Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fiona Apple’s original (and still-unreleased) "Extraordinary Machine”

Note: In 2005, I was intrigued by the Free Fiona fan campaign, so I pitched and wrote this for The Miami Herald. It was picked up by a few other papers, running in a severely edited form. The version that the Herald published was also edited for space, so here's the full original piece I'd submitted. Also, a completely reworked version of Apple's album was subsequently released by the record company. A comparison of each version is here.
The extraordinary release of Fiona Apple’s new album

Fiona Apple’s new album wasn’t released. It escaped.

The third collection of songs from the waifish looking but throaty-voiced singer/songwriter reportedly was handed into Sony/Epic, her label, in May 2003. Her previous album, the one with a 57 word title (popularly know as "When the Pawn … ") was released in 1999 and fans wondered what had become of Ms. Apple since then.

Sessions for the third collection began with Jon Brion, a quirky but meticulous musician who played guitar on the first album and produced the second one, at the helm and the results were eagerly awaited. But that’s where the story gets murky. It’s been speculated that Epic didn’t hear a single on the album and refused to release it.

That was nearly two years ago. Not a note was heard until last August, when the title song of the new set, “Extraordinary Machine,” appeared (where else?) on the Internet.

Like a modern rearrangement of a long-forgotten show tune, “Extraordinary Machine” seemed a bit out of context. Apple’s lyrics and singing were slightly mannered, but just as knowing and self-aware as her previous work, with an unexpected pinch of humor added to the mix. Brion’s production and (presumable) arrangement was jazzy, but also reminiscent of Beatlesque art rock, with strings and horns. (Paul McCartney ought to look him up.)

Shortly thereafter, producer Brion announced the track listing and expressed his confidence that the long-delayed album would soon be released, but that was it; nothing from Fiona: No tour. No statements. Few sightings and no other new music.

Until a few weeks ago.

The entire 11 song “Extraordinary Machine” album appeared on one fan site, then several, in nearly CD-quality .mp3 files for download. Which it promptly — and repeatedly — was.

This is not the first time an unreleased album by a successful artist reached the public before the record company intended. Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” was bootlegged as “The Great White Wonder” in 1969. “Get Back” by The Beatles was widely available before a remixed and rearranged version by producer Phil Spector morphed into “Let It Be” a year later. In 2000, The Dave Matthews Band’s final sessions with incumbent producer Steve Lillywhite were rejected by Matthews and RCA, after which most tracks were leaked to the public. They were later re-recorded and “officially” issued. And Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was rejected by Reprise, then streamed on the net from the band’s web site before its subsequent release by Nonesuch, a corporate sibling of original label Reprise. Other albums appear on peer-to-peer networks and fan sites prior to their official release (and until cease and desist notices arrive from the RIAA), despite (or possibly because of) the best efforts of their record companies and managers. Most recently, the current U2 album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” was in fans’ hands (and their ipods and hard drives) a week before it hit the stores.

Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine,” however, may mark the first time an album that was supposedly rejected by the label (and possibly approved by the artist) became available to the public in this manner.

Its release has not gone unnoticed. A “Free Fiona” web site organized an in-person (as opposed to online) demonstration, so fans picketed the record company’s offices and were encouraged to send apples to Sony Music president Andy Lack in protest. The company issued a terse statement: "We join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release," which said everything — and nothing.

The Herald reached one senior Epic executive by telephone who declined to discuss Fiona Apple on or off the record, refusing to even allow an attributed quote of “No comment.” Epic president Steve Barnett, when asked by a Herald writer about the status of the Fiona Apple album, affably responded with “That’s sensitive,“ and promptly transferred the telephone call to Epic Senior VP of Publicity Lois Najarian. She allowed that the company was working with the artist’s management to resolve various issues, and refused to provide substantive details of the negotiations, which she called “proprietary,” but added, “We want to continue to be in business with Fiona Apple.”

A source familiar with the situation hinted strongly that Brion may have been behind much of the high-tech agitation. Rather than handing the album in to the label in 2003, the source suggested that Epic had received it piecemeal from Brion, with songs in various stages of completion, and not as a finished work. There may have been subsequent discussions of bringing in another producer to either rework some or all of the existing tracks, or record one or more new songs that were more likely, in Epic’s opinion, to receive commercial radio airplay. Whether or not Brion was the source of the leaked tracks (which he strongly denied in an interview with Newsweek’s Lorraine Ali), it put the company in an awkward position, especially since Apple remained mum and didn’t offer a public opinion either way. Some have speculated that she agrees with Epic and doesn’t like her new album or considers it to be unfinished. Her management may not be helping the press or Epic by maintaining its silence, but they undoubtedly know that the growing interest and mystique ensures increased attention when the finished product is ultimately and officially released.

The tracks have been downloaded extensively and also are available on various peer-to-peer networks, but the excitement isn’t limited to fans. Highly favorable reviews were published and posted in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, MTV, and Newsweek among other media. A Seattle radio station bravely aired several songs before Epic stepped in with its inevitable cease and desist order.

