Wednesday, December 22, 2004

iPod Beats Satellite Any Day

Ok - it's cold and almost raining and I'm getting in my car and on my way into the studio. This kind of weather always reminds me of my art school days in Boston where I'd have my Walkman qued for my brisk 20 minute walk to class from Park Drive to Mass Art. I still have the two cassettes I made specifically for walking around Bean Town - one for nice days, the other for not so nice days. Nice day toons are mostly songs from my younger, late 70's Spring Break compilations that range from Joe King Carrasco's "Baby Let's Go To Mexico", The Beach Boys "Surfin'" to Van Halen's "Beautiful Girls." The not so nice day mix consist of the new stuff, 1987 and beyond stuff I discovered via WFNX, WBCN, friends I met while working on Lansdowne Street and in the know school chums - Pixie's "Gouge Away", The Wedding Present's "Brass Neck", Treat Her Right's 'I Think She Likes Me", and some Sleep Chamber stuff I'm dying to get in digital form, among others. Today, those tapes are in the form of Playlists on my iPod and they still serve the exact same purpose of being the on-demand soundtrack to my so called life. Meanwhile, I've got a few friends that are all over this new portible satellite radio idea. The same freinds that tell me "I used to have that album..." (Of course, they sold all those albums long ago). While it is a cool idea and a nice change from the bland Clear Channel broadcasts, for anal music freaks like me, it's got a long way to go before it'll replace my iPod. It would be rather sweet if I could access my 200 GB+ Audio Vault with one of these new radios, but I really don't see that happening any time soon. Anyway - Eliot Van Buskirk, CNET's mp3 insider seems to be on the same, Close, but no cigar, page:

In the early days of digital music, we optimists looked forward to the day when we'd have instant access to every song ever recorded from a wireless, portable device--called the "celestial jukebox."

Since then, just about every step forward in digital music--MP3 players, online music stores, P2P, ring tones and so on--has led us toward this vision.

Last month, XM and Delphi took us even closer to the celestial jukebox with the release of the Delphi XM MyFi, the world's first handheld satellite radio receiver.

The phrase "never say never" became a cliche because it's often good advice. But when you're talking about technology, it's practically an axiom, especially if you're a tech executive addressing the press.
There is one place satellite radio makes sense to me: the car.

To wit: I attended the first XM announcement at the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show, where the company unveiled the Delphi XM SkyFi Radio. It consists of a small receiver module that can be swapped between a boom box, home and car kit but can't be used on its own.

As CNET's portable-audio guy, I had only one question for the XM official who made the announcement: When would they make one small enough to fit in my pocket?

The XM exec told everyone at the press conference that handheld satellite radio was impossible, because pulling in the signal took more power than a portable could ever supply. Less than four years later, I have the Delphi XM MyFi sitting right here on my desk. Like they say, never say never.

We are all narrow
Granted, you can't pick any song you want using the MyFi, but the "celestial" part of "celestial jukebox" is in full effect, since the MyFi broadcasts music that's bounced off satellites. But although our national waistline is off the charts, we are all still very narrow in terms of our musical taste. Broadcasting music doesn't work anymore; narrowcasting does.
How am I supposed to know what Ethel sounds like?

I tried time and time again to find something I wanted to listen to on XM's 68 music channels but never found "my" channel. Instead, I ended up listening to stand-up comedy and news. One reason for this is that XM's music channels have names like "Fred" and "Ethel" (seriously). How am I supposed to know what Ethel sounds like?

Another reason I didn't rely on the MyFi for music is that, like most people, I have fairly specific taste in music. Not even the most ingenious programmer could come up with a station that's perfect for me.

Actually, I take that back--I can and have programmed such a station. It's called my iPod, and it has exactly what I want to hear on it.

More like 'WhyFi'
I took the MyFi around San Francisco for a day, testing various environments to see how the reception stacked up. Not so good, it turns out. Here are a few of the places XM's channels turned into a moment of white noise, followed by more than a moment silence (digital signals are either 100 percent there or 100 percent gone):

• The subway

• My living room

• Parts of my hallway

• Most of the CNET Networks headquarters

In addition, it appeared to interfere with my cell phone, so every time I wanted to make a call, I had to turn off the MyFi (this happened only a couple of times, so it admittedly wasn't the most scientific test in the world).

