Jukebox in the sky

The Washington Post informs us that Wal-Mart is undercutting iTunes in the marketplace by engaging in a price war over non-copy-restricted mp3s.

I can’t help but shake my head and feel the coming rain in my bones. You see, I’m old enough to remember the sensation of flipping through 12″ vinyl records every weekend when I had accumulated enough allowance or chore money to go on a spender. Albums were it – sure, there were cassettes and eight-tracks, but albums are what sounded the best, providing they weren’t covered in dust or scratches. I had friends with expensive, complicated record cleaning systems and expensive, very sensitive turntables. They would perform a strange, assiduous little ceremony every time they’d throw something on. It was funny to see how the ritual deteriorated as the evening wore on and we got weighed down with beer and talk and stuff. I tended towards the cheap-and-loud systems, myself.

In case you didn’t get the memo, iPods and their ilk are out. They will be as obsolete as the buggy whip and the cassette Walkman by 2010. Everything will converge on the cell phone, as competitors rush to market with their version of the iPhone. Enjoy them pods while you can, before their batteries die.

Is there any good news in all of this? Maybe. Apparently, sound quality will improve. That’s a plus for the listener. But how about for the independent artist? What’s the future model for fame, success and in-store appearances? Will you be seeing Nickelback at a Wal-Mart near you sometime soon?

Mas Grande

My pal Kearney is a fan of the cheap guitar. Give her props, as they say too often nowadays – she’s going to The Berk and studying bass after many, many years of just dreaming of doing so.

Last week or so, she mentions in passing that she’s been jamming with a cat who went out and grabbed himself a Rondo, and then upgraded it with some Seymour Duncans or whatevers.

So, I’ve got a Telecaster which I refer to as my “cheep Mexi Tele”. After a little quick research, I’ve just discovered it’s vintage 1991, made in Ensenada, Baja California. When I bought it, I was itching for that “Tele sound”. I’ve hung on to it for several years now. I did some sessions in Kearney’s studio years ago where I brought both my Strat and my Tele, and Kearney insisted – I mean insisted on me using the Tele. It’s really funky, after all.

Well, I gave the Tele a present yesterday. I managed to solder everything in OK too. Let me tell ya – it sounds blistering, just through my little crate amp. I can’t wait to play it through a larger rig, preferably one with tubes.

The neck position pickup is the real kicker. Gone is the mushy, unresponsive goo that the stock neck pickup sprayed unevenly across the room. You can hear overtones all the way up to the screaming heavens of 20K – and beyond! Seriously, it sounds wicked pissah. Can you tell I’m psyched?

The other thing that’s amazing is the dynamic response. Last night, I was just picking along lightly and wallowing in Pretenders-esque Tele twang. Then – boomchakkachakka! When I laid into the strings and leaned on them hard, the pups began to growl like grown dogs. What can I say? Even Viv was impressed.

Maybe after the paychecks start up again I’ll put some whatevers on my Strat. I’ll get them from Steve. You should too, if you’re in the market.

Herb takes a cab

If you google Herb Pomeroy the first result you get is Wikipedia, naturally – but there, I just saved you the trouble.

I took two out of the three courses he offered at Berklee – Line Writing and Arranging in the Style of Duke Ellington. I was sorta game to take the third course, Jazz Composition, but I was pretty much through with Berklee mentally, and besides, little Johnny Blazes was on her way. Now I wish I had taken it. I wished I had taken it pretty much a year after I left Berklee, when I was studying with Charlie Banacos.

So, I guess I’m a member of the Herb Taught Me club. I have to say, I ran in to him a couple of times after my Berklee years, saw him play, and he remembered me and asked me how it was going. Well, it was going alright, though the day gig was taking over my life and I wasn’t playing or writing enough. That’s cool, he’d say.

As he takes his place on the Great Bandstand In The Sky, I can report that it’s still going alright, and I’m still not playing or writing enough, but at least I’m still playing and writing. More than twenty years later, his techniques are still with me in my thinking about harmony and voicing. I’m always acutely aware of how many PDs are in a given voicing I write or play, and I still don’t give a rat’s ass about low interval limits but still worry about them getting redlined, and I’m constantly on the lookout for that vague, ambiguous, non obvious voicing that would make Herb nod. Other rules keep plaguing me (such as no 5 and #5 allowed in a dominant 7th voicing), and after many years I think I’m beginning to understand why. It boils down to taste. And style.

