…come see me and my latest piece of technology, this 1960’s wrist transisitor radio, on the “Indie Success: Caching in on Collaboration” panel, Tuesday March 15, 11:00AM at the Hilton, Salon C, 500 East 4th Street. Here’s what me and my wrist accessory will be talking about:
“Since the web began we’ve been talking about artists having a career without a label and going directly to fans. We finally have examples of this working, so what does it look like?
SXSW Veteran Heather Gold sits down with successful collaborating indie artists including: Allee Willis (September, Boogie Wonderland, The Color Purple, Theme from Friends, over 50 million albums sold), Mary Jo Pehl (Mystery Science Theatre 3000, RIfftrax, NPR) and Kenyatta Cheese (Know Your Meme, Rocketboom). The Net links almost every form of artistic making, so it makes sense that we’re in an era of increasing collaboration and creation in many forms. We’ll find out how limitations and openness serve them in an era of “personal brands” We’ll find out how they deal with rights, friendship and creating the best space in which to collaborate. We’ll also dig into their collaborative process in making social experiences, music, video and comedy and find out how they’ve succeeded creatively and in every other way.”
Arriving in Austin tomorrow night. See you there on Tuesday. My biggest message: As much as it’s about technology, it’s about a charming personality…
(Photo with my Royal typewriter, bought with my allowance money when I was 13, by Jennie Warren)
I had always thought that the day before the Grand opening of the virtual Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch I would have one of the most spectacular pieces of Kitsch in my collection to feature on Kitsch O’ The Day. But I’m going completely insane on massive overload trying to get the online interface/mini social network at awmok.com scotch-taped together enough to open tomorrow – sometime between noon and 5 PM West Coast time – not to mention building physical displays, handmaking souvenirs and getting auction items ready for the first of two grand opening parties tomorrow night at Ghettogloss on Melrose.
I have no hands left, my brain has been reduced to the size of a pea and the thought of photographing one more piece of my Kitsch and writing a description is enough to throw me into a deep coma after mounting an exhibition of every object featured in Kitsch O’ The Day since I began the blog in early March, building customized bubble display cases for everything, tweaking the descriptions, filling four foot wide bowls almost big enough to take baths in with junk food, and doing the 175 other things on my list for what I’m sure will be another 20 hour day of tweaks. So no Beatles sneakers, bedazzled Snuggies or motorized go-go boots that move on their own to “These Boots Were Made For Walking” today and, instead, an amazing 4′ x 4′ three-dimensional-made-from-all-my-junk “Allee Is Kitsch” portrait of me done by my very talented friend, Jason Mecier. The portrait is featured at the opening parties along with the other 150 aforementioned Kitschifyingly spectacular objects.
If you haven’t seen the trailer yet or don’t know much about The Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch please proceed to awmok.com. Otherwise, see ya there tomorrow!
What’s to make me join yet another social network when I’m already a member of so many, dragging myself ’round the clock to fulfill my duties as a responsible citizen on each of them? What’s to make me listen to a record that sounds like everything else – same beat, loop or intellectually challenged lyric? It’s one thing to be first. It’s another to be 43rd.
I like to be comfortable wherever I am, especially if it’s in a social space. In order to command my undying attention and devotion a social network’s got to have something that none of the others have, fill a spot in my life and psyche that needs filling. Conversely, a degree of familiarity in social network design, what works about other social networks that I really want to see working here, also assures happier orientation and participation. The only way I’ll hang or even notice a new social space in the first place is because enough of those things I’m already comfortable with are there fused with outrageously original, fantastic and artistic social design
It’s the same with a song if you think about it. An outrageously unique record stays in your heart and brain cells and sets the pace for years. One that’s merely derivative lasts for a few weeks or months and burns out forever, maybe relegated to replay at high school reunions.
In founding a community fresh, creative thinking always wins. In what new way can people hook up and push or pull what they want easier than they can anywhere else? Do we honestly need one more music or video social net whose only differentiator is it’s one more place to post?
It doesn’t work any differently in any business. Quantumly different products and services burst onto the scene be they social networks, songs, technologies, films, stores, diets, Snuggies, whatever – and trillions of lemming like spin-offs spring up trying to bite off a piece of the green before the bloated landscape sinks like a rock.
