Monday, December 18, 2006

AHMET, TOP 40, MARKETING THE XM MUSIC GURUS, YOKO AND MIAMI STORIES

AHMET, TOP 40, MARKETING THE XM MUSIC GURUS, YOKO AND MIAMI STORIES

Well, Ahmet Ertegun passed away...a few months ago Arif Marden too. Who will carry on? Are guys like this just part of an era in music that'll go down as...an era? Is it too late? Will guys like this with Music in their genes re-emerge? At this very moment I tend to think that music guys REALLY controlling the music business are a thing of the past, and outside of the connected Hip Hop moguls, have been replaced by icy numbers guys controlling the rudder who will inevitably sap the lifeblood out of their companies. You know--the guys who are wallowing in the confusion...may have a good rap, but are SO disconnected from the essence of what they sell that failure is inevitable. Then again, I have faith that new people with new ideas will emerge...be laughed at, but inevitably succeed as Ahmet and Arif did...but in a different way that you just can't predict. It'll just happen. Music...no make that LIFE, works that way. The right things happen. The pathetic state of some things is fuel for the next movement. Guys like Ahmet and Arif were facilitators. Faciliating the music that merged "Race Music" (the early definition of R&B by people who were afraid of it) into the mainstream. On my watch, those guys were behind everything that made Atlantic Records cool. In 1970 or so, if it was on Atlantic..It was worth buying. Led Zepelin, Yes, Cream, King Crimson etc...Like the dangerous moves in the early 50's, these were also kind of dangerous as they plunged into "Acid Rock" (the early definition of the new music that was emerging in the late 60's by those who were afraid of it). We need MORE fearlessness! Not afraid of technolgy and not afraid of getting back to the creatiive garden to pick the fruit...and not afraid to LEAD the charge.
And CBS is bringing back CBS Records. This epitomizes everything wrong. This will fail miserably. I don’t wish failure on anyone, but when I saw this news, it was laughable. Come next year, I’m sure they’ll try to salvage things with a Katie Couric Christmas CD. Textbook cluenessness I predict. Might be wrong...but I have the feeling there's not going to be a lot of musical vision here...and I gotta believe that without that, a MUSIC company will not succeed. We’ll see…

…20 on 20 has relaunched itself. I didn’t get too involved other than inspiring them to think more like Blender magazine and less like every other top 40 out there. Mostly Michelle Boros, Jon Zellner and some Steve Kingston. I’m anxious to get into hearing it. The 20 on 20 concept is actually the first new Top 40 idea in awhile when we kicked it off in 2001. Interactive. No sales…no charts, 100% chosen by listeners emailing and phoning in their requests. A song could be #1 at 5pm and number 14 at 8pm…depending on how voting went. Sort of an “enough already with old guys and traditional media determining what’s popular in this world—lets completely turn it over to listeners. That is still a Major ingredient in the channel. The first channel to completely turn over the play list to listeners. As long as they keep it Blenderized and don’t slip into Top 40 Radioland…they should do well. Stay tuned.

When we launched XM, we populated the department with music freaks. People who LIVE their genre and generally accept the reality that there's a huge disconnect between what 99% of radio programmers and music industry people believe...and what normal citizens REALLY want to hear. Funny thing happens when you take a music "expert" and liberate them from the playbook. You get amazing stations that CONNECT with fans. We have never marketed this. I think it's a HUGE differentiator...and a massively positive one from our competitors, be it FM, Sirius or any of the Internet sites. Hopefully we WILL start to figure a way to market these people. In the meantime, Business Week magazine has caught on. Both Mike Marrone and Jonathan Schwartz have their own columns in this prestigious magazine. A week doesn't go by when the press doesn't recognize one of these programming stars...and there are A LOT of them at XM. It IS hard to properly market this angle...but it exists and even if XM doesn't push them to the foreground, it’s just a matter of time before more Business Weeks' do.

Now, to an entirely different subject--
Went to Miami to an event we had supporting Yoko Ono's XM "Offstage". She's the DJ and literally takes over XM for an hour. In this case, three hours as she requested that her Offstage was in three one hour parts. We didn't actually create the event in Miami. There was a big Art Festival called Art Basel in Miami all weekend and we piggy-backed onto the fact she was there.

