Failures

AMAZON FIRE PHONE

We thought Jeff Bezos might be the new Steve Jobs. The Fire Phone proved otherwise.

Amazon throws half-baked products at the consumer, just like Google, but Google doesn’t usually charge for them. Furthermore, everybody knows mobile is not about the handset, but the service. And that in the U.S. you’re usually locked in for two years. So you want me to pay as much as I do for an iPhone just so I can give you more money via shopping?

The gimmicks didn’t work. It was not a quantum leap in quality. It’s history.

Proving that you don’t want to be in every market, that you’re better off creating new ones and owning them. That’s the story of Apple, it’s the story of Snapchat… Bezos could be too old to get the modern paradigm. People love the efficiency and honesty of Amazon, there’s no love for its products. The Kindle Paperwhite is the greatest advertisement for an iPad in existence. I know, because I own both. I love the non-backlit Kindle for reading, but its touch screen is unresponsive and the machine locks up, sometimes I want to throw it against the wall to wake it up.

And now we have the imperfect Echo.

Today it’s about releasing fully-formed products, that work from the get-go. Amazon fails to do this again and again, and this haunts its image. It’s hard to be everything to everyone.

GARTH BROOKS’S ONLINE STORE

I could Google the name of it, but the fact I can’t remember its moniker half proves the point, it was an abject failure. You can’t reinvent the wheel if it doesn’t need reinventing. And star power is overrated, just ask the principals in Tidal. We have enough ways to acquire music, we don’t need one more, especially when it just replicates what we’ve already got with the iTunes Store. And people don’t want to give one more entity their credit card info, what they’re looking for is a universal repository, one place that can store all their data that other sites can link to. If Target can’t keep your data safe, what are the odds Garth can?

You’ve got to take risks, but you can’t appear tone-deaf. That’s what we keep seeing over and over again in the music sphere. With Brooks, Tidal, Madonna… So eager for publicity and cash they’re out of tune with the public. You’ve got to have a great idea, and it’s got to push the envelope, it can’t be me-too, and it’s spread by word of mouth. Sans word of mouth, you’re nothing. James Taylor had the number one album in America this week, next week it’ll be somebody else, the album’s over unless his fans spread the word, and with so much cacophony in the marketplace the odds are low. So, the old media empire heralds the works of those who are famous while the youngsters reinvent the wheel… It’s a fascinating world we live in.

PONO

An unmitigated disaster.

First there’s the threshold issue. Do we need better sound? No, let me put it more succinctly, can we hear better sound?

Try this test, it’s fascinating:

“How Well Can You Hear Audio Quality?”

We had to listen to the ravings of Mr. Young for months as he trumpeted a product that almost no one wanted, other than the early adopters who purchased it on Kickstarter, and there weren’t many. If, like with Garth Brooks, the business had been a success, we would have heard about it, these stars love to get their flacks to crow about their wins, and the press eats it up, but we haven’t heard a peep since the launch. And we can criticize the dearth of available material, i.e. how much can be gotten in hi-res, but come on…

You’ve got a misshapen box playing overpriced files in a world where everything goes through your smartphone and access is key, ownership is fading away. Furthermore, people expect it all for one low price a month. Introducing Pono and its store is like selling premium gasoline to Tesla drivers, assuming everybody has a Tesla, and anybody with cash has a smartphone.

GARTH BROOKS’S ALBUM

What he needed was a hit single. Instead he sold us a long player, an album, requiring too much of our time. Only diehard fans have that much time, and even they have competing interests. If you’re a has-been trying to come back, you need a hit single, an undeniable smash. This hobbled not only Garth, but U2 too. You lead with your single, only the hardest core wants more. If we like the single, we’ll partake of a couple more tracks. Don’t forget, you’re competing with the history of recorded music, we can flip the switch to Sinatra or Led Zeppelin instantly…as well as your old hits!

TIDAL

Dead and buried. History. A complete flop. Only this time, everybody but the principals knew this immediately. The proprietors tried to spin it otherwise, but they had no tools in their arsenal with which to do combat. You want to give us exclusives, you want us to pay for exclusives, when we haven’t got enough time to view what we want to, and we’re all about access for one low price? Exclusives are like buying an iPhone only to find out that certain installed apps don’t work, and only will if you buy an Android phone too. Does anybody need two phones?

LESSONS

1. Past success is no guarantee of future success. Society is fluid, especially when it comes to new products. And if you’re selling something old, based purely on your brand name, good luck! This is what haunts Apple Music. There’s not enough new there to convince people to switch, and there’s not enough new there to convince people who weren’t paying before to pay now.