I never felt a conflict between “art” and “commercial”. In entertainment, the greatest successes usually include aspects that time and again appeal to the masses mixed with something so outrageously fresh that it redefines the direction the entire business is going in.
I’m (among other things) a songwriter. I’ve never tried to write anything that sounded like everything else that was out at the time. (What artists and producers do with my songs once they decide to cut them is totally in their control. Oftentimes they mash out the uniqueness like chunks of potato to join the rest of the homogenized mess and usually disappear as fast as the songs they ruin.)
But as much as I strive to be unique there’s a cardinal rule that any songwriter would be nuts to ignore: If you wait three minutes to get to the chorus your song won’t be a big fat hit. That’s just how it is. People live for and remember the chorus. So that rule, plus the fact that rhyming is a good idea, are two ‘industry best practices’ that would be fairly idiotic to ignore. The trick is to juxtapose these tried and true things with other aspects of the song where you take chances and create something unlike anything else around.
Any popular piece of art has many of the same characteristics as a popular social network. They both inspire people to talk about it, share it with their friends and go to it often. Popular songs like popular web destinations bring something out in someone’s personality that may have remain tucked inside had they not ventured into that space.
In 1978 I co-wrote “Boogie Wonderland” for Earth Wind & Fire with The Emotions. I really wanted to write a disco song and, with my collaborator, Jon Lind, figured out a way to use the word ‘boogie’ that was different from the zillion other disco songs out there. Everyone used it to mean ‘dance’. We used ‘Boogie’, in conjunction with ‘Wonderland’, to mean an exhilaratory state of mind one enters into while dancing.
“Boogie Wonderland” was actually based on the movie “Looking For Mr. Goodbar”, where Diane Keaton goes to a disco every night to forget her pitiful everyday life and ends up almost being murdered because she has so little sense of self. Everyone always tells me how my song makes them feel so good but if you really listen to the lyrics it’s about someone on the brink of destruction who goes out to numb and forget themselves, only feeling like everything is alright when they “Dance! ooh ooh ooh ooh dance in Boogie Wonderland”.
This is a device I often use in songs – mix a heavy theme, lyrically distinct from other songs of the genre, into happy, uptempo music. The BW lyric was distinctive as was the massive horn and string arrangements and the structure of the song itself. But that payoff chorus was in the same place as other hit songs and that hi hat disco spirit was very much there. Formula plus a squinch or more of innovation wins big every time. I need that same rhythm in my social networks.
(To hear the demo and read way more about how Boogie Wonderland was written go here.)
Winning the Grammy in 1986
Yesterday I wrote an open email to a widely read music industry newsletter re the longstanding mistreatment of songwriters in the entertainment industry, veering off into the music industry ignoring the Internet until it had almost swallowed them up. Today, Mark Cuban posted this on his Facebook page which led to it spreading virally. I’ve had so many people email me and send me Facebook messages today I decided to post what I wrote myself:
Hi, Bob (Lefsetz). I’m Allee Willis. Songs I’ve written include September, Boogie Wonderland, Neutron Dance, What Have I Done To Deserve This, the Friends theme and the Broadway musical, The Color Purple. One of my earliest hits, Lead Me On by Maxine Nightengale, was co-written with David Lasley, who Andre Pessis talked about in his email to you. We also wrote the first cover I ever got, Got You On My Mind, by Bonnie Raitt in 1974. I’m weighing in because in 1981, after getting hundreds of songs cut in just a couple of years, I was the first songwriter who tried to unionize writers because of all that Ellen Shipley wrote about and more. I was also the first pop songwriter I know of to embrace the Internet in 1991. I started designing a collaborative social network in 1992 and, much of that time with my then partner, Mark Cuban, got laughed out of publishing and record company offices when we suggested they take the Internet and all digital technologies seriously.
The songwriting union never got off the ground as much because of the ever-confusing work for hire issue as the fear many songwriters had of being blackballed. Our mistreatment wasn’t the dirty little secret of the music industry. If it were a secret that at least would have been something. In reality, it was a non issue, not even a notch in the totem pole of consciousness.