Either the dodgy reception or broad programming would have been enough to make me prefer my MP3 player, but once you add the fact that XM's compression sounds worse than a 128kbps MP3, there's no way I'd switch to XM.

There is one place satellite radio makes sense to me: the car. Highways have an unobstructed line toward the sky, so the reception's perfect. Plus, I'm in more of a mood to troll around programmed channels on a long road trip than I am on a short commute.

I know this for a fact, because I've rented cars with satellite receivers, and it's always worked out great. Factor in Howard Stern's switch to Sirius in 2006, and there's a good chance I'll opt for a satellite receiver in my next car.

As for the portable MyFi receiver, perhaps that XM executive should have stuck with his original thinking and stayed out of the portable market entirely.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Go Spurs!

Steroids. Basketbrawl. The NHL lockout. Desperate Housewives. There aren't a lot of positive headlines in the sports pages these days, even by today's standards. It's almost as if a giant black cloud has descended over the sporting landscape. No great team or superstar seems immune to questionable ethics or character.

Then there are the San Antonio Spurs.
They not only win big; they seem to do it without any of the negative stuff that crops up everywhere else. No public feuds. No drug busts. No players griping over contracts or swearing at fans. "That's just the way it is here," Spurs forward Malik Rose says. "We've got a good group of guys."

With an NBA-best 15-3 record, and as clean a reputation as can be found anywhere in sports, San Antonio should be the talk of the league right now. In Tim Duncan they've got one of the best players and citizens in the game. In Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili they've got two of the game's most creative and entertaining players. In coach Gregg Popovich they've got a hard-nosed no-nonsense disciplinarian coach who knows his X's and O's and doesn't take guff from players.

Isn't this what we Americans say we want in our sports teams? A superstar who went to college all four years, stays out of trouble and plays fundamental basketball each night? A coach who represents old-school values? An unselfish team that plays together and isn't afraid to do the dirty work on defense?

Yet the Spurs' 22 national TV appearances (not counting NBA TV) trail the 24 games sexier clubs such as Shaq's Heat or Kobe's Lakers will play in front of the nation. San Antonio ranks in the top 10 in merchandise sales, but still behind the likes of long-ago champions such as the Bulls and the Celtics. One TV talking head even recently called the Spurs "boring."

Quick trivia question. Which team in the four major U.S. pro sports has been the winningest (in terms of percentage) over the past seven years? If you guessed the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots or the Detroit Red Wings, you're wrong.

It's the Spurs.
Since 1997-98, the year Duncan arrived, the Spurs have racked up a record of 394-166 (.704) to go with their two NBA titles. The Red Wings (.673), Yankees (.625) and Tennessee Titans (.619) each lead their respective sports, but none has won at a higher clip than San Antonio. If that's "boring," there are a lot of NBA fans in Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans right now who would love to be put to sleep like that on a nightly basis. "I think it's a reflection of what you see in everyday life," says Popovich, when asked why his team doesn't get more recognition for winning the right way. "Turn on the news and you're going to see the negative. It reflects society. People pay more attention to those things. It's not specific to sports. It's across the board."

Popovich, an Air Force grad, takes pride in the fact that his team has been able to thrive without sullying the franchise's image. Though realistic enough to know that it's talent that wins games, he believes there is a benefit to having good people in the locker room. It's no coincidence that the Spurs over the years have had so many high character guys such as Duncan, David Robinson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr. "Those guys are consummate leaders, great professionals, great people," Rose says. "They weren't just great basketball players; they were great people to be around. ... [This organization] has a knack for finding them. It's nice to have great people, but you've got to win games. They've found a way to do both."

San Antonio, with few exceptions, has found a way over the years to walk the tightrope between big-time success and off-the-court shenanigans. The next time you're fed up with all the jerks and prima donnas in sports, try watching Duncan and the Spurs. If you can find them on your TV, that is.

Marty Burns covers pro basketball for

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Eye Appeal: An Ad With Walls

Teven Gilliatt, president of G2 Worldwide, a leading brand development and design consulting company in New York, recently had an up-close-and-personal demonstration of the increasing power of eye appeal in retailing.