In any case, the songs that have surfaced are compelling and quite entertaining, revealing a new maturity both in Apple’s lyrics and vocals. Brion’s clever and complex production and arrangements serve the mostly jazzy pop tunes quite well.

The future of “Extraordinary Machine” may not be clear but one thing is. Accidentally or on purpose, whenever or whatever Fiona Apple does next — officially or not — people will be watching, listening and probably downloading. (Note: a rerecorded version of “Extraordinary Machine” was subsequently released. The "bootleg" has never been officially and legally available.)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Comic Wars

Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over The Marvel Comics Empire — And Both Lost. Dan Raviv. Broadway Books. 320 pages.

By Richard Pachter

The business of comic books is a fascinating one, in many ways a microcosm of American industry. It all began in the early part of the last century as a means of using otherwise idle color presses. Its original "content" was compilations of previously published newspaper cartoons. But when these compilations sold well, a new industry quickly formed, and original material was required.

With the success of its first genuine star, Superman (whose strip was a cut-and-paste job originally intended for newspaper syndication), the need for new strips exploded. Scores of new publishers seemed to appear overnight. Assembly-line principles produced thousands of pages of comics by editors, writers, pencil artists, ink embellishers and colorists in "bullpens" based mainly in New York City, the center of the American publishing industry.

Fast forward. By the late '40s and early '50s, this once-thriving business hit on hard times. The number of publishers were down to a handful, decimated by wartime paper shortages, then a politically motivated attempt to tie comics to a rising youth crime rate — as if "juvenile delinquents" were avid readers! The growing popularity of television didn't help sales either. By the 1960s, most of the survivors sold out to larger corporations. And as consolidation continued, one of the largest remaining comics companies, Marvel, was a ripe target.

The scene is then set as Dan Raviv's book, due out next week (on the eve of the release of the Spider-Man movie), opens:

"Ronald O. Perelman — America's richest short, bald, forty-six-year-old chain-cigar-chomper — seemed to have a delicious deal when he bought Marvel Entertainment Group in January 1989. This was not a hostile takeover. It was simply a matter of negotiating a fair price for a property that seemed to have untapped potential.

The owner dumping Marvel was New World Entertainment, a Hollywood production company that garnered very limited payoffs from made-for-television movies featuring the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comics superheroes. New World had gone flat and wanted to pump itself up with new genres of TV and movies. So Marvel was on the auction block, and when Perelman saw that half a dozen companies were making bids he hardly needed to check his credit line. He simply outbid the others at $82.5 million. The delicious part was what Wall Street calls leverage: He had to put up only a small percentage of the money. All the rest was somebody else's."

It's an interesting account — up to a point. The problem is, the book is about deals. Raviv relishes the subject, but most of the, well, color of the comics business is essentially missing. The various wheelers and dealers (Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad) are a bunch of rich guys playing with bonds, zero coupons and leverage: boring stuff irrespective of the specifics of the business.

Raviv, a distinguished journalist whose distinctive — and breathless — reports for CBS Radio are always sharp, unfortunately fails to elicit much interest from the reader as he describes interminable exchanges of faxes, attorneys' letters, impromptu meetings and the like. Also absent is any real knowledge of comics on the part of the author. For example, not even journeyman artist Sal Buscema's mother would call him "one of the great Marvel artists" as Raviv apparently does.

Similar errors appear throughout, but that's not the big problem with Comic Wars. Although a current Marvel exec recently confided that he's having a lot of fun with the book, the rest of us will have to look elsewhere for tales to astonish. 

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Guides for word nerds and language wranglers

Words to live and write by


Word nerds (like me) usually look askance at most tomes on writing and language. After all, pedantic autodidacts and over-educated sesquipedalians already know how to wrangle language and massage messages. Oh, occasionally something like the bestselling Eats Shoots and Leaves catches our collective fancy, but that was merely an amusement, a momentary distraction. Genuine lingo gringos unfailingly poo-poo prosaic word books as beneath them (or us). Unless it's our Bible — not the Pentateuch, but the Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style (according to your faith) — why bother?

Here's a look at the latest edition of the holy word and a recent would-be contender.

Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Associated Press/BasicBooks. 465 pages. (Also available by online subscription and as an app for mobile devices.)

I've never heard it called by its proper name, but the "AP Style Guide'' is used by businesses and publications throughout the country. This new version caused a bit of a buzz when it was announced that "Website'' would no longer be capitalized. Trust me, this was a very big deal, though "Internet'' inexplicably remains capitalized. (Huh?) But a technical writer of my acquaintance was VERY excited about this quantum leap, as if her world was now a brighter and happier place. Such is the power of this humble volume!

This resource is used in newspapers throughout the English-speaking world as an authority on usage, punctuation, abbreviation and more. It's also a fixture in the dens and cubicles of Anglophone business writers and other scribblers throughout the planet seeking authoritative guidance in their use of language for legal writing, ads and marketing communications material.

