Saturday, December 16, 2006

Aspen Live!

I've been attending the 3 day music conference, Aspen Live. Yesterday, the featured speaker was Anthony Zuiker, the creator and producer of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, one of the top rated television series for the past five years.

Just nine years ago, the aspiring writer worked as a tram driver at Las Vegas’ famed Mirage Hotel. Soon thereafter, he had a movie produced and is now famous for creating CSI. CBS has earned its spot as the number-one rated network due in large part to the series’ success.

Currently in its seventh season, CSI has received widespread critical acclaim and has earned distinction as the highest rated drama on television. The show earned its first Emmy nomination for Best Drama Series in 2002 and received subsequent nominations for Best Drama Series in 2003 and 2004, in addition to three Golden Globe nominations for Best Television Series (Drama). Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, Zuiker serves as Executive Producer of CSI and writes numerous episodes each season.

Anthony described his passion for music and outlined his commitment to use the series to "break" artists. Fascinating. This guy actually wants to give artists a forum, a platform that will help them reach the immense audience that television still provides better than just about any other medium. As he neared the end of his presentation, Anthony delivered an impassioned plea to those in the industry to focus on "the music."

He also described a new initiative he planned to pitch to CBS on Monday. I won't spill the beans here by laying out the details, but the audience seemed enthusiastic about the proposal. We'll have to see where this goes.

The second part of the evening featured a discussion led by Mike "The Goon" McGinley, Founder/CEO of SRO Consultants, and by Jeff Treuhaft of Verisign. This might have been a powerful forum: the topic was "Crossroads of Media and Technology," and the focus was on trying to come to terms with the gulf that separates the world of tech startups from the established, old school music industry - particularly the labels. Unfortunately, things didn't seem to get off on the right foot. Mike asked what might have been a rhetorical question: "what kind of success are you going to have with your business if zero dollars are allocated to marketing? He asked whether people in the room had read the book "Search" by John Battelle. Perhaps two or three of the group of 80 responded in the affirmative. He spoke about innovators, imitators and idiots - the path from value creation to value depletion in an industry and asked where the next Mo Ostin was going to come from. There didn't seem to be many answers.

The most interesting part of the discussion, for me, grew out of Mike's suggestion that the major labels ought to consider providing some portion of their content - perhaps 10-15% - to tech startups. He reasoned that this would be one way to improve the current situation - one in which tech/music entrepreneurs like Shawn Fanning (who developed Napster in 1998) feel compelled to "break the rules" to get content. He asked, somewhat rhetorically, what the audience believed young tech entrepreneurs would need to be able to coax a content deal from all four major labels. One of the participants - a marketing director associated with one of the major labels - asked why the majors should "give up" 10-15% of their deal. "What's in it for us?" On the other hand, the same person acknowledged that "the record business is dead; we're in the music business."

It sounds to me as though there's a desperate attempt by the industry to protect 70 cents of each dollar in a market environment where fewer and fewer dollars are being spent.

What was particularly disappoining about this discussion, for me, though, was the realization that very few of the people in the room are paying attention to the underlying business and market trends that are working together to provide alternatives - or certain death - the the industry as it has existed for decades. I asked whether anyone had read Chris Anderson's "Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is About Selling Less of More." Maybe someone else at the conference had read it. I don't think Mike had. The ideas in Chris's book are the things this industry needs to be talking about from morning till night. Right now, that's not what's happening at all. Which seems strange to me in what now appears to be the twilight of this once extraordinary industry.

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Barnes & Ignoble

Nanette and I went to see Bobby tonight. Great film. Marred only the slightest bit by an ending that expected the audience to process Bobby's stirring speech in parallel with the near-chaos of on-screen responses and reactions to his assasination. It was a little like having the dialogue in a film drowned out by the underscore. Nonetheless, a remarkable film. As the credits roll at the end, images of Bobby, his childhood, his and Ethel's kids, and his very warm and personal campaigning fill the screen. No one leaves the theater. No one. It's as though we're all transfixed, in part, because we're stunned by the contrast between Bobby Kennedy and the persons we experience today in politics. It was almost painful to watch.

After the film, we headed over to the bookstore to pick up a few things. I rarely come out of a bookstore with fewer than 5 items. This time, we must have purchased ten books between us, and as we arrived at the checkout, the experience was - sadly - something we've come to expect in customer service situations. I have the receipt. We spent just under $300 total. It would have been more, but I have a "preferred customer" card. That usually means that the person who has it is somewhat important to the business. As I fished in my pocket, I discovered another receipt from last month for something north of $500.

How were we treated by the person ringing up the sale? Like a leaking bag of dog excrement. Perhaps that's too strong. Or not. Really, this person cared not a bit about us or our purchases. She just wanted desperately to be doing something else with her time. Anything but wait on customers. Why do retail businesses in America so often present this face to their valuable customers? Why is good customer service an oxymoron, so ridiculously challenging to businesses that they seem to have given up on it altogether? And Barnes & Noble is not alone in this. Sadly, it's so pervasive that good service, when it happens, is an extraordinary experience. I suspect some of this is about training. Some of it is probably about a general decline in what was once a common sense of appropriate or polite behavior. And some of it is about a sense of entitlement - i.e., "I'm worth so much more than this menial clerking/service role I'm having to play right now; this is just SOOO wrong."

Whatever the justification, I'm not buying it. And I'd like to stop buying from companies that do so little to make the experience something pleasant - even for their very best customers. And that helps explain Amazon's appeal. Let's see, buy a book at the same price or less and get it delivered to my door with great reliability, or drive to a quasi suburban setting and be treated rudely by someone working the cash register. Hmmm. No wonder online sales are up 42%!