"I was buying an iPod a couple weeks ago and there was a feeding frenzy at the store," Mr. Gilliatt said, referring to the Apple Store in SoHo, where customers jostled one another to buy the special edition iPod loaded with music by the rock group U2. "I was there as a civilian, but I'd been converted from consideration to purchase," he said, borrowing jargon from marketing mavens.

Mr. Gilliatt's response to the innovative design of the Apple Store — so cool it is now being described as a "singles mecca" in The New York Post — indicates the importance of intangible elements in selling goods ranging from apparel and personal-care products to entertainment merchandise and housewares. The product's design, the packaging and even the style of the store are now weapons in the marketing arsenal, as much as traditional tactics like television commercials and print advertisements.

"There's a lot of competition out there, and everyone needs to be differentiated," said Erik Ulfers, senior vice president for environmental design at Jack Morton Worldwide in New York, which specializes in what it calls "experiential communications," which range from the NBC Experience Store in Rockefeller Center to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Athens.

The goal is to generate "an emotional moment between a consumer and a brand," Mr. Ulfers said, adding: "It sounds a little goofy, a little abstract, if you talk about it too much. The big challenge is to dimensionalize the aspects of a brand — what a brand is, who it wants to be — and use the visuals to support the story about that brand you want to tell."

Eye appeal has become more crucial in the last five years, said Jim Lucas, director for planning and research at Draft in Chicago, a direct marketing agency, part of what he termed the "popularization of design," or "design for the masses," brought to life by name-brand designers like Michael Graves and Philippe Starck for retailers like Target.

"What has started to happen as a result," Mr. Lucas added, "is that people have come to expect a certain level of design from their products than before," citing iPod's success and the Mini Cooper.

"Design works at different levels, not just on functionality," Mr. Lucas said. "It also works at a visceral level, as the color, the shape, attract one's attention, not just as eye candy but in a more reflective, associative way."

The store itself is now "one of the key elements of the marketing mix," Mr. Lucas said, as retailers like Wal-Mart seize more power from the manufacturers who once had the upper hand by running advertising that drove customers into stores.

"Retailers now are the choice editors, whereas in the past the manufacturers were," he added, naming chains like H&M, Ikea and Pottery Barn. As a result, a store's environment is acquiring an importance once reserved for, say, the script of a commercial to be run during the Super Bowl.

"The outside is the new inside," said Peter Arnell, chairman and chief executive of the Arnell Group in New York, an advertising agency that has branched into design. "It's all about sensory experience. The retail theater closes the deal," said Mr. Arnell, who once studied architecture with Mr. Graves.

For one advertising client, Reebok International, the Arnell Group designed a flagship store in Philadelphia meant to personify the company's new Rbk footwear and apparel line by converting, as Mr. Arnell put it, "the beats and rhythms of sports into a three-story retail space."

And Jacob Arabo, a k a Jacob the Jeweler, the purveyor of bling-bling to the hip-hop aristocracy, is getting an Arnell Group design for his first store, at 48 East 57th Street in Manhattan, which is intended to invoke the interior of a gem mine.

For the Sharp Corporation, the Wieden & Kennedy agency in Portland, Ore., sought to offer consumers a three-dimensional version of a global brand campaign for Sharp's Aquos liquid-crystal-display television sets. So the agency conceived the Aquos Project, a public gallery that is open through Dec. 24 at 137 Wooster Street in SoHo in Manhattan.

The gallery, managed by Lime Public Relations and Promotion in New York, features the works of an artist, Kenzo Minami, and a design studio, Tronic, which are partly displayed on — of course — Aquos televisions.

"It comes down to a membership program, if you will," Mr. Ulfers of Morton Worldwide said, "making a brand's constituency feel like members with a sense of inclusion."

For all the interest in eye appeal, conventional advertising "is not going to go away, certainly not in our lifetimes," Mr. Gilliatt of G2 said, because it is "important for getting people in the store."

Still, "marketers are recognizing there's a huge opportunity," he added, "for making design, packaging, lighting, display and other in-store elements, work harder at the point of purchase to create emotional connections, so all our contacts with the consumer are more focused and powerful.

"Let's put it this way," Mr. Gilliatt said, "in the Apple Store, there was a lot of emotional connecting going on."