I would have liked to fly myself, but there was a tight time-line so I ended up on American. I forgot how horrible the commercial flying experience is, but I made it to Miami on time. Of course the gate wasn't ready so we sat on the tarmac for 70 minutes. Then the baggage took about 40 minutes. I easily could have beaten American in my plane since I don't have to sit on the tarmac, deal with security or wait for bags.

Finally made it to my hotel. The Carlton on South Beach. Easily the worst hotel....ever. The guy with an attitude at the desk said I had no reservation despite an American Express Travel Service confirmation in hand. He finally rustled something up. The rate was $490 for a night. OK if it was the Four Seasons but this place was a dump. The room had NO A/C and of course the phone didn't work...and it went downhill from there. I imagine if I was 18 and in town for a binge it would be OK to stay here if the rate was more like $70, but other than that it was a horrible place.

Fortunately, because the plane was so late I only had 10 minutes to get dressed and meet Les Garland, ever the impresario, who lives in Miami. We trekked down the road to the very luxe Sagamore hotel where the Yoko event was. Quite a scene. I've never seen more extremely wealthy people digging art. The paparazzi were in full force. XM's highly competent Anne-Taylor Griffith and Nathaniel Brown were on hand to direct traffic. I've never met Yoko before so we were introduced and took a few photos and talked. She was REAL nice. Genuinely interested about her XM radio shows. There are those who think--Yoko? She broke up the Beatles! But like her on not, she certainly has things to say, stories and hey, if she was good enough for John, she’s OK by me. I dug her and her show.

The party carries on. Interesting arty group. The kind of event you'd expect to see the ghost of Truman Capote. A lot of Black being worn. Garland and I escape about 10. We have a deal, if he can get us into Joe's Stone Crab within 10 minutes, I’ll buy. The guy is amazing. Putting on his best promo schmooze, he brilliantly works the desk and we are at a table in 43 seconds, avoiding the 90 minute-2 hour wait. Dinner was pure 50's Miami Beach. The crusty old school wise guy waiter was a perfect foil for our animated conversations about "the old days". Hell- I felt like a rat packer in '56. Garland then has the idea to call Bob Pittman on his cell. We do. I was the mystery voice that he had to guess. Took him awhile, but he nailed it, after a ten minute talk about airplanes and life, we were back to our decadent Joe's experience. We then drive around Miami as Les' girlfriend Denise wants to hear Ray LaMontigne. I guide them to THE LOFT, but Ray never comes on. I keep stalling them because I dread the idea of going back to my room. But I did and sweat through the night in darkness as the light bulb was burned out in the room.

Miami reminded me of a key career break. In 1972 I was consulting WQDR in Raleigh. We went to #1. It caught the attention of a guy named Gordon Hastings from Katz, then the leading ad rep firm. Gordon was a big believer in the commercial viability of FM which was still in the financial closet. I met Gordon and I guess I impressed him. He then talked to Carl Wagner who ran the powerful Taft Broadcasting Group. Carl was a bad ass former pro catcher. Mean--but fair and smart. Gordon set up a meeting at about midnight at the New Orleans Hilton at a convention. Taft owned 7 major FM's, most of them with big signals, Taft muscle, but kinda sitting there. Carl and I hit it off. I think he was impressed by my knowledge of baseball as much as my ideas on developing FM stations. We shook hands and he told me to wait for a call.

A week later, Carl calls and invites me to the Taft Managers Conference at the Sonesta Beach Hotel in Key Biscayne (Miami). Taft managers were an old boys club. I got the feeling that their bonuses were based more on their Golf scores than on performance. I dressed up as best I could but must have looked like an alien to these guys. At the opening cocktail party I think they thought I was brought in as an entertainer. One exec asked me if I was with the band. I told him I was in Led Zeppelin. The response was "Really? My daughter has one of your albums".

The next morning I did "the pitch". In a suite overlooking Biscayne Bay. On orders from Carl, the Managers of every Taft station were sternly told to listen to me. The pitch went fantastic, but I was still an outsider. But then after the morning meetings, there was a Tennis tournament. I loved Tennis, so I asked if they needed another entry. They put me with Ed McLaughlin who was the other non-Taft person at the meetings. Ed ran ABC RADIO and later managed Russ Limbaugh to fame. I'd known Ed for awhile since I worked for ABC at WRIF in Detroit. He and I absolutely kicked ass and WON the tournament. It was all over. Even if I looked like a drug addict to them, I proved myself on the court--the next best thing to beating them in Golf. They even invited me to appear in the Taft Company picture, though they probably airbrushed out my beard.

