I’m a jazz guy, and although I spend a fair amount of time in the vaults of Verve, Riverside, Columbia, and many others, my first love is Blue Note.  The relationship started when I heard Stanley Turrentine’s Up at Minton’s in the early 90s. Stanley himself is impressive, but Up at Minton’s turned me on to the reason that I picked up the guitar – Stanley’s sideman on the recording, Grant Green.  Green was a session player on Stanley’s record, and after seeing his name on the back cover of the record, I dove down deep into his catalog, which turned me onto a wealth of other players, like “Baby Face” Willette, Big John Patton, Hank Mobley, Lou Donaldson and many more. It all started with Stanley, but the collaborative nature of jazz, coupled with the sideman information on the back of all the records, enabled me to dig in deep to a catalog that rarely disappoints.

Back in the day, this discovery process was mostly a physical endeavor.  I would take the Red Line to Harvard Square, and make a loop through all the areas record stores, starting at Mystery Train, then onto Second Coming, over to Looney Tunes, Tower, and finishing up at Newbury Comics. Excellent way to spend a Sunday.

Of course, physical retail has constricted since then, and while there are a lot of positive attributes associated with the convenience of digital music, one thing that has not been replicated particularly well online has been the discovery process.  I have trusted sources and curators that help, but there are few online options that replicate the experience of walking into a store like Mystery Train, finding an amazing record with a little known sideman, and heading down the path of discovery for a brand new artist.  This is the fundamental reason I like the Blue Note Spotify app so much.  It is the best option for replicating this discovery process that I loved so much back in the day.

Walter Gross is the Senior Director of Digital Marketing at EMI, as well as a 1993 Berklee Grad in Jazz Composition.  Walter spearheaded the development and execution of the Blue Note app on Spotify, and I spoke to him a couple weeks back about the creation process, what he was trying to accomplish with the app, and the opportunities that Spotify’s API offers technologists.


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Mike King: What did you want to accomplish with the Blue Note Spotify app?

Walter Gross: There was a small group at EMI that wanted to give this app a try, including myself.  I’m a Blue Note freak, and I remember being in a Berklee course with Jackie Beard [Professor in the Woodwinds dept] in 1994, and listening to a Joe Henderson Blue Note record, and having the classroom asking questions like: who is this player? When the record was recorded? Who else is playing on this record?   Experiences like that really played into the main reason we developed this app.  I was reminded of that moment, and I wanted to try and replicate something close to thumbing through a record collection, or the bins at a record store, with this app.  When we started talking about creating the Blue Note app, I immediately thought of what I loved about discovery in the past, and how I could structure the data in a similar way to replicate this process. There are a lot of improvements that can be made to the online discovery process, overall.  If you look for John Coltrane’s catalog online, for example, it’s a mess.  Nothing tells a story or takes you on a journey.  It’s like a jungle out there, totally convoluted.

MK: Can you talk more specifically about the process of building the app?

WG: Well, the idea really was in how to tell a story with finely tuned and structured data.  I started talking to developers, and found a company that we really liked in the U.K. called Retrofuzz.  They had done some apps that I was impressed with, and we decided to move ahead with them.  I had heard a lot of stories about how meticulous Spotify was from a development standpoint, and I wanted to use a developer that had been through the process already. It was important for me to move through the development process as smoothly as possible.  I went to Retrofuzz with a problem set covering 73 years of music, and I laid out all the data points I wanted to cover: artists, instrumentation, recording dates, and the ability to tag releases by simple genres.  It was important to me that we kept it all simple, as I didn’t want too many jumping off points, and I didn’t want to pigeon hole artists.

The other thing I asked Retrofuzz to do was to override some of the incorrect cover art in Spotify.  With old recordings, where records have been re-licensed, many times the album cover is not the right, or original, one.  I wanted the experience in the app to be as authentic as possible, so we created a way to override any incorrect album covers in Spotify, and replace them with the original vintage covers.

With this app, the whole thing really is a very specific look at the artist’s output on the Blue Note label.  Of course with the merger of EMI and Universal, it’s possible to include the Verve and Impulse catalogs into the app, but we wanted this to be just about Blue Note. We wanted this to be accurate for purists, which there are many of in this genre.  For example, Cannonball Adderley has only one record on Blue Note, but many on Capitol. Our label-focused approach gives us the ability to put a long tail look at this thing, too.  We can tell the Pacific Jazz and Capitol Jazz story at some point, for example. Michael Cuscuna was also a big inspiration.  Michael is one of the foremost experts on the Blue Note catalog, and we wanted the type of detail that he would think was appreciate.  We actually used his discography as a resource for plugging in a lot of the data.

 MK: As a discovery vehicle, the app is outrageous.  I’m a big fan of the label, and I’m surprised with how much I didn’t know about the catalog.  I’m constantly going down a different rabbit hole around some of the sidemen on these records, and being turned onto releases I had no idea existed. It must have been a serious process getting all this information into the app. What was that like?