2. Don’t pay attention to the hype, but the follow-up. We’ve got an antiquated media out of touch with consumers. Sure, awareness helps, we need an introduction. But new products and services are hyped for months, and then are dead after a week. But it scares purveyors to know that success or failure is in the hands of customers, not the media, not retail… How many people will buy the Apple Watch once early adopters have got theirs and supply is plentiful? I doubt many, and the Watch will either be vastly improved or fade away, yet we had to hear about it for the better part of a year.

3. Interior, not exterior. Functionality, not design. Quality, not star power. Alicia Keys couldn’t save BlackBerry, but she put a world of hurt on the credibility of artists. The proletariat knows that artists are beholden to those with the fattest wallet, therefore star endorsements mean less. A star might get you attention, but that’s all it’ll get. Fans will kick the tires, but they’ll only sign up and purchase if they like the underlying product.

4. Stay in your wheelhouse. You’re a musician, not a tech entrepreneur. You’re a service provider, not a gadget maker. The barrier to entry is high. And those who win have spent a long time in the trenches, and hire those who can help them. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, execution is everything. Which is why Friendster and MySpace failed and Facebook succeeded.

5. We want what everybody else has. To be unique today is to be completely off the radar screen. We’re all about standards. So either create a new standard…OR GET OUT OF THE WAY!

Rock Star CEOs

John Legere is selling a crappy product in a new way and winning all the while. He’s a rock star CEO.

Kind of like Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of Slack, the cofounder of Flickr, who went ballistic on the “Wall Street Journal” today

Slack CEO explodes over editorial about the South Carolina shooting, says ‘f— you’ to Wall Street Journal

Used to be you kept your head down and played to the Street, stayed unknown so you could keep your career. But today’s CEOs, those who win, mostly from the younger generation, have a public profile, just like their audience. Every American is reachable online, except for the rich and famous, and this has got to change.

In case you’re unaware of who John Legere is, he’s the CEO of T-Mobile, the perennially fourth-ranked mobile service in America, which is suddenly stealing subscribers from Verizon and AT&T, not by providing a better service, but one that is aligned with customers, that purveys an image of rebellion and fairness, all embodied by the CEO.

In other words, we know who Shawn Fanning is. Sean Parker too. But ask the average person who the music business titans are and they draw a blank, to the industry’s detriment.

Except for Jimmy Iovine. Who wove a course of self-promotion that didn’t seem to be about him. Jimmy won the same way Legere is, by taking a staid marketplace and selling a second-rate product in a new way and taking market share from competitors. That’s the story of Beats. You can’t find a single person with anything good to say about their fidelity. But fidelity doesn’t matter, the same way T-Mobile’s second-rate coverage doesn’t matter.

Imagine if Lucian Grainge was a public figure. Imagine if Doug Morris were accessible. Michael Rapino too. It would aid the entire industry.

The story of the modern music business is the acts can’t get traction. In a cluttered space, it’s hard to gain notice, especially if you don’t have Top Forty hits. Rather than cheerleading, we get complaining. To the point where the public tunes out. A public that is so overwhelmed it consumes new music at festivals, where they’re captive and can graze, tuning in to see what you’re like. That’s the story of the teens, how you put out an album and it’s over in a week, once your fans have bought it you’re dead in the water. Acts don’t realize you lead with your live show, the record comes later, kind of like the Grateful Dead. You make fans on the road who then dial you up on Spotify. To try to convince people otherwise is fruitless, especially since you can’t make any money with a hit single, because you have no career and that’s the only money you’re going to get, and we all know the big money in music is on the road.

So we need someone to mix it up.

In a world where rich CEOs dominate the culture, we need music’s rich CEOs to steer the public. To have personalities and turn fans on to new sounds.

In the music business everybody is great and everybody is a star.

Only they’re not.

Imagine if Lucian tweeted about his new favorite act. People would check it out. As long as he didn’t tweet everybody on his roster, especially if he tweeted an act that WASN’T on his roster!

When the baby boomers die, the music business will look completely different. The old farts are only in charge because of catalog, which is leveraged to keep them in power, the barrier to entry for young ‘uns is too high, so they stay away and music is poorer for it.

Of course you can say that execs should stay out of the way and let the stars shine. But that’s old school thinking. Back when the stars were really such. Neil Young takes on Monsanto and the young ‘uns ask how they can sell out to the corporation. If a CEO were outrageous, it would be a beacon to his roster.

It’s not hard.

It starts on Twitter. That’s right, that’s what the service is good for. As long as you speak the truth.

