Archive for the 'marketing' Category

No art can come from American Idol.

Oh, those aren’t my sentiments–they’re Clive Davis’s. Hoping that Taylor Hicks’ second album digs deep into his emotional center, allowing him to employ his subtle blues-tinged phrasing and inflection? Still jonesing for Katharine McPhee to put out that sultry, smoky, Norah Jones-meets-Madeleing Peyroux album that we all know she’s capable of? (Hey, just ’cause I don’t like her doesn’t mean I don’t think she could pull that off. She could.) Well…in that case, you better hope that another label comes along and buys these kids out of their contracts. In a new article, Clive Davis offers his definitive opinion on how he views American Idol as part of the BMG “family”:

“I’m well aware that all the success of ‘American Idol’ puts a taint with some people on my other history, which began with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana,” the bespectacled Davis says, looking sharp in his nicely tailored slacks and sweater.

“But a discerning person recognizes that when you are running a company, you’re dealing with a mixture of commerce and art. The important thing is to know when you are dealing with art and when you are dealing with commerce, and I know that difference.”

So in other words, the Idols cannot and will not be viewed as “artists;” no, that would tarnish Clive’s street cred. So to maintain his reputation, Clive apparently views them as nothing more than commercial products, mere business investments, but not potential outlets of art or creativity. Contrast that viewpoint with his description of Alicia Keyes:

Another of Davis’ cornerstone artists simply walked in the front door: Alicia Keys. Still in her teens when she sat down to play three songs in Davis’ office, Keys was such a natural that Davis was momentarily angered when Peter Edge, one of his A&R aides, and Jeff Robinson, Keys’ manager, told him that the young singer was under contract to Columbia.

Alicia was a bona-fide artistic find, no doubt. Had she won American Idol, however, instead of simply walking through Clive’s front door, we wouldn’t have gotten a Songs in A Minor. We would have gotten Alicia–the same girl, the same phenomenal talent, the same voice–singing “Truth Is” or “Over It” or “Dream Myself Awake.”

But not all hope is lost…at least, not on the commercial “dancing with the devil” side. A beacon of hope exists for Taylor’s latest album, which according to this quote, is currently selling only as well–moreso, actually–than Clive expects it to:

“The mistake people make about ‘American Idol’ is that they think the show itself is enough to make anyone a bestseller, so there is no creativity involved,” Davis, a guest judge on the TV program, says in his deliberate, thorough way. “But the show’s exposure is only worth about 350,000 to 500,000 record sales for an artist.

“To go beyond that, you have to have hit songs to get on the radio.”

You mean that many record-buyers actually tune into radio, and that’s how they find out about new albums on the market? You mean the news of Taylor Hicks’ debut release isn’t going to be distributed to the mass public via osmosis or subliminal transmission? Huh. Who knew? [/sarcasm]

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Mark your calendars.

A couple of be-on-the-lookout dates:

Daughtry’s new music video, “It’s Not Over,” will be added to VH1’s rotation as of January 15th.

Katharine McPhee’s new single, “Over It,” officially goes for radio station adds on the same day. It’s already gotten some decent radio airplay.

Regrettably, Taylor Hicks’ people don’t seem to be as on the ball as Kat’s and Chris’s, as the most we’ve gotten in news about “Just To Feel That Way” is that it will be impacting radio “soon.” I do trust that Arista knows what it’s doing, but it’s frustrating for a fan. And I don’t even listen to radio. In any event, there have been reports of “Give Me Tonight” being played in Japan, of all places. Hmm…

Squibs and blurbs.

So a few new Taylor Hicks mp3s have been posted over at the Boogie Board. These come from a collection titled “One Night in Nashville,” and contain our old favorites “Hold Onto Your Love” and “Son of a Carpenter,” plus a few new goodies here and there. But be absolutely sure not to miss “People Get Ready.” Slow, laconic, jam-bandy but with a plucky, almost tropical feel — it’s Jimmy Buffett meets Ray LaMontagne meets Ray Charles. It’s an amazing sound that Taylor could trademark, bottle and sell very, very well, because it’s all his own. Are you listening, Clivey baby? You have a tremendous talent with a unique style and a gifted, brilliant growl of a voice here.

Taylor gets another mention in a blog run by Mark Sanborn, author of the book You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader. In examining why Taylor Hicks beat out Katharine McPhee, he took notice of one person’s opinion that while Katharine made you want to listen, Taylor made you want to dance. Sanborn applies this sentiment to the world of business and marketing–does your product make someone want to dance? I think this is a great metaphor. A product, whether that product is a tangible item, a service or, yes, an American Idol contestant, has to engage the audience. After all, I’ve watched many a season of Idol, and while I admired many pretty people with pretty voices (and some not-so-pretty people with pretty voices), none of them “made me want to dance” the way Taylor did.

