ENGAGING THE ARTIST
ENGAGING THE ARTIST
XM launched in 2001. Quickly we became known for quality music, something to this day we hold of paramount importance. It’s kind of like Word War two where it took the American GI’s to liberate Europe against evil. XM is the modern day musical equivalent as it’s up to us to help liberate American ears from the creative evils of consolidated radio.
As we built our musical reputation, it was clear that we needed to go to a higher level. MORE than musical freedom and passion. We needed a vehicle that will put us into a different space. It’s really not unlike HBO. They ran a lot of movies, but once they introduced original programming, they separated themselves from the pack. Sopranos, Sex and the City, and a myriad of other originals made them so much more than a movie channel.
OK—so how does XM create original long form programming? We have a lot of it with concerts and artist “spectaculars”—they’re great, but they’re not really original in terms of a new idea. Well, we’re all about music, so let’s engage the artists. Initially, reaction from the timeless artists was luke warm. We could score the newer bands looking to plug their new CD, but the ones who and a history…a long term legitimacy we’re simply burned by radio. They didn’t want to go on the air and talk about tits, or answer “deep” questions about how great it is to be back in town. We needed something new…big…and intellectual. Something that the artists would find interesting and the fans could see a new side of the artist. Interviews generally suck. The artist would rather be ordering room service, the DJ is intimidated and the listeners want to hear music…combined with the fact that 99% of all interviews are lame. No new information. Nothing in the least bit edgy. Boring. Now Bob Edwards and many of our guys are interview masters---but generally speaking an interview is part of a cattle call to support a new release.
Along the way, George Taylor Morris had Yes and Graham Nash into XM. They performed, but instead of a straight gig, he’d intersperse the songs with an interesting Q&A. About the song…the structure…the inspiration. As with most XM performances there was an audience. The artists loved this…so did I. We then went to the drawing board and created a design for a new show that took this format and tuned it into a show that was extremely artist friendly and unique. We named it Artist Confidential.
The first artist was Don Henley. Unfortunately he had a cold and couldn’t perform…but he had no shortage of things to say. The uncensored forum didn’t hurt his rants one bit. The audience had the chance to ask questions…about anything (except the Eagles). We were onto something. Intelligent cerebral interview…audience of super fans…Interactive Q&A. Now—add the performance component and we may have a hit.
The booking continued with a performance being key—BUT—it could be workshop style rather than a traditional gig. Bonnie Raitt, Rush, Wynton Marsalis and dozens of others came aboard. Jamming…talking about the songs…interacting with the audience. Warm, smart, musical and intimate. The show was born.
Some of the most comical and interesting moments in my career have been around the signing of these Artist Confidential artists. Take Paul McCartney. This was HUGE. It started with Bill Porricelli…then Lee Eastman (both with his management). Didn’t really get much traction at first. Then we did Coldplay and in attendance was Mark Di Dia, the GM of Capitol. He was knocked out by the show. He suggested I reach out to Paddy Spinks, one of Paul’s insiders. Paddy’s an old acquaintance that I knew when he was with King Crimson. He reminded me of a drunken night in 1980 when he brought Robert Fripp to my house in Atlanta. Robert taught me a secret to his precision---practice with the lights off. It took two years to get Paul to do Artist Confidential, but we were on the fast track now. The ideal date for Paul was the afternoon he was playing DC. 4pm start and he HAD to be out by 5 for sound check (Its an hour show that is recorded and mixed for play about a month later). Now—Paul’s team is incredibly professional…but VERY VERY high maintenance….and standards. Then again, he IS a Beatle. No problem. But every day was a near catastrophic as we neared show date. They looked at EVERYTHING. 20 emails a day. Logistics Hell. Jayme Karp who handles the show’s logistics was going nuts. We all were. The night before the show, Paul’s swat team visited. Uh Oh!!! Show might be off! The chairs in the green room had leather! So we recruit a group of beefy interns to move out the leather and bring in the cloth. Piano is tuned…BUT we need a piano tuner on site just in case it goes out of tune…and it gets worse from there. We’re all kinda freaking…this show MUST go on.
It’s show date. Rainy. Miserable. Paul is arriving at Dulles Airport, about an hour drive from XM. It’s 3pm. No Paul. It’s 3:10. No Paul. It’s 3:20 and his road manager gets a call. Paul has arrived! But it’s 3:20—With the weather the way it is, he’ll arrive about 4:30. Sound check and he’ll go on at 4:55 and leave at 5. A 5 minute show??!!?? Then about 15 minutes later, a 9/11-ish blast of sirens engulfs the air. Roaring motorcycles zip up to XM. It’s Paul! A police escort. He arrives with time to spare! Despite warnings to give Paul his space and limit contact, he is the nicest person imaginable. Totally cool. He relaxes and does an amazing show. Writes a song on the spot to illustrate the songwriting process…pulls 4 people from the audience to jam with him. The audience was a mix of music students, VIP’s, Paul fans and just normal music freaks. IT WAS MAGIC. At the end of the show he thanks the engineers. He hugs Jayme…he takes plenty of photos and even compliments me on the British teacups I stole from my Wife as these were in his rider.
