Thursday, July 31, 2008

The one you never make

The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley. Alanna Nash. Simon & Schuster. 416 pages.
by Richard Pachter

Several years back, I had a brainstorm; so I wrote up a proposal for a book, The Management Secrets of Brian Epstein and Colonel Tom Parker. How could I lose? After all, The Beatles and Elvis were the biggest entertainment acts in history, and I could surely glean a few relevant chestnuts from their (deceased) managers' experiences to spin into a pop biz book. Instant bestseller!

A consultation was set up with a very big agent who quickly brought me back down to earth and suggested (among many other things) that maybe these two guys' careers weren't the greatest templates for business success.

As I revised, then abandoned, the proposal, I realized that in many ways these artists probably succeeded in spite of these two supposed management masterminds! Epstein, for example, gave the Fab Four's merchandising rights away to a casual acquaintance for a pittance, costing him and his unknowing clients untold millions of dollars.

Then there's The Colonel. He was a carnival huckster, and that's not a euphemism or hyperbole, but an accurate description of what he was until his last days. But his story — and how he interacted with his client and the world of business — offers a fascinating lesson, several, in fact.

In this new book, journalist Alanna Nash tells the tale of the man the world knew as ''Col. Tom Parker,'' and that's where the lies begin: with his name. It has been an open secret for more than 20 years that ''Parker'' (not a colonel in any army in this world) was really Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, an illegal alien from The Netherlands.

The Colonel's immigration status may have been the reason that he never allowed Elvis to tour outside of the United States. It could also explain why Parker never visited his charge during Elvis' celebrated two-year hitch in the U.S. Army. But Nash posits a bigger, darker reason for the fake Colonel's fear of transoceanic flying: He had committed murder in his native Holland and lived in mortal terror of being discovered.

He also possessed a thoroughly autocratic management style, which effectively killed Presley's chances for diverging from the former carnie's exploitative formula for success. And despite the huge sums Elvis earned, Parker demanded tribute — payment beyond even his admittedly exorbitant fees and commissions — from anyone who wanted to do business with him.

The manager also had an interesting view of his role; when a journalist asked if it were true that he took 50 percent of his client's earnings as a commission (a typical percentage is 15 percent), Parker replied, "That's not true at all. He takes fifty percent of everything I earn.''

It's all a very fascinating story, and Nash's diligent research keeps her narrative as far away as possible from supermarket-tabloid territory. For business people, she provides a vivid illustration of the notion that talent can be just as easily mismanaged as it can be handled correctly — and often more profitably, at least in the short term.

In the absence of each of their handler's flawed guidance, perhaps The Beatles might have been relegated to England's cabaret circuit, and Presley might have continued to drive a truck in Memphis, but maybe not. After all, in business, sometimes the best move of all is the one that you never make.

published 7/28/03 in The Miami Herald

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Seth Godin's new book is coming soon. He's done all kinds of cool promo stuff before, during and after the release of his previous books. This one is no exception.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog

Customer Service books reviewed

As promised...

Customer service isn't just for dealing with complaints.
Two new books show how to use it to strengthen loyalty.
published 7/28/08 in The Miami Herald

Business is more challenging than ever. Competition, consolidation, inflation and other economic pressures make it difficult for any company to survive, let alone thrive. Adding to that is the ubiquity of the Internet and the shift of power to the consumer, with more choices and the ability to subvert traditional distribution channels in unprecedented ways.

But the number of firms who still conduct business in the traditional manner without taking the Web into consideration is amazing.

Sure, they may have shiny websites, and some provide e-mail addresses for ''feedback,'' but the majority seems to either ignore or minimize the potential benefits of customer interaction. The prevailing notion that ''customer service'' exists only to deal with defective products or unhappy customers is equally odd.

Two new books examine how discontent can often be transformed into opportunity.

Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World. Pete Blackshaw. Currency/Doubleday. 208 pages.

Blackshaw, of Nielsen Online, is kind of a guru on customer interaction and invokes a bunch of well-publicized horror stories, including blogger Jeff Jarvis' online counterattack against shoddy treatment by Dell Computer, critic Bob Garfield's similar crusade against Comcast and an AOL user who wasn't allowed to close his account despite numerous requests, so he recorded the interminable and frustrating phone conversation and posted it online. All of these episodes received considerable publicity, much to the embarrassment of the companies involved.