I’ve written with and for hundreds of incredible artists and my songs have been at the top of the Pop, R&B, Jazz, Country, Dance and Alternative charts. I absolutely love writing songs and composing scores. But with success came an emptiness from the 1001 ways to screw a songwriter, long accepted as standard industry practice. This was coupled with a growing trend that if you were a songwriter who wrote for artists or producers other than yourself what you had to write to get records was progressively more homogenized. The dumbing down killed me even more than the screwing.
Other things that made me nuts (and thankfully led to a massive branching out of my career beyond songwriting): A) Writing up to ten songs for someone and only seeing one or two make the album despite being told repeatedly you’re the only writer working with them. (Where there’s no payment there’s no accountability.) B) Artists and producers sitting on songs for months and years until they had enough of them that the earliest songs felt old and they were cast out like a homeless kitten with one leg. C) Giving away pieces of publishing and songwriting shares just to get cuts lest your spot be filled by a more de-spirited and desperate songwriter than yourself. D) Settling for mere songwriting credit when your demo was used as the actual record – I was literally told by a major female artist that I didn’t deserve credit as a producer or arranger as I was “only the songwriter and that’s what songwriters do”. E) Babysitting artists who had absolutely zero songwriting chops, doing whatever it took to keep your brain functioning as they deliberated whether an ‘a’ or ‘the’ was better for their already idiotic lyric. I’ve often said that unless you were the artist yourself, being a songwriter was like changing towels in the restroom, only difference being that the restroom attendant got paid.
And then there’s movie soundtracks, where songs are sent out as temp tracks to be copied by other writers. One of the last straws for me was when I received a copy of my own song, Neutron Dance, already out on a Pointer Sisters’ LP, and told to rip it off for Beverly Hills Cop. After my co-writer, Danny Sembello, and I stewed for a couple of weeks we decided no one could rip us off better than ourselves. We wrote a parallel song that mimicked the lyric – Neutron Dance’s “I don’t want to take it anymore, I’ll just stay here locked behind the door” became “I can’t stay here while I go nowhere” in the new song. We slightly adjusted the drum track. We never heard anything after we submitted it – another standard practice after you’re hounded to hand something in. Three weeks before the film was released we found out that only because Jerry Bruckheimer pulled a tape out of his wastebasket that his song screener had passed on and checked it to make sure he could tape over it did he hear our copy song, Stir It Up, and insist it go into the soundtrack. They never found a better song than Neutron Dance and that stayed in too. Not only did I win a Grammy for Best Soundtrack but, in one of my favorite musical moments, I was named one of the most dangerous subversives living in the United States by the Communist government when they mistranslated the song as Neutron Bomb.
A decade later, in fairly infamous songwriting lore, two of the three producers of Friends, a full year after the song was a hit, demanded songwriter royalties because they had given me notes. I don’t know very many composers who write for film or tv who don’t get notes from producers or directors. By that point I was full throttle into my interactive career, building my prototype for willisville, my social network, and spending every dime on it that I earned from consulting for Microsoft, AOL, Silicon Graphics, Electronic Arts, Fox, Disney, Warner Bros. and Intel, who partially funded the prototype build (tho in reality I was stuck adding music and visuals to an excessively dorky technology they had already invested in). So I just gave in and watched my share of the Friends theme plummet because, as I heard it, these producers always wanted to be composers. To add insult to injury, The Rembrandts never agreed to the song being released as a single as they resented not writing it by themselves so despite it being one of the biggest airplay records of the year singles income was nil.
In 2006, I had songs in three of the Top 10 films of the Year – Babel , Happy Feet and Night At The Museum. I didn’t know about any of them until I sat in the theater and heard them. Then it meant spending money to hire someone to track them down and to see if I’d been paid. Shouldn’t the songwriter, not to mention co-copyright owner, be informed and allowed to negotiate when their songs are used?
Currently, I have a theme to a hit VH-1 show that’s already run one season and is filming the next right now. The production company still hasn’t submitted cue sheets to BMI for season one and the credits are so small and run so fast no one can even see my name which, I guess, isn’t a real problem as songwriting credits aren’t even listed.
Fate in the theater world is not much better. Depending on the producer, composers and lyricists have little to no say about the way their music is arranged or mixed or how their show is promoted. Musicals take an average of five years to write so this can be especially heartbreaking.
