including Upfront Ventures and Scooter Braun, who is the manager for Kanye West and Justin Bieber.
The indie music sector already has a well-established network of alternative distribution companies like TuneCore and CD Baby, which deliver unsigned artists’ work to online services for what is usually a small fee. But those services have no means to divide the royalties if a song has, say, two producers and five writers, an example of the kind of collaboration that is now common in pop. Instead, the main performer would be responsible for accounting.
Stem eliminates that burden by tracking every collaborator on a song, and requiring all parties to agree on percentage splits. Milana Rabkin, Stem’s chief executive and one of its founders, compared the service to online payment apps that let friends easily split a restaurant tab.
“In a world where Venmo exists,” Ms. Rabkin said in an interview, “why isn’t there a Venmo for Apple and Spotify?”
Stem’s consensus model, however, could also be its Achilles’ heel, since it will not allow any party to be paid until all agree on the splits, a process that gives holdouts bargaining power. Ms. Rabkin said that most projects reached consensus in a few days and that the longest had taken “a couple months.” The service takes a 5 percent cut on royalties.
Representatives of Mr. Ocean declined to comment on exactly how he had used Stem. But aside from the album’s initial appearance on Apple Music — when it was delivered directly to Apple — Stem appears to have been the vehicle used to release “Blonde” to most major services. Stem distributes music to Spotify, Apple, YouTube, Amazon, Tidal, SoundCloud and several other outlets.
While Stem’s model was novel when it first appeared, it now has competition. In December, CD Baby quietly introduced a new distribution service, Soundrop, which, like Stem, tracks royalty splits — although without the consensus requirement — and caters to a generation more likely to post songs on YouTube and think about making money later.
“It’s an opportunity to reach a demographic that wants to create differently,” said Kevin Breuner, the vice president of marketing at CD Baby. “Music distribution is a secondary thought to them.”
Stem, by contrast, is catching on among a class of young professionals who often operate independently but may be involved in the highest creative levels of the business. Its clients include Childish Gambino and the electronic producer Deadmau5. The company says it has distributed 6,000 pieces of content that have been streamed 500 million times.
Dina LaPolt, a lawyer representing Deadmau5, said her client was using Stem to track his music on YouTube, but explained that Stem’s royalty-tracking system was particularly important to artists in managing the otherwise daunting task of tracking royalty splits.
“Music is the only business in the world where the artist is responsible for doing all the paperwork,” Ms. LaPolt said.
Among Stem’s most vocal advocates is Anna Wise, 28, a singer and songwriter who won a Grammy Award for her work with Kendrick Lamar. She was working as a nanny before she began using the service, which she said had provided her with a steady income — “enough to pay Brooklyn rent,” she said — and devote herself fully to making music. Her latest album, “The Feminine: Act II,” released through Stem, comes out on Feb. 17.
The company’s system, she said, allows her and friends to quickly and transparently arrange deals among themselves, maintaining control and minimizing any disruption to creativity.
“It’s essentially like a smart contract,” Ms. Wise said. “It’s easier and simpler, and I love easy and simple.”

Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé post top-grossing tours of 2016

January 2, 2017

Randy Lewis, LATimes.com 12/29/16

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band navigated “The River” 35th anniversary tour all the way to the bank in 2016, pulling in $268.3 million globally to score the top-grossing concert trek of the year worldwide, according to Pollstar, the concert industry-tracking publication.

Beyoncé nipped close at the E Streeters’ heels, grossing $256.4 million from her Formation world tour, followed by Coldplay ($241 million), Guns N’ Roses ($188.4 million) and Adele ($167.7 million) to round out Pollstar’s top five.

“In what has been a banner year for the concert business, the Top 10 Tours alone grossed a combined $1.67 billion,” Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni noted in a statement. “That is significantly better than the $1.5 billion in 2015.”

It is, in fact, an 11.3% increase.

Adele is one of just two performers to have emerged in the new millennium to make the Top 10, the other being Justin Bieber, whose tour grossed $163.3 million, placing him at No. 6 on the list.

That’s a bit of a come down from last year, when Taylor Swift had the top-grossing tour of 2015 worldwide and the Top 10 also include such relative newcomers as One Direction  and Ed Sheeran.

Following Bieber on the 2016 roster, Paul McCartney posted a worldwide gross of $110.6 million; Garth Brooks, $97 million; the Rolling Stones, $90.9 million; and Céline Dion, $85.5 million.

