Monday, October 23, 2006

STUNG

STUNG

I have been chasing Sting for XM's Artist Confidential series for three years. Finally, the night arrived. 400 people met in the Allen Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. A giant three story glass wall overlooking Central Park, with a full moon was the backdrop for a remarkable evening.

Setting this thing up was intense. Sting is surrounded by a competent and professional organization that goes the extra mile to insure everything is perfect. It certainly motivated our team to lose sleep and triple check even the most minute detail. Every day there was a new issue/crisis that grew in intensity as the event drew closer.

On the morning of the show, I arrived in New York to hear that Sting had the flu! Now THIS was a crisis. After a few moments of panic, I checked upstairs and saw him rehearing diligently with lutenist Edin Karamazov ---looked and sounded OK to me. I guess the show will go on. The whole afternoon was filled with controlled anxiety. Our crew that included Jayme Karp, Pam Schloss, ace techies Randy Ezratty, Rob Macomber and many others interacted seamlessly with Sting's group and Universal Records who were all equally engaged in making certain the evening was a stunning success. It better be--It's Stings first performance of his new material in the US with an audience that ranged from SNL's Jane Curtain to a ton of press...not to mention guys like Eric Logan, Hugh Panero our CEO who are always a good ones to impress.

Showtime neared but a calm ensued and things began on time with host Paul Bachmann going one on one with Sting , along with the passionate audience asking a few questions before he launched into an unusual and ethereal lute inspired set from his new CD and capped it off with a Robert Johnson blues tune (!) and a few hits---on lute! There was also a choir involved that added to the heady Sonics of the evening...and his dialogue between songs added a documentary feel to the performance. After 90 minutes of visual and aural transcendence, the show was over....and a success. Anyone expecting a collection of Police hits might have been disappointed, but I don't think many people were.

The show really got me thinking about how much I deeply respect Sting as an artist. His intellect and soul is so timeless. More like a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild Wine that matures with age, whereas so many artists are like a beer that loses it's bubbles and goes flat. He's one of those artists that you just know has "been there". There, in this case, being his own mind. He's clearly discovered himself and is confident with that discovery. He's one of those artists that in listening to his songs, it's like I wrote them in a prior life. They seem so personal and in sync. He has helped me discover my musicality. Everyone should have an artist that does that to you. It's all a spontaneous thing...it's music or lyrics that you "get"--you may not know WHY you 'get' it...but you do. I think that can only come from an artist that has been there and discovered their own soul. I can only assume that Sting has found a sense of peace with himself as an artist . I may be on a cosmic BS rant, but, maybe there's some truth here. Self Discovery is infectious. Songs like "Secret Journey" and 'Spirits in the Material World" seem to balance that cerebral and spiritual zone with a non saccharine lushness and quality that is commercial without trying to be.

I didn't always like Sting and the police. In fact, before I heard them I figured they were some Punk Nazi Rock thing--after all The POLICE? It was about '78 and the new thing from the UK which historically had often saved America from it's infatuation with corporate pop was New Wave and Punk. This time however, the Punk scene was SO 180 degrees from the American Rock mentality. Americans were all about long hair--punk was short hair; Americans were into Peace & Love and punk was about anarchy; Americans worshipped the great players, Punk was about buy a guitar in April and release your single in June; American music was slick, Punk was raw--you get the idea. In '79 I went to London for an extended period to work on the Gentle Giant Album Civilian. I was also an advisor to Yes during this dark episode of their career. It was Chris Squire, their bassist who told me about the police and particularly their amazing bassist named Sting. I checked them out and was blown away. This isn't "punk"---this is poles away from the rough and often god-awful musicianship of many of the Punkers. These guys are great. From The Carlton Towers Hotel in London I faxed a long memo to my clients to check out this band! A year or two later, Squire sent me an advance of "Ghost in the Machine"---Life changing. What an amazing record. One that I STILL draw inspiration from. My Police discovery also led to a statement at one of our famous "Superstars" Conventions where all of our clients and half the music industry would attend. I mentioned "80/20". This was often mis-interpreted, but it meant that ONE day 80% of our music might be from the newly emerging artists instead of 80% being from the Classic artists. I wanted to open programmers up to The Police, U2 and other artists that have been lumped in with the New Wave and Punk thing that was SO focused on a style of music that OUR audience didn't get. People WILL get The police...because they are excellent musicians, excellent songwriters, original and powerful. You'd be amazed at the number of programmers who would say "No way" to playing the Police. Then you'd ask the if they heard their music...and you'd get a "no". That in many ways was the beginning of the end. A time where many programmers stopped listening and started getting addicted to research and trades more than the sound. It also taught me a lesson about NOT being so quick to dismiss a movement. It would have been too easy to dismiss the police as another Punk band....thank God I was slapped around and told to LISTEN to these guys.