The blessing of all of this was that very early on I was so unhappy I started to paint, soon after motorizing my art to my music. This led to art directing tons of music videos for people like The Cars, Debbie Harry and Heart. I kept writing songs, still loving the actual act of songwriting, and also because my publishing deals helped finance each new field I went into. But music publishers were not great at recognizing the value of multi-media careers. Brain dead might be a more accurate description. Despite selling close to 50,000,000 records my advances were numbifyingly low compared to writers who had much less success. As opposed to thinking a broad artistic vision might actually enhance the contribution I could make my multi-medianess was looked at as a threat to the number of songs I could churn out. The exception to publishers wearing blinders (altho the low advances still persisted) was Kathleen Carey at Unicity (MCA), who hooked me up with Pet Shop Boys by selling their manager some of my art which led to me being hired to do their portrait. During the sitting Neil Tennant put it together that I was the same A. Willis on some of his favorite records and we started writing WHIDTDT that night. And also, Judy Stakee at Warner/ Chappell, who took my interest in digital technology seriously and introduced me to Mark Cuban in 1992. Despite this, W/C would hear nothing of removing my song quota and letting me function as their Internet liaison, scoffing at my predictions that things like CDs and record stores would cease to exist and radio play would become irrelevant. Anyone who cites Napster as the official beginning of the fall of the record industry still has their head in the sand.
These days I’m living my dream, finally singing my own songs for the first time since my one and only Epic album, Childstar, in 1974, integrating the songs with my art, videos and online worlds. My first video, It’s A Woman Thang, has close to 1,000,000 views with no promotion at all and was a winner in the Viral category of the 2008 Webbies. The second one was featured on YouTube and won four W3 awards. The latest, Hey Jerrie, featuring me and a 91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank, was the twelfth most popular video in the world on YouTube within 48 hours of its release a few months ago. These days, a least if I get screwed I’m screwing myself, which is ultimately more satisfying as I can always get a meeting with the person doing the screwing. I’ve been toying with business models on the web for eighteen years. I may not be rich from it yet but I’m rich as an artist with a larger and larger loyal following which, ultimately, is the greatest reward of all.
Reinvention was always easier for me than letting my personality and pride be clubbed out of me like a baby seal. I have a had a blessed life. I have watched myself go from battered songwriter grabbing at whatever crumbs were thrown my way to a strong, centered and fearless artist. I’m a better songwriter now than I ever was. I still have the same old bullshit befall me as a songwriter but I don’t stick around long enough to suffer. It’s been a long, concious battle but as Celie says in The Color Purple, “I’m Here”. Very much here. I thank the publishers and record industry for doing to us what Wall St. and the banking industry did for the American people – take such advantage and pay us so little regard that we’re stripped back to nothing, individuals who now have more chance than ever to do something spectacular on their own and change the world.
On one of the social media sites I have rented a room in someone posed the question, ‘What does it take for a social media experience to feel genuine?”
I have various frustrations with all the social networks – Myspace feels like a haven for overamped graphic school dropouts with an obsession for self promotion, Facebook has too many rules about how you can communicate and limits the number of friends you can have, Twitter limits you to 140 characters which is exactly what works about it but encourages outrageous numbers of numbifying tweets. YouTube, Ning, Triibes, Flickr, Tumblr, StumbleUpon and the trillion other online communities springing up faster than rabbits all have incredible strengths and brain numbing weaknesses. Which means you have to find the one/s that resonate with you and then paddle as fast as you can.
Two key words in your question: social and genuine. A great host/ess has great social skills. Whether it’s in physical or virtual space it’s about creating a unique environment that people feel totally comfortable in because they’re entertained and stimulated enough in to interact with each other and get something they can’t get anywhere else.
Great parties, pages, lenses, websites, restaurants, stores, meetings, etc. happen because the leader/owner/party thrower has created a unique space and experience that brings out the creativity, heart and brain power of the participants.
A great host/ess also knows how to put together a fantastic guest list, matching people because of their passions, not because they owe them an invitation or it’s a way to get everyone you know in one room. And those initial handpicked guests bring more people of similar mind who then spread the word. This works exactly the same in your living room as it does in cyberspace.
Re the word ‘genuine’, it’s just that: a genuine expression of the leader’s passion or knowledge expressed with enough flair to make it a happening. Fakes are easy to spot.