Within three weeks I signed WDVE Pittsburgh, WLVQ Columbus, KYYS Kansas City and WGRQ Buffalo. All four stations had huge increases and we were off to the races.

Now--I had a problem. A good one, but a problem. I had six clients. It was a business. But I had no experience in running a business of this nature. I needed capital, connections, an infrastructure, and guidance on how to maximize this thing. I'd known this guy Kent Burkhart. Most people in the business did. He was one of the FIRST Top 40 Program Directors ever...oddly enough at WQAM (my all time favorite Top 40 station) in Miami, and then went on to run the powerful Pacific and Southern group. He was a legend. He had left Pacific and Southern and started a consultancy. Every week I'd read in the trades where Burkhart signs another station. So I send Kent a proposal. Basically, I do the FM's while you do the AM's...and run the business aspects. He suggested a meeting in Minneapolis. We met at his client KSTP. We put a deal together in 30 minutes. I moved to Atlanta a week later and Burkahart/Abrams was born. Kent also turned over WYSP in Philly and WKLS Atlanta to me as they were FM's. We formally introduced the "Superstars" format. That name is kinda hokey and we NEVER used it on the air, but to station heads that were still suspicious about this underground FM thing, it was a comforting and relatable term that translated into "mass appeal".

The basics of the concept were pretty simple. To change the familiarity factor from song title to artist so instead of hearing the same songs, you’d hear the same artists, but the whole library of songs instead of just the hit single so it was familiar by ARTIST, yet interesting because you’d hear ALL of that artist. It was aimed at the vulnerable Top 40 listener. The person who listened to Top 40 but liked every 4th song. Stones and Cream--cool. Bread and Osmond’s...not cool. Eliminate the Bread and Osmond’s and focus on the artists that were defining the new "Album" movement. Then between the big names, introduce the coo new stuff so the sound was anchored in familiarity, had depth and selectively introduced new artists so they'd get enough exposure to actually get noticed. We accepted the Underground stations as a fact of life and were ore concerned about getting people to FM who found Underground radio too out there. In the process we took out a lot of the Underground Free Form stations who were simply too elite. The good ones that were focused remained important factors.
Our "position" was to be as accessible as possible without losing the progressive identity.

We recently wrapped up THE XM NATION AWARDS. The thing got some good press—and the press was about the whacked categories like most overplayed song. Textbook example of how honesty works. The reality is that people like to vent about “real” stuff. No-one cares about the cliché “Song of the Year”. On a related note, the following is something I sent to the staff:

OK---Here are the 2006 XM PROGRAMMING UN-AWARDS! These are completely subjective, have questionable bearing on reality, are complete personal opinion, totally arguable and not to be taken seriously. Well, they’re all kind of “real” in a warped way…and if your channel isn’t mentioned---definitely don’t sweat it…this isn’t exactly accurate. SO-- with that said, here we go: (keep in mind—despite words like “Disturbing”, all of the awards are GOOD things)

BEST INTEGRATION OF XM LOGO FOR A CHANNEL THAT PROBABLY COULD GET AWAY WITH OUT THEM: MLB HOME PLATE 175

SICKEST CHANNEL; FUNGUS

STRANGEST PRODUCTION: LUCY

SPACIEST PRODUCTION: CHILL

BEST ‘I REFUSE TO STAND IN LINE WITH FM STATIONS’ ARTIST ACQUISTION; JANET JACKSON

BEST TOUR GUIDES; (tie) ROBERT AUBREY DAVIS/BILLY ZERO

MOST RIDICULOUS NAME FOR A FEATURE; DOGG-VEMBER

MOST INK; MIKE MARRONE

BEST NON-ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL, NON BOB EDWARDS INTERVIEW; (tie)MARTIN GOLDSMITH WITH PAUL MC CARTNEY/JONATHAN SCHWARTZ WITH TONY BENNETT; BILL WAX WITH BB KING

