Yup, I'm A Slacker — Part 1: The Eric Garland Interview

I first interviewed Eric Garland from Big Champagne on February 16th. That particuliar Dishing With The Digerati interview seemed to get a big response – and rightly so. Every time Eric engages he brings his “A” game, answering all questions honestly, with depth and a sense of constant good humor.

Knowing that I had some big personal news to impart, I figured who better to tangle with then a master of both media measurement and the art of a good interview…

Isquith: Hi Eric, we meet again.
Garland: We both look taller and thinner.
Isquith: ha. Especially on this platform.
Isquith: So, it has been an eventful Spring
Isquith: How are things going in Big Champagne land?
Garland: It’s Spring?!
Garland: Last thing I remember it was CES.
Isquith: We have lost the seasons in LALA land.
Garland: Three months on the road, I’ve lost the plot.
Isquith: But look…we have labels being sold, business models morphing, and even underemployed guys like me getting in the fray.
Garland: Oh, no. Don’t tell me that www.digitalmusicinsider.com is not going to get your full attention!
Garland: You have news for me??
Isquith: I do. I am going to be even MORE of a Slacker than before.
Garland: So, you’re going to work for a physical retailer?
Garland: OHHHHHH…
Garland: You meant more of a SLACKER, as in Slacker Radio, than a slacker!
Isquith: Yes, I’m joining the Slacker Radio team come May 3rd.
Garland: CONGRATULATIONS ON THE NEW GIG.
Isquith: Thank You.
Isquith: Full disclosure…I knew I wanted to catch back up with you this Summer…because I really wanted to get your take on the first 4-5 months of 2011…and then, selfishly, I realized that you would be perfect to engage with around the issues brought up in going through this process of finding a new work home.
Garland: I am very excited for you — and for me. You know Slacker has been a great reporting partner for us, and so our day jobs intersect.
Isquith: I did not know that, and that’s great news!
Isquith: Not being in the building yet…
Garland: It’ll be in the packet you get from HR.
Isquith: There are many things I’ll need to learn.
Isquith: But, It doesn’t surprise me that Jim Cady (my new boss) and Jonathan Sasse & the rest of the team there “get” B.C.
Isquith: I was very impressed with the way they embrace data on top of curation/artistry.
Garland: 2011, the year of everyone finally “getting” me LOL…
Garland: Seriously, though, for those following along at home: what is a Slacker? And how is it different from a Spotify, and Rdio, or a MOG…?
Isquith: Slacker is a Personalized Interactive Radio offering, that listeners engage with across a variety of platforms.
Isquith: Online, Mobile, Offline with cacheing etc.
Isquith: The thing that I love is that it sits mid-way in my view between a pure Tech-solution play, and a curated broadcast model.
Garland: So, “personalized radio”…is that more like Pandora, then? Programmed for you and only for you but not exactly *by* you?
Isquith: I think directionally what you said is correct, and Pandora has done a really nice job in the space. But there are some important nuance differences between Pandora & Slacker.
Isquith: Like Pandora, Slacker allows you to start with a song or artist…and then provides a listening experience leveraging off that starting point.