WG: It was definitely a time consuming process to create that experience. When Retrofuzz finished building the CMS, I spent a full month plugging all the appropriate information in, all by hand.  Our team had to set up the full artist info, like the first and final recording dates, sideman info, and so on. During this process, I had my wife yelling at me for spending so much time on it, and I had to say, “Trust me, this will be really cool!”  I ended up bringing in some pf the rest of my EMI Digital Marketing team to input the data at one point. The problem there was that because I knew the info topically, I could blast through setting everything up quickly using Michael Cuscuna’s book to see correct sideman and instruments, but for the folks I brought in who were not particularly familiar with jazz and the catalog, it was a slow and painful process. Should this be a this groove or tradition release? Is that an alto or tenor sax on this record?  This was the sort of thing I knew intuitively, but for the folks I brought in, it was really tough. I actually used All Music and Wikipedia in the background as resources to double check everything, and in fact, all the bios are pulled from All Music.

MK: Is the entire Blue Note catalog available in the Spotify app?

WG: No, not all of the records are up on Spotify, and a lot of that is because of licensing issues.  For example, some records are not available from a licensing standpoint in U.S., and for us, we need to look at the ones that can be cleared quickly going forward.  There are a couple of inconsistencies that we have to work on, too.  Some records simply never became fully finalized in the US, even though we have a worldwide clearance.  It could have been a simple issue of the person setting up the licensing left the company, or forgot. There are some glaring omissions that we need to focus on, like Joe Lovano and John Scofield.

MK: Are you approaching this app as a potential revenue generating opportunity, or is this simply about awareness of the catalog?

WG: There is no one looking at this app saying “well, here’s comes the money!” right now, but I can say that this could change with the scale.  The analytics associated with engagement and usage far exceed our expectations.  We just launched the app, and right now we are getting around 16,000 visits a day, and the average use time is over three hours.  That’s amazing engagement.  I think that as this adoption grows, the app could drive revenue.  Right now it’s definitely an awareness tool, and a great opportunity to put the Blue Note brand and catalog back into the forefront. There are some really good things happening with the label right now.  Don Was is now involved as the President of the label, and he is driving A&R.  He came in last fall, and he brings great energy to what we are doing.

MK: Are you leveraging the work that Retrofuzz did for the CMS in other ways?

WG: We are.  Retrofuzz built a really amazing database,  and we are actually in the process of refining the Blue Note web site to be driven by this data base. The Spotify app will inform the Blue Note web site and we’re planning using the same CMS to power Bluenote.com.

MK: What’s your favorite part of the app?

WG: I’m a fan of the Blue Break Beats section. This is the area where we pull in content illustrating who sampled what in the Blue Note catalog.  When we were conceptualizing the app, I had an epiphany:  there has to be data out there that shows every sample from a Blue Note record, and where that sample occurs. There’s a great site out there called “Who Sampled,” and I ended up connecting with them and letting them know what I was looking for.  They came back with hundreds of Blue Note samples, and we integrated all of this into the data structure.  Everyone from Jay Z, to Madonna, to 90s hip-hop artists have sampled the catalog, and we structured the Blue Break Beats area to align the original recording and the sample side by side.  For me, it’s simply another great discovery tool, and I think the usage in the app is so high because there are so many ways to discover music within this app.  It really illustrated the possibilities of how music discovery can be in an online environment.

You know, Spotify loves the app, too.  They recognize that this steps the bar up, and they expect folks to improve upon this concept to offer more opportunities for deep music discovery.  For me, it’s nice to be part of a game changing development. I’ve done a lot in my professional career, but nothing has gotten the press or accolades that this app has gotten.  It’s a pretty neat thing to be involved with.

In addition to Music Marketing 201, I’m also teaching Dave Kusek’s Future of Music course. The first lesson in the course looks at the difference between the music business and the record business (there’s a big difference, of course), what a major/independent label offer musicians, the importance of touring and merch, and an overview of publishing.

Part of the first assignment in the course has students evaluate a hypothetical situation involving a songwriter that is beginning to have some success, and is now being courted by a major. The question: should this artist take the major label deal?

It’s a pretty broad question in theory, and one that requires a lot of questions in return. What are the terms of the deal? Is this a 360 deal that will require this artist to relinquish control (financially and creatively) of merchandise, touring income, publishing? Does this artist feel that a major label can effectively do things that the artist cannot do for him/herself?

From a critical thinking standpoint, all the above (and more) should be considered (by a lawyer, if possible). But from a knee-jerk standpoint, my first thought is to walk away. Consider these two news releases from last week. The first is from London’s Guardian paper:

“EMI, bought by Guy Hands’ Terra Firma group last year, confirmed today that worldwide headcount will be cut by between 1,500 and 2,000 as it slashes costs.

Confirming EMI insiders’ fears, the company said ahead of staff briefings this morning that it was launching ‘a series of wide-ranging initiatives within its recorded music division to enable the group to become the world’s most innovative, artist friendly and consumer-focused music company.”