MOST BIZARRE ARTIST CONFIDENTIAL: MZ KITTI WITH LUDACRIS

BEST USE OF PHONES; SIXTIES

BEST OVERUSE OF PHONES; SIXTIES

COMEBACK OF THE YEAR; (tie) BONEYARD, XMU

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR; JESUS SALAS

CLOSET ROCKER AWARD: PAUL BACHMANN

ROAD WARRIOR AWARD: JESSIE SCOTT

AUTHENTICITY AWARD; SOUL STREET

ODDEST PLAYLIST THAT ACTUALLY WORKS: FINE TUNING

CHANNEL WITH DJ’S THAT COULD SOUND FM, BUT DON’T: DEEP TRACKS

MOST COMPLETE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER: BEYOND JAZZ

MOST IRRITATING CHANNEL TO AN ESCAPE LISTENER: SQUIZZ

MOST DISTURBING CHANNEL TO AN ESCAPE LISTENER: XMLM

MOST IRRITATING CHANNEL TO A SQUIZZ LISTENER: ESCAPE

MOST DISTURBING CHANNEL TO A XMLM LISTENER: ESCAPE

BEST E-MAIL “TALK ABOUT MY SPECIAL” BEGS: (tie) XM COMEDY/ 50’s

BEST PLAYLIST: SPECIAL XMAS

BEST EXECUTION OF ONE OF HUGH’S IDEAS: RADIO HANNAUKA

MAIN REASON XM WILL PREVAIL: WE AIN’T PERFECT BUT WE’RE DAMN GOOD

13 Comments:

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Bob Olhsson said...

Lee,

They are indeed "numbers guys" who pander to focus group tests rather than seeking entertainment value.

The record business has always had a symbiotic relationship to the radio business. When Madison Avenue stopped paying attention to radio in the early '50s, music exploded. The same thing happened with FM in the '70s and with cable TV in the '80s.

I'd say we need compelling star DJs far more than we need more adventurous label execs! The bean counters are just a symptom and not the real underlying problem which is the inability to expose artists whose fans don't meet a strict Madison Avenue defined demographic profile.

The other thing we need are venues for exceptional young musical artists and live broadcasts of their performances.

 
At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post--very inspiring--Totally agree about XMU and BY as the comeback channels.

Let's hope Ethel can be added to that list next year by actually getting someone in there that REALLY knows the music--You need to give Ethel a big Christmas prsent in the form of Rick Lambert--he should do both Fred & Ethel, and Kingston can work his "magic" with 20 On 20.

 
At 3:37 PM, Anonymous mystic23 said...

Hey Lee,

I enjoy my XM radio a lot and look forward to finding a battery pack that will work with my Sportscaster so I can get out of the house or car more and get some excercise.

It's weird to me that with all your country channels, none of them appeal to me. #12 X Country is a good idea and may be close to something I'd want to listen to but it bores me. Seems to be trying to appeal to the same audience as the mainstream country stations.

I have a show here in North Carolina on Sundays, at noon Eastern (til 2pm) that you might be interested in. I'd like to get it - or a version of it - onto XM but I'm not sure what the process is.

Also, there's lots of Indy labels out there with new music. I'm not sure who to talk to at XM when I'm promoting a CD - which is rare but it happens now and then.

 
At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Jason Birzer said...

Well, I'll vouch for Billy Zero as a tour guide. He gave me a nice tour of the studios.

But, the jury is still out for me on Da Boneyard. There is still a lot of songs missing from the playlist. It is better than when it was unmanned, but it still isn't as good as before Logan left.

 
At 1:10 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

As always, your blog is great to read.

Honestly...I was not that impressed with the XM Nation awards. I found it very hard to vote and I didn't really enjoy the catagories. I would have liked to see voting for XM channels. For what it's worth, here is how I'd vote for each XM "neighborhood" for best channel:

Decade: 60's
Country: X Country
Hits: Cinemagic
Christian: Spirit
Rock: Deep Tracks
Urban/Hip Hop: Soul Street
Jazz/Blues: Beyond Jazz
Lifestyle: Fine Tuning
Dance: The System
Latin: Caliente
World: none (I would vote for World Zone if it was still on the satellites)
Classical: XM Classics
Kids: XM Kids
News: BBC World
Sports: MLB Home Plate
Comedy: I'm putting The Virus in this catagory
Talk/Variety: Radio Classics

I'd say the most improved channel of 2006 was Hear Music. The most dissapointing channel of the year was Ethel. The channel that was better than expected was Radio Hannukah. The channel that is more hype thab anything is Top 20 on 20 (sorry, I don't buy the 100% interactive gimmick - I see Top 20 on 20 as a big joke).

