TRAVELOGUE #3 AND MUSICAL EMPTHY
So me, Ray Knight, our Senior Country programmer and Randy Ezratty, master of live production and the guy who runs XM Productions, fka Effanel, and I pile into the plane and head to Nashville. Getting to the local airport was a trip as half of DC was flooded from the storms, but we got there and took off at 7am into the heavy humid Summer air. Once at 10,000 feet it was cool and clear as we made our way across the Smokies into Nashville. Upon arrival the first stop was The Country Music All of Fame. XM has a facility there and we checked in with the local crew and then walked over to the Ford Theater which is on site. We do ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL from both Washington and New York at the amazing Jazz at Lincoln Center facility. But half of the Country superstars live in Nashville so it’s time to mobilize that facility for more live music. The Ford Theater is perfect. 200 intimate seats..great acoustics, nice green room, easy load in, etc….It passes Randy’s smell check and we agree this is the place. We’ve done Dicie Chicks, Clint Black, Willie Nelson of course, Amy Grant (soon) and some others from DC and New York, but a Nashville location will really get Artist Confidential into the live Country game big time.
Randy Ezratty is an interesting guy. XM bought his Company Effanel to facilitate our commitment to remote live music. I asked him about the name figuring there was some guy named Effanel somewhere down the line. Nope—means Fear and Loathing. Cool. Any Hunter S Thompson reference works for me. I even got addicted to Dunhill cigarettes for awhile because he smoked them. Figured it would help my Gonzo factor. I stayed away from the guns and other stuff. Speaking of guns, years ago when I was at ABC we wanted to hire a “Rock Star” to be a syndicated AM personality. We talked to Ted Nugent. He ended up doing a two week trial on Z-Rock, our Hard Rock National station. He was unreal. An opinion about EVERYTHING. Often—SO bizarre, they made sense. Government cant pay for Education? Fine—Close the jails, shoot the prisoners and put that money into building schools. Ted is INTO guns and hunting. Every day after his show, cops from every district were standing in line to have Ted ride with them….reaction to the show was ridiculously positive. He could easily have been elected Governor of Texas. I’m going to chronicle that two week experiment soon, too much to cover now, but it was bizarre and it was memorable. Anyways, back to Randy. Randy rocks. He oversees our “big” live events. with intense experience and expertise Having him sign off on The Ford Theater is a good thing. He’s worked with EVERYONE and has made our shows with hardened vets like Santana go like clockwork.After the Ford, it’s off to see Marty Stuart up in Hendersonville. Went to his office where nearby he has this SHRINE to Country Music...not Modern Country, but REAL Country. we were mesmerized by his collection. All real stuff. Picture the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but all Traditional Country. He pulls out a box (one of about 3,000). In the box were things like a telegram to Mrs. Williams stating: Hurry Home. Hank is Dead. Chilling stuff. He had original lyric sheets written on whiskey stained hotel stationary from some of the greatest songwriters...the costume Johnny Cash wore at his first Nashville performance back in the 50's. Miles of aisles of this sorta stuff. Immaculately cataloged. we were blown away. I still can't stop thinking about it. After settling down we talk to Marty about some ideas he has to interact with XM. really from-the-heart passionate stuff that was really good. He is motivated...and so are we to do something together. Traditional Country music is the soundtrack to the American Odyssey. Along with R&B and Jazz, the American heritage is so incredibly rich and powerful. It's critical for XM to tap into this. You gotta put the hits aside for a sec and remember where it all came from. Everyone involved in music should step back and listen to Howlin Wolf...and Woody Guthrie. The trip to Marty's place was educational and inspirational. We've just done a deal where Willie Nelson has "bought" our Hank's Place channel.Aligning with these guys is good. Just like aligning with Quincy Jones. They are the history. You can't grasp the future until you understand the past. I think passion for the future is driven by a respect for the past. I was always into Patton or Montgomery as Generals and think programmers can learn from his vast knowledge of past battles. It's an exercise in thinking...in anticipating...in understanding the timeless nature of battles--whether radio or military.
After Marty's we decide to head back to DC. It's 105 degrees as we sit on the taxiway waiting for six 737's to land. Nearly passed out from heat exhaustion. Once airborne it was a 2 and a half hour ride to DC. Typically in the Summer there were thunderstorms all around, but we were able to avoid them with the radar images on the plane. Once we landed I rushed Randy off to Dulles to get his flight to NYC...and the skies imploded with storms. Good timing.
Once back in DC at XM, we are looking at filling some PD positions. Damn! That's hard. When we first launched XM, we talked to 500 people, 450 of them may have been smart but just didn't get it...or at least were square pegs for our round hole. Same thing now. Talented people out there but it takes a certain mindset...a certain willingness to un-learn and re-learn..and to invent. That's why a lot of channels at XM are not as good as other channels at XM. Program Directors get a great deal of creative leeway, but some Programmers have grasped the new way faster...some instinctly know in their heads when something is sub par or average. Others are still so conditioned to the FM way that they struggle. The goal is 100% "XM way" and 0% FM way. There ARE some tings that are evergreen..but so much that isn't. I liken it to musicians--some know how to stretch the boundaries...others need a lead sheet to deliver more of the same. Patience is important as long as the programmer is learning and moving in the right direction. Listen to EARLY works of some great musicians and you'll hear crap....but then it gets better and in some magic cases they evolve to creating amazing and original music. Most artists never get there..some do. Same with radio people. Some get there...the vast majority don’t. I just hope we have everyone here getting there, and staying "there"...that magic mind space that inspires new thinking and new ways to revive a tired medium.