Coldplay, however, sold the most tickets, moving almost 2.7 million during the year, followed by Springsteen at 2.4 million and Beyoncé at 2.2 million.

Dion easily had the top average ticket price of $146.26, followed by McCartney at $127.43, the Stones at $122.33, Beyoncé at $114.59 and Springsteen at $111.48.

In terms of average gross per show, however, the Stones dwarfed the competition, taking in an staggering $9.1 million from just 14 performances in 10 cities. Beyoncé finished second with an average of nearly $5.6 million at 49 shows in 46 cities, then Coldplay at just under $5.5 million from 60 shows in 44 cities and Guns N’ Roses at almost $5.4 million from 44 shows in 35 cities.

Brooks can claim the most affordable tour among the Top 10 finishers, tickets averaging just $69.29 for the 102 performances he gave in 25 cities.

Pollstar is still finalizing figures for its annual ranking of the Top 200 tours globally and in North America; results will be posted in its Jan. 6 edition.

Bongiovanni noted that Beyoncé took top honors for the highest-grossing North American tour of 2016, but the figure for that portion of her world tour was not released.

Both Springsteen and Beyonce surpassed Swift’s field-leading gross of $250.1 million in 2015.

Streams? What Streams? For Newvelle Records, Vinyl Is the Future

December 27, 2016

By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO  NYTimes.com 12/26/16

PEEKSKILL, N.Y. — The jazz pianist Elan Mehler hovered over a vinyl-cutting lathe at Masterdisk studios as a mastering engineer laid a blank disc onto the plate and paused for a moment, listening for hints of interference as the blade sliced across the surface.

The men were here, an hour north of New York City, to cut master recordings for Newvelle Records, the small label that Mr. Mehler, 37, founded two years ago with his business partner, Jean-Christophe Morisseau. The discs will be sent to France to be replicated en masse and mailed to Newvelle’s subscribers.

Well, sort of en masse. Like everything at Newvelle, these records will be released only on vinyl, in small releases of 500. No CDs, no digital downloads, no streaming.

It’s all part of Mr. Mehler’s plan to produce first-rate jazz recordings in the digital age. That the music will reach only a small handful of listeners, at least initially, is a necessary downside, Mr. Mehler said

“It’s a model that sustains the music,” he said. “I came to this idea of how to record because of how difficult it is to make a record as a jazz musician.”

Jazz accounted for just 1 percent of all record sales in the United States in 2015, according to Nielsen’s year-end report. But jazz buyers do purchase actual albums: Almost half of those jazz records were bought in physical form. And across all genres, vinyl sales continue to rise; according to Nielsen’s midyear report, in the first half of 2016, vinyl accounted for 12 percent of physical album sales, up 3 percent over the same period a year ago.

Mr. Mehler first had the idea to start a label that would marshal the appeal of vinyl a few years ago, while living in Paris. He mentioned it to Mr. Morisseau, 48, a French businessman who was taking piano lessons from him. They started meeting regularly and sketched out a plan.

Musicians would receive a flat fee to record their albums, with Newvelle fronting the cost of production at a world-class studio in Lower Manhattan. The label would retain exclusive rights to the music for two years, offering it only on elegantly packaged vinyl and only to subscribers, who would pay $400 for a year’s worth of recordings: six in all, sent at two-month intervals.

After two years, the artists would have the right to release the music independently, as long as Newvelle retained exclusive vinyl-distribution privileges.

Mr. Mehler and Mr. Morisseau released their first season over the past year, reaching about 200 subscribers, and in November they completed a Kickstarter campaign to finance the second. That drive signed up about 50 subscribers and raised over $25,000.

Newvelle’s records adhere to the kind of gossamer, “chamber jazz” aesthetic that characterizes most of Mr. Mehler’s work as a pianist, but they feature a range of musicians, from jazz’s nobility to its rising stars.

For the first season, the pre-eminent drummer and sometime keyboardist Jack DeJohnette recorded his first solo piano album, “Return,” a collection of gentle but austere compositions, often in a plaintive minor key. Noah Preminger, a young tenor saxophonist with a dusted and blossoming tone, made a ballads record with an all-star quartet.