No one’s got time for the rantings of nobodies on Twitter, but that’s where you get access to the somebodies, especially the real bigwigs. And you can tweet and the CEOs get back to you, I know, I wrote about Legere and he instantly responded. I didn’t think I flew on that guy’s radar. But he’s reading everything about his company.

There’s so much to say about music. The tunes themselves, the acts, the grosses, the financial shenanigans. In an era of transparency driven by tech music is all about keeping it under wraps, it’s out of touch with the times, which is very sad, because music used to lead.

This is coming. Because competitors in cutthroat battlefields need an edge, and the socially-connected kids know this.

1. Who should I sign? Tweet and ask the public to weigh in, engage people.

2. Give away tickets online. Or graduate people from the peanut gallery to the front row. Sure, bands do this. But Michael Rapino is selling tickets every day of the year.

3. Complain and explain. Why you can’t get a good ticket, what the best strategy is.

4. What kind of private jet you’re flying on. Everybody knows you fly private, don’t try to hide it, fans eat up this information. And tweet pictures of who is with you, whether known or unknown.

5. What you’re eating. Food rules, even more than music. Food trucks broke on Twitter, CEOs can use the service to the same advantage.

6. Go off topic, everybody’s three-dimensional. When you only talk about your own business in glowing terms people tune out.

7. Be negative, be edgy, complain and compete. This is Legere’s strength, he’s not ready to play nice, and you shouldn’t be either.

P.S. To learn more about Legere, read this imperfect story in “Fast Company”:

WHO THE @!#$&% IS THIS GUY? JOHN LEGERE’S STRATEGY FOR TAKING NEW CUSTOMERS BY STORM

Or follow him on Twitter, where he’s got 1.38 million followers exposed to his twenty tweets a day: @JohnLegere

P.P.S. Even more interesting in “Fast Company” is the story on Shake Shack:

SHAKE SHACK’S FRENCH FRY DEBACLE, AND HOW IT RECOVERED FROM ITS BIGGEST MISTAKE

Keys to its success? High quality and slow growth. Millennials are all about natural. Pat LaFrieda is the Beatles of meat and that’s what Shake Shack uses. The music industry is McDonald’s, literally. It’s trying to stuff an old paradigm down a younger generation’s throat. Millennials want authentic and honest. More credits, illustrating the artists involved actually did the work. And those who become instant stars rarely last. You have to grow slowly, learn from your mistakes, adjust, wait for the public to embrace you and spread the word. Anything jammed is ultimately rejected by the masses. Don’t start with backlash.

P.P.P.S. Twitter is not the only forum. Certainly use Instagram, but also do interviews, make news, something music CEOs rarely do, unless they’re bitching.

More Apple Music

It’s gonna go freemium.

Just like Apple pivoted when the indies and Taylor Swift complained about the three month no pay plan, when customers abandon Apple Music en masse after their initial trial, Apple’s gonna pivot again.

Just like Spotify.

Remember when Spotify was gonna be free for only six months? When you had to pay to get mobile? Spotify changed course when it realized it would be dead in the water without the freemium element and that the free tier generated paid subscribers.

We already know Apple Music won’t work. Because of Beats. Come on, with every NBA player in existence wearing the headphones, with every star having his or her own personal model, people should have subscribed to Beats Music in droves. But they didn’t. Because they’re not inured to pay for music, they have to be taught to pay for music, via convenience and price. The moral argument fails. There’s not enough innovation in Apple Music to make people give up YouTube, never mind switch from Spotify.

And speaking of YouTube, I had a conversation with Robert Kyncl wherein he quoted Steve Jobs, who said that you don’t mess with something that’s working. The record companies wanted to raise iTunes prices, Jobs said no. For a very long time. And Kyncl’s point is YouTube pays money for its streams, and it’s only going to get better, because of their advertising infrastructure.

The truth is companies need to spend dollars to reach consumers. And with the decline of network television they’ve got no choice but to go to the web. So YouTube sells against their best inventory. The selling is key! YouTube has sales departments around the world, working with advertisers, explaining how to extract the greatest benefit from YouTube clips. In other words, the reason you see so few ads on the free tier of Spotify, the reason the free tier pays so poorly, is because the company is doing a poor job of selling said ads. But, like YouTube, they will only get better and revenue will only go up.

So, come the fall, when Apple makes all of its product introductions, expect to hear that Apple Music will maintain its free tier. Of course, this isn’t simple, the company will have to sell ads too, it will have to cripple usability on mobile, but it will be the only way to save face. Come on, these are not hidden numbers. Apple can’t afford to have its service fail. And if artists and analysts trumpet paltry payments there will be a stink in Cupertino smelled around the world. All those billions in the bank can’t counter negative publicity.