The resulting losses of good will and sales are impossible to quantify. (The author also recounts episodes where companies treated customers well, but those occasions, unfortunately, rarely receive much amount of publicity.)

In addition to the anecdotes, Blackshaw provides suggestions for taking a more proactive stance in dealing with unhappy customers. Given the high cost of branding, marketing and advertising, retaining customers would seem to be more cost-effective than recruiting new ones.

A Complaint is a Gift: Recovering Customer Loyalty When Things Go Wrong. Janelle Barlow, Claus Moller. Berrett-Koehler. 250 pages.

The Internet provides numerous opportunities for companies to develop closer relationships with customers. E-mail, for example is essentially free and one-on-one, even when sent out in bulk, yet few firms understand how to use this interactivity to cultivate positive relationships.

Barlow and Moller have a healthy and somewhat unusual perspective. They view complaints as gifts. Sure, it sounds goofy, but the passion evinced by unhappiness can be an entry point for further dialogue. Like Blackshaw, they recount tales of customers' bad experiences and how the companies responded. It's interesting, of course, to read about these tales of woe, but it's also instructive to see how even a hint of humanity trumps the usual corporate-speak. That's the paradox of high-tech — it allows an unprecedented level of human contact when correctly deployed. But at best, it's only an expression of genuine consideration.

It's not that surprising, though. People generally prefer to be treated well. In his book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell observed that doctors who spend more time and were friendlier with patients were sued less frequently for malpractice than doctors who behaved in a more authoritarian and curt manner. Trust is a function of being treated like a person, which seems to also be good business.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Monday, Monday

Two books advocate change on Mondays
Monday may be the best time to alter your outlook and improve the way you work and live.
originally published 1/21/08 in The Miami Herald

I dislike Sunday nights more than Mondays, but that's just me. It's probably the vestige of my youth. But for some people, Monday is the worst time of all, like it was for that murderously disturbed youth who inspired The Boomtown Ra
ts' ode, I Don't Like Mondays. For others, it's a bittersweet, unreliable occasion, like The Mamas and Papas' Monday, Monday.

As a symbol for the beginning of the workweek or the genesis of a new endeavor, Monday will more than suffice. Two new books use the day as a starting point for ideas on effecting radical and empowering changes in one's work and life.

Monday Morning Choices: 12 Powerful Ways to Go from Everyday to Extraordinary. David Cottrell. Collins, 208 pages.
I'm always skeptical of self-help manuals and avoid them like the plague that most of them are, but I'll occasionally encounter one that rises above the genre. This is, thankfully, among those.

Cottrell takes three types of choices — ''character,'' ''action'' and ''investment'' — and divides them into 12 subcategories, using them as starting points for a discussion about conducting oneself in an ethical manner in order to be effective while also tending to material needs. There's nothing especially new or earthshaking here, but Cottrell has a wise and light touch, employs language well and keeps everything simple and meaningful without preaching or proselytizing.

He also has a good sense of history and uses events such as the fire that destroyed Thomas Edison's workshop to serve as examples of his ideas by placing them in context with his little lessons. He invokes anecdotes from the workplace to make points without being heavy-handed, and he recounts turning points in his life that reflect the types of choices he advises others to make.

Cottrell recognizes that emotion and intellect are the key elements that motivate us, and he demonstrates that we are perpetually faced with choices that test our resolve and character.
No More Mondays: Fire Yourself — and Other Revolutionary Ways to Discover Your True Calling at Work. Dan Miller. Currency/Doubleday. 272 pages.
Miller wants you to stop working at a job you hate, with people you don't like, doing things you can't stand. He believes that most of us have traded our freedom and happiness for security, but the security we think we've attained is an illusion. Anyone who has been laid off or has had his or her position ''eliminated'' knows how true that is.

His contention, then, is that each of us ought to stop working at gigs we dislike, figure out what it is that makes us happy, and then do it. The money will come, he says, and the book is packed with tales of folks who did just that. Some became millionaires — multimillionaires, even — so what are you waiting for?

Well, he's a bit more serious than that, and cites Dan Pink's great Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind, as well as a number of other insightful and thoughtful works. But for those who need a bit of humor, folksy wisdom and gentle encouragement, Miller has plenty of stories, tips, observations and cartoons to convey his ideas in a pleasant, unthreatening and possibly empowering manner.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Geekery

Photograph by James Dimmock, Entertainment Weekly, at Comic-Con 2008

The cast and director of Watchmen: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Director Zack Snyder, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Billy Crudup and Patrick Wilson.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Todd Rundgren "Arena" Update

I expect to have the final version of the new "Arena" album shortly. (Apparently, I heard an early, "rough" mix.)