On the flip side, there continue to be interesting ideas popping up on how artists can run their own label. Take a look at this company, called Slice The Pie. The company enables artists to connect with financers who want to invest in music. It looks to me like the company is in its infant stages, but it is definitely an interesting idea.

I’ve worked at labels. And while I think that a small tightly run forward-thinking label can survive and prosper in this environment (Stone’s Throw is one of my favorite examples at the moment), I still think the majors are a ways off from being even remotely close to navigating the current environment. I think times are going to continue to get worse for the majors before they get better, and the resources available to independent musicians are going to continue to improve.

Terra Firma is the private equity firm that purchased EMI, one of the remaining four major labels (the others being Sony BMG, Universal and Warner), last August. A friend passed on a letter that the Chairman of Terra Firma, Guy Hands, recently sent to artists signed to EMI and its subsidiary labels (Capital, Virgin, Astralwerks, Blue Note, among others). Take a look:
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Dear colleague,

Last Friday, I was on a panel on embracing change at the UK’s annual
major convention on broadcasting at which all the industry’s major
players were represented and which received some press coverage.

I made the point that Terra Firma’s biggest successes over the years
had been when we had bought those businesses in need of the most
change and in sectors facing the biggest challenges and that EMI fits
that model perfectly. I went on to say that Terra Firma’s model
transforms companies that have been in the past poorly managed and
have lost their direction and EMI had to date not disappointed in its
potential for transformation. However, this is not just an EMI issue
as the recorded music industry as a whole has not positioned itself
well for the changing environment over the last ten years and has
failed to anticipate or adapt to the new market place.

With regard to EMI specifically, I believe that there has been too
much management focus over the last seven years on a potential merger
with Warner and on a continuous cost cutting programme which has
failed to deliver a new business model and sadly has led to the loss
of many talented people from the business. Terra Firma has inherited
EMI past management’s business plan which is currently being executed.
However our future focus is to develop a plan that ensures that EMI’s
Recorded Music business, as an independent company (i.e. without a
merger with Warner), can best serve its artists, the music industry,
its customers and employees. Put simply, focusing alone on the
production of multi-million selling albums cannot produce a
sustainable business model. In developing the business plan for EMI
Recorded Music, we intend initially to look at these areas:

* the relationship between EMI and its artists and what contractual
relationship best serves those artists;

* digitalization and how EMI’s recorded music business can embrace and
benefit from it;

* how EMI can be the most efficient partner in recorded music for
artists who are likely to sell less than 200,000 copies of their
albums;

* how EMI can develop a closer and more valuable relationship with its
customers;

* what services and products EMI should be developing and delivering
to its artists and customers; and

* how EMI can provide multi-million selling artiists with a top
quality service internationally.

In short, how EMI can be big enough to serve anyone but small enough
to truly care.

So far, we have not spent a huge amount of time on analyzing what
might be done with EMI’s publishing business. As I said at the
broadcaster’s convention “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However,
Roger Faxon has a number of new initiatives which he is intending to
roll out to ensure that EMI Publishing will continue to grow and
prosper which Terra Firma supports.

In the near term, I am embarking on a roadshow over the next month in
which I intend to meet as many of EMI’s employees as possible. At
those meetings, I will be happy to answer your questions.
Additionally, feel free to email me in confidence on the following
email () any ideas as to how we can make the business work better to
the benefit of EMI, its staff and its artists.

In spite of a lack of clear direction and an extremely challenging
market, EMI’s artists and employees have delivered a huge number of
successes in recent years and have much to be proud of. I continue to
be impressed by your commitment and creativity and would simply ask
that you continue to be focused on the work you are doing for EMI and
its artists. Terra Firma’s commitment to EMI is total and we have
invested more financially, both personally as individuals and as an
organisation, in EMI than any other company in our history. We are
absolutely committed to making EMI the world’s most innovative and
consumer-focused music company and the best home for musical talent. I
look forward to working with you in order to achieve just that.

Guy Hands

Chairman

***

This is a much more succinct and realistic outline from a major label chairman than things I have read from other folks (LA Reid’s quote being the most egregious as of late). Still broad strokes, but nothing in here strikes me as being completely outrageous.

I like:
* Focusing on artists that sell less than 200k (200k would have been a
major label failure back in the day). Realistic expectations in changing
environment.
* Developing a closer relationship with it’s customers (instead of an
adversarial relationship). I also like that the label realizes that
relationships with customers should come before their relationship with
radio, retail, and other outdated gatekeepers.

Questions:
* “Top quality service.” Moving the label from manufacturing, promotion and distribution entity to “360″ merch, management, publishing, marketing entity?
* “What contractual relationship best serves artists.” Label perhaps looking to move into non-traditional contracts involving other revenue streams with artist? Cut of merch, touring proceeds?
EMI/Capital Recording Artists: Beatles