Music. Business. Life.

Bill Werde

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A glass of ice & a shotgun.

Taken from "In Conversation With Ta-Nehisi Coates: The Case For Reparations"

Link above goes to a really incisive Buzzfeed conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates about his Atlantic mag cover story making a case for reparations. I haven’t read the story yet but this dialog and many other parts of the conversation make it a must read for me.

“One of the things I really wanted to get across in doing this was when black people get upset about racism, when black people shout about things, you have to understand the historical relationship of African-Americans to this country. It is not a good one. I know in our lifetimes we think it was a good one, but we carry our grandmothers’ stories, we carry our mothers’ stories, we carry our families’, our communities’ stories…”

Trying to decide who Adam Levine looks like now that he’s bleached his hair. Votes?

Trying to decide who Adam Levine looks like now that he’s bleached his hair. Votes?

On @SimonCowell's New Reality Competition for DJs

Not to be a naysayer. But: not sure I’m bullish on cramming DJs into the reality competition format. (Headline of this post is a link to the press release.) If it works, it will create DJ stars based on looks and personality as opposed to skills. One could argue that #EDM needs more of that to help its commercial viability. But I don’t see it working. Throughout my nearly 20 years of taking part in and observing dance music, it only ever really thrives as an experience for those in the club and on the floor. Everything else has tended to miss the audience — and the point. That said, streaming numbers for those watching DJ sets from home — very much not the same thing as a reality show, but an exception to my “you gotta be there” rule — have been occasionally impressive. And there are some great, smart folks I know who are associated with this new program. For their sake and for the sake of dance music, I’ll hold out hope of a pleasant surprise.

On “Angela Cheng,” Lady Gaga, and the Culpability of Media

My hope was that I’d never have to address the legitimacy or even the existence of “Angela Cheng.” But I got a call today from a BuzzFeed editor who led me to believe that they were moving ahead with a story about “Cheng” that included me, with or without my participation. I always refrained from engaging with this issue because I didn’t want to bring it more attention. But since it appears that will be happening now anyway, I’ll reluctantly post what I know. My hope is that, to the extent people will talk about this bizarre little tempest in a music industry teapot, this post will provide some facts to color the discussion.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of “Cheng.” It was sometime last year, when I was still working as the Editorial Director of Billboard. I’m reasonably certain “Cheng” first crossed my radar because of a small handful of folks on Twitter, asking me if I’d seen articles she was publishing on the user-generated “news” site, Examiner.com.

At that time, it seemed to me, almost all of the articles under the Cheng byline, as well as those by another “reporter,” “Sabrina O’Connor,” had two things in common: they seemed to me to be laser-focused on disparaging Lady Gaga, and they seemed to me to regularly misrepresent facts and details. Occasionally they would pull in Billboard or even me, personally, with ungrounded and wholly untrue accusations that somehow Billboard or I was receiving favor from Gaga’s camp to better represent her or her chart positions. From my perspective, the notion was so ridiculous and the source so not credible that I ignored it. Eventually, however, as Twitter questions persisted, and as other media outlets started repeating certain details from the Examiner.com stories—more on that in a bit—I reached out to some friends at Examiner.com’s parent company, AEG (the giant tour promoter). I explained that many of these stories appeared to contain libel and/or defamation, and gave them a handful of offending examples. AEG said they’d have someone look into the matter, and very shortly thereafter—and very much to AEG’s and the Examiner’s credit—the stories disappeared from the site. At some time after that, “Cheng” appeared to stop contributing to Examiner.com.

All of this would be fine and well and water under the bridge, except for two nagging problems.

One was that the “work” of “Cheng” and “O’Connor” appeared to me to create a lasting, negative smear on the campaign for Lady Gaga’s current album, Artpop.

On November 17, 2013, “Sabrina O’Connor” posted a story on Examiner.com that claimed Lady Gaga’s Interscope label had spent $25 million to promote her album Artpop which had been released 11 days earlier. 

Within days that number had been repeated in seemingly any outlet that could credibly cover such a matter: Business Week. New York magazine. Business Insider. A couple of weeks later, the New York Post published a razor-sharp hatchet job on Gaga, once again, floating the $25 million figure. 

(Credit where it’s due: the only outlet I could find that called bullshit, and did it the very next day, was Roger Friedman at Showbiz 411.)

This appears to be echo chamber reporting at its worst. I have to wonder if any of the aforementioned outlets could provide independent reporting or confirmation of this $25 million figure. Most of them appeared to simply use the sensational $25 million as click bait, while disclaiming in the fine print that it was “according to examiner.com”, and linking to the source. It’s an ugly gut check for a content farming industry that was once known as journalism. But the truth is, for many outlets and at some times, it doesn’t seem to matter what’s verifiable. If it’s sexy and you can blame it on a different media outlet if it turns out not to be true, fire up the CMS! New York mag, seemingly warned about the tenuous original sourcing after its story was live, went so far as to append an update to their initial post, noting that “This news was originally reported by a source that is not verifiable, so file this news under ‘quite possibly fictional gossip.’ In fact, disregard it entirely”—but left the $25 million figure in their headline. It seemed to me that the number became an albatross of Gaga’s Artpop campaign. As Artpop sales and singles did not perform up to the standards of Gaga’s previous releases, the $25 million was held up again and again to show just how high the expectations were that had been missed—to, ultimately unfairly, define a failure.