After careful consideration, reflection and chocolate cake, I'll post a review here and maybe... something else.

U.S. release date is now supposedly 9/20 btw.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: 9/23 release.

Friday Outfake

I loved Free As A Bird, so here's another Lennon demo that was "finished"... not by the remaining Beatles, but by some other guys.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

eBay is training to jump a shark

I've reviewed several books about eBay and use the online auction site to buy and sell stuff. Mostly, I sell my old comics with the help of a friend.

eBay is not doing so great lately, supposedly due to competition from Amazon, which conducts fixed-price sales and not auctions. Maybe that's true, but in the meantime, eBay is pissing off its sellers, which is no small thing.

The rap is that too many buyers have been swindled and are shunning eBay.
Rather than fixing this by strengthening their own procedures, eBay made it tougher for sellers... y'know, the ones they collect their fees from. They changed their feedback system to allow buyers — but not sellers — to leave negative feedback.

Now, buyers have the upper hand. I'll spare you the sob stories but it's not been pleasant, though some sellers have really been hit badly. And it hasn't improved anything, as many buyers are still reportedly quite unhappy. What a surprise!

In addition, eBay cut a deal with bulk sellers and retailers like that gives them a huge advantage: they pay no fees.

Yes, eBay must grow its business. Doing so may require dumping old, unprofitable customers or those who don't fit a new business model. That's understood.

But it seems to me that eBay
should be able to grow without screwing up (or just screwing) their existing client base. Is that so crazy?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Are you LinkedIn?

LinkedIn's missing link
In his succinct book, Jason Alba teaches readers how to navigate through the popular online networking site.

published in The Miami Herald on 1/14/08

I'm on LinkedIn — Now What??? A Guide to Getting the Most out of LinkedIn. Jason Alba. Happy About. 124 pages

A few years ago I began receiving e-mail from people I knew, people I barely knew and people I didn't know at all, asking me to become their ''friend'' or join one of various social networks. I even got one such ''invitation'' from the unreceptive receptionist at a former workplace who barely spoke to me!

I ignored them all, mainly because a while back, I received a profusion of requests from a variety of acquaintances to update my personal information through a website that I later learned used it for its own nefarious marketing purposes. Not me. No thanks. Include me out.

In fact, I'd managed to avoid the whole online social networking thing, which is fine, because I am probably well out of their target demographic. I did get onto MySpace to check out some of the music-related things, but their interface is awful, and I kept getting spammed in the name of a guy I used to go to junior high school with. Urgh! (In the interest of full disclosure, this summer I became an editor and content provider for, a site that combines networking with other functions.)

Several months ago, as I sought new employment opportunities, I was urged by various people whose advice I respected to take a look at LinkedIn, a business networking website. My only knowledge of it had come through those annoying invitations. But signing up was easy enough, so I did it.

Then I picked up a copy of this little book, and though I haven't fully implemented his advice, author Alba does a fine job of explaining how to use the site and the services it provides as a facilitator for networking among existing contacts and beyond.

Taking the perspective of a job seeker rather than an expert or company representative, he takes readers through each step of building a profile and reaching out to others, explaining things clearly and in a ''what's in it for me?'' (or ''why bother?'') manner, which I appreciate.

Alba emphasizes that LinkedIn is, essentially, only as good as you make it, so you are obligated to complete your profile and include as much information as possible.

This is where I get a little nervous, even though anyone who can spell my name (or yours) correctly and knows how to search on Google can uncover plenty of data. And private information is easily obtainable through various public and private databases, too. But in order to leverage LinkedIn's networking capabilities, you have to get over these inhibitions.

Though this book provides a very good introduction to LinkedIn, it is, Alba admits, not comprehensive. But it's still worthwhile and quite useful. In addition, he also touches on other networking options, but the definitive book on the subject seems not to have been written — yet.

I see that the publishers of the Idiots and Dummies series haven't yet glommed onto the LinkedIn phenomenon, but they will be there soon enough. A quick check revealed that the Dummies people have a LinkedIn book scheduled for June publication. Can the Idiots be far behind?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Racism is stupid

This week's biz book review.

