Monday, June 12, 2006

A DAY IN THE LIFE OF XM: THE BOB LEFSETZ VISIT

Bob Lefsetz, the mother of all Industry bloggers,
visited XM. I’ve known Bob for many years. His blog
is must reading for anyone remotely connected to
music. He doesn’t give a shit about anything or
anyone in terms of his opinion. If he thinks God is
an asshole, he’ll say it. Whenever I visit LA, we
have a free form dinner somewhere and rant about the
state of life. While Bob was an early believer in
XM, he’s recently written some things that would lead
you to believe that XM’s programming is sinking into
the FM standard. There may be some things that might
lead people to think that, but to us the evolution of
XM, while complex, is absolutely not geared on going
backwards! Bob was unsure of that. So we thought it
might be time to have him visit us. So we wrestled
with a few dates and came up with one last Tuesday. If
he comes in and checks out the vibe and it’s
lame---then maybe he’s right.

At first we were thinking “let’s put on a dog ’n pony
for him”…then—Naaah! He’s WAY too smart not to see
through that. So the “plan” was no plan. He
visits…walks the halls and checks out the reality of a
day in the life at XM. No show…no presentation…just a
day at XM. Nothing more...nothing less.

So…he arrives. At first I take him to Eric Logan’s
weekly staff meeting with managers of various
programming departments. I got excused from this so I
could be Bob’s host. After a quick hello, we wander
the halls. Run into Jessie Scott from X Country…they
talk about some Austin artist that played on a
Springsteen album…then Jackson Brady from Real Jazz
wanders over and it’s a Jazz rap…then Earl Bailey and
he connect on Philadelphia Stories…then Ben Smith from
Fine Tuning engages Bob on the virtues of his channel
in 5.1. Perfect! This is all spontaneous. No one
was “briefed”, no script..…they’re just talking their
game. No hype…just excitement about talking about
what they do.

We then wander up to the second floor for a tour of
our 85 studios. We also have an amazing setup at
Jazz@Lincoln Center in NYC and at the Country Music
Hall of Fame in Nashville, but the 2nd floor here in
DC is the creative command center. First we walk into
“The Quincy Jones Room” (production rooms are named
after masters of sound—from the Jerry Wexler room to
the Stravinsky room to the Orson Wells room, etc…)
“Audio Animator” Larry Whitt is there…amongst the Pro
Tools, keyboards and Fenders. Larry gives Bob
Production 101 and then we play “stump the star”,
where artists are asked to pick ANY song, and we can
then call it up and instantly play it. The only artist
to beat us was Jon Anderson who wanted Ilhan
Mimaraglu. We didn’t have it. Then Dylan stumped
us. Odd. But he found a song we didn’t have! But
Anderson’s worse than Bob Dylan in terms of
challenging our data base! OK—enough of that. We
walked…through Prod Rooms, Talk Studios, On Air
studios and banks of databases. Then I noticed Eddie
Kilroy from Hank’s Place was taking a break. We walked
in. Hank’s Place is an amazing format. A few times a
year Willie Nelson pops in and takes over…it’s
loose…it’s decorated like a bar in Lubbock circa
1956. I’m wondering…how will a Jewish Lawyer like Bob
relate to Eddie, an ex-Rodeo champ who oozes Red
State swagger? Man—they hit it off. Why? Because
Eddie is the real deal. No pretense…just passion. Then
we run into 50’s guru Ken Smith…Ken waxes on about how
the 50’s are the roots. The early R&B…the depth beyond
Hound Dog…the spirit of early Rock and R&B. Then into
our Performance Theater. Unfortunately it was a mix
day with no artists; originally the Cars were to
perform an Artist Confidential, but Elliott Easton
broke his collarbone…but Bob was able to Q&A Jackson
MacInnis, one of our top session engineers…He’s the
guy Paul McCartney said “Good job mate” to after his
gig at XM.

The tour continues. I’m feeling sorry for Bob because
everyone we run into in the hall is SO happy to tell
their story. It’s like the finger in the dike has been
pulled out and all of this passion comes pouring
out---into Bob’s ears. But he’s digging it…except when
we go by a channel he doesn’t like. Walking past the
“Big Tracks” studio, he boos. Hates the
channel. Well, I can understand that. NO ONE likes
ALL of our channels. That’s the point---If you create
channels that have a distinct Point of View, some
channels will be appalling…that’s the give when you do
PURE channels. That channel is PURE. Pure CRAP in his
mind…but I think if you were 16 and getting laid to
Bryan Adams songs in 1986, you might think
differently. Then again, we’ve got a zillion channels
that cover pretty much every musical POV from that
decade.