I’ve got a confession for you, Herb. That last year, I did all my homework about an hour before class. Well, you probably knew that anyway. So thanks for teaching me. I still appreciate it.

Aptitude tests and headhunters

I have good news. I’m waiting for an offer to be extended from a rather large company. I don’t want to jinx it, so I can’t say whom. But all the signs are good.

As part of the application process, I was asked to take an aptitude test. The questions were about things like number sequences, math word problems, and matrix pattern recognition. The test is designed in such a way
that it’s pretty hard to finish it before the timer runs out. I think the idea is to get some kind of metric that describes how well you can reason logically under pressure.

That’s not the only test I took yesterday. Here’s the setup.

Consider a fictional company – we’ll call it StreamSmart. Exciting new start-up, loads of VC, hiring like mad, groovy offices someplace downtown. So, way back when I first started out on my jobless journey, I got a call from a recruiter – let’s call them Hungadunga. After a few hard sell phone calls from one of their reps, I agree to go down to Hungadunga’s posh offices for an interview.

You forgot a Hungadunga!The interview takes place between me and the rep. Let’s call him Kenny. He’s a nice guy, much younger than I am, and I can tell he likes to hit the clubs at night. He probably golfs on his weekends, has a few beers, takes it nice and easy. He takes me through my resume, makes plenty of thoughtful notations in the margins, explains to me how Hungadunga is well placed directly with Hiring Managers in many Really Important Companies, and promises to get my resume over to StreamSmart right away.

My resume is not a great fit for StreamSmart, and I know it. They’re really looking for someone in their late 20s to early 30s who’s a total Flash head, not a senior dude with management experience trying to dial down into an individual contributor role. But I figure, what the hell, this is the price of admission to Hungadunga’s pool of Really Important Companies.

So, imagine how underwhelmed I am when Kenny from Hungadunga calls me and tells me that there’s no interest over at StreamSmart. OK, I say, what else have you got for me? Nothing at the moment, chirps Kenny, but we’ll keep you posted. Your resume is at the top of my pile.

As the weeks go by, I get approached by a horde of headhunters using the same tack. I’ve got the job for you, come out and interview with us, send us the updated resume, bla bla bla. One recruiter told me that it was her company’s policy that they couldn’t work with anyone they hadn’t met face-to-face. I suppose that I could have just refused on the spot to continue, but she was a nice kid, so I took the morning and drove to Burlington to meet her. It turns out that the more I learned about the position, the less I wanted it. Guess they didn’t want me either. She calls me on occasion to “check in”, but she’s got nothing for me. Nice kid.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten in to a few conversations through direct contact with a couple of actual HR managers at different companies, and these conversations are actually going someplace. I’m totally in the clear in these dialogues, not a whiff of a technical recruiter in the wind. I’m getting in the door for interviews. Stuff is happening.

Conversations with recruiting firms get me nowhere. Conversations with companies that are hiring get me somewhere.

Slowly, a trend develops. I start getting calls from recruiting firms that I haven’t heard of yet, but the jobs they are pitching to me sound very familiar. Note that recruiters are very guarded up front about telling you which job they’re shilling for. After all, if Kenny from Hungadunga told me at first about StreamSmart without getting me to agree to have him represent me, I could just go straight to StreamSmart and apply for the job – cutting out Kenny and his fat commission. But since Kenny has already put my resume in at StreamSmart, it’s a bad idea for me to pester StreamSmart directly. Even if I succeeded in persuading StreamSmart to hire me – with no help from Hungadunga – StreamSmart would still have to pay a finder’s fee to Hungadunga. And the fees are steep.

Here’s the real deal: if you get in the door through a recruiter, you are less attractive a hire than someone who sails in under their own power. Think of it from the hiring manager’s point of view: if Candidate A, represented by Hungadunga costs an extra 40K to hire than Candidate B who just walked herself in the front door, and both candidates are equally as good, which one would you choose?

Think twice about who you agree to have represent you, and how many representatives you have out there “working for you”. It’s like real estate – they’re not really working for you. They’re working for themselves.

Which leads me to the other test I took yesterday.

Craig from Cubitron Staffing (the names have been changed to protect the innocent) contacts me about an exciting position with a start up firm doing great work with video and Flash. Am I interested? You bet. Does Craig tell me more about the company? Not enough to trigger any red flags. Craig tells me, the client has set up an online test, to screen for knowledge and aptitude. Am I willing to take it? Sure, I say, thinking that worst-case-scenario is that I’ll learn how well I stack up against the client’s expectations. That kind of information might come in handy. Somehow. Not sure how. But I’m still game.

