This was not a music industry conference.
There were no bands charged a fee to perform to no one despite believing this was their one big break.
There were no secondary characters testifying about that which they had no contact with.
This was a blue chip group of people listening to household names.
Like Travis Kalanick of Uber, Eric Schmidt of Google, David Brooks of the “New York Times,” but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Summit Series, what’s that?
A group of people who wanted me to go to Squaw Valley for free. And like Joni Mitchell sang, I only work sans compensation if you’re a friend of mine.
The Summit Series is a friend of mine now, but not back then. But Shakil Khan, the consigliere of Spotify, told me Summit was the link between the streaming service and Facebook, and if you remember half a decade back, you know that was a big deal. So the next time Brett Leve reached out I paid attention.
Brett Leve. A twentysomething who accosted me at Coachella and told me his organization was buying a ski area. Little did he know downhill sliding was my passion. So, when they invited me to go to their digs in Eden, Utah, to partake of the snow at their newly-purchased Powder Mountain, I went.
And was stunned at the caliber of person.
I was in a conversation at the Lake House with a guy who said he was an “environmentally-friendly VC.” In music business terms, that means he’s out of a job. But upon further investigation, this dude had worked for the government, was then a traditional VC, he had a full CV, he was real.
And that’s when I began my journey to becoming a Summiteer.
That was back in 2013. The next time I went to Utah was a year ago. Whereupon a not quite thirty year old named Kendall Ostrow asked me if I knew about Snapchat Stories, she told me she was going to sell the first series to the service, she was the social media agent at UTA…AND SHE DID!
This was September 2014. Long before most people had ever heard of Snapchat, never mind Evan Spiegel. If anything, they thought the service was about evanescent messaging… Kendall clued me in. I’ve maintained the relationship. I’m all about learning. And when the Summit guys asked me to speak on their boat this past weekend, I said YES!!
Let’s go back a step, to the beginning, and answer the question…WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
The majordomo is Elliott Bisnow. Who dropped out of college to help his father establish a flourishing newsletter business. He and his buddies, Jeff Rosenthal, Jeremy Schwartz and the aforementioned Brett Leve, decided to book Bill Clinton for a gig in New York. You know, the ex-Pres. will go anywhere if you cough up the dough. And they did. Although they were short and Russell Simmons kicked in the extra cash. That’s right, these guys know EVERYBODY!
And then there was a ski weekend and a boat trip and the Squaw Valley escapade and then…
They bought Powder Mountain.
The linchpin is one Greg Mauro. Who’d sold a couple of companies and loved to ski the powder. He made the connection. And the goal is to build a community atop the mountain. Kind of an Aspen meets Sun Valley meets Chautauqua for the younger set. And you might laugh, but they’ve sold nearly a hundred lots and Richard Branson and Chris Blackwell bought in. Did I say they know everybody?
So the plane to Miami was filled with Summiteers. The guy behind us started awkwardfamilyphotos.com, he’s married to Su-chin Pak. Remember when she did that doc on MTV about having her eyelids changed? Or not?
And there was an actor and a banker and when we got on the ship…
Our room sucked. But they made it right. Whereupon we went to dinner and hung with Shep Gordon, Supermensch.
I know Shep, we’ve had lunch. But this was more relaxed and friendly. He showed me e-mail he got from people who track him down after viewing the film, like this medical student from Israel asking for cash.
And then we strolled down the hallway and ran into Jeremy Jones, snowboarder par excellence, I get his Protect Our Winter newsletter. And then Sanjayan, who made an environmental series for PBS… No one advertised their wares, but if you dug, everybody had a story.
And the following day the content began.
There were multiple speeches at the same time. I couldn’t go to every one. I can’t talk about every one I went to, but…
I loved hearing Jorge Ramos, you know, the reporter Donald Trump kicked out of the news conference. Ramos gave us the backstory, and illuminated today’s news landscape. He doesn’t expect millennials to watch his show, there’s no such thing as appointment TV for them, it’s all about the mobile, how can he reach them on the mobile? And he knows he can never have the power of the people he reports on, but he can hold them accountable, he can get them to speak the truth. Musicians can’t make as much as techies and bankers, how come they haven’t realized the same thing?
And then Chris Sacca interviewed Edward Snowden. That’s right, all the way from Moscow, not Memphis, via Google Hangouts. Snowden’s so SMART, whether you agree with him or not! Like the Summiteers, he was informed, he knew what was going on, he came to play.
And then there was Harry Belafonte, who said he was inspired to be an activist by Paul Robeson. Who said art was a gateway to the truth, never forget it.
