Think

You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free

“Think” by and co-written by Aretha Frankin

So I was thinking about a bunch of stuff this weekend. I spent a lot of time thinking about Aretha. I even made my kids watch The Blues Brothers so they could see that she was more than an amazing singer, songwriter and activist. She was funny. For me, she stole the movie with this scene and I’ve thought that since I first saw it as a kid…about my kids age.

Let’s go back, let’s go back
Let’s go way on way back when
I didn’t even know you
You couldn’t have been too much more than ten (just a child)
I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees
But it don’t take too much high IQ to see what you’re doing to me

I’ve also been thinking about social networks (along with a lot of other people) and how they are having a negative affect on me and those around me. The negativity is mostly coming from a small group of people and millions of bots who are spewing a bunch of vitrol in their posts and videos and it’s hard to figure out what to do about these bad actors on these platforms.

The debate concerns who and who shouldn’t get banned for saying hateful things or what  should be considered offensive. I worry about asking the folks who run these networks to make decisions on these issues that impact our society and culture is a bad idea. Don’t get me wrong, these are really smart people. I’m just a bit weary of business people setting cultural and societal contracts instead of folks who dedicate their lives to public policy and service. I’m sure people are on the payroll at these companies that have dedicated their lives to such issues, but I’ve rarely seen internal policing go well. Maybe it will.

Ten or so years ago when I started on Facebook and Twitter the services were shortcuts to get information on my friends (on FB) and on tech, music and sometimes sports news from Twitter. It seemed like they were mostly link services that like my RSS reader, made it a bit easier to track a lot of things. Hyperlinks are powerful and I’d bounce around from source to source. The signal was distributed and un-algorithmed. Somewhere along the line that changed…at least for me. Pre-Twitter, I got my the majority of my information from visiting blogs and large media companies directly instead of quick-take tweets. Then I noticed I let the quick take replace reading the original piece altogether. I purposely had to make an effort to subscribe and visit a few publications and blogs every day after the election to change my news consumption habits. 

With a lot of people frustrated with Twitter’s take on censorship, some folks were floating quitting Twitter or trying other services like Mastodon as an alternative. I tried Mastodon a year or so ago, but it was a bit too much of a headache to use and it didn’t seem like that many people were using it. On Friday, I tried it again and found it much easier to use. And there were a lot of people using it, at least on the instance I joined. Does it feel like it could replace Twitter tomorrow? Nope. But Twitter didn’t seem like it would replace the news for me either when I first joined.

I’m not going to quit Twitter as there is still content value being created for me. I doubt that the network value of Twitter will go away for several years. But maybe Mastodon will pull out my “music Twitter” so there’s a place I can go that is higher signal on music and not crowded out by tech, politics or the people who conflate Twitter posts with Facebook posts of their personal lives non-stop. Twitter may not being growing significantly, but the noise has increased for sure.

I do think Mastodon or some distributed variant has a legitimate chance now to pull attention away from Twitter. Or at least some of the more interesting contributors, especially when I see two of the first people I followed on Twitter, Andy and Anil, are there and posting regularly. You can also kind of see the potential for some new community/publication thing forming when you see people like Will , Gary and Jeff playing around with Content.Town – their own Mastodon instance. Sure it’s a joke. Twitter seemed like one at first too.

So back to what Simon tweeted yesterday. Why don’t we just start blogging and rolling again? Why not go back to making content on my own, er leased, servers? It was never that hard to make a blog and it’s even easier now. Within a few minutes, good ‘ol Dreamhost (proud customer since 2001) and WordPress had me back up again. So I’m going to start cranking out blog posts again even if only two people read them. I’ll tell you, it’s much easier to write and read a blog post than a tweet storm

And to Simon’s point about subscribing to each other’s Atom/RSS feeds. We can still do that with services like Feedly, even if Google Reader is gone. Or maybe we should call Mark Fletcher to stand up my original fav Bloglines again. Or maybe there’s something new that sits on top of Twitter, Mastodons and blogs that is distributed and free of algorithmic feeds that more evenly distribute our attention and dollars to creators.  Anyway, you can find my RSS feed in the menu or I’ll keep plowing links on Twitter. 

