In Seattle, the evolution of grunge – a term that was almost definitely coined by someone from outside the scene – began more than a decade before anyone heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a slow build of post-punk and hardcore-influenced bands who incorporated elements like psychedelia, indie and ’70s arena rock into what was really a wildly disparate range of sounds. It began with ’80s outfits like the U-Men, the Fastbacks and the Melvins and became more conventionally structured by bands like Green River and Malfunkshun.
But the difference between then and now is that you needed to physically be near those places to experience whatever aesthetic was pervasive in the music. A scene would typically begin the same way: A small group of likeminded musicians from the same town (probably all friends) would begin listening to the same music, shopping at the same record stores, reading the same zines and performing the same music for the same people at the same clubs. It was all incredibly incestuous. But what it usually took was for one really good band to do something that had a lot of resonance and for all the other bands to begin emulating whatever that was.
Still, you needed to be there.
Of course, there’s also the decreased timeframe that anything can remain “the next big thing” in the internet age. It was always an intrinsic problem within music scenes: When a group of self-proclaimed outsiders assemble and form a burgeoning movement, it’s only a matter of time before the outsiders become insiders and soon want to distance themselves from all the poseurs and late adopters who appropriated their scene. Pop will, in fact, eat itself. Once something original is replicated and homogenized, it loses what made it special in the first place. And now that everything moves at the speed of “likes,” your favorite underground band at 10AM could be emblazoned on your mom’s Facebook page by mid-afternoon. It’s a far cry from 1989, when a kid in the suburbs of Seattle could hear the name “Mudhoney” and then not actually find a way to hear their music for months.
Bill Withers recorded a number of massive hits, including “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, “Lovely Day”, and “Grandma’s Hands”. Withers’ life was the subject of the 2009 documentary film Still Bill. In April 2015, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He recently spoke at ASCAP Expo’s rollicking “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” master class session, and among the takeaways ( “Everything isn’t the public’s business,” continued Withers, “unless you’re a Kardashian. If you can get paid [like them], then you get a pass.”), was this accurate gem.
On The “Blurred Lines” verdict: “Well, my wife thinks it was copyright infringement. I have difficulty with that. [Marvin Gaye] was a dear friend. But if we have to start copyrighting grooves, then the whole of rock’n’roll is going to owe Chuck Berry. It’s a touchy thing. Let’s wait for the appeal, then I’ll agree with the winning side.”
On career advice for new artists: “This isn’t an easy career to get into. But if you love it, try. Don’t cheat yourself out of your music and save enough of yourself to enjoy the beauty of it. Just don’t confuse music with the music business. If you think you have something to say, then make yourself available and the world will let you know.”
On April 19, the Academy of Country Music Awards drew more than 70,000 fans to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and 15.8 million viewers (according to Nielsen) to its CBS telecast thanks to superstars like Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton,Luke Bryan and Brooks & Dunn. But that weekend Mike Dungan, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, was just as focused on bringing key radio programmers to nearby Dallas for showcases by eight of his labels’ most promising artists.
Though Dungan, 61, says “radio is still the primary driver” for breaking new acts like the showcased eight — newcomers Mickey Guyton, Canaan Smith and Joey Hyde, along with more established artists including Brothers Osborne and Easton Corbin — he’s exploring as many avenues as possible to expose his artists. Those include tentpole TV events and festivals like the 2015 Country Music Association Fan Fest (June 11-14 in Nashville) and CMT Awards (June 11), as well as streaming services like Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and iHeartRadio. It’s the latter category that Dungan credits with helping to break Sam Hunt, whose 2014 albumMontevallo and such hits as “Take Your Time” and “Leave the Night On” have been streamed more than 200 million times. “Our streaming activity has rocketed over the last year, and we are not far behind our pop brethren in that respect,” says Dungan. “This is a real business for us.”
Country’s global profile has increased dramatically thanks to the C2C festival in Europe and the popularity of the show Nashville. Would you sign an international country act?
