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guys REALLY controlling the music business are a thing of the past, and outside of the connected Hip Hop moguls, have been replaced by icy numbers guys controlling the rudder who will inevitably sap the lifeblood out of their companies.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