Isquith: But there are some interesting differences in terms of being able to also plug in to 100+ genre-oriented professionally programmed radio stations…and a very good interface that makes sure that any session can be totally controlled by the user, through liking or disliking songs, skipping, dialing up or down familiarity, etc.
Isquith: Another difference is that the music flow on Slacker is programmed much more around musical affinity than Pandora’s Genome model of “sounding like” your starting song.
Isquith: The best explanation I can give is a couple of musical examples…
Garland: Those are my favorite kind of examples!
Isquith: Let’s say you love Nirvana “Sliver” or ‘School”. You were into Nirvana early. Pick those songs and you will get some equally cutting edge indie rock (say Pavement or Sebadoh) on Slacker because there is a sensibility or fit culturally, as well as a fit sound wise.
Isquith: Similarly, lets say you love Jethro Tull Aqualung…you will likely get the Stones from the 70′s on Slacker, again because there is some cultural affinity…more than just a sound affinity.
Isquith: I like it comes down to cultural curation vs. pure sound matching…
Garland: This subject is obviously of great interest to me (programming, recommendation, the wisdom of crowds), so I’ll resist the urge to take us down that path other than to say that Slacker has described its approach as “hand programmed” radio and I think that description fits.
Garland: So, you’re getting back in the pool. You were out sunning yourself for awhile. Any perspective gained or lessons learned when you were out?
Isquith: Well, when I think back to being at Warner, it’s amazing how myopic you can be when facing the day to day. Not because you aren’t open-minded, but instead because you are so busy fighting your revenue and marketshare battles day in, and day out, that it is very very hard to carve out the physical time and emotional room to really think.
Isquith: The business is so unsettled that it can be hard for label people to find the time and space to be creative, think effectively, and then act decisively.
Garland: So often your gig is at odds with your smarts.
Isquith: Maybe, sometimes, yes. But just now…in last few months…What I’m seeing is tremendous opportunity for people who have really started to think through what I think you could sort of call…
Isquith: “the connective tissue” between fans, artists, and music experiences. Where tech connects fans to music.
Garland: I’m encouraged that you’re seeing that too. Tell me specifically where the new opportunity lives, maybe give me a few examples.
Isquith: OK.. Take a great TopSpin campaign, or Twitter simplifying and changing how fans and artists connect, or companies like Slacker and Pandora that help you discover more and better music. It seems like that connective thing is powerful. Powerful culturally, and powerful for business.
Isquith: Look at the Twitter discussions and the energy around Arcade Fire winning the Grammy. It was a win for Twitter and more importantly for fans as it went down live and people were reinventing TV and there was excitement for a sec ….excitement about The Grammys…of all things.
Isquith: Broadcast Television
Isquith: Somehow you have to wonder, in the wake of Twitter, if the whole broadcast needs to be live.
Garland: Oh, I don’t wonder about that. *Clearly* no more tape delay.
Isquith: Or Foursquare amplifying concert experiences…that feels connective and filled with potential.
Isquith: I think people want what they want when they want…but they also still want to be turned on to new music and entertainment and expect and delight in technology helping them do have that discovery experience.
Garland: Grammys and concerts are great examples of “traditional” media experiences winning through new technologies and social interactions. I’m concerned, broadly, about traditional media companies.
Garland: Among other things: do they enjoy a competitive advantage anymore?
Isquith: Ironically, I think it’s harder for the traditional companies to focus on the “connective” stuff.
Isquith: It’s not their core competency, Making and promoting art/content is…not connective stuff.
Isquith: right?
Garland: Right! That’s Coke’s core competency…Gillette’s…
Garland: Let me add a corollary to that question…
Garland: Among other things: do they enjoy a competitive advantage anymore? Does the next Jimmy Iovine (and team) do as well at Polaroid as the last one did at Interscope.
Isquith: I think there are some strengths that ONLY the content creators maintain.
Isquith: So, for example, when I hear that Warner & EMI are really focused on keeping their Publishing & Recording rights together…I think that is very smart.
Isquith: The recordings still do have worth, and the content creators need to make it easier and more seamless to extract that value for themselves and for potential business partners.
Isquith: So keeping the rights that actually allow business creativity to flourish makes sense.
Garland: But going forward…your “content creators” will include Polaroid and Coke and McDonald’s and CAA and and and…
