Consuming content makes me queasy

I was listening to an interview with Thom Yorke of Radiohead. He was told by his team that they had a multimillion-dollar offer from Nokia who was looking for content for their phones.

His response was, “Content?”

‘”You know. Content.”

“What? You mean music?”

“Yes. Content.”

Yorke explains, “I think really my problem with it is, like, it’s now something to fill up the hardware with…The music itself has become secondary, which is a weird thing to me. And I think that will change because there’s only so many different permutations of the same hardware you can make before people go, ‘Well, actually I have an iPod now, so thanks.'”

I have hated the term “content” used to describe music, films, videos, literature, art, photography, since the moment I heard it uttered. It’s the ultimate commercialization and diminshment of creative work.

And what makes it worse is when people talk about “consuming content” as if there’s a ravenous public out there, bloated and gorging itself on the huge amount of junk food that all this creative work represents. While that may be the case, do we have to lump everything under this lame, lazy umbrella?

I can go with “content” to describe stuff I’m not that enamored with. Reality TV. YouTube videos of cats. And, yeah, I can see that those are consumed like Cheetos. Pop ’em in your mouth and they go straight to your hips.

But putting that disposable crap in the same category as thoughtful films like Philomena and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or the powerful writing of Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon, or the innovative music of Laurie Anderson or Radiohead, seems absurd. Not only does it belittle the creators, but it belittles the reader, viewer or listener. It denies the power of art and its impact on our thinking, on our society.

I realize there’s a blurred line here. Malcolm Gladwell to me represents fascinating insights packaged in accessible ways. But to other people, he’s a huckster. Steven King produces both cheap thrills, and vast admiration of his craftsmanship and intelligence. And painting is highly subjective: Was Jackson Pollack an example of groundbreaking innovation? Or a perfect representative of non-art, as in “my kid could do that.”?

But whatever it is, it’s not “content”. It’s not a stream of thoughtless Hostess Twinkies of the mind and spirit designed to fill mobile phones and MP3 players and keep us fat and sitting on the sofa. It’s the work of real people, with real talent and something real to contribute to the human story. And I would love to see their work spoken about and thought of in that way.

As Yorke says in the same interview, “What’s weird about putting a record out now, really – and this is not like sour grapes at all – is just the fact of volume, literally the sheer volume of stuff that gets put out. It’s like this huge frickin’ waterfall and you’re just throwing your pebble in and it carries on down the waterfall and that’s that. Right, okay — next.”

Guess what? A pebble like that has value to the people who love pebbles. You admire it. You play with it. You keep it in your pocket. And perhaps you skip it across the surface of the water so someone else can enjoy it.

But you don’t “consume” it.

Pippin at Samohi

PIppin graphic

I’m working on a campaign for the musical “Pippin” which Santa Monica High School is putting on starting March 7. The theater department there is something I’ve supported for 5 years now. I love creating posters for them that are evocative and professional. I hope they inspire the young actors, musicians and production geeks to put forth their best efforts, and that they let audiences expect a high-quality experience, which in turn supports the program.

The productions do live up to the campaigns. (And sometimes surpass them!) If you get a chance to attend, it’ll be an entertaining experience, and you’ll be supporting a wonderful cause.

Bricks, mortar and Wings

Retail stores have long struggled with the problem of customers shopping there, but then actually buying the products online. Best Buy and Barnes & Noble are great examples of chains hit hard by the phenomenon. Circuit City and Borders are examples of the casualties.

Now there’s another nail in that coffin: the phenomenally impressive digital fly-throughs being created for new boxed sets like this one from Concord Music Group (Hear Music) for Sir Paul McCartney and Wings.

One of the most difficult things about buying expensive products online is the inability to explore them — to touch and feel and handle and mess with the thing you think you may want to purchase. But a well-done unboxing video takes a huge leap toward giving you that experience.  It makes it much more comfortable to part with your $160, to buy something you’ll clearly cherish if you’re a hard-core fan.

By contrast, CMG released their McCartney RAM project without an unboxing video. It hasn’t done as well as, say, their Duane Allman boxed set which did have a video — and which sold out in a week.

