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Hey Madonna, Let Me Bring My Band to Your Concert
My latest briefing paper on culture, arts & society
As most of you know, I prepare occasional briefing papers on society, arts, and culture. (See here and here for previous examples.) My goal is to capture the pulse of what’s happening now (if I can find one).
Below is my latest batch of articles, analytics, and assorted aggravations. I try to add some pithy commentary on each item.
Most of this is dead serious, but (like everything at The Honest Broker) enlivened by a bit of humor and eccentricity.
Let’s start with Madonna—our Lady of Infinite Sorrows for the working musician.
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How can a pop star tour without a band? Madonna is doing just that, and “will rely on original multi-track recordings while on stage.”
The goal, according to her musical director Stuart Price, is to “re-contextualize” (ugh!) songs so that they aren’t songs anymore. “A greatest hit doesn't have to be a song,” he explains. “It can be a wardrobe, it can be a video, or a statement.”
My first instinct is to gripe that Madonna is a cheapskate who increases her profits by squeezing musicians. I checked out ticket prices for Madonna’s forthcoming visitation to my neighborhood shrine, and saw that some are selling for more than several thousand dollars.
Hey, Madonna, I can put together a very hot band for the price of a single seat. Just give me a chance.
But I fear this is a bigger issue than one greedy pop star. A nostalgic karaoke mentality is permeating our culture, and Madonna’s band-less tour is just one more symptom.
The highest goal in entertainment nowadays is presenting something totally familiar, completely predictable, and a retread from the past. So this is not a money-making scheme from an all-too-material girl. It’s just the new normal.
I’ve never liked brown. Nobody has ever seen me in a brown suit, and never will. When it comes to brown shoes, I’m 100% aligned with Frank Zappa. And don’t even get me started on beige….
I was the man in black long before those pesky goths showed up—back then it was just me and Johnny Cash. I’ve loosened up a bit over the years, embracing charcoal gray and sometimes navy blue. But I know which neighborhood of the color spectrum is my monochromatic home—that’s why my online avatar makes me look like a film noir villain.
So I’m horrified to learn that poo is the hot new color.
You think I’m name-calling? Go ahead, pick another term—call it mud or gravy stain or rust or decaying vegetative matter. It makes no difference. Those are all things Marie Kondo keeps out of her home, and you should too. But interior decorators have a different plan this season.
I’m not the only poo opponent. The For Scale Substack calls this trend ‘lifeless’ and exposes it as a ‘pyramid scheme’: “You force an all-POO décor on someone, and you basically force them to be evangelists.”
I’m resisting the trend, but I worry that (once again) this might be the new normal. When everything else in our culture is built on recycling old waste products, maybe poo is the color we deserve.
How many people watch streaming shows? Netflix doesn’t like to answer that question.
And now we know why. The metrics are ugly.
According to Lucas Shaw, writing for Bloomberg:
While only 18 Netflix originals this year have been viewed by more than 20% of the company’s US customers, more than 100 have been viewed by fewer than 1%. There are dozens of unscripted series, documentaries and stand-up specials watched by fewer than 2% of Netflix US viewers. Now just imagine what the figures are for Max or Peacock.
This reinforces my view that Netflix, despite its many successes, is still vulnerable. The company has spent far too much time and money trying to bypass Hollywood and do everything itself. But, as these numbers show, Netflix still relies mostly on guesswork and luck.
This hit or (mostly) miss track record is exactly what we should expect from a company that, until a few years ago, was just a distributor operating a mail order business. Netflix decided to reinvent itself as a creativity company, but this cost more than a hundred billion dollars (so far) to achieve. Despite that huge cash outflow, Netflix still lacks strong franchises, and has turned potential partners (Disney, Paramount, etc.) into fierce enemies.
I stand by my claim that Netflix could generate higher rates of return, and be in a safer longterm position, if it did less itself, and embarked on more joint ventures and collaborations with established players in the entertainment economy.
The single most underrated strategy in capitalism is turning your enemies into partners. And, yes, that works for everything else too.
I already knew consumers like to stay connected. But most Americans have found a way of communicating even the new iPhone can’t deliver.
According to Pew Research:
Around half of U.S. adults (53%) say they’ve ever been visited by a dead family member in a dream or some other form….In total, 44% of Americans report having at least one of these three experiences in the past year.
Women communicate with the deceased far more often than men. Also, “moderately religious” respondents are the most likely to report these experiences. However, 26% of atheists and 34% of agnostics have also been visited by a dead loved one.
Old musicians get a lot of publicity nowadays—more than at any time in modern history. But data analysis shows that musicians release their biggest hits in their 20s.
Chris Dalla Riva, an analytics guru who specializes in music, breaks down the numbers in a recent article.
52 of the top 100 best-selling artists released their best-selling album before the age of 30, with the median age coming in at 29. So, the rule of thumb that my reader mentioned, namely that “creatives age out of achieving A-list success by 30,” checks out.
Given the cultural dominance of baby boomers, you might anticipate a graying of music hitmakers. But I’m skeptical. I enjoy celebrating the artistry of our esteemed elders, and have some degree of confidence that creativity can be maintained at any age, but as a society we’re relying far too much on senior citizens right now. Musical innovations tend to come from artists under 30, and if we don’t nurture and support them, we rob the rising generation and the entire culture.