 
At 1:11 PM, Blogger Ken said...

Man, I remember listening to WGRQ in Buffalo in the late 70s. 97 Rock was THE STATION until they changed formats. When they changed back in the mid-90s, it was a shell of what it used to be.

Anyway, I agree that your stations connect to listeners. My wife and I have very different musical tastes, but we can always find something on XM.

 
At 3:37 PM, Anonymous Uncle Freddy said...

Lee,

I want to hit on what you said about not marketing the story of XM’s music channels and the great program directors there. Unfortunately, it’s a tough story to tell in quick sound bite or a print ad with a few words and lots of white space that’s going to really catch someone’s attention. Nevertheless, it’s a story that your marketing department and its agencies need to be challenged to present.

I discovered XM on-line (back before there was even a listener free trial) and took the plunge solely from the descriptions I read about. Granted, I’m a niche listener – big prog rock fan, but also like fusion, world music, some folk and traditional jazz, and believe an eclectic mix like what Fine Tuning offers can work. And sure, just getting this music was great, but when I heard what Russ Davis, Mike Marrone, Earle Bailey, Mary Sue Twohy, and others were doing I went from simply being a customer to being an advocate. I’ve read many newspaper articles comparing XM and Sirius, and every one briefly covers commercial-free music and says something to the effect of “they’re about the same…” I just shake my head. Only so much of the blame can be attributed to weak research from the journalist. It’s such a great story that needs to be told.

 
At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

XM is "damn good" but I've had it with the sound quality. You rave about the programming gurus, and the philosophies behind them, but you put all of it out there with the stench of shitty sound quality. Since I joined in June 2003, the programming has essentially maintained it's high excellence. Sound quality has continued to be ignored as more and more content is added. If you really want to grow, stop alienating the TRUE music fans that you supposedly PROGRAM for every day, and regain the sound quality you had when you launched. It's attrocious and I'm close to dropping my 3 subs and living off my DirecTV feed.

20 on 20 is no different than FM- they both make false claims. 20 is not tabulating votes and real-time factoring them into countdowns. It's insulting, just like FM is when they play a "request" only when their computer was going to tell them to play it anyway.

 
At 4:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy XM radio for the most part but the only thing I've noticed about the 20on20 "relaunch" is that there is LOT more talk. It's not unusual for the DJ to talk over the first several seconds of a song now. I say "dump the DJ's with all there crappy talktalktalk and let's get back to the music!" It's all about the music for me, the only reason I got an XM subscription was to get away from talk radio and commercials on FM. I understand that many people love talk radio, and that's great, but keep that on the 'talk radio' channels where it's enjoyed. The XM Nation awards were overhyped as well....I got so sick of hearing about it that I actively chose NOT to vote because I'd be happier if it never happened again. If we have to have it again then I'd agree with Billie Roberts, let's vote for the channel we like. Having said that, I love the variety of music I get with Ethel and Lucy....Squizz is loads of fun and thank god for an uncensored channel! Also regarding 20on20, it would be great if you could look online to see where a particular song is for the next Top20 lineup....then people might know if there vote actually counts.

 
At 1:19 AM, Blogger David said...

Lee, as a bona-fide blogger now, you expose yourself to the risks of the game. One just caught up with you:

You've been tagged.

 
At 2:03 AM, Anonymous Mighty Fly Man said...

I agree with the anonymous poster who said: "Drop the DJs from 20 on 20!!!" They're terrible; not much better than a small or medium market air talent. They offer nothing like the content of (for example) the X-tronauts on 60s on 6 or Cool Guy on Liquid. All I need is the position number (!) and the title & artist on my digital display and I can listen all day long.

 
At 11:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee,

I can see why Billy Zero won best tour guide. Thank you and please thank him for mine today. It was something to see, and great to see you.

Hannukah 108 was just big fun.

Fly good.

Eddie Essemrna

 
At 1:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've got to improve the sound quality, Mr. Abrams.

 

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