Each album in the first season featured images by the French photographer Bernard Plossu, and poems from the Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith were printed in the liner notes. This season, which is priced at $360, the albums will feature photos by the French collective Tendance Floue. The novelist Douglas Kennedy is writing a short story that will be serialized across the six records, with a different portion on each album cover.

Rufus Reid, an esteemed bassist, has recorded an album for the coming season, featuring his jazz trio alongside the Sirius String Quartet. He said he was grateful for the opportunity to produce a graceful product and to see his ambitions encouraged rather than resisted. “I think there’s been a longing for people to listen more intently, and the vinyl kind of makes you do that,” he said, adding, “Other labels aren’t really putting out any cash for the whole kit and caboodle of recording an album.”

In its focus on vinyl and its distinctive, brand-coherent album art, Newvelle is a kind of throwback to jazz’s midcentury glories. But it’s also timely. Vinyl is becoming the quintessential luxury item for a music business in transition. And across industries, small companies like Newvelle are using subscription services to market niche products.

“The vinyl form, for Elan, really represented this idea of a pure sound, something that’s very high-quality and that every artist is very keen on,” Mr. Morisseau said. “So my idea was to say, ‘O.K., let’s treat the vinyl and the music like a luxury good.’”

For Newvelle’s musicians, the studio does not serve as a conduit to a broad audience so much as a site for the celebration of their craft. It does little to emulate the bandstand, jazz’s onetime breeding ground, but it does suggest a survival technique for jazz in lean times. And it signals that when jazz becomes a luxury item, product may matter more than populism

How Streaming Is Changing Music (Again)

December 15, 2016

by Michael Luca and Craig McFadden hbr.org 12/12/16

Beyoncé made history with her album Lemonade, which was streamed a record 115 million times in its first week. Just one week later, Drake broke that record when his album Views was streamed 245 million times. The age of streaming music has arrived in full force, displacing both physical sales (e.g., CDs) and downloaded songs (e.g., iTunes). As streaming has taken hold, U.S. album sales, both physical and digital, have plummeted from a peak of 785 million in 2000 to just 241 million in 2015. The change comes from people switching from purchasing full albums, either online or offline, to listening to individual songs through a streaming platform such as Spotify, Tidal, or Pandora (where one of us works, full disclosure).

This shift has the potential to reshape both the music people listen to and the music that artists create. For example, will the concept of albums survive in the age of streaming, or will artists simply release their best singles? (History buffs will note that the concept of recorded albums is itself relatively new.)

As music fans, we wanted to get a sense of the evolving music landscape. Looking at the academic research on the topic and our own data set of 2,400 top-selling albums from 1992 to 2015, two patterns about music quality emerged.

The “Long Tail” Is Easier to Find and Cheaper to Make

Digitization has brought new strategic challenges, and falling revenue, to the industry. Yet it has also brought new opportunities to a wider variety of artists. By reducing search costs, the digitization of music makes it easier to discover new artists and albums.

Despite early concerns that falling revenue (and online piracy) would reduce the availability of music, research by economists Luis Aguiar and Joel Waldfogel shows that the number of music products created between 2000 and 2008 tripled. Skeptics may worry that quantity is coming at the expense of quality. Music quality is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, and some people surely think that music has been on the decline since the death of Tchaikovsky. Focusing on the narrower context of recorded popular music albums from 1960 to 2007, Waldfogel created metrics aimed at capturing the quality of music, such as whether an album ended up on critics’ lists of all-time best albums and the extent to which an album continues to be listened to in future years. (These metrics capture things such as critical acclaim and staying power in the eyes of listeners, focusing on how new and older music compare.) The data suggests that the quality of music has actually improved in the digital age. It is easier to find and less costly to release new music, leading to unpredictable successes from artists who might not have been discovered or produced an album in an earlier era.

While music is still an industry associated with superstars, a greater variety of artists are producing best-sellers over time. Looking at the data, the sales going to the top 100 albums has dropped by about 20% over the past 20 years — nontrivial gains for other artists.

With subscription pricing and the ability to easily skip among artists (as opposed to per-album or per-song charges, which were the norm), streaming pushes users to listen to explore new artists. This has the potential to reduce the concentration of the very top artists and albums, while also helping music lovers find what economists refer to as the “long tail” of the industry. In other words, it’s easier than ever before to find an artist like Julia Nunes, a ukulele player doing cover songs of pop bands who was first discovered through YouTube.