Finally, thanks for reading my post. I so wanted to title it Back to the Future, but I had too much Aretha on my mind not to bring her into it. If you want to read a great piece on Aretha, my favorite is from Patterson Hood on The Bitter Southerner. Which is a great independent blog you should be reading.

The Best of Everything

So many people have written great posts or tweets about Tom Petty and their favorite Tom Petty moments. I’ve loved reading how Tom Petty moved them or was a part of their life. Thought it might feel good to share a few of my own.

I’ve never not appreciated Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ role as musical soundtrack provider and milestone marker through my adolescence to adulthood. Here are a few of my favorites moments:

One of the very first 45 records I bought with my own money.

MTV hit my house in 1982 and pretty much dominated my television viewing until I left for college. One of my favorite early videos was “You Got Lucky”. Looking back, it’s easy to call the sci-fi themed video’s production hokey. But if you were 11-years old and just coming off obsessions with first generation Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek reruns and Star Wars, it was a signal that these guys were simpatico with your current sense of awesomeness. Plus Tom got out of the space mobile with cowboy boots on! From that moment on Tom Petty and Mike Campbell were space cowboys from the future in my mind. I never thought of them as classic rockers. As a tribute, I am half entertaining the idea of buying old boomboxes, putting Tom Petty tapes in them and burying them in the ground so future space cowboys can stumble across them and discover Tom Petty a la the “You Got Lucky” video.

A few weeks later I went back to the Record Bar in the mall to buy Long After Dark, the album that contained “You Got Lucky” with some birthday money. With birthday level dollars, I could step up and buy whole albums instead of just singles. I had pretty much wore out the 45 by that time, so I wanted to dig in further.

I already had Queen’s Greatest Hits (w/ “Under Pressure”!) under my arm and was walking up with Long After Dark to the counter. These were big important purchases that would take most of my birthday $20, so I asked the clerk who was shelving stock if the rest of Long After Dark was as good as “You Got Lucky”. I remember her saying something like “It’s pretty good, but I would go with Hard Promises.” Without another word, she went back to the P’s, pulled Hard Promises and showed it to me. I can’t remember much else about the exchange other than I agreed to go with Hard Promises and she put Long After Dark back in the featured rack. Side A of that album is still one my favorite A-sides ever. Backing up “The Waiting” with “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” is just killer. It also began my love of record stores and the people who work in them.

I went back a few months later and got Damn the Torpedoes too. I had figured out that he did “Don’t Do Me Like That’, which I had loved as well. I never did buy Long After Dark for some reason.

The next Petty album I bought was Southern Accents which will always be important in my musical development. I almost didn’t buy it because I didn’t love the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” single or its video. What got me was the title track and the song “Rebels” which was played on KZ-106, our classic rock “hot rockin’” radio station in 80’s Chattanooga, TN. It was the first time I became aware that being “southern” was a thing you could be proud of in some way that didn’t feel completely redneck. Lots of my friends really identified with the Hank Williams, Jr. type of southern identification…huntin’, fishin’ and football. I tried that stuff but it didn’t fit me well. I realized that’s not who I was was or wanted to be. Before Southern Accents, 15 year-old me wanted to be from the U.K. or California. That’s because my heroes at that age were from one of those two places: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Black Sabbath, etc. Those people were cool! After this album, I could point to other southerners as culturally cool too.

Like Petty, I didn’t know too much about the Civil War, being a “rebel” or what the confederate flag really meant at the time. I didn’t think it was something that even existed in “modern society”. That’s because I grew up in Chattanooga which has a lot of Civil War History. There are tons of old Civil War monuments here that have New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other northern states names on them. It was always clear to me who lost that war and who the losers were. Being a confederate just didn’t seem like something you wanted to be or celebrate. Later on, we both learned a lot about those terms and symbols and how they meant something other than just “being from the south”.

The album and its subject matter immediately started me down a path to a different kind of southern culture and a new take on southern music. One that would lead me to R.E.M., Gram Parsons, the Byrds and a whole bunch of alternative country artists that made me think differently about a southern culture that was more open to art and different ways of thinking than was offered to me before it.

I could write a whole other post about memories I have around the Full Moon Fever and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Greatest hits albums. They were literally the soundtrack of my college years. I didn’t buy either album as they were played non-stop in my college apartments, car trips, parties and events throughout that time. I know every song and lyric by heart on both those albums, and there are literally too many memories to recount.