Over in the world of the mainstream media, Entertainment Weekly’s Michael Slezak (a far more even-handed reviewer than Henry Goldenblatt, who infamously claimed that “Dream Myself Awake” was the best song on Taylor Hicks — HA!) is geared up for Season 6. Slezak muses that right now, “songs like Whitney Houston’s oft, oft-covered “I Have Nothing” and Phil Collins’ similarly hard-used “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” sit trembling in the corner, awaiting what’s sure to be a hideous fate[.]” Hee. (Hey, and guess which Season 5 contestant covered both of these songs–poorly?)

But not all hope is lost for Kat. At least one reviewer (Aidin Vaziri of SFGate) is looking forward to her debut album, lumping her in with the likes of other 2007 “pop discoveries” such as Paolo Nutini and Lilly Allen. Writes Vaziri, “the accident-prone runner-up promises a combination of Streisand, Celine and the Pussycat Dolls. How could that possibly go wrong?” Um…many, many ways, Mr. Vaziri. Maybe it’s a California thing.

What the kids are listenin’ to.

Once “Just To Feel That Way” was selected as Taylor Hicks’ first single, there was much rejoicing in the Kingdom of Soul. After all, they’d been running polls and holding discussions, and JTFTW frequently came out on top as the Soul Patrol’s hand-pick for a first-release single. But it was interesting. Here you had a group of people, most of whom freely admit to having stopped listening to radio ages ago, weighing in on which of Taylor’s songs was the most radio-friendly. Were they basing it on actual knowledge? Intuition? Or did they merely have an idea of what was being played on the radio, but without an actual clue?

So what is being played on the radio these days? I don’t pay much attention to it, so I took a stroll over to the Billboard Hot 100 charts and the MediaBase airplay charts. And here’s what’s the kids are listening to these days. (Note: the MediaBase charts change frequently, so they may not exactly reflect what I’m claiming in this blog post, but it’s accurate as of the time I posted.)

MediaBase Hit Pop Charts:

1. Beyonce, “Irreplaceable”
2. Justin Timberlake, “My Love”
3. Fergie, “Fergalicious”
4. The Fray, “How To Save a Life”
5. Akon, “Smack That”
6. Akon, “I Wanna Love You”
7. Hinder, “Lips of an Angel”
8. Nelly Furtado, “Say It Right”
9. Paula Deanda, “Walk Away”
10. Nickelback, “Far Away”

John Mayer has a hit at #17 with “Waiting on the World to Change.” JoJo, Daughtry, Ludacris, Christina Aguilera and Rihanna help round out the top 20.

The Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart is essentially a reproduction of the MediaBase chart, although Jim Jones’ “We Fly High” and The All-American Rejects “It Ends Tonight” are in the Top 10.

The Mediabase Hot AC chart contains much of the same, though Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” KT Tunstall’s omnipresent “Suddenly I See,” and tunes by Rob Thomas and Matt Kearney also pop up in the top 10.

The Mainstream AC chart is where things get a little shaken up, although there’s nothing shocking. Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” is still clinging for dear life to the number-one spot, trailed by “Bad [Friggin’] Day.” Rascal Flatts, Five for Fighting, Rob Thomas, and Nick Lachey are there, as is Mayer’s tune and KT’s “Black Horse.” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” makes a noticeable appearance. (Traditionally–I do know this much–songs have a much longer lifespan on AC, even if they start out on the pop charts).

But far and away, the most interesting chart is MediaBase Urban AC. While the Fergies and the Timberlakes cloud up the Hot Urban chart, Urban AC is comprised of almost an entirely different set of artists. There, the number-one spot is claimed by Ruben Studdard (!!) with “Change Me,” followed by Mary J. Blige, Brian McKnight, and Robin Thicke. Beyonce makes her obligatory appearance, but she’s tailed by Lionel Richie, Anthony Hamilton, India.Arie and John Legend.

Hmm. It’ll be interesting to see where Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee wind up. I don’t see the likes of “Over It” and “Each Other” being embraced by Urban A/C, though she’ll probably get decent pop airplay, if not at least one major hit. Taylor, on the other hand, will probably have to settle for middling rotation of his “Just To Feel That Way” on the pop charts, but like other pop castoffs, it may find a semi-permanent home on Mainstream A/C.

Waiting, ooh waiting on the world to change.

Here come some numbers.