Thanks to Stuart Elliot

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Digital Music Revolution

Pros with Macs - Interview: David Was and the Digital Music Revolution

Permit us to turn the clock back to the early 1980s when Ronald Regan was President and the Cold War was still raging; Rock had survived Disco, but a New Wave assault was underway; Madonna was still shocking, and Prince still had a name.

Somewhere in the mash of MTV, Album Rock, and New Wave, a Detroit duo -- David Weiss and Don Fagenson -- replaced their last names with "Was," dropped their studio musician jobs, and started a band. Over the years they generated a handful of dance hits -- remember "Walk the Dinosaur?" -- and churned through the most eclectic roster of guest artists you can imagine. (Who knew that Bonny Raitt and Mel Tormé once sang with the same band?) David and Don Was remained friends after the band broke up, and both have continued to work as producers, arrangers, composers, and all-round music doctors.

David Was is this week's Pro with a Mac. We tracked him down because we'd heard he uses a Logic-equipped Mac for all of his studio work. While he expressed a deep satisfaction with the platform, he hardly came off as a Mac zealot. It quickly became clear that he views the Mac as nothing more or less than the best tool for his job as an artist. Indeed, it was art, rather than the tools he uses to create it, that we spent most of our time talking about.

In two hours of discussion, Mr. Was argued both sides of nearly every question we posed. (At one point he quoted a critic of his: "This guy could find two sides to a billiard ball!") Along the way, though, he dropped countless crumbs of music-related gossip, venom, and wisdom, and below we reproduce as much as we can fit.

David Was, Mac User
From the beginning, David Was was aware of developments in digital music technology. He had a Mac II with a one-in, one-out MIDI interface and Digidesign's Sound Designer II. "It's like B.B. King claiming he learned guitar with a broomstick and a piece of piano wire," he brags. Today he works on a PowerMac Dual G5, but he still keeps his old Mac IIfx, and it still contains his old samples.

In a characteristic digression, what starts as a history of his experience with the Mac quickly melts into a nostalgia trip. "All these astonishingly powerful programs" are at his fingertips, he says, contrasting the '80s editing software as a "Wright Brothers plane" to modern software's "rocket ship." "You'd have to have your head examined, but I actually miss it [making music samples by hand]."

In the last few years, David Was has also started using Final Cut Pro HD, extending his artistic interests into digital video. Still, his admiration of the platform itself is purely practical: "It's becoming a standard," he says.

Music Downloads
Not surprisingly, Mr. Was's music is available on the iTunes Music Store, along with countless songs that he has helped to create. So what does he think about digital music distribution?

Mr. Was: I think it was amazing that Apple, which I've always equated with a kind of rebel, anticorporate kind of company, that they could step into the fray between the record business and the filesharing community. I think it was a propos that it was Apple.
TMO: Some bands (take Metallica as the stock example) have resisted having their music sold on the iTMS, especially as singles. What do you think about that?
Mr. Was: You know, I think it's a funny thing. I'm definitely a hippie capitalist. I love the serendipity of getting paid for sitting in a dark room and writing some rhymes. You are so grossly overpaid for the effort you put in. These guys got paid a thousand times over for what their estimable talents deserved. When I get my royalty check I might see seven dollars less because someone decided to steal my song, but I'm glad a million more people can experience my music.

However Mr. Was, as usual, shows a sensitivity to the counterargument: "If you made a good album," you've created a work that is "political, personal, spiritual." You intend "to sit people down and force them through the process of sitting there for an hour. That's your fantasy. But on the other hand, you can't stop this juggernaut."

Apple, the Great Democratizer
That "juggernaught" is the move to legal digital music distribution, which Apple has pioneered. So what effect is Apple is having on the music industry? The mild, wistful tone of his voice breaks.

Mr. Was: At this point I think it's pretty huge. If you'll allow me to go on a brief diatribe about the music business, I realized at a certain point that this is a business that evolves out of organized crime.
Mr. Was says this with a tone of perfect calm and perfect seriousness. He names standard demands to which artists and small club owners bow, under threat of blacklist, like block booking and free performances for radio stations. With great enthusiasm, he suggests that the hard-edged, frequently corrupt world of bars and clubs has become institutionalized in the record industry. Ultimately, he continues:

Mr. Was: The artist has never gotten a fair shake. When the filesharing era started, I thought, 'This appeals to the rebel in me, even if they're stealing from me.' There was something about sticking it in the eye of these guys who had been ripping off the public.