And speaking of publicity, my inbox is filled with people who think the Taylor Swift/Apple kerfuffle was planned, it was a hoax, all to publicize Apple Music. Based on my conversation with one of the players I don’t believe this, but it’s fascinating that our country has evolved to the point where no one trusts anyone in power. Credit the government. Wherein people say one thing and do another, politicians lie all the time, as do corporations, as do today’s artists. You can seemingly trust no one but yourself.

But the truth is the commotion made Apple look good, it was a greater marketing campaign for the music service than the WWDC stream.

But this won’t make people pay.

Life is about dealing with the hand you’re dealt. And the hand Apple is dealing with on music is…

Spotify was there first, never mind the rest of the also-rans.

And YouTube is the dominant player.

And Apple is offering nothing new. If radio were attractive, iTunes Radio would have triumphed, but it didn’t. As for the vaunted social network Connect…is that our problem, a dearth of social networks? In a world where Windows Phone can get no traction and BlackBerry is dead and Nokia is on life support do we really think anybody cares about Connect?

No, they just want the music.

And right now it’s free.

And it’s gonna be.

Until someone comes up with something so enticing and so easy to use that more people will pay for it.

We’re close, but not there yet.

So freemium should survive, and it will.

P.S. When more people pay, middle class artists will still be screwed. Their income was based on scarcity. If you had a record deal and radio airplay you made money. But today everybody can play and you’re competing against the greatest hits of all time. Therefore, the rich will get richer and the poor…will stay that way…as the middle class declines, just like in real life.

Eddy Cue Caves

I don’t know who to credit more, Eddy Cue or Taylor Swift.

Eddy responded immediately, on a Sunday, proving, once again, if you don’t show up on Saturday, don’t even THINK about showing up on Sunday! Thank you Jeffrey Katzenberg, you too are pivoting, albeit not as fast as Eddy Cue. And that’s just the point, admit your mistakes and move on. He who digs in his heels is wrong. So Eddy gets props here.

But the truth is Taylor Swift just demonstrated the power of audience. An indie artist selling out clubs could say the same thing and have no effect. And the way Taylor Swift garnered that audience was through music. Her original tunes, sung straight from the heart, such that she bonded millions of people to her, who believe in her the way they believe in nobody else, take that Apple.

That’s the power of music. That’s the way it used to be done. That’s why we revere the sixties. That’s why the Grateful Dead can sell out stadiums fifty years on.

Or to quote the bard of the Hollywood Hills, “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”

Notice Cue weighed in. It wasn’t Jimmy Iovine. Who comes from the silent wall of the music business. Just try to get Doug Morris or Lucian Grainge to go on the record. As for Warner, it’s faceless, to its detriment. But instead of standing up for artists, Morris and Grainge stood up for themselves, with their old buddy Jimmy. They have egg on their faces. Cue backed down, can Doug and Lucian? Of course not, they won’t even admit guilt! But they started this thing. And isn’t it interesting that the world’s best records come from Martin Mills and his indie Beggars Group. The majors are a machine that excises art, that don’t stand for anything so much as making money. Which is why artists must do it for themselves.

I don’t know what went through Taylor Swift’s mind. Notice, she didn’t weigh in immediately, this indie/nonpayment for three months story has been percolating for a week. But once she digested the issues she said her piece. In other words, you don’t have to shoot from the hip. But if you’re waiting for every fact to come in, to test the wind to see what public opinion is, if you’re more worried about your career than what’s right, you’re limited.

Come on, this is a bigger hit than anything on “1989.” Taylor Swift just took on the biggest company in the world and WON!

So let her effort be a beacon. Let other artists fall into step. And stop being so afraid. There’s plenty of money in music, Taylor Swift is making millions on the road, never mind her endorsement deals. And it’s the tunes that are greasing the skids. The tour used to be the ad for the album, now it’s vice versa. Taylor’s album is on a downward trend, it’s past its peak, it’s not she who’s suffering here, but…

Think of the Tidal artists. They could have done it for everybody else, but the truth is they wanted to line their own pockets.

So, kudos to Taylor Swift.

And applause for Apple. Because admitting when you’re wrong is nearly as important as being right.

Onward and upward.

P.S. People will forget Apple didn’t want to pay, but they’ll always remember Taylor Swift standing up to the company. Apple nipped the problem in the bud, the longer you let the negativity fester, the longer the stink holds. But the truth is efforts like Taylor Swift’s are career-defining moments of credibility that are trumpeted for eons, they’re what cements artists’ careers. It’s not only hits, it’s identity. Records come and go, people remain. If you stand for something, you’re the hook that catches the velcro loop, and we’re all loops waiting to be caught.