Check out my Smock It To Me (Art Can Taste Bad In Any Medium) party I threw in 1992. It commemorated my giving up being a linear songwriter and artist in order to pursue my new passion, building a social network. This was 1992, mind you. I was a pretty prolific party thrower because it was the only platform I had where I could do everything I did in one space – music, art, collecting, building sets, throwing parties, etc. I created themed environments and planned humorous activities that would encourage interaction and creativity. I realized I could do the same thing in fledgling cyberspace but with an added bonus, encouraging people to collaborate and communicate with each other on an ongoing basis and not just during the few hours they spent in my backyard.
I spent the next 5 years developing willisville, my vision for a visual, collaborative social network. Seeing as most folks didn’t even understand what the Internet was in ’92 let alone trying to explain what a social network was, it was a pretty hard sell. I was, in fact, funded by Intel in ’95 to build a prototype but, in reality, rather than getting to build anything even remotely resembling willisville I was just there to paste pretty pictures and nice music on a demo of some dorky technology they had already invested in.
From 1991-’97 I consulted on the socialness of cyberspace for companies like Intel, AOL, Silicon Graphics, Microsoft, Disney, Warner Bros., blah blah blah. I even testified in Washington on artist’s rights in cyberspace. But most of the time it was like throwing mud at a wall and watching it slowly slither to the ground.
I finally gave up pursuing my dream of building a social network in 1997 until a couple of years ago when I saw true signs of life in Facebook. Although there’s much I hate about Facebook like limiting the number of friends you can have or the number of messages you can send within a certain time period, feeds only going to a slice of your friends – don’t get me started here – it was the first place I saw that encouraged genuine communication between like minded folks without being a shill for one more way to promote yourself or your crappy band.
The trick in creating great social media, of course, is not to jump on the bandwagon but to figure out how to have a seat by creating something totally your own that speaks to people in a way none of the other places are doing it yet. It’s got to be a) social and b) genuine so c) people will come and d) return with their friends.
My relationship with technology has been one of the most intense and complex relationships of my life. Here I am with my main squeeze in 1991, the first Powerbook ever released, a 170.
I was always a multi media artist, combining my music with my art and interactive parties long before ’91 when I first I attempted to combine these artforms in a digital realm. My dream was to redefine music, art and socializing in the as yet unembraced Pop medium, the Internet, where the audience was as much creator/ collaborator as the artist herself.
My premise, which I shouted from every keynote podium from 1991-1997, was that art and information were no longer under strict control of the person who originated them but, rather, the co-product of the people who interacted with the art and information. In the Digital Age, the artist would shift from sole owner/creator to cruise director, merely providing the first piece and directing from there a never ending sprawl of mutations from users who were interested enough to impact the original work.
This premise was blasphemous to captains, worker bees and artisans alike in the all ruling Entertainment Industry. I viewed them as horse farmers, belligerently staring as prototypes of the Model-T cranked down dusty roads at the dawn of the 20th Century, arrogantly holding on to the belief that nothing could supplant the sale of their well bred horses. But the horse farmers didn’t understand that the promise of automobiles was the reforming of communities and a collapsing of time and space. Just like the Entertainment Industry almost 100 years later didn’t understand that the promise of the Internet, mobile devises and any connection that linked virtual and physical space meant the very same thing – a redefining of community, living space and beyond anything, the empowerment of common man.
In 1992, after I proclaimed my total disinterest in all artforms linear, I started developing an idea for willisville, the world’s first visual and collaborative social network. It would also link the Internet to TV, radio, film, video, books and physical spaces. You can bone up on it in detail here.
Attempting to sell this vision in 1992 and throughout the 90’s was like living in the basement of Hell. No one in Hollywood could fathom funding it as the Internet was to them a very creepy, laughable space. Folks in Silicon Valley could think of funding it but only if enabled by technologies they had already invested in. The one we were saddled with at Intel, who funded a willisville prototype in 1995, had about as much potential of encouraging socialization and artfulness among users as inviting someone to a party on the promise that you were going to rip their toenails out without anesthetic.
So, in 1997, after spending every penny I had ever earned on trying to sell my vision of the Internet as a social environment I crept back into writing songs and painting and even writing a Broadway musical. I still built websites, rather distinctive ones at that, but I shoved my quest to build the Brave New World and staying at the forefront of social technology down so low into my solar plexis it felt like I was made of cement.