I’ve got probably the premier Universal [U.K.] country artist, a band called The Shires, coming here in June. I have no projection as to whether we’re going to sign them here, but we’re trying to help them. This is expensive — you don’t get a small shot here. That’s how this company runs. It’s costing a million-and-a-half dollars every time we put out a release [with] three singles. So we can’t just throw shit out there until something sticks.
Ali Aydar, first nonfounding employee of Napster posted on Quora a great insight to what Napster was like in three distinct phases of Napster, and working there was different in each one.
Phase 1: Preinvestment from Hummer Winblad (before Q1 2000): At this point we were a small team, made up mostly of engineers. Our CEO was an energetic former venture capitalist named Eileen Richardson, who was primarily working on raising money. A successful money raise was predicated on growth of the service. At the time I joined in September 1999, there were only 40,000 registered users and only a few hundred connected simultaneously at any given time.
There were concerns about whether we’d be able to scale given the available technologies in 1999. Our only focus as an engineering team during this phase was scalability of the back-end systems to support potentially millions of simultaneously connected users. This was no easy feat in 1999, but our corporate culture led us to completely exceed anybody’s expectations. We were all very young at the time and very excited about what Napster could become, so we worked our tails off and had a total blast. And it wasn’t just the engineers—it was the business side, too. I remember our first company meeting after I joined started at 11 p.m. and went until around 2 a.m. We had one room in our office with all of us youngsters, which included myself, Jordan Ritter, Shawn Fanning, and Sean Parker. We were joined a couple months later by Jordan Mendelson.
We were there at all hours of the day and night, sometimes sleeping under our desks as we tried to keep the servers up. To keep ourselves awake during marathon coding sessions, rap or cheesy hip-hop music would blare through Jordan Ritter’s speakers. We even had cases of Red Bull, which had only recently launched, delivered directly to our office. It was absolutely the best time in the entire Napster experience. Everybody was excited about the future, happy about what he was working on, and free from any corporate or legal constraints. The intrinsic value of what we were doing was so high that we would have all probably worked for free. It’s no wonder that we were able to overcome significant technical challenges to build a scalable service.
As I’ve grown and matured as a manager and now a CEO, I’ve come to understand that the right corporate culture is critical in creating an environment that incites the creativity necessary to achieve disruptive innovation. That’s what we had at this time, and it was nothing short of awesome.
Phase 2:Post–Hummer Winblad investment until service shutdown (Q1 2000 to Q2 2001): The lawsuit from the major labels was filed in December 1999. Things really didn’t change that much when the lawsuit was filed, because as engineers we were still focused on scaling, and as a business we were still focused on raising money. Of course raising money was a bit more challenging with a lawsuit hanging over us, but there was still a significant amount of interest, and we ultimately closed a round with Hummer Winblad. Hummer immediately installed one of their partners, Hank Barry, as CEO. At that point, we moved into this phase of Napster’s existence.
Hank (and John Hummer, who took a board seat) was completely focused on resolving the lawsuit. Hank brought in others to help manage the day-to-day aspects of the company while he worked with the labels to try to resolve the dispute. For all of us internally, there wasn’t much we could do. Product changes were minimal to none—purposely so as to not disrupt our legal efforts. We were in a wait-and-see mode.
It was discouraging because we didn’t know what was going to happen, and we didn’t know what to expect. Communication to the staff about progress of negotiations was minimal, mostly because discretion was perceived to be critical. We were continuing to grow organizationally, so it was exciting to be part of something that was getting bigger. And the service itself was scaling like crazy. At our peak we had more than 70 million registered users with 2.5 million connected simultaneously at one point. The statistic that blew me away the most was that the average registered user connected to Napster once every other day. (This is, of course, now completely blown out of the water by Facebook, but for the year 2000, this was astounding.)