Into Deep Tracks for vinyl masturbation with George
Taylor Morris...then over to Bluesville where Bob and
Bill Wax talk about the future of the blues. Then
into Soul Street where he and Bobby Bennett engage in
a conversation ranging from early Motown to the state
of Hip Hop. Now—I am actually getting impressed. I
work with these guys every day and I forget what
treasures we have running these channels. These guys
and gals are INTO IT. They are SOOOO incredibly
focused and passionate. I need to spend more time
rekindling the musical relationship. Jim McBean, the
king of Audio Animators, had an animated rap with Bob…

Then I think we scared him. Took him into meet Phlash
Phelps and sit in on a few breaks. Phlash is out of
his mind…in a good way. He is a whiz at the pace and
intensity of what makes that channel soar as a Top 40
circa 1965. Along with Terry Young and Pat Clarke,
they’ve really captured the spirit of Top 40 Forty
years ago. He walked out thinking---What was that??!!

By now it was lunchtime. Over lunch Kurt Gilchrist
wandered over to talk about the Decades channels in
general, but wait—here comes Gary Hahn from our
Marketing group, and Chris Walsh, the guy who oversees
our artist videos. Bob launches into a tirade about XM
marketing. He just saw remarkable passion in action
and doesn’t think our marketing reflects that.

After lunch…it’s back to the halls. Sonny Fox on
comedy…Kate Bradley on The Loft…Coolguy from Liquid Metal...Tobi on XMU…Robert
Davis on The Village…one after another, he asks a
question and gets bombarded with emotion and
buzz. During our hall walking, he asks some business
questions. Time to unleash him on Eric Logan, our EVP
of Programming, a CEO in training and a brilliant guy
who actually understands the business side of XM which
I sorta get, but is SO complicated and detail driven
that it’s a godsend to have Eric on board since he
understands programming and actually loves the
business side. Hell, he was a “ costumed duck” at some
hillbilly station in Oklahoma and now is a Senior
Executive at an emerging technology company like XM. So
I sit in for a sec and they go into this whole rap
that is in some MBA code. I leave, though I’m
impressed that Bob actually understands the code as
they go on and on about CPGAs (Not the Canadian PGA as I first thought) and other stuff that I’d
rather avoid.

Forty minutes later, I come back…they’re still
talking.

Sixty minutes…still talking.

Finally Eric has to go to some meeting and I rescue
Bob…but I think he was into the business rap.

Back in my office we start talking airplanes. I want
to take him on one of our Barbecue Runs. Trips I take
with the Robert Friedman, CEO of the Red Hot and Blue
chain. We hit it off. I want to run a BBQ chain and he
wants to be a PD. We’ve taken some amazing trips,
like the one to Memphis with Maxx Myrick our Jazz
icon. Going to a BBQ place with Robert Friedman is
like going to a Yes concert with me. We’re backstage
looking at smokers. (Ribs not joints) Its weird eating Pork Ribs with a
guy named Friedman who weighs about 120 pounds. On that particular trip we hit six places, a minor league ballgame, atrip down Beale Street and a long nap. Oh
well…..Bob is definitely coming on a flight. I do my
Eric Logan rap but instead of financials it’s
instrument approach procedures…I smell a fresh victim
with Bob next time he’s here. He tells me the guy who
runs Guitar Center owns the same plane I have…we look
him up on the FAA Data Base. Got his home
address…guess I can use that next time I need an amp.

Then onto my XM rap. It's a 72 hour presentation that I condense into about 12 minutes. He gets it.

Bob sees the 1962 Gibson ES-175 in my office. I bought
it in 1972 so I could sound like Steve Howe since that
was his signature guitar. Didn’t work out…so I gave
Bob some of my demos…that might be a big mistake.

Lou Brutus pops by with a package of stuff from his band the Dead Schlembeckers. Bob is starting to question our sanity which is a good thing.

OK—On to Dinner. We went to Tosca, an Italian
restaurant near the Capitol. Buzzy enough for him to
see the VIPs (Senator Feinstein was there), quiet
enough to talk. George Taylor Morris (GTM) and Mike
Marrone came with. Bob continued on his rage against
the XM marketing POV…interspersed with dialogue
about…everything. I can’t really disagree with
everything he was saying…he made good points…and
there were some things that made sense, but then
again some that didn't. It’s a very complicated business. I say
that a lot because it IS. It’s like no other
business. People tend to think it’s easy…it ain’t. In
any case there was a good dialogue. I took his
thoughts to heart because he CARES. GTM drove him
back to his hotel and got stopped by the Pentagon
police for blowing a stop sign. Part of the DC
experience. Those guys don’t look like terrorists so
it was a nonevent. I drove Marrone back to XM…he was
complaining that Bob was too jet lagged to record a
show for the Loft. I think Mike wanted to do an
all-nighter with Bob and record some stuff. Too bad
this isn’t 1978 or they’d still be in the studio.