And after John Legend played a few songs, a small guy in a wheelchair came out and gave enough life lessons to keep me pondering for ages. His name is Sean Stephenson, check him out.
Oh, did I mention Eric Schmidt interviewed Travis Kalanick too? I’ve been on some panels with Kalanick, he always came off edgy, but here he was soft around the edges, it was great getting further insight into Uber.
And the following morning, at 9 AM, which if you know me you know is a challenge, Stacey Sher, producer of the Tarantino movies, interviewed Peter Benedek of UTA, who sold “The Sopranos” and “Girls” to HBO. Peter told us that David Chase didn’t think he’d ever get to pilot, didn’t think he’d ever get a one year commitment, never mind multi-season renewals. I resonated with the pessimism, that’s who I am. Also, Peter told us Hollywood has its own rules, and you’ve got to play by them until you gain leverage. Which is why Amazon and YouTube have been beaten by L.A. My surf, my beach, go home or play my way!
Then there was this engineer who’s now a VC who used to work at Google who spoke about big data. I could look up his name, but you probably wouldn’t know it anyway, even though he’s a muckety-muck. Data rules the world, just ask the record companies, they live by Spotify streams. This guy pondered the challenges, it was so much fun to listen to someone so SMART!
And then Troy Carter interviewed Peter Guber and then we heard from the Warby Parker founders… You too can start a company, if you’re educated, they met at Wharton, and are willing to take a risk. Warby Parker is single-handedly saving you from Luxottica, be grateful. And know that being nerdy is no hindrance in tech.
And then there was David Brooks of the “New York Times.” Who initially cracked so many jokes and was so sharp it was jaw-dropping. Ultimately he spoke about morality, I would have preferred to hear him go on about politics, but it was interesting nonetheless.
Now I’m overloading you. Let me just say I also heard Tony Hsieh of Zappos and a bigwig from SETI, who spoke about aliens, and I missed Martha Stewart and Bob Pittman…I needed another weekend to see everybody I wanted to!
As for the hang… Yes, I got to hear everybody’s story, what they were doing, everybody was fully open, there were no cliques.
And I went to dinner with Hsieh and his team and met the guy who used to work for Nordstrom who was the shoe expert who made Zappos work, it was a triumvirate, the shoe guy, the idea guy and Tony, the investor. Tony went to Harvard, he quit Oracle to start a link company he sold to Microsoft. Now he lives in an Airstream in a trailer park and is revitalizing downtown Vegas. The WSJ is skeptical, but spend time with Tony and you’ll become a believer. It’s not that he pitches, it’s not that he’s a two-dimensional automaton, it’s just that he radiates an inner glow…that he knows what he’s doing and is gonna do it, and that puts him miles ahead of most everybody else.
The hardest session to get into was Esther Perel’s. She’s a relationship expert. The most interesting thing she said was “intimacy” was “into me you see.” That’s what we all want, to be known. Despite everybody jockeying for position money is not paramount, people are. You can be rich, but that does not mean you’re happy. You need not only someone to share it with, but someone who gets you…we’re all looking for someone to get us.
At lunch we got into Katherine and Jeff’s relationships.
I spoke with Seth about pivoting his company.
There was a lot of action between the headlines.
And this was an invite-only trip, but there were four figures of people onboard, and you can get on…if you network and know the right people.
I know so many, but I did not know Eric Schmidt. I bumped into him on the boat and asked him about his views on playlists, his September statement that machine learning will predict what you want to hear better than people.
Schmidt punched the clock on me, barely gave me the time of day, proving the axiom that you shouldn’t talk to anybody unless you’re introduced.
But I just don’t play at his level.
But I do have a level, my minions came to hear me speak, I’m just a couple of years and a couple of changes behind him.
I felt privileged to be on the boat. It was the best thing I’ve done all year.
My biggest regret is the trip ended, that I’m back in Santa Monica, sans my new friends, without the stimulation, stuck in my everyday life.
I wanna go back and do it all over, can’t go back I know.
But that’s my goal!
“I Wanna Go Back” – (Eddie Money had the hit, but Billy Satellite did the original. Rock may be dead, but songs are not. Listen.)
P.S. Tech is not art, even though the two sometimes intersect. They call it show “business,” but there’s no business without art. Decide who you are. If you’re an entrepreneur, if your goal is to get along, if money is paramount, business is your path. But if you feel you don’t fit in, if you’ve got something you need to express, if you want to touch people’s hearts more than their wallets…art is your way. Just don’t confuse the two. Art has light years more power than business…if you speak the truth, if you’re willing to sacrifice, walk into the wilderness all in the pursuit of evoking a feeling. We need more artists. They change the world, when they stop bitching about getting paid and realize rules are there to be broken.