Overcome stereotypes by excelling
Pitney Bowes executive Keith R. Wyche offers advice on transcending stereotypes.

published 7/21/08 in The Miami Herald

Good Is Not Enough: And Other Unwritten Rules for Minority Professionals. Keith R. Wyche. Portfolio. 256 pages.

Can we begin by stipulating that racism is a form of stupidity, of ignorance? Clearly, one's aptitude and behavior are unrelated to ethnicity, yet racism persists despite best intentions and efforts. It seems odd, perhaps, to write about these things when a man of color is running for president and a woman nearly succeeded in becoming her party's candidate for that high position. Yet there are plenty of companies where women and minority employees somehow are absent from the ranks of management.

The modern workplace is increasingly diverse, especially in melting-pot communities like South Florida and other urban areas, though there's still a ''glass ceiling'' for women, and what author Wyche calls a ''concrete ceiling'' for ethnic minorities that often blocks advancement to senior management positions. It also impedes advancement at subordinate levels, too.

Although Wyche, a veteran corporate executive, speaker and adviser, primarily directs his message to African Americans, his text also offers guidance to Asians, Latinos and women -- anyone other than white guys. That's perfectly all right, since nearly everything he says is of value and will benefit almost everyone seeking success in a corporate environment, regardless of the concentration of melanin in his or her skin.

He recommends having a plan, being attentive to details, striving to become a good communicator and working hard. It's not enough to be a super salesperson or highly popular with customers if you turn around and are a nuisance to the company's support staff. No, Wyche admonishes, it's equally important to do a complete and thorough job, which will create value for the company and foster respect from your co-workers. By doing that, you also build value for yourself and become a powerful asset to the company, which usually ensures commensurate compensation and promotion.

You also have to take the long view when planning a career. Your goal may be to be a unit manager, for example, but if you are offered the position and not completely prepared, your failure may delay or block future opportunities. You might also be asked to transfer to a city that seems like a step in the wrong direction, but the experience and exposure you would gain from the move could shift your career to a higher gear. How can you find out if it's well worth doing or a must to avoid? Wyche recommends developing at least one mentor, and preferably a network of people who take an interest in your career and are able to serve as a source of collective wisdom. He also suggests engaging the services of a trainer, if necessary, to objectively assess attributes and correct any shortcomings.

Throughout, he cautions, it's also important to behave and perform in an exemplary manner. If you hold yourself to a higher standard, you'll render almost anyone's prejudice and low expectations moot.

Though racism is still a sad fact of life, it's difficult to imagine anyone who takes Keith Wyche's sagacious and practical advice to heart ever becoming a failure or not being ''good enough'' at any endeavor.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Customer Service

Been thinking a bit about customer service for a variety of reasons. First of all, I'm a customer! More about that in a bit.

Second, I'm reviewing a pair of books on the subject, due to run 7/28 in The Miami Herald and here the following day.

Third, the great Bob Lefsetz referred to this amazing website, brought to his attention by Mike Greene. (You can read Bob's rap about it here.)

To me, customer service is something that should be a part of every
customer interaction. Duh! Seth Godin talks about it all the time, but it's stupid-obvious. Except, apparently, when it's not.

Case in point: the other night, my dear wife and I decided to go see The Dark Knight at the Imax place in Ft. Lauderdale next weekend. Long story short: despite the fact that there are links from the Imax website to purchase tickets, this theater's site does not have that capability, nor does it redirect to a third-party handling ticket sales.

advance ticket sales, you must either personally visit the box office or order by phone. But the phone-ordering isn't 24/7, so I had to wait until the next day and remember to do it within the designated hours.

First Rule of Customer Service: Make it easy to buy your stuff.

If you think customer service is just a mechanism for dealing with screw-ups, you've already screwed up.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Watchmen Trailer

The Rolling Stones and Brian Wilson

Two short music-related book reviews by me.
Originally published in The Miami Herald in October 2006.

Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones. Robert Greenfield. Da Capo. 258 pages.

Some works of art and commerce are immediately appreciated but others grow into it. The Rolling Stones’ now-legendary two-record set, Exile On Main Street, yielded one hit, “Tumbling Dice,” when it came out in 1972. But the dense and diverse collection of boozy blues and hot-wired pop eventually attained mythical status. Robert Greenfield, author of “STP,” a chronicle of the Stones’ star-studded tour of America in support of that album, returns 35 years later with this dusky and gossipy eyewitness account of the kinky sex and toxic drugs behind the ferocious rock and roll.