It was this realization that led me to make a few phone calls. After all, maybe I was wrong: maybe “Cheng” and “O’Connor” were just hard-working journalists in modern times, using new, user-generated platforms that were availed to them to create impactful work.

Now, I must say, I have no idea if there really is an Angela Cheng or a Sabrina O’Connor. This is what I know: In Cheng’s bio on Examiner.com, which I can no longer find on site, she listed herself as “a recent Communication Media Studies graduate of the University of Oklahoma,” and “the school  newspaper’s pop music writer.”

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But a University of Oklahoma representative told me on the phone in January that there had been no “Angela Cheng” to enroll or graduate within any timeframe that could reasonably be construed as “recent.” Similarly, no one at the school paper, the Oklahoma Daily could find any record of an Angela Cheng contributing. “Sabrina O’Connor,” meanwhile, represented herself in her Examiner.com bio as “a recent journalism graduate of Cal State Long Beach” and “a pop music writer for the university and local city newspapers.”

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Again, a school official told me there was no record to support the notion of enrollment or matriculation of a student by that name. And again, no one at the Daily 49er—Cal State’s student paper—was able to find evidence of a contributor by that name. As well, the photographer who had taken the picture that Cheng was using to identify herself publically shared that the image was being used without his permission.

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So who is Angela Cheng? I have no idea, nor do I have the time or the inclination to report it out. There is no shortage of internet rumors regarding high-profile bloggers with an axe to grind against Lady Gaga. But I’d be no better than what I’m decrying if I named names on such flimsy support.

All of this leads back to the second dynamic in this whole scenario that remains eating at me: the ease at which the lie accomplishes the truth. No one I’ve spoken with in or around Gaga’s camp or in the music business as a whole—and I have a decent source or two, trust—believes there was a $25 million dollar marketing budget on Gaga’s Artpop campaign. And yet suddenly, there it is, like wildfire, spreading in too many pop-culture outlets to be ignored. What can Gaga do? Ignore it and let people believe? Deny it and legitimize the claims of a person who may or may not exist? It’s a shit choice.

And to a much lesser extent, it’s the choice I’m now faced with. You see, in the BuzzFeed editor’s first communication to me, he proposed, “I’m working on a story about a few online music critics including one in particular named Angela Cheng…There were some rumors flying around at the time you left Billboard that you were being fired over trying to help Lady Gaga’s chart positions, was there any truth to those rumors?”

So here I am, having to answer a reporter with a powerful platform behind him, because a person that I don’t believe to exist (“Angela Cheng”) posited what I know to be unfounded nonsense about my moving on from Billboard.

The only real lesson I can take away from this is that it’s better to be the platform than the person trusting the platform. This is why I decided to post all of this, after all this time. No, I wasn’t fired from Billboard for any sort of shenanigans—I wasn’t fired at all. To be clear, during the time I worked for Billboard, the amazing team of people I worked with and for built a consumer music brand where one hadn’t existed, grew a social following from zero to the millions, brought the Billboard Music Awards back to TV with ABC, grew traffic to Billboard.com by about 6X and won prestigious awards for our site relaunch and redesigned magazine. In early January, the company that owns Billboard re-structured some of its media holdings and formed a new company out of Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter. Janice Min, who had been having an incredible run of success as the editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter, was promoted to oversee both properties, and I was moved into an entrepreneurial role with the company, working on some new projects. This is not scandalous, but just an old-fashioned thing called the truth. As the above can attest, sometimes it’s stranger than fiction. You just need to be very, very careful about where you choose to read it. 

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SFX shares fall after profanity-laced conference call

There’s more to SFX biz woes than a CEO who doesn’t always play by the CEO decorum rules. Billboard’s story notes that EDM’s first public company reported net losses of $119 million on $170 million in revenue. CEO Robert Sillerman seemed to offer up two separate brand deals that would be announced “next month” as evidence that Wall Street shouldn’t be too concerned. And the deals are big: each promises to deliver $75 million over the next five years. But here’s the problem: deals that size are rare, and they still only break down to a combined $30 million in revenue, annually. SFX would need six more of those deals to break even, and that’s only if 100 percent of revenue goes straight to bottom line, which of course it won’t. I suspect this may have had more to do with SFX’s dropping stock price than Sillerman’s sharp tongue and occasionally unnerving photo ops.