Artist Confidential is an interesting show. We made a commitment to open our doors to artists--and do things in a high integrity way. There's too much cheesy "syndicated" sounding artist interaction on radio that's so damn canned and is really created more as a vehicle for a Coca Cola to sponsor than to bare the soul of an artist. We promise uncensored musical freedom and when you put the exposure on XM, Direct TV, AOL, several airlines and others that carry XM together, the reach is north of 40 million. Here's an overview of a few of the original shows we do at XM:


ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL: Important artists. Ones with a history, credibility and "stories". ALWAYS a live studio audience with Q&A and ALWAYS at least 20 minutes of live playing. Video taped. Can only be done in XM Performance Theater or occasionally in NYC. Usually hosted by George Taylor Morris, though other XMers host in cases that make sense, such as the ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL: SOUL EDITION. Examples: Paul Mc Cartney; Herbie Hancock; Santana, Coldplay; Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens);Lamont Dozier;Wynton Marsalis;Bonnie Raitt, Dixie Chicks.

CLASSICAL CONFIDENTIAL: Same idea as Artist Confidential. Hosted by Martin Goldsmith. Examples: Cecelia Bartoli; Joshua Bell

OFFSTAGE: We go TO an artist and record their "voice tracks", receive a playlist from them that mines their personal collection and we create a One Hour DJ Show. NO voices except the artist. It is a one-off Star hosted radio show. Examples: Yoko Ono; Gregg Allman;DMC; Bob Seger

CHANNEL HI-JACKS/TAKEOVERS etc...: DJ leaves the room and artists take over. Play anything. Say anything. NOT AN INTERVIEW, but a complete hijack of XM. Examples: Metallica; Queen;Janet Jackson

ARTIST 2 ARTIST: Young Artist interviews his/her hero. On their turf (in hotel, a home, backstage, etc...) Young Country Star Dierks Bentley interviews Country legend George Jones for example. Again, no DJ interaction. Two artists talking shop....tellin stories...a peek behind the artists' personal curtain.

THE COMPLETE SERIES: XM goes TO the artist to record an "AUDIO BIOGRAPHY" of their career. Basically an extended interview. Then--we take the raw tape back, insert music, ear candy, additional sound and other elements to create a 4-8 hour multi part 'audio biography' of their life and music. Examples: The Eagles; Toby Keith;Shania Twain

LINER NOTES: Artist "walks through" their latest CD. Talks about track one...then we play it...then they talk about the next track...we play it, etc... Instead of simply playing a new CD, the artist walks North America through the album, song-by-song with a "personal" story about each song. Examples: Elton John; Donald Fagan

...there are a ton more, but these are a few of the key ongoing shows. The key is that these shows are GOOD. It's easy to bring in an artist and create something that doesn't live up to the hype of the press release or create something that is watered down to FM standards and ends up sounding like yet another syndicated special.

It was tough "signing" a lot of these artists because they have been burned by radio. Interviews that are either focused on their sex lives or are conducted by DJ's who are pretty clueless about their lives...or are "cattle calls" to support their new CD where they do 75 interviews a day. Thats where the station promotes they have a big artist "coming by" but then the actual result is a painfully dull and rote "phoner" that goes nowhere. We want the artist to be proud of the production...and memorable to both themselves and those who listened to it. The fact that these air so many times, and also are on AOL, Direct TV, Airlines, etc...they do have extraordinary promotional value for an artist, but the REASON for doing these is on a higher level than 'promo'. It gets back to our mantra that XM is about careers...not just hits.