The book evokes the noble rot, restlessness and audacious decadence of the British band, in particular Keith Richards and his partner, Mick Jagger, as they parried and partied while the album slowly came together, mostly in the basement of tax-exile Richards’ rented villa in the south of France. Greenfield’s world-weary voodoo prose resurrects those long-dead days in this sleazily addictive memoir, featuring a memorable cast of characters that you’d never admit to knowing.

Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Peter Ames Carlin. Rodale. 342 pages.

Carlin, the TV critic for the Portland Oregonian used his fan’s passion for the Beach Boys and its troubled creative source, Brian Wilson to fuel the relentless research and deft writing that resulted in this, the best musical biography since last year’s massive Beatles book by Bob Spitz. For all his adulation, the author casts a suitably skeptical eye on the legends that make up the Shakespearian tragedy that is Wilson’s life. While generously acknowledging earlier literary attempts to part the roiling seas that nearly drowned the former king of surf music, Carlin adds his own original journalism to complete the story, including a rare recent interview with Wilson’s erstwhile musical partner and frequent nemesis, cousin Mike Love.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pearl Jam does "The Real Me"

From the VH-1 Rock Honors debuting tonight (Thursday 7/17), recorded last weekend.

Jack and Willie & Joe and Bill

As comics complete their journey from the ghetto of genre fiction to the mainstream, it's nice to see the literature of the past collected and preserved.

Jack Kirby's amazing and astounding contributions as an innovator and illustrator are unmatched. Bill Maudlin was a brilliant war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial

This is a slightly longer version of two too-brief reviews that ran in The Miami Herald yesterday; July 15, 2008.

Kirby: King of Comics. Mark Evanier. Abrams. 224 pages.

Creator or co-creator of just about every Marvel character (Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men et al), as well as a ton of heroes and villains for DC and other publishers, Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) is King of Comics.

Award-winning animation and comics writer Mark Evanier hosts this virtual tour of the Kirby Universe with gorgeous reproductions of the King’s art, and a loving but terrifically balanced biography serving as the narrative thread. At less than twenty-five bucks on, this beautiful books a bargain for fans and art lovers alike. The breadth of Kirby’s imagination still dazzles.

Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. Bill Mauldin. Fantagraphics. 650 pages.

As a kid, I used to leaf through my father’s dog-eared paperback of Mauldin’s single-panel Willie & Joe cartoons, This Damn Tree Leaks, drawn while the artist was embedded with American GIs and printed in Italy in 1945. Many of those panels, along with a text narrative, became part of a bestselling collection, Up Front, which was also adapted into a mediocre 1951 movie starring Tom Ewell and David Wayne.

Mauldin’s funny and frequently poignant single-panel black and white cartoons, faithfully reproduced here, capture the human qualities of the fighting men and the more mundane aspects of their struggle, without glamorizing the violence or minimizing the myriad sacrifices.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

This week's biz book review

Jumping Before — Or After — Being Pushed

Two books provide ample justification and strategies for leaving the corporate life behind and working for yourself.

Published 7/14/08 in The Miami Herald

To paraphrase the philosopher Keith Richards, it's better to walk before they make you run. Unfortunately for many, their jobs end before they can make a move, begin their transition to another job or establish self-employment.

It may ultimately involve creating or selling a service or a product, but there's no time like the present to begin the process. I've had my position eliminated, was downsized, laid off and dodged one cutback to find that my job had been reconfigured and I was now required to do the work of three others (no, not Moe, Larry and Curly) before succumbing to the next round.

The lesson of the recent wave of layoffs in the newspaper biz and elsewhere reinforces the notion that the days of paternalistic (or matriarchal) employers who valued and reciprocated their workers' steadfast loyalty, sacrifices and dedicated professionalism are long gone.

Employees may need to view themselves as independent operators, as outlined several years back in Daniel Pink's prescient
Free Agent Nation. Sometimes, that involves working as an employee, sometimes as a freelancer and other times as the head of a small company. But in each case, one is ultimately working for oneself and one's family -- not an employer.

Two current books suggest ways to successfully achieve this transition and redefinition.

Escape from Corporate America: A Practical Guide to Creating the Career of Your Dreams. Pamela Skillings. Ballantine Books. 352 pages.