The next seriously meaningful Petty moment for me was buying this Wildflowers cassette in New Orleans as I drove cross country to move to California in my 1988 Hyundai Excel. It sounded like freedom and I think I listened to it 3 or 4 flips in a row before I took it out. I remember the production sounded so good! Even on my cheap Hyundai speakers, this album sounded like a road dream. Put it on the next time you are on a road trip and see what I mean. I’ve probably listen to this album at least three or four times a year since. It’s funny, some of the songs that I thought were weak at the time, I love now. For example, “Honey Bee”. Of course, Dave Grohl already knew that song slayed in 1994.

A few years after I moved to San Francisco, the Heartbreakers did a residency at the Fillmore. I didn’t live far from The Fillmore, so I would go down and try to get a ticket from a fellow fan at face value. I got to go to four shows which were amazing. Tom and the band looked like they were having a blast too. I remember thinking how cool it was to see an older cowboy-looking guy from Petaluma rocking out next to a Haight hipster on some Petty staple or choice cover and it didn’t feel weird. Petty really did cross the cultural divide with people. I also remember there were great openers as well. I saw Bo Diddley open!

Over the next 20 years, I would see a few more of their shows, one at festival. I would listen to the new albums over streaming services. Whether a show or a new album, the product was always good and was never a disappointment. As it goes in life, moments in adulthood are harder to remember, capture or reference musically than those from your formative years. But I was still a fan and there are tracks on The Last DJ and Mojo that I love.

My last Petty moment was seeing him with Mudcrutch in Boston after a Red Sox game at the House of Blues last Fall. There were no TP & the Heartbreaker staples, but the crowd still loved it. You could feel that he was doing it just for fun. Like he was still looking for that magic after all these years. And when he locked in with Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench, you could still see they had “their thing”. It was great to watch.

So there you have it. These were some of my favorite moments that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers provided a soundtrack to over the years. Thanks for everything Tom.

Wherever you are tonight, I wish you the best of everything. And I hope you found whatever you were looking for.

You Forgot It In People

Record Store Day reminded me that buying music is more fun with people involved.

Broken Social Scene’s “You Forgot It In People”album whose title I lifted for this post.

It’s been a little over a week since the music geek holiday of Record Store Day has passed. For those who don’t know, this holiday consists of rubbing (or for certain records throwing) elbows for the right to spend $25-$45 for albums pressed on plastic that you probably already have access to through Spotify, YouTube or your MP3s. It’s a real throwback for music fans and artists because people actually go to stores, talk to other humans and buy music again. It also serves as a stark reminder of how impersonal the music experience is now and what we’ve lost in the transition to digital.

Unfortunately, the record store is not going to return to its former glory no matter how much vinyl sales keep growing. To be clear, there will always be a little record store selling vinyl long after Urban Outfitters stops selling vinyl as a fashion accessory. That’s because people who love music will always seek out places to be with other people who love music too. I know that’s why I still go to concerts and music festivals.

So after my last Record Store Day (“RSD”) experience I started thinking about how digital music could capture more of the store experience. Right now, most digital music services are just about delivery and algorithmic programming and I am getting annoyed with it. Opening up a digital music service is bad a combination of overwhelming and boring.

It’s overwhelming because I have more music than I could ever listen to in a lifetime available. Unfortunately, this large number of listening options available tends to make my mind go blank. “Um, The Rolling Stones… I guess?” seems to be my brain’s typical response. Music services know this is a problem, so they prompt the user with suggested playlists to deal with this “what do I listen to now” problem. Or worse “this is what’s popular in your network” activity feeds. I love my friends, but I mostly hate what they listen to daily. Unfortunately, I find all these algorithmic programming options uninspiring. These suggestions also make me feel like a lame demographic:

I’m sure the algorithm is right and something in the data analysis that Spotify is gathering from my listening habits is spot on with these recommendations above. I definitely need a deeper focus, a happier work disposition and some idea of what today’s “viral hits” are as I don’t have a clue. But I don’t pay Spotify to give me the tough love reminder that I’m just an aging hipster in need of an attitude adjustment.

There’s got to be a way to make digital music more personal and enjoyable. Or at least something more akin to the RSD experience. Here’s a few ideas I had below.

Make an event out of new music.