Our biggest challenge is getting the word out. With so many channels, it's difficult to inform listeners what is happening when.

These "specials" help create a "complete" listening experience where there's more than just songs, DJ's and traditional radio content. It's kinda like HBO--they started with movies, but came into their own upon launching original programming like the Soprano's. It's the same with us, we can do fine playing music, but we can go much further if we think of XM as a "complete" experience, beyond the traditional song-dj-song thing.

Our second release with Concord Records coming out soon. Watercolors: Blue. It's branded via our Watercolors Channel. A Smooth Jazz collection, available exclusively at Circuit City. This is turning into a good series. Trinity, Maxx Myrick and Russ Davis from our Jazz Cluster are all deeply involved in the creative process and the result are some pretty cool collections. Concord is the "un-label"...they think differently and are a joy to work with. We did an OFFSTAGE with Bob Seger. He was the DJ. He played a ton of Country Songs. Interesting.

I also did a Bootcamp up at XM Radio Canada. I LOVE Toronto. What an outstanding city. Kind of a cross between London and Chicago. The team up there is pretty cool. Ross Davies gets "it" as does pretty much everyone on his team. They have a tough thing going because they have been around less than a year, whereas XM US has been around for almost 9 years (though on air since '01). We had an all afternoon session, then hung out with Ray Danniels, Rush's long time manager and a genuine great guy...then dinner with the staff and a tour of their ground level studio. The point of the day was to get into the spirit of what XM is all about---motivate them to revolutionize and raise the bar. I've always found Canadians more artistic than their US Counterparts, going back to the days when we put Q107 in Toronto on the air with guys like Gary Slaight ( who now runs Sirius Canada!), John Parikhal and Dave Charles. There's a more natural tendency to do things in a poetic way. I have no doubts they'll be successful up there..as long as feel the passion. The only downside of the trip is that I flew commercial. They have special security for flights into Washington DC. There were six different lines. I awoke at 4am, at the airport at 5am, got to the gate at 8am. 9:30 departure then delayed, got back to DC at 1pm. If I had flown the Cirrus, I would have been back in DC faster than it took to get checked in.

Finally, Jon Zellner sent a note around XM about a Mediabase moratorium. Mediabase if a fine product for delivering airplay info, but Jon is coming around and seeing the light in the errors of FM. It takes time for someone to come into XM and separate the FM thinking from the kind of thinking that's, well, "right". We are in a different environment. FM isn't "bad"...they have their own set of issues. My point is that we ain't FM--we are in a completely different world. we HAVE to aggressively revolutionize things. Part of the revolution is re-thinking the playbook...COMPLETELY. Part of that re-think that's hard to shake is losing the refernce to FM. Pretend that band doesn't exist and create radio for LISTENERS in 2006 rather than referencing a band that has completely different issues and goals than we do. This reminds me of the comments about "The Zellner era is here...no it's over...the Abrams era is back..no it's the (put name here) era. Fact is, there are no "eras". When I started here there were three employees and now over 800. XM constantly evolves and has its good moments and it's bad moments, but the idea is that the power and mission of XM is and should be stronger than any"era"....and at the end of the day make the positive impact that we are capable of.

6 Comments:

At 7:39 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

Another great entry in your blog. I look forward each week to see what is on your mind. What you post is always interesting and informative.

I enjoyed reading about some of the programs that XM provides us listeners. They are a part of what makes XM so special.

One thing I'd love to see XM pull off (but most likely would not be able to thanks to the RIAA) is for a classic album to be played track by track in the order that it appeared on the album. The artist (if still alive) could give their views about each song and it would get played. Actually, XM could do this since Highway 16 does this with new albums. I'd love to be able to hear an album that was highly acclaimed in its entirety.

I want to believe that Jon Zellner finally "gets" XM. Perhaps he does. I still have some doubts; he just is not popular with a lot of the XM music fans. One person who does not "get" XM is Steve Kingston. I don't listen to Ethel any more since it seems obvious that the channel is just going through the motions. It's a pity XM hired him - he can't leave soon enough for me.