Skillings' book is a good overview of the contemporary work scene and the options one has in either participating in its corporate infrastructure as an active member or a part-time player. She also discusses a variety of other options and offers examples, anecdotes, checklists and other support material to make her case and help the reader figure out which path makes the most sense.

Her assumption throughout is that just about everyone will be happier and more fulfilled if they can somehow avoid becoming another cog in the machine. She could be correct, though I've seen plenty of folks who seem to thrive in that often treacherous environment but can't seem to get it together on their own

Still, this is an entertaining and intelligent look at the subject, and if you're thinking about jumping — or have already been pushed — this might be worth your time and money.

What's Stopping You? Shatter the 9 Most Common Myths Keeping You From Starting Your Own Business. Bruce R. Barringer and R. Duane Ireland. FT Press. 224 pages.

Barringer and Ireland take a similar tack but are a bit more serious and focused. Like the best sales people, they first establish their expertise and authority, then they come up with a variety of remedies for just about any objection one could concoct for not becoming a free agent or otherwise opting out of the corporate fun house.

They similarly invoke examples, utilize charts and refer readers to websites for further reading, reflection and examination. Though specifically geared toward encouraging the launching of a business, they also provide plenty of reasons and justification for evacuation from the bowels of the corporation.

Like Skillings, the pair provides an entertaining reading experience, and if one requires substantiation and inspiration, either book offers an ample supply.

Monday, July 14, 2008


I just got a copy of the paperback edition of this book and am unashamed to admit that I was happy to discover a quote from my review on the first page. (BTW, I still think this is a worthwhile book and a good theory, though others disagree.)

No hits? No problem. Just sell "everything else"
Unlimited choices for customers mean complex challenges for businesses, but a new book explains how they can profit in an increasingly diverse and fragmented marketplace.

published in The Miami Herald 7/3/06

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. Chris Anderson. Hyperion. 238 pages

The other day I was checking out a music blog devoted to an obscure British band that broke up about 30 years ago. The site was in Portuguese, but it was no big deal to have Google translate it into a comical yet comprehensible form of English.

I like to think that I have rare tastes, but according to this new book by Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, as mass culture becomes stratified and splintered, such pockets of unique and individual favorites are not only growing more common, but also represent a new economic phenomenon, which he calls "The Long Tail."

Though we continue to obsessively measure mass-market offerings with bestseller charts, opening weekend grosses and other dubious metrics, as the mainstream shatters into a billion pieces, the hits compete with an infinite number of niche products.

This shift has been coming for years as mass media — newspapers, television and radio -- have become increasingly ineffective in reaching most of the people, most of the time. More often than not, our tastes, and therefore our choices, are determined by our age, gender, education, location, ethnicity and other more random factors. They are not, by any means, absolutes. In fact, this lack of predictability along with growing individualization are what makes The Long Tail so powerful.

While it may be true, for example, that this great newspaper is the single best medium for reaching the most people in this media market, you will still not be able to reach most of the people in this area just by advertising here or in any other single newspaper, radio station or TV channel — even one carrying American Idol! The predictability of successfully reaching the mass market is dead. Anderson says that the majority of things fall into a third category: ''everything else.'' TV shows and movies that may not have been successful upon initial release will inexplicably explode in sales as DVDs, for example. The animated Family Guy series was canceled and then renewed after so-so broadcast ratings but huge home video sales. The U.S. version of the British TV show "The Office" teetered on the brink of extinction due to mediocre ratings on NBC, but its popularity as a download on Apple's iTunes store ensured its survival.

Anderson's book is both insightful and entertaining, especially if you enjoy watching the sparks created when commerce and culture bump into each other. But it's not just high-concept meditation or bombastic bloviation; he provides plenty of left-brained data, including sales charts, graphs and more to demonstrate the phenomenon and show how astute marketers might deal with this shift in the importance of the mass market. This new hierarchy — or non-hierarchy — can and will confound and mislead plenty of executives, especially those who lack depth in their inventory or their imaginations. A business that can take advantage of this diversity, either by offering a wide array or choices — or specializing in a very specific niche — could prosper. Either way, the customer is in charge.

That's good, right?

Friday, July 11, 2008

On WLRN-FM Today

I'll be on WLRN-FM in Miami today, explaining why record companies are dying. Hint: it's because they deserve to.

If you want to listen live between 1-2 pm Eastern, here's the link for that. Links below for the Steve Albini piece I mention. Just scroll down.