Then comes the dénouement, where he admits, "Of course, I also have an eye on my own piggybank, and I realized the danger." He ends with the words of a centrist ideologue: "In the end, I think it's healthy in the sense that it's made this business famous for its corruption tighten its belt."

Mr. Was also admires the economic democratization of the digital revolution. An all-digital studio is far less expensive than its analog predecessors, and twice, first in reference to digital music and again in reference to digital film, he quipped, "You can make hurt happen in your bedroom." Of the democratization of music he declares: "I think it's as good for art as it is for commerce."

Digital versus Analog
Can the digital revolution be bad for art? There's a long history of nail biting and name-calling over the migration from analog to digital sound. Audiophiles trumpet the better sound of analog equipment, while the general public enjoys the flexibility of digitized music. Mr. Was happily squats directly over the ideological fault line.

Mr. Was: If you're an audiophile, I'm all for it. [People] clucked and wagged their fingers when the Beatles started using multitrack. I believe the same clucking and finger wagging is going on now with the digital world. I defy anyone except these super technocrats to tell the difference.

When I was in 10th grade I met a dancer, just a beautiful young woman. I had fine [stereo] equipment in my room, and I was real conscious of that crap. And I'd blast stuff like Berlioz with one speaker in each ear. [Once] I went in to this girl's bedroom and she played me a Beethoven piece on a scratchy five-inch speaker, and she was transported farther than I'd ever gone, on the wings of the music alone, not the sound of it. She was milking the soul of the music whole.

You have to bring a soul to feel the soul. There's probably someone out there, who's capacity to feel is equal to their capacity to discern. But that's rare. It's like bringing a bucket to a fire. It's good if the bucket doesn't leak, but it doesn't have to be made by Tiffany, either.

The real question is, 'Does it feel like it happened.' I'm less interested in a live musician who's not a consummate artist than I am in a programmer who can make you get out of your chair. In the hip hop world, it's all programming. They've brought drums to the forefront in a way that no one else could have done. I don't want to hasten the obsolescence of live music, but...

At the end of the day, though, Mr. Was doesn't spend his time making classical music, or hip hop. So how has the digital revolution changed his own process in the studio? What does he do differently now than when he worked in analog?

Mr. Was: On the one hand, the process is exactly the same. [I have to make] mixing decisions about where to place things, where to pan, about echo, delay, compression. But these luddites who are married to the analog world will find something [wrong with it].
I don't believe you have to succumb to the perfection that all this audio hardware and software offers you. I want it to sound like you poured a stiff glass of bourbon on the hard disk, so it comes out feeling like there's a human hand in it. [I want] to get the loosey-goosey feeling [of] a one-AM Chicago session.

And with that, we'll leave you with our usual grab-bag of finishing questions.
Five for the Fans:

1. What computers do you own and what kind of computer speakers do you use?
17" Powerbook with Altec Lansings and a PowerMac Dual G5 running Logic 7.0 and Final Cut Pro HD. Output is through MAudio board, a Mackie 32 track mixer, and Hafler monitors.
2. Of all the artists you've partnered with, who was the most fun?
Bob Dylan, recording "Under the Red Sky." He cites "the privilege of going into the boiler room of see the naturalness, and the monumental struggle involved in doing something as an adult that as a kid you did just out of youthful exuberance....Being able to experience this guy's natural instinct and experience, combined with his wit...going to the studio every day was like visiting with Einstein or something."
3. Among the bazillion musical decisions you've made, what's the single best?
The hook ("Boom boom, acka lacka-lacka boom") to "Walk the Dinosaur," which was "As silly and successful as I've ever been in my life."
4. What's the best album of all time?
Miles Davis records in the mid to late '60s. "This was the best classical music that was being made in the world at that time."
5. What's the greatest instrument you never learned to play?
Cello. If the alto sax can sing like a woman, the cello sings like a man.

Thanks to Ricky Spero & David Was