So I log in to the test site, and I have an hour to complete 42 questions about Flash MX 2004. I buzz through it in 16 minutes, knowing that I got a few wrong, but I played fair and didn’t look stuff up in the reference books. I send Craig an email telling him I’m done, and asking him how well I did. He and I are on for a face-to-face next Monday by the way, the usual take-me-through-my-resume meeting, I’m sure.

Craig calls me, tells me I got 71% correct, which puts me in the 80th percentile, which is OK enough to send me over to StreamSmart. Hm. Okay, waitaminnit. I tell Craig that Hungadunga has already introduced my resume over at StreamSmart. All of a sudden, Craig is no longer my good buddy. He cancels the Monday meeting. He gives me the usual weak promise that if he sees something that’s a good fit for me, he’ll call me right away. He’s obviously pissed.

I come away knowing that after five years of doing something completely different, I still know enough about Flash to put me in the 80th percentile on his little test in 16 minutes without cheating. So maybe it wasn’t a total waste of time….

Ever been to Cloud Two?

Somewhere back in time, I worked for an ad agency.

Does this qualify me for much? Maybe, maybe not. On the other hand, I’ve been to brand boot camp. I learned first hand what I was allowed – and what I was not allowed – to do with brand logotype in the layouts I was working on, for example. Running out of space? Can we make the logo smaller? Not on your life. Change the color? Add a word? Ixnay to all of the above. I recall talking to an art director once about a meeting he had been in with Disney. A team of lawyers presented him with a list of what The Mouse is allowed to do and what The Mouse is not allowed to do. You don’t want to know what would happen to you if you made The Mouse do something he wasn’t suppozedta.

So, there I am one day, sitting on the Orange Line minding my own knitting, and I notice the whole car has been bought – which is ad jargon for a single advertiser has purchased each and every sign and poster on the subway car. The lines are inane and meaningless to me: “If you like molecular biology and winning stuff, you’ll love Windorphins.” “Windorphins are nature’s way of saying, ‘Boo-yah’.”

The artwork for these ads is pretty hideous. Garish PacManesque critters leer at you as they float rather two-dimensionally over an amateurish color gradient which probably cost the pressman several gray hairs, until the posters reached the correct levels of saturation and gamut to satisfy the art director supervising the run. And where’s the logo?

There’s nothing that ties these bug-eyed blobs to any major brand. Oh, I get it – we’re supposed to be so intrigued that we’ll dash off to windorphins.com to find out what the buzz is all about.

I had a reaction to this campaign. I immediately started my own personal opposition to flock mentality, and did my research without ever giving windorphins.com my clickthrough. Turns out it’s eBay, folks.

The logic (and I use the term very loosely) behind this mystery ad blitz is that when you win stuff, you get an endorphin-like rush. A win-dorphin. Get it?


eBay has created a campaign which markets to whom? Video gamers? Little girls? Teletubbie fans? MMORPG avatar freaks? I’m not sure, but I’m certain it’s not me. My surmise, sitting there on the subway, was that the target audience was girls, age 11-14. Clearly I’m wrong, but I can’t be the only person who had this initial reaction.

So, if the target market is actually older than pre-teen, how did eBay come to decide that it was a good idea to create a visual identity with all the charm and panache of a Saturday morning cartoon for tots – for a product that you must be older than 18 to use?

And finally, I found the lack of the eBay logo irritating – which is what they wanted after all. We’re so used to seeing logos everywhere, in every place imaginable, that when they’re not there, we feel not a little lost. Brands have been drilled in to us so relentlessly that we don’t notice their presence, we notice their absence.

In this case, I think it’s not so much cleverness on eBay’s part, but cowardice. If the eBay logo appeared at the bottom of all the Windorphin posters, the unstated call to action (“go ahead, go home and surf to windorphins.com – you know you want to…”) would be defeated and nobody would bother clicking through. (Here’s an article which suggests that nobody is anyway.)

Thought of the day

Among the four or five books I am currently reading is “Ogilvy On Advertising”, in which Our Hero rants about what sells and what doesn’t. I came across this startling quote:

“Mozart said, ‘I have never made the slightest effort to compose anything original.'”

I find that somehow comforting. I awoke this morning knowing I probably would not have time to write any music today, and I felt discouraged by the prospect. Having Mozart in my ear as I struggle to be “original” sorta cheered me up.

Meanwhile, during my morning surf I came across an online mag I’d like to explore further, given some time.