XM is a challenging place to work. It's a mission to most of us...but man, it gets complicated. There's SO much going on. I figure we have around 13 million listeners since there are a couple of listeners per subscription...then you add AOL, DirecTV, the three airlines and the number goes way up. The bigger you get the more complex it gets. I guess my main job is to insure that we stay on vision. literally every cool "thing" gets big, goes corporate and makes money but goes to hell. I always think are we going to become this big thing that's as customer friendly as an Airline or Utility Company, or are we going to grow into this big monster that eats its customers. I know that EVERYONE here wants it to grow big gracefully and with the integrity and standards in tact. I'm confident we will...but it takes work! The barriers are simply how much is going on..in every department, and the natural problems that come with serving so many different fans. A lot of people don't realize that our bandwidth is limited. It's a lot, but there are limitations. Fortunately new technology has allowed us to grow. Before XM launched we were planning on 50 channels. 25 music, 25 Talk. Then--the tech heads figured out a way for 100...now 160+...I'm hoping that sooner than later it'll be 200+.
The thing we gotta keep in mind is musical empathy. IT'S HARD and a pure music fan doesn't need to worry about it, but anyone dealing with programming to the masses must deal with it, or ya ain't gonna be around very long. Empathy is really just understanding and accepting that there's something good in just about everything musical and that everyone's tastes are different, and both respecting and catering to that. Personally I detest a lot of songs, but ya gotta separate the personal from the reality. I learned this in '70. Put on one of the first Top 40 FM's at WMYQ in Miami---along with Buzz Bennett, the late Al Casey, Robert Walker and others...we all pooled our $200 a week salaries and rented a mansion in Coconut Grove known as the "Q" house. We were ALL pot fueled youngsters who had absolutely nothing in common with our Partridge Family playlist. This is the place where I put the finishing design touches on an "AOR" format I had hoped to and soon after did launch. I really didn't care for 80% of our playlist at WMYQ, and overnights would sneak on a "cool" Santana song. Well one night I did just that and the phones lit up with ANGRY listeners---"How can you play that??!!"--play Bobby Sherman!...Play "Edison Lighthouse"....so I figured, I'm 17, I NEED this gig, an FM Major Market success story will make it easier to do what I WANT TO DO, so--OK...I'm gonna figure these "teenyboppers" out and give them some pleasure. So, I led two lives...at the station I was a 16 Magazine reading student of the David Cassidy sound. Then at night I was discovering the Mahavishnu Orchestra on personal time. Lowering my standards? Bending my integrity for mass consumption? well...yeah. It was the best lesson I ever learned. Actually, the inspiration was Buzz Bennett. An absolutely brilliant programmer. He'd do three hits of LSD, snort a pound of coke and wax on about the psychographics of the Osmond Brother fan. Then I kinda realized that the more you "get" the mass audience, regardless of what you think is cool, the better chance you can not only touch the American listener, but "change" them...on THEIR terms. That AOR format I created was NOT about blowing up Underground radio, it was about taking the Top 40 listener and introducing them to the emerging music, but in a way they could relate to. Literally changing the familiarity factor from his SONG to artist...so there was accessibility but also a degree of familiarity and comfort that they could actually relate and listen to. Haven't heard from Buzz Bennett in years, but one day there'll be a movie about him.
OK back to XM. Gotta remember empathy. There ARE a lot of people who like hits and DON'T want to be challenged musically...then there are those who like the hits, but are ready to be challenged, then there are the fans that are of varying degrees of sophistication where hits are completely irrelevant. You can pretty much divide XM channels into these categories:
HIT DRIVEN: Comfortable familiar songs
DEPTH DRIVEN: Do you like Springsteen? Yes! Do you want to hear "Born to Run" Again?...no. It's about playing careers not just hits.
SOUND DRIVEN: It's abut the sound. Like Audiovisions. Who or what it is is irrelivent as long as it has the "sound"
EXPLORATORY: It's about EXPLORING a genre
EXPERIMENTAL: Fine Tuning is a good example.
ENVIRONMENTAL: It's about the atmosphere the channel creates.
In any case, it's SOOO important that XM does it with originality, quality and integrity. I believe there IS a way to play even the cheesiest disposable pop single in a caring and positive way. Thank you Buzz Bennett.
We gotta deal with it and maintain a connection with the listener. I like to think that our Marketing Department gets us customers, and programmings job is to turn customers into fans. My personal mission is to help us stay organic. It IS a business...a big one...but big doesn’t HAVE to mean strict and overly driven by the traditional business M.O....look at Record Companies, the big ones have gotten big--and not always so gracefully. I still catch a "music spirit" at some of them, but generally you walk into a big label and it's got the vibe of a bank. Radio stations are worse! There is more magic in the lobby of Southwest Airlines Headquarters than most Music and Radio companies. And we're in the entertainment business!can XM get like that? Sure...will we? I really doubt it, but that balance of art and business XM is a critical part of our mission that needs to be WAY on the top of our minds...with empathy and quality. It ain't easy.