Total pro. One of the best shows ever.
Then there was Yusef Islam aka Cat Stevens. I was kind of expecting a crazed terrorist. This will be the first one on one he’s done with radio since the 70’s. We arranged a breakfast meeting to discuss the show. Hmmm….breakfast at a DC Power spot. Right move? Will he go into a rant? Man—was I wrong. Here was the perfect gentleman…who went on to do a classic Artist Confidential. A few weeks later he had that airplane incident. I was embarrassed for him. He was a wonderful guy. Brian Wilson was “interesting”…Rush had fans from Bolivia and Taiwan fly in---For an hour. To be 10 feet from their heroes. These aren’t radio “interviews”—but something infinitely more driven by intellect and music.
These things have no rules. Well, cell phones gotta be off. But that’s it. There COULD be a “stupid question” rule since we don’t want to dumb these down for mass consumption, but the audience is primarily music students and hard core fans…they are notoriously smart in their questioning. The performances are really a trip. Phil Collins brings in an 11 piece acoustic band…Judy Collins sits at the piano and tickles her way through her career…Willie Nelson brings his Son along to play…We even did Santana at our Jazz at Lincoln Center studio. A cosmic journey. Lincoln Center is kinda different because there are unions. The amalgamated lighting union to turn the lights on….plus it’s NYC where everything is just a touch crazier.
Artist Confidential is emerging as a trademark program for XM. It serves many purposes. It is organic and real—not one of those cheesy canned, edited and modified-to-fit-FM shows. It deals with timeless artists. All genres. All ages. The only real criteria is that they have a story to tell. That’s why we had Odetta…and Andrea Bocelli…and Rosanne Cash…and Trey Anastasio…and the list goes on. It’s about intellect and the artists’ career, present and future—NOT a promo piece for the new CD. We call it “complete” radio. In an era where the thinking is “Get a morning show, test the library and get up some billboards” is the game plan, we feel a radio station needs to be a complete experience. This show helps us get there.
We’ve expanded on the “Confidential” concept by adding ‘Classical Confidential’. Same basic show except it is hosted by Classical guru Martin Goldsmith instead of George Taylor Morris who ably handles Artist Confidential. Classical is a bit of a different World and Martin is clearly the man for that. Then of course there are more channel specific shows like LOFT SESSIONS that Mike Marrone and Kate Bradley put together for The Loft and literally dozens of other shows that are all original and ENGAGE artists on a cerebral and musical level.
Another show that helps us become more “complete” is THEN…AGAIN. Back in 1974 I saw Yes perform Close to the Edge, take an intermission, then perform Tales From Topographic Oceans. Depending on your point of view it was either a colossal bore or a sonic journey. Being a fan, it was a journey to another world. Brilliant. The thing that got me thinking was that “complete” albums performed live would be an amazing listening experience in terms of live music on radio. Traditionally, live sets are a mix of old and new with the anthems as the encore. THIS is something different and we try to be all about different. Along the way the BBC tried this and then Deep Purple performed Machine Head a few years ago. I thought this would be perfect XM concept. In studying the possibility it became obvious that most bands that created truly Classic Albums were either:
Not around anymore, or at least in a configuration that could re-create an early album
Can’t play all of the songs without extensive rehearsal.
Simply didn’t want to go to this space.
One artist told me “No way! This Album needs to rest-in-peace….besides, there’s no way that moment in time can be re-created”. Oddly enough that same artist slept on it and came back a week later with ‘well…I’ve been thinking, this Album is so powerful, it DESERVES to have a renaissance…”
So, we went out and talked to artists about this. The idea is that they can re-interpret the album in any way…re-invent it…re-arrange it. The only “rule” is that it needs to be the full album in exactly the same running order as it was on vinyl. We’ve done several in this series ranging from Cheap Trick at Budokhan to Dave Mason’s Alone Together. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was especially cool, as was Pronounced by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Besides having NEW versions of Locomotive Breath and Free Bird to play, there’s something eerily magical about hearing the bands perform something so classic…today. AND—hearing the album in the SAME order as when you put it on a turntable 30 years ago…not to mention the joy of an audience hearing this from ten feet away. Except the Allman Brothers. They brought two semi’s worth of equipment so even the Grand Canyon couldn’t fit a crowd with that amount of gear.
The point is that radio needs to re-engage with artists. Radio shot itself in the foot in terms of “owning” artists. Information about artists…real compelling and different one-on-one relationships on the air that are actually interesting to the artist and the fans listening are something we are charged to bring back…on 2006 terms. Years ago, a Springsteen type may have gotten off the bus and headed to the local station to play a few tunes. No more…at least on most stations. I’m always amazed at how engagement with artists needs to be on radio terms instead of the artists’ terms. You know---Talk about the hits…hype the new CD. Yes, those are important ingredients in many cases…but like with everything, I think it’s necessary to think beyond the old school radio playbook. It’s all about careers ..not just hits. It’s all about engaging the artist not the new single. It’s all about RECOGNIZING that RADIO should “own” music, not print or TV…
It all gets down to COMPLETENESS. A complete listening experience…something that ONLY radio can deliver.