Next morning...more hall walking! I think he loved
talking to Marlin Taylor. 71 years old…going on
30. Invented Beautiful Music. The passion of a true
radio warrior. Proudly displayed photos of WDVR FM in
Philly in 1963. An FM pioneer. On to a quick visit with our "new guy" John Clay who runs the 70's...Then some face time
with Dan Turner, our SVP of Operations. I call him Mr.
Wolf (from Pulp Fiction)…he gets things DONE...and has a bizarre collection of odd album covers--REAL odd on his wall, along with other whacked stuff. Dan has a good balance of insanity and Operational TCB. Dan
takes him down to meet Marrone. They cut a show
together. I pop in and ask some stupid question…but
they’re INTO the show. I leave.

Around 2:30pm his car back to the airport
arrives. We missed so much. He didn’t get to see our
5.1 demonstration, or the Slide guitarist Bill Wax had
in, or about 150 other people that he would have dug
talking to. But he DID see a typical day in the life
of XM….hope he liked it.

12 Comments:

At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

I can understand not liking Big Tracks, particularly since it represents what he's apparently critisized you guys for. I don't like it for a different reason, since it took the spot in Rock where XM Music Lab once belonged. (Yes, I know, CC is responsible for that. Doesn't mean I like it.)

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger Chug-A-Bug said...

Hey I'm glad everyone at XM had time to chat with Bob Lefsetz and make him happy. It's not like they have to do stuff like, go on the air and interact with listeners.

I like a lot of different music but the neglect of some channels at XM leaves me cold. Today the Wall St. Journal has a story on XM's golf channel. Golf! on the radio!

What will attract and retain more listeners -- golf, or a credible modern rock or indie and college music station. According to the article, XM pays in the seven figs for rights to broadcast the PGA plus 50-75k to produce each tournament.

You know, for the cost of producing a single PGA tournament, XM could actually have someone going on the air on some of the more neglected music channels and make sure that they're adequately programmed.

 
At 3:10 PM, Anonymous Chase said...

Very cool!
You are right...there are some extremely passionate, knowledgeable and (perhaps) legally insane people here. That is why it is such a blast to come to work.
I love talking about music with Marrone...he is amazing.

Mmmm...BBQ.

 
At 5:46 PM, Blogger David said...

Bring back luna.

Xm programming has me worried. More and more money being spent and less music variety

For me I much prefer my xm radio choices from 3 years ago. The final mistake and almost a fatal one for me to continue to subscribe to only xm and to recommend xm over sirius to others was the loss of luna.

Over the years we the listeners have lost a good salsa music channel. The original channel 94 was so much better than the current mix. Why is it that when I am at home and I want to listen to salsa music I have to use my cable system to get that. Xm has so many stations and I have to go to cable to get something that is main stream. That is just not right.

Next we lost the world music channel. It was replaced with some very strange french music that is no where close to the world music channel. Oh and to be honest the world channel was not great just good but unique.

Please bring back luna. I know people that have stopped subscribing to xm with the loss of luna. I personally have a hard time recommending xm to hard core musicians and jazz listeners now that there is no more luna.

You must be aware that sirius had nothing like luna in there line up.

What I figured was that is why we lost luna, which is kind of scary when I refer to your current blog and the way it addresses the care to have a great and creative music choices at xm. I mean you got rid of luna the single most awesome music station I have ever listened to. There is so much crossover of music and styles with the other stations on xm but now there is almost zero latin jazz.

One of the programming mistakes was to have luna in the 95 spot rather than with the jazz channels.

Yes I know I can listen to luna on the internet. Well I can listen to thousand of music choices on the internet. Just sparing myself that one as feedback.

Bring back luna and then more world music.

What is next the cancelling 101 and then 72.

Bring back luna.

David

 
At 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Music lab sucked. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE jam bands, and when I had Sirius one of my favs was "jam on 17". But really, a "jam band channel" that didn't include the FIRST jam band (The Dead) is kind of like excluding Bill Monroe from the bluegrass channel.

Add to that those mindless commercial radio sounding channel ID's interrupting the flow of the set and if was pretty bad. I really tried to listen and just couldn't stomach it. I guess whoever the PD was, didn't understand the concept of what a jam band fan wanted... namely LONG, UNINTERRUPTED sets of jamming.

Todd

 
At 10:24 PM, Anonymous Jeff Shaw said...

