Archive for the ‘Herb Alpert’ Tag

. . . and then the tools shape us.   Leave a comment

August 1, 2018

     What’s in an age? It can refer to the length of time you, me, anyone has lived. It can be a particular stage in a life. Ten years ago my daughter was “college age”. When was I college age? I completed my MA as an adult (?) 15 years ago; so what age am I today? History has its own ages. Geologic time refers to the physical makeup and history of our planet. If you’re that curious, geologic time might take you back a billion years. Frankly, thinking about a billion years of history is too much for me (as in “here comes a headache”). Instead I’ve been thinking about technology as it relates to my personal ages.

     It is sometimes difficult for us to recognize that our lifetime’s journey changes our perspective about “ages”. My life during the “post-war” years specifically refers to those decades immediately following World War II. There were plenty of other wars and battles between 1945 and 2018—Afghanistan, the Balkans, Egypt/Israel, Grenada, Iraq, Korea, Kosovo, Kuwait, Syria, Vietnam—but “post war” for me is that twenty years between 1945 and the mid-1960s. Technology (as in television, transistor radios, etc.) was clearly advancing, but most people then could not fathom how the decades to follow would transform life.

     In 1979 I was working for A&M Records, Herb Alpert’s recording label (which he co-owned). That last year of the ‘70s decade was a difficult year for some parts of the music industry. A&M had some remarkable breakthroughs that year including albums by Supertramp and Herb Alpert both selling well enough to earn gold and platinum awards from the RIAA, the music industry’s keeper of the stats. There were others, to be sure, but I remember those two clearly for different reasons. Herb’s renaissance as a recording artist was jumpstarted by his hit single (and the accompanying album). “Rise” was the CoversCombined CRfirst bonafide hit digital recording of the digital age; likewise, Supertramp transformed their career, from the band everyone loved but still hadn’t sold a million of anything. Breakfast in America changed that. And both those records helped A&M Records weather the coming recession, when our government’s decision to raise interest rates and the Iranian government’s decision to restrict oil shipments helped screw up the economy.

     The Sony Walkman portable cassette player signaled another sea change in technology. Also introduced in 1979, the Walkman assured us Walkman 300px-Original_Sony_Walkman_TPS-L2that music was going to be highly portable. No longer tethered to the turntable, you could now throw a dozen cassettes in a bag and listen anywhere, anytime. Miles Copeland, who then managed the band Police, stopped in to our Hollywood offices near Christmas 1979. He was returning from a trip to Japan and was showing us the Sony Walkman he just purchased in Tokyo. We were all impressed with his new ‘toy’. And in short order CDs were also going to revolutionize the record business. No more scratchy vinyl. Now we offered our favorite artists in these indestructible shiny discs. Of course they weren’t indestructible, but we embraced these digital “records”. Cassette tapes and vinyl records seemed doomed. Cassettes are gone, and yet vinyl records are still being manufactured, but in infinitely smaller numbers.

     I remember my 1984 Audi 5000. I liked the car, but I remember it as much for its “history” as my first vehicle equipped with a cell phone, a large unit installed between the bucket seats. In less than a decade the cell phone had shrunk to a size small enough to fit easily into the palm of your hand. I had a Nokia (circa 1996) mobile that was so compact I lost it a year later on a shuttle bus somewhere between the Hertz counter and San Francisco Airport’s United Airlines terminal. In 2001 Steve Jobs delivered the first Apple iPod. Cassettes disappeared, and the days of traveling around with a bag of cassettes came to a merciful end.

     In 2007 Jobs showed the world what a singular vision (along with $150 million in development money) could deliver with the introduction of the first iPhone. Few would DS iphone_original_2007_02-100727597-orig CRdisagree with the premise that the iPhone changed everyone’s thinking. Cell phones were mundane, smart phones were the future. And the iPhone was the technology to which every other smart phone was (and is still) compared to. It wasn’t just about the device. It was also about how you used your smart phone. 

     On a walk near Union Square in San Francisco a few years ago I realized that Bluetooth wireless technology leveled the playing field between the self-absrorbed and the unconcerned. Business people who walked down busy streets talking on their smartphones without holding the phone to their ears blended with random people who simply enjoyed walking down busy streets talking to themselves.

     A half-century ago, Marshall McLuhan was widely quoted for titling a book (and telling the world that) The Medium Is The Message. According to his eldest son, Dr. Eric McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s publisher mistakenly titled the book The Medium Is The Massage.  When the author heard about the typo, his response was “Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!”. Television was the message, not the content. And television was also the massage.

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     Technology is a tool. And McLuhan knew that when he posited “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”Fast forward to 2018 and we don’t have to speculate on what McLuhan might say about the age of the smartphone. In his 1964 book Understanding Media, he wrote, “The medium [is the message because it is the medium] that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Next time you’re walking down a busy street, pay attention. Perhaps you’ll agree that my Union Square observations seem much more rational because in reality, we’re not all talking actually talking on our smartphones.