However, on the whole, this phase was characterized by lots of ups and down. We didn’t know what was going on with the lawsuit, and there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty. The uncertainty led to total product stagnation, which for engineering and product management was very frustrating. At the same time, we were growing like gangbusters, so it was exciting. Then we got the court order to shut down followed by a stay of the order two days later. It was like going from total devastation to absolute jubilation. The emotional roller coaster was draining. Then during the stay, we got the $60 million investment from Bertelsmann, which at the time was the owner of one of the record labels suing us, so we really thought this whole thing was really going to work. But ultimately the court ruled that we needed to shut down. I’ve later been told by multiple people that I had the dubious honor of shutting down all the server processes, though to be totally honest I have zero recollection of doing so. Repressed memories, I guess.
Phase 3: The Bertelsmann era (Q2 2001 to Q3 2002): After the Bertelsmann investment, Hank began looking for his replacement. Ultimately, Bertelsmann installed one of their own executives, Konrad Hilbers, as the CEO. This was the worst time at Napster, but it wasn’t Konrad’s fault. The truth is that Napster was over, but nobody was willing to admit it. It was like trying to get an old horse with tired legs to jump over a fence. And one of the legs was broken. And the fence was 1,000 feet high. It wasn’t going to happen. Napster, as we knew it, was dead.
The strategy was to try to build a legal Napster, something that works a lot like Spotify does today. But the labels just weren’t going to license a company named Napster in 2002 with subscription licenses. That didn’t stop Konrad and Bertelsmann from trying. In this era, the company was really split in two: the engineering and product side versus the business side. The business side was telling the other side: Just build the service and don’t worry about the licenses—we’ll get them, trust us. The engineering and product side was saying, Yeah, we’ll build it, don’t worry. But this sucks. This isn’t really Napster. And we built it. I led the development of many of the systems for the “legitimate Napster.” And they were all ultimately ready to ship. But there weren’t many on the engineering side who thought this would work as a product. The world was used to the original Napster, and we felt like they would hate this product.
It was an absolutely dreadful time trying to build a product that you didn’t believe in, 180 degrees away from what the first phase of Napster was like. There was also mistrust between the two sides of the company. There was always skepticism from the business side about our ability to build the service, while there was similar skepticism from the engineering side about whether we would procure licenses.
Ultimately, we didn’t get the licenses. But it really wasn’t anybody’s fault—the industry just wasn’t ready for it. This was a dark time. The lesson for me here was that when your instincts tell you that it’s over, you’re probably right, so just call it like it is and move on. Doing so would have saved a whole lot of time, heartache, and money.
Answer by David Plantz, creative director, media consultant, music writer/producer:
Data is certainly popular enough to sustain businesses like Hit Songs Deconstructed, which writers, producers, record label, and radio executives subscribe to. Just like in other parts of the entertainment industry, following music trends is important to economic success, not only for executives but also for artists.
Let me clarify what I mean by music trends. It is more than the genre discussions most of us find ourselves in from time to time: Is dubstep still relevant? Did hip-hop jump the shark? Is disco back? Is country too pop these days? Will their ever be a next Nirvana?
Song writers and producers want to know even more: What’s the average song length? Intro length? Structure? Start with chorus? Is there prechorus? Most common instrument? Most common secondary genre? Are male vocals or female vocals doing better? How long are echos and reverbs? What frequency range is most emphasized? Digital drums or analog? Acoustic versus electric guitar? Noticeable effects? Average BPM? Swing in the tempo? Most popular key? Major or minor? Popular lyrical directions? Snare hits on beat two or beat three? Which songwriters are crafting most hits? What genre is out of top 20? What genre is rising in past six months? And there’s so much more …
I’ve had access to this data before and wrote a pop song or two based off it. Quite honestly, the songs I write with data objectives haven’t been as good as the ones I write for fun. One would think all this data would make it easy. It’s not. You have to be able to balance trends while still committing to something. It’s more important to know when to use the data and when to ignore it. And of course, the song still has to be good, attention-getting, familiar yet distinctive, and memorable. On top of that, it has appeal to the artist on his or her own merits and fit his or her image and audience.