Garland: Coca-Cola Music has already been established, well-funded and staffed with top executive talent from major labels.
Isquith: Yes, agreed. And think of how much of a no-brainer it will be for those companies to say…”ok, we will sign you for 1 “project” only…50-50 split…but we need complete publishing and complete recording & name and likeness flexibility”
Isquith: Can you imagine if Nike could only sell the sneaker top but no heel or laces?
Isquith: I think if you are an artist you want to be able to have all your ducks under your control to move around….and ultimately content creators want the same…the devil is in the deal. At what price and what is the new deal model splits?
Isquith: What’s great for Tech companies is that as tech matures around music, I really believe Programming Knowledge (Writing code etc.) mixed with Data Expertise and an Artistic Sensibility is a potent business model.
Isquith: Think of Apple for typing out loud!
Garland: Hope so, for my sake.
Isquith: You are in a great lane with Big Champagne, I really believe that.
Isquith: But see what I mean regarding Apple?
Garland: Clearly, and that has to be at least in part why you would be excited to be a Slacker.
Isquith: Yes. I am really really excited
Garland: Ok, while you are excited…
Garland: …a handful of rapid-fire q’s from me:
Isquith: I don’t want to make this all about Slacker…so let’s just say, I think the bet on curation in terms of honoring the artistry of music is a shrewd and exciting business strategy.
Garland: My friend and biz partner Jonathan Daniel has known you a long time. He told me that when he was an artist, you were the first person to tell him the truth. (You were probably the last.) Confirm or deny.
Isquith: I told JD that his band owned no mountaintop…and they needed to pick one. True.
Garland: I want to get the quote *exactly* right, but he told me that you said, “Good news and bad news. The good news is you might be the New York Dolls. The bad news is the label thinks you’re Wham!”
Isquith: I think it was “Lords Of The New Church” not the Dolls. But…the legend reads better with your edit!
Garland: See, this is why no journalism for me. Can’t quote anybody right to save my life…
Isquith: hardly
Isquith: Next question big guy….
Garland: Next question: this site is great. I mean, really great. You know I don’t give that away easily. It was born of your being an ex-company man. What happens to it now that you’re a company man again?
Isquith: I am going to keep tending to the blog, even though it will become a secondary priority, it has become a passion.
Isquith: I just love the ability to talk to a group of folks out there who are interested in this stuff…and often push back, prod, and tickle me as we go along.
Garland: I taught this week at USC and UCLA (a passion) and I put you in my Keynote slide deck. I tell the kids, “everybody here tonight who is reading hypebot and digitalmusicnews and billboard, you should also read Jack.”
Garland: And I mean that, sincerely. What the world needs now is less retweeting, more thinking.
Isquith: You flatter me, and its embarrassing and humbling.
Garland: Oh, and a new Frank Sinatra.
Garland: Stay at it, Jack. We need your voice!
Isquith: I will do my darndest.
Isquith: I have 1 last question for you Eric…
Garland: Present!
Isquith: What the heck is next?
Garland: Saturday.
Isquith: Rebeeca Black would be so proud. Is she working at BC?
Garland: Yes, she’s head of marketing but not ready for that to leak!
Garland: Seriously: what’s next:
Garland: More players. Big players (yes, even bigger). More money (investment and consumer dollars). A true redefining of “music business” that is so profound we are still only paying lip service to it right now. There will be huge, exciting and transformative opportunities around artists and artistry that have nothing to do with this history to this point.
Garland: In terms of the sentiment around music as a business, here’s what’s next:
Garland: Broad recognition that the *reason* social networks (Face Book) and social gaming platforms (Zynga) enjoy multi-hundred gajillion dollar valuations is: audience. Specifically a vice-like grip on huge audiences who *engage* at levels previously unimagined by brands and their marketers.
Isquith: Great stuff as always Eric. It fascinates me that you see a historical break, a new curve in the “history” of the business, and the emergence of a new set of players who will drive the business, and will drive the culture around music…I do too. In fact, I’m betting on it.
Garland: Further recognition that *every* important music artist who has ever found an audience has enjoyed a more powerful claim on fans than a social game ever could. Recognition that hiking uphill in the snow both ways is something that you do for your children. Your spouse. And your favorite artists.
Isquith: Yes, artistry that connects and creates that indescribable experience of being a fan, is a driver for an incredibly powerful human reaction.
Isquith: The NEW music business will be built on it. At least I think so.
Isquith: Thank you as always Eric for your wonderful insights, wit and patience.
Garland: Good night, Jackie.

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