This new edition of the Stylebook is also available online (by subscription, with site licenses and individual deals, too.) In addition, an app (a recent addition to the Stylebook, apparently) for iPhones, iPads and iPods is also offered. These electronic versions afford immediate access to updates, so if the AP ever decides to allow "Internet'' in lowercase, subscribers will be the first to know.
The Yahoo! Style Guide: Writing and Editing for the Web. Chris Barr. St.Martin's Press. 528 pages.

Though Google rules search, Yahoo's strategy of providing actual content as part of their soufflĂ© of search and aggregation is still in place. As such, they've become a bit of an authority on content creation, and their style guide is a very nice grab bag of tools, ideas and instructions. A lot of it is Copywriting 101-level fare; a far cry from AP's no-nonsense journalism, but even the most recalcitrant news-o will admit that writing for the Web requires a sharp, punchy prose style that's more tabloid than "Times,'' though accuracy and clarity still reign. It might be less hyperbolic than copywriting, but it still needs to sell — itself, at the very least.

For many writers, this style guide won't be anything new and it's certainly no replacement for AP's collection of golden standards, but for neophytes and others, this is a fine course.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Thursday, April 26, 2012

For Freelancers, One Simple, Powerful Question

"What can I help you with RIGHT NOW?"

"Is there a project that you're working on that I can help you complete? Something to write, proofread, edit, design (etc)?"

Instead of waiting for an assignment, a creative brief, a return phone call, email or whatever after your meeting, ask and you'll increase your chances of going home with a gig immediately. No waiting!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Avoid the Horrors of E-Mail Marketing

E-Mail Marketing: The Complete Guide to Creating Successful Campaigns. Herschell Gordon Lewis. AMACOM. 304 pages. $24.95.

Let's check our e-mail. Hmm. . . In addition to a few messages from clients, colleagues, managers and readers, there's a solicitation from an heir of an overthrown African politician offering a "business opportunity" (but he wants my bank account number to get started); a sale on toner cartridges from a company I've never heard of; several links to pornographic websites; an offer to purchase a condominium in Calgary; a number of cryptic messages with attached files (removed by my company's virus prevention software); poetry from a local writer; a newsletter; a few more commercial solicitations (some of which pretend to be responses to inquiries and requests I've never made), and a bunch of other things that were routed directly to the trash, since they contain certain keywords that flag them for that purpose by my e-mail program.

So what's the deal with the unsolicited commercial e-mail — fondly known as "spam"?

You and I may consider it spam, but e-mail as a marketing tool is a powerful new medium. Herschell Gordon Lewis is one of its biggest advocates, and that makes sense. Lewis, a Fort Lauderdale-based advertising veteran, has long been a creative guru in the direct marketing arena. To some, it's mere junk mail, but Lewis cast his sharp eye toward the creativity and effectiveness of the work, mostly stuff that appeared in his own mail box.

His long running column in a trade publication wittily skewered a number of ill-advised campaigns and sales pieces — and complimented a few that worked, in his opinion. In this new book, he does the same with the sales pitches and special offers sent to the in-box of his e-maile account.

If you're an average recipient of e-mail who's annoyed by the endless amount of unsolicited commercial messages, this is not the book for you. No way, because Lewis assumes that there is such a thing as good e-mail of the unsolicited commercial variety. And really, if you think of it as a digital cousin of the material that shows up in your home mailbox every day, this is not a difficult leap to make.

But if your home is assaulted with dozens of daily come-ons for hot farm girls, Viagra and other unwelcome products and services, chances are you'd have negative feelings attached to these solicitations. Lewis apparently believes that since e-mail is, after all, in its infancy, the bad things will fade away as the medium matures. And, if these offers cease being effective (the marketing, not the products!), senders will stop flooding every e-mail address with it. The problem, of course, is that conducting e-mail marketing campaigns is cheaper than any other similar effort, so the bottom-feeders will probably be around forever.

But that's not our problem, nor is it Lewis', other than factoring it in to the effectiveness of e-mail marketing as a whole. He's not an advocate of spam; he just thinks it is, for the most part, lame.

Instead, he's a proponent of sending messages to prospects who are disposed toward particular products and services, have opted to receive e-mail, or are on lists supplied by companies gathering such information to sell them to companies in the same manner as traditional (postal) mailing lists.

So Lewis devotes most of his book to discussing his general creative principles and showing how they apply to this unique medium, illustrated with plenty of real examples from the things he has received. If you are so inclined to conduct an e-mail marketing campaign, this book is invaluable. Writing may be deceptively simple, but crafting a message in a powerful and persuasive manner is extremely difficult. Herschell Gordon Lewis is a Jedi master of mail marketing -- snail or electronic -- so heeding his lessons all but guarantees success.

But please, don't give into the dark — and spammy — side of The Force.

originally published in The Miami Herald