If there’s anything people should know about pop song–writing is that these days the biggest hits are collaborative team efforts. The days of Brian Wilson crafting a top 10 hit are rare, at least for now. You’ll have one person craft the beat, another craft the chorus and foundation, and another craft the verses. Then the lead producer will work with the team to bring it all together into something that meets the artist’s and the label’s visions. (This is when things like guitar solos are nixed for length, tempos are adjusted, secondary genres are determined or change, etc.) The mixing engineer and the mastering engineers bring their expertise as to how to make something sound more modern or more retro based on the technical trends (frequency analysis, song dynamics, depth, etc).
So yes, data can and does play a big role. But there’s still an art to pop. Otherwise, we could just have machines craft the hits. Maybe down the road, though.
How much time do you still spend these days writing new music? And has that process changed from when you first started out?
Stanley: I think at this point I write when there’s a reason to write. To sit down, there are so many outlets to be creative and certainly the recording industry or what’s left of it is really in shambles. The only reason to record at this point or write songs is to make a statement about the current band, and that we don’t only rely on our old catalog. I think we’re very fortunate to have come out when we did, and to not be relying upon an industry that has basically committed suicide.
Simmons: We’ve been around for 41 years, but you know what Paul just said is actually true. Don’t misunderstand, we’re not complaining. We have very good lives, the arenas and stadiums fill up, we can go anywhere in the world and we have a ball. It is really — maybe profoundly is the right word — but it’s really sad for the new artists. Where’s the next Elvis, where’s the next Beatles, where’s the Zeppelin? They’re out there but they don’t have a chance. They don’t have a chance because once upon a time we had record companies, and they would support you and have point of purchase material and they would give you advances. In other words, they gave you the air to breathe to find yourself and spend the time to learn how to run.
Stanley: Well they championed you and nurtured you.
Simmons: And that’s what’s missing. So the next big band, the next Zeppelin, what are they gonna do? Give away their music for free? They’re gonna be living in their mom’s basement, unfortunately, and they’re never gonna get the chance that we did which is the saddest part of all for the new bands because there should always be a new generation of bands.
It was … I still only have vague recollections of it, because it was such a mind-blowing affair to see. I can’t even describe my affinity for Steely Dan, Fagen and [Walter] Becker, and each and every person that’s ever played on any of their albums.
It’s the easy/hard listening. Reading some of your past interviews — and this could be a false narrative — it seems like at one point, maybe beforeWinter Soldier, like turning 50 was a deterrent to keep doing Iron Man, and then somewhere around there it becomes a catalyst.
You buy that at all?
I enjoy your false narrative. Let’s go with it. There’s always a resistance as you approach imaginary boundaries. And sometimes they can be accelerators. To say it’s just a number is to be one of those people who has contempt for things they’re afraid of. To a certain extent … it certainly meant something to me on Friday. I think it meant something on Sunday. During the day of [my birthday], we were just getting ready to go host this experiential … kind of retro-futuristic vibe we wanted for this party —
[Laughs.] While that particular integer is incorrect, it does speak to the larger requirement list, [and] there were many quote-unquote requirements. Anyway, what I forgot was that I was going to have the experience too. I think because I’m married to a very effective, loving woman who’s also a producer, often times we feel like we host these things — whether they’re for one or the other or both of us or something else — and that we kind of realize afterward that we were actually in the experience too.
But going back to Steely Dan. There’s nothing like seeing Becker verbally improvise along something, where you go, “I know they’re going to go back into the song; I know they’re going to hit that beat,” and it’s so cool. And also when Fagen walks out after the band is kind of prepped, just by playing level-11 jazz fusion, you’re just like, “Oh my god.” And then he steps out and sits down at his electric keyboard. I also noticed, too, that when you’re that … there are people who want to be hip and want to be cool. And then there are people who have ceased any attachment to that and yet they are so, to their core, that.
Since 2012 the N.F.L. has added a special touch to draft day: It personalizes the jersey given to each first-round selection. But how do they do it so fast?
“After a team makes its first-round pick…workers from Stahls’, a company that specializes in personalizing sports gear that is hired by Nike, then jump into action. In advance, they made nameplates for each of the 30 prospects at Radio City in the color scheme that matches each of the 32 teams’ jerseys, or 960 nameplates in all.”