The buzz for Wings Over America seems to be working. My cousin Adam, a rabid McCartney fan and collector of many boxed sets, knew all about this one almost immediately. And now you do, too.

(Thanks to my friend Eric Eliel for sending this to me. He worked  with Integrated Communications to help produce the package. Can’t wait to see it in person.)

Scrapheap Symphony from Brother

I think the ending is just a little anti-climactic, but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so to speak. Take a look.

Springsteen on what’s important

Gabe leaves for college in just a few weeks.

Last night, we uncovered a Rolling Stone magazine from March, where Jon Stewart is talking with Bruce Springsteen about art, and whether he worries about losing his muse.

Springsteen says:

Then my kids came along , and at some point, Patti was assisting me in the fact that I was not as attentive a father as I should be, and my argument was, “Don’t you understand? I’m thinking of a song!”
. . .
One day I realized, “Wait. I’ve got it. I’ve got more music in my head than I’m going to live to put out.’ But your son or your daughter, they’re going to be gone tomorrow. or the day after. I realized, “This is what’s going to be gone, and this is what’s going to always be here, not the other way around.” Music and art are always flowing through the ether — they’ll always be there — but life, life moves on and is gone. Life is locked in an eternal dance with time, and unlike art and time, the two can’t be separated.

Thanks, Bruce.

Bands really should play in unison

The music program at Santa Monica High School (known affectionately as Samohi) is legendary. Last year, their Jazz Band swept the national high school competition at Berklee School of Music in Boston, blowing away some 300 other schools. Listening to them play is astonishing. All the various bands — jazz, marching and concert — are near-professional quality, and performances are always a treat.

Robb Brown, who tirelessly volunteers in support of the program, and whose son Eli is a stellar trumpet player, asked me to create a system of logos that would unify all three bands under the aegis of their parent program, yet still give each its own unique identity. The new visuals had to work on t-shirts and signs, as well as print materials and websites.

Here are the four new logos, each with its own sensibility, yet with elements — shapes and, especially, the school’s own blue and gold color scheme — that pull them together under one umbrella.

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Still vicious, still vibrant: The Threepenny Opera

“Yeah, yeah. ‘Mack the Knife.’ ‘Pirate Jenny. We know….”
But maybe you don’t know that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill changed the course of musical theater. They brought agitprop to Broadway. Suddenly commercially produced singing and dancing could be used for biting social commentary. Suddenly it could actually mean something. It paved the way for Cabaret, Rent, Chicago and Urinetown. And any other musical that aspires to do more than just entertain.

“As seen through the eyes of two 20th century geniuses, The Threepenny Opera is a revolutionary musical theatre masterpiece, first performed in Berlin in 1928.  Brecht’s brittle, sardonic tale creates a world of beggars, thieves and prostitutes in the colorful, exotic musical saga of Mack the Knife, Polly Peachum and the gritty underworld of Soho. Weill’s jazzy, inventive score captures the ironic tone of the lyrics. Derived from John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera creates a stunning, cabaret world that, eighty years after its premiere, remains an outrageous and cunning satire of society.”

And now the highly creative and talented Theatre Department at Santa Monica High School is performing it just for us locals. It runs for two weeks, starting February 24. Tickets are at
(And, yes, of course we created the poster.)

A very geeky Christmas

As Leo Laporte correctly pointed out, this is not one of those moments where the musicians are using a cell phone just to get a weird sound. This is (mostly) real music, and sounds like it. Pretty cool. Geek out!

Neil Patrick Harris’s RENT at the Hollywood Bowl

“What’s a review of a musical doing on this blog?” you ask. I say, “Why not?”

We saw the Hollywood Bowl Spectacular production of RENT last night, and were more than pleasantly surprised.

Telly Leung as Angel and Wayne Brady as Tom were the most convincing combo in these two roles I’ve yet seen. And their acting was more than matched by their singing. Brady’s voice is a full, rumbling cello of an instrument, and Leung hits notes of such soaring power they’re almost shocking.

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OK Go(ldberg)

How hard is it to make art? Sometimes it’s really hard.

At TED, Adam Sadowsky talks about the 10 Commandments that guided the design and construction of the incredible Rube Goldberg machine that’s the star of  the OK Go video “This Too Shall Pass” .