It’s official—Apple is a stagant company. And Disney just celebrated a gloomy 100th anniversary, stirring up more rumors that Apple will acquire it.
A few weeks ago, I defended my view that Apple needs to make a big acquisition (probably of Disney) in order to boost revenues.
On October 16, I warned that Apple was no longer a growth business.
It doesn’t look good when the CEO dumps a lot of stock. Of course, we will know more after Apple announces its quarterly results on November 2.
I don’t expect impressive numbers.
I’ve gotten some pushback on this verdict. But Apple announced earnings on November 2—so what did they show?
Apple failed to dispel Wall Street’s concerns about a lacklustre outlook for its hardware businesses and potential pressure on its position in China as it announced quarterly earnings on Thursday, leaving its shares down nearly 3 per cent in after-market trading….. Revenue fell 1 per cent in the latest quarter, Apple said, extending its recent contraction to four quarters in a row. It also said that revenue in the current quarter was likely to be in line with the same period the year before.
In other words, Apple is shrinking or at best stagnant—and that’s now the story every quarter.
Meanwhile at Disney, the company celebrated a gloomy 100th anniversary last month, amid layoffs and dark rumors. The business is struggling on almost every front, and many are now joining me in predicting that Disney’s best hope is selling out to Apple.
Uncertainty about the company's future and about who's deciding what on the creative side has left execs in a state of inertia, according to an entertainment lawyer with knowledge of Disney's business.
“Internally, there isn't clarity,” the lawyer said. “Most execs feel really stuck and don't feel they can proceed….”
Streamlining Disney also makes it more attractive to a potential buyer. Apple has long been seen by some analysts as the most obvious acquirer of all or part of the entertainment giant. With other tech players reportedly circling ESPN, some industry observers think Apple is more likely than ever to make a move for the sports platform, not only to boost its own services business but to keep a rival tech company from getting to it first.
Labels want to make sure that future artists can't take control of their songs like Taylor Swift did.
Years ago, rock star John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater, got sued by his former label because he sounded too much like John Fogerty. The label’s meretricious owner was widely mocked for this heavy-handed move, and Fogerty eventually won in court.
When Taylor Swift got into a battle with the new owner of her master recordings, the situation was even nastier than this. She was actually forbidden from performing her old songs at the American Music Awards or on her Netflix documentary.
Ah, but Taylor got swift revenge. She recorded her old albums all over again—and went into competition with the original versions. She thus asserted her independence and punished the bullies who had dictated such unreasonable terms.
But the music industry doesn’t like Swift’s rebellion, and wants to make sure it won’t happen again.
The major labels, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, have recently overhauled contracts for new signees, according to top music attorneys, some demanding artists wait an unprecedented 10, 15 or even 30 years to re-record releases after departing their record companies.
I’m not surprised this is happening. Record labels have long taken an adversarial approach to the musicians on their rosters. But this is not a smart business move. Labels don’t have the power they once held—and musicians have more options than ever before.
In other words, industry insiders learned the wrong lesson from the Swift episode. They thought it told them to make even more extreme demands. But the real story is that the balance of power in the music business has shifted permanently.
There’s a scene in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections about a Midwest couple on a cruise, where the ship’s doctor hands out recreational drugs like Halloween candy to make sure paying customers have a good time. The preferred antidepressant in the novel is called Aslan®—and I found it amusing that the benevolent lion from Narnia had given his name to a happy pill.
But this is now standard practice.
An online quiz asks if you can tell the difference between a character name from J.R.R. Tolkien and an antidepressant brand. I failed this test miserably—so I better stay away from both pills and hobbits, and maybe cruise ships too.
People are rapidly losing faith in the web. They increasingly complain that search results are, according to The Verge, “absolutely unusable,” “garbage,” and “a nightmare,” because “a lot of the content doesn’t feel authentic.”
Amanda Chicago Lewis tracks down the experts, and they warn us it’s going to get worse:
Anyone who thought the internet was already saturated with SEO-oriented content should buckle up.
“All the assholes that are out there paying shitty link-building companies to build shitty articles,” [Daron Babin] said, “now they can go and use the free version of GPT.” Soon, he said, Google results would be even worse, dominated entirely by AI-generated crap designed to please the algorithms, produced and published at volumes far beyond anything humans could create, far beyond anything we’d ever seen before.
“They’re not gonna be able to stop the onslaught of it,” he said.
Huge tech companies are now the problem, not the solution. They increasingly adopt anti-consumer stances because they feel invulnerable. And until recently I thought the same—I simply assumed nobody is strong enough to defeat Google.
I’m not so sure anymore.
My view of Google is starting to resemble what I said above about Netflix and Apple and Disney. These enormous companies have lost their mojo, and are finding it harder and harder to grow. The next phase might be actual shrinkage—at least in their sludge-filled legacy business units.
I’m more ready than ever to switch allegiances. I’m not even asking for better technology. Just give me more transparent and trustworthy options, even with less horse power, and I’ll sign on.