15 36 HICKS*TAYLOR TAYLOR HICKS 38,585 -81 201,881 539,619

Well, before anyone freaks out, it looks like all the albums took a predictable tumble the week after Christmas. Here are some other numbers:

31 3 DREAMGIRLS SOUNDTRACK 104,366 -17 125,272 385,638

That’s only a small tumble, but the movie was only recently released, so of course it’s picking up steam that way, too.

8 11 DAUGHTRY DAUGHTRY 76,262 -69 249,537 1,121,033

He’ll probably be back up next week, propelled by buzz surrounding his New Years’ Eve performance. Taylor will probably get a similar boost from his Orange Bowl show, though I don’t expect it to be as big as Daughtry’s.

And as of now, both Clay and Ruben have fallen completely off the Billboard 200.

But back to Taylor Hicks for a minute. Gray Charles blogged today about Taylor’s upcoming single. Apparently, four songs from the album (which ones, we don’t know) are being floated to focus groups. As of now, the push is to Top 40 radio, not to the Adult Contemporary format. Now, I’m no marketing expert (hell, I never so much as took a class in college), but this seems silly to me. Taylor’s just not Top 40 material. Sure, every now and then something completely new and different is embraced by the ClearChannel gods, such as Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy,” but I doubt that anyone bearing the American Idol stigma is going to be the harbinger of pop music innovation. So why not release “The Right Place” and market him to A/C? “The Right Place” is widely critically regarded as one of the best songs on the album, and besides, it’s common knowledge that the bulk of the American Idol viewing demographic is not made up of teens, but of 18-49-year-olds, many of whom would probably appreciate the various throwback styles on the album, from the 60’s-era “Heaven Knows” to the 80’s-synth-soul of “Wherever I Lay My Hat.” After all, artists like John Mayer, Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and Josh Groban all had fantastic years saleswise, and none of them had Top 40 hits (save for Mayer’s insipid “Daughters,” which I still hear on rotation every now and then). Norah Jones’ album is one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2007, and you won’t hear her sandwiched between The Pussycat Dolls and Justin Timberlake. Why, why, why, Clive, why, AI gods, must you make this unnecessary push? Gah.

I blame Britney and the Bratz dolls.

From The New York Times (and courtesy of RightSaidFred over at MJ’s):

The scene is a middle school auditorium, where girls in teams of three or four are bopping to pop songs at a student talent show. Not bopping, actually, but doing elaborately choreographed re-creations of music videos, in tiny skirts or tight shorts, with bare bellies, rouged cheeks and glittery eyes.

They writhe and strut, shake their bottoms, splay their legs, thrust their chests out and in and out again. Some straddle empty chairs, like lap dancers without laps. They don’t smile much. Their faces are locked from grim exertion, from all that leaping up and lying down without poles to hold onto. “Don’t stop don’t stop,” sings Janet Jackson, all whispery. “Jerk it like you’re making it choke. …Ohh. I’m so stimulated. Feel so X-rated.” The girls spend a lot of time lying on the floor. They are in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

And it’s a cramped vision of girlhood that enshrines sexual allure as the best or only form of power and esteem. It’s as if there were now Three Ages of Woman: first Mary-Kate, then Britney, then Courtney. Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with Katharine McPhee? Will the tweens be dry-humping plastic schoolroom chairs to “Open Toes?” No, probably not. In fact Katharine seems to be quite far from a sexy songstress. So far, none of her songs seem to come even remotely close to Janet Jackson’s explicit lyrics, and while her booty-shaking, air-kissing red carpet poses are obnoxious, they aren’t exactly in the same league as pelvic thrusting in a music video. No, so far her songs range from hokey to blandly vague (or is that vaguely bland?), and “I felt the hit/it was hard as a brick/and made me shift” is about the closest McPhee’s come to trying her hand at innuendo.

Which is why it’s so interesting that even while her lyrics and music remain sugary and teen-oriented (songs about shoes and getting over her puppy-love boyfriend’s smile), McPhee’s album cover (and several of her more recent magazine poses), replete with spread legs, no pants and a breathless expression on her face, suggest an entirely different image. She’s almost a reverse Britney. After all, Spears began her musical career posing sweetly on her album cover but who brassily sang “hit me baby one more time.” Britney (in her seventeen-year-old prime) was the consummate sweet on the outside, naughty on the inside schoolgirl teen dream that every high school boy fantasizes about; she soon (for better or for worse) fully embraced her sexuality. Katharine, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Her album cover exudes sex. Her body position and attire–or lack thereof–insinuate a ready-and-waiting sexual attitude, while her hooded eyes and parted lips are equally come-hither (what kinds of things do you think the photographer was shouting out to her as his camera snapped away? I’m willing to bet he wasn’t screaming “look classy, Katharine!“).