Thursday, July 10, 2008


More music biz mishigaas
Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group. Stan Cornyn and Paul Scanlon. William Morrow & Co. 480 pages.

Published January 21, 2002 in The Miami Herald

If you've ever read histories of companies penned by insiders, you quickly discovered that they either glossed over or omitted huge chunks of potentially actionable material, or the author wielded and ground such a colossal axe that the reminiscences were worthless.

Such is not the case with Stan Cornyn's terrific history of Warner Brothers Records and the Warner Music Group. One would expect no less from the man who wrote such dynamic and irreverent advertisements and album-liner notes in the '60s and '70s that they are recalled with alacrity and fondness to this day.

But deft copy writing is no guarantee of anything, although Cornyn's memory, aided by surprisingly revealing interviews with key (and bit) players makes for one of the most authoritative books on the now-past golden age of the music business.

Hard to believe today, as the world's few remaining companies cling to their existence in the wake of the digital music suicide-massacre, but Warner Music was once a nimble, fertile enterprise run intuitively by hardheaded businessmen.

Now, like most labels swallowed up by successively larger corporate fish, the Warner Music Group is but an appendage of a many-tentacled conglomerate, with AOL at its head. But once it was a key component of a smaller, though formidable corporate enterprise headed by Steve Ross, who parlayed his marriage into a family who ran funeral parlors in New York City into the CEO-ship of a company that owned everything from parking lots to DC Comics.

Then he acquired the Warner Brothers film studio, with its afterthought of a record company, and was astounded to discover the huge gobs of cash generated by the music entity. So he got into it with a vengeance, adding Atlantic and Elektra Records to the mix, creating a music monster that dominated the industry for decades.

Cornyn and Scanlon accurately evoke many of the casual excesses of the industry as it grew like mad in the '60s and '70s, cooled in the '80s and achieved nova status in the '90s. The book works on many levels: For business people, it's a fascinating view of the inner workings of one of the country's most interesting, celebrated and imitated companies and its blindingly colorful cadre of executives, including Steve Ross, Mo Ostin, Joe Smith, Ahmet Ertegun, Robert Morgado, Doug Morris, Richard Parsons and the rest.

For music fans, it's a trip through the history of popular (and unpopular but influential) music of the last half century: Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Grateful Dead, Madonna, Debbie Boone and everyone in between.

For music industry personnel, Exploding is the very best attempt yet to make sense of a time when what used to be called "the record business'' was an irresistible magnet for creative people — before the hegemonic destruction of the domestic radio and concert businesses, when bands sometimes didn't take off until their third albums — or fourth tours, when promotion was in still in motion . . . back in the day.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


From January 2001!

Unleashing the Ideavirus. Seth Godin
. Do You Zoom Inc. 224 pages. $40 (or free).

Published in The Miami Herald 1/8/01

You know how you encounter someone, maybe at a party or a meeting, and you hit it off immediately? There are things you have in common, but there are also things that you may not have already known, or even thought about, but get your brain buzzing.

Seth Godin's new book, Unleashing the Ideavirus, is like that: friendly but stimulating and provocative. There's a ton of familiar stuff, especially for readers of customer-oriented Web marketing books like The Cluetrain Manifesto (Godin even refers to his book as a manifesto). You know the rap: The Internet has changed the way people do business; one-on-one is where it's at, people-to-people, not corporate monoliths and clients. Companies failing to capitalize on this new hierarchy will fail.

Despite recent market corrections to overvalued dot-coms, there's no question that barring an alien invasion or apocalypse, online commerce is here to stay. But it's not business as usual with buyers offering capital goods and sellers seeking same. Instead, much of the commerce is in ideas. Long-term capital growth remains important, but frequently the "new, new thing'' presents opportunities for massive profits in a shorter time frame. Godin says that promoting new ideas in a noninterruptive, noninvasive "permission marketing'" manner ensures a fast embrace by early adopters, who will then spread the idea like a virus among like-minded compatriots, who will in turn do the same. The dissemination of the idea by enthused acolytes is more powerful and effective than any multimillion-dollar Super Bowl TV spot and - budget permitting - the subsequent print and broadcast ad campaign.

Those are the basics. He gets into other stuff, coining appropriate jargon to describe the accompanying phenomena and its spreaders ("sneezers'') but Godin's viral marketing is, essentially, highly credible, e-mail-enabled, targeted, word-of-mouth buzz, with added specificity, interactivity - and effectiveness.