One last thing...I agree that XM is not even close to FM (thank goodness for that!). There are a few channels, though, that could use more help to be more with what XM is known for. Ethel is one of them, and so is XM Hitlist and the now watered down Chrome. One of XM's weaknesses is programming Top 40; they are followers and not leaders. XM Hitlist is NOT the best Top 40 station in the country. I'd like to see that change and be something XM can be proud of.

 
At 12:57 AM, Anonymous Dick Hungate said...

No, that stuff about Sting and
self-discovery by resonating
musically with the artist's OWN
self-discovery is not a cosmic BS
rant. Maybe it has something to
do with the fact that you and I
are almost exactly the same age
(in the epochal, pivotal, seminal
year of 1967 we both were 15).
But I feel exactly the same way
about Mister Sumner. An "old" soul.
He does seem to possess perspective
and insight way beyond his years.
Native intellect, plus remaining
open to new ideas and influences
definitely help. Some folks reach
age 25 and that's it...end of
personal introspection/exploration
and (therefore) a kind of slow
spiritual death! Others have
that Clint Eastwood quality such
that "the clock is ticking...let's
do as much stretching and learning
and growing as possible before my
own game of undeterminable length
ends". Such folks die with their
boots on! They don't collect sea
shells or play endless games of
bridge starting at age 68. Another
artist that (for me) just knocks
the ball out of the park is James
Taylor (Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow
and a host of others agree). I
simply am blown-away by a song
such as "Copperline". Maybe it
is a teeny bit my Carolina Tar
Heels blue showing itself ("Morgan
Creek" is a real place right there
in Chapel Hill). But Google the
lyrics to that deceptively simple
song. It is POIGNANT and quaint.
How about Joni's "Blue" album?!
I still freak out over early Joni
Mitchell like "For the Roses" with
songs like "Electricity" and
"The Blond in the Bleachers".
Another example of old wine in
a very youthful bottle (uhhh, in
more ways than one! ...She was a
major babe!) Elvis Costello would
strike that same emotional pay
dirt at a very early age with the
wonderfully-touching "Allison".
He already was channeling his
inner Burt Bacharach...in the
middle of the angry punk and
new wave period...pulling a fast
one on his fans (always keep 'em
on their toes, huh?). Interesting
blog. Good job.

 
At 6:12 AM, Blogger ai4i said...

We keep reading about this comparison between the old FM and the new XM. I would love to read just a sentence or two about where along this line you would place North America's other satellite radio service.

 
At 11:11 AM, Blogger John said...

Sting's people get radio promotion. In the early 90's, he wouldn't do cattle-call interviews. His staff would send their own engineer to your station in the morning, set up their own sound board, give you a mix out, and have him come in that afternoon to play a few tunes (and if you weren't too stupid, give a great interview).

If he'd do that for one FM, he's going to thrive on a platform like XM.

I probably listen to the decades channels the most, and have been pleased to hear the imaging not only freshened, but made much shorter in recent weeks. I really hated hearing a :15 setup followed by a 2:00 movie trailer when what I really wanted was the next freaking song already.

 
At 5:39 AM, Anonymous Alternate Take Radio said...

I've been enjoying your blog. As an 11-year producer and host of a music program on public radio in Detroit, I've gleaned much from your varied approaches to signal transmission. Thank you for taking the time.

 
At 1:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy the chance to read your insights and vision every week, and have the ability to interact. I've been with XM since early 2003, and XM excels in almost every format but Top 40. It has always been a woeful follower- first with an FM simulcast, then a jukebox (KISS XM). But now, Mike Abrams has done an admirable job in bringing a large playlist to Hitlist, but the station just feels stale and completely random and devoid of personality. The lack of repetition is refreshing, but there is no creativity in how the songs are played (ie. no buildup or vibe connecting one song to the next)- probably due to the fact there's only one DJ currently employed (who does a good job, incidentally). And only four hours of DJs/day on a Top 40 channel eliminates any sense of community on the most pervasive format on radio. Most importantly, HITLIST LACKS EDGE!

 

Post a Comment

<< Home