This went on for almost 10 years. But painful as my self-imposed exile was, I was aware that my brain had been profoundly reshaped from the previous seven years of attempting to make order out of all the disparate forces coming together to define The Digital Age. And this impacted the linear work I started doing again. I was always an artist who looked to integrate my music with my art but now I was capable of thinking on a zillion levels at once, connecting everything so that one singular vision resulted from trillions of different threads.
The linear arts – music, art, videos, musicals, whatever – seemed simple and straight ahead after all the years of thinking about art as a never-ending series of connections and collaborations that linked to a lifestyle rooted in self-evolution whose very engine was kept running by the connections and creations made in cyberspace. I welcomed a break from the tedium of tapdancing for money, always hoping someone would be smart enough to invest in a non linear vision of social art. I once again loved linear songwriting and painting for the pure joy of creating. I hadn’t felt that way since I had my first hits in 1979 and felt the pressure of a follow-up and the boredom of working in just one medium.
But with this simplicity a new kind of artistic self torture identified itself. Things like Ebay, Amazon, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook had popped up. Wait! Wasn’t I the one who had thought of garage sales, homemade art, parties and collaborations in cyberspace? Wasn’t I the one who had preached Power To The People a full decade before the proliferation of social networking sites? I, who was sooooooooo ahead of the curve on all things digital, was now the last one to the party.
It finally hit me when The Color Purple opened on Broadway at the tail end of ’05 and I had a little breathing room to figure out what I wanted to do next.
If I started singing my own songs I could do the videos and build web worlds and begin to have the kind of presence in cyberspace I had envisioned for everyone so many years before.
My first smash-up, “It’s A Woman Thang”, co-starring my alter-ego, Bubbles the artist, exploded on YouTube in 2007 and won a Webbie Award Honorable Mention in the Viral category. (I recently uploaded a wayyyy better resolution version of it so watch this one if you haven’t seen it already.) I’m on my fourth one now, “Hey Jerrie”, featuring me and a 91 year old female drummer on an oxygen tank. I view these videos as welcome mats into my world. But if that world is to be the one I envisioned oh so long ago it meant I needed to understand technology, integration and trends as deeply as I did in the 90’s.
I write, sing, play on and produce the records and write, paint, film, animate, direct and produce the videos and web components. I do some of the functions with partners and some without. To support the output I slowly and resentfully built my MySpace and Facebook pages. I made myself build pages wherever anyone told me to – Bebo, Uber, et al – and hated each one more than the last. I understood that these things were necessary but MySpace felt like one big hype assault from fledgling bands and hooker wannabes. Most of the other ones felt like pale imitators.
My breakthrough came when I finally started adding friends on Facebook after having a page that had all the life of a stillborn baby for almost a year. I looked for people who liked soul music, animation, kitsch, Atomic design and all the other stuff that I was not only interested in but had turned out like a mofo for decades. Some people never responded. But the ones who did were enthusiastic. And I communicated with them when they communicated with me. I understood that this social network had found an incredible abbreviated way for people to realize the potential in each other and form new alliances that physical space never encouraged them to do.
But Facebook cuts you off after 5000 friends. Which means you have to uninvite people when you hit that mark. Bad Facebook. Seriously stinky rule. I’m a party thrower. I have friends. Talk about a major shortcoming if you’re lucky enough to be popular.
Other than the fact that I, like most folks I know, are run ragged by attending to all the little gardens they have scattered all over cyberspace because they all lack something major that would allow for one centralized online presence, I realize I am finnnnnnaly building my own social network, finding what I enjoy about all the ones that already exist and building little presences wherever I can stand the interface. It’s not the elegant cul-de-sac I once dreamed of with willisville but there’s a little piece here and a little piece there and with enough overtime and bus fare it’s manageable.
I’m in the midst of said proliferation now. I’ve been consciously thinking about cyberspace for 18 years. I have no idea what tomorrow holds. I rarely have. I just know that I hate to be bored. I hate creating what I’ve already created. Reinvention is my middle name. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. But my brain enjoys getting watered and I can finally see green pushing up through the ground. If you’ve read this far perhaps you’re ready to hop on the bus and take the ride with me.