Yet, for all the blatant sexuality on the album cover, listeners are greeted not with lyrics about sexual escapades or even Britney-esque innuendos, but with candy-coated, sapless sweetness about high heels, getting over a (puppy) love’s eyes and smile, and a “dangerous” man (Ooh, does he skip seventh-period chem class to go to the beach? Dangerous!). Brit was the class prude who turned out to be not-so-prudish once you got her under the bleachers after the football game; Kat’s the overt tart who, it turns out, won’t let you so much as kiss her on the lips on the first date. It’s an interesting strategy, and I’m not sure what the response will be.

1 key modulation + 1 stripped chorus + 1 glory note = HIT!

I’m not a big listener of mainstream radio, but when I do tune in, there are definitely songs I gravitate towards more than others. Interestingly enough, I’ve always noticed a definite similarity between pop songs I enjoy, but I could never quite place my finger on what it was, much less identify some kind of underlying musical structure or formula that was captivating my attention. All I knew was that I liked what I liked. Maybe that made me picky. Maybe it made me a sucker for cheesy music. Maybe certain hit songs were embedded with subliminal coding that was hypnotizing me into liking songs that, in reality, I really didn’t like.

What's on his iPod?  Math, apparently.Maybe all three are right, because apparently, we are hard-wired to respond favorably to certain tunes, beats and drumrolls. And if you’re a record exec, one company wants to help you make sure that your songs reach their true hit potential. The folks behind Platinum Blue, a fairly recently developed computer application, claim to be able to break down a song into mathematical patterns, then to overlay that pattern onto a new song and predict, with 80% accuracy, whether that song will become a hit. The software uses a process called “spectral deconvolution” (kay…try saying that after a few cups of eggnog) to extract bits of information about a song–chord progressions, instruments, cadence and the like. And by analyzing almost every song to peak on the charts since 1960 in this manner, the Platinum Blue folks say that they have discovered “clusters,” or groups of a small set of characteristics shared by almost 80% of all pop hits over the past few decades.

Well, okay, that sounds simple enough, so why should someone like Clive Davis need to shell out major moola for a computer program? The answer is because identifying the “clusters” isn’t the least bit intuitive (or so Platinum Blue claims). For example, songs by Norah Jones, Vanessa Carlton, and Van Halen belong to the same cluster, while U2 and Beethoven are also grouped together, as are Brahms and Hall & Oates.

The software isn’t without its detractors, however. Well-known British songwriter Guy Chambers deems Platinum Blue “evil,” while philosopher Jaron Lanier claims that the product creates a “meaningless sensibility.” Lanier also points out that because Platinum Blue relies on the success of past hits, it could never predict the success of a truly innovative artistic breakthrough. “If our purpose is to please ourselves in the most average way possible, without caring what anything means, we might as well just kill ourselves,” Lanier laments. “We’ve lost the moral authority to want anything.” Platinum Blue, hardly oblivious to the criticism directed its way, posts this “disclaimer” on its website:

Hmm, what cluster does Gorillaz fall into?“Our technology does not influence creativity or artistic integrity rather it simply helps the industry place more intelligent investment behind songs with a better chance of market success. As a tool it can be used to find the next mainstream pop hit. It can also be used to help labels feel more confident when promoting “risky” or innovative sounding music by showing them that there is a market for it and how to reach that market. Additionally, the technology can be used by music producers to help push the envelope of creativity.”

Aside from the fact that the disclaimer could definitely benefit from the insertion of a semicolon or two (Grammar Bitch strikes again!), both truth and falsity can be found in their statement. Yes, if the logic behind Platinum Blue holds true, than Clive Davis shouldn’t have to worry about making Taylor Hicks sound more like mainstream pop and less like a soul singer–“clusters” of elements aren’t genre-specific, so as long as a Hicks song contains a few of the proper elements, it should be a hit regardless of whether it sounds more like Otis Redding or more like Rob Thomas. In that vein, Platinum Blue can be used as a tool for creativity. At the same time, though, the formula can be incredibly constricting. For example, the Gnarls Barkley song “Crazy” scored extremely high with Platinum Blue’s hit prediction software; if it hadn’t, Platinum’s engineers aren’t shy about admitting that they would have suggested how to change the song to make it fit within a pre-existing cluster.

The code, she is cracked.So, is Platinum Blue good or bad? Do we really want to enter a realm in which the songs we’re fed via ClearChannel and MTV have all been pre-selected to conform to an established pattern? Or is Platinum Blue simply telling record execs what they’d eventually find out the hard way–that people are likely to respond well to certain types of songs but not others? In other words, is Platinum Blue really making our choices for us, as Lanier seems to fear, or is the software merely a harmless predictor of what we are likely to choose anyway when all the options are set out in front of us?