Average Album Length Has Changed Over Time

The quantity and quality of music are not the only things that are changing. In 1992 cassette tapes were the predominant form of consumption in the U.S. and albums averaged about 12.5 tracks. The rise of compact discs brought about better functionality to skip around to different tracks and to know what song you were listening to. (Hidden tracks also suddenly became not so hidden.) As compact discs became the norm, the number of songs per album increased, averaging 15.8 at its peak in 2003.

Around this time, online music started becoming popular and album length began to fall — today it’s about 14.17 tracks. It has been holding steady for about five years but may still be in flux, as artists are figuring out how to adjust to the streaming age.

While many factors affect album length, this raises the potential of adjusting creative content in response to new modes of distribution. When albums are less popular relative to, say, song downloads, albums might become shorter. “Filler” tracks, less popular songs that are not released as singles, serve a diminished purpose. For example, all 12 tracks on Lemonade debuted on the Billboard Hot 100.

What’s Next?

For the industry, these changes raise strategic questions, not only about contracts and pricing but also about which types of artists will thrive and what content artists should be producing. Artists like Drake and Beyoncé show that the concept of an album is still relevant, in part because of innovations such as the visual album. Beck’s 2013 book of sheet music, Song Reader, was innovative in a different way, leading fans to post their own versions of the album online. For example, there are now dozens of versions of the song “Old Shanghai” on YouTube, on instruments ranging from a toy piano to a ukulele.

The Chainsmokers show an alternative path to the album. First known for their 2014 hit “#Selfie,” the band has foregone full-length albums and instead released 10 separate singles and official remixes, which have sold 2.6 million downloads and been streamed over 600 million times on Spotify alone.

For artists, it is a time of reflection and increased strategic options. And for music lovers, it is time to sit back and listen.

December 11, 2016

My Headphones, My Self

By JACOB BERNSTEIN  NYTimes.com 10/10/16

You see them on every block: people being propelled through their routines listening to their own individualized soundtracks, with the outside world serving as a stage set.

Headphones are now fashion statements. Status symbols. Fetish objects on par with luxury watches and limited-edition Nikes.

William Crosson, a 28-year-old executive recruiter and part-time D.J., wears V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones, a $270 set that looks like something a cyberhooligan might wear to a Berlin disco.

Alexander Gilkes, a member of Vanity Fair’s best-dressed list and co-founder of the auction site Paddle8, wears $400 headphones made by Master & Dynamic.

Martin Gaynor, a 27-year-old freelance app developer for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, wears Symphonized 2s, a pair of wood-covered, over-the-ear headphones that he bought on Amazon for $53. “The wooden earthy look just seemed to complement the subdued classical look I have on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “It just matched.”

Don’t forget the cultural bellwether Beyoncé. In her “Lemonade” video this year, she belts out “Sandcastles,” a ballad of a woman scorned, while wearing $550 Prymas.

Global headphone sales hit a peak of $8.4 billion in 2013, and two years later, that figure rose to $11.2 billion, according to the research firm Futuresource Consulting. The company predicts that sales will rise another $2 billion by 2018, meaning we have yet to reach Peak Headphone.

The combination of the iPhone and headphones in many varieties (in-ear, over-the-ear, shaped-to-your-ear and so on) gives city dwellers the ability to largely avoid an experience that was once arguably the whole point of living in the crowd — interacting with others.

In a fraught public sphere, headphones provide a measure of privacy. Those who fall deeply into a Spotify playlist or the latest installment of an addictive podcast enter a cocoon-like zone all but impenetrable to tourists, beggars and those do-gooders with clipboards.

“Headphones are the front line of urban social defense,” said Julie Klausner, a comedian, actor and writer. “I’m introverted and socially anxious by nature. My worst nightmare is sitting next to someone on a plane or someone who wants to strike up a conversation on an elevator.”

But Ms. Klausner knows she opens herself to experiences she may otherwise miss when she leaves the headphones at home.

“The other morning, I forgot my headphones and was on the 2 train going to physical therapy when I spilled water over my own seat,” she said. “Then this smiling older woman came over to talk. If my headphones had been on, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Alone Together

On a recent Thursday in Midtown Manhattan, Grimaldi Perdomo, 37, an architect, was on his way to work, wearing a Burberry trench coat and listening to the Weeknd’s new album, “Starboy,” on his Parrot Ziks, popular $400 black and titanium headphones designed by Philippe Starck.

