Don't Call It A Comeback
I'm back from paternity leave! And I want to know what you'd like to see me write about in the coming weeks and months.
Bringing you compelling and richly-reported stories at the intersection of music, media and money—for free—several times each month.
The last time you heard from me—aside from in the preamble to this excellent guest essay a couple weeks ago—was just after I became a dad for the first time. I gushed about how Riley had arrived, immediately changing my life in the ways fatherhood is supposed to, and also in ways I’d never imagined.
Riley is now two and a half months old; not only do I love her more than I ever thought possible, but I somehow love her more every day. She smiles constantly, especially when I play her music. And though she’s got her favorites—Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” and Peggy Lee’s “Big Spender”—she is a genre-agnostic omnivore (though apparently she likes songs about currency, which tracks).
I could go on all day about Riley, but let’s get down to business: I’m back in action after two months and change, and there’s much to discuss. Today I’d like to tell you where I’m planning to go with the Zogblog moving forward, and also get your input as I chart my path for the rest of the year and beyond.
As you may recall, I wrapped up We Are All Musicians Now before going on leave. It was a blast serializing a rough draft of a book; I’m continuing to tinker with it, and am still planning to tidy it up into a proper narrative nonfiction novella (more on that later, stay tuned for updates).
So now that I’m no longer locked into the schedule of publishing WAAMN installments once a week and also writing something newsy once a week, I’m going to experiment with a new model. What’s been missing in my output over the past year, in my mind, are the longer features and profiles I used to do at Forbes.
While typing up a 3,000 word cover story equivalent every week isn’t realistic, I’d like to give you some more deeply reported work, albeit less frequently than my twice-weekly rhythm. That gives me more time to discover and publish the most compelling stories about the business of music and entertainment.
If you’re anything like me, your inbox could use a break. Though frequent publishing was critical to establishing an audience in the early days of the newsletter boom, the market now seems oversaturated. So rather than flood you with good stuff multiple times per week, I’ll aim to provide great stuff multiple times a month. I’ll publish once it’s ready—not because it’s Tuesday.
I should also add that there’s another exciting new presence in my life besides Riley: I’ve been selected to Columbia University’s Knight-Bagehot fellowship for the coming year, and the program begins in mid-August. The foundation provides a generous stipend and therefore asks that fellows refrain from accepting paid assignments.
For my newsletter, that mostly just means turning off paid subscriptions, at least for now. For you, that means more fantastic free Zogblog posts (and an added responsibility to spread the word)!
I can’t wait to get back to bringing you the most fascinating stories at the intersection of music, media and money. Until then, enjoy the rest of your summer. And leave me some story ideas in the comments field, or feel free to reach out directly. I’d love to hear what you think of this new direction.
If you enjoyed this piece, please share it with your friends and followers, and encourage them to subscribe—the Zogblog is free, for a limited time!
ALSO BY ZACK O’MALLEY GREENBURG
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A-List Angels: How a Band of Actors, Artists & Athletes Hacked Silicon Valley
3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z & Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise
Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall & Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire
Thanks for reading ZOGBLOG by Zack O'Malley Greenburg! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Nice to be here, and congrats on your new little! We met back in 2018ish when you visited Berklee during my senior year. I was EIC of the student newspaper at that time. Looking forward to digging more into these posts as they come, and wanted to suggest your checking out former Berklee President Roger Brown's next act after retiring from the college. Cool music non-profit, Salt Lick Incubator, is helping artists reach their next level through funding and mentorship. https://www.saltlickincubator.org/
All the best,
Zack, congrats on the Columbia fellowship! Clearly an amazing program, and while you'll be in auspicious company, they're lucky to have you, too.
Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in on future Zogblog topics. Here's mine; algorithms.
Full disclosure; this was the subject of both my library science Master's thesis (music recommendation algos actually narrow the suggestion pool), and in a way, my musicology one (sample-based hip hop DJs = expert music recommenders). So I'll try to stay out of the weeds, but my interest is not solely academic.
In fact, it's super cynical; why don't music recommendation algorithms serve the labels better? In other words, why are alogorithms designed to benefit listeners more than music labels?
Bit out of my depth here (and very much in yours), but here's how I understand the basic arrangement: the streaming services pay licensing fees to the record labels. Those platforms charge subscription fees, and offer subscribers music on any connected device.
Of course, among other stuff, streaming services also offer music recommendations.
Consumers like it when recommendation engines come up with suggestions that reflect their tastes; it's a cool perk to, say Spotify (which I use). It's one of several in-platform features; playlists, sharing, exclusive artist content, links to merch, concert listings, etc.
Recommendation is an outlier because it's generative; other features get scraped from web sources (merch, concert dates) or built into the platform (playlists, social links). But unlike those others, recommendation suggests independent knowledge of the subscriber. When it works well, it's gratifyingly uncanny -- it implies a relationship between the service and the listener. For me, part of the appeal is that Spotify seems to be treating me not as just a subscriber, but as a listener -- and to be listening back.
But felicitous recommendations don't drive revenue to Spotify's licensing partners -- record labels. And without a critical mass of content from those labels, Spotify has spotty offerings and disappointed listeners. Surely, no recomendation algorithm will make up for weak selection. Consumers will go for the service that offers every major label's entire catalog, over one that can recommend something interesting that they've never heard before, and may or may not like.
So, if Spotify keeps sending me deep catalog stuff like say, Lee Dorsey, that keeps me happy. But Dorsey, sadly, isn't dropping new records, touring, licensing his music to ad agencies, or otherwise building a productive brand that will make his record company serious money (probably fumbling the lingo here, but you know what I mean). He's a legacy artist, unlikely to enjoy a revival that his label can cash in on.
Labels want consumers directed toward their active, wide-market artists (I assume), not niche or inert ones. For the kid who likes the Time, direct her to Bruno Mars, (who's active on Insta, Twitter, etc.) not dormant, one-and-done Ready for the World.
Last thing -- who would notice? Let's say Spotify (or Apple Music, Tidal, etc) changed their algo, to favor the labels. Now listeners are recommended current artists more often than catalog fixtures. Wouldn't that be the kind of invisible shift that listeners would scarcely notice, while satisfying Spotify's label partners?
The basic conclusion I came to in my own research was that, while listeners like you and me would love it if music recommendation algorithms directed us to unforeseen wonders, we're the only sort of people who care about that. Devoted listeners will always dive deep to seek out interesting new stuff, whether their streaming service uses an enlightened (or agnostic, or unbiased, whatever) algorithm or not. We'll harken to sages from the earlier eras to guide us -- radio DJs, record store clerks, older sisters, sample-based hip hop DJs -- in our sonic quests.
More casual listeners won't really care. If you like Lady Gaga, you should probably check out Mae West, but if Spotify directs you to Lizzo instead, who's gonna be mad? Probably not that Lady Gaga fan.
Anyway, that's my two cents. Love the blog. Keep on doing your good thing.
I offer two apologies; being incapable of writing a short email. And being a stingy non-subscriber. My life has been in a bit of flux since my wife and I moved to Vermont -- she's taken a job in the President's office at Bennington College. Just bought our first lawnmower, for real.