 

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2018

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Haven’t I Heard That Before?   Leave a comment

A Chance Conversation On Creativity

May 1, 2017

Intellectuals around us may dwell on a long accepted conclusion that our perception in the world is driven by a cerebral battle: “left brain” vs. “right brain”. The left brain is thought to be our realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical side, while the right brain is our creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic side.

A million years ago—OK less than that but far more years than I’d care to recount—I traveled to New York on a high school class trip. Flying from Milwaukee to New York was in and of itself a stimulating experience. Of course there were a few must-see tourist stops including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. At Radio City Music Hall I witnessed a performance by the world-famous Rockettes. These were (and are) talented women who can probably out- dance most men. If that claim is surprising to some, remember Bob Thaves classic 1982 quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:
“Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards. . . and in high heels.”

Beyond talent, what hormonally-challenged high school senior boy or girl then (or even now) wouldn’t remember a chorus line made up of thirty beautiful long-legged women? Thinking about the Rockettes is not simply to revisit a teenage fantasy. The reality is that the beauty, talent, physical strength, and the choreography that embodied their routine then and now is not to be taken lightly.

The arts—dance, theater, graphic art, music, film, prose, poetry, etc—stimulate. Creativity is all around us, appealing to our individual and collective humanity, and penetrating that left-brain/right brain battle in a variety of aural, visual, and emotional layers. Within every human being there is a creative receptor—we take in external stimuli; creativity to simultaneously evaluate and appreciate. And we possess a creative generator which enables us to export our creativity. The receptor is that internal recognition of like, love, dislike, or antipathy. The generator is our ability to share our creativity with others. None of this is to suggest that everyone has a creative talent that can result in commercial success. We wish.

Herb Alpert (with his partner Jerry Moss) was the co-founder of A&M Records. I’ve known Herb and his wife Lani Hall for forty years. We’re not close friends or even social friends, but nevertheless, we are friends. After the sale of A&M Records in 1990 I moved to New York to work for another label. Quite unexpectedly in the mid-1990s I ran into Herb and Lani at London’s Heathrow Airport. It turned out we were all flying to New York on the same British Airways flight. Herb always strikes me as a shy person with a successful public persona wrapped around his outside. And to be certain, whether in private or in public his friendly manner and inherent integrity come through. I’d add that a conversation with Herb, even a chance encounter, offers an opportunity to renew the friendship, and to learn something from an old friend.

That evening at Heathrow we had a conversation that, duh, touched on the creative process. One of the topics was the 1976 copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the late George Harrison by the songwriter of the Chiffons’ 1960s hit single “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison lost the suit.) The question for Herb was “with millions of songs under copyright, just how much is distinctly (or distinctively) new in any new musical composition, in any new song? His response, as I recall, went something like this: “Listen. Think about a piano FULL SHARPS AND FLATSkeyboard. There may be 88 keys, but there are just 12 notes; that is, 12 in each octave, including sharps and flats. So almost all “new” music is derivative to some extent because songwriters have just 12 notes to work with.” Herb was not suggesting that all, many, or even some new songs may be ripping off songs that came before them. Just like the multitude of simple three and four-chord hits of the 1950s and 1960s, if one listens closely enough a connection can often be made between any number of songs, but that doesn’t lead to a conclusion that there was a theft of intellectual property.

When we think of art, we enter another realm of original thought and outside influence. If your taste is in oils, chalks, acrylics, and watercolors, you might consider the Campbell Soup can. Designed in 1902, it became iconic on the shelves of grocery stores and yet CampbellsCollage_0became new again sixty years later when Andy Warhol created a painting of the Campbell Soup can as art. To many, Warhol wasn’t being original, or cutting edge but was lazy, “copying” an instantly recognizable image. The blog Food Republic put it this way: “While Andy Warhol can be credited for establishing the classic Campbell’s soup can as an iconographic pop art emblem, he never would have appropriated its imagery had it not already been iconic in its own right.” Appropriating (borrowing, copying, taking, etc.) an idea and remaking it is old stuff.

We take in information all of those worldly influences and what comes out is our view of the world, or a tree, or a dog, or a pop song. But was it simply left brain vs right? An article in Scientific American took aim at the creativity:

. . . the entire creative process from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification con- sists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depend- ing on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

So whether it’s the Rockettes, George Harrison, the Chiffons, or Andy Warhol, we might do well to remember T.S. Elliot reflecting on poetry: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

That’s my take on popular music in all genres and forms. If you are influenced by a composition and make something better, even wonderful, you’re borrowing and no harm, no foul. If you were influenced and “defaced” what you borrowed, well that’s another matter altogether. My only caveat is to always credit the source of the inspiration.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2017

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