A look through Mr. Perdomo’s black Banana Republic bag revealed that he, like other urban warriors, has headphones for all occasions.

Tucked into a small cardboard box was a pair of white Jaybird wireless in-ear headphones for the gym. Should the Jaybirds fail, Mr. Perdomo had a backup: trusty white Apple earbuds, the minimalist sound-delivery system that was all the rage not so long ago but has increasingly been replaced by more garish accessories. At home, Mr. Perdomo said, is an old pair of Beats.

“I like my music,” he said.

All the same, he believes something has gotten lost as many people navigate public spaces under the spell of the private experiences encouraged by digital media.

“Technology has ruined us,” Mr. Perdomo said. “You go to a restaurant and look around, and maybe 80 percent of the people are looking at their phones.”

Please Go Away

The experience of intense private listening in public settings is nothing new. It goes back to teenagers communing with the Shangri-Las via the earpieces connected to transistor radios in the 1950s and ’60s. It recalls the Sony Walkman craze of the ’80s.

But the latest round of headphones popularity may be an expression of our disaffected times, coming during a season when people holding different views on matters political and cultural struggle to open their mouths without triggering an argument.

Some headphones are chrome and accentuate the bass. Others are gold and boost the treble. The companies producing them can go from obscure to white-hot overnight.

Enormous growth has taken place for headphones priced from $99 to $500. But companies like HiFiMan, Audeze and JH Audio have built substantial businesses selling headphones that retail for as much as $3,000.

Alexander Wang and Proenza Schouler are collaborating with brands like Beats and Master & Dynamic on limited editions. Canali teamed with Pryma. Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Colette and Opening Ceremony all stock headphones.

There is even a Broadway show, “The Encounter,” by Simon McBurney, experienced through headphones. It opened to rave reviews in September, with its fancy listening devices given, free of charge, by the German headphones brand Sennheiser. The irony of “The Encounter” is that it relies on state-of-the-art technology to deliver a lament against it.

“For Sennheiser, it’s product placement and an indictment,” Mr. McBurney said.

Did they mind?  “I don’t think so,” he said.

The Shift

The paradox of the headphone experience — which somehow brings together, as Mr. McBurney suggested, isolation and intimacy — did not seem to be on the mind of Val Kolton, 39. A sports-car-obsessed techno fanatic, he founded a headphones company in 2004, naming it V-Moda because “‘moda’ means fashion,” he said, and all his favorite brands were Italian.

“Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace,” he said. “And I was really into motorsports. Lamborghini, Ferrari, Ducati.”

Before starting his business, Mr. Kolton was living in San Diego and working at Aviatech, a digital marketing company. Then he had an awakening on a dance floor in Ibiza, Spain.

“We were doing antismoking commercials, and I heard we were going to do another for Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” Mr. Kolton said one evening this fall, as he sat on a black leather sofa in his West Hollywood offices. “And I was having a drink and a smoke, and I thought: ‘You know what? Why am I doing all these “anti” campaigns? What’s next? An antisex campaign? Dance music is going to break through. House music is here!’”

Two years later, Mr. Kolton’s parents gave him money to produce candy-colored $99 earbuds. At the time, Apple was scheduled to release the first iPhone, with a recessed headphone jack that was incompatible with most headphones on the market.

Mr. Kolton got the bright idea of manufacturing his line to Apple’s market-busting specifications. He flew to Cupertino, Calif., and made the pitch. He figured he would be one of many entrepreneurs with Apple in mind, but that was not the case.

The market got more crowded after Beats by Dr. Dre, founded by Andre Young, known as Dr. Dre, and the music producer and executive Jimmy Iovine, introduced its first $300 headphones in 2008.

“Before Beats, $300 for a headphone was considered an outrageous amount of money to spend,” said Jamey Warren, the chief executive of Headphone.com. “You could buy a Sennheiser HD 600 over-the-ear headphone for $300. It was considered the world’s best, and it was a stretch for most folks except audiophiles.”

Increased demand isn’t the only thing fueling the boom. Crowdfunding sites have given potential entrepreneurs new routes to capital, while manufacturing costs have fallen. The 2014 sale of Beats to Apple, for $3 billion, also ushered in a new wave of headphone hopefuls.

Steve Guttenberg, a contributing editor to the digital products review site CNET and a high-fidelity expert, explained how the business has changed.