I wish Bob Lefsetz would have gotten a chance to go to NYC and talk to Opie & Anthony about how XM can do a better job in marketing their show to people out there that have no idea who they are.

Big Props to Eric Logan for being the biggest supporter at XM for the O&A show. E-Lo, you rock!

 
At 10:38 AM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

Yes, MusicLab sucked. Just the idea of Jam Bands and Progressive Rock trying to inhabit the same space was just such a wrong-headed idea in the first place.

Problem is, now a lot of that music has no home. As flawed as MusicLab was, I'd much rather have that than Big Tracks, which is mostly useless to me, and adds no new content to XM.

As much as Lee says that he wants XM to be special, cutting all the niches that actually make XM special kinda flies in the face of that. How can you make something special if what makes you unique goes away?

 
At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why does Big Tracks need a studio? It's a soulless iPod on shuffle play playing a familiar classic-rock playlist, just like Top Tracks, not a radio station. Why in the world does it need a studio of its own? XM planning to hire air talent for the channel when it reaches cashflow break-even?


Oh, while you may be able to stump guests by asking them to name artists XM doesn't have, you might be surprised by the number of SONGS by some big-name artists that you don't have! In country music alone, I can think of two top-ten hits by Eddie Rabbitt, one a No. 1 hit, that XM has never played. Several others, by Shenandoah, only exist as inferior re-recordings (the Clear Channel "clone" station has the originals). In folk, you apparently don't have entire Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span albums. Garnet Rogers, talented younger brother of the late Stan Rogers and a significant player in the folk scene for years, is represented by only two songs, despite having made about a dozen albums.

XM has much to be proud of. Even with the shortcomings of certain channels and the music library, you still play more music than FM would dream of playing. For that I am grateful. But to imply that the only music you're missing is esoteric and obscure is wrong, IMO.

CTXMer

 
At 9:19 AM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

From visiting XM last week (Thanks Lee), XM has two type of studios. They have a few large ones, which they can do live broadcasts from (The notable I saw was "The 60s", "The Loft", and "XMLM" (Which had a sign sitting on the floor that said "Da Boneyard", pretty sad.) The other type are a bunch of closets, basically, that people can do voicetracks in. That is probably what Lee was talking about.

And yes, XM seems to have strange holes in their collection sometimes.

 
At 7:52 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

Thank you for giving us a view into what being at XM is like! I really enjoyed reading it.

I was amused by the "stump the song" segment. I can think of some songs that XM most likely don't have. One song is "Bring the Boys Home" by Freda Payne. Now, I did hear a "new" version during the last IT program (a version with Jamie Foxx...yuk!) but not the original 1971 version that hit number 12 on the pop charts and sold over a million copies. I requested that song not too long ago on the 70's channel and John Clay, the PD, never even heard of it! So much for the "passion" on the 70's channel.

Mr. Abrams, please keep in mind that while XM has a lot of great things going for them, the fact is that it also has a lot of faults. Niche programming continues to dissapear, the sound quality has greatly diminished, playlists have been cut and these new Program Directors do not have the same passion of the original PD's at XM. Steve Kingston is a perfect example - he does not know current alternative rock.

I love XM and it is SO frustrating when there are actual problems happening and they do not seem to be getting resolved. I hope that they will; otherwise, this whole blog will not be practicing what it preaches.

 
At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Stuart Rosen said...

I think what this post shows is that there's an enormous diversity of choices at XM. I think what the comments show is that everyone has a different idea about what is being emphasized too much or too little at XM. Which probably means they're doing a good job.

I'm 47, and at this point the last thing I need is the wide number of rock channels. Give me XM Cafe, Loft, X Country, Hank's Place, Soul Street and Bluesville, and you have me covered. However, my wife loves the 70s channel and Hank's Place. My 17-year-old goes to The Verge. My 12-year-old visits an endless loop of Hits stations (it's hard to say how many he visits since he flips among them every 10 seconds).

Everyone has their preferences - I'd love more splinters of R&B (40s and 50s jump, Memphis Soul, 70s Philly Soul), but appreciate that this is my area of passion. Hell, I still mourn the loss of Ngoma, which I'd visit from time to time.

I guess what I'm saying is that I love the choices I have, and appreciate the juggling act is must be programming a broad musical spectrum over a limited satellite spectrum.

 
At 4:50 PM, Blogger Peter said...

After reading these comments, I want to emphasize that the decision to take Luna off the normal airwaves was and IS a HUGE mistake. There was a channel that actually mixed genres of jazz without actually drawing attention to the mix. Trying to put Bebel Gilberto on 70 or 72 doesn't cut it, for example. Just suck it up, admit the mistake and give us back Luna. I don't drive in my car with directv, I don't sit in front of the TV with XM.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home