So what's the big deal? Godin's résumé suggests that attention must be paid. A consultant and author, Godin is endlessly curious, opinionated and knowledgeable on a wide variety of subjects. He founded an online marketing firm, Yoyodyne, which was subsequently acquired by Yahoo!, which retained Godin as its director of direct marketing.

Godin is a relentless marketer with a powerful streak of self-promoting hucksterism, but he's also a clear-eyed visionary with strong and sensible ideas on how the new economy can, should and will function. And he walks it like he talks it, advocating free downloads, la Napster, to create and stimulate interest and demand, so Unleashing the Ideavirus is available for free online.

If you've got an infectiously good idea, Unleashing the Ideavirus could be worth a shot.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Problem With Music by Steve Albini

This classic 1993 essay by ace producer/engineer Steve Albini may be slightly out of date, but it illustrates the relationship between artists and record companies brilliantly. The whole thing is here.)

The Problem With Music by Steve Albini

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke". And he does of course.

(Read the whole essay here.)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Writers' Strike?

Let's hope not, but we'll see.

(More info here.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

The late, great Elliot Smith.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Death of the Music Business

Currently in my head and on my MacBook Pro. Soon to be on WLRN-FM. Airing and streaming on (Oh, Thank Heaven) 7/11. Posted here sometime thereafter.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Todd Rundgren

Listening to the forthcoming Todd Rundgren album, "Arena."

Sounds, as my son Ray would say, "Mad good."

Review and release info tk.

UPDATE: Release date: 9/9. Label: Hi Fi.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Yesterday in The Miami Herald

Since my reviews get picked up by other papers through syndication within days of their original publication, I may start running 'em here the day after.

Here's yesterday's book, also a selection for my monthly book club. (If you want to join the club, the info is here. The club members' severely edited reviews are here.)

Feeling squeezed? Here are some reasons
Jared Bernstein explains why government policies are designed to benefit the haves over the have-nots.


published 6/30/08 in The Miami Herald

Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries). Jared Bernstein. Berrett-Koehler. 225 pages.

Economics may be the dismal science, but the extent of its politicization makes it even more dismal. Business is what moves the world, and the vitality of commercial enterprise ensures our well-being, but Americans like to think that we're different. We value the individual, extol hard work and believe that the middle class runs the show. But tax cuts are given to offset minimum-wage increases, and arms manufacturing programs are maintained for economic and political reasons contrary to actual defense exigencies or strategic requirements. And healthcare? Why is it the fastest growing portion of personal — and the federal government's — budgets?

Economist Jared Bernstein takes a clear-eyed look at the politics that propels the economic policies that directly affect our lives and livelihoods. If you suspected the deck was stacked against the middle class and that government policies in general seem to favor the monied few over the working masses, Bernstein reinforces this notion.

But this is not a partisan screed nor socialist manifesto. In fact, Bernstein is pretty fair-minded, and though he may be mortified by the hypocrisy and purposeful obfuscation, he keeps his outrage on a slow simmer and applies his sense of humor to most every situation and observation. But it's not a yuk-fest that Bernstein presides over; rather, he attempts to break down the ways we're all being crunched and why, but in a lighthearted and nonthreatening way.

What motivated him to publish this book? He writes: "Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us. Far too often, economists justify things many of us know to be wrong while claiming the things we believe are critically important can't be done — I'm tired of being stuck in the studio engaging in rants with Darth Vaders with Ph.Ds. Wouldn't it be more useful to have an open-ended, rant-free dialogue with real, everyday people about their economic questions?"

Indeed, Bernstein manages to present both sides of each issue without contorting reality, but he's also quick to point out the silliness — or avarice — involved in the majority of policy decisions. In many ways, the present American administration makes it easy for the author, as its motivations and tactics are patently transparent. But it doesn't have an exclusive franchise on duplicity and venality, and Bernstein is quick to point out how a confluence of interests within and beyond Washington conspire to profit from the ignorance of the public and the ambiguity of our national goals.

In addition to his criticism, Bernstein provides some bright ideas for reducing the rat's nest created by special interests, ideologues and crooks. That's the best part of this book, but it's also the most challenging, as it requires education, organization and action. Though hardly as exciting as American Idol, it's probably more important and relevant to our lives and our happiness. Regardless, for a book on economics, Bernstein's tome is surprisingly un-dismal, despite the dire shape we're in.