“Thirty years ago, when someone said, ‘I want to make a headphone,’ he would probably try to make it here in the United States, or he might design it and then get on a plane and say to the people who make headphones in China: ‘Here’s the design. Can you execute it?’” he said. “Now, we’ve eliminated the first two steps. The requirement, quote unquote, is that the person who’s running the show knows what it should sound like and look like and feel like and is able to say, ‘Keep showing me your samples until I find it.’

By the time Jonathan Levine, 54, a former investment banker at Lehman Brothers, started the headphones company Master & Dynamic in 2014, it was clear that design and marketing were key.

Mr. Levine settled on the brand name Master & Dynamic because it sounded similar to established audio brands such as Bang & Olufsen, Astell & Kern, and Bowers & Wilkins. “‘Levine’ didn’t exactly scream luxury,” he said.

To get out the message for his 1950s-inspired, produced-in-China headphones, with its cognac-colored headband, he hired Carolina Clouet, a Balenciaga-clad former consultant for Barneys and Neiman Marcus, as his director of sales.

In October 2014, Bergdorf Goodman, Opening Ceremony and Colette received the first shipments of Mr. Levine’s pièce de résistance, the $399 MH40. In December of that year, Mr. Levine’s team sent them as freebies to Art Basel Miami Beach attendees at the Edition hotel and the Standard Miami.

After David Beckham began wearing them around Los Angeles, GQ proclaimed them “The Most Stylish Headphones Money Can Buy.” By the end of 2015, Master & Dynamic’s staff increased to 36 employees, from eight, who now work in a loftlike space in the garment district, where the walls are adorned with artwork by Christian Marclay and Terry Winters. There is even a Chuck Close portrait of Philip Glass, who, Mr. Levine was pleased to say, wears Master & Dynamics.

While many celebrities serve as brand endorsers, unwitting or not, others are trying to become the brand. This year, Will.i.am, a longtime minority partner in Beats, started Buttons, a $200 set of wireless, in-ear headphones shaped like small saucers and sold through Apple. The fashion stalwart André Leon Talley is the creative director, styling the ads and the boxes, which star Naomi Campbell and Kendall Jenner.

“Nobody has made a fashion headphone that’s in-ear,” Will.i.am said by phone while on a break from taping the British edition of “The Voice.” “They’re all big headphones that sit over your head. The reason we went with earbuds is because we were designing it to be like jewelry.”

The countless options can be paralyzing to customers. The writer and radio host Kurt Andersen said he had trouble picking the right headphones as he perused CNET’s exhaustive review section recently.

“I like that the over-the-ears are not as dorky as they once were,” he said. “The ones from Beats seem fine. But then do I look like someone trying to be young, with groovy, hip-hop headphones?”

The Holdouts

A challenge for the industry is getting women interested in its high-end gear. Amy Uaarmorn, a 31-year-old staff member at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, received a free pair of Master & Dynamic MH40s last year. Yet she said she seldom wears them and cannot imagine spending any more than $50 or $100 on headphones

Never mind that Ms. Uaarmorn’s former boyfriend, Brannan Mason, 24, happens to be the co-owner of Noble Audio, a three-year-old Santa Barbara company that has received glowing notices for its in-ear earphones with prices that begin at $300 and go to $2,700.

Some of the ultraexpensive headphones are made to fit your ear exactly. To get a pair, you see an audiologist, who takes impressions of yours ears using a Play-Doh-like substance and ships them off to a manufacturer like Noble Audio.

This variety, known as CIEMs (short for custom in-ear monitors), started with touring musicians, who use them to block ambient noise and monitor their own sound.

Julie Glick, an audiologist who has a practice on Park Avenue, operates almost like a pharmaceutical rep for Noble Audio and other brands that specialize in custom, in-ear headphones. Matt Stone, a creator of “South Park,” and Daniel Villano, a colorist at Frédéric Fekkai, are among her clients who pop in to test demo units. When a sale is made, she earns a commission.

The trend really took off when JH Audio, a big player in this area, began posting photos of its famous customers and their CIEMs on Facebook and Instagram

But even as the boom shows no sign of abating, there are those who, like Ms. Uaarmorn, have no interest in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a perfect listening experience.

Julie Klausner is also sticking to the basics.

“Apple earbuds,” she said. “I don’t really need anything else.”