When I was in college, I worked at a record store in Knoxville that did “midnight sales” when CDs came out. Like RSD, midnight sales were totally manufactured commercial events driven by the perception of scarcity. Lines of people waiting in the parking lot at midnight for Nirvana’s “In Utero” CD so they would be the first to have it… at least until 10am the next day when everyone else could buy it. The midnight sales were parties where you met a lot of people who liked things you liked. I think that still holds true and why people are still willing to line up at record stores at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to buy music instead of just buying it off eBay or Discogs the next day.

Why isn’t there an equivalent live event online when new albums come out? Not just a live concert, but a place where I can hear more about the album from the artist. Maybe see what other people think while we listened to the album live together?

I’ve got a little bit of experience in doing similar types of events for video games and movies from my last company Whiskey Media. Whiskey Media built entertainment brands like Giantbomb and Comicvine (which are now owned by CBSi) that were hybrid publishing and community sites. We would broadcast our hosts playing new video games or talking about movies live and the fans loved it. Thousands of people who would show up to watch and participate in chats during these live broadcast. You can check out what they are like yourself tomorrow (April 29th) at Giantbomb if you want to see exactly what I’m talking about, or check out an old clip of one of ours shows below.

It would be real easy for Amazon’s Twitch and Google’s YouTube to do these type of live “Fan Parties”. They just need to invest in great hosts for the events. If I were Spotify or Apple I would start thinking about these type of music release parties. Otherwise, they potentially lose their promotional power to Google and Amazon who can easily turn on this ability to connect fans with artists on their platforms.

Less exclusives, more rewards for supporting music.

The digital music industry has tried to create excitement around different kinds of exclusive models for awhile now, notably iTunes getting the Beatles or Spotify having Led Zeppelin exclusively. Tidal’s whole strategy seems to be based on exclusives which they have already caught a ton of grief about already.

With RSD, the exclusives exist in the form of limited edition vinyl that are distributed everywhere. The only fans getting the shaft are folks who live in towns without record stores. Or as I found out, showing up two hours late on RSD and missing out on that Alabama-shaped St. Paul & the Broken Bones release you really, really wanted.

Anyway, both of these “exclusive” methods are flawed. With digital exclusives, the artist risks alienating fans by making them choose between digital platforms. Consumers are not going to subscribe to three different services just to listen to all their favorite artists. The limited distribution leads to limited income.

When it comes to RSD exclusives, it’s not a sustainable business model because it happens once a year and most of the product is targeted to limited edition rarities for hardcore music nerds like me. This model does not “scale” as they say.

I think it would be better for digital music services to reward hardcore fans who show up for an album launch and buy the music instead. Let the distributors fight for debut rights instead of exclusive rights. Sure, it’s possible that the bigger, wealthier distributors might disproportionately get rights to bigger artists as they have in the past. If that happens, it will just make the smaller distributors work harder at breaking newer artists. That has worked out well for my favorite music distributor Bandcamp, which has already given a $100 million to artists. The more platforms we have fighting to promote new music the better I say.

Here are some ideas that as a music fan I would be glad to hand over $20 for when new albums come out:

  • Expensive benefit: Limited edition vinyl/cassette/t-shirts with digital purchases made on the first day of release.
  • Moderate priced benefit: Send posters & stickers for the first 100,000 (or pick a number) that buy the album in the first 24-hours at full price.
  • Cheap benefit: Collect Twitter, Instagram or Facebook usernames on checkout. Then post a link to a page with a collage of all those first week buyers, until the artist creates its own version of the Million Dollar Homepage. Randomly Tweet or Instagram those buyers and tell them thank you.

I’m sure there are better ideas by smarter people or maybe these ideas have been tried already. The point is music consumption needs to go back to being a better cultural experience and not the isolated experience it is today. Sure, there’s still concerts and record store days, but music’s future is online. Digital distribution is just not that fulfilling and is partially why people still look to buy physical artifacts or interact with their sometimes nice, sometimes crotchety record clerk guy. The companies who bring people back into the music experience will do exceptionally better going forward.

Special thanks to my super talented friend Lessley Anderson for edits and thoughts on this rambling post. If there are any errors or you don’t like the thoughts, don’t blame her. Also, you should see her band Baby & the Luvies if you’re in SF!