The answer, I suppose, lies in whether we, as musical consumers, really do have all the options set out in front of us. Surely we don’t on the radio–just a quick spin on your car tuner reveals that you’ve got a fairly lean menu to select from, especially if your tasts fall into an off-genre such as soul, metal, bluegrass, jazz (and not Kenny G-type jazz, either). Perhaps programs like iTunes, Rhapsody, and Pandora (which uses a similar elemental breakdown to recommend music based on pre-existing tastes) are overcoming that hurdle, but at least a program like Pandora makes recommendations based upon your input, not upon some universal lowest common denominator of pleasure stimulation.

Aside from the moral quandries surrounding the program’s potential (or actual–hardly anyone admits to using it, but you just know they all are), some research actually suggests that the program itself is meaningless. One study asked teenagers to listen to music by (then-) unknown artists, then to rate the songs on a scale of 1 to 5. The teenagers were each directed to one of eight identical-appearing sites. Data at the top of each site informed the teenagers of the most popular songs within that site. Based upon Platinum Blue’s logic, that there is an inherent musical formula that speaks to all of us, one would expect the same cluster of songs to become breakout hits on each site. But au contraire; instead, the researchers found that different songs became hits on different sites–that the teenagers were rating songs based on what was already popular on that site, not based upon what appealed to them. Now, of course, teenagers are uniquely predisposed to go with the flow, and perhaps the study would have been better performed on adults, but the results certainly call Platinum Blue’s methods (or relevancy) into question, even if they are disturbing on an entirely other level.

All this debate raises some interesting questions. As to Lanier’s point about artistic breakthroughs…well, is there really such a thing as an “artistic breakthrough,” or is all past, present and future music all composed of certain inherent mathematical patterns? After all, the old adage “everything old is new again” isn’t without some merit. And as to whether Platinum Blue stifles or encourages creativity…well, in a way it’s a good thing, because Clive Davis can feel more confident marketing a blues tune that contains six or seven “clusters” of hit elements, instead of force-feeding us another Jessica Simpson. On the other hand, though, what if that blues tune, for artistic reasons, contains a soft, understated base line, and the Platinum Blue people feed it through their hitmaker and tell Clive that the base line really needs to be ramped up for optimum hit potential? Clive will win and the artist will lose, of course, and the artistic cohesion of the song will have been sacrificed in the name of hitmaking.

These questions, of course, can’t be answered in a single blog post. But perhaps it’s fitting to end with yet another one of Platinum Blue’s disclaimers: “By using our technology hit rates can be increased to over 80%; four times the accuracy rate the industry currently has, effectively providing a risk management capability that helps yield massive improvements in return on investment.” Wait…does that mean that the record companies still have to make an investment? Do they still have to dump a lot of time, money and energy into promoting a potential hit single? Why not just quietly release it to radio and let the mathematical formula do the rest? After all, if Platinum Blue is right, then we should all automatically respond to the song on some instinctual level, without all the marketing and the hoopla. Maybe the answer lies somewhere between Platinum Blue and the above-mentioned research that seemed to discount its logic. Maybe Platinum Blue identifies what a consumer is likely to respond to, but maybe like a fickle teenager, the consumer will only select it if he or she can be assured that all the cool kids have chosen the same product.

Information from this post was gleaned from the following sources:
Oliver Burkeman, How Many Hits? The Guardian, Nov. 11, 2001.
Malcom Gladwell, The Formula, The New Yorker, Oct. 16, 2006.
Platinum Blue Official Website


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What the kids are sayin’



"I hate them all. The judges, TPTB, the blatant manipulation, the songs, the contestants, everything. I'm a die-hard Cook fan, but for the love of god, at least try to look like you're enjoying yourself up there! Please? Syesha was awesome but she ruined it by being completely shameless and disgusting. Yes, being on American Idol is exactly like the civil rights movement, except for the part where you're fighting to make the world a better place."



"All I can say after the disgusting display tonight of favoritism towards the mediocrity that is David A. - good luck trying to market and make money off of that kid, American Idol. (Not to mention good luck dealing with his father.) All the teeny boppers may buy up his American Idol coronation single, but they will quickly forget about him before the album comes out. And I shudder to think of a David A. album - song after song of unrelenting sameness and heavy breathing. Why they are pimping him for the win is beyond me."



"This show was simply a hot buttered mess tonight. And Jason "needs to be arrested for what he did to I Shot the Sheriff. But I hope he stays. He amuses me. "