I went to Barnes & Noble today to use their bathroom. I’d not been inside a bookstore for a very long time, and was immediately captivated by the feeling of being in a massive space that time forgot. This was a business full of dying businesses: magazines, CDs, printed books, movies, maps, DVDs… The list could keep on going. This was — what? 75,000 square feet of primo, Union Square real estate, floors and floors, shelves and shelves of physical media, literally every iota of which I now experienced with my phone. It’s all fairly obvious and academic at this point, I know. But just five years ago, this place would have represented almost unlimited potential: art, culture, music, literature, knowledge. Now I can only see it for its limitations: a finite physical space, a highly inefficient physical business, clutter destined for a landfill.

I went to Barnes & Noble today to use their bathroom. I’d not been inside a bookstore for a very long time, and was immediately captivated by the feeling of being in a massive space that time forgot. This was a business full of dying businesses: magazines, CDs, printed books, movies, maps, DVDs… The list could keep on going. This was — what? 75,000 square feet of primo, Union Square real estate, floors and floors, shelves and shelves of physical media, literally every iota of which I now experienced with my phone. It’s all fairly obvious and academic at this point, I know. But just five years ago, this place would have represented almost unlimited potential: art, culture, music, literature, knowledge. Now I can only see it for its limitations: a finite physical space, a highly inefficient physical business, clutter destined for a landfill.

Further Thoughts on Lady Gaga And ArtPop That Are Too Long For Twitter

A handful of Gaga fans and others who seem to randomly enjoy theatrics have regularly misconstrued level, critical thinking as Gaga attacks. I will say, the thing I do regret is taking to Twitter once and chiding Gaga about tweeting a link that went to a playlist of her video on repeat in order to influence play counts and charts; at that moment I hadn’t yet realized it was something a few other artists were doing/had done. Nor did I fully realize that YouTube’s spam detection eliminated suspicious plays.
The truth is, I’m a fan of Lady Gaga’s. I caught her show at Radio City back in the day, and I think two different tours at the Garden. She has a strong voice, a great persona for performance and at times has demonstrated a penchant for writing viciously catchy and fun pop songs. I’ve listened to everything she’s released and generally really respect her for having the will and resolve to follow her own muse. She makes pop interesting in a way that few other stars have the cajones (or desire) to think about. And lately it has been painful to watch media big and small hyperinflate every drama, real (the album isn’t her strongest work, indecision around single choices, personnel changes in her camp) or imagined (that ridiculous, fabricated $25 million ArtPop marketing number; possibly the notion that her tour isn’t selling as well).
But just because many in media are misrepresenting details or piling on doesn’t mean I can’t honestly think - and share my opinion - that this album doesn’t represent her strongest work. You can say that she doesn’t care about her songs charting and that her fans don’t care either, and if that’s true that’s totally cool. There’s lots of different ways to have a career in music these days, and certainly, there are options besides being a globally successful pop star. But “charting” is just a scorecard of popularity, of commercial success. Her last two albums haven’t had hits the way her first two did. That doesn’t mean she won’t have albums again one day that galvanize mass audiences wherever they may be. But generally, if the hits don’t keep coming, the audiences at the shows start to dwindle. The budgets shrink. The productions shrink with the budgets, and that would be a shame, because her productions are pretty stunning usually.
Again, none of this is a forgone conclusion. Gaga still has lots of fans. And I have to believe the songwriter with a knack for delivering number one hits is still in there, and will rise again. When I Tweeted, in response to a question, that I thought maybe she should take a break, it’s partly because I’m tired of watching media pillorize her for taking the same risks that they used to cheer. And it’s partly because I don’t think the songs on this album are going to connect in a big way. And the more she keeps releasing big expensive videos and songs that don’t chart or dont chart well, the more the perception of failure grows (fair or not) and the deeper the hole is that she’ll need to dig from next time.
And of course there will be a next time. Acts like Weezer and Pink had been written off as “over” by media before returning to even greater heights. After she released “4” to middling sales and then was accused of taking too long to release another album, Beyoncé was all but pronounced as dead by a grumbling media - some just weeks before she rocked the pop universe with her surprise iTunes album. And lord knows, if Mariah could return from the Glitter era, we’ve learned anything is possible.
So yes, as I said on Twitter, if I was her manager, I’d recommend she reconsider making additional substantial expenditure on the songs on Artpop. Maybe release a new song or two, or commission some remixes if you need to generate some new excitement around the tour. Focus on creating an amazing tour. And then let people miss you for a little while, while you go find your creative muse and create a new album of your best work. That’s not me hating. That’s me pulling for Gaga. The pop world is way better with her in it.

My best #photobomb work. @juliecotton3, @kerribrooke & @bigfreedia. And me. #repost #sxsw

My best #photobomb work. @juliecotton3, @kerribrooke & @bigfreedia. And me. #repost #sxsw